Steven Smith Tea. Unpreten-tea-ous.
Their operation is small, dedicated to hand-crafting each batch of teas–the only company to both blend and package here in the States.
And of all things, they have fun doing it! Each box comes with a batch number, which you can enter online to find out not just the ingredients (highly useful for the allergy-prone), but who was the team of jolly folks that blended and packed your tea, when they did it, plus random notes like: “Recently, a Smith customer designed and crafted a shirt made entirely of our sachet material, a la Project Runway. Pretty sweet, and very sheer. . .I dare say she’s added a little sex appeal to the once conservative tea bag!” (from Batch no. 90859).
On its own, the box and its individually-wrapped silk sachets contain a wealth of wit-tea-cisms and other bits about tea. As for the bag itself, although not the popular pyramid construction, the square has plenty of room for the leaves to breathe.
Now, the real question: are these leaves as much fun to drink as they are to read about?
Brahmin‘s dry leaves start off with a definite maltyness, as promised in the description on the packet. It’s very Keemun-y, with that fireside feel you get from East Asian blacks. The scent hovers on the edge of smoke, but shies away at the last moment, safe under the protection of its Ceylon’s wine notes. In the cup, the Keemun continues to be at the forefront of the aroma, refusing to be ignored. You’d think that the Assam would take the stage in this blend, given its decidedly South Asian name, but our Chinese black is having none of that.
However, when you start sipping, it becomes clear why the Assam is so self-Ass-ured. It doesn’t need to make a big deal of itself in the aroma because the taste proves its role as the foundation of this tea, well earning the name. A brahmin is an esteemed Hindu caste, noble and scholarly; Smith’s leafy interpretation evokes a dark, focused meditation in solitude. You can sense the oppressive Indian heat and sun, but only behind the relative comfort provided by the cool notes of the Ceylon, acting as shade. Drinking this blend feels like a privilege indeed.
If you’re fond of English Breakfast, you will love this one. Treat it as you would any morning tea, but if you’re good with caffeine, it could pair well with dinner, too–there is such a nice interplay between dry-sweet and savory, each drifting in and out of your palate, that it could confidently set off richer food fare. Milk and sweetener have the full green light here. (Unless, of course, you’re Gatsby.)
Bungalow takes us for a different ride. Right out of the bag, that Darjeeling beckons with kohl-lidded eyes. There’s enough smoke to offset the sultry aroma with a hint of danger: “Come hither–if you dare.” But once steeped, this rounds out into golden smoothness, the kind of salt-copper scent you’d associate more with a Fujian or a Yunnan. This is definitely a Darjeeling with at-tea-tude.
The sip-‘sperience is a letdown. When will we ever learn that dry leaves can tell many many lies? Bungalow leads you into the darkened bedroom and then expects you to play Solitaire for the rest of the night. As with bagged teas in general, it makes for a light cup if you’re using your usual morning mug of > 8 ounces. This is a good thing, since this blend goes bitter very, very quickly if you steep it a hair longer than 3 to 5 minutes–I’d even play it safe and stick to 3. But even if it were prepared to perfection, the flavors just don’t impress. It’s not a tea you’d show off to your friends. Drink it the morning after a mediocre one-night stand, while checking your email. That chain letter from your mom might be more interesting.
This, however, means that it’s good for most meals. Any milk will turn this into a solid, dependable cup, and sweeten away.
Masala Chai hits you with gingery, ginger, ginger from the get-go. (It’s like all the ginger that was missing from Chai Diaries found its way in here. No complaints!) The dry bag has no hint of anything but the arid, zingy spices–you’d be surprised that there’s any black tea at all. Yet in the cup, all of that melts away, as the ginger is overtaken by clove and cinnamon, with peppercorn bouncing in the background. That ingredient is an unusual one for chai, adding just the barest touch of savory to an otherwise notoriously sweet tea. Mad points for originali-tea.
Once you start sipping, the immediate question is, “Where the hell did all the ginger go?” The answer, as further tasting reveals, lies in the abundance of clove. It provides a heavy blanket over the other spices; play with the steeping time on this one and let the supporting flavors ripen as the tea sits; they will emerge at their own pace, though none with voices as strong as clove’s. This makes for a rather contemplative chai. Gently ponder the woodwind notes threading through this blend–don’t go expecting a powerhouse. The ginger finally, finally comes out at the very of the cup. Hey buddy, what took you so long? (He probably stopped on the way for tea.)
Because of its easygoing nature, Masala Chai can be enjoyed throughout the day as long as the caffeine won’t get you too wired. Like Smith’s other blacks, their chai is perfectly suited for milk and sweetener, as you will. If sweetening, avoid flavored milks that would steamroll the lovely subtle-teas found in this cup.
With a name like Kandy, you’d think that the blend would have nothing to it but overwhelming saccharini-tea. Yet as we’ve seen with other teas in this collection, names can be misleading. A Ceylon by any other name would indeed smell as sweet. We have to keep in mind that the natural sweetness of an un-doctored black tea is it’s own brand of confection. If you’ve got the palate of a compulsive sugar-adder, then Kandy’s inner complexity might go over your head. The nice thing about it is the statement it makes when steeped; a distinct fruity aroma that doesn’t hide away in the auburn liquor.
Some really nice orchard notes come out on first sip: roasted apples and lush plums ready to burst off the tree. There’s the South Asian muscatel hovering about the edge of your tongue as well. Kandy rests on your shoulders as a robe of the most valuable, richly-made silk–but of a simple hue. Dark emerald, or burgundy. Those fine grapey notes serve as trimming that is both functional and adds elegance to the design. But this kind of clothing must be treated with utmost care; though it steeps just fine within 3-4 minutes, bitterness comes out after the cup has sat de-bagged for longer than eight minutes.
Pretty good breakfast tea here, and the fruitiness lends well to other times of the day. It’d be a shame to sweeten this one or use flavored milk–unflavored would work without complaint–but if the sugar is what it takes for you to be able to appreciate the bouquet, then push your tastebuds’ comfort zone and add as little as possible; your efforts will be tea-warded.
Lord Bergamot is exactly what you’d think in the bag–it’s all about the bergamot, baby. There’s barely any underlying tea smell, for all the cool-toned flowery-citrusy-ness blanketing everything. Luckily, once steeped, the Assam knows what it’s doing and takes a firm hand with its floral companion: “Calm the hell down, Sparky.”
As a result, you think you’re safe from a botanical invasion until you take that first sip. Bergamot goes, “Hey, didja miss me? Huh? Didja?” and by now, once your drink has cooled to bearabili-tea, there’s no room to reply, “No.” (That is, of course, unless you love bergamot. Earl Grey fana-tea-cs, with this tea you may well die happy. It makes for a brilliant cup of serious getting down to business that will take you through deadlines and exams with fortitude to spare.) It would be nice if the extra citrus-flower flavor could round out to a smoother finish, but Lord Bergamot seems set on proving himself a sassier fellow than the beloved Earl.
This one works perfectly for breakfast. Milk and sweetener are a go, as the former may calm the bergamot back down and the latter could soften it up a bit while maintaining that hint of fruit from the citrus.
Smith has given us quite an interesting show so far, and with eight more teas in the sample set, we’ve got some good stuff to look forward to over the week. Next up are the greens and a lone flavored white; after that, the herbal parade comes to town.