Thursday, June 30, 2011

Anise Hyssop Herbal Tea

The other day I bought some fresh Anise Hyssop at a farmer's market. It was quite inexpensive, $1.50 for a massive bunch. Unfortunately, I did not think to write this post until after I used up the last of the leaves, so I have no photograph of the actual bunch that I bought. Here is a photo courtesy of Wayne Ray at Wikimedia Commons:

Anise hyssop is a plant in the mint family. Although it looks a lot like "regular" hyssop (Hyssopus sp.), hence the name, it is not closely related; both of these plants are in the mint family but are not closely related beyond that. Anise hyssop is interesting in that it is one of the aromatic, mint-family plants that is native to North America.

Why native plants?

As I have become interested in ecology, I have started to seek out native plants from the mint family, such as Monarda, for use in herbal teas, in contrast to the non-native, introduced plants from Asia and Europe. Most of the herbal teas widely consumed in the United States, such as chamomile, mint, and numerous others, are non-native plants here. Although mint (spearmint, apple mint, peppermint, etc.) and chamomile can both be grown in the U.S., they are not native; in some cases, these plants and other herbs have actually become invasive species, escaping into wild ecosystems and causing problems. Anyone who has grown mint in a temperate climate will testify to the way it can take over an entire garden, often choking out other plants. This same effect can happen in wild ecosystems. Part of the reason for this is that there are few native insects adapted to eat non-native plants.

There is a wealth of native plants available in North America that can be used to make herbal teas, both for beverages and medicinal purposes. Growing native plants is often better for local ecosystems, as they are eaten by native insects and thus help feed birds and create habitat for all varieties of animals, and are less likely to act as reservoirs for invasive pests and diseases. And, perhaps most importantly of all, native plants do not become a problem if they escape cultivation and seed back into a wild ecosystem--quite to the contrary, growing native plants in your garden can help provide a healthy population of these plants so that the population remains strong and diverse in nature.

I am sharing this info to explain what has motivated me to sample this herb and some of the other herbs I have been exploring for use in herbal teas.

The Review of Anise Hyssop Tea:

The leaves of this plant had a very mild aroma, so I steeped a very large quantity of leaf to make a single cup. I brought water to a boil, added the leaves, and then let it sit on very low heat for about 10 minutes. This produced a cup that had a light green color, paler than most green tea, and a moderately strong aroma.

The aroma was predominately licorice, with a strong suggestion of wintergreen, and other more generic vegetal tones. Licorice and anise are similar aromas, and the name anise hyssop suggests anise, but I found that the aroma resembled licorice more than anise. The vegetal tones are probably due to the fact that I brewed this herbal tea from fresh leaves; I suspect that if the herb were dried it would be significantly less vegetal in aroma.

The flavor is extremely smooth, and unusually sweet, so sweet it even tastes sweetened, as if honey had been added. There is almost no bitterness or astrigency. This is among the sweetest, smoothest infusions I have ever sampled from a plant. An informational page on anise hyssop run by the government of Manitoba, says that this herb was used as a sweetener by Native Americans, and I can believe that!

I also tried making an iced herbal tea from the anise hyssop (without blending it with anything), and I found it very pleasing. When iced, the vegetal tones are diminished somewhat, and one is left with a mild, sweet, drink that tastes like honey and licorice with a little wintergreen thrown in.

How does it make me feel?

I have had several cups of the brew from this plant, hot and iced. It seems to have a somewhat dampening effect on my body as a whole. I notice that it tends to fairly strongly suppress my appetite, giving me a sensation of fullness even after drinking a single cup. It does not necessarily relax me, but I felt slowed down and less energetic after drinking it. My stomach felt very calm and settled, but I felt uninterested in eating much food for some time after drinking it.

I wasn't crazy about the effects of this tea, given how I was feeling for starters, but I imagine that in some cases, it might have a positive effect. I also think it would make an excellent choice of a minor ingredient in an herbal blend, for people looking to sweeten a blend, as it adds sweetness without adding bitterness or astringency. I suspect that anise hyssop has some possibly potent medicinal uses, however, I was not able to find any scientific research on it, and the information on traditional use by Native Americans that I was able to find in a quick web search was brief and conflicting, not painting a clear picture of this plant's medicinal properties. This would be an interesting topic for further research, however.

Concluding questions:

Have you ever tried anise hyssop? And do you have any other suggestions about herbs, native to North America, that I might try infusing in my quest to discover more plants for herbal tea?

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Tea Spam: A Victory Against Spam Blogs

This past December I wrote an introduction to tea spam, talking about spam blogs, stolen content, and related topics. I had planned to follow up on this post by talking about other issues, such as blog comment spam, and I hope to do this soon. But I want to first highlight a recent victory I had in the realm of spam.

I recently caught, using google alerts, yet another plagiarist who had stolen things I had written online. Although articles I write about tea are the primary target for plagiarism by spammers, this time, the spammer had taken the text from a review I had written on I looked up the domain host of the website, which was a .TK domain, and emailed both their copyright and abuse departments, with the following message:

Dear Abuse / Copyright Departments:

The following site is a spam blog:


It is stealing content from reviews and discussions. I
found some of my content stolen:


Please shut this site down. Thanks.

Alex Zorach

I received a reply the same day, less than three hours later:

Dear Sir/Madam,

Dot TK is the exclusive registry for the
Country Code Top Level Domain for the island
of Tokelau (also known as "ccTLD").

Dot TK (.TK) registers domain names globally,
through our services Free Domain and Paid Domain.

As your email alerts us to
unacceptable content by a holder of a Dot TK domain, I
have researched the case. The user is in
fact a Free Domain registrant, therefore
because of the violation, the domain has
been cancelled and the registrant has been
removed from our database.

Thank you for your assistance & I apologise for any
offense or inconvenience caused.

With Kind Regards,

Dot TK Support


I was impressed by the quick response from the Dot TK Support team, and I have left this experience feeling empowered, which is why I am writing this post to encourage others to pursue and crack down on spammers. It only takes minutes or seconds to look up a host and send a brief email to the copyright and/or abuse departments of the relevant company. There are different companies one can target:

  • The domain host

  • The web host, if it is different from the domain host

  • Any ad host, if the site is serving ads (I.e. Google AdSense)

  • Search engines, if the site is ranking high in search results and drawing traffic away from more legitimate sites.

No company wants to support unethical or spammy practices. I also have had luck shutting down a number of other spam blogs, including ones that have stolen my articles about tea. I have had luck in some cases with the domain hosts, like in this case, the web host, especially when it is a free blogging platform like, and I have also succeeded at getting Google Adsense terminated on sites where I did not get anywhere sending complaints to the domain or web host. I have also seen sites removed from Google's search results after I have submitted spam reports to Google search. I chose this example because it was powerful and encouraging, but in the past months, I have seen dozens of spam blogs shut down or excluded from various rankings and services, shortly following my complaints.

