Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Tea and Honey Bourbon Whiskey

Today I am sharing a post that is rather acharacteristic of me in several ways. For one, I am sweetening my tea, and for two, I am featuring a type of alcohol to do so. However, in a broader sense, I think this post fits with my character as the amount of sweetness and alcohol that I added was very minimal.

I am not much of a drinker; I never have been and I likely never will be. I don't like going to bars and I never feel the need to get drunk. But I do love the taste of many kinds of alcohol. It is no secret that RateTea was inspired by RateBeer, where I have been an active user for years. I enjoy beer more than any other sort of alcoholic beverages, but I do like several types of liquor. My favorite of these is bourbon. I find something about bourbon to be's smooth yet complex, and I like it so much that I can drink it straight, although I usually like to add a dash of water to it.

Recently, at the house of some of my friends, someone procured a bottle of Wild Turkey American Honey Bourbon, a honey-sweetened bourbon of the Wild Turkey brand. This is not the sort of thing I would drink on its own. I tend to avoid sweet alcohol, and I like plain bourbon without any honey. But this drink was more subdued flavor-wise than pure honey, and it was pleasingly aromatic, and I got the idea of using it to sweeten black tea:

I chose a first-flush Darjeeling, the Darjeeling from Two Leaves and a Bud, and added just a dash of the bourbon. The result was really interesting. For one, the addition of the bourbon changed the character of the tea, much more so than adding sweetener alone, although less so than adding milk. The bourbon seemed to take some of the edge off the tea. This tea was already a relatively smooth tea, low in bitterness and tannic qualities, but I found it was even smoother upon the addition of the bourbon. I also found that the aroma of the bourbon seemed to blend seamlessly with the tea. Both were rather floral, and in oddly similar ways.

This was an interesting experiment, and the results were pleasant. I could see myself trying something similar again, perhaps with different types of liquor or different teas. Have you ever added liquor to your tea? Does this idea appeal to you at all?

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Dollar Store Tea: Lindsay Gardens Tea

I like exploring dollar stores, although I often don't buy much in them because I tend to seek out high-quality merchandise and, as I explain below, sometimes buying low-quality "bargain-priced" merchandise can actually increase your costs in the long-run. But sometimes I do discover true bargains and I always enjoy searching for them. I recently discovered a store, Dollar Days, on 48th street in West Philadelphia, which has a fairly large selection of food products, and among them, tea. The following photograph shows the tea for sale in this store:

This tea was all from Lindsay Gardens Tea, a brand which I had never heard of before I saw it in this store and took this photograph. I did not buy this tea and I'm probably unlikely to try it unless someone else has already bought it and offers me a tea bag to try, because I don't like throwing out tea.

I love shopping for bargains, but I think it is important to think about the broader picture when considering price, rather than just buying things because they are cheap. The tea pictured above is a good example. While I can't say much about its quality without actually sampling it (and I have not done so), I'm skeptical about its quality. It's clearly a brand of low-end tea bags, and I tend to avoid these brands regardless of price, because I think that high-quality goods often offer better value. But even if this brand offered high-quality tea, would it really be the best price available?

Cost-per-cup Analysis:

The following analysis will clearly demonstrate the supremacy of loose-leaf tea over tea bags as a bargain buy. First of all, the price above, $1 for 20 tea bags, is exceptional. Except for buying very large packs (100+ teabags) in bulk, it's rare to find prices as low as the one above. But in loose-leaf teas the prices can go much lower.

I recently featured a handful of teas in a post cheap tea: loose-leaf teas offering outstanding value. Among these, the cheapest was Ahmad Tea's Kalami Assam, an unusually good Assam tea. This tea, which I bought one pound of for $6.15, costs between 3-4 cents per cup, assuming about 2.5 grams of tea per cup, a substantially more liberal quantity than most low-end tea bags contain. The Lindsay Gardens tea above, from the dollar store? Assuming one tea bag per cup, 5 cents a cup. The Ahmad tea is actually an example of a relatively high-quality tea. There are other teas that are still quite high-quality that are much cheaper even. As an example, take Turkish tea from Caykur, all of which is grown without pesticides. It tends to be smooth black tea, available at a fraction of the price of the Ahmad tea above.

Even if you are searching solely to minimize your cost-per-cup, you'll nearly always get a better deal buying cheap but good-quality loose-leaf tea than buying the cheapest tea bags on the market.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Overzealous Trademarks for Tea Names: Numi Tea and Chinese Breakfast

This morning I met my brother in Metropolitan Bakery in West Philly, which is a cute little bakery and cafe, one of the few cafes of its type that does not have wireless internet. I actually really like the lack of wireless internet, as it keeps the cafe focused on people actually connecting with each other (although smartphones, unfortunately, throw a wrench in this). But I digress.

In this cafe, I drank a cup of Chinese Breakfast™ Yunnan Black Tea from Numi Tea, which I enjoyed and wrote a review of in case you're curious...but this post isn't about the tea, it's about the fact that the name of this tea is marked by a trademark symbol. This wasn't just any chinese breakfast tea, it was Chinese Breakfast™. This got me thinking about trademarks.

What is a a trademark?

The trademark symbol (™) is used by companies to denote the fact that they are using a symbol as a trademark. There are two types of trademarks, registered and unregistered. Registered trademarks are denoted by the (®) symbol. Trademarking a name or symbol, even if the trademarks are unregistered, provides a degree of legal protection for a company, in the case that other businesses use the same name.

What is the purpose of trademarking?

The idea of trademarking is simple: a company invests money, time, and resources establishing a reputation, and this reputation becomes associated with the name of that company and its products. If another company is able to come on the scene and name its products in the same way as the original company, it is able to "steal" the hard-earned positive reputation of the first company without having done the work to build up its own reputation. Furthermore, new companies on the scene could offer a lower-quality product, thus riding off the established company's reputation and tarnishing their image. If you want to read more on this topic, there's an extensive, fairly technical Wikipedia page on trademarks.

I'm a firm believer in the general validity of trademark law. I think that in general, it is a good thing. However, I also think it can be taken too far.

Taking trademarks too far:

Some companies unfortunately abuse the system of trademarks and trademark law by trying to register trademarks that are already in use as common phrases. Trademark abuse refers to a company inappropriately registering trademarks, as well as using their trademarks to legally threaten other companies, either to force them to rename their products or to extract royalties.

An example of a trademark of a common phrase is the company Life is Good, which has registered the phrase "Life is Good" as a trademark. This is, in my opinion, an overzealous use of trademarking. If I were a judge and I heard a case in which someone challenged this trademark, I would probably strike it down. The issue, as I see it, is that "Life is Good" is a very common phrase, and the company Life is Good seems to base their whole business model on selling merchandise based on the "Life is Good" slogan, which was in existence long before the company trademarked this phrase. I don't know when they registered the trademark, but according to the company's website, their first shirts with this slogan were presented in 1994. I do not know if this brand has actually sued anyone, but even if it has not and does not ever sue anyone, I still get a weird feeling whenever I see the registered trademark(®) symbol after the phrase "Life is Good". It does not give me good feelings about the company.

There are numerous examples of companies actually suing people over extremely vague trademarks. There's a long list of trademark abuse cases on Tabber's Temptations page on Trademark Abuse, which includes such absurdities as attempts to trademark the phrase Love Potion, or the word stealth. For a particularly nasty case, a cable company actually started suing all sorts of companies with the term "monster" in their names, including a mini golf company.

Because of the issue of trademark abuse, and the negative connotations it evokes, I think it is very important that companies tread lightly in their use of registering trademarks or marking names or symbols as trademarks. For example, my company Merit Exchange LLC (which owns RateTea) has a trademark (unregistered) for its name and the merit symbol used to represent it, which I explain on the Merit Exchange copyright notice. I would not even think of trying to trademark a general name like "community economy". Similarly, RateTea (as well as the domain name as well as the former name is a trademark, but I would not try to trademark more general terms like "tea ratings". Even though RateTea was the first site to offer online tea ratings open to the general public, there were prior sites (like Teaviews, and many individual bloggers) which already published numerical ratings of teas. Even if there were no prior examples of tea ratings anywhere, I still think it would be unethical and probably legally inappropriate to try to trademark a general phrase like that. And if I were to attempt an overzealous trademark, I would just alienate others and generate hostility towards my site and my company. I'd make myself and the company or website look bad.

