Thursday, December 30, 2010

Tea Spam - Starting with the Most Blatant

Brandon of Wrong Fu Cha has inspired me to write about spam in the world of tea. I am going to follow up with this post later with a post on more subtle spamming techniques, but this post will get the basics out there.

What is spam?

We all know what unsolicited email spam is. But unfortunately, spam is not limited to your inbox: it also occurs on blogs and webpages. I prefer a broader definition of spam. Wikipedia has a good page on spam blogs, which is not the same as blog spam (which is the leaving of unsolicited advertisements in blog comments). I also consider sites to be spam if the site is exclusively oriented toward selling a product.

In the world of tea, many spam sites center around selling green tea or oolong tea (usually spelled wu long, or presented as wu yi tea) as a weight loss product. These sites overlap a lot with sites selling the acai berry.

Spam Sites and the Squeeze Page:

If you've ever searched for tea online, and probably even if you haven't, you're likely to have encountered spammy websites promoting weight loss products. Here is a screenshot of a typical spam site:

This is an example of what is called a squeeze page: the page looks rich, filled with lots of different images and text, but all of it points visually to a single link, which is selling a product. The only other outgoing links on the page are typically to ads. This way, the owner of the site either feeds the person through to a payout page, or earns money when the visitor to the site clicks an ad to another site (pictured on the right of the above screenshot).

Spam Blogs and Stolen Content:

Besides the overt squeeze page, a number of spam blogs operate by posting other people's stolen articles, text, and images. The articles are usually taken from other websites, often by automated scripts, and are then posted in the blog. Different spam blogs serve different purposes: some want to make money through advertisements or affiliate links, whereas others serve to promote other websites selling a product or making money through ads or affiliate programs.

Is this a problem with tea-related topics?

Absolutely. There are so many spam blogs in the topic of tea that it renders google blog search almost useless. This is especially true of green tea, due to all the health hype on this topic. If you check a google blog search on "tea -party" (filtered to avoid tea party political blogs, which otherwise dominate the results) you see mostly spam. A search on "green tea" is even worse.

Why is this a problem worth dealing with and not just an annoyance?

All this spam makes it harder for people to locate what they're looking for and find accurate information about tea. In addition, the spammers are earning money -- and our society would be better off if that money were instead in the hands of people who were providing a valuable service to society rather than just junking up the internet.

Dealing with spam sites:

The most important thing about spam sites is to not link to them, and not link to articles that link to them, as this indirectly helps promote the sites. This may seem common sense, but I routinely see newer bloggers and casual internet users falling into this trap. But there is more you can do to actually crack down on these sites.

If you ever see a spam site hosted at or, you can use the built-in facilities of these blogging sites to report the blogs as spam. Blogger displays a "Report Abuse" option in the toolbar at the top of each blog. If you don't see this link (some spam bloggers use clever javascript code to disable this feature), you can go directly to Blogger's page to report spam blogs. For wordpress, you must be logged on, and then under "Blog Info" on the toolbar you can select "Report as spam". Wordpress in particular is very good at quickly cracking down on these sites.

If you see a spam site returned in google search results, you can also submit a Google spam report. This is only appropriate in some cases, such as if a site is overtly violating google's guidelines (the checkboxes on that page give a clear sense of how and when this reporting form is appropriate), but when it is appropriate, it will result in google quickly pulling this page from search results.

If a spam site has google ads, most importantly, do not click the ads, as this will generate money for the spammer. However, there is a little link on the ads that reads "Ads by google"; if you click this link it takes you to a page that allows you to report the ads for a violation of google's guidelines. If the website has cleverly disabled this link but you're sure the ads are google ads, you can directly visit Google's page to report an adsense violation.

Does it work?

Yes. Even if you choose to do only one or two of these things and only when it is convenient or very straightforward, you will be helping to make the web a better place. I am consistently surprised by how quickly I see spam sites taken down after I report them. Usually, one person reporting them is enough to get them taken down, often in less than 24 hours.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A Poor Tea-Food Pairing: Shou Mei + Spicy Foods

Last winter I wrote about an outstanding and surprising tea-food pairing of a Darjeeling that I otherwise did not like, that I found went well with spicy foods.

Today I discovered the opposite: one of my favorite teas that just did not work at all when consumed after spicy foods. Today I'm drinking some shou mei white tea, the specific tea is my favorite shou mei, Upton's ZW23: Shou Mei Classic Organic. Shou mei is one of my favorite types of tea, but I am finding the experience of drinking a cup of tea to be completely spoiled by the burn in my mouth from eating a very spicy (and delicious) lunch.

Shou mei is not a bland tea: I often find it stronger and bolder in flavor than most white teas, but its flavor and aroma are soft and rounded, and I find it somehow gets completely bowled over by hot pepper. But, like the example of the Darjeeling above, I had to try it out to learn this for my own. I have yet to develop a good intuition for pairing tea and food, it's still all trial-and-error for me.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Diversity of Tulsi Tea / Holy Basil Tea

I never ceased to be amazed by the diversity of flavors and aromas that the Camellia sinensis plant, combined with years of selective breeding by humans, and clever production processes, is able to produce. Most other plants used to brew herbal teas have not been developed to quite the same degree. Yet the potential for this diversity is there, and in some cases, already exists to a degree in a large number of other plants.

I love tulsi tea, a tea brewed from a species of basil that is in the same genus as the familiar sweet basil. I've written quite a bit about tulsi now, as I like it a lot. A while back I described brewing an herbal tea from fresh tulsi which I gathered in Michigan, and before that, I responded to a question about drying and blending holy basil. Most of my effort, though, has gone into RateTea's page tulsi / holy basil tea, which has a growing discussion of this herb's fascinating and potent medicinal properties.

A new batch of Tulsi:

My parents grew tulsi this summer at their home in Lancaster, PA. In their garden, they produce many delicious herbs that I regularly use in herbal tea and blends with black tea. While I tried their tulsi several times over the summer, this batch of tulsi was harvested in the fall, and then dried. I was eager to tell what this particular batch was like. It turned out to be very different from the fresh tulsi and also from any other tulsi I have had before.

The aroma of the cup was is dominated by anise-like tones with a hint of tarragon. Surprisingly, there is much less clove in the aroma. There's a rather strongy skunky quality to the aroma as well, reminiscent of hops in beer that has been stored in too sunny a location. The taste is smooth but there's a lingering metallic aftertaste. My parents remarked that they were disappointed with how this batch turned out, and that they have not been drinking it on its own because of a number of unpleasant tones in the aroma. My impression was not quite as negative as my parent's, although I was also a bit disappointed. While it was interesting to drink, it was not as pleasing as other tulsi that I've had. Even though I did not particularly like this batch, it impressed me with how different it was from any other holy basil tea I have tried.

This occurrence also highlights the challenges of developing pleasing beverages; I imagine people who cultivate tea go through the same process. Diversity provides the raw materials for developing new, wonderful flavors and aromas, but the best beverages must ultimately be selected, and there are a lot of unsuccessful variants that must fall by the wayside before tastier ones are found. This batch is one that we will not be selecting to inform our future production: next time we grow tulsi, we will do something differently!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Do you infuse black tea only once?

Ever since getting into high-quality loose-leaf tea, I've often made multiple infusions of my tea leaves. Being frugal, initially my motivation was to get more mileage out of my leaves (and money), but I soon found that this process opened up new avenues for exploring different facets of the aroma and flavor of a each tea. I also found that making multiple infusions tends to work better with some types of teas than others, and by and large, my personal experience meshed with what I read, which was that black teas tend not to work well with multiple infusions, but it generally works well with greens, oolongs, and Pu-erh. I dispute the assertion that it works well with whites; as a general rule I like to infuse my white tea only once.

Why doesn't black tea work well for multiple infusions?

I don't know. Presumably, the chemicals that produce the key pleasing qualities of the aroma of black tea diffuse quickly. I'd be grateful for any insights on this point.

Are there exceptions to the rule?

