Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Benefits of Mindfulness - And An NPR Program

Mindfulness is one topic that I like to write about, and one that comes up frequently in the context of tea culture. Wikipedia has good, separate pages on mindfulness in Buddhism and mindfulness in modern psychology; the two concepts are not identical, but overlap quite a lot.

A mindful state is not characterized by a straight, narrow, or perfect focus; it is more like this zigzagging path, straying a bit from side to side, and being full of distractions and imperfections, yet having a clear direction.

A little over a month ago, I listened to a program on NPR's Science Friday about mindfulness, called Be Here Now: Meditation For The Body And Brain, which contains an interview with one of the authors of a book called Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World. Although this program does not mention tea, it explicitly mentions food a number of times, talking about how, as people get caught up in fast-paced lifestyles, they often stop paying attention to how their food tastes. If you are interested in mindfulness, you might really enjoy the program.

In case you don't have time or aren't interested in listening to it (I'm often not in the mood for listening to radio programs or podcasts when I'm reading blogs), a brief summary of some of the key points that I took from it are as follows:

  • Many of us, in our society, have very fast-paced lives, and go through much of our days on "autopilot", preoccupied with worries, and often not paying much attention to the moment, which includes both paying attention to the thoughts going through our heads, and paying attention to physical sensations, like those in our body, or the flavor and aroma of the food and drink we consume.

  • A lack of mindfulness corresponds to a continually heightened stress response in the body, including changes in the relative activity of different regions of the brain. This can put us at increased risk of depression, and can exacerbate or directly cause psychological disorders such as generalized anxiety disorder.

  • Simple exercises in mindfulness, such as paying attention to the sensations in our body, our senses, and the thoughts in our mind, can promote a more mindful state of being in our lives. Even a few minutes a day spent meditating in a certain way can produce profound changes in mind and body.

  • When in a more mindful state, we actually become more productive, and we also have greatly improved capacity for empathy.

This summary represents my understanding of the program, not necessarily the views of the people hosted on it. But I found that overall, the program strongly resonated with my experiences.

If you ever feel busy, stressed, overwhelmed with worry or anxiety, or if you have trouble with depression, agitated mood, or irritability, I think you might benefit from listening to this program. I found it very helpful and informative.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Tea Tree Oil - Not Related to Tea, But Interesting On Its Own

In my recent top 5 post, I noted that tea tree oil was the number two search result starting with "tea". I actually just bought some tea tree oil, and, although it is not related to tea in any way other than by name, I thought, having had it come up on my blog as well as finding its way into my medicine cabinet, it would be worth writing about.

Tea tree oil, shown above, is colorless and watery, with a slightly herbal, anti-septic sort of odor. Although it is called an oil, it mixes more readily with water or alcohol than with true oils.

What exactly is "tea tree oil"?

Tea tree oil refers to the essential oil of a plant, Melaleuca alternifolia, which is in the Myrtle family, related to lemon myrtle, but not closely related to the tea plant, not even in the same order. Wikipedia has a good article on tea tree oil as well as an article on the species.

Uses of tea tree oil:

Tea tree oil is used primarily as an antiseptic. It has antibacterial and antifungal properties, which have been well-established through scientific study, and it also has antiviral properties. It can also be used against infections caused by parasites, such as mites or lice.

There is solid science backing many of these uses, and the oil has been found to be as effective as a number of synthetic drugs; the Wikipedia article has numerous links to scientific studies, and google scholar turns up a lot more (thousands of results) than can be found on that page. The chemical responsible for many of tea tree oil's antimicrobial properties is called Terpinen-4-ol; this chemical, pictured above, is also present in other plants, and is the main component of the essential oil of nutmeg.

Points of caution when using tea tree oil:

Tea tree oil is toxic if eaten or taken internally. This issue is especially a matter of concern for pets, as many pets groom themselves (involving licking) and can poison themselves by licking an area of their skin to which tea tree oil has been applied. A certain portion of people react allergically or with skin irritation to its application. When I purchased this product, it came with a sensible warning to, before using it, apply a small amount of oil to a healthy test area on the forearm, and wait 24 hours to assess whether you have a reaction.

Why did I buy it?

One thing that I have been doing, gradually, over the course of many years, is phasing out the use of synthetic chemicals in personal care products, and replacing them with natural products. There are compelling reasons to use natural products over synthetic products, both from a personal health perspective, and from the perspective of environmental sustainability.

Herbal products tend to be safer (although this is not always the case) than synthetic drugs:

In terms of health, a lot of natural products are much safer than synthetic drugs, at the doses required to be similarly effective. This safety can be measured in terms of lower rates of side effects and toxicity. I see this pattern all the time in the course of researching herbs on RateTea, such as hibiscus, which is as effective as, and much safer than, certain prescription anti-hypertensive medications. (RateTea, in case you have not noticed, has a growing collection of articles on specific herbal teas, with extensive sections on the health and medicinal properties of a number of herbs.) The body of scientific research for most herbs is smaller than the body of scientific research on most drugs, in part because of the absence of the profit motive, and in part because of a historical (and hopefully, waning) focus in Western society on synthetic drugs. However, as time goes on, the body of research supporting herbal products is continually growing, and we are learning more about their safety and efficacy. Tea tree oil is one product which has been fairly well-studied, and is considerably safer than a number of other topical antimicrobial agents.

Synthetic drugs can be persistent in the environment and damage ecosystems:

Synthetic drugs, including common over-the-counter ones, can be persistent in the environment. For example, clotrimazole, a common ingredient in over-the-counter antifungal creams, and triclosan, a common anti-microbial agent used in many personal care products, have been found to act together as marine pollutants, harming communities of microalgae and disrupting aquatic ecosystems. I picked these two examples because they are typically used for the same purposes as tea tree oil, so the natural oil would make a good alternative or substitute to these products. Incidentally, these two synthetic drugs are not without concerns about their safety and impacts on health.

Naturally occurring chemicals are not always safer or less persistent, but as a general trend, they tend to be more likely to break down. Part of this is because naturally-occurring chemicals have existed for years, so organisms have already evolved ways to break them down.