And this is exactly what happens when companies overreach in their use of trademarks.

Back to Numi Tea and the Chinese Breakfast Trademark:

I personally believe that the term Chinese Breakfast is too general to trademark. The name, and similar names, are already in use by a number of different tea companies. For example, Rishi tea sells a "China Breakfast". I do not know which company created their tea first though, because I have not researched this topic. The way trademark law works, the name "China Breakfast" is similar enough to "Chinese Breakfast" that if the Chinese Breakfast trademark were ruled valid, the name "China Breakfast" would likely be infringing upon it--especially since both teas are Yunnan red (Dian hong) teas of a similar style and from the same region.

But I think that a case based on trademarking the term "Chinese breakfast" could and would break down in court. Prior use of the phrase is one factor, and I think if this could be established then the case would be sealed. But even if it were not in prior use, I still think it might be too vague and general to trademark. The name is similar to English breakfast and Irish breakfast teas, which are styles of tea that are not trademarked or owned by any particular brand, and which are defined by their character, not by association with a particular company or even particular origin of tea. "Chinese breakfast tea" is a very general term which evokes a strong traditional breakfast tea, with a simple modifier implying that the tea either originates in China or is a style consumed in China. I also think that if a trademark of a general term like "Chinese breakfast" were upheld in court, it would set a bad legal precedent that would lead to a rush for companies to register other names like "Turkish Breakfast", "Kenyan Breakfast", or possibly more esoteric terms. This rush would favor big companies with more resources for advertising and legal teams, and it would do nothing to reward companies for investing long-term resources in development of quality products, and it would ultimately create an anti-competitive environment that was not productive or beneficial to the tea industry as a whole, especially to tea drinkers.

Numi Tea is a company that prides itself on its ethics: it is a leader in sustainability, with a high portion of teas that are certified organic and also fair-trade certified as well. When I see the trademark symbol after the name Chinese breakfast, it doesn't give me a good feeling. Like my reaction when I see the ® symbol after the phrase "Life is Good", my immediate association is with frivolous lawsuits in which larger companies use their wealth and legal teams to bully individuals and smaller companies. I have no idea if Numi has ever done this, or would ever do this (I certainly hope that they would not), but the point is, by writing the ™ symbol after the generic name "Chinese Breakfast", they open the door to this sort of abuse. If they were to quietly remove that symbol, they would be sending a signal to people like me and to the world that they considered themselves above this sort of petty behavior, and instead wanted to focus on the quality of their product speaking for itself. And they can still benefit, legally and ethically, from the protection of trademark law, protecting their brand name.

(Numi, incidentally, is a registered trademark, and I would assert that this is proper and ethical use of trademark to protect brand name and reputation.)

What do you think?

Where do you draw the line between trademark abuse and legitimate use of trademarks? Do you think that this particular case of Numi trademarking (albeit not registering) the name "Chinese Breakfast" is going too far? Or is it within the range of what you think is acceptable?

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Top 5 Favorite Black Teas Of The Moment

People often ask me: "what is your favorite tea?", and those who know me a little better may ask the more open question: "Do you have a favorite tea?", to which I usually answer "not really, although I have a few favorite teas at the moment". My tastes in tea change frequently, so it's hard for me to pick universal favorites. However, at the moment, there are five black teas that I can pick out as favorites. These include teas that I've tried recently as well as ones I have not had in some time, and am simply remembering:

  • TK18: Livingstonia Estate GFBOP - I've tried a few Tanzanian teas now, including a very good one from Teas Etc, and I've liked all of them. This one, however, is my favorite, and is one of the most interesting / unusual black teas I've tried yet, with tones of wintergreen and a suggestion of Queen Anne's lace in the aroma. It is a high grade of broken-leaf orthodox tea.

  • Makaibari Estate Darjeeling First Flush from Arbor Teas - As I've written about before, I love everythig I've ever tried to come out of Makaibari estate. This was not my favorite tea from theirs (this title goes to a long-leaf green tea), but it is the favorite batch of black tea I've tried.

  • The now-discontinued Himalayan BOP from Upton Tea Imports. I have tried a number of similar teas Upton added after retiring this one, but I haven't found one I like as much as this one. This tea is inexpensive, Darjeeling-like, but very edgy, with a greener character for a black tea, yet considerable bitterness. My next-best bet for a similar tea is one from Jun Chiyabari estate in Nepal, provided by Imperial Tea Garden, but I have yet to find a tea in this genre that I like quite as much as Upton's discontinued one.

  • Panyang Tippy Golden Needles Imperial - A tippy black tea, also from Upton, this tea was remarkably light for a Chinese black tea, and had an aroma suggestive of pastry crust, yet with considerable complexity.

  • Darjeeling from Hampstead Tea - This tea is also from Makaibari estate, and to my knowledge is a mixed flush tea, although this is not explicitly stated. It is my second-favorite black tea from that estate, richer and with more depth and bitterness than their first flush but still with some of the first-flush character in the aroma.

I also want to add that I think all of these teas are reasonably priced, but the Livingstonia Estate GFBOP is a particular bargain.

As a disclaimer, Upton Tea Imports is my favorite tea company, which biases me to order and sample more teas from them than from any other company. I'm sure there are many other outstanding sources of black tea out there. These teas mentioned here are simply the ones that got my attention the most.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

More Thanksgivings For Tea

Last year, I published a post around Thanksgiving time, Thankful about Tea. I am still very thankful for the things mentioned in that post, and I would recommend reading it if you missed it. This post is in the same spirit. I am not just thankful for tea, but thankful for many things that have some connection to tea. I am thankful for:

  • I'm thankful for Sylvia Odhner and her work that has helped RateTea look much nicer, as well as for her wonderful friendship that has helped me to grow in more ways than I can put into words.

  • I'm thankful for the time I have in my life to slow down and enjoy a cup of tea multiple times throughout the day, and for the rest and mindfulness that these small breaks produce.

  • I'm thankful for the earth's ecosystems that have given us tea, together with the myriad of different plants and animals we use for food, drink, and all sorts of other purposes.

If you eat turkey this thanksgiving, please remember where turkeys come from, and that they originated as wild creatures with great dignity. Look at the agility demonstrated by this wild turkey, which was perched high in a tree and flew across a large expanse of open water:

Happy thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Blogging Advice: Writing on Other Sites

Today I read a post on Sara's blog Tea Happiness titled Steep Thoughts- The Shamlessly Promoting Stuff Edition, in which Sara writes about the Tea Review Blog. I really like the Tea Review Blog; it is a lot like Teaviews, another site that I really like. In many respects, these two sites, featuring a team of reviewers that post reviews of teas, fill a niche that is intermediate between individualized tea blogging and community sites that are open to the public for free sign-up, like RateTea and Steepster.

I did not think there was anything overly promotional about Sara's post, and this got me thinking about when a blogger goes too far in promoting material posted on another site. I am sensitive to this because I do not want to come across as overly promotional about RateTea or any of the other sites that I run. I have definitely seen blogs that cross this line (including ones I would not overly label as spam), and I came up with the following advice to offer. Feel free to take it with a grain of salt, or offer your own perspective!

I think this issue is important for tea bloggers, however, as many of us publish on a variety of different sites, from microblogging social networking sites, to guest posts on other blogs, to community sites, forums, and the like.

When you publish on other websites:

I have two key guidelines or recommendations to bloggers who wish to promote their writing pieces on other blogs or websites. Whatever you do, make sure your blog retains its character, and share things in context.

Make sure your blog retains its character:

If you mostly write detailed posts with a chatty tone, or if you mostly write elegant, poetic posts with beautiful photography, then keep your posts in this style even when you wish to share your writings on other sites. If I subscribe to a blog, it is often not just because I like the content and subject matter, but because I like the style and presentation.

My blog is often characterized by the inclusion of nature photographs, followed by slightly far-fetched analogies between what is going on in the photo, and the subject of the blog post. Just as this Yellow-bellied sapsucker (a sap-eating woodpecker) is migrating south to warmer regions for the winter, some bloggers find it fruitful to migrate over to posting material on websites other than their blog. However, unlike migratory birds, bloggers usually have the best results if they continue to publish unique posts on their blog throughout the year, even if they do start publishing elsewhere as well.

