The annual hiatus from beer isn’t just about substituting one type of alcohol for another, and indeed, since the pandemic began and I spent a lot more time working from home, my Tea intake has risen commensurately. One of the things I discovered during this whole process was August Uncommon Tea.
Look, despite dipping my toes into the fine tea waters, I’m far from an expert. That being said, I see some similarities between what August is doing and what early craft beer pioneers did. August tends to focus on intense flavors, wild ingredients, and blended, flavored tea. This sort of thing doesn’t have the greatest reputation in the tea world because a lot of flavored teas use cheap, artificial ingredients. August claims to up the ante on that game, the same way that early craft brewers did. Funnily enough, “Uncommon Tea” calls to mind Dogfish Head’s slogan of “Off-Centered Ales for Off-Centered People.”
Near as I can tell, August seems to be sourcing quality full-leaf tea to use as its base, with additional ingredients and natural flavoring added into the blend. You don’t usually see the crazy acronym based tea grades, but it’s certainly not the prepackaged tea bags of fannings and dust you see in the supermarket.
Still, this sort of reliance on wacky ingredients and flavors can only take you so far, and eventually you just want to get back to “tea flavored tea” (the same way drinking a few Funky Buddha beers will have you pining for pilsners or other “beer flavored beer”). I don’t think August goes to quite that extreme, and some of these are phenomenal, so let’s take a gander at what I’ve been sampling over the past two years or so…
Black & Green Tea
Low Country – Black Tea with Bourbon Burnt Sugar Notes – Made with black tea, taiwanese lapsang souchoung black tea, barley malt, and the ever-vague “flavoring.” This is unquestionably my favorite August tea. The black tea backbone is there for sure, but it’s got a rich caramel, vanilla, and malt character that comes through well (from a beer dork perspective, it triggers similar feelings to a bourbon barrel aged stout or barleywine). The “burnt sugar” descriptor and inclusion of lapsang souchoung initially had me worried, but the smokey notes are really light and fit well within the overall profile (i.e. you’re not wondering who put their cigar out in your tea). It’s more intense than other flavored teas I’ve had, and while its impact might diminish if you use it as an “everyday” tea, it’s a pour that I look forward to once or twice every week (and I always have some of this on hand).
Golden Arrow – Elegant Black Tea with Smoke and Burnt Toffee Notes – Made with yunnan black tea, assam black tea, taiwanese lapsang souchong black tea, and the ever-vague “flavoring.” This is probably my second favorite August tea, though I think you can see that there’s a lot of overlap here between this one and the Low Country tea mentioned above. They used the lapsang souchong with a heavier hand here and the smokiness is thus a little higher, but the caramel, vanilla, and toffee notes really balance that out well. One thing I will say here is that this tends to feel a little more inconsistent – i.e. sometimes I feel like it’s smokier than other times. It’s always good, but I feel like I get different tastes from steep to steep. I get this with beer too – things that are intensely flavored like this can sometimes vary over time. In any case, it’s still one of my favorites and a weekly cup that I keep on hand. It’s similar to but different enough from Low Country that it makes for a nice one-two punch.
Cabaret – Malty Black Tea with Chocolate and Cherry – Made with indian assam black tea, cacao shells, german barley malt, german dark chocolate pieces, morello cherry, and the requisitely vague “natural flavoring”. This is a very nice, rich, almost chocolate cake-like tea with a bright cherry note that cuts the richness and provides a good counterpoint. Solid stuff, something I’d get again for sure, but not something I need to keep stocked at all times like Low Country.
Passage – Rich Black Tea with Hazelnut and Chocolate – Made with black tea, cocoa husk, hazelnut brittle pieces, cocoa beans, and that ever-vague “flavoring.” Super rich stuff without the bright cherry that Cabaret has to cut through it. I like this a lot and if I was one of those hazelnut-crazed freaks, this would be my favorite. As it stands now, it’s the sort of thing I enjoyed and I had no problem getting through the sample packet, but I’m not sure I’d order it again (it’s not out of the question though!)