Although spam blogs and plagiarists can seem like an insurmountable problem, as spammers can set up a new site in minutes and use automated programs to scrape content and modify the text so it is harder to detect as being from the original source, it also only takes minutes to shut spammers down. When someone's hosting account, advertising account, or other accounts are terminated, it is a permanent setback, often affecting all of the spammer's websites, not just the one you targetted. Pursuing plagiarists and spammers is one activity that is worth the investment of time it takes.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Cultivars, Monoculture, Adaptation, and Extinction: In Tea and Elsewhere

I was inspired to write this post after reading a post by Gingko Seto of Life in Teacup, about Long Jing Cultivars. I want to start by talking about the word cultivar because it is often thrown around without being precisely defined.

In the world of horticulture and agriculture, a cultivar is a plant or collection of plants that has been recognized for certain desirable characteristics. There are some cultivars which can be grown from seed, those that come up "true to seed", but many cultivars are cloned--propagated by cuttings or grafts. In the world of tea, as with wine, cultivars are also called varietals. Whereas "variety" is a general term that can refer to a broader style of tea, varietal is a more specific term, referring to the individual plant from which the tea was grown.

In the world of tea, varietals usually refer to genetically-identified plants propagated by cutting or grafting, but there are also broad categories of tea plants that come up true to seed, such as the smaller-leaved Chinese variety, C. sinensis sinensis, and the larger-leaved Assam variety, C. sinensis assamica.

Cultivar Extinction:

Most cloned cultivars, regardless of what plant they are from, eventually go extinct for ecological reasons: because they have a fixed genetic stock, the insects, mold, and bacteria in the world around them is constantly evolving and adapting to be better able to attack the specific combination of chemicals in the one cultivar.

This is why many of the old varieties of banana and apple, enjoyed by people a few generations back, are no longer grown: various blights and pests have developed which make them infeasible to commercially cultivate.

Why do we have so many old tea cultivars?

In the world of tea, we are left with many older cultivars. Why have they not gone extinct as most of the older varieties of apple have? One reason is that the tea plant, in general, is not particularly susceptible to pests, and the plant itself is very long-lived (some individual tea trees are themselves hundreds of years old). However, there is also another contributing factor, which is that, for hundreds of years, many of these cultivars were only cultivated on a small scale; below I will explain why this has prolonged the life of tea cultivars.

Some of the most popular cultivars are actually relative newcomers, compared to the long history of the tea plant. The varietal used to produce Tie Guan Yin emerged some time in the 18th century, although I've seen some sources claiming it was later. Either way, it is possible to find individual tea plants older than this particular cultivar.

Monoculture and its Role in Cultivar Extinction:

Monoculture is the widespread planting of a single crop, like tea, over a large area. Monoculture is widespread in tea cultivation, and is the norm for most commercial tea production, which is unfortunate for a variety of reasons. A long while ago, I wrote an extensive post about tea monoculture and monoculture in general which explains a number of negative impacts that monoculture has both on human agriculture and the surrounding ecology.

One of the main negative impacts of monoculture is that it facilitates pest and disease spreading. With no other plants to function as barriers or buffers, once a pest or disease gets established, it can rapidly spread through the whole crop. And with such a huge reservoir of a host plant, the pest or disease can quickly evolve and adapt by establishing a healthy, genetically diverse population of its own. Just as in my last post about the value of diversity, I explained how diversity is an essential ingredient in ecosystems. When two populations are competing in some ecological sense, the more diverse one typically wins the battle.

An extreme form of monoculture is the widespread planting of a single cultivar or varietal, over a broad area. When a single cultivar is grown in monoculture, the evolutionary pressure for pests and diseases to evolve or adapt to the particular cultivar or varietal is very strong. The pest or disease forms a huge, genetically-diverse population, but the crop being cultivated has no diversity, zero, as it all comes from a single plant that has been cloned, propagated by cuttings or grafts.

This is what causes cultivars to go extinct quickly. If a cultivar is only grown in moderation, and is grown only in small batches, mixed in with other crops, it will usually last for far longer; the risk of extinction by a pest or disease adapted specifically to that cultivar becomes minimal.

What can you do about this?

There are actually several ways you can help prevent monoculture. These tips are about tea, but they could easily be generalized to buying any type of plant-based product:

  • Pay attention to where your tea comes from, and give preference to operations that use ecologically sustainable methods. An example is Makaibari estate in Darjeeling, which leaves most of their land as intact forest and only cultivates a smaller portion of it. Seeking out the organic label is typically not enough to make the best choice; there are plenty of certified organic operations that are still monocultures, and plenty of more ecologically-friendly operations that are not organic certified.

  • Seek out and buy tea produced from different varietals. Varietals like Tie Guan Yin (to use an example) are so widely cultivated because people buy them for a high price. While it's hard to dispute that Tie Guan Yin produces amazing tea, there are numerous other cultivars that produce delicious tea as well, that go largely ignored on the global market. Try broadening your perspective: not only will you discover new teas, but you will be helping to preserve the most famous cultivars for future generations.

  • Returning to the topic of the original post that inpsired this one, which was Long Jing cultivars, don't malign or dismiss "fake" teas produced from different cultivars. For example, when tea in the style of Long Jing is produced from different cultivars, it helps to preserve and protect the original cultivars. If the original cultivars were grown on a wider scale, it would speed the development of pests and diseases targeting this cultivar, eventually leading to their extinction. These newer teas emulating an older style actually protect the "authentic" tea, rather than threatening it.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Best Teas, or the Most Diversity? The Value of Diversity

The illusory search for the "best" teas:

When I was younger, I used to believe that the purpose of sampling and reviewing foods, products, businesses, or anything, was to distinguish good from bad, and to help identify the "best" ones, or at least my favorite ones (which could be defined as the ones I like best). As I began to learn about business and economics, I started to think that the role of reviews in business is to guide shoppers to the best products, so that the businesses creating or supplying a higher-quality product for a reasonable price thrive.

But whenever I have sampled anything, whether it is restaurants, teas, or anything, I find it very difficult to pick a single favorite, or even 10 favorites.

As I began to learn more about both ecology, culture, history, and current events, my worldview started shifting. I realized that in many aspects of life, there is no such thing as "best" on the level of individual products, people, cultures, foods, or businesses, species, and indeed, the best results for society as a whole often emerge when there is a great deal of diversity.

In many aspects of life, there is no such thing as "best"; when you look on a broader scale, diversity is usually better than uniformity.

The picture above shows a deciduous forest in Delaware, much like the forests in Pennsylvania where I grew up. I chose this picture because natural ecosystems were what most helped me to understand the true value of diversity.

