Bigelow Tea’s Website Redesign – Major Oversights and Recommended Fixes

Bigelow Tea recently redesigned their website:

The new Bigelow website, highlighting different photos.
The new Bigelow website, highlighting different photos.

While I like the site design overall, they did some things that I think will harm them from a business perspective.  In particular:

  • The new site changed its URL scheme, without using redirects from the old pages.
  • Some of the old pages have been turned into “Pseudo 404” pages, which confuse google, not to mention people who come to the site.
  • The site’s search is broken and returns frequent error messages for certain searches.

Here I go into depth about these errors, and explain how they may be hurting Bigelow, and what they can do to correct them.

Old Product Pages Become Pseudo 404 Pages With No Redirects

For example, here is the link to the old page for Bigelow’s Earl Grey.  This page returns the HTML status code “HTTP/1.1 200 OK”, which is the code browsers (and search engine crawlers) expect if the page is found as-is.  But if you look at the page, it’s not a page for Bigelow’s Earl Grey, it’s just a generic form page.

Because these pages are not being redirected, and because the HTML code returned suggest the page was “found”, rather than a “not found” 404 error page, Google doesn’t seem to have figured out the new URL scheme yet.  Look at this search result for “Bigelow Earl Grey”:

Screenshot of broken search results
The search results for individual Bigelow Teas now lead to broken links with no Meta Description and a cryptic comment about the page being blocked by robots.txt

Bigelow’s site still comes up as the #1 result, which is good for Bigelow, and which is what most people would expect, but there are three problems with this search result:

  • The link is broken, leading to the old page.  Google has not yet discovered the new page for this tea, even though the site has now been up for some time.
  • There is no description displaying for the item, under the headline.
  • Instead of a description, the result shows an error about the site’s robots.txt not allowing a description to be available.  This doesn’t look particularly professional or good for Bigelow.

It’s unclear where things will go from here, but as-is, this is going to hurt Bigelow considerably, because they will lose a lot of potential traffic coming through search results like this.  If the problem isn’t fixed gracefully, and persists, they may even fall out of search results–Google doesn’t like to return broken or useless search results like this.  This could hurt Bigelow even more.

Broken Search on the new Website

The new website has a search box, and, if you visit the company’s webpage normally, and then type something into the search box, it works as expected.

But if you try typing something into the search box from the old, broken product pages that are still included in Google search results, you get this error:

Error message saying Internal Server Error (500)
The error shown if you type something into the search box on a broken, old product page.

Very bad for Bigelow!  The first problem above is bad enough, but this problem compounds things…if someone sees that they haven’t found the proper product page, the logical thing for them to do (exactly what I did, and I suspect most users would do this) would be to type the name of the tea they are searching for info about, into the search box.  Then they will get this error message!

Note that this error page only displays if you go to the broken product page, which lives at the old URL (which is currently being returned in Google search results, and which will likely appear on various blogs and other websites linking to the Bigelow site).  Form the new page, things work just fine.

The only way I found to navigate to the new product pages, is by manually browsing the site.  For example, the Earl Grey tea can be found under the Black Tea section.  Because there are several pages of each type of tea though, this process requires several clicks and some concentration or searching of each page to find many of their teas.

What I’ve Done To Help Bigelow

I care about Bigelow, and I’ve taken some measures to minimize the damage caused by these oversights, through some of the work I’ve done on RateTea.  I’ve been drinking their teas for years, and I still enjoy them from time to time, especially Sweet Dreams, which is my all-time favorite of theirs.  I want to see them survive and thrive.

I’ve already taken the care to quickly manually update the URL’s to the new pages on RateTea, for the most-frequently-viewed Bigelow teas on the site.  I plan to go through and manually fix all of them as time permits.  Until then, I’ve removed all broken links to the old product pages.

This will both minimize the damage from visitors coming through RateTea to the Bigelow site, and hopefully, will also help Google to find the new product pages more quickly and more easily.  But I don’t think my site has very much influence relative to the structure of Bigelow’s site itself, which is why I think it is critically important that Bigelow fixes this themselves.

How To Fix This?

The problems described above are serious, but they are easily fixable.  Some time ago, on my old tea blog, I wrote a series on Best Practices for Tea Company Websites.  I particularly recommend reading the post on Link Permanence, where I explain about using redirects.

