I attended the Tea Sparrow Iced Tea Festival as a media guest, but had no obligation to review or write about any aspect of the event. All opinions are my own.
Growing up, I thought I didn’t like iced tea. But really, it was American-style sweet tea that wasn’t my thing. When I became a tea drinker, in my adolescence, my mother insisted that I take it clear – no sugar, no milk. I found I loved it that way. I’d lost the taste for pop around ten or eleven and tea was the perfect replacement. I loved its astringency and malty undertones. And I soon became convinced that I only liked it hot.
I kept on feeling that way until my mid-twenties, when a friend made me some barely sweetened sun tea. I’ve had some good versions since, most memorably a batch made with a rich, organic Earl Grey, honey, and mint from a friend’s garden. Still, I never sought it out or felt inclined to make it myself.
It wasn’t until I started exploring premium loose teas that I truly started to enjoy iced tea. It’s no surprise that it’s the teas that don’t need any sweetening at all that won me over. Not all teas benefit from being served cold, but the ones that do make a perfect relief from the heat.
In Vancouver’s seemingly never-ending heatwave this summer, an invitation to an Iced Tea Festival was a welcome distraction. The festival was hosted by Tea Sparrow, which curates monthly selections of teas from around the world, for tea drinkers worldwide. They focus on quality and taste in their tea selections, avoiding artificial ingredients.
I’d only just heard of Tea Sparrow recently, so I took the opportunity to talk to one of the co-founders of the company, Michael Menashy, at the festival. Tea Sparrow started as an industry curation company in 2010, then expanded to shipping tea boxes directly to customers in January of 2012. Though the company has a world focus, their base is Vancouver, which makes their local customers a surprisingly big part of their tea selection process. They hold tea tastings every second month, rating the teas that are contenders for the next few months’ tea boxes. It’s a very hot ticket, since only twelve people can attend – Michael told me the Eventbrite listing is filled up within hours of posting.
As you can imagine, there are a lot of disappointed tea tasters each round. So, to give more of them a chance to get in on the action, Tea Sparrow holds occasional events that cater to a larger crowd. This year’s Iced Tea Festival was the first of what they hope will be an annual event and they had crowds of tea lovers lined up, until well into the afternoon, eager to try the fifteen teas they had on offer.
I showed up around three, when the line up had eased, and was happy to get out of the muggy heat into Heritage Hall’s airy auditorium. I was armed with a tasting cup and invited to try the teas as many times as I liked. The teas were cold, but not so cold that the taste was dampened, and I appreciated being able to taste them without the distraction of any added sweetener.
Several stood out for me, including Samovar Tea Lounge‘s Pineapple Coconut Oolong, Sonnentor‘s Organic Peppermint, and Tea Desire‘s Maracuja Orange. There was a clear winner for me that day, though – Herbal Republic‘s Strawberry Mint. It had a deep strawberry flavour complemented with mint, which Herbal Republic’s Tracy McDowell told me took a lot of trial and error to get right. Strawberry is one of the hardest flavours to capture in tea and many companies rely on artificial extracts. Not so for Herbal Republic – they dry strawberries carefully and infuse their tea with natural flavours.
I’m supposed to be on a new-tea-moratorium (until the tea cupboard is less stuffed), but I may have to break that fast and order some Strawberry Mint. We’re having a short respite from the heat this weekend, but the rest of the summer is scheduled to be hot and dry – that means iced tea weather until well into the fall. That’s enough of an excuse…right?
Even if I don’t start adding to my tea collection again immediately, I’m feeling inspired to cold brew some of the teas I have at home, finding out which ones work iced as nicely as the ones I tasted last weekend. I’m also going to be keeping an eye on Tea Sparrow’s website. I’d love to go to another tea tasting event in the fall or winter – fifteen hot teas to try on a cold, damp Vancouver afternoon sounds right up my alley.