Sharing things in context:

I tend not to like blog posts that consist of a single link to a writing piece or blog post on an external site. This sort of sharing of links is appropriate for twitter, facebook, Google+, and a variety of other sites. By sharing links like this on a blog, you are losing the main benefit of all-out blogging rather than using these other "microblogging" services.

If someone arrives at your blog post, they're set up to read least a paragraph or two, maybe. If they come to your post, they're ready to absorb information, and more than just a single sentence or link. If you just include a link, you're wasting their attention, losing an opportunity to engage with a captive reader. Furthermore, by making someone follow the link to another site, you can sometimes be wasting your reader's time, especially if you share a post on twitter that takes the reader to a page that just links over to another page. It sounds silly, but people do it more often than you might think.

What does it mean to share something in context?

There are many different ways to share things in context. You can write a blog post about a different topic, and link to one of your articles that expands on a topic you mention tangentially or in passing. You can write a blog post that highlights a collection of articles you've written, with a blurb about each of them. And, if you really do want to write a blog post that serves solely to point the reader to one article on a different site, I would recommend:

  • Share why you think this post would be exceptionally interesting or relevant for your readers to read.

  • Add something unique, like unique or exclusive commentary on the article, such as a personal reflection on why you wrote it.

  • Write the post in the style / character of your blog.

  • Include such posts only sparingly in your blog.

What do you think?

Do you like this advice? Do you follow it yourself? Do you think I have been doing a good job of following my own guidelines, or am I a hypocrite? Any other related advice to offer, to me or anyone?

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Hibiscus Tea (Roselle) - Flor de Jamaica & Lowering Blood Pressure

I usually tend to write about teas, herbs, and other beverages that I especially like, but this time I thought I'd share one that I do not particularly like, although a large number of others seem to love it. And while I may not like it, I find it very interesting because of the overwhelming scientific evidence that it can be effective at treating high blood pressure. This drink is hibiscus tea, an herbal tea made from the calyces (sepals) of the roselle plant (Hibiscus sabdariffa). Pictured here is an iced glass of this beverage:

Hibiscus tea goes by many names, in part because it is widely consumed in so many different countries and cultures. In Egypt, this drink is often referred to as karkadé(كَركَديه‎) which is just Arabic for hibiscus, and in much of Latin America it is called Jamaica, short for agua de flor de Jamaica.

The picture above shows the roselle plant, used to produce this herb. It is widely cultivated in hot, tropical climates, such as Egypt and Nigeria. On RateTea, you can find listings of different sources of hibiscus, including both tea companies selling it as an herbal tea, and herb companies selling it as a bulk herb.

Why I don't like hibiscus: sourness, cooked vegetable aroma:

Hibiscus produces the most sour herbal infusion of any herb that I've tried. It is even more sour than many fruits. Because of its intense sour flavor, it is often blended with other herbs, and, whether it is consumed on its own, or in blends, it is typically sweetened, often heavily so. I tend not to like sour qualities, and hibiscus is over the top on the sourness for me.

I also am not crazy about the aroma of hibiscus. In some respects its aroma is rather fruity or berry-like, and I like these qualities, but I also find that it has a strong cooked vegetable or cooked fruit aroma, much like what your home will smell like if you've been making large quantities of jam. I find this smell mildly unpleasant, and this is another reason I'm not a fan of hibiscus.

But you may love it...I find that most people like both sourness and jam more than I do!

Hibiscus is a common ingredient in herbal blends and flavored teas:

Even if you may not be aware of it, it is highly likely that you actually have consumed hibiscus in some form or another. Hibiscus is one of the most common ingredients in herbal teas, including the Celestial Seasonings Zinger® series, where it serves both to impart a deep purple-red color, and to add sourness to a blend. As you can expect, I don't particularly like these blends. The only mainstream commercial blend that contains hibiscus as a main ingredient, that I actually enjoy, is Bigelow's Sweet Dreams. Hibiscus is also sometimes blended with tea; I've tried a black tea blend with hibiscus; I wasn't a huge fan of it.

Hibiscus and Hypertension (High Blood Pressure):

I've researched a fair amount about the medicinal uses and health properties of various herbs, and hibiscus was one herb that stood out in that it has an overwhelming amount of strong evidence supporting its efficacy for treating a specific, rather serious health condition: hypertension (or high blood pressure). Not only has hibiscus been found to be effective at lowering blood pressure in multiple controlled clinical trials, but it has even been compared to a number of different prescription antihypertensive drugs, and it was found to be as effective as one of them. Furthermore, unlike prescription medications used to treat hypertension, hibiscus was found to have a complete absence of strong or serious side effects. As something that has been widely consumed as a beverage for hundreds of years, it seems absurd that people would take one of these medications without first trying hibiscus, especially in cases of milder hypertension. If you want citations to these studies you can find citations and some more detailed discussion of these studies on RateTea's page on hibiscus tea.

One of my motivations for sharing this post is to get the word out about hibiscus. Hypertension is a widespread problem in America, and most of us probably know at least a few people who are suffering from this condition. It certainly cannot hurt to try regularly drinking a few cups of this herb to lower your blood pressure before trying out a potentially riskier prescription drug. If you choose to drink it in herbal tea form, however, be careful about how much sugar you add, as high-sugar diets can contribute to or worsen hypertension.

Hibiscus may also have some other health properties, although these have been less extensively studied, and only have suggestive support, mostly from animal studies. These properties include an antipyretic (fever-lowering) effect, protection against liver damage, and lowering of cholesterol.

Do you like hibiscus?

I'd be curious to hear from other you feel similarly about this herb as I do, or do you actually enjoy it? Did you know about these studies on hypertension? Would you take an herb like this one, before taking prescription medication?

Monday, November 21, 2011

Flavors Sinking to the Bottom of the Cup, and Stirring Tea

Pictured here is the bottom of a cup of black tea:

One thing that I've noticed while drinking certain teas is that certain flavors and qualities of a tea tend to sink to the bottom of a cup. This is less of a problem when using a relatively short, wide cup like the one pictured above, and even less of a problem when using smaller teacups like those more commonly used in China and Southeast Asia, but even with these small cups, this phenomenon can occur.

What exactly sinks to the bottom of the cup?

From my own experience, I've found that flavor, more than aroma, tends to sink to the bottom of the cup. The bottom of the cup of tea tends to be stronger in flavor, more bitter, more sour, and to a slight degree, also sweeter. Astringency also tends to concentrate at the bottom of the cup. However, there are a few unusual teas in which I've found aromatic qualities sank to the bottom of the cup. One such tea was Huo Shan Yellow Buds (Huoshan Huangya) from Upton Tea Imports, in which the bottom of the cup had hints of olive and wine which were totally absent from the top of the cup.

For some brief science, tea contains both dissolved chemicals and suspended solids. Dissolved solids leave the tea transparent, whereas suspended solids are visible if you look closely enough, and from a distance, contribute to an opaque or cloudy visual appearance to the tea. Suspended solids only stay in water because the water is moving; if the water does not move, they will eventually settle to the bottom (imagine the green dust left at the bottom of a cup of sencha). Truly dissolved chemicals do not sink to the bottom of the cup once dissolved: they remain dispersed equally throughout the liquid. However, as the amount of mixing in a cup of tea, especially a tall cup, can be limited, dissolved substances still tend to be unequally distributed throughout the cup. This is particularly true (terrible pun here) when there is a lot of suspended particulate matter, small pieces of tea leaf, at the bottom of the cup, as dissolved substances are continually leaching or infusing from these tiny pieces of leaf.

In general, you tend not to taste suspended particulate matter, and rather, only taste things that are actually dissolved. So what is going on here is that suspended particulate matter, tiny pieces of tea leaf, concentrates at the bottom of the cup, and then various flavor components infuse from this matter. You might think that the cloudy or opaque teas would be more likely to exhibit the flavor-sinking quality, and I've found this true to some degree, but there are exceptions, like Two Leaves and a Bud's Darjeeling First Flush, which produces a very clear cup, and yet still has much of the flavor sinking to the bottom of the cup. I suspect that much of the particulate matter is so small that you cannot see it, but that it is still not truly dissolved.