What do you think?

Have you ever used tea tree oil, or any products containing it? Do you have any opinion on it or any relevant experiences to share? Do you think about the persistence of chemicals in the environment when choosing what sorts of products to buy? Do you make an effort to use natural products in place of synthetic drugs wherever possible?

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Top 5 Google Search Terms About Tea

When using Google for search, there is a convenient and sometimes humorous autocomplete feature: if you start typing a word or phrase, Google provides options for completing what you've typed with the most commonly-typed searches. The selection of autocomplete options given sheds light on what people type into Google search most frequently.

Here are the top five terms related to tea:

  • tea party - Yes, they're talking about the tea party political movement, not a party featuring the drink.

  • tea tree oil - Tea tree oil is not from the tea plant, it is from another plant, Melaleuca alternifolia.

  • tea leoni - An American actress, whom I know next-to-nothing about.

  • teacup pig - "Teacup pig" is a term for a breed of miniature pig; these pigs, small enough to fit inside a large teacup, were originally developed for medical research, but have become popular as pets. "Teacup pigs" apparently generate a lot of shady business, as it can be hard to distinguish a true miniature pig (which will stay small) from normal piglets which will eventually grow into a full-size pig.

  • tea act - The Tea Act was a famous piece of British legislation, passed in 1773, and leading to the Boston Tea Party.

If you are using personalized search results, or are searching in a different region of the world from me, you may see different results from this list.

It turns out that none of these terms are directly related to tea, the drink, although most are related in some roundabound way.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Photographing Tea For Your Website

This article continues my series on best practices for tea company websites. This article focuses on an issue of key importance: photos of your tea. Some of this advice mentions product pages for each tea, something that not all companies have, but that I recommend.

I'm not the best photographer; it's not something I choose to put a lot of effort into, I mainly take pictures to document my experiences. You can see some of my photos (not just of tea) on photos. As you'll find, many of my photos aren't the most artistic or well-composed. But I do observe other people's photos a lot, particularly, in the course of my work on RateTea, photographs of tea, and I've made some observations about what personally makes a good impression on me. As with my other posts, this represents only my own subjective opinion, but I hope it can be useful to others.

These are the best practices that I have found:
  • When photographing loose leaf tea, use lighting that shows the tea's color as it will appear to others.
  • Photograph loose leaf tea from an angle and in a configuration that shows some depth, showing the texture of the leaf.
  • Compose your photos so that the customer can clearly and easily distinguish between the different teas you offer.
  • For brands of tea which produce packaged tea (whether tea bags or loose-leaf tea) sold in retail stores, on the product page for each tea, show the packaging of the tea as it appears in stores. This will help people locate your product on the shelf.
  • If you sell loose-leaf tea in retail stores, packaged in tins or other containers, make sure to display photographs of the loose-leaf tea itself.
  • Ideally, also photograph the brewed cup and, if you are catering to connoisseurs, the used tea leaves after steeping.

Use lighting that shows the tea's color as it will appear to others:

There is no such thing as truly neutral lighting; every object looks different in different lighting. Natural lighting changes based on whether it is direct or indirect, based on time of day and year, and the weather. Artificial lighting is highly varied--fluorescent vs. incandescent, and the decor of a room profoundly influences the ambient lighting from reflection.

When photographing tea for your website, you can't be perfect or objective, you need to make subjective judgment calls. I personally like to photograph loose-leaf tea in bright, indirect sunlight in a mostly white surroundings, but sometimes, especially for teas that do not naturally show much variation or texture, I like to photograph tea in direct sunlight, as it can make the texture of the tea more boldly evident. I recommend avoiding flash photography when photographing loose-leaf tea as it makes composition more difficult.

The goal in lighting when photographing tea is not to be perfect, as there is no perfect, but rather to be close enough that when someone looks at your tea in typical bright lighting, it will look similar to how it looks on your website. Here is an example of a company, Rishi Tea, which I think does a good job of matching the color and lighting of their teas to how they actually look.

Not all companies do as good a job of this. Below is an example, from Shanti Tea, a relatively new, sustainability-focused Canadian company specializing in loose-leaf teas, shows lighting in photography which I think is a little on the dark side, with perhaps more of a yellowish tinge:

These photos show the leaf clearly, show artful composition, and clearly depict the individual character of each tea's loose leaf, but the color looks slightly darker than normal. Update: I recently had an opportunity to see Shanti Teas' teas in person, and I was able to verify that the color scheme on the website seems darker and more yellowish / reddish than teas actually look in bright light.

Although lightness can be subjective, I think it is better to error on the side of brightness because tea leaf tends to have a darker color, among common everyday objects, and thus, a brighter leaf allows a person to more easily assess what the leaf actually looks like.

Photograph loose leaf tea from an angle and in a configuration that shows some depth, showing the texture of the leaf:

The composition of the photo of loose-leaf tea is very important. If you just photograph the top of the contents of a bin of loose-leaf tea, it will not look very interesting and will not do a great job of showing what the leaf actually looks like. But, if you separate the leaf and photograph the leaf sparsely against a white background (as Rishi does, which you can see above), the resulting photo, artful as it may be, will not look much like the bulk leaf that will arrive when the customer purchases it. As much as I think Rishi's photographs are beautiful, my personal preference is for photos that show a mass of tea gradually spreading out to sparse leaf, so that the viewer can see both what the bulk tea looks like, as well as the inidividual leaves.

Here is an example of a photo I took:

The tea is White Eagle Long Life from Imperial Tea Garden, a tippy green tea from Hunan province. This is by no means the best photo that could be taken of this tea, but it illustrates the key concepts I want to communicate about how to position a tea: the white background around the edge of the photo shows the individual leaves of the tea, whereas the mass of tea in the upper right shows what the bulk loose-leaf tea looks like. The focus is in the foreground of the picture, and the rear is blurred, mimicking the experience that people get when looking at an actual object in real life.