Some people classify Pu-erh, especially Shu (ripened) Pu-erh, as a black tea, but I don't think this categorization makes much sense, especially if one is talking about aged Pu-erh, and it certainly does not make sense for Sheng Pu-erh. So I don't think this is an exception. On RateTea I've created a completely separate category for Pu-erh, which is broken up into raw and ripened, sheng and shu.

I recently made multiple infusions of a Japanese Black Tea from Far West Trading Company; while it "worked", the results did not impress me, and although I liked the tea, I preferred to brew it with a single infusion. This result fit with the overall pattern that I've observed: some black teas can be steeped twice, but the results are rarely as good as making multiple infusions of a green or oolong. And again, it's only twice, in contrast to the 3-7 (or sometimes more) infusions you can get out of a good green, oolong, or Pu-erh. Another tea which was a past favorite of mine, I found fit this same pattern...but even then, I would hardly classify this tea as a black tea; it was the greenest "black tea" I have ever tried: Barnesbeg FTGFOP1 First Flush, greener in color than many green teas. And even then, when making two infusions (only two) produced a drinkable cup, I still preferred making just one.

Have you found any black teas that work well with multiple infusions?

Let me know. I'm curious to get others' feedback on this question.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Grapefruit and Tea

I love grapefruit, and I love tea. Here is a red grapefruit that is one of many I've been purchasing for the wonderful price of 2 for $1 at the Newark Farmer's Market:

Grapefruit's Strange Interactions:

Grapefruit is a bit of an odd fruit, and it has strange effects on the body. There is a long list of drugs that are known to interact with grapefruit. Fascinatingly, and perhaps disturbingly, this interaction was discovered by accident, when experimenters used grapefruit juice to mask the taste of alcohol in order to design a controlled study of alcohol's interactions with a certain drug. In case anyone is interested, here's a link to the 1989 study (not public access). Since then, a long list of potentially dangerous interactions with many other drugs has been discovered.

I find this story disturbing because it highlights how very little is known about the interactions of modern pharmaceuticals with food and drink. Grapefruit is a common food, and its drug interactions are numerous and dangerous. Given that these interactions were only discovered by accident, it seems highly likely to me that there may be hundreds if not thousands of other such interactions with various common foods. This is one of many compelling reasons behind my skepticism towards the drug-heavy approach to medicine that sadly dominates the United States medical establishment, and my personal belief in using prescription drugs only when no feasible alternatives exist.

Grapefruit's Interactions with Tea:

Many foods can leave a lingering taste on the palate which can shape, and sometimes either enhance or spoil, one's appreciation of a given tea. I've found that, more than any other foods, grapefruit tends to have this effect. There are many teas whose subtleties are eliminated and which even become bland or tasteless if I sip them immediately after eating a grapefruit.

This morning, I am drinking hojicha. Hojicha normally has a pleasing roasted aroma, almost suggestive of coffee, and a smooth flavor, with some of the fresh green tea characteristics still remaining, especially in teas with a lighter roast. However, after eating my grapefruit and sipping my hojicha, I notice none of this. Instead I notice...guess what? Grapefruit, even though my grapefruit is long gone. And I also notice a muted, rather bland finish, that I can only really describe as gray like the sky. A faint hint of roast emerges at the end, but the grapefruit still leaves a tingle in my mouth.

Any recommendations of teas to try with grapefruit?

Perhaps grapefruit is best avoided before drinking tea. But if anyone has any recommendations of teas that are a good idea to drink after eating grapefruit, I'd be open to suggestions, and perhaps I can write about my experiences in the future.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Mild Tea - Brewing Tea Weakly

I was in the Newark, DE Farmer's Market today with my friend Jen, and we were looking at fruit, and she laughed as I remarked: "I love smallness." I had chosen the smallest grapes available--today, red grapes--and was eyeing a bag of very small apples longingly. Later, I picked up some mini-bananas:

When I got home, I brewed up a cup of tea, pictured below. It was Upton's Shou Mei Classic Organic (ZW23), one of my favorite white teas. The leaves of this tea are large, and take up a great deal of space. Upton recommends using 2-3 teaspoons of leaf per cup, and even this amount does not produce a particularly strong cup. However, I chose to use only a little more than one teaspoon of leaf, as I wanted a particularly mild cup of tea. It wasn't until I started sipping the tea and contemplating that I realized that there was a strange commonality between how I had chosen to brew the tea and how I had selected fruit earlier at the market.

Shou mei is dark among white teas. While this photo makes this cup of tea look rather dark for a white tea, this tea normally comes out much darker in color, like a dark oolong or lighter black tea. This cup of tea was extremely mild, even outright weak. But this is what I wanted. I didn't want the largest piece of fruit, nor did I want the strongest cup of tea; instead I sought the opposite.

There was little flavor; the aroma was faint, and was earthy and suggestive of autumn leaves, which adds an element of congruence to the photo above. And like the lighting in the photo, there's not much about this cup of tea that stood out; it was highly muted, mellow, and with a hint of warmth, like the reflection of the lamp in the window and on the mug.

Why? Why brew and drink such mild or weak tea?

I feel like I could write pages about the reasons for brewing tea exceptionally weakly, and I hope to write more about this topic in the future. The current culture in the United States is, in my opinion, one that glorifies excess and extremes, and I think this is a shame. While people across America are drinking 20 oz. lattes with extra shots of espresso, I'm drinking a very weak cup of what was an extremely mild tea to begin with. In some senses, I may be brewing my tea weakly, and choosing to write about it, as an act of rebellion against an aspect of American culture that I find unwholesome. But outside this deviant streak in my personality, there are numerous other reasons for my brewing choice that come to mind.

One phenomenon I have come to appreciate is how the subtleness of the aroma forces you to pay attention more closely to the qualities of the tea. I find this promotes mindfulness, which in turn promotes both mental clarity and physical well-being. I also like the noticeable but low amount of caffeine in a cup of weak tea. Spacing caffeine out over a long period of time, I find, promotes a calm alertness and clarity of mind, whereas having too much caffeine at once I find makes me feel "off", and beyond a certain point, actually harms my ability both to focus and to relax.

I can also drink more cups of weak tea than I can strong tea. In the winter, and on cold, rainy days like today, I like to drink hot fluids continually; brewing weak tea allows me to drink a lot more. And sometimes, I don't have a clear reason; I'm just not in the mood for a strong cup of tea.

Try it out.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Do you drink more tea in winter, when it's cold?

It's winter. Yes, I know that winter "officially" begins on the 21st, at the Solstice, but for all practical purposes, it's winter. The trees have lost their leaves, and it's been below freezing here in Delaware for several nights in a row. The past couple days we've seen some light snow flurries, and on my bird survey this morning the ground was frozen. This is a photo from Phillips park, where I do my local bird surveying:

It looks like winter now.

The migratory birds are all gone, except for an (extremely anomalous) late American redstart that came through in the third week of November. Now on my walk I see mostly the cold-tolerant birds: chickadees, juncos, white-throated and song sparrows, woodpeckers, crows, gulls, pigeons, starlings. Anyone who is curious to see the data from my survey can view it publicly, by viewing eBird's records for Phillips Park, Newark, DE. This may contain other people's records at all--I'm not sure--but I'm the main person contributing the data for this park at this point.

Do you drink more tea during the cold weather?

I do. Not by a huge amount, but I tend to drink a little bit more. This "more" often manifests itself in the form of drinking more teas that are good for multiple infusions, so that I can enjoy a few cups of hot tea during the morning instead of just one. I also end up drinking a lot more hot herbal tea in the evening. Since I can't get it fresh from my garden, I am less likely to drink mint and lemon balm; instead I drink more rooibos and tulsi. I love the sensation of a warm mug in my hands, especially when I come in from my almost-daily bird walk.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Color / Colour: Tea vs. Peppers

This post is inspired by reading a post about Tetley Colour Therapy Tea on Carol's blog Cha Cha Cha. A lot of times, when people think of color and tea, flavored teas and various blends come to mind, often including "exotic" ingredients like cornflower, which impart little flavor or aroma, but have a bright blue color. But, as much as I love herbal tea, for the most part, I tend to prefer pure teas over flavored ones, so I want to talk about the color of pure tea. And I want to talk about peppers.

