Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Bottled Water for Brewing Tea - Responsible Choice or No?

Now and then I run across posts on various tea websites recommending that people use bottled water for brewing tea. The rationale is simple: water quality is one of the most important factors in brewing the best possible cup of tea. I agree with this statement, to a point (although honestly, I think other factors like steeping time and temperature are often more influential than subtle differences in water quality). More on these factors on the RateTea article on brewing tea.

Is bottled water higher quality?

A 2005 edie article about bottled water discusses a policy statement of the Chartered Institute of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM), and also interviews their executive director, who offers a scathing critique of bottled water. CIWEM claims that public perception of bottled water has been driven by marketing and not facts, and that there are actually stricter standards for quality in place for tap water than for bottled water, both when it comes to chemical content and bacteria.

In 2008, the Environmental Working Group also conducted an analysis of bottled water. The results strongly validated the assertions made by CIWEM, finding 38 pollutants in 10 major brands of bottled water, including disinfectants and known carcinogens at levels that exceeded legal safety limits. Over one-third of the chemicals are not regulated in bottled water. Also, 4 out of the 10 brands were found to be contaminated with bacteria. The analysis concluded that the purity of bottled water could not be trusted.

Unsustainable: Bottled Water is a Resource Sink:

Quality issues aside, there are other reasons to avoid using bottled water. The Pacific Institute looked at 2006 water consumption and produced a fact sheet about bottled water and energy use. The production and bottling of the water was estimated to take 17 million barrels of oil in this year, and that does not include transportation costs. Also, 3 liters of water are used for every 1 liter that gets bottled. Transportation is a major issue.

Sustainability is of utmost importance to me. Even if the quality were somewhat higher, I cannot see myself drinking bottled water unless the water in my area were unsafe for human consumption. Given that the evidence points to bottled water being considerably less safe, there is simply no choice for me. Delaware water may not taste great but it's what I will continue drinking and brewing my tea with.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Ten of China's Underappreciated Teas

Inspired by a recent post on the Life in Teacup blog, China's Famous Teas Top 10 - Money and Power?, I decided to create my own Top 10 Chinese teas list. There are lots of different "China Famous Teas" (中国名茶) or "Ten Great Chinese Teas" (中国十大名茶) lists floating around out there...interesting analysis on Wikipedia of which teas appear on how many of these lists, by the way.

But this is a different sort of Top 10...most of these teas would not make it onto any of these lists. This is a list of everyday teas for everyday people...including many inexpensive teas, some considered as "low-grade" teas. And yet, in my opinion, all these teas offer exceptional value and are often surprisingly high in quality relative to their price, especially if you can locate the right source / vendor. This list is rather arbitrary...I may wake up tomorrow and realize I omitted an important tea, or I may discover a new tea in a few weeks that belongs here...but I just wanted to get this post out there:
  1. Shou Mei (寿眉) - meaning "Longevity Eyebrows", this is often considered a "low" or inexpensive grade of white tea. It is dark in flavor and more oolong-like. It is my personal favorite style of white tea.

  2. Chun Mee (珍眉) - meaning "Precious Eyebrows". The highest grade of young hyson tea, this is nonetheless an inexpensive green tea. It has a tangy flavor which, while undesired by some, is much appreciated by others.

  3. Gunpowder Tea (珠茶) - A green tea rolled tightly into small pellets, with a strong smoky quality. Although it ranges widely in price, there are good gunpowder teas that are available for an incredibly low price. To give you an idea of how low, I once bought some very good gunpowder in NYC's Chinatown for $7/pound. The top grades of gunpowder are still very affordable.

  4. Se Chung (色种) Oolong - Often overshadowed by Tie Guan Yin, Se Chung is not one particular variety, but rather, a family of oolongs from Anxi county, where Tie Guan Yin also originated. The Se Chung oolongs include Huang Jin Gui, Mao Xie, Benshan, and Qilan, among others. Many of them offer outstanding value. I was almost tempted to break this category up and list more of the individual varieties of se chung oolongs, but I only did this for one.