An example from ecology:

As an example from ecology, the total biomass (mass of all living things) in an area will tend to increase as you increase the number of different plant species in that area. For example, if you have a garden plot with a single species, and you carefully exclude all other plant species, and let the plot grow to its maximum size, it will tend to grow less total biomass than if you allow two species to grow, and that will tend to grow less total biomass than if you include three, and so forth. It's not always true as a strict rule, so much as it is a strong correlation or trend. Biomass and biodiversity are two different measures, and are independent to some degree, but they tend to be strongly related.

If you are a gardener, this concept is important. You can often achieve a higher total yield by mixing many crops in a small plot, than you could by growing the same crops separately. This higher yield comes as a result both of increased productivity and biomass as a whole, and decreased pest problems (pests spread most quickly through a monoculture). While this complicates commercial harvesting, it poses little problem for home gardeners who harvest by hand.

Back to tea:

I have noticed that I tend to prefer different teas at different times of day, different times of the year, in different weather, or when in different moods. I also sometimes tire of certain teas, while at the same time becoming more enthusiastic about other ones. Most people, even those who are strongly habitual in their food or drink habits, experience some degree of these shifts or changes.

Diversity in tea gives us the ability to better match the tea we choose to drink, to what we want to experience, both in terms of taste and the effect of the tea on our mind and body. It also helps us to experience a broader range of aromas and flavors. It also helps tea to appeal to a broader range of people: people inherently have different tastes, and when there is more diversity in teas, tea as a whole will reach and satisfy more people.

Back to the world again:

I would encourage people to think about diversity in other aspects of your life, as well as in tea. How is your community enriched, culturally and otherwise, by people from different cultures and backgrounds? How is your yard or garden made more beautiful or more productive by the biodiversity in what you plant there? How is your health sustained or enhanced by eating a diverse diet? How is your workplace driven by the diversity of skills and abilities of your different coworkers? How is your life enriched by the diversity of personalities and experiences of your friends and family members?

Diversity is not a politically correct buzzword; it is more like an essential fuel that we require and cannot do without. It is necessary not only for us to live rich, interesting lives, but even necessary for ecosystems to exist and sustain us, and for our society to function at all.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Multiple Infusions of a Tea Bag: Novus Tea's Dragon Well Green Tea

Many casual tea drinkers resteep their tea bags, but people who are into more serious, gong fu style brewing, generally do not apply their art to tea bags. But there is no reason that tea bags cannot be brewed in this fashion, so as to bring out nuances and subtleties in the same way that these qualities emerge when brewing loose-leaf tea with multiple, brief infusions in a gaiwan or yixing teapot. While I agree with die-hard tea enthusiasts that brewing loose-leaf tea in a small brewing vessel is preferable to using tea bags on many counts, it is still possible to bring out the qualities of a tea bag more or less, based on how you brew it.

An Aside: Why am I drinking tea from a tea bag?

I frequent coffee shops where, out of politeness to the business, I generally drink whatever tea is served. One coffee shop that I like for its quiet atmosphere and reliable wireless is Cafe Clave, located in West Philadelphia. A musicless shop (unless live music is playing), the soundscape in here is much like a library. I like to go here when I have highly technical things to work on that require focus. It is actually significantly quieter than my apartment, which is on a busy corner and often has nearly constant truck traffic.

The brewing experience:

Infusion 1, 1 minute: Aroma strongly suggestive of chamomile, with similar fruity and grassy tones, a pleasing hay or straw-like quality. However, cooler, crisper, and lighter than chamomile. Seems strongly caffeinated.

Infusion 2, 2.5 minutes: Aroma similar to first cup, fruity and suggestive of chamomile, less of the grass or hay tones. Darker infusion, deeper flavor. Still cool and crisp. Finish still very similar to chamomile; still seems to have significant caffeine.

Infusion 3, 3 minutes: very similar to, almost indistinguishable from the second cup, but with slightly less-evident caffeine.

Infusion 4, 5 minutes: Surprisingly strong tones of mint, reminiscent of peppermint or pennyroyal, emerge in this infusion. Chamomile-like qualities are gone, very slight, almost metallic grassiness lingers on the tongue in the finish. Overall character is thin and watery, and flavor is muted, but the flavor seems to sink to the bottom of the cup; flavor at the bottom of the cup is noticeable stronger. Afterwards, the tea is spent and the tea bag has almost no aroma left.

Final thoughts?

This tea was surprisingly complex, and lasted surprisingly long (with less leaf than one would typically use for gong fu cha). I am impressed...and eager to try the process again next time I am confronted with a tea bag with reasonably high-quality tea. I also briefly summarized this experience with my review and rating of this tea on RateTea. It goes to show you: I may not like tea bags, I may write about how I don't like them, and I still believe this. But I think that even with a tea bag, you can definitely have a better tea experience if you approach brewing the tea with as much care as you would if you were brewing loose-leaf tea, especially if your tea bag contains high-quality tea.

If I have an opportunity to do this particular tea over again, I will use a much briefer first infusion. I will also say, I hope to try more of Novus' teas when I return to Cafe Clave. This is the third that I've tried; the other two were solidly good, and I wonder if I would like them more if I took more time to experience their nuances through careful brewing.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Reviewing Teas to Give Useful Feedback to Tea Companies

People review teas for many different reasons; one of the many roles or functions reviews fill in the world is that of giving feedback to tea companies on their products. Whether or not you intend your review to function as feedback, it is feedback. If you publish your reviews online, people within tea companies are able to read your reviews, and whenever a tea company comes across or reads one of your reviews, they will see it through the lens of customer feedback.

Reviews as customer feedback:

From the perspective of a business, reviews can be immensely valuable as feedback on one's product or work. In the realm of tea, this feedback can sometimes be simple, such as "I did not like this tea.", which, if enough customers express it, may guide a company to retire the tea more quickly than if they had to rely solely on sales figures. However, it can also be a sign of offerings being more or less similar. But the problem with this sort of feedback is that tastes are highly subjective, and most tea companies already put a great deal of effort into sampling, tasting, and selecting their teas before offering them. So, in a sense, this sort of feedback is not particularly useful. A tea company likely to put out enough effort to respond to customer feedback is probably already doing a pretty good job of selecting good teas to begin with. But there are other things to be learned from customer reviews.

To draw an analogy, I occasionally receive feedback on RateTea of the form: "I love/hate the site." or "I find the site easy / difficult to navigate." or "I think the design looks good / bad or professional / unprofessional." This type of feedback is never particularly useful, because it is not specific enough for me to know how to act on it. There is no "why", and there are so many possible confounding factors (maybe the person just loves or hates the color green, maybe their opinion is skewed by being in an unusually good or bad mood). And, as a webmaster, I have access to detailed statistics showing me how much people are visiting the site, how many pages they view, how likely they are to return, who is sharing or linking to which pages, etc. Simple positive or negative feedback, for all practical purposes, is almost useless. Similarly, when writing a tea review, simply saying that you love a tea does not necessarily provide much useful feedback to a tea company. The company may benefit if, over time, lots of people love a tea (or can't stand it), but the company already has access to this information because they can tell how much of a given tea people are ordering.