Bigelow has already hurt themselves with this poorly executed site redesign, but it’s not too late to salvage things.  I recommend a quick course of action:

  • Get redirects operational, ideally via a 301 (permanent) redirect that automatically returns the new product page.  If they have an archived copy of the old site, this will be easy, but if they’ve lost it, this could be considerably difficult.  In this case, I would recommend using web analytics to look at what URL’s most traffic to the site comes through, and focus on fixing the high-traffic URL’s…the other ones can probably be left alone with minimal loss.
  • Make any broken pages that do not redirect, return a custom 404 error page, with a 404 HTML status code instead of the 200 “found” code currently returned.
  • Fix the search box on the broken pages.
  • Check robots.txt to see if there are any problems with the descriptions and with the crawlability of key pages on the site.  Depending on how the site is designed, this problem may fix itself if the other problems are fixed, or it may require a special fix.

Lastly, I recommend Bigelow to take a long, hard look at their web design team or whatever company they contracted with.  The site, in my opinion, looks beautiful, and is easy to navigate, so clearly this company is doing a lot of things right.  My own visual web design skills can be pretty miserable, so I want to make completely clear that this post and these remarks are not in any way intended as a put-down to the web design team.  We all have our strengths and weaknesses…and clearly the visual design and usability of the Bigelow site far exceeds my own web design ability.

But the errors outlined here are huge oversights in the realm of SEO and web marketing, which is something that I think I’ve learned a lot about over the past 5 years or so working with RateTea.  Ideally, the employees or company that carried out the redesign will not only fix the problems, but will learn from their mistakes, and grow as web designers.

If I had hired a company to redesign a website, and they made oversights like this, I’d prod them gently to fix the problem for free.  If I made such an oversight, as a web developer, I’d be going above and beyond to fix things ASAP, in order to show that I was committed to the highest level of quality.

What Do You Think?

What do you think of the topics covered here?

  • How do you feel about it when companies redesign their websites and break their URL scheme without using redirects?
  • How much do you think the oversights and errors here will harm Bigelow?  Do you think that they will quickly recover even without fixing the technical issues?
  • How big a difference do you think it would make for Bigelow if they swiftly and thoroughly addressed the technical and web marketing issues I raised here?

How Not To Do An April Fool’s Joke

April fool’s passed this year, and in case any of you noticed, there were no april fools pranks on RateTea or any of my tea blogs.  I did prank one of my birder friends, claiming to have seen both a LeConte’s sparrow and a Henslow’s Sparrow in a Philadelphia city park (she believed me!).

LeConte's sparrows in habitat
LeConte’s sparrow, a very unusual, but possible species here in Philadelphia. A good example of about how esoteric something needs to be to make a good April Fool’s joke.  Photos from the Crossley ID Guide to Eastern Birds by Richard Crossley, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

But there was no big RateTea prank this year, nor last year, like the 2012 Teavana Buyout of RateTea April Fools Prank.

The Best And The Worst April Fool’s Joke

My 2012 fake post about RateTea being bought out by Teavana was simultaneously the best and worst April Fool’s joke I’ve ever pulled off.  It was the best, in that I “got” more people than I’ve ever gotten before, with the prank.  But it wasn’t necessarily the best, because it may have caused RateTea some harm.

To understand why it could have done some harm, I first need to explain why it was such a “good” joke, why I tricked so many people.  The main reason was due to a basic fact that happens on the internet with nearly every blog post or news article: many people read the headline, but most people didn’t read the post.

I don’t know exactly how many people read the headline, but my best guess is that it was in the thousands, possibly tens of thousands, because the post itself got about 250 views, and click-through-rates on articles as low as 1% are quite common…so it is very likely that as many as 25,000 or more people saw the headline.  Most of these people formed a mental association, taking note: “Oh, RateTea was bought out by Teavana.”

Years later, I’m still talking to people who saw that headline, didn’t read the post, and still believe that RateTea was bought out by Teavana.  These people include old friends and acquaintances, people I haven’t kept in touch with, but who loosely keep in touch in the sense of occasionally scanning my Facebook posts.  These people also include people in the tea industry.  At the Philadelphia Coffee and Tea Festival this year, and at World Tea East last year, I encountered numerous tea people who also had been tricked by that April Fool’s joke.

How could this hurt me?  Because many people don’t like Teavana.

One thing that I found interesting was that many people reacted positively when they learned that my post had been a joke.  People also expressed a greater desire to work together with me, after learning that I still owned and managed RateTea.

A large Teavana sign over the New York Stock Exchange
Teavana is a big corporation, which many people don’t have the most favorable impression of.  Photo by David Shankbone, licensed under CC BY 3.0.