I love peppers...sweet, hot, and anywhere in between, and I'm also still excited at discovering the incredible diversity of peppers at the Newark (Delaware) Farmer's Market recently, which is where these pictures come from. What in the world do peppers have to do with tea? I think peppers give a good illustration of what tea is, and what tea is not:

These peppers clearly illustrate how diverse a single species can become under cultivation. This highlights what tea is: tea is incredibly diverse. The tea plant, Camellia sinensis, comes in many cultivars, with different leaf sizes and shapes, each with their peculiar flavor and aroma characteristics. Furthermore, just like peppers can be eaten fresh, sun-dried, grilled, flame roasted, pickled, fermented, powdered, pureed, and/or put into all matters of food, the manner of producing the finished tea leaf is also highly varied, and also introduces another layer of variability.

However, the peppers also present a stark contrast to tea, highlighting what tea is not: tea is not intensely colorful. It is not neon orange like a habanero or bold red like a red bell pepper or ripe cubanelle, nor will you ever find any purple teas like a purple bell pepper. But you will find teas matching the pale green of the caribe and hungarian peppers, the dark green of the serrano, or the dark, almost blackish green of the chilaca, and you will find many yellow-colored teas, and many brown teas, with some tending towards a reddish hue.

Peppers are intense:

Not just in color, I think peppers are a perfect example of what tea is not. Peppers can be insanely intense. The inconspicuous, long, narrow, plain green pepper pictured on the right side of the upper-left corner of the picture looks subtle in color, but take one nibble and there is nothing remotely subtle about it: this is a cayenne pepper, and will inflict pain on the first bite. I've found that many people I know can't even handle dishes prepared with serrano peppers, which are several notches down on the Scoville rating scale that measures a pepper's heat. And the comparatively wimpy Jalapeno is still considered, for better or worse, a "hot pepper".

The Color of Tea?

The color of tea is interesting. Often, the color of the dry leaf of a particular style of tea is sometimes an indicator of quality, and a trained eye can pick out the difference and use it to select higher-quality loose-leaf tea. But the difference doesn't always stare you in the face: it takes time and experience to recognize. Similarly, I've found that if you brew a Japanese green tea with different temperatures of water, the cup comes out a different color. This change in color usually corresponds to a marked change in flavor and aroma. However, this phenomenon is also subtle, and requires attentiveness to spot: your cup is not going to start glowing bright orange if you brew your green tea with water that is a bit too warm: you might just notice it doesn't look quite as golden.

So while I like the way a hot pepper can grab you from the first bite and not let go until the end of the meal (or well afterwards), I also like the way tea takes a little exploring before you experience all the different elements of it.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Decaffeinated Flavored Teas: Why Not Just An Herbal Blend?

I'm both a huge fan and major advocate of loose-leaf leaf, and I will jump on any opportunity to guide casual tea bag drinkers in the direction of high quality loose tea. It's no secret that part of my agenda behind creating RateTea is to draw in people who may have only ever tried the mainstream brands of tea available in the supermarket, and show them what the world of loose tea has to offer. But I still feel compelled to write about the mainstream brands from time to time, and now is one of those times.

The other day, I sampled Bigelow's Decaffeinated Constant Comment for the first time. This tea made me ask myself the question: Why? Bigelow's normal Constant Comment is, in my opinion, the best of their flavored teas, and I also think their Orange & Spice Herbal Tea is decent. These three teas are all quite similar, and as I wrote in my review of the decaf Constant Comment tea, I have a hard time understanding why someone would choose that tea over the caffeine-free herbal orange spice blend, which has a very similar overall profile but is bolder and more flavorful.

It's no secret that decaffeination processes extract flavor in addition to the caffeine. Decaf flavored teas tend to be better than decaf pure teas for the simple reason that the flavoring can be added or blended in after the decaffeination process has been carried out, thus leaving the additional flavoring intact. But...given how bland most decaf tea is, if you really want to avoid caffeine, why not just drink an herbal blend based on the flavoring or whatever herbs have been blended in, without any tea?

I guess, everyone has different tastes, and I'm sure there are those who really do like something about the flavor or aroma that decaf tea has to offer. But this is my own personal preference, and I'll continue to only sample these decaf teas out of curiosity, not because I really enjoy them. (Although I am still open to being proven wrong, something that has yet to happen.)

Monday, November 29, 2010

A Double Tea Leaf

Sometimes, when plants grow, for whatever reason, two leaves fuse together. I found this while brewing an Alishan Oolong from the Taiwanese brand Tradition tea (my review), and I thought it was interesting enough to photograph and share:

Notice that the two leaves have separate veins, but are fused together in one leaf. The effect is the appearance of a lobed leaf, with two separate points.

How often does this happen with tea leaves? It's the first time I've noticed it in a couple years of drinking a fair amount of whole-leaf tea, and I regularly handle used leaf teas because I always compost the used tea leaves. But it could be that it happens pretty often and I just haven't noticed it before.

One thing I love about nature is its diversity and unpredictable nature. Sometimes in our modern, western society we want to have everything look perfect, we glorify an aethetic of regularity. But I find this aesthetic, the aesthetic of control and uniformity, to be sterile and stifling. I like it when interesting things arise spontaneously, and I like to focus on them and appreciate them. I find beauty in the random, and the deviant, even when the distinctions are subtle, like this leaf that I almost tossed in the compost bin without noticing.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Thankful about Tea

Thanksgiving is a time for being thankful. I'm thankful about a lot of things, but since this is a tea blog, I will limit this post to gratitude that is somehow related to tea:
  • I'm thankful for the existence/invention/discovery of tea and herbal teas in the first place. I'm especially thankful for these beverages because I'm not a big fan of sugary drinks, and tea and herbal teas are one of the few beverages that are truly not sweet.
  • I'm thankful for the diverse and richly-connected community of people on the internet who are interested in tea, including the association of tea bloggers, the many other excellent blogs out there, the people I interact with on twitter, and the other online tea communities and websites.
  • I'm thankful for the stunning diversity of pure teas, and the wonder of what one plant, Camellia sinensis, and years of human ingenuity and careful cultivation can produce.
  • I'm thankful for the growth of interest and participation in RateTea, and all that I've learned about programming, writing, and interactive website design over the past year and a half of working on the site.
  • I'm thankful for all the wonderful people I've been able to enjoy tea with in the past, and all the people I will drink tea with in the future. (Alas, I'm drinking some tea by myself as I write this post.)
Happy thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Yerba Mate - Does it Belong on a Tea Website?

I recently reviewed a loose dark roast Yerba Mate from Mate Factor, which I enjoyed greatly, and which is pictured here:

When I created RateTea, I needed to make some difficult decisions about what to include and what not to include on the site. From the beginning, coffee was out, and herbal teas were in. Yes, herbal teas are not technically tea, as they are not made from the tea plant, Camellia sinensis, but I am comfortable referring to them as herbal "tea", for reasons I explain in my post Is "herbal tea" tea?. My rationale for these cutoffs was that both the procedures and equipment used to brew coffee are quite different from those used to brew tea, whereas the process and equipment used for tea and herbal tea are more or less the same.

Furthermore, due to this similarity of steeping and preparation, most tea companies sell herbal teas as well, and in fact, it's an almost ubiquitous cultural phenomenon that teas are blended or scented with other ingredients, from the jasmine, osmanthus, and rose teas of China, to the genmaicha and shiso sencha of Japan, to Moroccan mint tea (blending gunpowder green tea with mint), to the familiar fruit teas and Earl grey tea of the British tea culture. Tea and herbal teas go hand-in hand.