For an example of this method used on an actual tea company's website, check out the following screenshot of green teas on the website of Chicago Tea Garden:

Each of these three teas show a border with the texture of the leaf visible, as well as a mass of loose-leaf tea with some texture to the pile of tea as a whole. Personally, I like the two photos on the left, with more variation in texture, more than the photo on the right, which is more uniform. I especially like the photo of the Bi Luo Chun.

Compose your photos so that the customer can clearly and easily distinguish between the different teas you offer:

This piece of advice is common sense, yet a lot of tea companies do not follow it, perhaps because it can be difficult to follow. I find this point is especially true when dealing with black teas, especially Assams, a little less with Darjeelings or Yunnan teas (which tend to show more variability in their appearance).

But no two teas look exactly alike. If you look at the teas side-by-side, you will find some way to distinguish them, and you can then focus on their differences in your photographs. And if you cannot figure out a way to distinguish them, then use the composition of the photos to create two vastly different-looking photographs. Make the teas look different. There is no single right way to photograph a given tea, so, even if you have a catalogue of dozens of similar-looking black teas, it's possible to take unique-looking photos of each one.

Look at this example from the Assam Tea Company; all of these teas are black teas from Satrupa estate in Assam, yet look how different they appear, even in this low-resolution screenshot:

If your company uses the same base tea to create flavored tea blends, and if you flavor the teas using extracts, a good solution is to photograph the tea against a backdrop of the whole ingredient that you have used as the flavoring for the tea. For example, for an orange-flavored tea, photograph the loose-leaf tea in front of a sliced orange, or include some cinnamon sticks in the background of a cinnamon-flavored tea.

And of course, the inclusion of whole ingredients in your flavored teas rather than relying strictly on extracts or flavorings, besides leading to superior flavor, also has the added benefit of making your loose-leaf flavored teas look different. Here is an example of flavored teas from Adagio Teas, showing how the inclusion of whole ingredients can make loose-leaf tea look vastly different, even when the same base tea is used in multiple blends:

Show the packaging as it appears in stores:

My piece of advice to photograph and display the tea packaging on your website is more applicable to certain tea companies than others. In particular, this point is probably only relevant to tea companies that sell their products in retail stores other than their own dedicated stores.

When customers visit your website, some of them may be looking to buy tea, but a large portion of them may simply be looking for information on your products. If your company primarily sells packages of tea in stores, having pictures of your packaging is very important.

The above example from the Twinings USA online store clearly shows the packaging of both the loose-leaf tea and tea bags offered by Twinings. This is important as Twinings mostly sells its tea tins in other retail stores, where shoppers will need to recognize and locate it on the shelf. However, I think it would be an improvement if Twinings showed photographs of the loose leaf as well.

Photograph the brewed cup and, if you are catering to connoisseurs, the used tea leaves after steeping:

I also think that it is important, besides showing what the leaf looks like, to show what the brewed cup of tea looks like as well. If you photograph the brewed cup of tea, in contrast to my recommendations for photographing the dry leaf, I recommend using consistent lighting and composition. The reason is that the primary point of photographing brewed cups of tea is to show the color of your brewed teas relative to each other. Some will be darker than others. Pick lighting that shows the variability, but once you pick the lighting, stick with it so that your customers can see which of your teas are darker than others.

Doing this well is a lot of work, and I can understand that for smaller tea companies with a large catalogue, it may not be worth the effort. However, there are some smaller companies that still do this. Here is a screenshot from the homepage of GreenTea Japan, a small tea company specializing in direct-sourced Japanese green teas. Look at the astonishing variability in the colors of the brewed cups here, keeping in mind that these are all Japanese green teas:

When exploring GreenTea Japan's site, you will see pictures of the brewed cups of each specific tea this company offers. The differences among types of tea (such as from one sencha to the next) are subtle, but noticeable.

What about photographing the used tea leaves? I think that this practice is very important if your company caters to connoisseurs. Why? Many teas are tightly rolled, twisted, or folded, and, in most cases, you cannot fully examine the visual qualities of tea leaf until after the tea leaf has been steeped in water for some time. The used tea leaf often provides more in the way of information and visual cues about the tea's quality than the dry leaf.

The following screenshot is taken from the site of Life in Teacup, one of my favorite tea companies, also a very small company. This screenshot shows the entry for Yongchun Fo Shou (Bergamot) Oolong Superior Grade, a green se chung oolong that I found very interesting. This photo shows the brewed leaf and the color of the brewed cup:

The close-up photo on the website shows the whole, intact leaves with no visible breaks, identifying this as a high-quality whole-leaf tea in a way that looking at the tightly-rolled dry leaf could not show.

That's all for now.

There you go. I'm not the best photographer, but I do look at a lot of photos of tea in the course of my work on RateTea, and I have a good sense of what looks good and what doesn't.

What do you think?

Do you agree with the recommendations offered here? Since many of the readers of this blog are better photographers than I am (I know, because I've seen some of the people who comment here post beautiful photos on their own blogs), do you have anything more to offer?

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Let's Rename Yaupon (Ilex vomitoria) For Accuracy And Marketing Potential

In January, Marlena of Tea For Today wrote a post Yaup, That's Tea about Yaupon, a species of holly native to North America that is, to my knowledge, the only caffeine-containing plant native to North America.

The following photo shows the Yaupon plant, with an eastern bluebird eating its berries:

Yaupon is a close relative of Yerba mate and Guayusa, all three being members of the Ilex genus, which also includes popular landscape plants such as the American holly.

Yaupon's business-killing scientific name: it's all about vomiting.

There is an aspect of Yaupon that makes it highly unlikely that it will ever become popular as a drink: its scientific name, Ilex vomitoria. Does this plant actually cause vomiting, or have something to do with vomiting? Or is it safe to make a beverage out of it?

According to the Peterson Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants, Yaupon is safe to use to make a (caffeinated) herbal tea, so long as the leaves are fully dried, although the plant is mildly poisonous if the leaves are consumed fresh. This is no different from the other hollies: Yerba Mate and Guayusa both must be fully dried before consumption, and are poisonous when raw.