In the Mood for Love – Pure Black Tea with Malty Cocoa Aroma – Pure black keemun mao feng tea from Anhui province, China. Despite the fanciful description of a “cocoa aroma”, this is basically just straight black tea, and a pretty nice one at that. I would say that it’s cool that August offers something like this… except that it appears to no longer be available. Not a huge deal, because you can get stuff like this from lots of other places, but still.
Combray – Organic Green Tea with Vanilla and Cardamom – Made with organic green tea, organic cardamom seed, organic cardamom pod, organic vanilla pieces, and the standard vague “natural flavoring.” This didn’t make a huge impression, but I do remember liking it. I think the cardamom sorta overwhelms the more subtle green tea and vanilla notes, but they’re still there. Solid, may try it again some day, but it’s not at the top of that list.
Breathless – Boozy Black Tea White Chocolate and Prune – Made with indian assam black tea, hazelnut brittle, sweet blackberry leaf, white chocolate, dried plum, and the usual vague “flavoring.” And here we come to our first real “miss” of the bunch. Something about the generic sweetness of white chocolate and the pronounced fruitiness just didn’t mesh for me. I drank through my sample packet just fine, but don’t anticipate ever revisiting.
Painted Desert – Crisp Black Tea with Chili and chocolate – Made with ceylon black tea, cocoa husk, cinnamon, chili, safflower petals, and the usual “flavoring.” Similar to the above Passage and Cabaret varities, this has a rich, chocolatey backbone, with the differentiator being the Chili peppers, which add a tingly spice to the proceedings. A lot of times in beverage tasting notes, I will use “spicy” to refer to things like cinnamon, nutmeg, coriander, clove, etc… which have a sharp edge for sure, but that’s not the same as a chili heat, which is certainly present here, but not in an unpleasant or lingering way. Not calling this my favorite or rushing to reorder or anything (and it’s never going to be a regular go-to), but it was an interesting cup of tea.
Metropolitan – Vibrant Black Tea with Bergamot Plum and Clove – Made with assam tea, nutmeg, serbian plum, lemon peel, clove, mallow flower, and the requisite “flavoring.” Reading the description, this seemed to be a sorta play on Earl Grey, but there’s no actual bergamot in this, and the plum (or maybe lemon peel) completely overwhelms with a perfumey scent that feels more artificial than most of these flavored teas. It’s not, like, terrible, but it doesn’t deliver on the Earl Grey feel I was hoping for (and I get that they don’t necessarily want to tackle Earl Grey head on, as it’s such a ubiquitous style, but there’s probably way to put a spin on Earl Grey that is much better than this). Early Grey is certainly one of my mainstays, and will remain so, but I would be really curious to see if August could put something more interesting together along those lines than this…
Flower of My Secret – Organic Black Tea with Rose Cocoa and Clove – Made with tgfop organic darjeeling indian tea blend, organic cacao shell, organic clove, natural flavoring Certified organic by Lacon GmbH. I remember this as more of a clove driven black tea than rose or cocoa, but that’s not a bad thing at all. It didn’t make a huge impression, but it was a nice few cups of tea.
Breakfast – Smoky Vanilla Black Tea – Made with assam black tea, ceylon black tea, vanilla pieces, formosa lapsang souchong black tea, natural vanilla flavoring. I had high hopes for this given the description and the ingredients, but I have to say that this mostly just feels like English Breakfast tea with only a hint of smoky vanilla. That’s not necessarily bad, per say, I was just hoping for a much more prominent vanilla character, and it’s very light here. I’m not entirely sure I’d even pick it up if I were tasting blind. (I don’t really love smoky tea, but the way August employs it has been very successful in a few other teas, so again, it didn’t do much for me here.) Certainly a fine breakfast tea though…
Silencio – Spicy Black Tea with Tobacco and Pineapple Notes – Made with assam tea, south indian black tea, cacao shell, black pepper, dried pineapple, and mysterious “flavoring”. The pineapple adds a nice touch of sweet brightness here that certainly works much better than, say, the plum in Metropolitan. I don’t get much in the way of tobacco here, though I guess there is a bit of earthiness – still, the well integrated pineapple is the star here. This was a tasty cup and something I might revisit someday.