Teas where I find some of the flavor sinks to the bottom of the cup:

For examples of this phenomenon, I've found that while drinking Dragon Well from Novus Tea, the flavors (bitterness, sweetness, etc.) tend to sink to the bottom of the cup. In the Formosa Amber Oolong (TT55) from Upton Tea Imports, I found a sourness sank to the bottom of the cup. A black tea in tea bags which I reviewed recently, Vienna, from The Foreign Office, had a strong bitterness that sank to the bottom of the cup.

I also find this phenomenon happens with herbal teas. For example, I find that when brewing Monarda sp. (bee balm, wild bergamot, oswego tea, etc.), a lot of astringency tends to sink to the bottom of the cup. The same phenomenon occurs, although in a less pronounced fashion, with other mint-family plants. I definitely notice it, for instance, with orange mint.

Stirring Tea:

If you drink tea from a larger cup, especially a taller mug, and you find that you don't like the fact that certain flavors or aromatic qualities tend to sink to the bottom of the cup, you can just stir your tea. But I don't necessarily always want to make my tea more uniform. Sometimes there is something pleasant about enjoying the different facets of a cup of tea...the fleeting, transient aromas at the top, leading into bolder flavors at the end.

Stirring your tea is something that most people associate with the addition of milk or cream and/or sugar, but it is something that I find can be helpful even if you drink your tea straight like I do.

How about you?

Do you ever notice that certain qualities in your tea sink to the bottom of the cup? Do you like or dislike this phenomenon? Do you stir your tea because of this? Do you seek out taller cups, or smaller ones, to magnify, or minimize, this phenomenon?

Sunday, November 20, 2011

My Top 5 Favorite Flavored Teas

This post continues my Sunday series of top 5 posts; we'll see how long I can keep this up! I usually prefer pure teas to flavored teas, but from time to time I encounter flavored or scented teas that I really like, including a select few that contend on equal ground with my favorite pure teas. This post highlights five of such teas, my five favorite flavored teas.

  • Rose Green Tea Organic, from Upton Tea Imports - This tea surprised me in that it is flavored with "natural flavors", meaning extracts or essential oils, and that I still liked it. I rarely find teas flavored with extracts in this manner, that I still like. This tea is edgy: dark and rich, and not particularly floral. It has a very strong rose presence, and the base tea blends very well with the rose.

  • Osmanthus Oolong Se Chung from Upton Tea Imports - I love osmanthus-scented tea, and greener se chung oolong (particularly huang jin gui) can strongly resemble osmanthus in fragrance. This is an example of a scented tea that blends seamlessly: although it is obvious that this tea has been scented, it is impossible to me to tell where the osmanthus ends and the tea begins. This tea is simply a joy for me to drink.

  • Jasmine Green Tea (Jasmine Yin Hao) from Rishi Tea - I do like Jasmine tea, although I wouldn't say that it is my favorite style of flavored tea across the board. This particular tea, however, my favorite Jasmine tea, is one that I especially like. It has a classic jasmine tea profile, but it is less perfumey and I find it exceptionally smooth while still being full-bodied and deep.

  • Earl Grey Leaf Green Tea from Hyson - This tea literally blew me out of the water. It is a whole-leaf green tea from Sri Lanka, with rather large leaves. It is completely unlike any other Earl Grey, totally lacking the strong bitterness, and instead, having an overall character more similar to a good Jasmine tea: smooth and very aromatic. The base tea is like an exceptionally smooth gunpowder green or chun mee.

  • (Tied for fifth) Rishi Masala Chai - This is my favorite pre-blended masala chai, and evidently, all other reviewers on RateTea also agree that it is their favorite commercially available masala chai blend. It's the only masala chai blend on the market that I like better than what I can blend on my own at home. The other contender is Vanilla Mint Pu-erh from Rishi Tea, a tea that sounded quite unappealing from the name, but which impressed me quite greatly when I actually drank it. This is a very smooth, earthy tea with a cocoa-like character (although, contrary to what the aroma might suggest, it does not contain any cacao).

What are your favorite flavored teas? I am especially interested in hearing from people who, like me, have a strong preference for pure teas, as these are the people who are most likely to share my tastes.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Leaves and Water: It's Not What But Where, and Nutrient Pollution in the Tea Industry

One way of looking at tea is that it just leaves and water. Here is a photo I took in Philadelphia, which shows leaves and water:

There's really not much here that looks like tea. Occasionally, fallen autumn leaves will "infuse" in streams or standing water, producing a rich dark brown infusion which looks a lot like black tea. But this is not happening in this photo, which shows freshly fallen rain.

Furthermore, most of us would probably agree that tea is generally a good thing, yet in this photo, neither the leaves nor the water are in a place that is terribly convenient. The water has flooded the entrance of a driveway, and the leaves are covering the sidewalk, and are slippery.

It's not what, but where, that matters:

Sometimes, in life, we just don't have enough of a certain resource in order to achieve some sort of goal. People go hungry for lack of food, or businesses can be limited by availability of some supply or raw ingredient in their production process. There is often no other way to remedy these sorts of problems other than finding whatever resource is needed.

In our modern society, most problems are of a different nature. Things are in the wrong place. These sorts of situations are often able to be solved in ways that turn them into a win-win situation, in which a problem in one area becomes a valuable resource in another. A good example of such a solution is recycling, which can turn waste (which is costly to dispose) into raw materials or inputs in an industrial process to create something of value.

Another good example of a problem of things being in the wrong place is nutrient pollution. Nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, are often limiting factors in both ecosystem growth and agricultural productivity. For this reason, commercial agriculture often treats crops with synthetic fertilizers, rich in nitrogen. These fertilizers are often applied liberally, providing far more nitrogen than is actually necessary for the crops. In the case of some plants or crops, excess nitrogen can be taken up by the plants in the form of nitrates and nitrites, which are harmful to eat in quantity (think of the issues associated with eating too many nitrite-treated meats). The remainder is not utilized by the plants, but runs off into the water. Once the nitrogen is in the water, it can damage or destroy aquatic ecosystems through a process called eutrophication. Eutrophication is a major problem worldwide, on all continents, and affects roughly half of lakes throughout North America, Asia, Europe, and South America (less in Africa, because Africa is less developed). Other problems include soil acidification, and contamination of the water supply with nitrates.

Over-fertilization in Tea Production:

The over-use of fertilizer is unfortunately a problem that exists in the tea industry.

The tea plant is a plant with very low nutrient requirements (think of how it grows naturally on rocky outcroppings in the Wuyi mountains), but it is an evergreen plant that naturally invests in its leaves for several year's worth of use. The continuous harvesting of leaves puts a heavier demand for nutrients on the plant, so it becomes necessary to add some form of fertilizer to replenish these nutrients.

Organic agriculture sometimes helps, but organic certification alone is not necessarily a guarantee that the right level of fertilizer is being applied. (see this source) The key solution to the problem of over-fertilization is to apply less fertilizer. Organic fertilizer still contains nutrients, and still causes problems when there are too many nutrients.

Fortunately, there are relatively easy ways for these problems to be addressed. Furthermore, as is usually the case of problems caused by things being in the wrong place, the outcome is actually a win-win situation. One solution is to use lime fertilization instead of conventional fertilization schemes. Another is to simply use less total nitrogen. There is some evidence that using less nitrogen actually results in slightly higher yields of tea. See this source for a study of Japanese tea fields, backing up these ideas.

I am hopeful that over time, we eventually completely solve not only the problem of nutrient pollution, but all other problems of things being in the wrong place. In the case of nutrient pollution, the solution is already known, it just needs to be implemented. For more problems in our world, we need more brainstorming, experimentation, and study. But I find it empowering to think about things in this way.

What are some problems that you see in the world around you that are examples of things being in the wrong place?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

A Walk in The Cemetery

I like the idea of moving away from writing specific reviews of tea, and finding other ways to capture the experience of tea. I am in Cafe Clave, and I just finished a cup of South Indian Select from Novus Tea. For me, tea is often a refreshing break. Another way I take a break is by walking in Woodlands cemetery. Here are three photos I took in this cemetery in October:

A red-tailed hawk carries a stick for its nest.

I frequently encounter Chinese characters when reading tea-related topics online. I rarely encounter them in this cemetery. This tombstone caught my eye and got me reflecting on the bonds that form between people across different cultures, which you can often see in the names and inscriptions in this and other cemeteries.