A few interesting products got cut out by this method. For example, I excluded Red espresso because it is prepared like espresso and not like tea. I also excluded all bottled teas, as they are not steeped or prepared by those drinking them, and in my opinion, they seem to go against the spirit of true tea drinking.

How to handle Yerba Mate?

Yerba mate, on the other hand, is a little bit more difficult. It can be prepared like tea, or like coffee. The Yerba mate above, from Mate Factor, had a label which gave brewing instructions both for tea-style steeping and coffee-style brewing. The instructions outlined how to prepare the Yerba mate using a basic coffee maker, a French press, or a tea pot or tea ball. Since I don't even own any coffee paraphernalia, I obviously opted for the tea-style brewing.

Even though Yerba mate can be prepared like coffee, because it can be prepared like tea, I decided early on to include Yerba mate on RateTea as well, where it is given its own page: Yerba mate, together with a separate category for flavored Yerba mate. I opted not to include these under the more general herbal tea category because people are so used to the idea that herbal teas contain caffeine. This is not technically true--we even have an article on herbal teas containing caffeine -- but it makes things simpler and more intuitive for most users. It's an arbitrary cutoff, but it's one I am happy with. So, like it or not, you may see a post or two about Yerba mate on this blog in the future, especially as I become more familiar with this other caffeinated drink.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Antioxidants - Breaking Through the Hype

Antioxidants have to be one of the most over-hyped classes of chemicals. They are found in nearly all plants, and thus, in most plant-based foods, and of course, in tea. Wikipedia has a good page on antioxidants, which paints a comprehensive and fairly accurate picture of these compounds.

Tea companies are guilty of exaggerating the health benefits associated with the antioxidants in tea, and companies marketing nutritional supplements have taken this misinformation even farther.

Pictured here is (+)-Catechin, one of the simpler antioxidants found in tea.

For a briefer read than Wikipedia's article, more oriented towards the topic of tea, I recently published an article on the antioxidants in tea on RateTea, which describes and discusses the antioxidants in tea and their impacts on health. The picture painted by my surveying of the recent scientific research on this topic is very different from what you hear in all the marketing of tea companies. Yes, tea is antioxidant-rich, but these chemicals are not necessarily as good for you as you might think.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Where do you notice that aroma?

Yesterday I had tea with Brandon of Wrong Fu Cha. I was impressed with his skill at brewing gong fu style, as well as his desire to improve his skill at brewing teas in this manner. We sampled a number of different teas, including a very mellow Lapsang Souchong, a Wuyi da hong pao, a double-roasted hojicha. We also sampled some of my pineapple sage, which was interesting to experience brewed in a gaiwan. We then tried an aged shu Pu-erh, and although I tend not to be impressed by Shu (cooked) Pu-erh, I will say that I liked the one we had. Then we proceeded to brew Arya Topaz (A Darjeeling oolong), a tea that I am still not impressed by, and the results were disappointing. We concluded with a rather ancient aged Shui Hsien oolong, aged over 50 years. Here's where the interesting experience began.

I've never had an aged oolong before, so this experience was new to me. One thing immediately struck me about this tea: each infusion was remarkably constant and similar. Normally, I find gong fu brewing brings out unique attributes of the aroma and flavor of a tea with each infusion. In this case, however, each infusion was virtually indistinguishable to me, until the final infusion when the tea became somewhat thin and the flavor was starting to finally weaken. It's hard for me to say how I'd describe this tea: the aroma seemed very unfamiliar to me: it was earthy, but not at all in a similar way to aged Pu-erh. It had a noticeable roast to it as well. There was a mild sourness in the flavor, but very little bitterness, and each cup except the last was very full-bodied.

But when I got home:

When I got home, the most peculiar thing happened. I opened the door of my apartment, and my apartment was filled with the scent of the aged Shui Hsien I had most recently sampled. Perhaps this is not terribly unusual: after all, I am always being told by my friends that my apartment smells earthy and smells like tea, possibly because I brew so much tea in it and because I'm often tracking dirt and leaves in from my garden. But it was particularly interesting to me because when I drank the tea, I had a strong feeling that the aroma was new and unfamiliar, something I had never encountered before.

It is a well-known psychological phenomenon that when a person encounters something new, they're more likely to notice it. This phenomenon can be seen as one manifestation of the recency effect, a bias that people have towards remembering or recalling things that they have encountered recently. The aromas are out there in the world, and there are going to be aromas present in various places that are similar in certain respects to various teas. Because I had been thinking intensely about the tea's aroma when I sampled it, that aroma was primed in my consciousness. I was then more likely to notice a similar aroma in my apartment--one that has been there all along.

One more benefit of tea drinking?

This phenomenon highlights one of the most remarkable things about tea, which especially occurs if you sample many new teas: tea makes you more aware of aromas in your environment.

I don't know about others, but I find this type of benefit particularly exciting. Senses are a seemingly innate skill, and are the first part of the filter through which we perceive the world. Honing or improving our senses in any way equates to broadening our experience of the world. Aromas can signal all sorts of things that cannot be communicated through the senses of sight, sound, or touch. I will certainly never pass up an opportunity to further develop my perception in this way!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Rooibos Protects Against Gamma Rays

This post is inspired by a post on lahikmajoedrinks tea, titled rub this on your skin and turn back time.

A number of tea companies and cosmetic companies are guilty of exaggerating the health benefits of various types of tea and herbs, attempting to capitalize on people's obsession with health and their lack of scientific rigor. Sometimes the claims being made are so outrageous that they become comical. But at times, there are health properties of certain plants that may seem so bizarre that they are easily dismissed or ignored. This post is about one such property, one that sounds so crazy that I've never seen it advertised by any company. But in this case there is actually some scientific evidence behind the claim. I'm sharing this mainly to convince people of the sheer power that plants have to offer. Hopefully this post can inspire some awe and wonder of the miracles that nature has in store for us.

Rooibos Protects Against Gamma Rays:

Just what is a gamma ray anyway? Gamma rays are a type of high-frequency (short wavelength) electromagnetic (EM) radiation, part of the same spectrum that contains radio waves (at low frequencies) and visible light (intermediate frequencies). Gamma rays fall solidly into the ionizing radiation part of the EM spectrum, which means that they carry enough electricity to separate electrons from atoms or molecules. What this means is that a gamma ray can break apart molecules, and thus, in the human body, cause cellular damage. Pictured below is a diagram of the EM spectrum:

Gamma rays are particularly dangerous to humans not only because they can cause damage to our cells, but because they are able to penetrate clothing and skin, and thus cause diffuse damage throughout the body. Whereas lower-frequency radiation is less penetrating, and thus tends to cause localized burns to the skin, gamma rays instead cause radiation sickness and cancer, making them a particularly sinister threat. Gamma rays occur in nature, and the sun gives off some degree of them, but when concentrated, they are dangerous and highly destructive. Gamma rays are responsible for the devastation of radiation sickness and cancer caused by atomic bombs, nuclear meltdowns, nuclear fallout. These rays are notoriously difficult to protect against; they are the rays that require a thick lead shield, or an even thicker concrete shield, in order to block them out.

How can rooibos protect against gamma rays?

In an article titled Radioprotective effect of antioxidative flavonoids in γ-ray irradiated mice, researchers summarized results from studies on mice that establish that, at least in mice, rooibos, drunk in the form of an herbal tea, can actually provide some modest protection against the damage from gamma rays. Rooibos, like tea, contains antioxidants, including ones that act as radical scavengers. Although it's not fully known exactly what's going on, the basic idea is that when a gamma ray breaks apart a molecule, a free radical is formed. A free radical is an unstable molecule that can react with, and thus cause damage to DNA, fat, or protein in a cell, if it happens to collide with such an organic molecule at a vulnerable point. Radical scavengers react with free radicals before they are able to damage part of the living cell, thus "sacrificing themselves" for the good of the cell.

In good news for us humans, the doses used were similar to the dose obtained by drinking a typical cup of rooibos. So, if you're ever caught near a nuclear bomb blast or nuclear meltdown, quickly brew yourself some rooibos!