I’ve heard numerous people complain about Teavana, on many different grounds.  Most people who have set foot in a brick-and-mortar Teavana store have experienced their pushy sales tactics first hand.  Yes, I’ve been to that exact store, in Willow Grove, PA, referenced in that post; it’s quite near where I live.  But then there is also the buying out and closing down of SpecialTeas (one of my friends, a former loyal SpecialTeas customer, is still shopping around to replace some of the products he used to buy from SpecialTeas), and there’s the general issue of being overpriced, something that nearly all tea connoisseurs seem to agree on.

And then there’s just the question of Teavana’s size.  I get the sense that, all other things equal, people prefer to work with smaller companies.  A lot of businesspeople I know have expressed that working with big corporations can involve a lot of headaches, roadblocks, and hoops to jump through, and the payoffs aren’t always worth it.  And people like to work with people with whom they have a personal connection.

Some Positive Takeaways Too

The impact of this prank was certainly not strictly negative–there may also be some ways that I have benefited by people falsely believing about the Teavana-RateTea buyout.  I think there is a degree to which people may reason: “If this site is big enough to be bought out by Teavana, it must have a certain degree of influence and importance.” and this impression could certainly benefit RateTea.

And of course, there’s also the inspiration and boost in my confidence, just knowing that so many people could believe that the site was bought out by Teavana–which confirms to me that most people now have an impression of RateTea being big and influential enough to be bought out by a company like Teavana.  That makes me feel good, at least, and provides some additional encouragement to keep working on the site.

Lessons Learned?

In the past few years, I’ve come to learn a lot about how the internet works, and also, how to pull off a really great April fool’s joke.  Next time I get people on this large a scale, I want to be more careful.

I want to pick a headline, an idea, which will cause only good to come, and do no harm, not to me or to anyone, if people are tricked into believing it.

What do you think?

  • Are you one of the people who I tricked with the April fool’s prank about RateTea being bought out by Teavana?
  • Have you ever pulled off an April fool’s prank that you think inadvertently caused some harm by people believing your joke?
  • How do you feel about Teavana as a company, vs. RateTea?  Regardless of whether or not you knew about the original prank, do you think that you’d be any more or less eager to work together with RateTea, knowing that I still own and manage the site, and not Teavana or some other bigger corporation?

Lipton Improving the Visual Design of Their Packaging for Pyramid Sachets

It is common for brands to change their packaging.  As I run RateTea and work to keep the site up-to-date, I frequently notice changes in packaging.  Most of them are changes I see as improvements, some are ones I see as neutral, and sometimes I see changes that I actually dislike.

I want to highlight an aesthetic change that I particularly like.  Unfortunately I just have the thumbnails of the old image, so I’ll show it together with an equal-sized thumbnail of the new packaging.  Click through to Lipton’s site to see a full resolution image.  The tea I am focusing on as an example is Lipton’s Mandarin Orange Green Tea, part of Lipton’s line of pyramid sachets.  Lipton changed the packaging on both their flat tea bags and pyramid sachets, but it’s the pyramid sachets that I think exhibit the most noticeable improvement.

The old packaging:

A green box of Lipton pyramid tea sachets
Old Packaging

The new packaging:

New Packaging
New Packaging

I think the new packaging looks a lot better.  I think it looks warmer, and I also think that it looks more professional.  At a glance, I think the new packaging really strikes me as having the look-and-feel of a high-end brand, whereas the old packaging looked more like a typical supermarket brand.

Notice that instead of the small, scattered Mandarin oranges in the top graphic, there is instead a closeup of a lucious, juicy-looking mandarin orange.  I find this much more enticing.  I especially like the beige color at the top of the new packaging.  I think that this, combined with the closeup of the orange, creates a warmer color-scheme.  I also like the change of green-on-white lettering to white-on-green lettering for the tea’s name.

Also, note that the pyramid bag in the bottom picture now shows the leaf floating upwards, almost as if the tea is in the process of being steeped.  I think this is subtle but smart–it is an illustration of the primary benefit of the pyramid sachet, the fact that it gives the leaf room to expand.  Also note how the bottom package, which shows the pyramid sachet overlapping two layers of distinct color, illustrates the transparency of the sachet more powerfully than the old packaging.

In the end though, packaging isn’t very important to me.  I notice it, and I may use it to make an initial guess about a new brand with which I’m unfamiliar, but in the end I care most about how the tea tastes, its price, and its sustainability.  I suspect packaging makes less of a difference in whether or not I buy a tea, than it does for the typical person.  I definitely notice and pay attention to the packaging, but I also go out of my way to sample a wide range of teas, and choose what to drink on the basis of the tea itself.

What do you think?