  5. Qi lan(奇兰) Oolong - One of the Se Chung oolongs, I broke this one out into its own category because it seems most different from the others and also most distinct from other oolongs, and also because it a varietal grown both in Anxi and the Wuyi mountains. Dark, heavily oxidized forms of this oolong, from Wuyi, are very sweet and mild, fruity, floral, nutty. The greener forms, more common in Anxi, are orchid-like in fragrance, but with their own distinct twist, rather unlike Tie Guan Yin. Something about this varietal is atypical for me in that I tend to like bitter teas and dislike sweet ones, but I enjoy this one greatly. I also find that among the se chung varietals, this one tends to offer one of the most intense floral experiences for a one of the most reasonable prices.

  6. Young Sheng (Green or "raw") Pu-Erh - While aged pu-erh often fetches a high price, young sheng pu-erh tends to be very inexpensive. If you like strong teas, you might actually prefer the younger cakes of sheng pu-erh to aged ones--they have considerably more bitterness (which I like very much) and can be astonishingly complex in aroma relative to their price.

  7. Lapsang Souchong (拉普山小種) - This black tea is dried over pine fires; the pine smoke imparts a strong and unique smoky aroma, whereas the tea itself is mellow in flavor. People tend to have strong opinions on this one; a favorite of many, others avoid it like the plague.

  8. Keemun (祁门) - While Keemun can reach into the most expensive and highly regarded teas, especially Keemun Hao Ya and Keemun Mao Feng, and Keemun actually makes some of the lists of China Famous Teas, there are nevertheless many outstanding Keemuns available for reasonable prices. I added Keemun to this list because I think the Keemuns that do not bear the Hao Ya and Mao Feng labels often are dismissed as inferior quality, and to some degree, Keemuns from Hubei (rather than Anhui, the true origin of Keemuns) are also sometimes dismissed...but Keemuns are incredibly diverse and I think many of the lower-priced ones are outstanding teas, worthy of more attention and appreciation.

  9. Jasmine Tea - Not a pure tea, but with a long history, this tea is usually made from a pouchong / baozhong base tea scented with Jasmine flowers...often described as perfumey, this is another love-it-or-leave-it tea.

  10. Rose-scented Tea - I initially resisted including a second scented tea in this list, but I think China's traditionally-scented floral teas are really outstanding, and, for the most part, put western flavored and blended teas to shame. Both green and black teas are frequently scented with rose, and the result is highly floral, but can hardly be said to resemble Jasmine tea at all. Rose is a powerful, surprisingly sharp aroma, holding its own with (and often dominating) even strong black teas. It also blends well with the floral element in some of the higher-quality black teas.

I would encourage other people to make up their own "Top 10" lists. Gingko of Life in Teacup pointed out that there is a (potentially ugly) money and power side to the official top 10 lists. By taking things into our own hands and creating our own lists, especially when we do our best to draw attention to under-appreciated teas, we help combat the forces of entrenched interests, and encourage diversity in the world of tea.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Cardamom: My Favorite Spice for Tea

When I was growing up, I was familiar with a number of spices, including cinnamon, ginger, cumin, coriander, nutmeg, and even allspice and mace. However, for some reason, it was not until years later that I became acquainted with cardamom. Cardamom is commonly used in India and the middle east, and to some degree in southeast Asia, but it is rarely used in American or Western European traditions. Cardamom is related to ginger, and comes in two main varieties: green and black. While I love black cardamom (especially in barbecue), it's green cardamom that I love in the context of tea.

Green cardamom comes in greenish-gray pods:

Each pod contains a number of small, hard black seeds which contain most of the flavor.

What does cardamom taste like?

I find cardamom very hard to describe. One of the reasons I like it is that, in my opinion, it doesn't taste remotely like anything else. Although related to ginger, it has none of the sharpness or spiciness that ginger has. Its aroma is soft yet very strong...and also very fresh. But its freshness is not piercing in the way cilantro or parsley is. It's distinctive yet versatile, equally at home in a cookie or a savory stew.

Cardamom in Masala Chai or Spiced Tea:

To be honest, I'm not the hugest fan of spiced tea. I usually like my tea straight (no sweetener, no flavorings, no milk), but I do enjoy a well-made masala chai from time to time, and I've noticed that I have strong preferences about what spices go into it. And I've learned that, for my own personal enjoyment, cardamom is the key. My favorite spiced teas are those in which cardamom is the dominant spice, cinnamon is totally absent, and the other spices are solidly in the background.

