Monday, August 22, 2011

Tea as Slow Food: Fast Tea vs Slow Tea

Today I want to write about a social movement that, in my opinion, is directly related to the world of tea. This is the slow food movement. Slow food is a broad and far-reaching concept; it can be seen as an opposite or alternative to "fast food". The idea of slow food is to preserve and create new traditional local and regional cuisines, to enjoy food together with people, and to become more aware of where our food comes from. By promoting local food cultures, the movement encourages diversity, and by promoting local foods and raising awareness of how food is produced, the movement promotes sustainability. The huge number of tags I've classified this post with demonstrates that this movement is related to many different facets of the things I care about.

The logo of this movement is a snail, cutely symbolic of slowness:

Wikipedia has a great article about slow food, which I would recommend at least glancing at. If you want official information from the movement itself, you can visit the websites of Slow Food International or Slow Food USA. The slow food movement is something I strongly support, so I would urge you to check it out, and give some thought to what it advocates, beyond just reading this post.

How does slow food relate to tea?

Tea, like any food or beverage, can be viewed (and produced/consumed) in any number of different ways. Virtually everything about the slow food movement can be applied to tea, except possibly the "buy local" part (although one can still buy or grow local herbs for use in herbal teas, and one can certainly support local tea shops and tea houses). Using the concept of "fast food vs. slow food" as a continuum, we have two different "ends of the spectrum" so to speak.

Tea as fast food: "fast tea":

The ultimate manifestation of tea as fast food is ready-to-drink tea, which includes both bottled tea and tea in cans and other types of containers. This tea is brewed in a factory, packaged, and sold as-is. Ready-to-drink tea is fast food, in that it is quick and easy to purchase and then immediately drink, and that it is primarily an industrial product, produced in a factory, with minimal preparation on behalf of the person consuming it.

Tea as slow food: "slow tea":

At the opposing, "slowest" end of the spectrum, would be single-estate, single-harvest whole-leaf teas, processed by traditional methods, and brewed traditionally in loose-leaf form. Tea traditions are diverse, so I will not claim that "slow tea" needs to be brewed gong fu style in a gaiwan or Yixing tea pot. There are rich tea traditions in eastern and western Europe, in the middle east, and all across the globe, and they each have different practices of enjoying tea. But in order for it to be slow tea, it needs to be brewed at the point of drinking, and it needs to be brewed and drunk with care and thought.

Slow tea, like slow food, encompasses not just the production of the tea, but also the enjoyment of it. Slow tea is not just about the tea originating in a specific garden, but it is about the person drinking the tea knowing which garden it is from, and knowing when it was harvested, and knowing a bit about what makes this tea special. And slow tea involves paying attention to how the tea tastes, and enjoying the setting and process of drinking tea, whether it's a calm, meditative tea session alone, or sharing tea with friends or family.

Most tea is somewhere in the middle:

Relative to loose-leaf tea, tea bags certainly move much farther in the direction of "fast tea", but from the vantage point of bottled or ready-to-drink teas, they are more "slow".

In summary:

The slow food movement is a social movement which promotes greater awareness of and enjoyment of food, including awareness of where food comes from, enjoyment of food, and preservation and promotion of local food cultures. Slow food can easily be applied to tea, and pushes one in the direction of single-estate, single-harvest, loose-leaf teas, brewed with care and enjoyed mindfully either in a private reflective state, or shared with friends or family.

Slow tea and RateTea:

Personally, I want to support the slow food movement and what it advocates for. One of the main motivating factors behind creating RateTea is to get people to think more about tea, in the same sort of framework that the slow food movement works. I want people to rate teas not to discover which tea is "best" in some absolute sense, but just because I want them to start thinking about how their tea tastes...a key idea with RateTea is that the ratings and reviews are tied into a database that classifies each tea by style and by region, and in one click, a person can go from a page of a specific review, or a specific tea, to an article about that style of tea, or that tea-producing region. The idea is to draw casual tea drinkers in and open the world of high-quality loose tea to them, and in doing so, get them to think more about food and drink as a whole, and hopefully, move our society in the direction of greater sustainability in the process, so that we are all healthier, happier, and more able to appreciate all our food and drink, and where it comes from.

How about you?

Were you aware of the slow food movement before reading this post? Where do you think your own tea habits fall on the fast food / slow food spectrum? Does your interest in awareness of tea's production and enjoyment of artisan teas carry forward into your appreciation and awareness of food in general? Were you aware of my intentions of promoting "slow food" through RateTea or do you think this is something it would be good for me to emphasize more on the site?

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Lemon Verbena: Multiple Infusions in a Gaiwan

I recently bought a gaiwan which I think is rather cute, in a girly sort of way. One of my interests is bringing the same level of depth and focus to the drinking of herbal teas as is typically applied to the drinking of the best teas from the Chinese traditions. One thing that has struck me recently is that putting more thought and care into how tea is brewed can allow one to experience it in a much richer way. One aspect of this is the brewing vessel; I was thinking about this after reading Neil Gorman's post The Brewing Vessel Matters, and also after recently having tea together with Evan of Pluck Tea.