  • Do you like the new packaging on this Lipton tea more than the old one?
  • Have you noticed any other brands of tea changing their packaging recently?  Did you have an opinion on the change?
  • How important is packaging to you?  Do you think it makes a big difference?

Cafes Mixing Tea Brands or Suppliers – Velvet Sky Bakery And Other Examples

Today I’m writing from Velvet Sky Bakery and Cafe in Jenkintown, PA. Velvet Sky has been open as a bakery (specializing in cakes and cupcakes) for some time, but it only opened up its cafe this summer. I absolutely love the cafe, which is located in the heart of downtown Jenkintown.

They seem to have just about everything pinned down.  It’s cute, comfy, has delightful baked goods, and, unlike most cafes, they serve fantastic loose-leaf tea.  There is also free and reliable Wi-Fi.  And the employees and owners are super nice.

The counter at Velvet Sky's Cafe
The counter at Velvet Sky’s Cafe

I’m super excited to see any cafe serving high-quality loose-leaf tea.  One thing that particularly stands out to me is that this company has decided to mix up their suppliers.  For one, the tea and coffee are totally separate–they serve Counter Culture Coffee, a company that doesn’t deal in tea at all.  Most of their teas are supplied by Octavia Tea, but they also currently have a decaf tea from Republic of Tea, and they use Adagio Tea’s Ingenuitea infuser to brew their teas.  They also recently placed an order with Rishi Tea at my recommendation.

The way tea is served here allows customers to control the steeping time if they want, and it also allows you to make multiple infusions of your tea leaf.

Adagio's IngenuiTEA infuser, in use at Velvet Sky
Adagio’s IngenuiTEA infuser, in use at Velvet Sky

Mixing and Matching Brands of Tea and Suppliers

I have noticed that a majority of restaurants and cafes stick with a single brand or supplier of tea, but I don’t think this necessary makes sense as a business decision.  It makes sense in terms of simplifying things, to a degree, but I also think that it limits your choices.

Having sampled hundreds of teas now, I can say with great confidence that different tea companies have different strengths.  If you find a tea company that excels at one particular type of tea, it’s likely that there are other teas your customers might enjoy that that company does not excel at.  I especially think this is true of companies that specialize in coffee–a lot of coffee shops use the same supplier for tea and coffee, and this is rarely a good idea, as the companies that are best at tea are usually not the companies best at coffee.

If you want to be the best you can be, as a restaurant or cafe serving tea, and you want to have more than a small, specialized selection, you may wish to consider buying from different companies or brands–especially separating your coffee and tea, but perhaps even using more than one source of tea.

Some suppliers may provide a mild pressure for you to buy everything from them.  I recommend resisting this sort of pressure; just because a company does an outstanding job in one area doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best choice to supply all your needs.  If a company offers tea, you can always ask to sample it and then sample a bunch of other options too, and then make your choice.

Another Example of More Than One Tea Brand: Cafe Clave in West Philadelpia

Velvet Sky is hardly the only example of a cafe using more than one tea supplier; one of my old favorite cafes in West Philly, Cafe Clave, which unfortunately closed due to reasons unrelated to the businesses’ success, also combined brands.  Cafe Clave primarily sold Novus Tea in tea bags, but for their chai, they made a house blend which was a secret proprietary blend of loose-leaf Ahmad Tea and Caykur-brand Turkish Tea.  You can read about their masala chai in this post on my old tea blog; it was a delightful blend that went heavy on the anise and cardamom, giving it a unique signature that, unfortunately, I may never be able to replicate again.

A Customer’s Perspective

I’m hardly a typical customer, due to my connections to the tea industry through my work on RateTea, but I do fill the role of customer in a cafe more than an insider.  I can’t speak for everyone, but I will say that when I see a company that shows evidence of an intelligent mixing-and-matching of brands.

For example, the now-closed Phoenix Coffee shop in Lakewood, Ohio, used to use two separate suppliers for their true teas and for their herbal teas.  The true teas were sold by a company that did coffee and tea, but the herbal teas were provided by a local woman who mixed her own herbal blends, many of which contained locally-grown ingredients.  The herbal teas were fantastic!

Phoenix Coffee in Cleveland; I miss these folks and this cafe, which sold loose-leaf teas and herbal teas from two different suppliers.
Phoenix Coffee in Cleveland; I miss these folks and this cafe, which sold loose-leaf teas and herbal teas from two different suppliers.

A company can take it too far though; there’s one cafe in center city Philadelphia that has so many different brands of boxed tea bags that I can’t even count them, and they don’t seem to be selected for quality.  I’d rather a coffee shop or cafe stick with a single, high-quality brand of tea, rather than including variety for its own sake.

