Fancy Tea-Drinking: Bag ‘Em, Danno

Now that I’m totally hooked in the habit of drinking fancy tea made from big-ass leaves, I’d like to have some at work. Unfortunately, I don’t think the IngenuiTEA brewing device will work so well, since you have to rinse the wet leaves out into a sink. And I think we can all agree, workplace sinks really aren’t built to take that kind of matter down the pipes.

So, I invested a whopping six dollars into some empty tea bags. I got these Loose Tea Filter Bags from Amazon. Yes, they can be had for way cheaper elsewhere, but with the Prime shipping, I got them in two days. I’m sure if I were still in Seattle, we’d just go to Uwajimaya and find a selection there, but sadly here in Florida, I have no idea where I’d go.

Now we have 100 of these little guys. They pack flat, then fold out with a fairly wide bottom so they can sit on the countertop as you fill them with leaves:

Once you put in the leaves, there’s a sizeable flap that you fold over the top, so the leaves stay in place. There’s also a second, smaller flap on the inside, so it’s double-protected. And as you can see from the shadow of the leaves inside, there’s going to be plenty of room for the tea to bloom and expand inside this bag. This is one heaping teaspoon, and it barely covers the base of the bag.

I don’t know if it was just this one bag, since I’ve only used them once, but when I plopped it into the cup and poured hot water over the top, the bag rose so that one tiny, empty corner was sticking up out of the water. I thought that was terribly considerate and kind of the bag, so it could be easily removed without the string-and-tab system of a normal tea bag. And as you can see, the tea is dark and vibrant; no problems at all with the flow through the bag.

I fished it out by the handy little floaty-corner, and it turns out that when wet, the paper’s texture is more crinkly and firm than expected. Which means that the water drained out right away, and I wasn’t left with a soaked bag full of tea and solids — once the bag came out, there was barely any extra liquid inside at all.

Perhaps it’s because these aren’t actually made of paper — the back of the bag says they’re made of polyester. Fascinating! But they drain so well, I don’t even feel the urge to squeeze the bag. (Don’t squeeze the bag!)

These will make it terribly handy to tote a bag or two to work with me, so I can have an easy cup of deliciousness.

Fancy Tea-Drinking: A Little Teavana Review

I have a lot of teas to review, so I figured I’d break them up by source. That also gives me a chance to write about the tea-buying experience with each supplier, which I think is an essential part of the process.

First up is Teavana. They have a large website that’s fairly easy to navigate, but they also have stores in malls and shopping districts throughout North America — there are certainly fewer stores in Canada and Mexico than in the USA, but there are still a goodly number in both countries. There are 21 locations in Florida, and a mere 7 in Washington. But that’s not surprising, since national chains always seem to get to Washington after hitting everywhere else first.

I have not yet used their website to place an order, but I have created a user ID there so I could build a wish list. I’ve also reviewed a tea there, but in order to review a tea, you need to connect with your Facebook account, instead of using your Teavana account. Which is weird.

We visited two of the Orlando-area stores: Florida Mall and the Mall at Millenia. (Yes, they spell millenia wrong. It’s Florida.) We visisted one of those stores (Millenia) on two different days, and got to experience two different employees. At both stores, we had similar experiences — clearly, the sales staff works on commission, because they have a slightly frantic delivery and try to get you to buy as many teas as possible, while also trying to get you interested in the more expensive teas.

On our very first visit, we explained that we were total tea novices, and wanted to try some samples. Teavana, however, does not have a sample program of any kind — the smallest amount of any tea that you can buy is two ounces, and their prices are based on a cost-per-two-ounces. Two ounces really isn’t all that much, unless you end up not liking the tea, in which case it’s an ounce and three quarters too much. Depending on how much tea you put in each eight-ounce cup of water, two ounces of leaves should get you 25-30 cups of tea.

On our first visit, we purchased three teas, two ounces of each. (We also got three teas on our most recent trip.) The staff will try to sell you their airtight metal tins, promising that without them, your tea will go stale and flavorless immediately. We managed to convince them that we had tins already, so we could just get the tea in bags. They’re the same paper fold-over bags you can get coffee in. We’re keeping our most recent teas wrapped up tightly in those bags, and then the bags are kept in the tins. Seems to be working fine.