Some time back I bought a batch of lemon verbena, which is one of my favorite herbs, and it turned out to be an exceptionally good batch. It was grown by the educational farm of the Academy of the New Church (ANC) in Bryn Athyn, PA, and was sold at the Bryn Athyn Thrift Shop (BATS), which, if you are ever nearby, is an outstanding thrift store. My rating of this lemon verbena is one of the only two perfect ratings I've given out so far, the other going to Tie Guan Yin Traditional Charcoal Roast Master Grade, which I obtained through Life in Teacup.

Since I still had a lot of this herb, and it was so good when brewed western-style, I decided to try brewing it in a gaiwan using multiple brief infusions.

The leaf is mostly intact, although this comes out more in later pictures.

This was the first infusion...very light in color. Note how the leaves are not even fully wet in this picture; these leaves are very slow to infuse, which is why in my review on RateTea I recommend making a 10-15 minute infusion if you brew this all at once.

Notice the much darker color. I loved the golden color of this infusion, which persisted through most of the infusions to the end. Most herbal teas seem to produce either more brownish, or paler infusions...rarely do I see something so golden.

This photo shows the leaves after the last steeping. Unlike the tea plant, this herb is typically not heated during its process, but is usually just dried. But there is something rather tea-like about the leaves. At any rate, here are the results of the brewing:

1st Infusion: 30 seconds:

Pale yellow color. Aroma of nutmeg, ginger, and freshly baked bread, a hint of lemon in the finish. Nutmeg aroma is surprisingly strong.

2nd Infusion: 30 seconds:

Rich, intense golden-yellow color. Aroma more lemony, some herbaceous tones come out, still somewhat bready. Flavor rich, slightly sharper, but still rather balanced, with just a hint of bitterness, sourness, and sweetness. Full-bodied. Nutmeg in the finish.

3rd Infusion: 45 seconds:

Still a rich golden-yellow. Even more lemony, and flavor is now a bit crisp and tangy, like lemon zest. Less of the nutmeg and bready tones.

4th Infusion: 60 seconds:

Color similar, becoming slightly more greenish, still very lemony, but the ginger tones are more evident now, like dried ginger, not fresh. I found this infusion less interesting.

5th Infusion: 75 seconds:

Color a bit lighter and more greenish, but still golden. The aroma is more vegetal, tones of lemon and dried ginger are still present. Finish becomes a bit dusty.

6th Infusion: 90 seconds:

Still a lot of color, but aroma is weaker. Mostly dried ginger; little lemon aroma left. Flavor becoming slightly more astringent, although still pleasant. More dusty finish.

I tried making another infusion of several minutes, and while it was still colorful and had some flavor and was pleasant to drink, it wasn't particularly interesting. Overall though, the whole experience was fascinating and definitely worth repeating with other herbs. I only wish that I were able to more easily obtain herbs of this quality. Usually, the only herbs that I have that have whole, intact leaves are ones I grow myself or receive as gifts from friends who have gardens.

Have you ever brewed herbs in a gaiwan?

If you haven't, I'd recommend it. But first, I'd recommend getting some high-quality, whole-leaf herbs. These can be very hard to find in stores, where a lot of herbs are broken up. Try growing them yourself!

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Under-Appreciated Pages on RateTea

I put a tremendous amount of effort into RateTea, and, while the site has been growing rapidly and getting a large number of pageviews, there are a lot of articles on the site that have gone under-appreciated, perhaps because they are buried deep within the site, or in some cases, just because people don't know about them. This post is my attempt to draw attention to some pages I've written that I think a number of people might find very interesting, but that so far have attracted few views.

While I founded RateTea primarily as an interactive site where people can rate and review teas, I want it to be the most accurate and comprehensive informational tea resource on the web. Over time, I have added a great deal of carefully researched material, mostly written by myself, but a few written by others, and every article revised with help from a number of others, on topics relating to tea and herbal teas, including both the teas, their production, and related health topics. Many of these articles would not be possible without the wealth of information provided by bloggers, tea companies, and scientific researchers' whose work I cite on many of the pages.

I want to highlight a few of these carefully researched articles on the site; this selection covers the articles that I think are more interesting, but unfortunately have been less visible:

  • Organic Tea - This article explores the topic of organic-certified tea from as neutral a perspective as I was able to take. As someone who is strongly committed to sustainability, I find organic agriculture appealing, both in tea and for other food crops. However, as this article explores, organic certification is not without its downsides, and the organic label certainly does not address all the problems it sets out to. This is a good article if you want a more critical take on organic tea, but still coming from someone who thinks organics are a good idea.

  • Rooibos or South African Red Tea - This article covers a lot of different topics relating to rooibos, including both economic and environmental issues with its production as well as some of the fascinating health properties of this herb; there is also a sub-page on green rooibos. Rooibos may be of particular interest to people with asthma or breathing problems; check out the page for more explanation.

  • Antioxidants in Tea - Antioxidants are a topic on which it can be hard to find impartial, science-backed information, mainly because the topic of antioxidants has been so heavily hyped up in the natural health media. Contrary to popular belief, antioxidants are not always good for you. This article explores some of the tougher questions relating to the antioxidants in tea, again attempting to adopt as neutral and science-based a perspective as possible. You may be surprised by some of the studies cited in this article.