More specific feedback is more useful:

For example, with tea: "I felt that X tea was almost indistinguishable from Y, which was lower in price." or "X tea is similarly priced to Y, and the name and description makes them sound similar, but I found them to be quite different, and I enjoy both." or "I can definitely notice the hints of cocoa in the aroma." or "I liked this tea, but I did not detect the malty aroma and I found it more smooth and delicate than robust." So, reviews can also provide more nuanced feedback to a company, than just a coarse "good vs. bad" rating...they can communicate information about value, how similar or different a tea is from the company's other offerings, and perhaps, how a tea compares to a tea in a similar style, offered by a different company.

This can help guide business decisions, such as finding a niche, diversifying one's offerings, writing catalog descriptions of teas, and guiding the selection of teas with different price points.

To those involved in the tea business:

What types of feedback are most or least useful to you? If you could give some advice to tea bloggers and others publishing tea reviews online, advice that would benefit your business in terms of getting useful feedback, what advice would you give?

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Camellia Not Sinensis, And Some Ecology

Does this look just a little bit like a tea plant?

That's because it's from the same genus, Camellia, as the tea plant, Camellia sinensis. I found this plant growing in a garden in west Philadelphia. Since I do not live in an area where the tea plant grows (and certainly not where it is native), I cannot say much firsthand about the ecological relationships involving the tea plant. However, much about ecology is fairly universal: the same relationships play out on different continents and different regions with different species playing more or less similar roles.

There are some interesting lessons about ecology in this seemingly simple photograph, and they are surprisingly relevant to tea cultivation.

Why are the young leaves red, but the older leaves green?

Just as the young of humans and other animals are vulnerable and in need of protection, the young leaves of plants are most vulnerable. Soft and tender, and growing rapidly, the newest leaves are those most vulnerable to being eaten by insects and other herbivores. They also have not yet fully developed their photosynthetic apparatus, to capture energy from sunlight and convert it to food or usable energy for the plant, so they risk being damaged by this high-energy radiation.

The red color in these leaves is due to pigments that is designed to absorb harmful high-frequency radiation (like ultraviolet light and blue visible light). The pigment is red in color because it reflects red light, a lower-frequency type of radiation, less likely to cause cellular damage. This cultivar may have been selected to enhance or bring out the red color, much like a copper beech has been selected for the same reasons, but the same phenomenon is frequently observable in wild plants. Go out in nature and look at plants, and you will see a number of plants that have a reddish tinge to the newly sprouted leaves, that is not evident on the older, tougher leaves. Interestingly, many of these red pigments, such as anthocynanins, function as antioxidants, just like the antioxidants in tea.

In the tea plant, Camellia sinensis, caffeine is manufactured as a method to protect the plant against being eaten by insects. Large animals like humans can metabolize the caffeine, which is essentially a poison, but smaller animals like insects cannot, as it is too cumbersome to manufacture and carry all the enzymes necessary to metabolize caffeine and all the other chemicals the insect may be exposed to. This explains why tippy teas tend to be more caffeinated. This phenomenon also explains why many insects are specialized, eating only specific plants, whereas large herbivores like deer or elephants, eat a larger variety of plants.

Why are there ants on the leaves?

Let's take a closer look at the ants on these Camellia leaves:

These ants are tending aphids, small insects that feed off plant juices. The aphids exude a honey-like substance which the ants eat. In exchange, the ants protect the aphids from predators, and carry them for larger distances than they could easily walk. This is an example of symbiosis, a relationship that benefits both species.

Are they conspiring to exploit the plant? Not at all. Notice that the plant in this picture looks very healthy, and shows no evidence of any damage to its leaves. I have gardened for years, and observed this ant-aphid pairing on numerous plants, and I noticed that the ants not only tend the aphids, but they protect the plant from other herbivores. When ants and aphids take over a new plant, the ants clear out caterpillars and other critters feeding on the plant. The aphids only feed near the tip of the plant, on the tender, new leaves, and the strong ant presence here deters other herbivores from the part of the plant that is most vulnerable. The relationship benefits all three species, and is an example of a form of mutualism that involves more than just two species.

I have also noticed that aphid infestations are more likely to kill indoor plants, where there are no ants, whereas I have never seen them kill an outdoor plant; I can't help but wonder if the ants help to keep the aphid population at the optimum level for the plant's health.

What does this say about tea cultivation, and agriculture in general?

People often see insects on a plant, and think "it's an infestation, there's a problem", but this is not necessarily true. In some cases, having insects on a plant can be beneficial. Our modern agriculture has relied on brute-force "pest control" methods which destroy not only all the insects and other small animals around a plant, but often have other negative ecological impacts as well.

Tea was successfully cultivated without the use of any synthetic chemicals, for hundreds of years. Tea was discovered as a beverage, and tea cultivation was developed into a complex art, long before modern organic chemistry. Synthetic chemicals are not necessary to grow tea, and in fact, not necessary to eat any of the food crops that are part of the rich, older traditions of plant cultivation.

I would like to invite people to think more about ecological relationships in all aspects of your life. Look for them, and you will see them all around you. Even if you live in a city, you can see ecology all around you, in the relationships between the plants growing up in cracks in the sidewalk, the insects that eat them, and the birds that eat those insects. Ultimately, the more aware we are of ecology and how ecosystems work, the more likely we will be to make responsible choices and decisions that will lead to a sustainable future for all of us.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Random Tea Room, Random But Delightful

I have been wanting to check out the Random Tea Room for quite some time, as it has been recommended to me by a number of people as being one of the best places to experience tea, especially in the Chinese tradition, in the Philadelphia area. I finally checked it out this past thursday. Here is a photo of the storefront, at 713 North 4th Street:

The Random Tea Room & Curiosity Shop is located in the Northern Liberties neighborhood of Philadelphia, due northeast from center city. It is easily accessible from the Spring Garden stop of SEPTA's Market-Frankford Line (Blue Line), which is how I got there. Street parking is not too hard to find in this neighborhood in case you want to drive.

The neighborhood is interesting; like most of Philadelphia, it is fairly dense, with old and often ornate housing. This area has recently become "trendy" for better or for worse, and has had some newer housing built which, in my opinion, does not fit well with the architecture of the area. But the Random Tea Room and its immediate surroundings look relatively unmarred by modern architecture.

The inside of the shop was quirky, and I mean that in a lovable sort of way. It's a tiny space, but it has been artfully arranged so as to create a number of different nooks and crannies with different feels to them. The window is lined with cushioned window-seats, and there is a chess-board table, a larger round table where I sat with my friend, and some other seating around the other corners.