Institutional-looking high-rise dorms rise from behind the organic row of trees. The dorms belong to the University of Pennsylvania, a school which, at least to me, evokes connotations of order and control more strongly than a typical university. This is the view as I walk back towards the exit of the cemetery.

I find there is something inherently slow-paced and reflective about cemeteries. They are old, and provide markers of lives past. This particular cemetery has an organic nature to it, a wildness, that I like very much. As I leave it to get back to work, I reflect on these things.

The interplay between order and chaos, between control and freedom, is one of the topics that seems to come up again and again when I think of anything relating to food, drink, and ecology. I can taste it in my cup of tea just as I feel it when walking back into the city, from this cemetery.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Drying Herbs: Lemon Balm, Red Perilla, and Spearmint

When the rare October 2011 snowstorm hit a few weeks back, there had not yet been a frost, and I was expecting there to be one, based on weather reports of below-freezing temperatures. The frost never materialized, and there has yet to be a frost in a broad region from Philadelphia southward (although isolated points southward have experienced some light frost).

But in anticipation of the frost, I harvested a bunch of herbs from my neighborhood. I took some of them from plants growing wild on unmaintained property, but much of them I gathered from Tabernacle United Church, with the permission of their gardener, who also informed me that the church used no chemicals on the garden. This picture was taken when the herbs were in the early stage of drying:

In the cold weather, the indoor heat of my apartment quickly dried out these herbs. They are now long-since completely dried and I have been using them to brew herbal teas, and also as ingredients in soups. I want to highlight two things in this post.

The Herbs:

In the lower-left of the photo is lemon balm; I use this herb exclusively for brewing herbal tea, which I drink in quantity. I rarely blend it with actual tea, although I frequently blend it with spearmint and other herbs.

At the top, only partially visible, is spearmint. This particular batch of spearmint, harvested from the church's bed, is exceptionally sweet, producing a totally smooth, candy-like infusion completely devoid of any bitterness or astringency. It's actually not my cup of tea; I prefer the edgier, more bitter or wild-tasting spearmints. But it is good for a change of pace and I imagine that a large number of people might strongly prefer this variety of spearmint.

At the right is red perilla or red shiso, which I wrote about before, on my post on red shiso (perilla) for herbal tea. This batch has a little tougher leaves than the others, and I've found it is a little less enjoyable as a cooked vegetable, but it still produces a delicious herbal infusion.

These herbs all have much fresher, stronger aromas than anything I could order from a catalogue.

The Church, and The Idea:

I want to thank the church and their gardener for giving me permission to harvest these herbs. But more importantly, I want to highlight to everyone the possibility of churches and other organizations growing edible plants on their grounds, and people in the community harvesting these plants. This is a classic example of edible landscaping. On my other blog, I wrote about fruit trees as edible landscaping, but herbs actually make for an easier and quicker option.

If you work with an organization in any capacity related to their grounds or maintenance, I would encourage you to look into edible landscaping, and consider making the plants you grow available to those in the community. You will be providing a valuable asset to the community. Make sure to avoid using any chemicals on your grounds, so that everything is safe to eat.

And if you do not work for any organization in such a capacity, I would encourage you to reach out to organizations when you see edible plants. They may just be going to waste. This is not the first time a church has eagerly given me permission to harvest plants growing in their gardens.

Such arrangements essentially create a free resource; they are one of the most sustainable ways to produce herbs or food, and they also help promote a more sustainable culture by helping people to be more closely connected to the food or herbs that they are consuming.

Have you ever entered into an arrangement like this, on either end of it?

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Life in Teacup - Featured Tea Blog

In the past I have reviewed and recommended some tea websites, and today I decided it would be good to review a tea blog. I follow dozens of blogs, and I appreciate every blog that I follow or link to, so a review or feature does not mean that I want to favor one particular blog over another, just that I was thinking about one particular blog at the moment, or have some reason for wanting to share it.

One blog that I often enjoy reading is the Life in Teacup Blog, by Gingko Seto. Life in Teacup is a small tea company, run by Gingko, which specializes in Chinese teas. You can find a number of reviews of their teas, which I find consistently high-quality, on RateTea's page of Life in Teacup Reviews. You can also find Gingko Seto on twitter, where she is always eager to engage in tea-related conversation.

About the Life in Teacup Blog:

The Life in Teacup blog is rather atypical among tea blogs. It has long, detailed posts, and often goes into considerable depth. Gingko shows insider knowledge about Chinese tea, and at times, deep research, and there is a lot of unique information in this blog that you cannot easily find elsewhere. But what I most like about this blog is the personal twist or perspective that Gingko puts on the blog. Gingko, like me, is a bit of an experimenter who tends to seek out teas and aspects of tea culture that are novel, unusual, or interesting, while at the same time highly valuing tradition. I find this combination of traits refreshing and rather rare in our society (although more common among tea enthusiasts than the general population).

Although I do subscribe to this blog, it's one of the few blogs where I am less likely to read a post in full when it is posted, and instead, return to it repeatedly when I am researching a specific topic.

For this reason I want to point you to two sections of the blog, based on topics you might be interested in.

  • The Discussion on Long Jing, which is currently in the middle of unfolding, is a serious of posts about Dragon Well / Long Jing, a type of Chinese green tea.

  • Strange, funny, silly and scary teas - This collection of posts is just fun...what can I say?

  • Some of the tags / topics, including oolong tea, and puerh, and the biggest category, chat, for the more chatty / casual / random posts (many of which are still quite informative and deep).

Gingko's Affinity for Mug Brewing:

Lastly, I want to point out one aspect of this blog that I like. Gingko is a big proponent of brewing whole-leaf green tea loose in a glass mug, and I would credit her as being the main source of motivation to get me to experiment with this method, which I think is an under-appreciated method for brewing tea, one often producing very good results. The Life in Teacup blog is full of photographs of a number of different types of green teas being steeped loose in a glass mug. This brewing method really lends itself to photography (and thus, blogging), and I find that you can see the leaf in this method in ways that you can't by any other common brewing method.

So, in summary, if you like Chinese teas, I'd recommend checking out both the Life in Teacup blog, and the store.

Did you know of Gingko and Life in Teacup before this post?

Were you familiar with Gingko's blog, and the Life in Teacup company, before reading this post?

Monday, November 14, 2011

Constructive Criticism vs. Diatribes & Rants

I recently read a post on Lainie Sips about company complaints in blog comments. Lainie takes what I think to be a good and reasonable approach to moderating comments. She begins by talking about legitimate grounds on which to criticize tea companies, and then remarks:

...I don’t feel comfortable allowing diatribes against individual tea companies on my blog.

This got me thinking, and I realize that I generally like to use a similar approach to moderating comments or discussions.

There's a difference between honest, constructive criticism (which I always publish) and insults or rants (which I generally delete in comments). Occasionally there is a fine line, but I think there are some objective guidelines you can use to distinguish between the two.

What distinguishes constructive criticism from a diatribe or rant?

The following guidelines can be useful to think about whether you're moderating comments yourself, or considering posting a comment when you are genuinely upset about something and not sure whether or not you've taken it a little bit too far:

  • Constructive criticism makes concrete suggestions of how to improve the service offered, or what qualities (or prices) would be desirable in a company's offering of teas.

  • Constructive criticism criticizes specific actions of people or businesses, or specific attributes of a product, while showing respect for the people involved in running the business.

  • Constructive criticism states the criticisms once and accurately, without unnecessary repetition or exaggeration.

  • Constructive criticism speaks from personal experience in matters of opinion, using I statements.

  • A diatribe or rant often hurls criticisms without any sort of suggestion for actually correcting or improving the situation.

  • A diatribe or rant often exaggerates and uses unnecessary repetition without communicating any useful information.

  • A diatribe or rant presents personal opinion as universal fact, and often makes accusations without taking responsibility, such as saying that the company's teas are bad rather than saying that you think they are bad. Rants and diatribes often speak in generalizations rather than speaking in specifics.

  • A diatribe or rant often makes personal attacks on individuals or global negative statements about a business or company, rather than criticizing specific actions of an individual or company.

And, one important note: constructive criticism gives a name and contact info, whereas diatribes and rants are often published anonymously.

