GREEN TEA ICE TEA
By john • • Jul 10th, 2004 • Category: Beverages, Columns
In recent years China has stepped up its distribution and promotion of green tea – which is only fair, as we in the West should be compensated for increasingly awful Jackie Chan movies. In fact, green tea is the newest Asian action star of the beverage world. Its flavour is powerful but also subtle, and its reputed health benefits range from cholesterol-fighting properties to headache relief to boosted immune functions. Green tea has a unique edge – the leaves of Camellia Sinensis are steamed, not fermented, a process which preserves the all-important polyphenol compounds. But the mass production of any type of tea can reduce therapeutic effects. So the question for consumers – for we thirsty, drink-guzzling patrons of corner store coolers – is one of value: How much green tea actually goes into those designer bottles? Can green tea survive North American tastes? Can Eastern magic triumph in a world of sugar?
Hoping – perhaps believing – that green tea’s special benefits include a miracle lose-weight-and- look-good-in-a-thong nutrient are this week’s expert judges: Toronto-based Esther Benaim, co-owner of Great Cooks cooking school and teashop/restaurant The Tea Spot; Peter Carruthers, CEO of Presidential Gourmet Fine Catering in Toronto; and peripatetic TV and film food stylist Johanna Weinstein, who has recently dined on roasted guinea pig in Peru. As always, space limitations prevent us from evaluating every brand in a given category; entries reflect the luck of the draw. Items are blind taste-tested and awarded between one and five stars.
Green herbal tea
20.82 fl oz, $2.39
Esther: There are two varieties of iced tea in the market right now: the traditional very sweet Nestea-like drink, which has become second nature to American consumers in particular, and the newer exotics that are pitched to a more upscale, health-conscious crowd. With green tea the territory is new and people don’t know what to expect. This brand is pale, sweet, not very fragrant, and doesn’t really stress the tea content. It’s not a very effective introduction!
Peter: Questions to ask are: where did they get their tea, and their water? This one starts off on the nose: you get the impression of fruit – pears maybe – like a light cider. But what I’m really getting is sweetness. Sugar and water. If someone gave Brand One to me without a label I’d say: this is not tea, it’s a kid’s drink.
Johanna: I agree – I’m reminded of Kool Aid more than I am of tea plantations. Brand One gives you a massive dose of sweetness. If you glugged this one down too quickly on a hot day you’d get a sugar headache. And it’s got a puzzling colour – there’s almost no green in this allegedly green tea, so you wouldn’t expect much of a flavour burst or any health benefits.
Brand One Total – FIVE STARS *****
lime green iced tea
473 ml, $1.99
Esther: I don’t know where they get that artificial lemon-lime additive – when this one entered the room my first thought was: has someone been using Lemon Pledge? Brand Two seems very distant from genuine tea. However I find it interesting that it contains an agreeable amount of sugar – they got that right. But my overriding conclusion is: it’s fake.
Peter: On the positive side, this brand has an absolutely beautiful pale colour; it’s got a Zen-like glow going for it. And I agree with Esther, the sweetness is balanced. But I don’t like to drink flavour substitutes – and I don’t think anyone says to themselves, ‘Wow, think I’ll reach for that thirst-quenching synthetic substance number 52.’ This brand feels like the product of a lab rather than a field.
Johanna: Okay, it’s pretty, but it also looks like the water you get when you first arrive at your summer house; I hope it doesn’t taste like it. Uh-oh – they’ve gone and stuck in bogus apple and citrus flavours. Would you know this beverage was tea unless someone told you? For me, the only way this beverage would satisfy my thirst is if it arrived at my table with a shot of vodka.
Brand Two Total – FOUR STARS ****
473 ml, $2.49
available in health and specialty stores
Esther: This is unsweetened tea, and it’s very much the real deal. But it might be rough going for some people, because it has a certain bitterness and rawness. Possibly there are some extra elements, such as ginseng or ginger. You could describe Brand Three as very hardcore.
TWO AND A HALF STARS**1/2
Peter: No fruitiness, no sugar, no frills. If you wanted to put a positive spin on this brand you could say that it is smoky and earthy, with a whiff of mushrooms – the negative interpretation would be: it’s moldy. This might be a genuine tea experience but I’m not sure it’s what consumers want. It’s like Woodstock – everybody got back to the land, but what about those dirty feet?
Johanna: This brand is certainly darker in colour, certainly more steeped looking. I can taste plenty of genuine tea, but it’s thedrawbacks of tea that are highlighted – the bitterness and the tannin. I’m sorry, I’ve got to trash this one. We dumped on the other brands for being too sweet, but this tea is too odd. It isn’t easy being green.
Brand Three Total – THREE AND A HALF STARS ***1/2
20 fl oz, $2.29
Esther: Now we’re getting close. This one has a sensible amount of sugar and an attractive aroma. I also like the amber colour, which gives it a touch of gold. However, it has to be said that balanced as this brand is, and nuanced as it is, it is simply a very good iced tea, and definitely not a green tea experience.
Peter: If someone served this tea to me in a restaurant, I wouldn’t send it back, but I would move very quickly on to the Scotch. Relative to all the others, Brand Four is the best. It hasn’t been infused with unnecessary distractions such as ginseng or fruit, and the tea flavour is front and centre. The balance is effective – I’m not finding too much sugar.
Johanna: The natural aroma made me hope that I might be entering the real tea zone at last, and I wasn’t too disappointed. The tea and the sweetness work nicely together, so I found Brand Four genuinely refreshing. But I agree with the consensus – the green jazz is missing. What you have here is a pleasant iced tea drink – unfortunately there’s none of that that fragrant, jasmine thing that is the hallmark of green tea.
THREE AND A HALF STARS***1/2
Brand Four Total – ELEVEN AND A HALF STARS ***********1/2
Results: Arizona won the highest honours – it’s the brand we’d give all the tea in China for. Sobe was deemed average, while Snapple was declared gorgeous but vacant. Honest Tea, which bravely tried to provide an authentic tea experience, seemed to have been manufactured by people with no taste buds – ergo, judges handed over remaining Honest Tea products to nearby coffee drinkers.
Off The Menu: For all the health hype surrounding green tea – that it’s a natural experience, that it’s packed full of disease busters – Shelf Life judges were struck by something else entirely. Discussion concentrated on packaging, and the heavy glass bottles that contain drinks of this type. Two points were raised: one, that it takes only seconds to chug down fifteen-odd ounces of fluid, but the bottle – or a can, or plastic – lives forever on a landfill. Two: handy, good-to-go green tea and like-minded beverages may be wholesome for humans, but they’re bad for the planet. A case in point is Arizona brand tea; although lovely on the inside, this product comes in a glass bottle wrapped in plastic, literally adding another layer to the problem. Panelists noted that in many European countries, container and collection laws are much more environmentally friendly. Still, what to do in the here and now? All things considered, Shelf Life will stick with a little water, a few leaves, and a teapot.