The Black Lodge – Black Tea with Smoky Banana and Truffle Notes – Made with chinese yunnan black tea, spanish olive leaf, smoked chinese black tea, dried banana, sweet blackberry leaf, madagascar vanilla, and vague “flavoring”. An intriguing confluence of flavors here. Lots of banana but also a pronounced earthy character (presumably what they mean when they say “truffle notes”) that is actually well balanced across the black tea base. Another tasty cup that I’ll surely revisit someday.
Gold Rush – Orange Rosemary Black Tea – Made with black tea, orange peel, caramel pieces, rosemary, and the usual vague “flavoring.” Drinks a little like an orange forward version of Earl Grey (Lady Grey?) It’s got a little more complexity than this implies, and I sometimes found myself thinking it had a small creamsicle note or even an Old Fashioned cocktail note. The citrus character is much stronger than the rosemary, which works more in the background. Very nice, and this has emerged as another weekly go-to tea for me…
Psychocandy – Darkly Sweet Rooibos with Pumpkin and Caramel – Made with south african rooibos, dried pumpkin, turkish apple, caramel, sweet blackberry leaf, madagascar vanilla, and the usual “flavoring.” Ah, the Pumpkin beer of tea! The Rooibos base comes through the strongest here, with some additional sweetness from the pumpkin and caramel differentiating things a tad. Still, it’s a nice fall brew to enjoy during the Six Weeks of Halloween (and beyond). Of the herbal teas I’ve had from August, this is one of my two favorites.
Biarritz – Velvety Rooibos with Amaretto & Orange Blossom – Made with rooibos, anise, almond, lemon peel, orange blossom, star anise, and that ubiquitous “flavoring.” This is a very nice take on rooibos, definitely getting an Amaretto cocktail character out of this that works well, the almonds coming through strongly but with a fruity, spicy background. Well done, might actually be my favorite of the herbal teas I’ve had from August…
Cult of Demeter – Silky Organic Cocoa Barley and Anise – Made with organic german barley malt, organic egyptian anise, organic cocoa husk (notably, no additional “flavoring” here). This is also quite nice and reminiscent of a Biscotti (or maybe pizzelles, but only if you make them with anise, which my family does not). Anise is not my favorite flavor, but this has a nice balance and reminds my of Italian baked goods, which is a very good thing. Not a go to, but I’d probably get this again.
Silent Night – Chocolate Nutmeg Rooibos – Made with south african rooibos, cacao shell, south african honeybush, indian nutmeg, marigold flowers, and the trademark vague “flavoring.” I’m a sucker for Christmas themed drinks/tea, so I always need to check them out. This is certainly an uncommon take, with the fruity/nutty rooibos base getting a little complexity from subtle touches of nutmeg and cacao. I think I might prefer a bit of a heavier hand on the spice, but I like it nonetheless.
Negroni – Bittersweet Orange Rooibos – Made with rooibos, sweet blackberry leaves, orange peel, licorice root, yellow gentian root, natural flavoring. Another rooibos based tea that is reminiscent of a cocktail, this time a Negroni (or even maybe something like an Old Fashioned). I very much enjoy this. I still have a few cups left in the sample, but I’m looking forward to them… and this could overtake my other favorite herbals
I’ll most certainly continue to explore August Uncommon Tea’s offerings, though I should again note that I do still go for the occasional “tea flavored tea” from time to time. Of course, I also like my Earl Grey (and vanilla variants) and I still have a couple of InfiniTea™ Tins that are continually being replenished (I will note that the ending bits of a Low Country or Golden Arrow have added some complexity to the vanilla earl grey tin, even if the grand majority of that blend comes from other sources). Alrighty, at this point, we should probably get back to writing about beer, this being a beer blog and all. Stay tuned!