Examples of text you might find in a diatribe or rant:

  • This company's tea is terrible.

  • The people who work here are idiots who don't know tea.

  • This company is the worst: they'll screw up your order, and you might as well give up on ever getting your money back! You won't even be able to get through to them!

The first of these comments presents opinion (you think the teas are terrible) as a universal fact (the teas are terrible). The second uses a universal negative label, idiots. The third talks in is obviously describing a personal experience that went wrong, but instead of taking responsibility and sharing that experience, it attacks the company from a distance, implying that everyone will have the same negative experience, but without sharing the experience the person had.

Examples of harsh, but constructive criticisms:

  • I think this company's teas are highly overpriced; I've bought teas that tasted similar to me from other companies (X,Y, and Z) for a quarter the price.

  • I've sampled a number of teas from this company, and I have yet to find a single one that I like. I thought their green teas were especially bad; many of them were undrinkable and I ended up throwing them out.

  • I had a terrible experience with customer service from this company. When my tea arrived, I received the wrong order, and one of the bags had burst open during shipping. I was unable to reach customer service by phone, my emails were ignored, and I have yet to receive a refund or apology. I would definitely not recommend buying from this company.

These are harsh criticisms, strong negative statements about a tea company, but they are constructive. They present opinion as opinion, speak from personal experience, and are specific enough to be useful. And as negative as they are, they retain a certain degree of respect for the company and the people involved in it.

By clearly explaining why the customer had a negative experience, these criticisms enable companies to act to improve their offerings and/or service. With the first comment, the company could compare their offerings and prices to the other named companies. In the second case, the company could re-evaluate the sourcing of their teas, starting by focusing on green teas. In the third case, the company could look at what is going on from an ordering, shipping, and customer service perspective, and also contact the customer to see if it is still possible to rectify the situation.

For further advice about how to write constructive criticism, you can read my older post Reviewing Teas to Give Useful Feedback To Tea Companies.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Top 5 Most Popular Articles on RateTea

I've resolved to post a top 5 (or, like last time, bottom 5) post every Sunday. Today's post is focused on the articles on RateTea, excluding articles about brands or tea companies, styles of tea, or tea-producing regions. Similarly, percentages given are only of total article views, not other material on the site.

  • Caffeine Content of Tea - Our definitive guide to how much caffeine is in various types of tea, this one article contributes a whopping 37% of articles views on the site. This makes sense to me, as it is information that people want to know, and we have been very thorough in compiling this resource.

  • Writing About Tea - This article, a guide of how to write tea reviews and write about tea, contributes 9.2% of views to articles.

  • Health Benefits of Tea - The infamous buzzword article, contributing 4.9% of views; this article takes a more skeptical, science-based approach to this topic, which is often riddled with hype, misinformation, and marketing scams.

  • Brewing Tea - A basic how-to guide for brewing tea, it makes sense that this article is well-viewed, contributing 4% to total views.

  • Organic Tea - With 3.8% of views, this article is an overview of organic tea, covering why organic agriculture is important, but also adopting a critical tone later in the article, explaining the drawbacks of organic certification, and that organics are not the be-all and end-all of sustainable tea production.


Friday, November 11, 2011

Drinking Tea for Memories, My Memories of Tea in the Dining Hall, and a Wish

I'm scheduling this post for 11:11 on 11/11/11, because it contains a wish.

This post is inspired by a post by Ken Macbeth, on lahikmajoedrinkstea, titled Red Rose memories. The post relays a story from Cara in Cleveland about her grandmother, and memories she has of drinking Red Rose Tea.

Cara talks about how she does not actually like the taste of Red Rose Tea, but she finds that it brings back pleasant memories of her grandmother, and drinks it more for the memories than for anything else.

Aromas in particular can be some of the most powerful agents at conjuring up vivid memories from our past. Tea, stimulating multiple senses, but primarily manifesting itself in the sense of smell, has a particularly rich potential to bring back memories in this way.

A memory of mine:

I touched on this topic very early in my tea blog, in my post how I became interested in tea, but a formative experience in my life, and the place where I first started to deliberately sample different teas (not to mention a broad range of foods) was the dining hall at Oberlin College, where I went for undergrad. Pictured here is one of the few pictures I have from this period of my life:

This photo was taken with a manual camera and scanned into the computer years later; when I started college, digital cameras were virtually unheard of; they cost thousands of dollars and I had never even seen one. When I graduated, I received my first digital camera, evidence of the changing times.

I loved the dining hall at Oberlin college.

Why did I like the dining halls at Oberlin so much?

  • I found it very easy to meet people in the dining hall. Often, it would happen with little effort: I would sit with one friend or with a table of familiar friends, and then new people would join the table, and we would introduce ourselves or be introduced. Even when I went into a dining hall alone, I found it was often easy to meet people. If I sat alone, people would often join me, and if I approached a stranger or table of strangers, they were nearly always open to me joining them and starting a conversation. I met more people in the dining hall than any other way in college.

  • I could always go to the dining hall, alone, unplanned, and I could be virtually certain of running into people I knew. This imparted a sense of stability and security to my life, at a time when I had moved out to a new place where I knew almost no one and had no established friendships.

  • The dining hall was a reliable source of stimulating intellectual conversation. I never knew what to expect, but it was nearly always interesting. Often, people would talk about their classes, and through these conversations, I got exposed to knowledge and intellectual ideas from courses that I would never take and academic fields that I would never have any direct involvement in.

  • The dining hall was a place where practical knowledge was exchanged. People would talk about courses to take and professors to seek out or avoid. Classmates would talk about math and physics problems they were stuck on, musicians would talk about technique, expressiveness, and pieces they loved or hated to play, people would talk about where they wanted to live next year. In more intimate conversations, people would talk about relationships or their own personal life struggles. People would talk about anything and everything.

  • The dining hall was highly democratic, a place where there were no pretences of social status, where everyone was an equal. Everyone had to wait in lines and eat the same food, and everyone had the same choices. And the choices were almost always good enough that you could, sometimes with effort, secure a healthy, well-balanced meal.

At times, I really miss the dining hall. I've spent a large portion of my life after college eating alone, and when I eat with people, it's often with just one person. Currently, I am self-employed, but even when I've worked for large employers, I've often eaten alone. I've been shocked to see how many people in America eat lunch at their desks (Sue Shellenbarger of the Wall Street Journal writes a great post about why this is a terrible idea), or worse, don't even eat at all. Many parts of my life after college have seemed like a desert to me, a lot like this photograph here, which I took in the American southwest, when I drove across the country:

Furthermore, I have found that getting together with people out in the "real world" requires a great deal of effort. I need to plan ahead, and this planning requires work, a commitment of time and energy. I have been unable to find community gathering places that recreate the sort of stimulating and wholesome environment that I found in the college dining hall. And I know that this dearth of spaces (physical and temporal) to connect with other human beings is not good for me, nor is it good for anyone. As political alarmists and reactionaries would like to say:


I'm not joking here though.

My wish:

I'm hoping that people can read this and feel inspired, and moved to do their part to make the world more like the dining hall at Oberlin college. I want people to think: "That dining hall sounds awesome! I would love to have environments like that in my life!" My wish is that our world would have more environments like this, not just for me, but for all people.

The world is the way it is because of our collective thoughts, decisions, and behaviors. If we are open to meeting new people, we make the environment around us one in which it is easier for people to meet each other. If we create common spaces where people can go to eat with friends in a causal, relaxed atmosphere, then those spaces will exist in society and will be there as a support net for people who need these sorts of spaces. But if we judge others by social status, we move the environment in our social sphere more in this direction. And if we associate only with our existing clique of friends, we make the social environment around us more closed. On the other hand, if we engage in stimulating intellectual conversation with those around us, we create a stimulating intellectual environment around us. We can push things either in a positive or negative direction through the choices we make.

But there's only so much I can do in the short-term. One way I feel better is by remembering the happy times in the past, and the feelings of connectedness and purpose that these times were characterized by. And one way I can do this is by drinking tea.

