Friday, August 2, 2013

Upton Tea: Alone at the top

The stunning leaf of Ceylon's New Vithanakande Estate

Yes this blog is called Coffee Contrarian, and what could be more contrary to coffee altogether than to post about tea? Really great tea is a lot rarer out there in the retail world than great coffee at this point. Take away the tea that isn't tea, by which I mean anything not made from pure camellia sinensis - i.e. herbal swill; 1000 varieties of flavored crap from Chai to Earl Grey; forget about tea bags which are to full leaf fresh tea what preground coffee in a 3# can is to a just-roasted seasonal microlot, then ditch the ready-to-drink stuff and X out the often years-old whole leaf sitting in jars at your local health food chain and you'll get a sense of just how rare real tea is.

I've been tasting teas comparatively since I was 10 years old (spending my allowance doing blind tastings of Lyons vs Twinning's back before I knew what a blind tasting was, and when those were the extent of premium teas available). Great tea has long vied with coffee for personal consumption, and I was also the tea buyer for Starbucks during what ended up being the last gasp of the whole leaf/real tea business there, before I was told to deep six the program (and long before they decided to buy Tazo).

At Starbucks the tea customers may have been relatively small in number, but they were not only passionate about their Hao Ya A Keemun,  malty Assam and Second Flush Darjeeling, they were also our most discriminating coffee customers. I noticed the same thing among employees, as the serious tasters among them found that tasting and drinking tea, with its lighter body and greater range and subtlety of flavors, was not only wonderful in itself but sharpened their coffee tasting skills. As the incomparable Jim Reynolds (then the buyer for both Starbucks and Peets) once said, "I only wish the customers knew our teas are even more special than our coffees."

When the axe fell on the tea program, Howard Schultz (who in his Il Giornale heyday once said, by way of excusing no teabags in his espresso bars, "if they want tea they can go to China") told me I could choose who to dump the pesky and vocal mail order tea customer base on. I told him I was just going to give the entire list to Peet's since they not only were committed to tea but also had better coffee than we did and that of course drew the response I was hoping for (i.e. a death stare and "no f*&^%ing way") so instead I turned over the list and our proprietary blend recipes to what was then a small mail order company whose quality and service I had come to admire. Their name was Upton Tea, and they were located in suburban Boston, dangerously close to the company that really had the best coffee at the time, George Howell's The Coffee Connection.

While Tazo, Republic of Tea and the other tea bag brands are top-of-mind at retail, Upton has long since become the dominant player in the only category that should matter to serious tea drinkers: fresh, current crop unadulterated teas from the best gardens. Unlike coffee where there's a plethora of good-to-great roasters and quality mail order, in tea Upton, especially since the demise of Special Teas (which was a distant second best even in their glory years) has no real competition in terms of selection, quality, price or service.

When you visit their web site you can peruse the teas by region and sort by most recent arrival, which is a hugely helpful feature. Their descriptions of the teas are reliably accurate, sober and fluff-free - something to treasure at a time when coffee descriptions seem to have been lifted from Wine Spectator and vice versa.

Upton sells only real, whole leaf tea - no tea bags - and they clearly pay a price for being purists. They're only open 4 days a week during the slow summer months and seem to operate with a small staff at all times, but their service is the best you will ever experience from a mail order company, with most orders packed to order and shipped within hours of your online order in packaging so good you'll never buy a tea tin again.

Now while tea stales far more gracefully than coffee I think that even fewer people have tasted fresh, new crop tea than coffee, so by all means try Upton's newest arrivals to get a sense of what fresh really means. My tastes in tea are those of a professional coffee taster, which is to say I generally go for complex, bold black teas with lots of aroma and backbone. Here are a few favorites for current drinking:

TD 45 Puttabong Second Flush Darjeeling, Muscatel: A one-off selection from a reliably superb Darjeeling producer. This particular lot is redolent of ripe peaches in the manner of the exquisite Formosa Oolongs of 20 years ago.

TA60 Assam Nahorhabi Estate GBOP Cl. Spl.: No one comes close to offering the range of top Assams that Upton does. This isn't the most expensive but it's a rip-roaring malty Assam of the highest quality. You may never feel the need for coffee again after tasting this lovely beast of a tea. Milk and sugar pretty much required.

Three Ceylons

While Darjeeling and Assam are, price-wise, the stars of the Indian subcontinent Ceylon is mostly thought of as a source for blending teas if it's thought of at all, but there's a range of impeccably-crafted orthodox production teas there that are second to none in quality while representing outstanding value. Try samples of these three to get a sense of what is possible:

TC57 Aislaby Estate: Classic Uva tea with a (to newcomers) startling natural minty freshness and the kind of tannic grip most people associate only with Assams. Reference-standard breakfast tea, with or without milk and sugar.

TC24 New Vithanakande FBOPF Ex. Spl.: There are two lots from this famous estate at Upton right now so pay attention to the lot number. This is the more expensive of the two, selling for roughly a Second Flush Darjeeling price but cheap for its quality. Open the bag and you'll get a huge hit of honeyed citrus that'll make you think you bought a flavored tea by mistake, but as you drink it there's no mistaking the natural origin of the flavors as they unfold. Magnificent stuff.

TC76 Lumbini FBOPF Ex. Spl.: Another famous estate but this is their "regular" quality (Upton has their top offering as well if you've got money to burn). Priced for everyday consumption this is the kind of "tea tea" that makes Ceylon the grand cru Costa Rican of the tea world: even, clean, balanced, consistent, flawless.

This is just a small sampling of things I'm enjoying at the moment. There are great China blacks (check out the Panyang Congous and Yunnans), the best first flush Darjeelings and much more worth your time, plus the best tea pots and accoutrements at bargain prices.