Everything at Teavana appears to be about the concept of blending multiple teas together, to make the flavors of other things. We were asked if we like apple pie. Of course, the answer was yes. The fellow then started to pull THREE tins of tea down from the shelf, telling us that combining these three would give us a tea that tasted just like apple pie. One of the teas we already had, and one of them, when I smelled it by itself, was not pleasant (several of their teas have lemongrass in them, and I’m not a fan of lemongrass). So we passed on that blend. There were another two teas that, when combined, were supposed to taste like banana bread. We were already getting one of the teas, and they each smelled good on their own, so we went ahead and got both.

I was fascinated by the fact that the commissioned sales guy needed to be dealt with kind of forcefully. Our most recent visit, I went in with a list I’d made from perusing the website. He’d pull a tea down from the shelf, pop the lid, and wave it over the top so we could smell it. If I made a grimacing face and said anything that wasn’t an absolute no, such as, “Um, I’m not sure I like that one,” he would set it aside and say, “So that’s a maybe, then?” I learned quickly to respond to icky-smelling teas with an “Absolutely NO on that one.”

They measure out two ounces, but somehow (just like when you’re getting meat and cheese sliced at the deli counter), it always comes out a little above two. I think all of our teas came out at 2.3 ounces. Which was only a dollar more each, but still. One time the first scoop came out to 1.9 ounces, and I would have been fine with that, but NO. Two ounces minimum.

Teavana also has an app for both Android and iOS. It has a tea timer, list of locations, list of teas, and of course, a guide to blending your teas. Because why buy only one, when you can buy three, and get the flavor of apple pie?

All right, so, onward to the reviews of the teas we’ve tried so far.

Earl Grey White – Scott’s a fan of Earl Grey, but wanted a decaf version, thus the white tea base. It’s certainly the flavor of Earl Grey (the citrus fruit bergamot gives it that sharp tangy note), but it didn’t excite me. It really didn’t rock my socks any more than any other Earl Grey I’ve had, which means it probably wasn’t worth the price of $10.00 per two ounces. 6 out of 10.

Tulsi Dosha Chai Rooibos – I’m the big chai fan in the house. And on every single visit of our three to Teavana, they pull out this chai, and the White Ayurvedic Chai, and want to sell us both together. I liked the smell of this one (and didn’t like the smell of the other), but the flavor itself isn’t quite what I love in a chai. It’s all right, but it’s not my favorite of all of the chais I’ve tried. It’s like there’s some key ingredient missing, which leaves it a little flat. It’s decaf, thanks to the rooibos tea base. 6 out of 10.

Zingiber Ginger Coconut Rooibos – This one just smelled great; I wouldn’t have chosen it from the name. So I guess the sales person did her job, getting me to buy a tea I wouldn’t otherwise have bought. The flavor is sort of like a gingerbread cookie, and somehow it’s naturally sweet enough that I don’t need any sweetener added. The website says it’s a coconut flavor with a dash of ginger, but I found it to be the opposite — very gingery, and just a very slight hint of coconut. I believe this was one of the three teas that make the apple pie flavor. 7 out of 10.

Toasted Nut Brulee Oolong – Scott just liked the sound of this one, and the smell was heavenly. It’s the best of the Teavana teas so far, a nice dessert-style tea with flavors of cookies and spiced cider. This is also one of the two teas you can blend to make a tea that tastes like banana bread. 9 out of 10.

Strawberry Lemonade Herbal – Most of these herbal teas don’t actually contain any tea; they’re made up of aromatics and tasty flavors that are supposed to just make a yummy, decaf hot drink. This one smelled great, but in the brewing, a lot of the great flavors were lost. Despite making sure our teaspoons of leaves were heaping, the finished product was weak and lifeless, like the berries and lemons just cast a sideways glance at my cup. I’ll probably double up on the leaves next time, and try it over ice. 4 out of 10.


Caribbean Calypso Mate on the left, Toasted Nut Brulee on the right, for the banana bread tea recipe.

Caribbean Calypso Mate – the second part of the banana bread recipe, as well as our only mate tea (which apparently has just as much caffeine as coffee). The funny thing is, they don’t mention banana at all on the web page for this tea. It does smell strongly of banana, and if you smell it at the same time as you’re smelling the Toasted Nut Brulee, it does indeed smell like banana bread. But for some reason, just like with the Strawberry Lemonade, the fruit notes just don’t come through that strong. Scott had this one on its own, and found it weak. In the blend, the fruit flavors were totally overpowered by the Toasted Nut Brulee. (There was also that slight icky tang of lemongrass.) Alone: 5 out of 10. Blended with Toasted Nut: 6 out of 10.