Why would rooibos contain chemicals with this property? Think briefly about what the rooibos plant, Aspalathus linearis, does all day long. Endemic to a semi-arid region of South Africa, growing in exposed locations in shrubby habitats, the rooibos plant has a need for such chemicals to protect itself from the barrage of UV radiation that it is subjected to as it basks in the African sun. It makes sense that this plant would manufacture such protective chemicals.

Is it just rooibos?

Absolutely not. The authors of the study cited above also noted that the largest effects seemed to be due to the flavonoid luteolin, which is actually found in a number of plants, including chamomile, carrots, peppermint, rosemary, oregano, and many others. However, rooibos, besides being very tasty, may have a number of other positive health effects as well, at least according to the results of some preliminary research studies. You can read more about this on RateTea's page on rooibos.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The United States as a Tea Producer

There are many reasons that the U.S. is not a major producer of tea, and climate is not necessarily the primary one. Tea production is labor intensive, and the high cost of labor excludes the U.S. from the sort of bulk tea production that dominates China, India, and Sri Lanka's tea market. But as Japan proves, an industrialized country with a high cost of living can still be a major tea producer. Perhaps some of the reason is cultural as well. But climate is still a major player.

The U.S., including the Continental U.S., does grow tea commercially:

On RateTea I've been collecting information on the few tea-producing operations in the U.S. Outside of Hawaii, which produces a small amount of artisan teas, the main two operations are in coastal South Carolina, now owned by Bigelow, and in the Skagit Valley of Washington State, an operation owned by Sakuma Brothers. You can read a little more about these on RateTea's page on the United States as a tea-producing region.

Also, thanks to Tony Gebely for pointing this out, Roy Fong of Imperial Tea is starting a tea garden in California.

Why doesn't the U.S. grow more tea?

The climate of much of the U.S. is not suitable for growing the tea plant. Camellia sinensis likes a humid climate with high precipitation during the growing season. It grows in tropical and subtropical climates, and can take some degree of cold. The interior west is all too arid and mostly too cold as well, and the humid midwest and northeast are too cold. The west coast is more temperate in climate, but the pattern of precipitation on the west coast of the U.S. is opposite that in south and southeast Asia: instead of the wet summers and dry winters characterizing the Asian monsoon, the west coast of North America features a Mediterranean pattern with dry summers and wet winters. Furthermore, the overall precipitation increases as one moves farther north. Thus as one moves south, into the areas where the temperature profile is better suited for Camellia sinensis, it becomes too dry. Tea is successfully grown in parts of California by gardeners and curious tea drinkers, but it's not ideal. The best parts of the west coast are the pacific northwest, where the proximity to the ocean results in high rainfall and moderate temperatures.

Are there other parts of the US that could grow the tea plant?

Based on what I've seen on gardening sites (see Sunset's page on Camellia sinensis), from other research, and from the testimony of gardeners, I know the answer is yes. The tea plant is hardy to USDA Zone 8, which includes the coastal pacific northwest, the entire gulf coast, all of coastal South Carolina and parts of North Carolina. Some of these areas, however, might be a bit of a stretch, at the border of where the plant could survive. I like Sunset's system of zones, as they take into account year-round climate and precipitation, as opposed to the USDA zones which only consider the coldest temperatures in winter. According to Sunset's classification system, there are a variety of zones in the U.S. suitable for the tea plant.

I suspect that the tea plant would probably grow very well around the gulf coast, epsecially coastal Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, where the climate is mild and there is ample rainfall.

No high-grown tea:

The one thing that the U.S. does not have, however, is an area suitable for high-grown tea: the southern end of the Appalachians is far too cold, and the areas around the gulf coast are very flat and low-lying. Similarly, in the pacific Northwest, the tea is grown in a low-lying area moderated by the coast: although the rainfall increases with altitude, winter temperatures drop off sharply. It is only the tropical regions of the world that can produce high-grown tea.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Tea Bags - Spiritually Disconnecting You From Your Tea

I was inspired to write this post by reading a thread on LeafBox Tea, started by Peter, titled The 1 Big Reason Why I Think Tea Bags Are Stupid (now available only on Something about this discussion sparked me to recall my first semester of college, in which I read some early works by Karl Marx (pre-Communist Manifesto). One thing that jumped out to me as particularly sane and insightful about Marx's philosophical ramblings was the concept that a modern industrial society alienates people from the product of their labor, and that this alienation is on a spiritual level.

Sounds a bit metaphysical and new-agey, right? The concept of "spiritual" is hard to pin down, but I find that it's a useful concept to encompass that deep sort of connected feeling that drives us to feel an experience is filled with meaning and purpose. It's a sort of fulfillment that transcends the sensory world, and it has immense power in terms of motivating people, helping them endure hardship, and helping them to experience potentially difficult personal growth. And I've found, from my personal experience, that when things are spiritually alienating, there's often something wrong on a more concrete level as well. In the spiritual sterile desert of modern life, driven by money and formal structures rather than purpose, we humans succumb to depression, becoming less creative, and becoming less able to cope with the challenges that life inevitably presents us with.

How does this relate to tea? Tea and spirituality have been linked by so many different cultures. The Japanese Tea Ceremony is an ancient, traditional example of this. And Jason Witt, author of Spirituality of Tea also argues, in a more contemporary context, that there is something innately spiritual about tea. I recently read a review of the book "Tea Time with God" on Angela McRae's blog Tea With Friends; that book seems to emphasize the concept of a break or pause, as having spiritual significance. But the modern concept of a tea bag approaches tea differently: as a product, marketed to "consumers": the convenience takes away from the spiritual element.

Tea Bags: Disconnecting You From Your Tea

Pictured below is a tea bag of Floral Jasmine Green from T ( I picked this one to photograph and mention here because it was exceptionally good for a tea bag, but if you read my review you'll find my final question asking whether or not it's really worthwhile to buy good tea in a tea bag.

In the forum thread referenced at the start of this post, Peter remarked that:

...there is something awesome about digging your fingers deep down into a tin of loose, dry tea. The rough texture on your hand really is cool. When you do that, you are feeling the texture of a product that was unchanged from the day it left the farm. How cool is that? You want natural? You want to feel close to the source? Dump your loose tea into a big bowl and dig your dirty fingers down into the bottom of it. Let the tea run out of your hand, watch how it falls. Someone, on a rural farm, may very well have handled your tea in a very similar manner as he or she dumped into a container or packaging. Talk about experiencing your food.

When I read this, it struck me that perhaps the problem with our industrialized food supply is also a spiritual problem. Just as the industrialization of work results in a spiritual alienation of people from the product of their labor, the industralization of our food supply results in a spiritual alienation between the people consuming the food and the food itself, not to mention those who produced it.

There are a lot of tangible problems with the food culture in America--health problems associated with poor nutrition, environmental problems associated with production that is unsustainable ecologically, and a barren culture in which people have forgotten how to taste, how to smell, and have lost the rich food traditions of earlier generations. But are these root problems, or are they symptoms? The concept of spirituality is inherently unifying and is thus empowering and liberating. When we think on a spiritual level, we see that these problems are not isolated, but rather, are all symptoms of one deep problem: we have become disconnected from our food.

Using loose tea rather than tea bags is one way to become reconnected again.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Pineapple Sage Tea - Salvia elegans

A while back, in my post four herbal teas you may not know about, I mentioned Pineapple sage, Salvia elegans, a cousin of the common sage plant, native to the mountains of Mexico and Guatemala. That post was in March, shortly after I planted the plant. The plant grew fabulously over the summer here in Delaware, and it recently bloomed, producing beautiful red blossoms:

You can read a little more about pineapple sage on Wikipedia's page on Salvia Elegans. The plant has some interesting medicinal uses, some of which are supported by a little bit of scientific evidence, such as antidepressant, anti-anxiety, and blood-pressure-lowering effects. But I'm here to talk more about how this tea tastes, and why it's not commercially available.