The Tea:

This place has a good and well-balanced selection of different types of teas, with several black teas, green teas, whites, oolongs, and Pu-erhs, and a good representation of different styles and regions. It is a pure tea lover's store; there are a few flavored teas but they are mostly of the traditional varieties, Jasmine of the Chinese teas, and Earl Grey of the British-style teas, so as not to agitate purists too greatly. There is also an interesting selection of herbs, including quite a number of pure herbs, and several blends, with an emphasis on the medicinal properties.

The tea is also sold loose by the ounce, and prices are very reasonable.

We ordered Bi Luo Chun, and it was served in this unusually large gaiwan:

We were given a tea timer, but we were given a bit more leaf than would be optimal for this timer so we settled on briefer steeping times. The tea was delicious. One thing that immediately jumped out at me about the tea was that it had not been selected for western tastes, which often tend towards sweetness and avoid sharper qualities. I felt clumsy using the gaiwan, due to a combination of its large size, and my lack of experience using one, and I spilled a little (although that's what the tray is for), but it was fun.

I recall a long time ago buying a small amount of Bi Luo Chun from Teavana. It was aromatic, pleasing, there was some complexity to the aroma. But was sweet...and just...not edgy enough. I also have some very inexpensive Bi Luo Chun in my cupboard and it's a bit more complex but just a bit. This Bi Luo Chun was edgy, and I loved it. In addition to the sweet, grassy tones, there were some deep, fruity aromas as well, and an almost skunky (in a pleasant way, if that makes sense) herbaceous quality.

I also took a picture of this hourglass tea timer; it wasn't the most practical timer, but I thought it was very cute and random, fitting with the theme quite well:

I would like to come back here soon, and I would heartily recommend this place to anyone looking for either a good tea experience, or just a pleasant dose of randomness.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

My Top 5 Most Popular (Viewed) Blog Posts

A while back, William I. Lengeman III posted a listing of the top 5 most popular posts on his blog Tea Guy Speaks. This list was interesting to me, as three of the five posts are (highly useful) lists, tea chats and forums, tea blogs, and tea of the month clubs, which Bill has done a great job of keeping comprehensive and up-to-date.

Out of curiosity I checked my own logs and found a very different picture for the five most popular blog posts on this blog:

  • More on Brewing Temperature - January 31st, 2011. This post is by far the most often viewed. In this post I quibble a bit with the recommendations that I see all over the place about the "proper" brewing temperature to use, and share my own experiences and practices on the matter.

  • Afghan Tea, Afghan Food, and Afghanistan - August 15th, 2010. The second-most popular post, this is an eclectic post in which I talk about everything from the gradual geographic changes in regional cuisines, to the war in Afghanistan.

  • What Tea Brands Does Unilever Own? And How Does It Make You Feel? - March 25th, 2011. Discussion about the positive and negative impacts that the ownership of numerous tea brands by a single big corporation has on the global tea culture.

  • Ten of China's Underappreciated Teas - May 20th, 2010. My response to the China famous tea list.

  • Tea at Wegmans Supermarket - January 10th, 2010. Discussion of the (surprisingly good) loose-leaf tea offerings at Wegmans supermarket.

Blogs are often thought of as highly time-sensitive, but the data on my site actually suggests otherwise. All but one of these posts have seen sustained traffic over time, and I think this is what makes them the most popular; they are not necessarily the posts that made the largest initial splash; the sole exception is the post about China's underappreciated teas, which saw a few brief bursts of attention, but has been largely ignored during the rest of the time.

I am curious to see how this will change over time, if these posts will remain popular or if other posts (new or old) will replace them.

Please share your popular posts as well!

Also, for other bloggers, I would also be eager to learn of which posts on your blogs have been most popular, if you track that information and care to share!

Friday, June 17, 2011

Green Tea as Health Product: Branding and Consumerism

Numerous tea bloggers have written about their frustration with the incessant focus of the public and the mainstream on the "health benefits" of tea, at the expense of focusing on flavor, aroma, and the traditions associated with tea production and tea drinking. I will not do justice to the full community of bloggers, so I apologize in advance for recent posts I've missed, but I was prodded to write this post by Nicole's post Health Benefits Schmealth Benefits.

Simplistic Thinking and Branding:

One thing that I strongly dislike about mainstream consumerist society is the focus on simple associations, a fact which is utilized and heavily exploited in branding and marketing by corporations. There is a famous book titled The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding and a companion book The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing, both co-authored by Al Ries, the first co-authored by Laura Ries and the second by Jack Trout.

These books outline a highly effective method for marketing that relies on the phenomenon by which our culture tends to form very simple associations and then to stick with them, even when they are not true. While the laws in these books are not universally true (a clever person can come up with numerous counterexamples), the books certainly capture powerful trends and, on a coarse scale, when it comes to brands and consumer products, the laws in the book are true far more often than not.

What is interesting about these books is that they demonstrate that this phenomenon of simple associations appears in our society not just for brands and consumer products, but for ideas, concepts, history, and other things as well.

Green Tea & Health:

For reasons (largely historical and accidental), green tea has developed a reputation in the mainstream as being a "healthy" drink. Green tea has become associated with health, and particularly, certain claims about weight loss, skin, and other things. Associated with this construct are many general claims, the most common of which are:

  • Green tea is "good for you". This view is so pervasive that outside of people I meet who have actually researched the topic, virtually everyone I meet seems to believe that green tea is "healthier than black tea". I can't even count how many people have told me that they've switched to drinking green tea even though they do not like it as much, because they believe it to be healthier.

  • Green tea is "good for your skin". -- a claim which is used both for drinking tea, and using green tea extract in various skin-care products. Ironically, in my shower right now I have green tea soap (although I swear, it's just because I like the smell.)

  • (The big one) Green tea will "help you lose weight" by "burning fat" or "burning calories" or "speeding your metabolism".

  • Green tea is "good for" your heart, liver, teeth, stomach, (insert random body part here) etc.

  • Green tea is "lower in caffeine than black tea", and of course "caffeine is bad for you" (which leads to the sale of decaf green tea, most of which tastes, in my opinion, pretty awful)

Are these claims true? Some, to an extent, but they are misleading. I have conducted my own research, with the help of some others, and compiled a collection of pages on RateTea on the health benefits of tea. I uncovered some outright myths (green tea is not necessarily lower in caffeine than black tea), lots of inconclusive research with some suggestive evidence from animal studies or epidemiological studies, and a few topics (like tea and heart disease) where there is stronger evidence of a mild (key, mild) positive effect on health associated with drinking tea.

Interestingly though, I found several core truths that are not at all in the mainstream. If I could sum up these "unknown" truths, they would be:

  • All types of tea (from the Camellia sinensis plant) are healthy, and there is no strong evidence that any one type, green, black, oolong, white, Pu-erh, or any other, is healthier than the others.