  • Pu-erh tea - If you are a serious Pu-erh enthusiast or connoisseur, you will probably not find much on this page. But RateTea appeals to a broad audience, including a large number of people who have never even heard of this tea. If you know only a little bit about Pu-erh and want to learn more about what it is, how and where it is produced, and what is known about its health effects, this page will give you a good overview of the topic.

  • Storing Tea - I find this page and the whole topic of storing tea to be a lot more interesting than I thought I would. It seems rather cut-and-dry, right? Yet there is a surprising amount of controversy on the topic of storing tea, particularly, in terms of how long it can stay fresh if stored properly. This page starts with the basics but dives into much more depth than you might realize.

Please let me know what you think of these pages! And please, if you run a website or blog and think that there are under-appreciated pages on your site, do share them as well in your own blog post. I always want to read what people consider to be their best work or posts on topics they personally find interesting or thought-provoking!

Monday, August 1, 2011

Price and Sustainability: What is Overpriced Tea?

One of the recent blog posts that I greatly appreciated was Lainie's post about The Price of Tea, which references a great post on the Tea Geek Blog, Whose Tea Is That?, discussing how different companies will sell the same batches of tea (often for different prices). Price is one of my favorite topics, and I think I would like to write about it more than I do, so here goes:

I also think that in the end, being price-conscious as a shopper, not just for tea, but for everything, is crucial to achieving sustainability. Our financial decisions, which include all purchases, shape the organization of labor and distribution of resources in society. When we buy goods for a fair price, we are participating in a normal, healthy economic activity. When we buy undervalued goods, we are often helping to dispose of excess goods or helping a company to regain losses if they have an overabundance of something. But when we buy overpriced goods, we are giving money (and thus power) to someone who has not provided a proportional amount of value. Buying overpriced goods thus is bad for the economy as a whole--that is my philosophy, which I know does not agree with some economists' theories. Economists who would argue otherwise probably argue that consumerism is a good thing, and spending money for the sake of spending it is somehow desirable. Who believes in that? I sure don't.

What is overpriced?

The notion of something being overpriced is necessarily subjective. There are different ways of looking at price and value, and I will outline two of them. In either way, however, the core idea is value. It does not matter so much what the price of something is. For example, with tea you might examine price per ounce, per pound, per tea bag, or even per cup. However, these prices are distinct from value, which is the more subtle and elusive concept of what you're getting for your money.

It's often worth paying more money if the product is better tasting. You might even save money if you are able to make more infusions from a set of tea leaves, or get by with using less tea leaf because the tea is so intensely flavorful.

Value as assessing the quality of good itself:

Arguably the most important aspect, or at least most immediately evident aspect of value is the quality of the good itself. In the case of tea, the quality encompasses the flavor, aroma, and to some degree, appearance and ease of brewing of the tea leaf.

However, value does not exist in a vacuum, and there are other things besides the innate qualities of the good, and its price, which influence value.

Value as relative:

If tea were a very scarce commodity, it would probably command a high price. On the other hand, if it were easy to grow and process in a temperate climate, like mint, it would probably not be as expensive in countries like the U.S. or U.K. Value also depends on possible substitute goods.

The value of a specific type or batch of tea is also dependent on the price and value of similar teas. If you can buy an identical or nearly indistinguishable tea from a different company, you will probably see the higher-priced of the two offerings as overpriced. And if you can buy a similar, but slightly different tea for a much lower price, you are also likely to see the one tea as overpriced as well. For example, the existence of inexpensive but high-quality se chung oolongs often makes me a little pickier about the quality of Tie Guan Yin, and more likely to perceive Tie Guan Yin as overpriced unless it is absolutely top-notch.

Value as holistic economic concept:

There is one more way to look at value, and that is to look at the whole supply chain from the tea growers and harvesters through all intermediate parties to the sale, purchase, and brewed cup. In this paradigm, the value depends not only on the quality of the good itself, and possible substitute goods, but also on the amount of profit taken out of various points in the supply chain, and the effect that the production of the product has on the various communities, people, and businesses along the way.

This way of thinking about value is relatively new, in part because in the past, most if not all of this information was hidden from people buying tea. But with the information age, there is greater transparency, and this holistic view of value is becoming much more popular and widespread, and I actually believe it will eventually become widely accepted in the mainstream. It is this holistic view of value that is the underpinning of the philosophy of fair trade.

The teas that one might classify as "overpriced" can differ hugely if one uses this holistic sense of value, vs. if one uses the conventional sense of value. For example, one might be comfortable paying a modest premium for a tea produced by sustainable methods by a small farmer-owned cooperative. On the other hand, one might be more likely to label a tea as overpriced if one knew that it had a high markup at the point of sale, with only a negligible portion of the sales price reaching the original producers.

What does overpriced mean to you?

How do you personally think about value, when it comes to tea? Do you look at the quality of the tea alone, or do you consider where the tea came from, and the markup involved at various steps of the sale and distribution of the tea?