Tea in the Dining Hall:

Back to tea...which teas did I drink in the dining hall? I drank Bigelow tea, specifically, their flavored teas and their herbal teas, including Earl Grey, Constant Comment, Plantation Mint, Mint Medley, and many others. But there is one of these that I drank more often than the rest: Sweet Dreams Herbal Tea, and because I drank it so often in this dining hall, it is the (herbal) tea that brings back the most memories. This effect is so strong that even drinking similar teas such as ShanTeas Lotus Wisdom (a blend also combining peppermint, hibiscus, and chamomile) produces this same effect.

How about you?

What teas evoke memories for you, and what memories do they remind you of? Do you like college dining halls? Was your college dining hall like the one I described? Have you found that sort of environment elsewhere in your life? Do you have any novel ideas for how to find or create that sort of environment?

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Green Chaos: Randomness as a Source of Inspiration

I recently read a post on Tea Musings, titled Green Chaos, which references a term used by John Fowles in his essay The Tree. In case you don't read or know of this blog, it's a collection of original poetry and, as the name suggests, musings. The posts are brief, expressive, and I find often calming and nature-oriented. This blog offers an interesting contrast to the standard, cut-and-dry, "talk directly about tea" approach that many of us (including myself, usually) take to tea, and I find it very refreshing and inspirational.

The photo pictured here is from Rittenhouse Park in Newark, Delaware, a deceptively large forested park nestled in between suburban areas. This park and its forest are oven overshadowed by the two nearby parks, each of which has larger tracts of forest: White Clay Creek State Park and Iron Hill Park. But I find this park and its wild forests beautiful as well.

This is the sort of green chaos that I find inspirational: it is a forest where trees and other plants grow wild, and it shows an intricate and almost endless pattern of order emerging from chaos, flowing into more chaos, with yet more order emerging. This is the world in which we thrive, feel most alive, and realize our full potential, not the tightly controlled environments that we often create around us in the modern world.

Wild ecosystems as a source of inspiration:

Inspiration is very important to me. In my work, I create things...writing, poetry, sometimes images, websites, software, ideas, and systems. And as hobbies, I create music, and improvisatory dance (swing dancing and blues dancing). I also create food when I cook, and when I grow and dry herbs, and sometimes blend them, to make herbal teas or flavored teas, usually just to drink by myself. All of these activities require inspiration. Even things that are often viewed as mechanical or technical, such as programming, require great inspiration to me. When I'm inspired, I can finish a task in a tiny fraction of the time, and do a much better job of it, than when I'm trying to mechanically trudge through it. I also need to use inspiration to solve problems in my daily life, from complex problems involving human relationships, to practical ones like how to reattach the knob to my antique dresser that fell off because the bolt was stripped.

Inspiration is not a luxury, it's a necessity.

If you read this blog a lot, you'll know that I often like to cite my sources of inspiration. Often, I'm directly inspired by another person's blog post, or a conversation I read on an internet forum. But there are other, more indirect, and possibly more important sources of inspiration in my life.

Chaos as inspiration, randomness as a resource:

If you are skeptical that chaos can be a source of inspiration, I want to provide you compelling proof of this fact, from a realm that is about as highly ordered and as un-chaotic as one can get: the realm of computers.

One of the things that I've done over the course of my life is server administration. A server is a computer, usually housed in a data center, which is the physical location for websites and other web-based services. Servers are at the very core of the internet, but many of us are not aware of them or how they work. Administering a server is something that relatively few people are familiar with. Indeed, now I use a managed virtual hosting plan to host my websites, and I only do small tweaks to the administration, but for a while, I was doing everything myself.

One interesting thing about understanding the inner workings of a server is something called the entropy pool. Servers actually have a need for randomness--it sounds crazy, but randomness is actually a valued resource under certain conditions, such as the highly controlled conditions in a data center. One of them is in the generation of cryptographic keys. If you want to create an encryption scheme, you need to have random numbers. If the numbers are not truly random (i.e. if they are generated by a simple algorithm) they can be predicted, and thus, the encryption can be easily cracked. Even in the world of computers and technology, randomness, or chaos (which can be referred to as entropy) can be a valued resource.

Back to nature:

We cannot live without nature, and I think all of us would agree on that. We depend on the Earth's ecosystems for our clean air, water, and also for our food, other natural resources, and of course, our tea.

But in addition, we also depend on the randomness of nature for inspiration. Without the randomness, our lives would be sterile. We would not be able to create things, to solve problems, or to do anything that requires creativity.

The dry leaf of this pouchong / bao zhong tea shows a similar interplay between order and chaos of the forest above. Unlike computers, it exhibits an organic sort of structure, a lot like the structure of the forest above, or this blackbird flock below:

What are the sources of inspiration in your life? What are the sources of chaos and randomness that you find most inspirational?

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Lipton Tea - Brewing and Attitude Recommendations

This post is inspired by an interesting observation. I was reading Steven Knoerr's 39 Steeps, and in the post Drink Cheap Wine . . . and Tea? (which is a great post, by the way), I noticed something interesting.

The first is a positive remark Steven made about Lipton tea. The second is (gasp!) a positive comment *I* made about Lipton tea. Here is a humble bag of Lipton tea, to get you in the spirit of this post:

Picking on Lipton:

Often, I think Lipton gets a bad rap. Because it's the dominant brand, it is the default tea for connoisseurs to "pick on". Ironically though, picking on it by default may actually help this brand maintain its place as the dominant brand in the market...but that's another issue. I was picked on a lot as a kid, and it's not terribly pleasant or constructive, not something I would ever wish on anyone, so rather than doing the same to Lipton, I'll share my genuine opinion about what I really think about this tea.

What do we expect from Lipton?

I think tea is influenced a lot by how we perceive it, which is one of the key aspects that Steven gets at in his post above. If we order a whole-leaf oolong tea with a steep price tag on it, and it just tastes bad, where does our head go?

  • Maybe I didn't brew it properly.

  • Maybe the tea was not stored properly.

  • Maybe I just don't know how to appreciate this particular tea or style of tea. (especially if the tea is an unfamiliar style that we do not regularly sample)

  • Maybe this particular batch is no good.

But if we have the same experience drinking a cup of Lipton tea, our head usually goes to a different place:

  • This tea is low-quality, mass-produced junk.

Is this justified? Objectively, we can look at Lipton and say: the tea bag contains finely broken leaf, fannings or dust. That means it's low grade. That means it's bad. But this logic does not hold.

Broken-leaf tea is not necessarily bad. For example, I tried a broken-leaf orthodox tea from Tanzania a while back, Upton Tea's TK18: Livingstonia Estate GFBOP, and one of my favorites was their now-discontinued Himalayan BOP Blend. These are not just "decent" or "passable" teas, these are teas I consider truly outstanding, and would gladly drink over any number of whole-leaf selections.

Lipton puts a great amount of care and resources into quality control, selecting teas and blending them to maintain a consistent quality of their tea as conditions change from season to season and year to year. Objectively, there's no reason to expect Lipton to necessarily be bad. And, if we do not enjoy it, it makes sense to at least ask whether or not we stored it properly, and brewed it so as to bring out the best in it.

My recommendations about Lipton:

If you are going to drink Lipton tea, treat it like any other tea:

  • Make sure it's fresh and has been stored properly.

  • Put some care into brewing it: make sure the water is boiling, heat your brewing vessel up so you're actually steeping the tea with boiling water, and carefully watch the steeping time (I recommend only 1 minute for a single cup).

My original comment on 39 Steeps was that I once gave this advice to one of my friends who was complaining about Lipton tea being bad. She told me after following the advice that she was very surprised, and that she really enjoyed the cup of tea. She told me that the resulting cup of tea was both less bitter and more flavorful than what had resulted when she had brewed the same tea haphazardly.

I want to make one final remark. I've tried a lot of teas, and Lipton's plain black tea is a lot better than a lot of teas out there. It's not the lowest of the low, nor is it really anywhere close. I've tried relatively pricey whole-leaf teas that I enjoyed much less, not to mention any number of other mainstream tea bags from the common brands in the supermarket, that I also think don't quite compare. Objectively, I think of Lipton as being somewhere in the middle in terms of quality, which is pretty impressive given its price scale of production.

What do you think?

Do you bash Lipton, or use it as an example of low-quality tea? Or do you enjoy it, and think it's actually pretty decent quality? Have you ever drunk Lipton, or any other mainstream, inexpensive, mass-produced teas, while putting care into properly storing them and preparing them, as you would expensive loose-leaf tea? What were your results?