  • Tea is healthy, but, besides containing the drug caffeine and a few other substances like L-theanine, it is not a medicine; it is healthy primarily in the way that fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and other natural foods are. It's generally good for you but it's no magic bullet, and it's best to combine with a balanced overall approach to health.

  • The health benefits of tea are heavily over-hyped, and the companies that are selling tea with health-oriented marketing often sell a low-quality product at high prices. Even if you're going for health and not taste, it's probably healthier for you to focus on taste, because you'll get a fresher product and pay a fairer price for it.

So yes, I think about health and will continue to write about health, as it relates to tea. But I think it's important to build up some healthier associations in the public consciousness. Tea in general is healthy; green tea does not have a monopoly on health. And it's also healthy to enjoy tea, to relax with it, rather than treating it as a medicine. If you don't like the taste, don't drink it. Drink what tastes good to you and what makes you feel good. In the end, that will be much better for your health anyway.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Honey, Honey, Honey, Tea, and Honey

For some reason, I've felt inspired to write this month; I just realized that I've posted a blog post every single day, and I feel like writing more. So I hope I am not writing too much. I've been thinking about honey a lot lately, for multiple reasons.

Honey is my sweetener of choice:

A while back, I was sick, and drank some tea sweetened with honey. I usually drink tea unsweetened but sometimes when I'm feeling particularly bad, tea with honey hits the spot. Honey is my sweetener of choice for tea (and in general, I currently do not even have any sugar in my apartment). But I am not much of a sweetening person: although I have three separate honeys in my cupboard, I tend not to use honey that often. The three honeys I have now are a raw wildflower honey, and then cranberry blossom honey and butter bean blossom honey (my favorite) both from New Jersey.

Other reminders of honey:

Recently, one of my friends ordered a pint of Weyerbacher sixteen, a beer brewed with honey, and I tried it and was amazed by its powerful honey aroma. And on a very different note, I've been exploring my neighborhood, and I found a cute little store and coffee shop called Milk and Honey. This store is not just capitalizing on a cute name: it is actively involved in the promotion of a culture of local honey. The shop even has beehives on its roof, and one can see the bees travelling off into the neighborhood and returning.

I also was exploring Woodland Cemetery and Arboretum in this same neighborhood, and I saw this meadow of beautiful flowers (mostly chickory in bloom here, the blue flower):

At the far edge, which I did not photograph, I discovered a bunch of beehives! Someone is evidently tending bees in this area, and I suspect that this patch of wildflowers has been deliberately left to feed the bees. I can't get away from thinking about honey!

A black tea surprises me by reminding me of honey:

Greener oolongs, such as pouchong or jade oolong, often remind me of honey, but recently, I had the surprising experience of trying a black tea that has an aroma strongly suggestive of honey. As I write this post, I am drinking some Kaimosi Estate TGFOP1 (TK32) from Upton Tea Imports, and it has a surprisingly strong honey-like aroma, which stands out even through the other, bold characteristics of this tea. I've brewed this tea several times now. If you like honey, I recommend sampling that one: it is quite remarkable, and unlike any other black tea I have yet tried.

So, honey is on my mind, for better or for worse. I think for better, as I find honey to be very pleasing, both to eat and to think about.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Optimism, Pessimism, and Denial: Spilling Tea

Every now and then I like to post on topics a bit broader than just tea: this one was inspired by a post about tea, blindingly optimistic, on Lahikmajoe drinks tea, and begins with a story about spilling tea, but I think it has a deeper message as well.

Lakihmajoe links to an interesting article in Time magazine, titled optimism bias. I read this article, and it did not sit well with me.

After thinking about it for some time, I came to the conclusion that the subject of optimism vs. pessimism and positivity vs negativity is more subtle than this article makes it out to be.

What is optimism?

I think there's a big difference between blind optimism (which can lead to ignoring disasterous problems) and a pragmatic optimistic attitude which embraces the truth but always embraces hope, focuses on possibilities, and works as hard as possible to make the best possibilities into reality. This pragmatic optimist is about seeing things the way they really are, and making the best of them. It is not about fooling yourself, it is about seeing and focusing on the the best possible outcomes in any circumstance, which leads one to take the best possible actions.

An Example of Spilling Tea:

(As a side note, this actually happened to me a few days ago.)

If I spill hot tea on myself and get a very mild burn, I could say: "Oh man, this is so bad, I just spilled hot tea on myself." but this statement is unnecessary--I already have spilled my tea and suffered for it, why make myself suffer any more by telling a negative narrative about it? This would be a pessimistic approach. An optimist would say: "Ouch! Oh man, I'm so lucky I did not burn myself that badly, and I'm glad it didn't land on my laptop. Oh, and look, there's still some tea left in the cup. Okay I'm going to clean up this spill." Optimism is not ignoring the fact that I've spilled my tea, and not failing to clean up the spill. That would be denial.

Optimism & Pessimism in Society:

I think the same can be true of problems in society. Ignoring problems is not optimism, it is denial. To give some examples, poverty, war, political corruption, and environmental destruction are some of the problems facing our society. An optimist does not live in denial that these problems exist; rather, an optimist embraces them and then says: "Hey look, there is lots of war and poverty, but look at this other region of the world which has had less war and poverty...that proves that it's possible to achieve something better." and then starts thinking about ways to bring that reality into being in more places in the world. And optimist says: "Our environment is severely threatened by many human endeavors, but look at how much biodiversity is still left." and then starts focusing on efforts to protect and restore the earth's ecosystems.

Many people are afraid of looking at or thinking about the poverty that exists around them. For example, I have noticed that many commuters do not look out the window when riding a train; on that post I discuss how looking out the window highlights certain problems (poverty, economic ruin, and ecological / environmental problems). Commuters often ride from one wealthy area to another but do not seem interested in viewing the poor areas that the train rides through. This is not optimism, it's denial. An optimist would not be afraid to look at these things, and think about them, and would be able to see the positives--the street in Chester, PA that is clean and well-maintained, demonstrating that even in that run-down community, a large number of people care and are working to keep their community clean and vibrant--or the great egret making use of the disturbed industrial areas near the train tracks, showing that they can't be totally hopeless.

I found that that the Time article Lahikmajoe linked to really misses this key distinction.

I also think that one of the major problems in American society right now is that a substantial portion of the population, media, and culture, is caught up in a false dichotomy between denial and pessimism. I think that the environment, the political system, and numerous other parts of society suffer heavily because of these two perspectives. The pessimists point to the problems, talk at length about what is wrong, and place lots of blame on lots of people, politicians, corporations, everyday people who "don't care". But a lot of the pessimists also feel guilty that they are not doing enough to solve the problems. Those in denial just don't want to think about it, they act as if the problems do not exist, and they take no responsibility to do anything about them.