So we at least got a couple of good teas out of the batch, but I do wish they’d sell smaller sample sizes. And it’s definitely the right move to go in with a list of things you want to smell, so you’re not steamrolled into buying whatever tea they want you to buy. Don’t be afraid to tell them no, and don’t be afraid to just peruse the huge wall of teas and pick out what YOU want to smell, not what they’re currently pushing. The staff there do know their stuff, but they’re tainted by the untrustworthiness of commission sales.

Overall the quality of their teas is good, but I think they might make their teas a bit more complicated than they need to be. If each tea had one or two flavors, they’d be easier to blend (in my opinion) than these teas with six, seven, eight flavors. (I’ll get more into this with my review of Adagio teas [an online shop].)

I’m already building a fresh wishlist of more Teavana teas to try out, but with the pricey two-ounce minimum, combined with the fact that we have a ton of their teas hanging around already, it’ll be a while before we go back.

I Heart My SodaStream!

As a follow-up to my post about tea, I realized that I never posted about our other homemade-beverage machine: the SodaStream.

Yes, I take issues with it being “soda” instead of “pop”. Though I justify it by telling myself that the machine itself makes fizzy water, or “soda” … and through the application of flavored beverage syrups, I turn it into full-fledged POP.

Anyhoo.

We got the very base model, the Sodastream Jet. (I link to it here at Amazon, because of the affiliate link, but we got ours in person at Target.) There are other, fancier ones, but we weren’t sure that we would use it enough to justify the expense of a nicer model.

It’s pretty easy to use, overall — you put a cylinder of CO2 in the machine. Then you fill a 1/2- or 1-liter bottle with water and chill it in the fridge (colder water carbonates easier, they say). Screw the chilled bottle of water onto the machine, and press a button on the top repeatedly, squirting CO2 into the water, until you hear what they call a “buzz” sound. Me, I call the sound more of a fart, but then again, I’m 13 years old on the inside.

Three farts is average fizziness. You can go fewer farts, or maybe even up to 5 farts if you want really fizzy pop.

There are a ton of syrup flavors, ranging from the regular old cola to weird ones like pink grapefruit (which Scott likes, though it tastes like [ugh] Fresca to me), to their own Dr Pepper clone, “Dr. Pete”. As you can see, we have a number of syrup bottles lined up there.

So how do we like it? How much do we use it? The answers: a lot, and a lot. We’ve always been big pop drinkers, and this really cuts down on lugging cases of cans up the stairs. And we don’t have to stock cans in all of the different flavors — if you’re in the mood for something, you just have to take one of the bottles of cold water out of the fridge (we got a number of extra bottles, so there’s always one cold) and mix up whatever flavor you’re jonesing for. On the flip side, we probably drink LESS pop than we did before, since it’s not as easy as grabbing a can and cracking the seal — you have to actually get up the gumption to fizz up the bottle and mix up what you want.

The diet flavors are all made with Splenda, which took a little getting used to, since we were used to Diet Coke (sweetened with aspartame). I know many people out there have conflicting opinions of which is better or worse for you, so take that into consideration. Apparently their regular versions are sweetened with a mix of Splenda and cane sugar, with no high-fructose corn syrup.

You can also find, in the magical wonderous world of the internets, flavor concentrates for sale. With these, you basically make your own simple syrup from whatever sweetener you choose, then add the flavor concentrate, and you’ve made your own syrup.

I’m still working at dialing in the right ratios of concentrate to sweetener to water for our tastes. And yes, these concentrates (acquired from the Prairie Moon company) are really weird colors. The lemon-lime is an almost paint-like green. And the cream soda? Check it out:

Like cough syrup! Although Scott has found out from some people that red cream soda is actually a thing. Maybe in the south. I’m not sure.

At any rate, we love the crap out of this gadget, and I now wish we’d spent more on a nicer model (not that this one isn’t nice, but the plastic parts can feel a bit cheap at times). When this one gives up the ghost eventually, we’ll totally upgrade.

