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 archive.org). 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 (www.tealeaves.com). 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!