I would like to call us all to abandon these two perspectives and be pragmatic optimists. Look at all the problems. Do no be afraid. Focus on the positives in the situation, and visualize a good end result. Then take the best course of action. Take responsibility when possible, but do not ever feel guilty just because you are unable to solve some problem, whether in society or your own life. And, as the Time article points out, optimists live longer.

Back to tea:

All of these things are relevant to the world of tea. Poverty and environmental issues in particular are issues in many tea-producing regions. Both economic and environmental issues are a part of sustainability as it pertains to tea production and tea drinking. It is important that we think about these things, and are open about them, but also that we stay optimistic and pragmatic.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Tea, Spirituality, Language, and Culture

Adam Yusko recently raised some fascinating questions in his blog post titled two tea perspectives. In this post, he discusses a distinction between two ways of looking at tea. One perspective views tea primarily as a caffeinated beverage, and sometimes focuses on the "health benefits" of tea as well. The second view looks at tea more for the experience, and has a more spiritual experience of it. He then suggests that this reflects some sort of divide between western (British) and eastern tea cultures.

While I think there is a considerable amount of truth in Adam's analysis and interpretations, I want to present a subtly different perspective.

How important is the language that we use?

I'm cautious about concluding that people in a culture do not think about a certain concept (like "qi" or "energy") just because they do not refer to it using the same language.

A long time ago I wrote a piece called language in religion in which I argued that when it comes to religion and spiritual matters, people often use different language to refer to the same concepts, but at other times, they use similar language to refer to vastly different truths. I came to these realizations after spending time talking to Christians from many different denominations and traditions, and comparing the language and ideas people in these communities talked and thought about with the perspectives of others who identify as irreligious, agnostic, or members of other (non-Christian) religions. But I think this same phenomenon also occurs more universally, in topics of a more spiritual nature (which I think many people would say includes the notion of "qi"), because they are intangible and rather subtle.

As an example from my personal experience, I remember thinking about foods in some sort of "warming/cooling" properties of foods, a lot like the "yang/yin" dichotomy, long before I heard of those concepts. I often would feel a craving for certain types of foods, and seek them out because I felt my body needed them to bring myself back in balance. For example, if I had been eating lots of starchy, meaty, and heavily cooked foods ("warming" foods) I would experience a craving for fresh, raw, "cooling" foods, like fruit, or fresh mint from the garden. It was only years later that I learned that in Chinese traditional medicine, there was a whole theoretical framework that gave names to these things.

British tea culture...spiritual perhaps?

Given how important tea is to the British, I would say I am virtually certain that at least some people from this culture experience it in a more spiritual manner. It is not just about the caffeine, but also about the community, and the experience and ritual of drinking the tea. The ritual is very different from, say, the Japanese tea ceremony, or Gongfu Cha, and in many cases (but not all) focuses on people and family, and provides a time period for rest and reflection, just like the tea traditions in many eastern cultures.

Also, given that most of western Europe comes from an area where the major religious dichotomy is Christian vs. secular, and that tea does not figure prominently in Christian traditions, it would make sense that people would use mostly secular language to talk about tea. But this may just be an artifact of language; it does not necessarily mean that people do not experience tea, or the ritual of drinking it, in spiritual ways. Furthermore, even within Christian tradition, there are some grounds to suggest that some people would actually experience tea in spiritual terms, especially considering the concept of God being present in all things.

Consumerism vs. Spirituality:

From my perspective, regardless of the culture, religious tradition, or lack thereof, that a person comes from, it is possible to experience tea (like any kind of food or drink) both in a more reflective, aware, connected (and I would say spiritual) way, as well as to experience it in a more mechanical "chug-it-and-go" consumerist way.

This is not about an east-west divide. To use a glaring counterexample, Japanese culture can be just as fast-paced and consumerist as American culture, and China has also taken some unfortunate consumerist turns recently, due to globalization. Southeast Asia is by no means a universal preservation ground for traditional culture; as an example from tea, I actually recently reviewed a bottled Japanese tea, produced in Singapore. Yet the countries in this region also have rich traditions which focus on taste, meditation, and a spiritual view of food and drink, including tea. I think it is not really possible to generalize about whole cultures.

Personally, I do see the dichotomy between tea as a consumer product, and tea as a whole experience. I think this distinction exists in virtually all aspects of life in which there is some sort of product for sale. And...personally, I think the more spiritual view has a number of benefits, and I think the consumerist view is problematic in a lot of ways (not the least of which being sustainability). But I think it also does not matter as much what you call it, or what culture you are coming from. What matters is that you pay attention to your food and drink, think about it, where it comes from, how it makes you feel. And I think in that point I am 100% with Adam in his original post. I'm definitely someone who experiences tea, and indeed, all food and drink, in this way.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Chicken Soup Aroma in Black Tea

What does chicken soup have to do with tea? This is certainly not my favorite weather for hot soup, and I have not had a bowl of chicken soup in some time, but I have unexpectedly encountered the familiar, distinctive, and comforting aroma and flavor of chicken soup in several black teas that I have sampled:

This following photo of a bowl of chicken soup was contributed by RWS and is available on Wikimedia Commons under both GNU FDL 1.2 or later and CC BY-SA 3.0 licenses.

Which black teas taste like chicken soup to me?

The first tea in which I detected the aroma of chicken soup was Rishi Tea's Keemun, which is a black tea produced in the style of Keemun, but grown in Hubei province, rather than Anhui where Keemuns are traditionally made. I made a note of the interesting chicken-like qualities of this tea, but did not think much of it more until I tried Upton Tea Imports' Kaimosi Estate GFBOP1, which was a very different tea from Rishi's Keemun, but had a definite chicken-soup character as well. Then, recently I sampled Upton's Hubei Keemun Ji Hong, which, interestingly, I found very similar to Rishi's Keemun (although several months have passed since I tried that tea, so I cannot truly say whether or not they would be distinguishable side-by-side).

Why do these teas resemble chicken soup?

In terms of the flavor, I found all three of these teas to have a light, thinner quality, combined with a savory (umami) presence, with an almost salty quality. This helps explain the flavor experience.

What explains the presence of this aroma? I honestly have no idea but I find it fascinating. In general, I am quite fascinated by the diversity of smells that appear when drinking pure teas. Tea may be from a single plant, but the diversity of history of cultivation, different growing conditions, and different processing methods produces all sorts of fascinating resemblances to other foods.

Have you ever thought that a tea, black tea or otherwise, seemed a bit like chicken soup to you?

Friday, June 10, 2011

More Iced Green Teas: Bancha, Bi Luo Chun, Huangshan Mao Feng

The past two days brought record-setting heat, with a high of 99 in Philadelphia yesterday. I have been drinking a lot of iced tea.

