Maybe I'd prefer the Tea Dictatorship
December 20, 2015 9:11 AM   Subscribe

I recently ordered some tea from the Republic of Tea. I don't like it. Please help me figure out why.

I am really into drinking tea and recently ordered a shipment of all different flavors from the Republic of Tea. I really wanted to like it as it's a small, family-owned company and the branding is really nice, but I don't like the taste of the tea itself. Even though I drink tea a lot I don't really know how to talk about it in technical terms, so the best way I can try to describe it is that it tastes rough. Harney & Sons, on the other hand tastes really smooth to me, like I'm drinking silk. Once, after drinking a particular Harney & Sons flavor, I tried the same flavor from Twinings and it tasted like I was drinking from the gutter.

I know these can't be actual terms to describe tea, so I'm wondering if I can search for specific terms that indicate what kind of tea I should be looking for and what tea I should be avoiding. I don't know much about tea in technical terms, besides what I think tastes good and what doesn't.

I grew up drinking green tea, but I just got into black and herbal teas (not really tea, I know) a few years ago, so I don't really know too much about it.

Please teach me how to tea!
posted by Enchanting Grasshopper to Food & Drink (26 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Well I share your preferences: I much prefer Harney and Sons tea to Republic of Tea tea or Twinings, though really I now order from Upton Tea Imports in preference to either of them. They do have some flavored teas, but their focus is on the actual regions and varietals of teas, rather than masking the actual tea flavors with added flavorings. The nice thing about Upton Tea Imports is that they let you order extremely small samples of many teas for very little (you do need to have a teapot capable of making loose-leaf tea, but brewing loose-leaf tea is a lot easier than you might think). They also have great sampler sets -- I got their Assam and English Breakfast sets to start with and I found a couple favorite teas in those (one of them sadly discontinued). They also send you amazing catalogs describing all the teas they have and will randomly include free samples in your orders. They're a great local company too (based in Holliston, MA) and will definitely help in your tea education and figuring out what you really like.
posted by peacheater at 9:19 AM on December 20, 2015 [5 favorites]

It's a little hard to tell from your description, but I wonder if you're responding to the tea's astringency. I find teas with lower astringency tend to feel smoother to me.

More broadly, you can find a lot of lists of tea terminology that might help you pin it down. Here's one with all sorts of terms for flavor. The challenge of course is that it's hard to match these terms to specific flavors without actually tasting them. Like, I have no idea what "bakey" tastes like, although I'm sure I've experienced it before...

Perhaps you could go to Steepster and look up reviews for teas you have already tasted -- that would let you cross-reference tea terminology against flavors you already know.
posted by yankeefog at 9:36 AM on December 20, 2015 [3 favorites]

I think the problem is the tea, not you. I love tea, but every one I've had from Republic of Tea Has fallen between meh and undrinkable for me. I think that they don't flavor their flavored teas as strongly as some similar brands, and as a result the low quality of their leaf really shines through.
posted by asphericalcow at 9:37 AM on December 20, 2015

If it tasted rough, you may be tasting tannins. Tannins are a flavor component in black tea (and red wine) that add an astringent, bitter, rough flavor and mouthfeel. Some teas have more than others, and you extract more tannins if you steep tea for longer or with too-hot water (if you really want to get a sense for what tannins taste like, brew a half a cup of black tea normally, and another half a cup where you let the tea steep for like ten minutes, and compare). It could be that the Republic of Tea tea was just a more tannic tea, or needed a lighter touch than what you've had before.
posted by Itaxpica at 9:39 AM on December 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

Adding to peacheaters comment, I was surprised recently to find a couple varieties of tea balls/infusers in the tea section of my local grocery store so brewing loose tea may be easier than you (or I) thought. I figured it was a specialty item.
posted by rubster at 9:59 AM on December 20, 2015

(just to be clear, tannins are what cause astringency)
posted by andrewcooke at 10:01 AM on December 20, 2015

I think the type of tea is really relevant here. You mention green, herbal, and black; but what did you actually get from the Republic? There's this more expensive type called puer which I don't find very good at all. That wikipedia article uses the same word you did to describe its flavor: rough.
posted by Rash at 10:18 AM on December 20, 2015

I think the type of tea is really relevant here. You mention green, herbal, and black; but what did you actually get from the Republic?