A Transient Herbal Tea:

The leaves of pineapple sage have an incredibly pleasing scent...strong, sweet, and suggestive of pineapple. The best way I can describe it is that it's a bright, cheerful smell. It makes sense that the fresh leaves would yield a delicious beverage when infused in water. The brewed tea smells a lot like the fresh leaf, but the light, sweet, candy-like pineapple aroma is balanced by a mild herbaceous quality, vaguely reminiscent of common sage. Upon drinking a single cup of this drink, I thought to myself: why isn't this plant used more in herbal blends? Why haven't I seen it available commercially? I searched far and wide and was unable to find any tea company that sells this plant.

Apparently, after reading more, I learned that it does not dry well; this is one plant that is best used fresh. And I'm afraid that it seems unlikely that this plant will make it through the Delaware winter; it's planted in the warmest spot, near my house, and I'm going to trim it back and mulch it, but I doubt it's going to make it. I've grown enough for about 10 cups of pineapple sage tea, on top of the ones I've enjoyed throughout the summer and fall. I guess the lesson here, which is easily reinforced by local fruit or vegetable harvests, is that some of the best food and drink needs to be savored while in season!

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Upton Tea Imports: My Favorite and Least Favorite Teas

Upton Tea Imports is one of my favorite tea companies. I've sampled more teas from them (87 as of writing this) than any other company. As usual, this collection or list represents my own sometimes peculiar opinion. Someone who has tried some of these teas may notice my tendency for enjoying sharp and strong-tasting green teas; if you are also a fan of these greens, you may enjoy trying some of these for yourself.

My Favorite Teas from Upton:

Unfortunately, some of my favorite teas from Upton were small batches that have been discontinued, including a long-leaf Darjeeling green from Makaibari estate (this estate never ceases to impress me!), a large-leaf green tea from Thailand, grown from the cultivar normally used to make Assam, and a broken-leaf blend of teas from the Himalayan region which I found brighter and sharper than a typical Darjeeling BOP.

Some of Upton's more stable offerings have also grabbed my attention, though. I'm often talking about Upton's Oolong Se Chung (including their Osmanthus Se Chung), and those are probably my two favorite offerings from Upton, but I've talked about them enough, so I'll focus on green teas that stood out when I sampled them. One such tea was their chun mee dao ming, a nuanced version of a familiar style of tea, chun mee, which is not frequently viewed as a connoisseur's tea. I found this tea to have a surprising complexity to its aroma. Another one was a ceylon green from Oliphant estate; it struck me as pleasantly tobacco-like, just as in Upton's description. Yet another green tea I loved was ZG36: Organic Wuyuan Ruikang Hairpoint. This tea was cleaner and grassier, but had a very pleasant edge to it.

My Least Favorite Teas from Upton:

Many of these are not bad teas, but are just a question of personal taste. For example, I tried BH60: Hibiscus Flowers, Coarse Cut and didn't like them, but this isn't because they're bad, just because I apparently don't like straight hibiscus--too sour for me.

But some teas I just didn't think were all that good, for example, the two Oolongs from Tindharia estate, TD90: Tindharia Estate First Flush Green Oolong (EX-10) and TDC2 - Tindharia Estate Oolong (DJ-54), were both rather pricey greener Darjeeling oolong that just didn't do it for me. I know that it's not that I dislike greener Darjeeling oolongs, as the Soureni Organic Oolong from Fresh Darjeeling Tea (which is close in price) proved. Other disappointments were Upton's BOP Ceylons from the Dimbula and Kandy regions; I found both to be strong, harsh, not particularly aromatic, and not particularly interesting.

I've had plenty of solidly good teas from Upton, and continue to be impressed with their offerings and prices. But these are the teas that stood out as the ones I was most and least impressed with!

Friday, October 29, 2010

Tea Tasting at the University of Delaware

The residential life and services department at most colleges encourages and often requires residence advisors (RA's) to organize period programs and activities with their dorm hall, in order to foster a sense of community. Last year I teamed up with an RA at the University of Delaware to sponsor a tea tasting and tea swap in one of the dorms, and it was a huge success. Even though it happened to fall on an unseasonably hot day in spring (reaching the 90's), there was a huge turnout of people wanting to drink hot tea! I was impressed and encouraged, and resolved to help organize one again.

While it was by no means a fancy event, it got college students to sample lots of loose tea. The most exciting thing to me about these events is that a lot of the students who come do not regularly drink loose tea, and they end up sampling many different varieties of loose leaf tea, and loving it. One thing that also surprises me is how many people drink the tea unsweetened--even though we provide honey, sugar, and artificial sweetener.

Here is a picture from before the second such event (the table was much more disorderly afterwards):

The setup was very simple; I brought lots of loose tea, some of which was donated courtesy of Arbor Teas, Teatulia, and the Boston Tea Company. There were numerous other brands which I provided as well. There were at least 4 of each kinds of tea: green, black, white, and oolong, and there was an aged Pu-erh, and many herbals, including some I had grown locally in my own garden. People were able to brew the tea loose in their own mug, or a ceramic teapot, and and a variety of tea infusers and filters were also provided. People were also encouraged to bring their own teas to contribute, sample, and trade.

I want to thank the RA and the other student (pictured above) who organized this event and made this project possible! They baked delicious croissants and cinnamon buns to go with the tea.

I talked informally with people as they were choosing a tea to drink, about where the tea comes from, how it is processed. Rather than an organized educational medium like a talk, the event was more informal, with a drop-in, drop-out setup. I am most comfortable in this sort of environment though, and I found the students were really enthusiastic to learn about all the different varieties of tea present.

Lastly, in yet another encouraging point, we composted all of the tea, even breaking open the few tea bags that were used. You can see below that we drank a lot of tea at this one small event:

People often talk about how the U.S. lacks a strong tea culture, but it seems that the younger generation is very passionate about tea (and about sustainability, which is also encouraging!). I look forward to running more programs like this. I am thinking of having one open to the general public as well!

Friday, October 22, 2010

Pare Down the Teas to Pair with your Pear

I've lately started to think more about tea-food pairings. It's fall, and this means pear season. I think pears and tea are well-paired in general. Unfortunately, I don't think I chose the best tea to pair with my pear this morning: I drank a Makaibari Estate 1st Flush from Arbor Teas, which is a tea I absolutely love, but for this pairing was too mild, too fruity, and altogether too pear-like. Pictured here is a pear that I just ate, after cutting it with a paring knife (honest! I'm not just trying to make a terrible pun):

So how does one pare down the selection of teas from which to choose from for pairing with your pear? I think the basic ideas to consider when pairing tea with food are contrast and complementation. Contrast ensures your tea does not taste too much like the food, and complementation makes sure that the tea does not clash with the food, nor do you want either to be overpowered. How does this play out with pears?

Pears are very mild so I think contrast, rather than complementation is the key consideration here. This is my personal preference:

  • I'd avoid light, fruity, and sweeter teas. This would include light, fruity Darjeelings, especially first flush, but it would also include Keemun and other black teas with a deeper, earthier quality suggestive of dried fruit or wine, and it would certainly include light oolongs like pouchong and Tung Ting.

  • I'd choose a tea with a fair amount of bitterness. Pears are sweet and have no little to no bitterness, and are well complemented by bitter teas. These could include a strong black tea, or a brisk green tea of either steamed or pan-fired varieties.

  • I'd avoid teas that exhibit more astringency than bitterness, which includes quite a few green teas. Pear skin can have a bit of astringency, and although it's subtle, I find it leaves me unsatisfied if it's not cleared out by some bitterness.

What teas do I most enjoy pairing with pears? I like Foojoy's Triple-Cup Extra Green, which is in many respects I think a very typical example of a Chinese pan-fired green tea. I think gunpowder and chun mee go well with pears. I also like the (now discontinued, but replaced by similar offerings) Himalayan BOP from Upton Tea Imports. This is a high-grown black tea that is pleasingly bitter but not as fruity as most Darjeelings. I think pears also go well with Assam, and with sheng Pu-erh that is young enough to still carry considerable bitterness.