You can read and share reviews of Lipton's Black Tea on RateTea if you are curious what others think, or want to chime in for yourself.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Makaibari Estate - My Favorite Darjeeling Estate

I was inspired to write this post by a review I read on Sarah's blog Latte Tea Dah: I Now Dream of Darjeeling: Makaibari 2nd Flush Organic .

A couple years ago, I had sampled a few single-estate Darjeeling teas, but the prospect of being able to have opinions on individual estates was still way out of grasp, something that I could perhaps imagine others doing, but was nowhere near doing myself.

I still don't have many opinions, as there are a large number of estates that I've tried only one or two teas from, and many I have yet to try any teas from. But I do now have a favorite tea estate, and that is Makaibari estate. Furthermore, the Makaibari tea estate has an official website:

It's worth visiting the website, which has more information about the estate, including the garden's commitment to sustainability and ecological principles, and a photo gallery. You can also buy some tea directly through the website. It is rather unusual for individual tea gardens to have websites, and Makaibari is one of only a few that have extensive websites.

Discussion on the "best" Darjeeling estate:

I really don't like the word "best", but I want to point out that there was a discussion over 4 years ago on teachat, best darjeeling estate?, and of the four replies that name gardens, all four name Makaibari. Other gardens named are Castleton, Jungpana, and Arya. I haven't tried Jungpana but I will say, of these, I've tried enough teas to say that I like Makaibari the best of the others mentioned, simply because I've tried teas from Castleton and Arya estates that I was less a fan of.

Makaibari's teas are pretty diverse. I find them to tend on the lighter side, but still have some bite to them. One of my favorite teas ever was a long-leaf green tea produced by Makaibari estate. I also love their first-flush, and have had very good blended tea (blends of different flushes) from this estate, sold by the Hampstead tea brand. With each of their teas, I have been impressed by the complexity of its aroma. Their are two reviews, including mine, of their first flush as sold by Arbor Teas, on RateTea if you want to get an idea of what these teas are like.

Sustainability, Organics, and Biodynamic Agriculture:

Makaibari estate also stands out from the other tea gardens, not only in Darjeeling, but around the world, as it has been a leader in sustainable agricultural practices. Makaibari was one of the first organic tea operations, and also practices biodynamic agriculture, which goes above and beyond organic certification. Both the organic and biodynamic practices have been in place since 1991, but the history of conscious sustainability-promoting decisions goes back to long before the word "sustainability" entered the mainstream: in 1971 the garden shifted over to a permaculture-based system. There's a great Wikipedia page on permaculture: it's an ancient approach to both human settlements and agriculture that emphasizes stability and long-term prosperity, using awareness of ecological principles, and it's an approach that I support wholeheartedly. You can read a bit more information on TransFair's page on Makaibari estate...which also leads into one more remark: Makaibari estate also produces fair-trade certified tea.

I find it interesting that I first got interested in this estate because I liked the way its teas tasted so much, but then came to learn that it is doing all these fantastic things that are in line with my values and goals in life.

How about you?

Have you tried tea from Makaibari estate? Were you aware of all of the sustainable, ecologically-sound practices of Makaibari estate? Would you too like to see these sorts of practices be the norm, rather than the exception, not only in tea production, but in all agriculture, worldwide?

Monday, November 7, 2011

OpenSky, and Why Communism Failed

Lainie Petersen of Lainie Sips wrote a blog post about a tea coupon special through a website called OpenSky. This was the first time I had heard of the site OpenSky, so I decided to check it out. Apparently, tea is one of the products that this site occasionally has deals on.

But when I visited the site, it reminded me, among other things, of Communism, which inspired this post.

My memories of Communism:

I've never lived in a Communist country, but I was born in 1980, when the cold war was still very much alive, and I remember, as a child, the rhetoric and public talk of Communism, with the unified "Eastern Bloc" of Communist countries from the USSR through Eastern Europe. And I remember the fall of the Berlin wall, and the breakup of the USSR. My mother, being a German professor, felt that we had to get over to Germany after the wall came down, and I remember going to Germany in the summer of 1990, after the wall came down, but before reunification. We arrived in East Berlin on the day that East Germany was changing their currency to the West German Deutsche Mark; shopping on that day was chaotic and confusing, but to an American at the time, prices were dirt cheap. I was only 10 at the time, but this experience left a lasting expression on me, and I think it helped fuel my propensity to think critically about economic systems.

I did not take any photos on the first trip, but I returned to East Berlin in 1996, and stayed with a host family. The photo above is from this trip; it depicts a Strassenbahn, meaning Street-train, a trolley much like the ones I ride now in West Philadelphia. The pictured trolley is a modernized one, an upgrade from the decrepit trolleys that I saw during my first trip, and occasionally during my second trip.

Even in 1996, East and West Germany were like night and day. East Germany had construction everywhere, although it still looked poor and falling apart. And even to an American like me, it was easy to spot and distinguish East and West Germans by their body language and dress. There was considerable evidence of cultural tension, and I saw the toll that Communism had taken on East Germany and its people.

Learning about Communism:

I've also heard about Communism through other means. My roommate during my first year in Oberlin was Armenian, and talked about his experiences during Communism. I also have known, less closely, numerous Russians, East Germans, and others who grew up in Communist countries, over the years. One thing I learned was that East Germany was by far the most prosperous and functional of the Eastern Bloc Communist countries, and that the level of poverty and dysfunction in other areas was far greater. Add on top of this the authoritarian control of the government, punishing any sort of dissent, and overly paranoid to the degree that it employed people to spy on just about every citizen, and you have a culture and society that created such depressing but beautiful works as Shostakovich's 8th String Quartet. Shostakovich, by the way, was contemplating suicide while writing that work. Have a listen:

Besides listening to Shostakovich, I've also extensively read the works of Marx, not just The Communist Manifesto, but also some of his earlier works, in which he takes a more metaphysical approach, talking about how people are spiritually connected to the product of their labor, and how capitalism results in alienation of people from the product of their labor, through paying for labor. And I've read enough Marx and know enough about Communism to know that Communism in the Soviet Union would have been absolutely abhorrent to Marx.

Why did Communism fail?

I think I have a pretty good idea of why Communism failed. It failed because it was based around the idea of a small core group of people micromanaging an entire society, specifically, micromanaging its economy. This phenomenon is called a planned economy or a control economy. And it doesn't work.

Societies are too complex...they're more like an ecosystem than a machine. And a group of people, no matter how intelligent, simply cannot centrally plan everything needed to make an economy function at all, let alone function well. Even in a smaller country, some sort of decentralized system, like the free market, is necessary, or eventually, massive economic failure results. The only way for a government to be successful at managing its economy is to shape and guide the economy by setting up good incentives, rather than by trying to micromanage it. China realized this, and embraced a market economy and this is why China's economy did not collapse like the USSR did.

Now to OpenSky:

My first impression of OpenSky was not positive. The site immediately displays a squeeze page, a page with little content and few links, which prominently leads you to sign up for something. I wrote about squeeze pages and how they are a common feature of spam / scam sites on my post Tea Spam: Starting With The Most Blatant. This screenshot shows the squeeze page:

What exactly is this site about? Here are two quotes from the site:

"Our tastemakers don't just curate your shopping experience..."


"They'll discover the best products for you."

Really? This is starting to sound a lot like Communism to me, not to mention that it takes the fun out of shopping (I love searching around for a bargain, love evaluating the quality of different products, and I love the process of comparing different stores or sellers against each other!). And also, it's been my experience that there are only three people who know my tastes better than anyone else, and who are consistently best at picking out products that are best for me, and these people are me, myself, and I. And it also has been the case, for the most part, that retail businesses themselves also play an important role in the selection process.

I don't need or want celebrities or specially appointed people (who aren't directly involved in running the business) picking out products. I'd rather just operate as I do...find sellers or businesses that seem consistent in their quality control and fair in their pricing, and buy from them. Didn't Communism establish that having a team of people trying to do a better job of this doesn't work?

What do you think?

Did you live through Communism? What do you think about Communism? How about OpenSky? Have you used it? Do you think it has a spammy-looking squeeze page? Do you think it's a Communist conspiracy to make our economy collapse through central planning?