Tea Interview: Stephanie Harkins, Chief Editor of the Tea Review Blog

This is the first of a tea community interview series that I’m hosting at LeafJoy. This week’s interview is with Stephanie Harkins of Tea Review Blog, an online community of tea lovers and tea reviewers to share their love of tea with one another.

Read on to learn all about Stephanie and how The Tea Review Blog got its start.

1. Tell me about who you are and what makes you tick.

My name is Stephanie Harkins and I’m the owner and chief editor of the Tea Review Blog. I’m a 32 year old woman from Mid-Missouri, where I volunteer full time at the Clinton Animal Shelter. Professionally, I am a freelance website designer and graphic artist, and I also sell my own handmade crafts at my Etsy store . I am also the mother of a 13 year old boy, as well as 3 large dogs. I have also previously been in the US Navy, where I was lucky enough to meet the man I am currently engaged to. My hobbies besides tea include knitting, crochet, website design, sewing, reading, making jewelry, walking my dogs and much more.

I have been a professional tea taster for 10 years and have been in love with tea since I was a child. My experiences with tea have been varied, and I have been lucky to visit a lot of interesting foreign countries to be able to experience different tea cultures. Tea has been a hobby of mine for many years, and the Tea Review Blog was a development and outpouring of that hobby into a concrete website to be able to share tea experiences with people across the globe.

2. The Tea Review is a wonderful site which contains literally thousands of tea reviews. Tell us the story of how it got its start and where it’s going.

Image: Stephanie’s Kitchen

Thank you for the compliment, Amanda! The Tea Review Blog is celebrating it’s 3rd year anniversary this month, December 2010. We are very proud to have been providing tea reviews to the public for so long, and we hope to continue far into the future. The Tea Review Blog started as an outpouring of my own love of tea. It’s first incarnation was a much smaller scale blog with only my own reviews, and this was approximately 5 years ago. After about 2 years, unfortunately my blog was hacked into and I lost all of the information on it.

So when I began to build the current incarnation of the Tea Review Blog, I looked at ways I could improve it and bring others into this love of tea, and my goal was to create one of the biggest and most reliable honest sources of tea information on the net. Now while I feel that we have surpassed that goal in the past 3 years, I also want to tip a nod of the hat to Steepster for also being a tea website which is revolutionary to modern day tea drinkers.

I built the Tea Review Blog myself from the ground up, using WordPress as a blog platform of choice, and then used a lot of custom PHP and CSS coding to produce the current version of the website. I also did all of the graphic design work you see on the blog. We currently have thousands of tea reviews on the blog, from over 250 tea companies. The Tea Review Blog currently publishes 3 tea reviews a day, at 8 am, 4pm, and 11 pm CST. It is our policy not to review teas that we can’t find anything at all positive to say about, however, as long as we have some good points we can talk about, we will review the tea as honestly and as accurately as we can. You can find more on our policies and procedures here.

We have expanded over the years to include a very active discussion forum for tea and tea lovers, a monthly tea swap, tea articles, and so much more. We hope to continue to expand and grow and to be able to delve even deeper into tea culture, not only to share our own opinions on teas we have tasted and enjoyed, but to increase public awareness of the wide, wonderful world of tea, and make more teas accessible to them that what limited selections you might find in your local grocery store.

3. There are multiple tea reviewers on the site. How did you connect with them and are there any opportunities for others to get involved?

Our reviewers come from a variety of backgrounds, and live in different parts of the world, providing many different perspectives on the teas we review. I began to get reviewers for The Tea Review Blog – and indeed, our top reviewers were from – Etsy.com, where I’d ask for people in the chat rooms if they would be interested in reviewing teas in exchange for free samples of tea.

Image: Steph’s Teas

We are not reimbursed by tea companies for any of the reviews we post – it is very important to The Tea Review Blog to keep our integrity and honesty when it comes to reviewing teas – some tea companies choose to send us free samples of their teas to taste and review IF we like them. We always reserve the right to not review a tea, or to say what we want to say about the tea in our reviews, including any negative aspects of the tea. But our panel of tea reviewers are given samples of teas sent by tea companies, and our advertising revenue not only pays for the website to remain up and running but also covers the cost of shipping out hundreds of samples to our tea review panel.