I ordered several black tea varieties and one rooibos.

I have both a tea ball and an infuser for loose leaf varieties.
posted by Enchanting Grasshopper at 10:29 AM on December 20, 2015

I was just wondering the same thing. I just bought a Teatulia black tea and it doesn't have the complexity of character OR the wallop upside the head that Harney & Sons provides. (I did FINALLY find a Fair Trade English Breakfast by Harney & Sons, but none of the other black varieties.)

What's a person to do if they like good-tasting black tea bur hate the working conditions of 99% of the suppliers?!
posted by small_ruminant at 10:35 AM on December 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

Pu'er is amazing if you know where to source it, so I wouldn't knock that if it wasn't the OP's choice. It also is horrible if you only drink it on the first steeping, which I will detail below:

Are these loose leaf teas? Something that I find Western tea growers and suppliers always fail to mention is that you are not supposed to drink the first steepings. Something I learned growing up Chinese and with having access to luxury teas and knowledgeable parents, is that you are supposed to steep the first time, toss that out, and then drink the remaining 2nd, 3rd, and 4th brews until it is too bitter and loses its flavor. Pu'er can have many more steepings until it loses its flavor, which is why it is such an amazing tea.

The first step is more like rinsing out the leaves and the residue, and prepares it for activating for the tea to really release it's flavor. Here's a link to a Chinese tea ceremony for reference.

If you don't like the taste of it, try until the second steeping. The color should be far better and much more fragrant. If it still sucks, then change your supplier.
posted by yueliang at 11:48 AM on December 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

I am a former serious tea drinker, and familiar with all three brands. What you are tasting is the difference in quality of the different teas. Harney and Sons tastes the best because it is, objectively the highest quality tea, with Twinings lower, and then Republic of Tea the worst. So, I think you should just trust your taste.
posted by djinn dandy at 12:06 PM on December 20, 2015 [7 favorites]

Ok but what is quality? Is Republic of Tea the equivalent of seeds and stems, or what?

Anyone remember seeds and stems? Anyone?
posted by small_ruminant at 12:28 PM on December 20, 2015 [4 favorites]

I'll cast another vote for Republic of Tea being the culprit here. I've never enjoyed any of their teas. Harney & Sons was my gateway to good tea, and now Adagio is my main squeeze. I also like Rishi. (small_ruminant, they have some fair trade varieties!)
posted by leeloo minai at 12:38 PM on December 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

The tea equivalent is "tea sweepings," which are exactly what they sound like.
posted by fiercecupcake at 12:47 PM on December 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

I'm a tea enthusiast. I like reading Reddit's Tea sub. Friendly group with some very knowledgeable people. Lots of talk about vendors. They discuss mostly Chinese tea of all types.

I recently ordered from Tea Vivre. Ordered Chinese blacks, green, whites in sample sizes. Very pleased with quality and price value. I've always like Rishi tea. Had mostly good experiences with Upton Tea. I think they are better with the India/Ceylon teas and English blends.

Never bought Republic of Tea. I've heard enough negative to assume they are more about pretty packaging than tea quality. But that's hearsay. If you don't like the tea, use it for pretty gifts. It would be nice in a gift basket. Or donate to a food bank.
posted by valannc at 3:01 PM on December 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

I had a similar experience and I simply threw it all out. I felt that I was drinking the leftovers after the quality merchants had been through the market and grabbed up the best of the harvest. The tea version of stems, shake, and seeds.
posted by cleroy at 3:41 PM on December 20, 2015

Anyone remember seeds and stems? Anyone?
Well if you do remember you weren't doing it right...

Really popping in to 2nd Upton Tea, everything I've had from there has been excellent. I've used their online ordering to sort by review stars and price to find a good potential tea that doesn't break the bank. For less bitter I've found "Ceylon" teas to have a good substantial flavor with less potential bitterness/astringency.
posted by sammyo at 3:44 PM on December 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I know what you mean. Harney and Sons is awesome. It's full and smooth and feels heavy but silky like a good cheesecake. *MMm, thinks about blueberry green Harney and Sons...*

There's definitely quality issues and whatnot. I haven't tried Republic of Tea, though. One thing that may help if you want to try to save the tea is to steep it for about 30 seconds, dump that steep, then steep the leaves again for the full time. That can take away the immediate bitterness. No guarantees (guaran-teas if you will.)