The scientific name for Yaupon, it turns out, has nothing to do with the properties of the plant itself, but rather, with a ritual involving an herbal brew called the black drink, practiced by Native Americans in southeastern North America. This ritual is depicted here on a 16th-century engraving by Jacques le Moyne de Morgues, who produced multiple engravings depicting the ritual and drink:

It is not known exactly what the black drink contained, but it was known to contain Yaupon, possibly as the sole ingredient, or possibly mixed with other ingredients. People would consume large quantities of the drink. In some cases, people would then induce vomiting. However, not all accounts of the black drink or drinks made from Yaupon reference vomiting. It seems reasonable to conclude that the vomiting was induced independently of any chemical constituents to Yaupon, and was associated with the ritual, rather than the plant or the drink produced by it. However, because of its association with these rituals, the name vomitoria was given as the species name for Yaupon.

My proposal:

I would like to propose that the scientific name of this plant be changed. This may seem like a large undertaking, but it is not unprecedented: species names are changed continuously, due primarily to taxonomic reclassification. Tanya Dewey, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Michigan, in the Zoology department, explains this in her essay What is in a Scientific Name?, when she writes:

When our scientific understanding of animal species and their relationships changes, it may mean that scientific names change as well.

Dewey was writing about zoology but the issues in plant taxonomy are similar. Our understanding of Yaupon has changed. We now know that it does not cause vomiting, nor is its traditional consumption always associated with vomiting. We also know that the name vomitoria is unappealing and effectively kills or at least greatly hinders any potential to develop a market for Yaupon as a commercial product.

What do you think?

Do you think it would be a good idea to change Yaupon's scientific name, Ilex vomitoria, and change it to something more neutral which would both be scientifically accurate and more marketable? What steps do you think would need to be taken in order to achieve this sort of reclassification or renaming? Do you think there could ever be a commercial market for this plant? Have you ever tried it, or known anyone who has tried it?

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

New Look and Feel For This Blog

After using the old default blogger template and color scheme, with a few minor modifications, for a long time, I finally switched templates yesterday. It's nothing fancy, another one of the basic templates, with one of the standard color schemes. But I wanted something that would look a bit more organic and nature-oriented, more appropriate to the themes of tea, herbs, nature, and ecology that I cover in this blog, in contrast to the mostly-blue, tech-ey look to the old blog. I also adjusted the widths on the layout, making it wider (the old blog felt cramped to me).

Screenshot of the new look:

The old layout, for comparison:

The following screenshot is actually not of my blog, it is of Cha Dao, an excellent although now infrequently updated tea blog / journal with multiple authors. I was unable to easily recover the old default template as it seems to have been removed from the options, but the screenshot shows you what the old layout looked like:

What do you think?

Do you like the new layout and look-and-feel better than the old one? Do you think it provides a better connotation to the subject matter of my blog? Do you like the wider widths? Any small tweaks you'd suggest, or similar templates that you think might make an even better match?

Monday, February 20, 2012

Pure Teas vs. Flavored Teas, And Sneaky Blends: Tea Companies Classifying Tea In Different Ways

Lately I've been thinking (and writing) a lot about tea company websites, in the course of my best practices series. In this post, however, I do not want to offer any advice, just make some observations, and also point to one advantage of using RateTea rather than tea company websites to search for teas, an advantage I also highlight in the news item about the redesign of the page for each brand of tea which we launched this past wednesday.

How do different tea companies classify teas?

Most tea companies break their website or print catalog into different sections. Websites usually have a navigation bar in the header or sidebar, with different headings for different types of tea. A common scheme of classification is to have sections or categories for black tea, green tea, white, oolong, and Pu-erh (if the company sells them), and then, usually, to have separate categories for herbals, with rooibos and Yerba mate sometimes getting categories of their own. The following toolbar comes from the header of the Teavana website:

This classification scheme is fairly standard or typical for tea companies. The only thing atypical about Teavana's header is that they draw attention to white teas first. So what happens if you click on one of these items, say, green tea? The following screenshot shows the green tea page on Teavana's website:

This page shows a mixture of pure green teas, such as the Gyokuro Imperial Green Tea or Three Kingdoms Mao Feng Green Tea, and flavored green teas which are blends of tea and other ingredients. Having read over each of these entries in the course of classifying these teas for listing on RateTea, I can say that there is a huge amount of variability in the blends which Teavana lists under "green tea". Some are traditionally-scented single-origin teas like Jasmine tea, or blends of pure tea with a single ingredient, like genmaicha, whereas others are blends of many different ingredients, some of which contain green tea as the main ingredient, and others of which contain green tea only as a second or later ingredient. Many of these blends contain rooibos, some containing green rooibos and others red rooibos.

Sneaky blends: teas in one category may contain other types of tea as well:

Some of the teas Teavana classifies under one category even include teas from other categories. I will call these sneaky blends. For example, at least five of the blends Teavana lists under White Tea contain other types of tea, typically green tea. For this reason, at RateTea, we classify these blends as Miscellaneous Blends, rather than flavored white teas.

I do not intend to single out Teavana here: the phenomenon of sneaky blends is actually relatively common among mainstream tea companies. If you browse RateTea's listings of "Miscellaneous Blends", you will find teas marketed as green teas, white teas, black teas, oolongs, and Pu-erh, from a variety of different companies.

Are these sneaky blends overtly misleading? As much as I think they're sneaky, I don't have a huge problem with them: I don't see any glaring ethical problems here, especially dealing with blends that have many ingredients, and given that Teavana gives the complete ingredient list for all teas, but I do think that the classification scheme used by Teavana and many other companies, in which teas containing green tea can be listed as "white tea", or vice versa, does obscure things a bit for people who really care about what type of tea is going in their blends. The largest point of suspicion here, for me, would be that since typical white tea tends to be a lot more expensive than typical green tea, the inclusion of green tea in blends marketed as white tea could perhaps obscure the cost or value of the blend. But this issue is a small quibble, as flavored teas contain so many ingredients that the total cost of any one ingredient is usually relatively unimportant.