Besides herbal teas, I made three separate batches of iced green tea over the past few days. One was straight bancha, one was straight bi luo chun, and one was a blend of bancha with Huangshan mao feng. The blend is pictured here:

I did not photograph the other two blends and now I wish I did. The pure bancha produced an intensely cloudy iced tea, which is interesting, as when I brew it fresh it is relatively clear. The photo above shows only a slight cloudiness. The bi luo chun produced a very pale light green, surprisingly pale relative to its intense flavor and aroma.

The current batch of bi luo chun in my cupboard, which I have yet to review on RateTea, is extraordinarily inexpensive for this usually high-priced tea, and yet of impressive quality. I will write more about it later. What I have noticed about this tea, however, is that its astringency changes radically based on brewing temperature. At 170 degrees Fahrenheit, it is sweet, mellow, and mild, whereas at 180 degrees or higher, it becomes highly astringent, but in a way I find pleasing. Some green teas that I've tried, including Chinese, Japanese, and Indian green teas, acquire unpleasant "cooked vegetable" tones if the steeping temperature is too hot, but thankfully, this tea does not. I find a certain amount of astringency refreshing in iced tea, so I used 190 degree water to brew the one batch and it came out delightful.

I tried brewing the bancha in the same way, and the result was much too astringent. That batch was a little too strong, but I watered it down and it was fine.

The blend, pictured above, however, also worked surprisingly well. I used lower temperature water to brew it. I paused for a second about blending a "high end" tea such as Huangshan mao feng, with a "common" tea such as bancha, but I found that the blend worked very well. It was about half-and-half by dry leaf, with perhaps slightly more mao feng.

In all of these cases, I brewed a batch of four cups of iced tea using tea. I have also developed a very simple energy-saving method for quickly chilling the tea, which I will share in a future post.

Also, to experiment, I drank a single cup of iced Hubei Keemun, Upton's ZK22: Hubei Province Keemun Ji Hong, again, which I have yet to write a detailed review of (hot). Pleasing fruity tones came out in the tea, but I found, too mellow overall...failing to achieve the refreshing effect. There is a certain sharpness or edginess that I crave in iced tea, especially on very hot days.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Iced Herbal Tea: Green Rooibos, Lemon Verbena, Lemon Balm, and Vana Tulsi

With another four hot days in store here (tomorrow they are forecasting 98 degrees in Philadelphia), I have decided to make more iced tea, including both true tea and herbal tea. Like the previous batch, I made about four cups worth, which fills about three of the tall glasses pictured:

As a side note, I really like the view out my window in my new apartment. This is the view looking out from my work desk. You can see the amber color of this tea; the color is significantly darker than one would get from brewing a typical green tea in the same manner. I believe it is the green rooibos and vana tulsi which impart the darker color.

I chose vana tulsi for this blend because it has a fresher, more herbaceous aroma, and is a little lighter, whereas the other types of holy basil have a more warming, spicy aroma which I think would blend less well with the other herbs.

The Recipe:

It's hard for me to get a good estimate of the amount of lemon balm used, because I grew and dried it, so it is much coarser in leaf texture than the other herbs. The amount I put in occupied much more space than the other herbs, but if it had been crushed to a similar texture as the lemon verbena, I'm estimating it would have been about two teaspoon's worth.

I steeped this batch for about 8 minutes, in one cup of water which I heated to boiling, then I diluted with cold water and cooled it in the fridge before drinking it. I did not add any ice.

The Result and Review:

In this blend, the vana tulsi overpowers the other herbs, so next time I'll use less. Surprisingly, with all the lemony herbs, I notice the lemon least of all in the aroma. The overall character is very herbaceous, summery, and reminds me of a garden. Pleasing, delicately spicy, yet refreshing. With a balance of warming and cooling aromas, this is not a "straight cool" herbal tea the way iced mint tea is. Flavor is mild, not much bitterness or sourness, but there is a fairly astringent aftertaste. Overall strength was moderate; flavorful, but I could drink it in quantity too.

This blend was very enjoyable, but I think it could be improved. Next time, I'll use less vana tulsi.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Pokka Canned Green Tea Review

I recently tried something that I normally would not drink, while at a hole-in-the-wall sushi restaurant in Newark, Delaware, Mayflower. You can read my review of Mayflower on Yelp. At any rate, what I tried was green tea from a can, from the Pokka brand:

People who know me or read my writings will know that I am not a big fan of bottled or canned teas, and I prefer, when drinking iced tea, to brew it from scratch. But I do like seeing unsweetened products for sale, and I was intrigued by the fact that it was unsweetened, originating from an Asian (not American) company, and available for $1. I had to try it out of curiosity.

The Review:

Like most things from a can, especially drinks with a more subtle flavor, the aroma and flavor was highly metallic. However, I could notice the tea. It had a mild sour flavor, and a hint of bitterness, sweetness, and umami. The aroma was very vegetal, with more of the cooked vegetable and seaweedy tones, and less of the grassy tones, than I expect from a typical Japanese green tea. It was drinkable, and, in my opinion, much more enjoyable than soda, but it was nothing compared to fresh brewed iced tea, even a typical generic black tea.

This tea was produced by Pokka corporation, based in Singapore. I could not find much more information about it. I'm glad I bought it and tried it.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Making Tea in a Microwave: Why not?

I often receive interesting questions through the RateTea contact form; with permission from the asker, I am posting one of these questions here, as I think the question and answer may be relevant:

The question:

I generally drink black tea but decided to start drinking green tea too. When I read these instructions for brewing green tea bags, they always refer to pouring hot water over the bag. What is wrong with using a cup in the microwave to the desired temperture and then putting the tea bag directly into it. BTW, I am currently using Kirkland Japanese Tea for starters. Also, the box says to steep only for 30 seconds or so but I read on sites to brew up to 2 minutes or more.

Thanks, if you can help.


My Answer:

Hello Glenn!

Thanks for writing!

While a microwave can be used to heat water to brew tea, and the flavor can come out just fine, there are a number of reasons that people tend not to recommend this as a brewing method.

The main reason is that when using a microwave, it can be hard to tell from looking at the cup exactly what temperature the water is. When using a stove, small bubbles start forming and then the water reaches a rolling boil as it approaches the boiling point. In a microwave, these bubbles generally do not form at the same temperatures, and it is even possible to superheat the water (above the boiling point), although this is rare and unstable (the water would quickly start boiling off when you placed a tea bag in it).

Safety is a second reason. Superheated water in a microwave can actually be dangerous, and can cause burns:

And lastly, it's hard to give instructions. You cannot specify temperature in a microwave, just the power setting and amount of time, and these differ hugely from one microwave to another.

And a new resource:

Also, in response to this question, I added a new page to RateTea, about making tea using a microwave. If you check it out, you will be able to view a brief Mythbusters video of superheated water. You also may be surprised to learn that heating water for tea in a microwave typically uses more energy than even an electric stovetop.