What do you think?

  • What do you think of the idea of mixing and matching brands or suppliers of tea for a cafe or other business?  How far would you take it?  At what point do the costs or inconveniences start outweighing the benefits?
  • Do you know of any brands or suppliers of tea and coffee that truly do an outstanding job of both?
  • If you live anywhere near Jenkintown, do you know of Velvet Sky?  Have you ever been there?
  • How do you perceive the mixing and matching of brands of tea when you are a customer in a cafe?  Where do you draw the line between an unprofessional-looking mishmash, and a carefully-chosen combination?

Tea Horse and More Yaupon: The Price of Yaupon vs. Yerba Mate

I’ve received some samples recently from some new companies that I had never even heard of a few weeks ago.  One of them is a UK-based company, Tea Horse.  Although the company mainly does business in the UK, they were nice enough to ship me samples of three of their loose-leaf teas, which I’ve already reviewed on RateTea.  Tea Horse offers subscriptions, which is something that doesn’t appeal to me as I’m not really able to predict the rate at which I use up tea, but they do also have a regular online tea store.  I am super impressed with the quality of the samples I’ve received from them though.

You can read the reviews of Tea Horse’s teas on RateTea; so far Sylvia and I have both reviewed them.  I think it says a lot when both of us like a company’s teas–our tastes are so widely different (she always drinks her tea with cream and sugar, and I never add sugar and only very rarely add milk), and I’ve noticed that in the past, when we both consider a tea top-notch, it seems to have nearly universal appeal.

Another Domestic Yaupon Producer

Another surprise has been that I’ve been contacted by a third producer of Yaupon.  This one is called Cat Spring Yaupon Tea, and is named after the town of Cat Spring, Texas, a town between Austin and Houston where the company is based and where their Yaupon is grown.  I have brewed up a single cup of the dark-roast Yaupon, which was my first experience with this caffeinated drink.

On the Business and Price of Yaupon

I think domestic Yaupon production is a great idea, but so far, I have made one really sad observation about it: it is very expensive.  Very expensive as in all three domestic producers that I’ve located are selling it for about the same ballpark price, which is around $10-$12 for 10-15 tea bags.

At this price, I think there are two possible ways these products can be viable: if it’s really, really amazingly good, like mind-blowingly good, like something I’d rate 90/100 or above on RateTea…or as a novelty product.

As this is a new, very young business, even before trying any samples, I thought it’s unlikely that any of these businesses would break into the “mind blowingly good” category, and it’s sort of sad for me to conclude that these businesses will only really be able to survive as a novelty product.

Yaupon, from the cup I’ve tried, tastes a lot like Guayusa and Yerba mate, and Yerba mate in particular is very cheap.  I  just saw some for sale in a little convenience store in Baltimore, for the price of $7 a pound.  This price is pretty typical…I’ve seen organic certified Yerba Mate for only slightly more expensive than this.  When there’s this big a disparity in price, it just makes me sad.

I understand that there are factors of economics that lead to price disparities, but I don’t think this disparity alone can explain the difference in price.  According to the World Bank data in this list, Paraguay had a 2012 per-capita GDP of $6,138, whereas the US’s was $49,965.  That’s a factor of about 8.  That’s actually much smaller than the disparity in price between the Yaupon producers.  This makes me think that these companies might be able to lower their costs and prices substantially, and thus develop a more viable business plan.

What do you think?

  • Have you heard of the company Tea Horse?  Have you tried any of their teas?
  • What do you think of companies offering subscription services?
  • Have you ever tried Yaupon?
  • What do you think of the price of Yaupon, vs. the price of Yerba Mate?

Trader Joe’s Tea Selection – Still Not There Yet

About a year and a half ago, I wrote about Trader Joe’s tea on my old tea blog.

I shop regularly, but infrequently at Trader Joe’s, mainly picking up items like canned clams, bulk bags of raw nuts, and cheese.  There are some things I absolutely love about Trader Joe’s: many of the products I like most (and buy most) are ones that I think offer exceptional value, combining low price with consistently high quality.

Some of the cheeses cost almost half what I’d expect to pay for a cheese of similar quality: there’s a New Zealand grass-fed cheddar for around $5 a pound, and for closer to $4 you can get domestic cheddars that far surpass the quality I have been able to find in a typical supermarket.  And there are other little details that keep me coming back…the 500 gram bar of 70% dark chocolate for under $5, jars of Kalamata olives that taste great and are really cheap, $1 CLIF bars.  I even like some of their packaged bread.

