When Zarafina® approached us about testing and reviewing their Tea Maker Suite I was very interested, but was skeptical of their claims about the machine. I could not imagine that one small tabletop machine would be able to brew such a wide range of teas to the degree of specificity that each requires. But despite my anticipated dissatisfaction, I was able to tell from the first cup produced by the test machine that the company sent us that my reservations would be overcome. Over the course of several weeks I tested many different teas and was very impressed with the results and with the overall experience of using the machine.
Right out of the box, my initial impression of the quality of the machine and its components was favorable. The suite is comprised of the machine itself, a steeping chamber, infuser basket, ceramic decanting pitcher, two tea cups, and a tray for everything to sit upon. Obvious care has gone into the design and manufacture of each of the parts and they seem likely to hold up even with frequent use. All components fit together nicely and also come apart easily for cleaning. Set-up, brewing and cleaning are simple procedures, although I would recommend reading the instruction booklet prior to use.
One minor complaint I have with the construction of the machine is the shortness of its AC power cord. I understand the safety concerns behind this design decision, and on a kitchen counter a short cord would be quite practical. However, it can make it difficult to use the machine in alternate situations. In the specific case of my office, the cord did not reach the floor outlet from my desk, necessitating the use of a dangling power strip.
Once the suite is set up, using it is a smooth process. The water reservoir is filled with water, leaves are measured into the infuser basket (pictured below), which is then set into the water reservoir. The settings are adjusted to match the tea being brewed and the machine is switched on. After a short period of making a sound a lot like a miniature airplane about to take off from its tea tray runway, the machine decants the brewed tea into the pitcher. After a few seconds, it clicks, the light goes off and the tea is ready to be poured into the cups.
The most brilliant design feature, in my opinion, is the automated variability of brewing depending on the particulars of the tea. Using the control levers (pictured below), you select the tea type (black, oolong, green, white, herbal), whether it is bagged or loose, and how strong you would like it (strong, medium, mild). I did not test the machine with tea bags – I never have any cause to purchase bagged teas and do not trust them. However, I can imagine brewing some fine-leafed broken teas or yerba mate in a cloth bag using the bagged tea setting. Every cup of tea I made with the machine tasted quite good, with the exception of one brew into which I put too many leaves. I was particularly impressed with how it handled white tea, which probably has the most demanding and unique brew process due to its need for a cooler and longer steep time.
In the period that I tested the suite I made many, many cups of tea. I drank a lot more tea than I usually would simply because it was so convenient to produce yet another satisfying cup of whatever the thé du jour was. I also spilled more droplets of tea on my desk than I had in the entire previous year. This is probably inevitable. The decanting pitcher, like 98% of all receptacles made for pouring tea, has a tendency to drip no matter how slowly and carefully it is tipped into the cup. Fortunately, dribbles of tea are not like splashes of tomato soup or battery acid. Most of the time I spilt white tea or oolong, neither of which are very likely to stain. If spills are a concern, it would be wise to keep a small towel on hand to place underneath the pitcher while pouring. On a related note, the cups that come with the set are impressively stable. I haven’t knocked one of them over yet.
These are the teas I brewed with a high degree of success using the Tea Maker:
Earl Grey (Rishi Tea)
Lapsang Souchong (Tao of Tea)
Peony White Tea (Rishi Tea)
Jade Oolong (Rishi Tea)
Sencha (unknown brand)
Lichee Black Tea (Foojoy)
Lotus Ancien green tea (Tao of Tea)
Ginkgo leaf tisane (Tao of Tea)
I also tried an Ethiopian Black Lion tea, but it was too powdery to work well loose in the basket. The taste was fine, but it was quite a mess to deal with after brewing. This is one tea that might have worked well in a cloth bag. Another note is that the expansive qualities of oolong resulted in a very crowded filter basket, but the leaves did not seem restricted enough to affect the taste. I was able to infuse the jade oolong three times and each infusion was quite nice to drink.
Clean-up between brewings was very simple. I usually took the pitcher, water reservoir and filter basket into the kitchen and rinsed everything thoroughly with hot water. The machine comes with a plug that goes over the electrical components on the underside of the water reservoir to use during rinsings, which I found helpful. In cases of particularly aromatic and clingy brews like minty tisanes it would probably be advisable to run a clear water rinse cycle, but I only found that necessary once after brewing the too powdery Ethiopian Black Lion. One would not, of course, ever want to use soap or any other cleaning products on any of the parts.
I would recommend this machine to anyone who is looking for a convenient way to make high quality cups of tea, no more than two cups at a time, with easy clean-up and a lot of flexibility. The Tea Maker Suite is perfectly suited for use in an office, where the distraction of work can often compromise the integrity of tea brewing. The beauty of the Tea Maker Suite is that it takes care of monitoring temperature and time for you, which I think is a big advantage. At $149.99 retail it is not for the unserious tea drinker, but if it suits your particular tea drinking needs, it is well worth the cost.