Taste test: black teas

Coffee will always be my favorite pick-me-up, but I was inspired by my recent trip to the UK to learn more about tea. I’ve had a long history with coffee, but my experience with tea has been pretty minimal. I drank stuff like Chinese restaurant tea, oolong tea, and jasmine tea growing up, but it wasn’t on a regular basis. Asians don’t typically add milk to hot tea (bubble tea is another story!), so when I first visited England at the age of 20, I accepted tea when offered but turned down milk. I got a lot of puzzled looks and was repeatedly asked, “are you SURE you don’t want milk?” Knowing what I know now, that was probably the English way of saying, “what’s wrong with you?!”

For my most recent trip to England, I was determined not to offend the entire country like I apparently did last time, so I decided that this was a great time to drink more tea, with milk this time! I collected 9 brands of tea in an effort to determine which I like best. Most of these teas are classified as English Breakfast teas, but there are a few exceptions (as noted). For these tea comparisons, I am using the following system and parameters, which I know are subject to some debate.

Step 1: Put teabag in cup.
Step 2: Pour boiling water (212 degrees Fahrenheit) on teabag.
Step 3: Let steep for 4 minutes.
Step 4: Remove teabag.
Step 5: Add a splash of milk (between 1/4 and 1/2 fluid ounce – I generally used the lesser amount unless the tea itself called for more). No sugar.
(I used lactose-free milk. I’ve experimented with alternative milks like almond and soy, but I just don’t think they taste right with tea.)

Barry’s Tea Gold Blend  

The lone Irish tea in the lineup, this is a tea I picked up from the “international” aisle of my local American grocery store.


Plain: Light bodied, with a pretty amber/golden color. Smells and tastes rather like Chinese restaurant tea. I could drink this all day.


+ Milk: Touch of chestnut flavor, with a lovely dry finish. Very good cup! I enjoyed this tea equally with and without milk added.


Musical analogy: Singer-songwriter (I’m choosing Damien Rice for this example). Delicate and special in its own way.

Score: 8/10

Darvilles of Windsor English Breakfast Tea


Plain: Smooth, rich, and balanced in flavor. Quite easy to drink! In coffee terms, this was most akin to something like a medium/full city roast.


+ Milk: Very smooth, with a touch of malt flavor in the finish. This cup of tea was less complex than some of the others in this lineup, but it was still very pleasant, and I think it would be particularly good served with sweets.


Musical analogy: the lush textures and lyricism of the main theme from Brahms’ Symphony No. 1, 4th movement.

Score: 7/10

Fortnum and Mason Royal Blend

I picked this up at duty free in Heathrow airport. In the US, this tea is available at Williams-Sonoma stores.


Plain: Sweetest brew of the bunch – this tea had a lovely harmonious flavor with just a touch of brightness and sweetness on the finish.


+ Milk: Mild, smooth, with a delicate flavor of honey. Kind of addicting. More milk = more sweetness, which isn’t surprising, but it really didn’t need much in the way of milk. I liked this tea equally black and with milk.


Musical analogy: “Sirenes,” Claude Debussy.

Score: 9/10

PG Tips

Note that PG Tips is the sole company (in this group) to package their teas in pyramid-shaped bags. This presumably changes the flavor extraction? Personally, I found the shape of the teabag kind of creepy.


Plain: Among the darker-colored teas in this lineup. Not much flavor to write home about — I felt it was rather bland.


+ Milk: A disappointment in my view – no matter how much milk I added, there was no real flavor. This tea tasted oddly hollow and like dirty dishwater compared to the others. Nice color, though – but sadly, appearances only get you so far!


Musical analogy: I refuse to link to anything, but just think of anything Phil Collins released as a solo artist in the mid-1980s.

Score: 3/10

Twinings English Breakfast


Plain: This tea had an unusual scent of cardamom that stopped me in my tracks. I enjoyed how fragrant it was! The taste wasn’t quite as striking though – it tasted like cardboard.


+ Milk: More tan/khaki in color vs. the reddish hue that some of these other teas are exhibiting. Not too bad with milk – very drinkable, with no notes of cardboard.


Musical analogy: U2, Joshua Tree-era. Nothing wrong with it, it just didn’t excite me.

Score: 5/10


This was the one teabag I saw that was in a round shape, unlike the flat rectangular shape of most.


Plain: What the heck is this tea made up of, shattered hopes and dreams?? I had this overwhelming feeling of despair while drinking this tea! This doesn’t happen often when I do tastings, but it was reminiscent of the “Eeyore coffee” I reviewed last year, where I just felt very, very sad while drinking it. I wonder if milk will help.


+ Milk: Nope. Even with milk, this tea came out drab and depressing. I was hoping for something a little more peppy, comforting, or life-restoring, but the flavor in this cup just made me reflect on life’s disappointments. Maybe this would be a good cup for when I want to wallow and listen to The Cure’s “Disintegration” from start to finish.


Musical analogy: “Whiskey Lullaby,” Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss. No matter how good of a day I’m having, if I hear this song, I’m immediately devastated.

Score: 2/10

Taylors of Harrogate English Breakfast Tea


Plain: Deep golden brown color that reminded me of a pint of ale. A little toasty and pleasant in flavor.


+ Milk: Not particularly filled with personality, though I will say it was perfectly drinkable. I found this a little bit dull on its own, but I bet it would be a lovely foil for a dessert or cookie/biscuit.


Musical analogy: Pachelbel’s Canon.

Score: 6/10

Yorkshire Tea


Plain: This tea had among the strongest flavor. Overwhelmingly tannic for my taste – I would not be able to drink this without milk. Perhaps 4 minutes brew time is just too long for this tea.


+ Milk: Comforting flavor. Not particularly complex. I liked this tea best with a touch more milk than the other cups. In coffee terms, this reminded me of a dark/french roast coffee where adding milk tames some of the more intense flavors.


Musical analogy: “Welcome to the Jungle,” Guns N’ Roses.

Score: 5/10

Yorkshire Gold Tea


Plain: Gorgeous red color to the brewed tea. Very light-bodied, with intense high notes of flavor. Like the regular Yorkshire blend, this was hard to drink black, though where the regular Yorkshire reminded me of a dark roast coffee in character, the Gold was more like a light/city roast. Overwhelmingly bright flavors. My mouth was puckering like mad.


+ Milk: Strong tannic flavor, even with dairy added. I had to add so much milk to tamp down those neon-bright flavors that by the time I was done, the cup tasted like milk.


Musical analogy: “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” Wham!

Score: 4/10

Overall winner: Fortnum and Mason Royal Blend tea. A splurge, since it’s expensive and I would have to make a special trip to acquire it locally, but it really is delicious.

Best buy: Barry’s Tea Gold Blend. This particular tea is available at my local grocery store (in the international foods aisle), is reasonably priced, and makes a very good cup of tea both with and without milk. This is now my everyday go-to choice if I’m in the mood for tea!

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