A decent company, treating their employees well

In addition to this, I have a decent feeling about Trader Joe’s as a corporation: I’ve known many people who have worked there and they have all told me that the company treats their employees well.

Weaknesses of Trader Joe’s

In other areas though, Trader Joe’s really falls short.  Their seafood selection is not the most sustainable, as assessed by my looking up of their offerings on the Seafood Watch website.  And I’m not a huge fan of their produce, although they sometimes have things I think are worth buying.  And tea is yet another part of the store where their selection just doesn’t do it for me:

The tea selection at my local Trader Joe's
The tea selection at my local Trader Joe’s

The selection changes somewhat over time, but the gist of it has stayed the same since I discovered this chain back around 2006.  The tea is all cheap, for what it is, $2 for a box of teabags that would probably cost closer to $3 in a typical supermarket, but the problem is what it is: low-quality tea in tea bags.  There is no loose-leaf tea, and there isn’t any tea that I would consider high-quality artisan tea.  As much as I prefer loose tea, there are some very good brands of high-quality, whole-leaf or at least larger-broken-leaf tea in sachets, including Two Leaves Tea, Novus Tea, or even predominately loose-leaf brands like Rishi or Adagio.

Brands I’d prefer to the selection offered

Even if Trader Joe’s were going to stick with basic tea bags, I think they could do better.  In my old post, I recommended Ten Ren, Foojoy, Harney and Sons, and Jacksons of Piccadilly as companies that offer much higher-quality tea bags than anything I’ve ever tried from Trader Joe’s.  Ten Ren and Foojoy really stand out as their prices are competitive with Trader Joe’s teas, suggesting Trader Joe’s could stock them as-is.

And can’t they sell at least one loose tea?  Even most supermarkets have something, maybe Lipton’s loose black tea or Twinings Earl Grey.

What do you think?

  • Do you ever shop at Trader Joe’s?  How do you feel about the chain as a whole?
  • If you’ve tried it, do you like the tea in Trader Joe’s?
  • Would you like Trader Joe’s to stock loose tea?
  • What do you think of my recommendations of the brands that I think are superior (both in terms of quality and value) to what Trader Joe’s offers?  Do you agree?  Or would you have a different perspective on what brands might be a better choice?

Cold-Brewing Darjeeling First Flush for Iced Tea

In my last post, I introduced Happy Earth Tea, which recently sent me four samples of Darjeeling  First Flush, which I have now all sampled, but still not yet reviewed.  One of the things though that I tried with one of these samples, the tea from Puttabong estate, was cold brewing.  Niraj Lama contacted me shortly after I wrote my blog post on Teacology on brewing iced tea to minimize energy usage; in that post I had mentioned cold brewing, and mentioned that I hadn’t had much luck with it.  Niraj Lama urged me to try out cold brewing, with his teas.

There’s a great post on the Happy Earth Tea website, cold brewing Darjeeling: heaven in a cup, which gave a method that I more-or-less followed, although with a slightly longer steeping time than recommended.  The method is very simple:

  • Put one teaspoon of tea per cup in cold water
  • Put it in the refrigerator and let sit for 6 hours
  • Strain and drink

How did the tea turn out?

It turned out wonderful!  I have to admit, I was very pleasantly surprised: this was the first time I’ve had cold brewing work out well for me, and the results were, as I like to say, absolutely exquisite:

A cup of light golden tea on a windowsill
Cold brewing the Darjeeling first flush from Happy Earth Tea yielded a beautiful, pale golden cup with an intense floral fragrance.

I used a slightly greater than 8 hour steeping time, and one teaspoon of leaf, to brew the single cup of iced tea pictured above.  I did not add any ice, but I did drink the tea chilled to the temperature of my refrigerator.

The resulting cup was intensely fragrant, but the experience of drinking it, especially the experience of the aroma, was very different from that of drinking a cup of hot tea.  I normally think of high-quality Darjeeling first flush as an intensely fragrant tea, with a somewhat fleeting, transient aroma.  Something about chilling the tea seemed to hold the aroma in the cup itself: there wasn’t much smell when I raised the cup to drink it, but upon sipping it, the aroma developed in my mouth, and the lingering aroma after finishing a sip was stronger than when actually tasting the tea.

The aroma was pretty similar to that of the hot tea: just about all the tones and nuances were there, but they seemed to emerge at different times.

One thing I did notice was that the flavor was made significantly bolder and more concentrated, and I think the effect of steeping for a very long time also concentrated the caffeine.  High-grade, tippy Darjeeling tea tends to be pretty high in caffeine to begin with, and steeping it as I did here resulted in a strongly caffeinated cup–deceptively strong relative to the light color and mild flavor.  In this sense, it almost resembled some silver needle, although the aroma was very different.