I want to emphasize that this is just my personal taste. A lot of tea companies use pear as a flavoring for white teas or lighter oolongs. I'm not crazy about such blends...they are too weak for me!

A Little About This Particular Pear:

Just like I pay attention to tea and enjoy trying different varieties of tea, I do the same with just about every kind of food out there. The large green pear is a D'Anjou, and the smaller one is a Forelle.

What was this particular pear like? It was sweet, juicy, and delicious! It was labelled as a "Red pear" and I can't tell if it's a red D'Anjou or Red Bartletts. The shape suggests a Bartlett but the flavor, texture of its skin, and the fact that it did not bruise as easily suggest otherwise. The skin of this pear was thin, smooth, and relatively tough for its thinness.

The texture of the flesh, when ripe, is soft, and very creamy, less mealy than a typical D'Anjou or Bartlett at this stage of sweetness. I find regular Bartlett's and D'Anjou's can both get mealy when overripe, whereas the red pears are a bit more pleasing if they're past their prime. I also think that the red pears are also a bit more pleasant when underripe.

Are some pears better for tea than others? I don't think so...pears are really similar to each other; I think if one tea went well with pears, it would probably go well with any variety of pear.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Tea Selections of Supermarkets

Any tea connoisseur knows that supermarkets are not the stronghold of tea culture in the U.S. Many of them sell only one or two loose teas, usually Twinings, although my local Pathmark surprised me when I picked up a loose organic sencha from Two Leaves and a Bud the other day.

But the tea selection of supermarkets does vary greatly from one to the next. Wegmans, a supermarket chain in the mid-Atlanic, has a surprising selection of its own brand of tea, which, from what I've heard from others, is not bad. RateTea lists Wegmans teas, which include loose teas and even a few single-region teas; I have yet to try any of them, but one has received a favorable review on the site.

As someone who cares a lot about "public food culture" in the U.S. (and hopes to influence it), I like to keep an eye on what is for sale in supermarkets, even if I'm not going to shop there. I just want to get a sense on what's going on out there in society, so that I can get a greater sense of how I fit into the picture. Here's what is in my local PathMark:

Doesn't look terribly exciting, right? But note the tea strainers hanging in front of the numerous boxes of teabags from various mainstream brands. They're not the best choice of a tea infuser, in my opinion--I'd rather see a Finum Basket Infuser myself, or something similar--but it's good that they at least sell them. The only loose tea I found in this part of the store was Twinings, and they only had a few varieties, but hidden in the "organic" and "health food" section of the store was the Two Leaves and a Bud tea I mentioned above.

It seems that the retail industry in the U.S. seems to consider tea more of a "health food" item than a mainstream food item. Fitting with this, the Newark Natural Foods Co Op had a bit of a better selection:

Although these are better teas (Brands like Numi, Choice Organics, and a few more esoteric brands), they are almost all tea bags. I found this disappointing. It kind of fits with the whole "whole foods" mentality that I often hear people criticize: people will buy organic and fair-trade certified products, often at higher prices, but they don't get at the core issue--the fact that they're paying for all this packaging, the fact that they're still spending their money on an industrialized food supply. I've even heard people argue that all these organic brands are essentially "greenwashing"...I'm not sure I'd go that far, I do think there's a difference between having the certification and not having it, and that it is probably worth paying for. But I also think it might be better in the interest of sustainability to just buy high-quality loose tea, even if it has no organic or fair trade certification. And I'm not seeing this transition reflected in the offerings of even health food stores...yet.

There's a little bit of good news out there, but we still have a long way to go.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Tea Company Websites Conveying Instant Legitimacy (or lack thereof) Through the "About Us" Page

The web can often be a place of short attention spans and instantaneous judgments. With hundreds of different online retailers of tea, one cannot possibly take the time to even fully explore every tea company website, even if you're a serious tea blogger, webmaster of a tea website, or a die-hard tea enthusiast. An interesting book, Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell, explores the question of instantaneous, intuitive decisions, and finds that in a number of ways, people can actually be quite accurate with snap decisions.

Looking at a Tea Company Website:

Different people look for different things on a website. I'm less of an artistic person, and while good visual design does get my attention and make a positive impression, I'm not willing to write off a company just because their website is minimal, blocky, or unprofessional looking--nor am I willing to consider a company legitimate just because their design is outstanding. So what do I look for?

I go straight to the "About Us" page.

If your website does not have an "About" or "About Us" page (or equivalent page by some other name), that sends up a red flag. What kind of legitimate business would ignore the opportunity to present basic information to curious potential customers looking to learn more about a company?

Bad or Meaningless "About Us" Pages:

What is perhaps worse than no about page, however, is a trite page spewing platitudes about how the company is committed to bringing you the best teas, without actually giving any factual background information about the company or useful information about the company's history or focus. This communicates, like above, a lack of business confidence and know-how. A confident business advertises: Here I am, this is who I am, this is what makes me special.

An ideal About page:

I strongly prefer when the about us page identifies the owner(s) of the company, where the company is located, when it was founded, and any relevant history of the company. These things all serve to make the company seem more personal, and they also make me more interested in and curious about the company. Information about location can provide an extra boost of interest if the company happens to be based in a city or town which I am familiar with. But the most important point of all to include is what makes your particular tea company unique.

The about us page is an awesome opportunity--one of the best opportunities to make a sales pitch for your business. If someone actually comes to this page and is reading it, they are interested in learning more about your company, and they are specifically looking for more information. This is as good as it gets! Don't blow this prime opportunity!

Highlight your strengths. Do you sell some unusual Chinese oolongs that are hard to obtain elsewhere? Or some single-estate tea from Malawi that is inexpensive, subtly flavored, and that no one has heard of? Do you specialize in Ceylon or Indian teas from a particular region? Does your company offer innovative herbal blends? Or classic British-style teas? Are you going above and beyond with your use of sustainable packing materials? Do you sell any teas sourced directly from small, farmer-owned tea gardens or cooperatives?

Link up your page with an active blog and/or active social media accounts. One of the best ways to establish legitimacy is through recommendations of others. If you're actively participating in a community of tea enthusiasts, interacting with other tea drinkers, tea companies, and people in the world of tea, this helps to demonstrate that the facts on your website can be trusted in a way that cannot be conveyed by just writing something on your site alone.

Link only to actively maintained accounts and sites. If you don't use your twitter account, don't link to it--an account with a single tweet 6 months ago draws attention to the fact that you don't use this type of social media. If you don't use it, that's fine, but don't draw attention to this fact. The same goes for blogs. Try to post at least once a month, ideally more often, on a given type of media (facebook, blog, twitter, etc.) if you are going to link to it.

It doesn't need to be named "about":

Lastly, you can call your about page anything you want, especially if you want to get more personal. Chicago Tea Garden says "Our Story", which I like because it brings to mind the process that led the company to be founded; Zen Tara Tea says "Who We Are", which I like because it's very direct. Just make sure the page is intuitively named and easy to locate. Since it's the second page that many people will view after landing on your site (I've found this same pattern on all websites I've ever administered), it makes sense to link to it from every page on your site.

I hope this page can encourage some of the newer and smaller companies to fill out their about us page! I'm always surprised when I am looking for more info and don't find it! It takes only a brief amount of time to fill out such a page, and it will convey instant legitimacy, at least, to readers like me.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Aerial Photo of Cleveland's Chinatown

When I lived in Cleveland, Ohio, there was an Asian supermarket in the Asia Plaza at the corner of Payne Ave. and 30th street. For orientation, the highway is I-90, the street at the bottom of the picture is Superior and at the top is Chester. I bought some interesting tea at this store; it was the first place I bought a number of teas, including hojicha and genmaicha. While flying this summer, I changed in Cleveland and was able to photograph it:

The store has since moved, but is still in the same neighborhood. This photo brings back memories for me; I used to walk around the neighborhood pictured here. It doesn't look like much from the air, but this is the heart of Cleveland's Chinatown, and there are a lot of great places scattered about, including a few places to buy decent tea, and some fabulous Cantonese restaurants, serving dim sum.