A different approach:

Upton Tea Imports has a completely different approach, one that I personally prefer:

Upton has separate categories in their header for black, white, green, oolong, and Pu-erh, but these headings all take you to listings of mostly pure teas, with a few traditionally-scented teas and traditional blends, like Jasmine tea or genmaicha. Flavored teas, including ones with extracts or flavorings, as well as those blended with other whole ingredients, are relegated to the "Misc. Teas" section, along with herbals. Upton's classification scheme represents a clear focus on pure teas, especially single-origin pure teas.

Yet another approach to classifying teas:

The two classification schemes presented above may seem like opposite ends of a spectrum; however, they can be synthesized, by companies willing to be a bit creative and flexible. Arbor teas takes an interesting, hybrid approach between the two, with a navigation bar in their header that looks superficially like Teavana's, but displaying a drop-down menu from each entry, allowing visitors to navigate to pure or flavored teas (among other searches, like searching only fair-trade teas) from each of the broad categories (black, green, etc.) in a single click:

Arbor Tea's site works quite well; although their approach is rather complex, it allows serious tea-drinkers to easily get to what they're looking for. It may be somewhat busy, but their website strikes me as clean and well-executed, minimizing any risk of confusion.

Moral of the story: different tea companies classify their teas differently.

As I've shown above, different tea companies use completely different (often, mutually inconsistent) schemes for classifying their tea. It is common among mainstream companies to label as one type of tea a blend also containing other types of tea (i.e. a "black tea" including some green tea, or vice versa), making what I call a sneaky blend. Even more common is for companies to lump both pure teas of one type under the broad headings, such as including pure black teas and flavored black teas together under the heading of "black tea".

If you are someone who shops at different tea companies online, and you care about filtering out these sneaky blends, there is one clear solution: use RateTea to locate teas.

RateTea has a consistent classification scheme, separating pure teas from flavored teas, and checking ingredient lists to ensure that anything containing more than one type of tea is put into an appropriate category for blends, rather than allowing things to slide like "flavored white teas" that also contain green tea. Our classification scheme isn't perfect, and we make sometimes arbitrary decisions, especially when it comes to hard-to-classify styles of tea such as moonlight white (see my blog post about the difficulty of defining white tea). But, at a bare minimum, you know that the scheme on RateTea will separate pure teas from flavored teas and blends, and will be internally consistent (minus the occasional error).

What do you think?

Do you have a problem with sneaky blends, or do you think they're fine?

And would the advantages of consistency across different tea companies, and clean separation of pure teas vs. flavored teas, and other types of tea, convince you to use RateTea rather than tea company websites to search for teas? How do you feel about the schemes presented above, used by Teavana, Upton, and Arbor Teas? Do you have another scheme you like better? How do you like RateTea's overall classification scheme?

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Why Top 5? Why Not Top 10?

Today, instead of posting another top 5 post, I wanted to explain my rationale for deciding to post top 5 lists.

Questioning Numbers:

Top 10 lists seem to be the norm not only on the internet, but elsewhere. Why? I suspect it is because we use a base 10 number system, which, ultimately, is because we have 10 fingers. Well, we also have five fingers on each hand, so I think top 5 is a pretty good alternative. A lot of posts on the internet go way beyond top 10, as whatever.

This old X-ray of a human hand is from a book "The Human Body and Health" by Alvin Davison, 1908. A lot of arbitrary numbers in our society originate from the fact that humans have two hands with five fingers on each hand.

Often, 10 is too much. My blog posts are already rather long, and I update frequently. Sometimes I think that quality is more important than quantity. I share top 5 posts because I want to draw attention to something: to teas, to articles on RateTea, to old blog posts. I don't want to overwhelm (I already think I do that too much).

How about you?

Did you ever wonder what life would be like if we used a different base for our number system? If we used base 8, you could divide more numbers in half, and there would be fewer multiplication tables to memorize, but doing math by hand would involve more carrying and borrowing. If we used base twelve, it would be more convenient to divide things by 3 or 6, but we would no longer be able to count to "10" on our fingers, and multiplication tables would become substantially bigger and more unwieldly.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

My Favorite Tap Water: Cleveland, Ohio

Water quality is important in influencing the outcome of a brewed cup of tea. As I explained a long time ago, I recommend avoiding using bottled water for brewing tea. There are compelling reasons to use tap water instead, both from the standpoint of health and safety, and in terms of promoting sustainability and efficient resource use.

Even though I always use tap water to brew tea (sometimes filtered tap water, but always water that originates at the tap and never bottled water), I have definitely preferred the water in some places to others. My favorite water that I've ever tried was the tap water in Cleveland, Ohio, which is taken from Lake Erie, pictured below:

Beer, like tea, is also greatly influenced by water quality. This is one reason why the beers brewed by brewing companies like Iron Hill Brewery, which brew beers on-site at each of their brewpubs, taste different in different locations. I find it no coincidence that my favorite beers in the world, those produced by Great Lakes Brewing Company, are also produced with Lake Erie water. Lake Erie water gets a bad rap, because of the long history of pollution in and around Cleveland, and it may not be the cleanest or safest tap water to drink, but when it comes down to it, I think it tastes great.

When I lived in Cleveland, I did drink tea, but I was not as into it as I am now. I have not had much of an opportunity to brew tea using Cleveland's tap water, so I can't say how it performs for brewing tea. But I know that when I have visited, even just filling up a cup of tap water at someone's sink, it tastes so good; it's one of the many things I miss about living in Cleveland.

This is just one of my random personal opinions, however...if you want something just a tad more objective, I'd recommend reading Cities with best and worst tap water on Yahoo! Green. Cleveland ranked 72nd out of 100 on their list. However, this list was based on safety, not taste! I suspect that if the cities were ranked by taste, Cleveland would rank much higher on that list.

Update: Yahoo! took their article down for some unknown reason. Thanks to Gingko for pointing it out.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Hot Water: Wow, This Tea is Awesome!