As for the flavors, I really like the diet cola. And I use both regular and caffeine-free, usually mixing the two together in a half-caff version. The ginger ale is also great, although I find I need a little more syrup than the little lines on the inside of the measuring cup recommend. Root beer, great. Scott says the Dr. Pete is really good, but he also mixes up his own “Dr. Meyer” mix, which is half Dr. Pete and half caffeine-free diet cola. Says it’s even more like actual Dr Pepper. The only flavor I didn’t like was lemon-lime, which tasted really artificial to me. But then again, I’ve been eating lemons whole my entire life. I’m probably just a lemon snob.

I advise getting some extra bottles, so you’ll always have chilled water on hand. We have three one-liter bottles, and four half-liter bottles — the half-liter bottles are colored orange and green, so we each have our own two. (I’m orange.) They fit perfectly in our lunch bags, which is nice for taking to work.

I also advise getting a spare CO2 cylinder, so you always have a full on hand to swap out when the one in the machine runs dry. When they’re empty, you can trade in the empties for full ones at a discounted price — Bed, Bath and Beyond will swap your cylinder for $15 (a new one costs $30). They also carry a large collection of syrups. You can also find the syrups at Target, Macy’s, and (weirdly) Best Buy, among other places.

Fancy Tea Drinkers, with Pinkies Extended

We’ve decided to explore a strange new world … of tea. Specifically, loose-leaf tea. Which we figured was probably tastier than the stuff that comes in bags (and boy howdy, did we figure right).

So instead of getting a perforated metal acorn-shaped tea ball or anything like that, we went with the techy gadget:

Yes, the name is a bit overly clever. But the IngenuiTEA is a pretty sharp little item. Scott already has an AeroPress coffee maker, which he loves the everloving crap out of. And it certainly makes the coffee creation process quick, clean, and easy.

Anyhoo, with this little doodad, you fill it with the tea leaves, heat up some water in a kettle or the microwave, then pour the water into the pot and close the lid.

Things get all steepy, for however long you’re supposed to let things steep. Most of what we’re trying out are black teas or spicy chai blends, so it’s usually 5 minutes or so. But then, the really cool part:

Put the thing on top of your teacup or mug or glass, and it takes a tea whiz through the bottom!

Because I’m twelve years old inside, I don’t think I’ll get tired of this device taking a tea-pee anytime soon.

We got the 16-ounce IngenuiTEA, but they also make a 32-ounce for the truly hardcore tea drinker. But we find the 16-ounce model gives us each a nice little 8-ounce cup, just enough tea for a tasty and refreshing treat, but not so much that it gets cold before you’re done drinking it.

So, how about the teas themselves? They’re all WAY better than stuff made with a bag.

We went to our local big bulk tea store, TeaVana, out at the mall. Unfortunately, the smallest amount they’ll sell is two ounces, which can range from five or six bucks up to twenty or more. And they stress how much you need to keep it in airtight, light-tight tins. Do you want to buy some of their tins? For another ten bucks each? No? Fine, we’ll put it in one of these roll-top bags. But if it goes stale, it’s all your fault.

We also ordered some samples from Adagio, the actual makers of the IngenuiTEA. They don’t try to foist their tins on you, and they’ll send 0.8-ounce sample packages of any damn tea they have, at two bucks for most of them (some of the fancy-pants teas are three or more dollars for the samples, but everything we’ve tried so far is a two-bucker). Plus, they come in light-tight zip-top bags. Which is just as good as an airtight tin, if you ask me. Heck, probably better, because you can squeeze out the extra air.

We did get some tins at the IKEA for the stuff we got from TeaVana. They have magnets on the back. So here’s a glimpse of our fridge, where we’re sticking them:

Fortunately, Adagio (home of the quick shipping and plentiful cheap samples) has the best teas so far. We have another selection of samples in the mail right now (it would appear they’re currently in New Jersey), along with a larger package of the rooibos vanilla chai, my total favorite so far.

(Perhaps we’ll open up that berry blast tonight. A tea without actual tea leaves is a fascinating concept.)

So, anyone out there a loose-leaf tea fan? Any recommendations, advice, or pointers? We’re total novices, but I can see how we can totally go down the rabbit hole and become real crazy tea hoarders. Let me know what you think!

Also, if you want to try out Adagio teas, they let me give out $5 coupon codes. But they’re only good for 24 hours. So if you’d like to get $5 off, while at the same time helping me collect some sort of “frequent teabagger” points, please let me know.

Now I think it’s time for a nice, warm cup of tea. Which I can sip while I’m playing Borderlands, happily shotgunning mutants in the face. Aaaah, such a life of finery!