Friday, October 19, 2007

Review: Celestian Seasonings' Red Safari Spice

For my very first tea review, I've chosen Celestial Seasoning's Red Safari Spice. "Why?" the tea enthusiast objects, "Would you choose THAT as your first review?". I'll tell you. It is not a loose leaf, not a plain tea, and in fact, is not a tea at all. I find something poetic in that. The Red Safari Spice is also my first review because of the immense power of arbitration. It was the first box I pulled out of my family's tea basket back when I first became interested in tea. Something like drawing a raffle ticket out of hat. Except nobody really wins.

Here's what Celestial Seasonings' marketers have to say about Red Safari Spice -

"Experience the unexpected pleasures of an African odyssey with Red Safari Spice Tea. This magnificent rooibos herb tea offers a slightly sweet, fruity flavor with a twist of red pepper and a kiss of ginger and cinnamon. Every naturally caffeine-free sip steams with a delicious, spicy flavor, evoking the marvels of Africa and her burnished panoramas. So pitch the tent, and put the kettle on. It's tea time on the savannah."

Gobbledygook! Nothing more than advertisement prosody. The real information is a bit further south on the webpage -

"Rooibos, hibiscus, cinnamon, natural sweet piquanté pepper flavor with other natural flavors, blackberry leaves, allspice, cardamom, ginger, roasted chicory, cloves, and bananas."

Walking into this, I expect heavy spices. I mean, much more than a tiny little sachet. We're talking bedsheets wrapped in exotic, pungent flavors. I can already tell this stuff, like so many of Celestial Seasonings' other offerings, is going to be boistrous with flavors. Crowded, cramped and boistrous. I also expect the signature Rooibos tobacco, a tickling sweetness from the ginger, and I'm keeping a special look out for the red pepper, or as its translated in the ingredient list "Natural sweet piquanté pepper". This is not a meditative tea by any means. I rather see it as an alarming jump-out-of-bed drink that'll give you a good skull-thumping if brewed even a hair too long.

Raw Appearance: Hard to say. It's a bagged tea, after all, but once I commit the grim act of beheading a bag we find a scad of brown and auburn fannings, with curious white bits interspersed through the mix. It looks crowded, and portends a busy drinking experience. The liquor is a blood orange, red, with some brown hues reeling it back into the wood-colored camp.

Raw Aroma: A jubilant celebration of deep and harsh holiday spices. Think wassail, with an extra handful of Silk Road caravan spices carelessly chucked in. Cinnamon and clove feature pre-dominantly in a robust concentration that keeps a curious nose at bay. Ground nutmeg is present too, but at a tamed volume lending its pungency without its abrasive nature. A note of sandalwood makes itself heard, and kudos to the tasters behind this addition - a well played aromatic lending the drink a distinctive exotic edge. Roasted apple skins and dark brown sugar sweeten the deal, helping to round out the vorpal spices and keep a candied lid on their cutting misdeeds. Gingerbread bridges the gap, offering a sharp but sweet scent to add the final, if indelicate, touch. The composition, with its deep, dark and almost cloying sweets and spices, smells exactly like those dedicated Christmas stores that sprout around strip malls come December. They put a good deal of effort into perfuming their store with pine cones and cinnamon to get all five of your senses into the holly-jolly spirit, and its mirrored incredibly well in the Red Safari Spice. Its the commercial wafting of Christmas in a mug, and to be honest, while brusque and overpowering, its quite pleasant.

Steeped Aroma: When the "tea" has had an opportunity to soak the aromatics change drastically. The lacerating spices soothe and dimish, replaced by a soft, buttery glow. Only cinnamon remains alert, but coupled with the butter it too loses its catankerous crankiness, leaving only the complex sweetness to meld with the oily, savory flavor. The roasted apple skins have subsided too, replaced with the higher pitched sugar of the strawberry and the scolding sweet of the cranberry. It's simpler, but mellower and less punishing. This is my favorite part of the Red Safari Spice.

Flavor & Palate: Those deep, tangy fruits I just mentioned? Yes, they make a welcome return in the flavor of the tea, but the harsh spices from the raw aroma do too, and they bite with a vengeance. So much so that they come to completely dominate the flavor profile. Each one, furious, stabbing the tongue with spicy pinpricks. At the end, once the tea has slid down the esophagus and the clamor of nutmeg and all-spice subside, there's a low, murmuring pomegranate, cranberry and orange rind flavor that sits heavily but quietly on the tongue - a tranquil aftertaste. It comes at the cost of the tea's main flavors, and is too small of a requite for the endured buzzing of spices on the tongue, but is well savored and remembered.

The Red Safari Spice suffers from many of the same ailments as Celestial Seasonings' extravagantly flavored herbal teas: it's too much flavor, with insufficient substance. When I taste the Red Safari Spice I can dissect the different tastes, true, but they seem too upfront, too direct. The appeal of complex loose leaf teas is their subtle but complex character. I'd rather have a hundred quiet flavors whispering to me than a few loud ones shouting. The flavors in the Red Safari Spice are also far from what I'd like in a tea - if I wanted spices, I'd have Thai food, or go to a Turkish market. The contemplative benefits of tea are lost when you're under a barrage of sipid but crazed flavors. Somehow the palate rings hollow, and that itself makes for a hollow drinking experience.

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