People who are interested in reviewing teas for The Tea Review Blog should email us at admin@teareviewblog.com. If we have an opening for a reviewer and you sound like a good fit, we’ll be glad to let you know more about being a reviewer on our panel.

4. What characteristics do you look for in a good tea when you’re tasting it?

In tasting teas for review or taste testing, just as in wine tasting, you want to involve all of your senses and experience the tea completely. You ask yourself not only what it tastes and smells like, but what is the texture? Does it have a smooth feel or an astringent feel? Is there an aftertaste? Are there layers of flavor? What makes this tea good? What makes it bad? There are a lot of things you must consider when thoroughly reviewing a tea, but the main thing we try to do at The Tea Review Blog is to give other tea drinkers and consumers an idea of what it might be like to experience that tea and why they may or may not like it.

Tea can show itself to be a bad or good tea by looking at how the leaves are cut (most generally speaking, if it’s a fine powder-like substance called “dust” or “fannings” in the tea world, it’s bad tea), and how the tea leaf smells and appears both before and after brewing. Another indicator of a quality tea is the location of where it was harvested. “Estate Teas” and other teas specific to a very limited region are usually highly sought after. But the main thing I personally look for when reviewing a tea is the overall flavor. I’ve had some cheap teas with excellent flavor and some $50 per ounce teas that tasted like the bottom of a dirty rock, so I think that cost should be the last thing to consider in testing out teas.

5. What does tea mean to you? Describe a meaningful tea moment.

Tea, for me, is not only a hobby but a life experience. I have teas in my kitchen to match my every mood, and several which have specific purposes, such as to aid with meditation, or to help my stomach, or to soothe a sore throat. I believe that there is a perfect tea for every moment. And to me, one of the most wonderful things to do with tea is to use tea for meditation. Even the preparation of the tea can be a form of meditation in itself, as shown in the Japanese Tea Ceremonies using Matcha. There is a wonderful YouTube video showing the beauty and artform of the Japanese Tea Ceremony that I adore here:

Now, not all tea meditation has to be that elaborate either. You can simply sit with a hot cup of your favorite tea, take some deep, relaxing breaths and clear your mind while sipping at your tea. In the end, the best advice I can give is to enjoy your tea to the utmost, in whatever ways you can.

6. If there’s one tea you could recommend to everyone, what would it be and why?

That’s a very difficult question, as with everything, beverages especially, there are different strokes for different folks. Some people prefer flavored teas while others prefer the “pure stuff”, and there are so many varieties of tea, that it would be nearly impossible to identify “the perfect tea”. I have my favorites listed as well as some of the other favorites of our other reviewers on our “favorite teas” page on The Tea Review Blog.

I would say that to find “that perfect tea” for you, you should follow your instincts, and try as many different kinds of tea as you can to define your own favorite teas. Two online tea artisans which offer customized teas to be able to literally create your own blend of tea are Mad Pots of Tea at http://www.madpotsoftea.com and Design A Tea at http://www.designatea.com.

7. Is there anything else you’d like to tell me about yourself?

I really appreciate the opportunity to be interviewed by LeafJoy, and I hope that I was able to share some insight into the world of tea and our website at The Tea Review Blog. I have found in my years of experience with teas that there is ALWAYS something new to learn about teas, and new blends and varieties are being literally invented everyday. Don’t be afraid to experiment! Taste, test, blend, and enjoy the huge world of tea around you!

If anyone would like to contact me in regards to tea or other tea related questions, please email me at admin@teareviewblog.com. If you are a tea company wishing to have your teas reviewed by the Tea Review Blog, please see our tea company sample guidelines.

You can help to keep The Tea Review Blog going by checking out our advertising opportunities here.

Finally, we also would like to welcome readers of LeafJoy to join us for free on our message forums to talk tea with us!