More commentary on the cold brewing method:

I also find it interesting that the post on Happy Earth’s site mentions that the usual brew-hot-then-chill method did not produce very good results with first flush.  I’ve never tried making iced tea from Darjeeling first flush, and I rarely make it from any sort of Darjeeling, so I can’t verify running into the same problem.  I do notice that the brew-hot-then-chill method tends to result in a cloudy cup (see the picture in this post), but I don’t notice any negative impact on flavor, and quite to the contrary, it’s tended to result in better flavor than my attempts at cold brewing.

I have a strong hunch or intuition that the cold brewing method used here would work best with high-grade teas, and that the brew-hot-then-chill method would work best with lower-to-mid-grade teas, anything short of the top-grade artisan teas, because these teas probably have more bitterness or astringency that would escape in the very long-term brewing.

What do you think?

  • Have you ever cold-brewed a high-grade Darjeeling first flush tea?  If not, would this post convince you to try it out?
  • Do you think there’s a relationship between the cloudiness resulting from the brew-hot-then-chill approach to iced tea, and a change in flavor?
  • Do you think my intuition about these methods working differently based on the grade and quality of the tea is correct?  Does it fit with your own experience or knowledge?

Happy Earth Tea – Samples from a New or Reborn Tea Company, Focused on Darjeeling

This week I received some samples of Darjeeling first flush from Happy Earth Tea, a new tea company run by Niraj Lama and his wife.  The samples are outstanding; all are top grades of single-estate first flush teas with a very green character, the sorts of teas I tend to like very much.  Happy Earth Tea is a continuation of the former tea company Darjeeling Tea Exclusive, which was based in India.  The new company is based in the U.S. and not only continues the spirit of the old one, but has added some teas from other regions to their lineup.

Screenshot of Happy Earth Tea's website
Happy Earth Tea has a clean and easy to navigate website with beautiful photos of the tea.

Stay tuned for reviews, which I will post on RateTea as I sample the teas.  I actually have tried all of the samples already, but not fully written the reviews.  I typically like to sample each tea multiple times before I review them, so that I can comment on brewing techniques and also get perspective on how I experience and enjoy the teas in different settings.

How about you?

  • Were you aware of Happy Earth Tea before reading this post?
  • Have you tried any of their teas, or any of the teas from the old company Darjeeling Tea Exclusive?
  • Do you also like to sample a tea multiple times before writing about it online?

Iced Ahmad Tea, Karen Flam, Tea vs. Beer, and Starbucks/Tazo

It was quite hot yesterday and today, and I made up my first batch of iced tea of the season, and I’m drinking the last cup of it, pictured here on my windowsill.  It was raining as I took this pic.

A cup of cloudy iced tea on a windowsill
Iced tea, brewed from Ahmad Tea’s loose-leaf Ceylon tea

This was brewed from the regular loose-leaf ceylon tea from Ahmad Tea.  It came out quite cloudy, and almost pinkish in hue–I found it quite aesthetically pleasing.  I brewed it on the mild side so I could drink it in quantity, but this tea I usually prefer to brew strong when I’m drinking it hot.   If I had to be stuck with a single black tea to drink, this would probably be one of the contenders for my pick.  It certainly helps that it’s priced at around $8 a pound–and this tea offers exceptional quality for this price range.  It tastes good hot or iced, and has a good balance of strength and complexity, with a rich malty quality and the wintergreen tones that I so love in black tea.  You can read my full review on RateTea.

I started thinking about writing a post for Teacology on energy efficiency in brewing iced tea.  RateTea’s page on iced tea has a little section on this, but I want to go into more depth.  So stay tuned for that.

Meeting A New Tea Reviewer: Karen Flam

In other news, I recently met up with Karen Flam, who runs the Aromatherapy Alliance.  Karen, a.k.a. spaflam, started out reviewing teas with a big splash, shooting up to the #5 spot on RateTea’s top reviewers page after only a few weeks.  Will she be the first one to overtake me on the site, in terms of number of teas rated?  I don’t know, but if she continues at the rate that she has been, I won’t be in that #1 spot for very long!

I love meeting up with people in person; most of the people I interact with through RateTea live rather far away, so it’s refreshing to find people local enough that we can meet face-to-face outside of big events like World Tea East.