Sylvia, who works with me on RateTea, shared an amusing story with me about her friend Abby in college. Abby was preparing to make some tea, but got distracted or sidetracked somehow, and poured a cup of hot water but forgot to actually put any tea in it, and somehow ended up with a mug full of hot water. She then proceeded to sip a cup of hot water, and had the reaction:

Wow, this tea is awesome! What is it?

I found this highly amusing.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Top 5 Most Unusual / Interesting Black Teas I've Tried

This top 5 post focuses on unusual black teas, black teas that have something novel, exciting, and different about them.

One of the reasons behind this post is that I sometimes read and hear the idea, expressed by enthusiasts of Chinese and/or Japanese teas, that the most interesting teas are green, oolong, Pu-erh, and white teas, and that black teas are somehow not as interesting, or do not represent a fully rich, deep, or complex tradition worthy of the same sort of focus or interest as the other types of teas. While I find it hard to argue with some points (like the complexity of Pu-erh), I think that some tea enthusiasts dismiss black tea without ever seeing what it can offer. People have different tastes, and I think it is completely legitimate to prefer these other types of tea, but I think that if you seek out interesting black teas and approach them with an open mind, you will find they offer a lot of diversity.

There is a difference between a tea that I consider interesting and a tea that I consider good. This list is not a collection of favorites. When comparing ratings on RateTea, I ranked a number of black teas higher than some of these, but for this list, I did not consider the teas with what I would call a "classic" profile of a well-established style, like a classic Assam, Darjeeling, or Keemun. These are the teas that defied classification, had surprising complexities in their aroma, and were totally unlike anything I had tried before:

  • Putharjhora Estate FTGFOP1 Tippy/Cl First Flush Organic from Upton Tea - From the Dooars region of India, this tea stands out as the most interesting black tea I have ever sampled. I experimented with brewing it extensively, and I found that multiple infusions were required to fully experience it and bring out its diverse characters. This tea had elements in common with Darjeeling and Assam teas, and exhibited nuances of wintergreen, fruit, malt, celery, citrus, and caramel in the different infusions. One thing that really struck me about this tea was its resemblance to sheng Pu-erh and high-grown green oolongs in later infusions. The flavor and mouthfeel were also very complex, with peppery sensations like a Yunnan dian hong, and a significant savory or umami presence as well.

  • Royal Tajiri Tea from Royal Tea of Kenya - This is the only black tea so far that I gave a perfect score on RateTea. It has a fresh, vegetal quality I usually only encounter in Darjeelings, yet is stronger overall. Aroma has suggestions of asparagus, honey, malt, muscatel, and wintergreen. Eminently pleasing to drink!

  • Livingstonia Estate GFBOP from Upton Tea - A Tanzanian orthodox tea, also with wintergreen in the aroma, and rice, malt, and floral tones. The floral tones are reminiscent of Queen Anne's Lace, a flower with a distinctive aroma that I have not before noticed in tea. Very unlike other teas I've tried, but also very balanced and enjoyable.

  • Kuwapani Estate Makalu Tippy Spl from Upton Tea - This tea from Nepal, which Upton described to be Oolong-like, I found to be vaguely reminiscent of Panyang Congou. The aroma has tones of sandalwood, smoke, wintergreen, cocoa, and muscatel. This tea had a dry, peppery finish as well.

  • Singalila Estate SFTGFOP1 from Upton Tea - This tea, which I did not enjoy quite as much as the others, but still liked, was just outright bizarre. It was from a very new tea garden in Nepal; Upton described it as being oolong-like. The dry leaf appeared Darjeeling-like, but upon brewing, the aroma had a burnt quality, suggestive of candle wax. Nuances in the aroma included peppermint, vanilla, and chocolate, with hints of muscatel grape, smoke, and dust. This may not have been my favorite tea on this list but it certainly is up there among the most interesting black teas I've sampled.

One interesting observation I made after compiling this list was the fact that four of these teas exhibited wintergreen in the aroma. This signals the presence of methyl salicylate, which I explain in my post on wintergreen tones in black tea. While I haven't liked all teas exhibiting strong wintergreen tones, I think that in general, this quality tends to correlate pretty strongly with other qualities that I like in black tea.

What do you think?

What are some of the most interesting or unusual black teas that you've tried? What companies other than Upton Tea Imports would you like to recommend for these sorts of teas? Have you tried any of these teas?

Friday, February 10, 2012

How To Link To Other Websites From Your Tea Website - And How Not To

This post continues my series on best practices for tea company websites. This page is about how to link to other websites from your tea company's website. My guidelines are as follows:

  • Link to a broad array of websites, picking the ones most relevant and informative; do not make your site a "dead-end" on the web.

  • Link to coverage of your company in news media and reviews of your teas or business on third-party sites, including blogs, RateTea, Steepster, Teaviews, Tea Review Blog, and the like. Link to reliable, independent websites that make your business look good.

  • Avoid having a "links" page, and absolutely avoid link schemes. Distribute links naturally throughout your site, where they will be most useful to your visitors, and, if you make pages that are lists or collections of links, keep them topic-focused and hand-picked for usefulness, never dependent on whether or not webmasters have linked to your site.

Link to informational websites when relevant:

One web design philosophy which I've encountered among some people, and seen manifested in some websites, is to minimize the amount of outbound links from your company's website to other websites. I do not think this is a beneficial approach. People often cite two reasons for this approach: outbound links can cause visitors to leave your site, and outbound links "cause pagerank to flow out of your website". The first rationale, in my opinion, is a valid concern, but the second is not. And the first point of concern is limited: if someone really likes your site, they are going to open links in a new window and keep your site open, or come back or bookmark it, and these are the visitors that really matter...the transient visitors who you'd lose by an outbound link are probably less valuable than the visitors who you will impress by relevant outbound links.

No one understands Google's algorithms fully. However, Google has published numerous explanations and recommendations for webmasters about how they recommend using outbound links. I recommend reading Linking out: Often it's just applying common sense for a full explanation straight from the horse's mouth.