Whole or ground?

In my opinion there is absolutely no question here: buy whole cardamom. There are multiple advantages to this. Although its aroma seems gentle, cardamom has a surprisingly dominating character to it; in powdered form it is very easy to add too much of it to something. Using the pods in tea have the advantage that they can be steeped together with the leaves, and the aroma permeates more gradually, giving you more control over the outcome. Whole pods also make measuring easy--simply count the number of pods. The last advantage is freshness. I have found that whole cardamom pods stay fresh a very long time, whereas the powdered spice, even if stored in an airtight container, loses its aroma much more quickly. If you ever need the ground spice for cooking, you can use a mortar and pestle to grind up the pods yourself--because you usually need so little, the extra time and effort is not much of a big deal.

Where to buy?

Cardamom can be expensive, but I've found that the best place (both with respect to quality and price) to buy it is in specialty import stores. Make sure you can smell it before buying it. Here in Newark, Delaware I buy it at a small Turkish store. If there are any middle-eastern or Indian import stores near you, consider looking at them to see if they carry this spice.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

How I became interested in tea

Sir William of the Leaf posted a question on the leafbox forums, "How did tea grab your attention?", which is unfortunately no longer available. I started to write a reply but then realized that I wanted to write a little more than a brief forum post on the here's my story.

I grew up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in a family of tea drinkers. My parents would make a pot of tea every morning...almost always loose tea, and usually strong black tea or a darker oolong. Typical favorites were Earl Grey, Russian Caravan, Assam, stronger Darjeelings, or various breakfast blends. We also kept herbal teas on hand, which I was fed in great quantity when I got sick. But somehow, I never quite got "into tea" yet. At a young age I had a vague idea that I preferred certain teas other than what we had at home--Jasmine tea in particular, and Chinese and Japanese teas--but I never sought them out and didn't have access to them on a regular basis.

The mint family:

While some get "into tea" through high-quality loose tea, it was really the plants of the mint family that made me start focusing on the nuances of aroma. In the summer, we would make iced tea from herbs in our garden...the main ingredients were spearmint, applemint, and lemon balm, as these grew out of control. Our family would finish off a pitcher of our iced herbal blend every other day during the hot summer. I became interested in plants at a rather young age, and I was excited to learn that plants in the mint family were easy to grow from cutting. I also loved how each one had its own unique aroma...and how a lot of them really smelled like various types of candy. I became fascinated by being able to grow something that would produce such a beautiful aroma or flavoring, and I loved how most plants of the mint family grew in our yard with minimal effort (often, to my parents' chagrin, becoming pests and choking out the other plants in our garden).

I learned to notice the square stem...and I would smell anything I found with a square stem and take a cutting of it back to our garden. Soon our garden had spearmint, apple mint, peppermint, lemon balm, orange mint, two species of Monarda (Bee balm / wild bergamot), and even some mints that I could not identify, among many other mint-family herbs.

Where did actual tea (camellia sinensis) come in?

The first two teas that I remember really getting my attention were actually from a teabag. I had tried all of Bigelow's offerings in Oberlin college's dining hall, and while I liked them and had opinions on them, I liked their herbal blends much more than their true teas. (My favorite was sweet dreams). One of my friends in my dorm was from Hong Kong, and I mentioned to her that I liked Jasmine tea...and she gave me a box of Ten Ren's Jasmine Oolong, as well as a box of Ten Wu Tea (my review). I loved the Jasmine Oolong...but when I tried the Ten Wu tea (which is, still, in my opinion, the best tea available in teabags that I've tried), I was like--"Wow, tea can taste like this?"

Over a period of years I started shopping in Asian markets more, looking for Chinese and Japanese teas...which I realized that I liked a lot more than the styles of tea I had grown up with. A few years ago, one of my parents' friends mentioned Upton Tea, when asked where they buy their loose tea.

By this point in time, I knew certain things...I knew that I liked oolongs, especially lighter oolongs, and that I loved Chinese green tea. I just picked a few offerings from Upton and ordered...and I was astounded...I had another moment of "Wow, tea can taste like this!", particularly when I tried the Chun Mee Dao Ming (my review), which turned out to be my favorite tea from that first order.