More on Reviews: Beer vs. Tea

It’ exciting to connect with other people who love reviewing things online.  I dream of a day when RateTea will look like the RateBeer 100 Beer Club.  123 users who have rated over 5000 beers!  Wow!  I wish people would get that excited about tea.  I know I am much more enthusiastic about rating tea than beer, so the disparate level of enthusiasm between tea and beer has been a bit unintuitive to me, especially given that it seems people are much more likely to drink tea than beer when at a computer and in a state of mind where they’re eager to write up an online review.  But as my mother pointed out–“the types of people who like beer are more the types of people who like rating things, like think of the guys who rate women on their looks”.  Ahh…not exactly the most pretty mental picture…but perhaps there’s some truth in it, which would explain both why there’s been a little less interest in tea rating, as well as why my intuition for why there is less interest may be a bit off.

But I’m happy for what I have–RateTea’s participation and the reviews have been steadily growing.

More Reviews

Stay tuned for some new reviews from me.  I’ve been sampling some teas from TeaVivre, and they’re pretty top-notch.  This tea was amazing.  And there are two more that are top-notch.  I want to brew them a bit more before I write up the final reviews, but there’s a Lu An Gua Pian that’s the best example of it’s style that I’ve ever tried, and some other outstanding green teas as well.

Tazo: Tea Bags (Filterbags) vs. Sachets (Full Leaf)

I’ve also begun breaking apart Tazo’s offerings into the tea bags (which they call “filterbags”, awkwardly IMHO) and sachets (which they call “full leaf”, a term I have a bit of beef with)…and I’ve begun reviewing them separately.  Yes, Tazo still offers both of these lines of tea separately, although you’ll only find the “full leaf” sachets in Starbucks coffee shops.  And in case you missed it, Tazo finally did away with their flash-only website.  Check out the new Tazo site.  I love it; I think this is an immense improvement and will go a long way to helping Tazo’s online presence:

Screenshot of the new Tazo website
Tazo finally abandoned their old flash-only website, and has a fully-functional, standard website. Yay!

What do you think?

  • Any thoughts on the beer rating vs. tea rating topic?
  • How do you feel about Tazo’s naming scheme fol their tea bags vs. their sachets?  What about the quality of these teas?  And do you like their new website?

Whole Leaf Tea, Immaculate Leaf, and Tea Companies Without Websites

I just published a new article on Whole Leaf Tea or Full Leaf Tea, on RateTea.  The article hits on several points, including the lack of a precise legal definition of whole leaf tea or full leaf tea, and how the term is often casually applied to larger broken leaf tea, and on the advantages (and possible downsides) of whole leaf.

Screenshot of the RateTea article on whole leaf tea

Tangentially related, I want to highlight a company that gave me some samples of outstanding whole leaf oolong tea, at World Tea East.  I’ve held off on posting reviews because the company’s website has been incomplete, but this may be a case of a company for which the website is not very important.  There’s an email, and if you’re looking for a supplier, contact info is all you need.

This company is Immaculate Leaf.  Their green Taiwanese oolongs are among some of the best I’ve ever sampled.  If you’re looking for a wholesaler supplier of top-notch Taiwanese oolongs, I’d recommend getting in touch with these people.  Their website has been “coming soon” for months now, which may signify that they haven’t pulled their business fully together yet, but it could also signify that they don’t particularly need the websites.  I put off posting about them for months, waiting for their website to be completed, but I finally decided that it’s more important for me to write about them while my impression of their teas is still fresh in my mind.

Can Tea Companies Get By Without Websites?

Although we are solidly in the information age, there are still many successful business out there that either have poor or incomplete websites, or no websites at all, simply because their marketing strategy is completely successful without a website.

To give another example of a successful tea company that has a broken or under construction website, check out Jacksons of Piccadilly.  This company’s website has been incomplete or under construction for at least three and a half years; it looks the same now as it did when I founded RateTea back in 2009.  Jacksons of Piccadilly is a UK based company that impressed me with the quality of one of their Darjeeling tea bags that I picked up in a discount market years ago in Delaware: the tea bag was stuffed with generous quantities of leaf, with a highly heterogeneous color tending towards the greener end of the spectrum, like a lot of good first flush teas.  It had all the qualities I love in Darjeeling, a complex aroma with a greener character overall, but a lot of bite to it too.  This company is, to my knowledge, still in existence.  Its teas have never been easy to get your hands on in the U.S., but there are a number of online UK-based retailers that sell their teas.

What do you think?

  • What do you think about the article on whole leaf tea?
  • Have you ever tried anything from Immaculate Leaf?  Did you have an opportunity to sample their teas at World Tea East?
  • How many businesses can you think up which don’t have a website or have an incomplete website?  Do you know of any tea companies like this?