Another idea is Tea Sparrow. They select teas from tons of retailers, and if you like a tea they have the information for the type and where it's from on each package. They even have tea tasters that select and review the teas they send. I've never had a "bad" tea from them, only teas I personally didn't like the flavor of. It's $20 (CAD) a month and is super fun to get a box of tea every month. I only stopped tea sparrow because I've had to cut down on caffeine for health reasons.
posted by Crystalinne at 4:56 PM on December 20, 2015

RoT is Tazo-caliber factory tea, it's like comparing a truffle to a Chunky.
posted by rhizome at 4:59 PM on December 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

If it's flavoured, it's not tea.
Are you American?
How hot is your water? Are you adding milk afterwards, not before?

These are things worth considering before blaming the tea. Tea to an American is a very different experience for a Pom or an Australian.

Black tea, boiling water, steep the bag (or leaves in a pot) till it's very dark brown. Add milk. Drink with marmalade toast. Cheers!
posted by taff at 6:25 PM on December 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

I don't have any advice but I came in to say thank you. BC of this thread i've just placed my first order with H&S
posted by TestamentToGrace at 8:05 PM on December 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

Thanks for all the suggestions on tea brands.

The consensus seems to be that RoT tea leaves are just terrible. Unfortunately, it doesn't indicate the type of leaves or anything anywhere on the site or the container. It just says "Fine Black Tea" (which is clearly subjective and doesn't seem to have any meaning in terms of quality control), so it seems any company can just describe their teas however they want.

I did check out Steepster based on yankeefog's suggestion. I think it's just a bit of a challenge to find specific terms to search for when looking for tea, so I will go with individual recommendations instead. Thanks!

I grew up drinking sencha, matcha, mugicha, genmaicha, etc. and went to countless tea ceremonies, but that's such a different tea education from the new varieties I'm trying now, so what I learned from those seems totally irrelevant.
posted by Enchanting Grasshopper at 2:07 AM on December 21, 2015

You could also try checking which teas show the grades - for loose tea - the teas that show any grading on the label are usually better, higher grades, for lower grades they don't bother.

And any decent quality tea will at least say which kinds of tea it contains, Assam or Ceylon or Darjeliing etc. (of if it's a mixture like English or Irish Breakfast), where it comes from. "Fine black tea" means nothing without that info. Once you try a few different kinds you will find out easily which ones you tend to prefer - and they still will vary in quality from one brand to another, but at least you will have another reference point there. I find the detailed info about the variety and source of tea a lot more useful than descriptions of the taste myself.
posted by bitteschoen at 3:59 AM on December 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

Forgot to add - I find a good resource is also browsing the black tea section on Amazon (UK version has obviously more brands and more reviews than US version). I'm partial to British/Irish tea myself - strong black tea, either Assam or "English/Irish/Scottish breakfast" mixtures, best with milk, so not sure if that's your thing or a taste you could develop, but there are enough other varieties to choose from, and in my experience those brands from the UK tend to be so much better and worth it.

They will be more expensive in the US than in the UK but from a quick search I see similar prices there if not lower than Harney and Sons, and a lot of them shipping directly from Amazon, so you could try looking there too.

Nicest popular brands I've tried that I see available on Amazon US too: Barry's tea, Taylors of Harrogate, Clipper Fair Trade, Edinburgh Tea & Coffee Company (this one I tried in Scotland first and is delicious).
posted by bitteschoen at 4:42 AM on December 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

I have learned a lot from cruising through Kathy Y L Chan's site although she discusses varieties more than brands. Her writing is very enjoyable.
posted by BibiRose at 6:24 AM on December 21, 2015

If you try cold brewing, it might help you get through your inventory. I do cold brew when I'm not crazy about a tea and it seems to mellow out any bitterness (the tea's bitterness, not mine).

Put one or two teabags in 8 to 12 ounces of room temperature or cold water. Leave it on the counter or in the fridge for a couple of hours (or overnight). You can either heat it or drink it iced. I managed to finish a tin of an oolong using that method and it was quite good.

Not sure if it works on rooibos though.
posted by Soda-Da at 8:18 AM on December 21, 2015

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