The packaging is very colorful and sturdy – I don’t see how anything could possibly be broken or even jostled in shipment. There was a packet of information included as well, and while I appreciated the instruction book and coupon for tea, I thought the full-color illustrated booklet with no real information included was just sort of a waste of space and money. But overall, it was fun to open up all the packing and slowly reveal the new tea machine, piece by piece. It’s a very sleek looking machine, with smoky-colored heavy plastic pieces overall. It is much smaller than I expected it would be, but very European-looking, in my opinion.
The first thing I noticed when examining the steeping chamber was that the heating element is all one piece with the steeping chamber, much like an electric kettle. This explains why that particular piece isn’t dishwasher safe (and the instruction not to immerse the chamber is noted in boldface type all through the instructions as well as printed right on the back of the chamber). A plastic cap is included to place over the connector when washing, to avoid getting water in that area. The steeping basket is comprised of four pieces that all snap together and then there is the lid for the steeping chamber, a measuring spoon, a ceramic tray, teapot and two cups. It is noted throughout all instructions that none of this should be washed in the dishwasher or with abrasive cleaners – all must be hand washed. I rinsed all the pieces before the first use in soap and warm water.I chose all teas that I am very familiar with and enjoy on a regular basis to test the machine with, so that I could focus on the machine and it’s method of brewing instead of whether I actually liked the tea or not. In order: Florence (black, Harney & Sons), Silver Tip Darjeeling (black, Dragonwater), Golden Dragon Oolong (Teas, Etc), White Pear (Adagio), Foxtrot (herbal, adagio), and Jasmine #12 (scented green, Adagio).
I started with the black teas, since black is what I drink most often. I measured out two scoops of Florence into the steeping basket, filled the chamber to the max fill line with cold tap water (which is what I normally brew with), and floated the basket on top the cold water. I put the lid on, and turned to the buttons on the side of the machine.
There are several setting choices – one for tea type, one for loose or bagged, and one for steeping preference (strong, medium or mild). Since I had no idea which setting would steep it for around 5 minutes, I picked medium, and the other settings were black and loose, obviously. I timed the steep, and it was right at 5 minutes for the medium setting.
As I watched, the water came up to a low boil, and then the basket slipped under the water to steep. An intriguing part of the process is how the machine sends short bursts of heat up into the steeping chamber at intervals while the tea is steeping, keeping the water temperature very steady throughout the steeping time. Ingenious, really. When the steep time was complete, a nozzle came out over the teapot, and decanted the tea into the pot. The instructions say that it’s normal for some tea to be left in the chamber, but every time it’s decanted all but a very thin film into the pot. I let it sit for a few minutes, poured it into a large mug, and enjoyed my cup. The tea tasted as it normally does, rich and chocolaty, and I was quite happy with the results.
Being lazy and not wanting to actually wash all the components again so soon, I simply rinsed out the steeping chamber, teapot, basket, and lid, and replaced them to brew a cup of darjeeling. This time I set the steeping time to mild, which I timed at approximately 3.5 minutes. That turned out to be perfect for the darjeeling, but since I hadn’t completely washed the components, my darjeeling had a hint of chocolate flavor left. Bummer. It turns out that all of these components *must* be completely cleaned between each different tea to avoid the flavors mingling (an unfortunate result of using plastic). I tried to just rinse again between the minty Foxtrot and the lovely Jasmine teas, and got the same results. So soap and water every time when changing tea flavors.
The oolong tea also brewed up quite nicely in this little machine – I used the “mild” setting for the first cup, and medium for the second. Both cups were perfect, and tasted just as they should. As an added bonus, since I was merely resteeping the leaves, I didn’t have to wash the machine out that day either.
The more delicate teas didn’t work out as well. When brewing the White Pear, I set the machine for “medium” as the white pear tends to be rather light, but it was too much, and the tea came out bitter and astringent, obviously overcooked. So white teas are probably better steeped on the “mild” setting for this machine, though I didn’t try it. I used Foxtrot, a blend of rooibos, chamomile and mint for the herbal setting, and set it to “strong”, as rooibos likes long, hot steeps. But the water didn’t heat up enough, nor did it steep long enough, and I ended up with a rather weak brew. Next time I’d set the machine for “black” and either medium or strong for a rooibos tisane. And I used the “green, medium” settings for the Jasmine, which was fine, though lighter than I would have liked for a medium setting. It probably would have been fine though had I thoroughly washed the parts with soap/water before brewing…my jasmine had a distinct minty aftertaste clearly leftover from the Foxtrot. Regardless, a look at the jasmine pearls after revealed that they hadn't even had enough time to unfurl when steeping.
You may have guessed by now that my biggest problem with the Zarafina Suite is the cleaning. All told, there are 8 pieces to be washed by hand with soap and water (the steeping basket is comprised of four which have to be separated, washed, and snapped back together). In the time it takes me to wash all of those, I could have tossed a teapot, infuser or strainer and cup into the dishwasher, and been done with it. I consider tea makers a “convenience” item, so they need to be at least *as* convenient to use than conventional methods in order to make them worthwhile for me. So far, this tea maker is not.
Other things I dislike about this tea “suite” is the fact that you have to choose “strong, med. or mild”, rather than being able to pick an actual time (even a simple chart in the instructions would help solve this); and the fact that there is no audible signal when the tea is done, and no warming mechanism to keep the tea warm in the pot until you’re ready to pour. And the size is definitely too small – it brews two “normal” cups or one large one, which would be fine if it was indeed easier to use than a teapot (which it’s not). The size just isn’t worth the trouble, in my opinion – if I’m going to spend time hand washing every piece, I want more than one good-sized cup of tea for my trouble.
All told, in my opinion the Zarafina Tea Maker Suite isn’t worth the hefty price tag of $149.99 for anyone. If it were less than $100, I would probably recommend it for the occasional tea drinker who prepares only one type of tea in a day and doesn’t mind spending 15 minutes washing everything afterwards by hand. People like my mom, who doesn’t own a dishwasher, and isn’t picky about how her green tea tastes as long as it’s not bitter. I’m giving the Zarafina to my mom as soon as I’m done with the reviews.
Until they make some improvements to the suite, I wouldn’t recommend it at any price to the serious tea drinker…it’s not any more convenient than making tea in a conventional manner, and that’s really the only reason anyone needs a tea maker to begin with, since nothing with plastic steeping parts can really compete with the taste of tea prepared conventionally in a teapot or gaiwan. The gadget factor is cool, sure, but here in the states, a gaiwan is just as “gadget-y” to show your buddies, and you’ll get better tasting tea (because it’s not plastic).
As a last disclaimer, please remember these are only my personal observations & experiences, and not an expert opinion in any way.
On Friday, I’ll post a side-by-side comparison of the Zarafina Tea Maker Suite and Adagio’s triniTEA maker for anyone interested…though at this point I will admit being biased in favor of the triniTEA. Tune in Friday for the Tea-Maker Showdown...