True facts about Melissa Zupan #329: In a previous life (that is, before graduate school part 1), I used to work for a major tea company. I got to go to one of the World Tea Expos with them, which was one of the more amazing experiences I’ve had in business. And through them, I got my start in blogging. In fact, my tea review blog was one of the most highly trafficked tea review blogs on the ‘net during its time. I ended up getting so many samples sent to me that I had a 5-year personal supply after I shuttered the blog and moved to Oregon. And I drink tea multiple times a day.
This experience has left me a ridiculous tea snob. I have a few good-ol’ affordable standbys that I buy by the pound for my ‘every day’ sips. (Adagio’s Yunnan Noir, Jade Oolong, and Summer Rose for when I feel I need a hit of a flavor). And sometimes I get a little crazy and go for a few ounces of something highly flavored (like David Tea’s Read My Lips, which is so yummy!), but usually when I want something special, I’m the nerd who’s buying single origin high mountain oolongs direct from the farmers in Taiwan. Tea is my scotch.
So when Andy at Plum Deluxe asked me if I would try and review some of his teas, my first impulse was to say no. I am a tea-lover who has strong preferences and opinions on her tea, and I frankly didn’t want to choke down something I personally thought noxious and produce a highly biased review that, let’s face it, wouldn’t help anyone. But his company is just so gosh darn positive, I couldn’t help myself. The tea looked like pretty decent quality, and had all the buzzwords I like to hear: organic, non-GMO, fair trade, and hand blended. More important, though, was the company’s underlying ethos. Andy’s goal is to use tea to share the lessons of his late mother, who lost a 5-year battle with breast cancer. Andy says that those years, however, were “some of the best years of her life” because she took the opportunity to care for herself and enjoy her life to the fullest. A good part of that was creating “moments that matter, every day”…one of which the meditative quality of enjoying a fantastic cup of tea.
And so I found myself with three teas: Reading Nook Blend, which combines black tea leaves with rosebuds, lavender, and chamomile; Portland Rose City Chai, which blends black tea with rooibos, oregon rose petals, cardamom, ginger, cinnamon, lemongrass, and essences of blackberry and almond; and Afternoon ‘High Tea’ White Tea, which mixes white tea with peach and apricot pieces with marigold petals and a pear essence.
And, let me be the first to admit it: my fears of noxious, cloying brews were 100% inaccurate. All of the teas were remarkably balanced and highly addictive. In fact, the chai, the blend to which I had given the most mental side-eye, caused me to say “well that is a delight!” the first time I sipped it. Well done, Plum Deluxe. You absolutely exceeded my expectations.
Let’s begin with that chai blend. I adore chai; I really do. But I have been uniformly disappointed by every one I’ve purchased from American companies, including my own beloved Adagio. Their Thai Chai has been in my cabinet for over a year, and it is very tasty as far as chais go. The lemongrass and coconut additions are what really make it “Thai” in profile, and they play nicely off the more traditional ginger, cinnamon, and cardamom. These are all favorite flavors of mine, but I find I almost never brew it because of the “oil slick” that rises to the surface after brewing. Unfortunately, most North American loose tea blenders use high levels of flavoring oils to produce the strong flavors that are winning more and more American tea drinkers. It is understandable; a lot of people in this country want bold flavors and think teas too ‘watery’ and ‘weak.’ But honestly? Those oils make my stomach churn, both figuratively and literally.
I fully expected the Portland Rose City Chai to be similar. In fact, I chose it because it contained the same lemongrass, ginger, cinnamon, and cardamom backbone that Adagio’s Thai Chai does. And I was a little skeptical when I did my ‘leaf inspection.’ The dry blend is visually pretty, with tons of rose petals and lemongrass. In fact, the tea itself looks like an addition more than the base. It is, however, a very “dusty” blend, which initially surprised me. I actually had to wipe the residual dust out of my tea scoop and off my inspecting bowl. On tasting it, though, I became convinced that it was mostly ground spices. To me, this is a positive. If a blender leaves chunks of cinnamon or ginger in a blend, the tea will fully infuse and become bitter before the spices have had a chance to even get started releasing their essence. Smaller grinds are therefore better when it comes to spices. However, I was worried by the scent of the dry blend, which to me read as more of a ‘cherry cough syrup’ profile with some Dr. Pepper in the background. I actually find similar scents in most flavored rooibos blends, particularly ones with ‘berry’ descriptions, so this may have been because of the inclusion of rooibos and blackberry flavoring.
In the brew, however, those acrid smells disappear. The tea itself comes forward with its characteristic astringency, and the lemongrass and rose fade into solid background players, likely because their flavors overlap with the rooibos. The spices round and balance out the blend rather than take it over, and they create a mild ‘warm’ feeling–both psychologically and physically. It is lightly fruity, lightly floral, and lightly spicy: complicated, and yet an ‘easy sipper’–it doesn’t command all your attention when you’re drinking it. I loved it.
The Reading Nook Blend, too, was a show-stopping winner. I only requested it because it was noted as being one of Plum Deluxe’s best sellers, so I thought it would give me a good idea of the “core” of their flavor profile. Normally, I would have given it a solid pass based off the description alone, for it contains chamomile and I absolutely, positively abhor chamomile. To me, it is a weirdly insipid floral on its own. I accept it more in blends, where I find its lightly honeyed taste helps bind other flavors together. However, I cannot abide how it gums up my infusers. I have better things to do than scrub those like I’m about to use them to perform surgery. (See below for infuser recommendations).
