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.