Then RateTea:

II decided to program RateTea on a an active user of Rate Beer, I wondered if there were a similar site for tea, as I was starting to get into tea and wanted to use such a site. After searching and not finding one, I decided to make it. I started posting tea reviews on my personal site, (the reviews are still there) while I programmed the site. I must also give credit where it is due--that site really motivated me to get into writing about and thinking about the qualities of beer I was drinking--which carried over into tea, something I tend to drink more often than beer.

The next big discovery happened when I started adding tea companies and teas to the site...and researching about different types of tea and tea-producing regions...and sampling teas from different tea companies. It was like a whole other world opening up! So that's my story. I've gotten very into pure tea, but I'm also still very into the mint family and currently grow many herbs in my own garden.

I'd be curious to hear other people's stories if they want to post (or already have posted) one on their own blog, in the comments here, or anywhere. Unfortunately, the original discussion on the LeafBox forums is no longer around.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Sustainability: Why is it important for tea?

I'm really passionate about sustainability--which encompasses environmental and human rights issues, public health, education, preservation of cultures, economic stability, fairness and efficiency in the use and distribution of resources, and a whole bunch of other things. (More detailed discussion of what exactly sustainability is on RateTea's page on tea and sustainability) One of the purposes behind my creation of RateTea is to promote sustainability in the world of tea. Also, RateTea is, in some sense, a side project of my business Merit Exchange LLC, and the main project, Merit Exchange (which, alas, is on the back burner for the time being) is all about sustainability.

Why is sustainability so important?

If we live unsustainability, future generations will not be able to enjoy the same quality of life that we currently have. They will have fewer resources and face greater problems and suffering. Caring about sustainability is caring about our children and the future of human civilization.

Environmental issues are already present all around us. Where I live, signs of former generations unsustainable activities are all around me. Living in Delaware, between the Delaware river and Chesapeake bay, I see waterways where once thriving fishing industries have been almost completely destroyed, due to some combination of unsustainable agriculture (toxic chemicals, nutrient pollution running off into waterways) and possibly unsustainable fishing practices as well. With the collapse of these industries, local economies, and thus communities and culture have been destroyed as well. The picture above is a 2002 picture of oysters from the Chesapeake bay, taken while working for UMCES, a marine lab on the Chesapeake bay. Virtually all the oyster bars we visited were completely dead.

There is also a lot of beauty that is destroyed, and often, we don't even really understand what is going on, why it's happening, and what we could do about it. I see once abundant bird and plant species that are now endangered...while a few species like the Bald Eagle have made a dramatic recovery, other once abundant species like the Rusty Blackbird and Cerulean Warbler are rapidly dying off. The ecosystems here are out of overpopulation of deer causes problems in forest regrowth. I know the most about my local ecosystems, and I know that the ones here are not doing particularly well. But I know that I live in a country that has relatively strong environmental protection, and a strong conservation movement, and an abundance of open space...and I still see serious problems. I can only read about and imagine what it must be like in places like China and India.

How is this relevant to tea?

I'm not going to duplicate what I wrote in my article on tea and sustainability but I would really recommend reading that article if you haven't--and I'd appreciate feedback and constructive criticism--especially if there are any omissions. But a few things to think about:
  • Most tea comes from developing countries with great population pressure and weakly enforced environmental standards. The global economic system tends to "outsource" environmental problems out of wealthier developed countries and into developing countries. But in general, the countries producing tea face far more severe environmental problems than developed western countries buying tea.

  • Tea is one area where each person can easily make a difference through conscious shopping / tea drinking habits. Drinking loose tea is not only more sustainable, but it's cheaper! And tea is relatively inexpensive (compared to coffee, alcohol, even fruit juice)--people can't make the claim that they can't afford to pay a premium for tea that is produced in a sustainable way. Even the more expensive tea is relatively affordable.

Choosing teas so as to best promote sustainability is hardly clear-cut. It's not as simple as buying organic or fair trade tea. However...thinking about these issues is a necessary step. When you buy tea...ask yourself the question..."Where does this come from?" And then over time start asking more: "How much of my purchase are the people who produced this tea earning?" and "What are the environment impacts of the production of this tea?". Take it a little bit at a time. Asking questions is ultimately the best way to start working towards addressing these issues.