15 Years, 70 Teas: My Holy Mountain Journey by Paul Cotter

 

I’ve been drinking tea since I was five years old, when I dunked my first Lipton teabag in hot water and loaded it up with sugar. That was a long time ago. After decades of dunking and sweetening, I finally decided to get serious and venture into the world of loose-leaf teas in the late ‘90s. My search brought me to the Holy Mountain Trading Company, where I came face-to-face with a humbling reality:

My knowledge of tea couldn’t fill a teaspoon.

Here I was, faced with a mountain of choices: black teas, oolong teas, white teas, green teas, scented teas. I knew I’d developed a taste for green tea, but then there was the question of origin: China? Japan? India? Ceylon? Kenya? Like a lot of newbies, I felt overwhelmed. I needed a system, something that provided direction for my Holy Mountain journey. So as I began my trek, I made two vows:

  1. I would be adventurous, trying as many green teas as possible — plus a few oolongs, whites and scented teas for variety.
  2. I would rate every tea I tasted. As time went by, these ratings would be like breadcrumbs dropped along the path so I could find my way back to my favorite teas.

Cups © Paul Cotter Photography

Cups © Paul Cotter Photography

For the past 15 years, I’ve followed these guidelines. I order trial-size samplers as an affordable way to keep experiencing new teas. And every time I try a new tea, I give it a rating of one to four stars. Simple as that. If a tea receives three or four stars, that’s a thumbs-up – which means I’d gladly buy it again as a quarter-pound purchase. My typical Holy Mountain order includes a few quarter-pound selections (my trusted favorites) along with a few new samplers to be tasted, rated and added to my list.

When I told Rae and Leon about my tea rating system, they asked me if I’d like to share it on their website. Rae and Leon, by the way, are the owners of Holy Mountain Trading Company. They’re wonderful people, and I’ve been dealing with these same two folks for 15 years. How many companies provide that kind of consistency and personal attention directly from the owners?

So, by request, here it is: My tea rating list. It represents the 70 different teas I’ve tried on my Holy Mountain journey so far. Like any rating list, it has inconsistencies and is full of bias. But it may give you a helpful point of reference, or some ideas on how to approach your own tea-tasting experience.

A few things to keep in mind:

  • These ratings don’t necessarily reflect the price or grade of any given tea – they simply indicate what tickled my own taste buds.
  • Some of the teas are not currently available. Remember, this list goes back a long way. Certain teas have limited seasonal availability.

You’ll notice that a good number of teas on my list received three or four stars. That’s because I’ve really liked most of the teas I’ve tried. You’ll also see that the list is dominated by China green teas. These represent the majority of green teas in the Holy Mountain catalog – and they’re also my personal favorites. To me, China green teas are mellower and more satisfying to drink regularly than Japanese teas, which tend to be more astringent. So what’s my absolute favorite tea? That’s easy. My “desert island” tea – the one I’d bring with me if I could only drink one tea for the rest of my life – is Dragon Well (Lung Ching). I love this stuff.

But to be honest, who cares what I like? In the end, my opinions don’t add up to a hill of tea leaves. Your journey involves finding what you like and enjoying every cup along the way. Good luck, my friends. And happy sipping.

Paul Cotter is a writer and photographer who has won national and international awards for marketing creativity, and whose photography has been featured in gallery exhibitions and an international photography annual. You can see his photography at paulcotterphotography.com and his award-winning marketing work on the Concept Copy Cotter website: cccotter.com.