Published July 1, 2007. From Cook's Illustrated.
Do upscale brands and higher price tags translate into a better cup of tea?
In our 2003 tasting of supermarket black teas, the test kitchen preferred Lipton, but we really weren’t that impressed with any of them. Recently, tea companies have created many more options, including what they present as higher-quality offerings in the form of loose leaves, special blends, or new pyramid-shaped tea bags. We decided it’s time to find out if the supermarket has the makings of a great cup of tea.
While you can find black, green, and even white tea on the shelves these days, it’s all from the same plant, an evergreen called Camellia sinensis. The color and flavor differences come from the way the tea leaves are processed. Because 87 percent of all tea drunk in America is black, we decided to focus our tasting on black teas. We bought the more “upscale” offerings distributed by national brands, all labeled simply black tea or English breakfast-type blends, a popular mix of black teas designed to stand up to the milk and sugar popular among the Brits. We chose loose tea when it was available and tea bags when it was not, including three teas that came in the new pyramid-shaped bags, which are touted as having more room for the tea to expand for better flavor. A panel of 20 tasters from our staff sampled 10 teas, both plain and with milk.
My Cup of Tea
An ideal cup of black tea should taste fresh, with no stale overtones, and should not taste burnt, though a smoky or earthy flavor is acceptable. It should not be yeasty or sour. It should have a pleasing aroma, a bright color, and a crisp rather than heavy flavor, with some of the astringency tea professionals call “briskness.” Black tea gets these characteristics from a number of factors, including where it is grown (cooler temperatures at higher elevations slow down the plant’s growth and let it build more flavor), when it is picked (the often-prized “first flush” is the earliest), how it is picked (by hand is considered better; machines can be rough and tear up older, tougher leaves in addition to the desired top two leaves and bud), and how it is processed.
When making black tea, processors let the harvested leaves wither for up to 24 hours, then roll or cut them. This breaks the cell walls and releases enzymes that oxidize to develop the tea’s flavor and color—in the case of black tea, turning the leaves black. Then they heat (or “fire”) the leaves to stop oxidation before drying them until they look like familiar dry tea. The leaves are then sold to tea companies, which generally blend tea from several sources, although really fine-quality leaves are often kept unblended as single-estate teas.
Our tasters began by assessing the tea samples’ aroma, followed by complexity of flavor, astringency, and overall appeal. Tasters’ scores for aroma most closely tracked with their overall ranking of the teas. Whenever the tea failed to deliver on that aromatic promise, however, our tasters downgraded it. Our tasters also preferred teas with smoother, less astringent profiles.
Matters of Taste
For our next test, we examined the leaves, opening up the tea bags as needed. The leaves varied in size and texture from half-inch twiglike pieces of tightly rolled leaves to tiny flakes no bigger than coarse coffee grounds. While tea aficionados will tell you that bigger is better when it comes to leaf size, we disagree. Our top two teas had the seventh- and sixth-smallest leaves, respectively, out of the 10 teas we tasted. “While a larger leaf may give you more complexity of flavor, you always have to judge by what you taste in the cup,” said Donna Fellman of the Specialty Tea Institute in New York.
In the plain tasting, our two highest-ranked teas were from British companies: Twinings English Breakfast (a loose tea) and PG Tips (in pyramid bags). These teas offered strong, bright flavor with just a little astringency—the balance that our tasters liked best without milk.
We had one more experiment. All three teas in pyramid-shaped bags had shown well, and the teas in traditional bags performed poorly. We decided to see if it was the bag or the tea by taking tea out of two traditional bags and brewing it instead in T-Sacs, fill-it-yourself paper bags with gusseted bottoms that give them a shape similar to the pyramid bag’s. Regular Lipton tea still failed to impress tasters, but removed from its disk-shaped bag, Tetley performed much better. Evidently, the roomier pyramid bags (or T-Sacs) helped. Finally, better flavor didn’t mean higher prices. While the teas in our lineup ranged from $.38 to $3.99 per ounce, our top two teas were $1.41 and $.47 per ounce.
Surprisingly, when we tried the teas again with milk, the results were nearly the opposite. Tea gets its astringency from tannic substances called catechins. Tasted plain, the teas that tasters rated lowest for astringency and highest for complexity of flavor rose in the rankings. When milk was added, teas deemed too harsh became quite palatable, and those that were smoother but less robustly flavored sank in our tasters’ estimation.
There’s a chemical explanation for this: Proteins in the milk called caseins bind with the tea’s catechins, taking the edge off the astringent effect on your palate. A little astringency is considered a good characteristic in a black tea. But too much turned off tasters, unless it was masked by milk. Tea drinkers among us were firm about our preference for always drinking tea with—or without—milk. So we decided to present the top-ranked teas in each tasting and let you focus on the section that applies to the way you drink your tea.