Set ‘er down while we set ‘er up for review.
The instructions for the oolongs are even more detailed than for the pu-erhs, with an extra step of waiting three minutes after the water has boiled. This is a way of ensuring that you’re using water that’s below the boiling point, but if you’re already down with this tea-making shenanigan then relax and use the benefit of your own experience. (Everyone’s got a different set of tea whatchamawhozits, after all.)
Our Iron Goddess Medium Grade Oolong starts off in the bag as floral, no doubt about it. Some of the jasmine is covered up by a vegetal scent, but this is erased as soon as you brew up that first infusion. Now, for “medium grade,” this tea still knows how to make a very good first impression. Jasmine is a fact of life when it comes to Iron Goddess Oolongs, or Tie Guan Yin, so skip ahead if you don’t like flowers between your teeth. For the petal pushers, don’t miss out on this oolong–just the aroma brings with it a feeling of being clean.
Normally, floral teas can get oily on the aftertaste, but this one leaves your mouth actually refreshed! What joy! With an understated, Pinot Grigio liquor, our humble jasmine allows other flavors to sit in for a chat. You’ll find yourself in the tea-lightful company of green melon and cantaloupe.
Successive infusions stick with the same color, unlike pu-erhs. (Man, those fermented teas are weird.) The jasmine gets much bolder, but still imparts that sense of “clean” as it shifts into the realm of honeysuckle sweetness. This marks the emergence of another flower note: the cool white blossoms of Lilies of the Valley. This tea puts you in an alternate universe Victorian Era, one where everyone has impeccable hygiene.
This tea is not something you’d want for a morning wake-up. Save it for when you need a cup that is truly uplift-tea-ng. And for the love of the Iron Goddess, don’t add milk or sweetener.
The Iron Goddess High Grade Oolong holds an entirely different type of divinity. This goddess rocks your world, plain and simple. She may even induce a sense of spirituali-tea.
The dry leaves exemplify “herbaceous”. All the notes are culinary veggies straight from the East: bok choy and mustard greens, thrown in with some kale and broccoli. (Be careful where you drink this, lest you get mauled by slavering Buddhist vegans.) Once steeped, the aroma takes on more delicacy, but never, not once, are you hit with the flowery notes that characterize most Tieguanyin.
The first infusion represents what’s possible when an oolong tastes honestly good of its own accord. No complicated flavor-patterns that force you to shut your eyes against in the the onslaught of their loquacious haze. This is sheer accessibili-tea. Nothing Iron about this Goddess; she is all about giving–giving you the experience of a really. Good. Tea. Seek this one out if you’re already partial to greens.
Your next infusions slowly introduce some of the floral element. It sneaks up on you, the barest tickle at the back of your palate. This must be the difference between the Medium Grade and the High Grade. Here, the flavor is so refined that you hardly sense any flowers at all, and when you do, it’s not the typical jasmine jamboree. Your cup coyly begins blossoming: magnolia, lotus, even buttery marigold–where did that come from? (Not so shocking, actually. Marigold is traditionally used in the garlands decking out statues of deities used in Hindu worship. Guanyin belongs to that pantheon as well.)
For the most enligh-tea-ning experience, nix the milk and sweetener and serve it at a calm part of the day. It’s still more caffeinated than a green, so watch the clock if your cup is in the PM. Goes well with a Sun Salutation and substantial “Ohm”-ing.
The dry leaves of Wild Arbor Oriental Beauty Oolong come with a musty hazelnut smell, so it would seem that we’re steering away from the vegetals and the florals. There’s a touch of dried fruit in there as well, perhaps black cherry. This coalesces in the cup as some true fruitiness overlaid with cooked nuts–caramel apples at the peak of the holidays. Dare I call this a Thanksgiving tea? The aroma gets more and more savory as it sits; at least now we know where the turkey got to.
Luckily, the tea itself has no poultry notes. (Could you imagine the audaci-tea?) Rather, the first infusion brings in all those apples in full force, pummeling your mouth with that fructose flavor. The other main player here is… Soy sauce? Yes, this oolong comes with its own basting juices. When it’s combined with the apples, the overall sensation isn’t too bad, but after the High Grade Iron Goddess, your tastebuds may be spoiled for richness. The longer this cup sits, the more you get out of it–the sweeter notes start to make their appearance, guised as pear and a dash of apricot.
It’s only when you concoct additional infusions that you understand the real point of this tea. Every new cup is totally divergent from its predecessor. It catches that hint of fruit from the tail end of your last sip, and takes it into a new dimension. The apricot from before? Your mouth is now blasted with it. The soy sauce flavor? Gone. Like it never existed. Steep these leaves throughout the day, and each time you’ll get a radically different tea. (This, of course, is part of tea’s nature in general; no cup is ever going to be the same as the one before. But with this oolong, you can only be struck by the dissimilari-teas between infusions. It’s quite an adventure.)
Keep this one for Thanksgiving? Yes. Keep the same pot going for the whole meal, and see if guests can tell the difference between cups–shazam, the drink becomes part of the festivi-teas! No milk or sweetener here, please. It’s got enough body on its own, and plenty of fruity sugar to offer.
All in all, Tea Setter warrants top marks for choosing teas that the novice drinker can get excited about. Thanks to the detailed instructions, the “tea experience”–as they call it–is made accessible.
Yet some misgivings remain. This is through no fault of the actual tea, as it’s rather difficult to blame inanimate plant matter for the errors of socie-tea.
Tea Setter’s “tea experience” makes the process of preparing unorthodox teas accessible, which is great, because the chief worry of tea newbies is that they’re going to mess up preparing the loose leaves. But is this approach also friendly? If a tea newbie is scouring the instructions, then they’re already nervous about getting it done right; the emphasis on This Is How You Get It Done Right doesn’t leave any room for Accidentally Getting It Done Wrong. Newbies need the comfort of knowing that even if they don’t have all the traditional teaware, even if they make an infusion with five extra seconds to spare, it is ok.
The Tea Mafia isn’t going to take away your tea.
Heck, preparing it wrong might even yield some totally awesome new flavors that never come out during standard prep. (Ever played the “I don’t care” game with a Wuyi? Dump in your boiling water, steep a lazy five minutes while you get something else done, and it comes out like delicious, delicious chestnuts–nothing else. With the traditional method, you get an intricate cup of fruits and florals, but sometimes we’re just not in the mood for floof.)
In the end, Tea Setter has some profoundly excellent tea, delivering pu-erhs and oolongs that are highly instruc-tea-ve as well as simply a pleasure to taste. The rest will come as they establish themselves in the leaf-drinking communi-tea.