I reported on my first round of tea tasting with twenty samples from Upton Tea Imports in mid-April 2011 here. A year later, I bought twenty more, mostly caffeinated this time as I require fewer nights at work with decaf or tisanes and the warmer weather means my focus will be on a hefty daily cup each morning. This list took much longer to work through as hot weather intervened and my night non-caf doses at work used up old teabags to make room for new tastes below. Yes, after this, I figured I'd be ready to make my pick. But, a delayed version 2.5, for as luck would have it with my first entry:
Namalighur Estate Assam TGFOP1: A knockout, a home run. Sparkly, lively, effervescent on the tongue. Richly complex with raisin hints and wine-like astringency, not bitter, more tingly than malty. Sometimes it tastes like a glazed donut; other times like mint candy in its tingle on my palate. Sustains flavor with milk all the way to the bottom of a cup. Two months of satisfaction. Too bad it's not in stock anymore. I bought a whole bag on a whim when ordering my samples: simply wonderful.
So, off to samples again, arranged probably by quality and price a bit, as last time. This took me two years to try, at the slow pace of bigger bags. You get used to one for awhile, and move on. Not to tilt the scale; this allows me a chance to compare like blends nearer each other, and to learn to taste for nuances and differences (or similarities) in styles as I learn to figure out what I like better and why.
Yunnan Fannings: this Season's Pick despite
its bargain bin price tastes refined. Much smokier than my usual, but
well-balanced and takes milk well. If you paid $5/cup for this in a hip café, you would.
Nilgiri BOP : this is clean and balanced, like a Ceylon black. Goes with milk and sweetener fine. With the right balance of milk and sweetener, effervescence unfolds.
Sikkim TGBOP SK-3: this intensely earthy, floral aroma permeates a more Chinese-style tea, lighter in color but heavier in flavor. Contains a hint of effervescence with more sweetener. Without milk, similar to a jasmine tea. With milk, that nuance is replaced by a steadier, but still heady "Asian" feel.
Temi Estate FTGFOP1 Cl. I drank this without milk. Musky leaves, redolent of an Asian fragrance crossed with Ceylon delicacy. Consistent if for me less vibrant; quality brew for sophisticated palates.
Amgoorie Estate STGFOP 1st Fl: Maltier but temperamental. A few cups hit the sweet spot with sweetener and milk. Some stayed less effervescent. Similar to Namalighur, if at a less reliable level.
Assam GBOP Tippy Orthodox: Mellower malt. More nuanced, rounded, less bold, but satisfying.
Assam FBOP Tippy Orthodox: Toastier without milk, nearly identical to GBOP with milk.
Black Label Blend: Fannings? The bite of Assam meets a rounded feel of Ceylon. Tasty without milk, with it, a mellow but full-flavored cup. Reminds me of a big urn as a British restaurant's brew.
Mincing Lane Blend Loose-leaf, Yunnan smoke meets Assam heft. Better without milk to bring out the aroma and lingering woodsiness. But, even with milk, strong enough to sustain its liquid forestry.
East Frisian TGFOP Very similar to other Frisian; hearty and takes milk with lots of sweetener to bring out candied, dessert flavor. Dense, thick mouthfeel, much more filling than other varieties.
Turkish Blend Ceylon More Chinese, earthy, vaguely smoky, pleasantly gritty, without milk.
Black Orange: Rather chemical taste, like orange oil, spicy rather than sweet. Dried peels added. Sweetener cuts the bite. No milk.
Wild Cherry: Tangy and tart, with or without sweetener. Not as "artificial" tasting as many cherry flavored concoctions. The black tea leaves combine well with the cherry leaf bits.
China Black BOP Organic. Smoky, dense, hefty mouth feel, this infuses into a strong, appealing aroma. Strong, with milk and sweetened. (My wife found it at her office from the tenants moving out. Packed in spring '06--and opened-- I doubted the aroma-less contents in its foil bag would match even a tired Lipton orange pekoe teabag. If it was this tasty in Dec. '12, imagine it when it was new.)
