Spirit Tea

Earth Humanity Heaven

An uncommon selection of handmade teas, each reflecting a unique moment in space and time.

Filtering by Tag: flavored tea

Killing Earl Grey

At S P I R I T, we often disparage the perfectly normal tea types that happen to lie outside of our ethos. Flavored teas, teas that are blends with non-tea ingredients and even (for a different reason) scented teas. Most major tea companies make their millions selling just what I've described. But few titles escape the fury of our lips so often as Earl Grey.

Most of its legend is nonsense. And, for what it's worth, orientalist. According to the most popular legend, white savior Charles, 2nd Earl Grey, saved a hapless mandarin's son from drowning during his time in China. The mandarin was so grateful that he sent a shipload of black tea to England, blended with Bergamot for flavor and preservation in the long overseas voyage. In addition to the fact that Charles Grey never went to China, bergamot doesn't grow in China and a mandarin would never have the financial resources to charter a trade ship to England—the whole story reeks of Western exceptionalism.

And if you've ever seen an actual bergamot in your life or even know what one is, I commend you. The worst part of earl grey is, it is always artificial. Unfortunately, someone didn't just juice fresh bergamot over your tea leaves. That was done with chemical oils.  Most tea companies use these chemical additives which come in giant plastic containers with warning labels printed over the sides. When a little oil leaks over the lid it stains the label and the plastic permanently. 

Some of these companies have labeled it "Natural Earl Grey flavor" or "Natural Bergamot flavor" but nothing could be more misleading or untrue. 

So when most people taste black teas like our Qi Lan, which we've affectionately dubbed "true earl grey", which express strong citrus character—without the aid of chemicals or flavorings, only the natural beauty of the leaf and the land and people behind it—people either find it "light" (compared to the lab engineered synthetic flavoring they're accustomed to) or are amazed to learn that the leaf can possess such naturally beautiful characteristics. Tasting and appreciating a leaf for its simple, understated beauties is a process that takes patience. 

As you can see, we get a little irked when it comes to public lies of the tea industry like this. Not just because it hurts our young business, but because we believe passionately in what we do—and that tea is first and foremost a story of the earth. 

But that's why we're here. To drink tea with you.

What's the Matter With Jasmine?

Nothing, if this is all you read.

So why doesn't Spirit carry any jasmine, osmanthus, orange blossom, magnolia (the list goes on and on) chrysanthemum or rose teas? In most coffee shops and groceries—scented are far and away the top movers in the green tea category. Almost every restaurant with a decent tea program carries a jasmine. The potential is huge—why not carry just one?

And actually, the craftsmanship behind great scented tea is no less intense than the craftsmanship behind many of our most beloved green and oolong styles—so it can't even be argued that they are lackluster or artificial (if done traditionally, many tea companies apply 'natural jasmine flavor' to low-grade tea leaves). 

Tea is very sensitive to its environment. It's what's called hygroscopic, meaning It readily absorbs smells and moisture from what it's exposed to. Any tea will, to an extent, absorb a bit of the ambience of its growing, plucking, cooking (if applicable), withering and drying environment—functioning as a sort of living memory of the leaf.

Using this to their advantage, producers of scented tea will expose tea leaves, usually by showering them in in the intended flower sometimes three, four or more times until the hygroscopic properties of the tea do their magic and the two tastes (of finished tea leaf and scenting) are inseparable. What you get is a delightful tea style with a vibrant yet balanced floral quality, in best cases—or a very, very loud flower taste half-masking mediocre, astringent tea, in most.

The latter is the reason why we insist on only unscented tea leaves. As you know, at Spirit we celebrate the qualities of the pure leaf above all else, this means no flavorings (artificial or 'natural) or blends with non-tea leaves. It also, for the moment, means no scented teas. We just launched a line of herbal blends (online soon!) but even these do not rely on the shortcut of flavoring, only the ingredients themselves.

The beauty of the tea leaf is its natural ability, perhaps better than any plant on earth, to sing with so many different aromas and flavors. Processing plays a part here, but a lot of it has to do simply with land, climate and seasonality. Many of these aromas are inherently floral—lilac, jasmine, rose—without the leaf being scented. Of course, if you were to scent these teas, say our Iron Goddess of Mercy Purple Peony, with Magnolia—all of its delicate honeysuckle nose and lingering rose finish would be completely lost under the loud, monochromatic note of the jasmine and likely many of the other distinct vegetal qualities it possesses would be muted. We want our drinkers to have the courage to discover the variegated, natural floral quality of the tea leaf, without other justifications.

As of today, we are the only Chicago tea company to offer no flavored teas. We are also the only Chicago tea company without scented teas. In this sense, we're one of the only tea companies in the nation to fill either of these categories. So we're probably out of our minds. But we have our mission, our ethos behind doing so.

This isn't to say that we're idealistically opposed to jasmine or hate companies that source scented teas. Quite the opposite. It's not out of the question that we eventually source an exemplary jasmine or floral-scented tea—a good business is a dialogue with its customers, not just one-track decisions.

So next time you're sipping our Silver Needle, sip slowly, listen to the tea, find those natural, vibrant florals and know that in the future scented teas are not out of the question at Spirit. For now, you have our answer.