If they had contacted me about reviewing the Zarafina Tea Maker Suite a few months ago, I would have been rather skeptical. I am mostly a purist when it comes to tea, but having read the reviews from Tea Guy and Gongfu Girl (huh, reminds me of a movie), I was reasonably optimistic. It turns out the optimism was justified; the Zarafina is as good as I expected, if not a little better.
Zarafina's website has some nifty videos and interactive demos, so I wont go into much detail here. I am pleased with the overall construction, and features like the small blade built into the infuser basket to cut tags off of tea bags are a nice touch. The infuser basket itself is large enough and breaks down easily for cleaning. Cleaning is simple; tossing the leaves and rinsing the infuser and removable brewing chamber is sufficient between each use, though the manual does include more thorough cleaning instructions to be used every 40 cycles or so.
When using the infuser basket, I found early on that I get better results when I spread the leaves out evenly. The first time I only dumped the tea in the basket, and afterwards some of the leaves weren't even wet. Also, even when set to strong, the tea was still too weak for my taste. I remedied this by adding extra leaves. Instead of my usual 3g/8oz, I used 3.5-4g.
Since receiving it two days ago, I have been on a tea drinking marathon, like a kid with his first chemistry set, sticking a bit everything in it just to see what would come out. I've had over 30 infusions of 21 different teas. Here is how the Zarafina performed in each category.
Black tea is the Zarafina's raison detre. It is what it's best at. After I got the hang of it, learned to add extra leaves, it made a cup of dian hong as good as I do. It also did well with an autumnal flush Darjeeling from Makaibari and New Vithanakande Ceylon. Of course black tea is kind of hard to get wrong, but even so, after my second cup I looked forlornly at my kabuse ushirode, fearing it would not be used as often.
I had mixed and interesting results with white tea. I started with bai hao yinzhen, and it turned out okay, but not as good as when I make it myself. Bai mu dan turned out quite different than when I make it, but pleasantly so. Not better, not worse, but different, lighter.
I tried a variety of different green teas, Japanese and Chinese, but I could not get it to make a good or even palatable cup. Which isn't surprising, as green tea tends to be more temperamental than any other tea, requiring a certain amount of skill and practice to yield pleasant results.
I did have a little luck with some Ume Shiso from Rishi, which is a mix of hojicha and shiso leaves, so I imagine one could get decent results using flavored green tea or perhaps other hojicha or even bancha.
I had mixed results with this as well. It did a good, sometimes great, job with wuyi yan cha, like qi lan or the beeng from Tea spring, and it made a good cup of dan cong. It also makes an okay cup of bao zhong, but high mountain Taiwanese oolongs, such as dong ding or ali shan, were not enjoyable. On the other hand, I can't make a good cup of high mountain oolong either.
I don't drink herbal tea, never developed a taste for it, but Molly had some African Nectar teabags from Mighty Leaf, and I was sent some osmanthus flowers with the Zarafina. Both turned out well, and I imagine it would have just as much success with other herbal and floral blends.
There isn't a puerh setting, but I tossed some Puerh Maiden in and set it to black. It turned out well; not as nuanced as it would have using gongfu parameters, but not worse than had I brewed it western style.
You can also see the results using my complex and sophisticated system of smileys.
:) Good Cup
:/ So-so Cup
:( Bad Cup
I guess it's kind of self-explanatory.
Over all I think the Zarafina is perfect for people who want to drink good tea, but are not particularly interested in tea culture, art or ceremony. It is very convenient. On the first day, I came home from the store, filled it with water and measured out some leaves. After putting away the groceries, I had my first cup while checking my email. I added more water, washed the dishes, swept the porch, then had the second cup of tea. Its a great way of making tea when you are busy with other things.
Tea-enthusiasts more like myself may not be interested, though. In the end it is still just a machine and will not make better tea than a person who has put some skill and practice into it. That being said, as one of those people, I still think we can get us out of it. Brent said it well, and more concisely than I was going to, "its the difference between tea as a beverage and tea as art."
Up till now I have been strictly a tea-as-art kind-of-guy. All the time and money I spend on tea and teapots, every day reading about tea and talking about tea, and I only drink tea on average once a day. Kind of silly. The Zarafina will allow me to enjoy tea more as a beverage from now on.