Ceylon Premium: this resembles Ceylon Fannings Organic more than Assam CO2 from last batch. Yet, careful sipping reveals in its elegantly long leaves a more lasting release of taste. Lacking the fishy smell of cheaper decafs, its earthier, astringent, lingering flavors could pass as a regular cup. Works well with milk, although most of my cups were without. Very dependable, sustained, round. (I decided to order a bigger bag of this as my go-to evening or afternoon blend, out of three samples.)
English Breakfast CO2 Ceylon OP: hearty,
filling, good with/without milk. Easily a back-up choice. Rounded and
pleasantly aromatic loose leaf. No discernible difference from caffeinated.
English Breakfast Organic: Blends Ceylon with Assam for an earthy, smoky resonance when sweetened. Surprisingly robust, heftier than the norm: not loose leaf but fannings. Another back-up.
Sweet Orange CO2: much better than Black
Orange, lacking that chemical taste. Balanced blend of orange flavor and
black tea heartiness. Sweetener enhances the appealing aroma and
Fruit + Tisanes
Maracuja-Orange: Delicate, very beetroot in color as in ingredient than orange, but with sweetener, balance emerges. Good match with light desserts. Not hearty; delicate hibiscus mouthfeel.
Honeybush Superior Organic: fragrant and smooth, but more nuanced than flavorful. Hearty with or without sweetener.
Roobois Rote Gruze: Slightly astringent, cough-drop flavor. Floral notes plain, cut by sweetener. Cherry syrup or blackcurrant, sharpish taste. Good for a cold day when snuffles loom.
Version 2.75...early 2014:
Green Honeybush: Pleasant tasting, full not floral, but inviting aroma and appealing mouthfeel. Needs neither sweetener nor milk, as it delivers a satisfying, cheery, complex aroma and texture.
Vanilla Honeybush Organic: South African import, wonderful aroma and appealing look. Not as strong a vanilla flavor as expected, but a quality product and a good match for dessert or after meals.
Gu Zhang Mao Jian: Normally I wouldn't order green, but this was a bonus sample in "version 2.5." "Sky between the Branches": it's earthy, twiggy, and surprisingly very hearty and satisfying.
Version 2.5 for Assam blacks:
A year later, that is, two into the tea trade with Upton, I asked its customer service's recommendation given the Namalighur no longer was sold. After a blizzard had shut down the Massachusetts vendor, the next day a kind woman responded with her own suggestion (not in the catalogue) for a Meleng varietal, and two from colleagues too. I took a chance and ordered bags for all three. As before, I tasted them in order of price, wondering if that made much if any difference. I don't peek at catalogue descriptions before I sample each in turn over a few days, so as to be "fresh" in my blog blurbs here.
Ananda Bag Estate TGBOP1: Slightly earthy and floral fragrance, with hints of honey. At first, appears too subdued, but a rounded soft depth emerges mid-cup, with milk and sweetener. Not bold, but sophisticated balance without the maltiness of Assams I tend to prefer. Goes well with fruit. Resembles East Frisian when cools off a bit. Very rounded, hearty, sweet density in mouthfeel.
Mangalam Estate GBOP Cl. Spl.: Similar to Ananda Bag in tingle and Namalighur in earthiness. Somewhat bolder initially in aroma and mouthfeel than Ananda.
Meleng FBOP Cl. Spl.: Me so malty. True to the astute Upton's customer service rep, her three recommendations concluded for me with the priciest, but reliably on target. But, can you believe for version 2.75 early '14 I ordered Mangalam FTGFOP1, promising "hints of malt and sweet raisins"? Plus the Season's Pick bulk Assam Organic, and for non-caf, Honeybush in Vanilla and as Green.
Version 2.75...early 2014:
Season's Pick Assam Organic: Cocoa hints. Very good bargain, indistinguishable from higher priced varieties. Large leaves and pleasant fragrance, good with or without milk if with sweetener.
Mangalam Assam FTGFOPl: Improves with time after steeping. Malty quality subdued, but more rounded flavor emerges with milk and sweetener. Without milk, resembles a Ceylon or Darjeeling.
Photo from "Heard on the Plane: Sikkim with Shakti Himalaya"