For a brief summary, this page recommends to add thoughtful, relevant outbound links, and to choose links that show evidence of research and expertise, linking to the best resources related to your site. And, as both a webmaster and web browser/user, I agree wholeheartedly with these recommendations. I tend to trust, like, re-visit, share, and link to websites that have abundant outbound links of high-quality more than ones that have few or no outbound links, or ones that have sloppy outbound links.

Similarly, I have found that the pages on which I have put substantial effort into selecting and adding relevant outbound links tend to receive a lot of traffic, including traffic from search engines. My own data has given me a strong intuition that outbound links are likely to directly influence search rankings, and that pages with relevant, high-quality outbound links tend to rank more highly than pages with few or low-quality outbound links.

Link to third-party coverage of your company and its teas:

A large number of tea companies have on-site ratings and reviews of their teas, written by customers. Although these reviews can sometimes be helpful to repeat customers looking for information on new teas to order, they are unlikely to impress new customers. Why? For the simple reason that they are hosted on your website, so they cannot be trusted in the same way reviews hosted on third party websites like blogs, RateTea, or Steepster can be.

You may be a completely trustworthy person, and your business may be a pillar of integrity in the tea world, but your new potential customers do not know this. When they visit your website for the first time, they are likely looking for ways to assess the legitimacy of your company. To this end, anything you say about your company and your teas is going to be taken by these customers with a grain of salt. Potential customers do not know whether you are screening your reviews to only post favorable ones, or worse, posting fake reviews. Even if you're not doing anything deliberately dishonest, the reviews posted on your site are likely to come from people who already like your company, and as different people have different tastes, people are right to be cautious about giving weight to opinions presented on your own website.

Information published in third-party sources, on the other hand, is perceived as more reliable. When a tea blogger shows an established history of reviewing teas from a number of different companies, sometimes giving rave reviews, but other times, feeling more indifferent or even negative, and your company has a number of positive reviews, this counts for a lot. Similarly, when you have a blend like Rishi Tea's Masala Chai, which has three reviews on RateTea claiming that it is the person's favorite Masala Chai blend, and numerous favorable Steepster reviews, this counts for a lot.

Rishi Tea's Masala Chai has favorable ratings both on RateTea and Steepster. Both sites have multiple users claiming in the written review that it is their favorite Masala chai blend. These sorts of reviews are much more likely to convince someone to buy your tea than a review written by a customer and hosted on your own site.

Avoid having a "links" page, and absolutely avoid link schemes.

Above, I discussed the importance of having high-quality outbound links. What, then, is the problem with a dedicated links page? A generic "links" page is a sort of aimless, purposeless page. That's not to say that pages that consist mostly of lists or collections of links are not useful. For example, Tea Guy Speaks maintains a very useful tea blog list, and on RateTea there are numerous lists, such as our list of tea brands, and the page for each brand links then to the relevant company website. Usually, I only click "links" pages for one purpose--to judge or evaluate the website's legitimacy by checking to see if they are actually putting any effort into choosing their links.

A links page that shows evidence of a link scheme sends up red flags to me, and makes me highly unlikely to link to the company website. The following page is from a tea company I learned about recently, one whose teas have received glowing reviews on a number of tea blogs:

The page above, with numerous links to unrelated, low-quality websites, and no links to the high-quality, authoritative websites in the area of tea, made such a bad impression on me that it made me highly reluctant to link to the tea company website that this page is hosted on. I sincerely hope this company takes down their links page soon, because I would like to link to their page from RateTea, but am reluctant to link to websites engaging in this sort of scheme.

What is a link scheme?

A link scheme is a system or setup which intends to manipulate ranking in search engines through creating links to a certain website or collection of websites. There is a fine line of what constitutes a link scheme vs. what constitutes legitimate networking between webmasters in related areas, but I think Google explains how and where to draw the line pretty clearly in their page on Link schemes, in the Google Webmaster Tools Content Guidelines. In particular, Google identifies anything as a link scheme that can be characterized as follows:

Excessive reciprocal links or excessive link exchanging ("Link to me and I'll link to you.")

Sometimes link schemes can get more complex, like the tea blog "award" scam I wrote about a while back. But either way, link schemes are best avoided, for several compelling reasons:

  • Link schemes can result in search engines penalizing your website, causing it to drop in rankings, and in some cases, causing it to be banned or removed from search results entirely.

  • Even if your site is not banned or penalized, link schemes, especially those that demonstrate an overt "link to us and we'll link to you" mentality, make a bad impression on webmasters, and will result in many of the most authoritative and high-traffic websites not linking to you.

  • Because only low-quality websites tend to engage in link schemes, you are unlikely to get any truly valuable links by participating in them. I experimented with link schemes back when I did not know any better, and I did not once receive any quality traffic from a website that had a "link to us and we'll link to you" policy.

Rather than getting too stuck on what not to do, I want to re-emphasize the best way to include outbound links. I recommend to link to the best and most relevant tea websites, link to media coverage and websites or blogs that review or write about your company's teas, and link to relevant pages on related topics. For example, if you have pages about the health benefits of tea, you will do well to link to studies on tea, or authoritative websites that can be reliable sources backing up claims about tea and health. Distribute your links naturally throughout your website, where they will be most relevant to readers.

What do you think?

Do you think this advice given here is solid, or do you have any quibbles with it or points that you think you could improve on? Have you ever engaged in any link schemes, and if so, did they pay off in any way, or did you find any evidence that they actually harmed you? Do you react similarly to how I do when you see a link scheme? How would you handle the dilemmas that I face often, where I want to link to a company from RateTea but am reluctant to link to the site because it shows an overt link scheme?

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Drinking Tea And Herbal Tea To Relax Or Reduce Anxiety: Beyond Drugs

This post is about tea and herbal tea, and the process of drinking tea or herbal teas, as it pertains to anxiety and relaxation. A little over two years ago, in my post Tea & Health: Beyond Chemistry?, I raised the question:

Could the health benefits of tea be partly due to how making and drinking tea slows you down?