This Chinatown was very important in the development of my palate; it was the first place I ate really good and really authentic Chinese food on a regular basis. I tried a whole bunch of new types of vegetables, mushrooms, spices, new combinations of things. I fell in love with Cantonese-style noodle soups and different from the fare served in most Americanized Chinese restaurants. Most importantly, I began to grasp the true richness of Asian culinary traditions, and to see the degree to which these traditions have been cheapened and made into a mass, uniform culture in America. But it also made me feel hopeful...Chinese food can taste like this? It was similar to the awakening I had when trying my first cup of green high-mountain oolong from Taiwan...tea can taste like this?

One of my favorite restaurants is Li Wah; it's still there, right in the plaza circled on the map. Other favorites places to eat in the neighborhood include Bo Loong, and Tom's Seafood Restaurant. I think they're both still there; some of my other favorite places have since closed, but others have opened up. Cleveland is a great city and I often miss living there, especially when I'm starting to get hungry.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Why Try New Brands of Tea?

Most serious tea drinkers have one or two favorite brands of tea or tea companies that they like to regularly order from. Humans are often creatures of habit, and it's easy to settle into the routine of ordering from the same company over and over again. This is especially true when dealing with tea companies with large catalogs, like my good old favorite Upton Tea Imports, where it is virtually impossible to exhaust the myriad of offerings of tea of different varieties and from different regions of the world.

But are people with such regular purchasing habits missing something?

The World of Tea is Always Changing:

There are so many tea companies out there; RateTea's list of brands of tea currently stands at 189, and there are many important companies that are still not included in that list. I'm constantly astonished both by the number of new tea companies being started, and the uniqueness of some of the newer companies' approaches. This is particularly true of companies that are leaders in sustainability--many of these companies are relatively new. For example, Rishi Tea, now a major force in the U.S. tea market, was founded in 1997.

However, Rishi's founding is old news compared to a number of other companies. Innovative tea companies are continuously being founded. Shanti Tea, a Canadian company, and Tony Gebely's Chicago Tea Garden both come to mind; both of these companies have a number of unique offerings, completely unlike anything you'll find elsewhere, and both were founded in 2009.

I know this post is not doing justice to all the amazing tea companies out there so my apologies in advance to other new, innovating companies.

What have I learned from trying teas from different companies?

They're different. Besides the difference in what particular types of tea are offered (which in itself is important), often, trying the same style of tea from different companies will reveal substantial differences. This is true both of companies that blend their teas, and of those that select unblended teas. Different companies cater to different tastes, and in a few cases, I've even noticed patterns and trends that seem to carry across teas of different styles, from a given company. For example, I've found that Adagio teas tends to seek out lighter, sweeter, more aromatic teas that tend to be less full-bodied. And the Darjeeling teas I tried from Fresh Darjeeling Tea (another recent startup, I might add) all had a noticeable vegetal quality in common to them--one absent in a number of other Darjeeling teas.

So the lesson is?

Get out there and try tea from new companies. You will be surprised what you find!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

wikiCHA - A Wiki for Tea

Since I'm a huge fan of Wikipedia, and Wikipedia already has extensive information on tea, you might be wondering...why is this guy advocating for yet another wiki? And why for yet another informational tea site when he runs a tea site himself, RateTea? Will this not cause duplication of information?

Yes, wikiCHA is yet another wiki--specifically focused on tea, and yes, there will be some duplication of information. But I think there is a place for all these websites, as they have different standards and serve different purposes--they are complements. I also think that, given how much duplication of misinformation (especially on spammy blogs and the occasional carelessly written commercial website) there is out there on the web, having several more legitimate websites with more accurate information will certainly not hurt.

wikiCHA is run by Brandon of Wrong Fu Cha, but, like wikipedia, it's freely open to the public for editing.

Differences Between Wikipedia and wikiCHA:

Wikipedia is an encyclopedia, and appropriately has rather strict standards for the sourcing of material. (I find these standards, by the way, to be outstanding guidelines for quality scholarship.) Per Wikipedia's guidelines, all information is required to be verifiable in reliable sources, and a topic is only considered to be notable enough to warrant inclusion if significant coverage can be found in multiple independent sources. Although guidelines have some degree of flexibility, in general, company websites are not acceptable sources, as they are self-published. Similarly, blogs and other self-published sites are also not acceptable sources.

In the world of tea, this becomes slightly problematic, as tea companies are one of the main sources of information, and blogs can be another main one. Another problem is that a lot of the most relevant qualities of tea, such as flavor and aroma, can be rather subjective and are not exactly encyclopedic in nature.

wikiCHA is a valuable contribution to the "wikisphere" in that it is offers a bit more of a "free form" wiki. Although it may not be as rigorous as wikipedia, it provides a vehicle for adding and working with material that may not be suitable for inclusion on wikipedia, or that would be difficult to adequately source. Although it is still young and many parts of it are not thoroughly developed, I would encourage others to participate in it. When sites like this, which are democratic and controlled in a decentralized fashion, grow, it ultimately enriches the total body of information out there pertaining to tea.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Fresh Tulsi (Holy Basil) Tea

I make fresh herbal tea from home-grown herbs all the time. My favorite ingredients are spearmint, lemon balm, apple mint, and peppermint, roughly in that order. More recently, I discovered the joys of the Monarda sp., orange mint, and a number of other mint-family plants. Yet there is another herb in the mint family that I have fallen in love with for its use in herbal teas. This is tulsi, also known as holy basil, scientific name Ocimum sanctum or Ocimum tenuiflorum. I first tried Tulsi when I ordered some from Upton Tea Imports. Interestingly, this tea is one of the relatively small number of teas that has already received several reviews on RateTea (read the reviews, including mine).

It was not until several months later that I tried brewing tea from the fresh leaves of the tulsi plant. I discovered the plant growing in an edible garden at Michigan State University in East Lansing, while visiting a friend there on my trip across the midwest. The garden had just about every variety of basil that I had ever tried or heard of, and countless more I had never encountered before. Besides nibbling on a myriad of basils of all different sizes, shapes, and colors, I took the opportunity to gather enough tulsi for a single cup--it was quite plentiful and I couldn't even notice that any had been taken. The picture above is of the first cup of fresh Tulsi tea that I have ever brewed.

About the same time, and unbeknownst to me, my parents had obtained some tulsi seeds, and were growing it in their own garden. I have since been able to taste tulsi grown in their garden, and theirs is very similar. In both cases, the tulsi was the green-leafed variety.

What does it taste like?

Fresh tulsi tea is very different from dried tulsi (in my opinion, more than fresh mint tea is different from dried mint tea), but is still easily recognizable as the same plant. In both cases I brewed the fresh leaf by pouring boiling water over the leaves directly in a cup, and then steeping for at least 8 minutes. The aroma is much less suggestive of spice, and, as is typical of a fresh herbal tea, was significantly more vegetal. I enjoyed this, however: it imparted a lighter characteristic to the drink. The dominance of clove in the aroma is still noticable, but I find that in the fresh tulsi, the clove was more balanced with other aromas. There was also a bit of a muted peppery quality absent from the dried herb. I found the fresh tulsi tea also left a richer aftertaste.

Holy basil is known to have a number of medicinal properties, and among them, it has a noticeable relaxing effect. I found this to also be the case with the fresh tea.

So what's the bottom line? I think holy basil is a great option for making fresh herbal tea. My parents prefer to blend it with mint, whereas I prefer to drink it on its own. And according to my parents, it's also easy to grow, significantly easier than sweet basil, and they live in Pennsylvania, which has a very different climate from Tulsi's native habitat. The seeds can be hard to obtain, but if you can get your hands on some seeds or some plants, you might want to give it a try.