Tea-Tasting at Tea Sparrow

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Rainy afternoons and tea-drinking go hand-in-hand, or at least they do in my world. Well, in my world, tea is a suitable accompaniment for any time of day or type of weather, so let’s just say that rain, afternoon, and tea make a classic combination.

This drizzly afternoon, I was drinking tea at Tea Sparrow headquarters, taking part in one of their famous tea-tastings. I’ve told you before how lucky Vancouverites are to have a say in which teas go into Tea Sparrow’s monthly boxes. This time, I was one of the lucky few who got to sip and rate Tea Sparrow’s newest discoveries.

In anticipation of their Second Annual Tea-Off next week, Tea Sparrow invited a few bloggers, podcasters, and recipe developers over to experience one of their tea-tastings.

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We rated six teas and two of them were favourites for me, personally – a dreamy Jasmine and a pure Ceylon cinnamon tea. Two others came close – a light, refreshing herbal mix by the Austrian company, Sonnentor, and a masala chai that was fragrant and flavourful.

And as a bonus, we were treated to Michael Menashy’s enthusiasm and expertise while we sampled our tea. When I share some photos of next week’s Tea-Off with you, I’ll also share some of the things I learned today.

Tea Sparrow’s Second Annual Tea-Off is next Sunday, October 25th, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Heritage Hall on Main Street. Tickets are 2 for $10 in advance and $10 per person at the door.

However, I’ve got two tickets to give away, so one of you can go for free and take a friend. If you’re going to be in Vancouver on Sunday, leave a comment on this post (with a contact email) and tell me about your favourite tea. The first person to do so is the winner!

It’s your chance to get in on the tasting and adjudication that helps to make Tea Sparrow’s monthly boxes so special.

Tea Sparrow – A Review

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Tea Sparrow sent me their July subscription box of tea, so that I might review their service, but no other consideration was received. All opinions are my own.

As you might recall, last month I visited the Tea Sparrow Iced Tea Festival. Afterward, they were kind enough to send me their July selection of teas for my review.

Each month, Tea Sparrow sends their subscribers four teas, chosen from producers around the world. They choose their loose leaf teas based on quality and flavour, in order to give their customers a survey of the best teas worldwide. The teas are first selected by their tea sommelier, then presented at tea tastings for subscribers and tea experts in Vancouver. The highest rated teas at each tasting are the ones that make it into Tea Sparrow’s monthly boxes. Each tea package includes a description of the tea, steeping instructions, and the URL of the producer – so, when you find a tea you especially like, you can order more, directly from the source.

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In the summer months, Tea Sparrow sends out teas that are especially good iced. It’s a nice practice and July’s mix included some teas that are good hot or cold. I was very happy to have the opportunity to try a summer box, because Vancouver’s been enduring hot, dry weather for months now. I usually drink tea hot, year-round, but this summer has been my own personal iced tea festival.

In July, their picks were Vanilla Honeybush from Aromatica Fine Teas; Iced Ginger Peach Tea from The Tea Spot; Quince Green from Silver Service; and Strawberry Mint from Herbal Republic.

I tried each of the teas hot and cold, taking advantage of the very few grey days we’ve had recently to have some hot tea. Three of the four teas are on my list for re-stocking my tea cupboard (when I finally drink it down to a manageable level). The other wasn’t bad, but I wouldn’t get it again.

It will come as no surprise to anyone who read my post about the Iced Tea Festival that my favourite of the four was Herbal Republic’s Strawberry Mint. This tea is superb either hot or cold and is incredibly fragrant. My second favourite was Aromatica’s Vanilla Honeybush. It’s delicious cold, but I’m saving it for cooler weather, because I enjoyed it best when it was hot. A close third was Silver Service’s Quince Green. I know it’s meant to be served cold, but I thought it was quite good hot, too. Unfortunately, I didn’t care as much for the Ginger Peach Tea from the Tea Spot. Perhaps if I sweetened my tea a little, I would have enjoyed it more. (I’m not a fan of American-style iced tea and the Ginger Peach is perfect for sweet tea. If that style of iced tea is your thing, I suspect you’d love it.)

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Still, three out of four is quite a good score for a sampler selection. Based on this sampler and the teas I tasted at the festival, I think it’s quite likely that I’d enjoy four out of four teas most months, a dangerous proposition for a tea lover who has a year’s subscription. I’d run the risk of having a tea kitchen, rather than a tea cupboard.

Tea Sparrow’s boxes are $20.00 USD/$25.00 CAD per month, including shipping and taxes, for US and Canadian orders. International orders are $30.00 CAD, plus shipping. The quantity of tea averages to about 35 cups per month. You can get loose tea more cheaply from a tea shop, but for a sampler of teas from various producers around the world, Tea Sparrow provides good value.

If you’re a tea beginner, I’d recommend finding a good tea shop or two in your area (hint: not a national chain) and exploring what they have to offer. Once you’ve developed your palate, then you can move on to Tea Sparrow’s service. Your local merchant will have developed offerings that fit into the taste profile of their brand. The advantage of a sampler service is that you can try teas that represent a wide variety of taste profiles, finding new favourites (and developing a tea mail order habit).

I also think a six or twelve month subscription would make a wonderful present for a tea lover. (I may or may not be hoping that friends and family are paying particular attention to this paragraph.) If you’re a subscriber who happens to live in the Metro Vancouver area, you can also vie for tickets to their tea tastings, which happen every other month.

As habits go, a monthly tea subscription is both healthy and pleasurable. And honestly, the idea of a tea kitchen isn’t such a bad one, really. You can just keep everything else in the pantry, right?

You can order a Tea Sparrow subscription for yourself or a gift for a friend at their website: Tea Sparrow

Cold Teas to Soothe the Soul at Tea Sparrow’s 1st Annual Iced Tea Festival

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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.

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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.

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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.

Strawberry Mint

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.