But, again, Reading Nook surprised me. I could see through the bag that it was an exceptionally pretty blend. The leaves are very dark and they make the magenta rose petals, yellow chamomile heads, purple lavender buds, and errant chartreuse leaves pop like the colors on a black velvet Elvis painting. My housemates started to call it my “unicorn tea”, and I did not dissuade them from that assessment.
The biggest payoff, though, was the scent. As soon as I opened up the bag, I grabbed one of my housemates and thrust the bag at him saying, “Smell this!” Good man that he is, he did so without question, and I got to watch his eyes open with shock and desire. “Is that…chocolate?!” he asked, practically salivating. We went on to debate just what it smelled like. Chocolate is the obvious and immediate smell, but it is way more complicated and nuanced than anything that has ever come out of a Hershey’s factory. Eventually, I narrowed it down to smelling like a Dagoba lavender blueberry dark chocolate bar and took the opportunity to nip down to the grocery to buy one to test my hypothesis. Bulls eye.
I have no idea where the chocolate or berry notes in the scent come from, for all that is in this blend is a cream-flavored black tea, rose petals, lavender, and chamomile…and none of those flowers lean towards a “fruit” profile. When the tea is brewed, though, the fruity notes dissipate as do the chocolate notes, sadly. The dominant flavor is the lavender, which comes through more as an herbal than as a floral. The rose and chamomile do an excellent job as backup singers, and using the cream-flavored black as the base was inspired. I think that a plain black tea would have overpowered some of the florals, but the cream rounds off the flavors and blends them all together very nicely. As with the Portland Rose City Chai, Reading Nook has no “oil slick” that rises to the surface from its flavoring, which is excellent. I find myself returning to this tea over and over, especially during weekends when I can laze about the house doing my own studies and school planning. It helps me get into that perfect mind space where I am alert, but calm enough that I could happily watch paint dry. It is, as advertised, an excellent blend for a long reading session.
As you may suspect by now, I also had no complaints with the Afternoon ‘High Tea’ White Tea. Well, I take that back: I thought the name was weird. An “afternoon tea” is one of those fussy affairs you would imagine Downton Abbey‘s Crawley family would partake in every day at 4 pm on the dot. Historically, this is the ‘snack’ meal of hot tea, dainty sandwiches, scones, and cake that the posh set would eat toward the end of the afternoon, for they typically dined after 8 pm, which is an awful long way from luncheon around noon. High tea, however, is a much heartier meal eaten by the working class at around 6 pm when many got off work. It was usually some form of strong tea and bread, meat, cheese, and vegetable. Of course, class divides are not so immediately evident these days, and the names of the various teas have become somewhat conflated.
I cannot say that I would serve this tea at either an afternoon or a high tea. It is a fairly delicate flavor profile, and a black tea would be far more appropriate to either of those events. It is, however, a nicely flavored peach tea. The white tea here is more like a bai mu dan, which itself has a floral, peachy aroma. That is only heightened by the inclusion of the peach and apricot pieces, and the pear flavoring does help keep it from feeling too much like you’ve fallen straight into Georgia. This is not a tea that moves me to great descriptive heights, but it is a solid performer with a clean, true peach flavor, and I have found it to be highly pleasant to brew up when I want to wind down at the end of the work day with my Netflix obsession du jour.
Again, well done, Plum Deluxe! I initially thought your offerings a bit pricey at $7 an ounce plus shipping ($10.50 altogether). After all, I usually get about 12 mugs of tea per ounce of dry leaf, which would make each mug about $0.83 each, and that’s about what I pay for some truly superlative oolong. But realistically, you’re not much more expensive than a soft drink habit, and you’re far healthier. I also like the fact that you offer a subscription service. If I registered for that, I’m sure I would enjoy practically anything you sent me based off the select I enjoyed here, and I’d get a fun perk of having a surprise every month. Thank you so much, Andy! I wish you well on this fantastic venture!
- Andy did not pay me for this review.
- This post was decidedly low on the magic front. I had contemplated choosing a blend for magical purposes and creating a tea ritual, but between wrapping up master’s degree no. 2, work demands, and lots of fun coven stuff…my reserves were running low. If you want to see a great idea for a similar working, check out Marietta’s Plum Deluxe review at Witchy Words. It’s great!
- I mentioned infuser recommendations. I am all about fancy tea brewing tools, and I have my fair share of gaiwans, kyusu, and yixing pots. But 90% of my brewing is done with a brew basket in a mug. Lately, I’ve been using Tea Forté’s Kati Steeping Cups and Infusers because the cups are gorgeous and because the brew baskets that come with them are champions when it comes to brewing teas with fine particulates. They hold an awful lot of loose leaf *and* they clean up beautifully: no scrubbing at the screening to remove stuck-on bits! If I do let a tea dry onto the screen, they wipe out after I’ve let the basket “steep” again for 10-15 minutes. David’s Tea’s Perfect Infuser would likely be similar style of brew basket, but I have not tried it yet myself. I like these brew baskets more than infusing a whole pot at a time, but I do pot-brew when I have friends over. When that happens, I brew the leaves loose in the pot, and pour the tea through this brew basket, which acts like a strainer. I have, in the past, tried gravity tea pots which utilize a mesh filter. Those are great at retaining particulates, but I destroyed a filter once trying to clean it, and I find that the plastic does stain over time, especially if you don’t use a dishwasher. The stains are easily removed upon soaking the stained plastic in diluted bleach water, but I try to avoid bleach. It’s really hard to destroy these steel brew baskets, though.