That post seemed to generate a generally positive response to my question. Since then, I have researched this topic and found some conclusive evidence for this effect. You can find a lot of this work on the newly published page on RateTea about herbs and herbal teas to treat anxiety. This page describes some herbs which are known to have varying degrees of relaxing and anti-anxiety effects, but it also explores the ways in which the process of drinking herbal teas or tea can be relaxing and anxiety-reducing. In this page, which references some scientific studies published in peer-reviewed journals, backing up some of these claims, I explain how:

  • The act of drinking hot fluids like tea relaxes the body.

  • Merely holding a warm beverage provides an immediate change in state of mind and thoughts.

  • The aroma of a cup of tea can produce an immediate relaxing effect; this has been verified scientifically in the case of some herbs, like lemon balm, as well as with jasmine tea; I do not know if this effect has been verified with any pure teas, but I suspect there are pure teas that have this sort of effect.

  • Focusing on the experience of drinking a cup of tea or herbal tea can promote mindfulness, which has been shown as an effective and sustainable way to reduce anxiety.

I would not say that there is airtight science tying together all these points yet; a lot of my conclusions in that article amount to drawing conclusions by combining well-known scientific facts with slightly less scientific, but common-sense reasoning. I would like to see scientists test more of these points directly, but until now, I want to at least present the pieces of the puzzle that have been more firmly established.

What do you think?

What do you think of the conclusions that we draw in the RateTea article about the process of drinking tea or herbal teas being relaxing? Do you think the reasoning in the article is solid, or is any of it a bit more of a stretch?

Monday, February 6, 2012

Camellia japonica, Producing A Drink Like Black Tea

I recently read a post, Camellia, meet Camellia on Steph's Cup of Tea, which drew to my attention a post making black tea from your camellia japonica, by a blogger named Kelly in Adelaide Hills, Australia. In this post, Kelly explains her process of making a drink that is very similar to black tea, from the leaves of Camellia japonica.

Camellia japonica, pictured in this 1788 plate from Curtis's Botanical Magazine, is a popular landscape plant, closely related to the tea plant, but, usually cultivated for its flowers, rather than its flavor.

I've been curious about this sort of thing for some time, as I wrote about in my old post on other Camellias for tea. It was interesting to finally read an account of it. Now I'm motivated to try this with the Christmas camellia around the corner from me here; I'm waiting for it to leaf out in the spring, and I hope to try making a tea-like beverage from it as well!

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Top 5 Most-Viewed Brands of Tea on RateTea

This Week's top 5 post features the brands of tea that are most viewed on RateTea. This list is not surprising to me, but it may surprise you. There's an explanation for each company in the list:

  • Upton Tea Imports - Upton Tea Imports is certainly a well-known tea company, a major contender in the market, but I also think it is benefiting from the fact that it happens to be my favorite tea company. As a large portion of reviewers on RateTea are people I know personally, and I'm constantly giving people teas to sample, and I tend to have a lot of teas from Upton on hand, it makes sense that this company gets a lot of visibility on the site. My guess though is that, even without my added bias, Upton would probably still make the top 5: it's a major tea company and its teas are heavily reviewed even among users of the site that I did not know before RateTea.

  • Adagio Teas - This one makes a lot of sense to me; Adagio is a top online retailer of teas, and is the tea company that has the most extensive online presence.

  • Foojoy - Foojoy's presence in this list may surprise you. However, your surprise will likely vanish if I tell you that Foojoy did not have its own website until recently. But now it does...go visit Foojoy's Website if you haven't yet. This page was heavily viewed on RateTea primarily because of search traffic coming directly to the site. But its teas were also fairly heavily reviewed.

  • Twinings - Twinings certainly isn't the biggest tea company in the U.S., but it's a major player, and I think its presence here makes sense because it offers a number of different varieties, in contrast to brands like Lipton that mostly sell a single blend of simple black tea.

  • Tazo - Tazo is well-known, through being the official tea sold by Starbucks. But I also think that Tazo is viewed so often on here because Tazo has a flash-only website, and as I explain in that post, having a flash-only website causes them to lose search traffic, which instead arrives to RateTea, Steepster, and various tea blogs. And I'm not complaining! It's their choice, and it helps me and hurts them.

I also want to mention the runners up because, in this case, they are all quite close. In order, they are Teavana, Bigelow, Lipton, Republic of Tea, and Bromley. After that, Stash, Rishi, and then Harney and Sons, and then there is a steep drop-off.

You know what I like about this list? The top two are companies with a clear focus on loose-leaf tea. It's nice for things to turn out this way, for a change.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Tea Company Websites And Online Tea Stores: Consistent Navigation Schemes, When To Have Separate Websites

This post continues my series on best practices for tea company websites.

This post focuses on something so simple, yet very important. It's so simple that I'd think it completely ridiculous to even state it, if not for the simple fact that a surprising number of companies don't do it. The advice:

Have a single main website for your company and online tea store, with a single navigation scheme.

Going into more depth:

  • Use the same header, footer, and navigation bars on different sections of your site. If you need additional toolbars or menus to navigate sub-sections of your site, add these navigation bars on top of the main toolbars, rather than creating a different one.

  • Think carefully before building separate websites. Separating personal blogs of owners and employees is often a good idea (but not necessary if you're comfortable with the person's blog representing the official views of the company). Separating interactive / community websites can also be a good idea. However, separating your online store from your main company website is usually a bad idea, as it can cause you to lose sales.

  • Maintain some sort of consistency in look-and-feel between sites on different domains, and draw clear attention to the relationship between your site and the other websites. This practice gives you free visibility for your brand, as well as maintaining transparency.

As with all my best practices recommendations, this advice represents my own personal opinion, based on my experience both as a webmaster and a web-savvy customer of online tea retailers. While it's not a global statement of fact, I do have reasons for feeling as I do, which I explain below.

Maintaining consistency of navigation:

I find the most illuminating explanation of why consistency is important to be what happens when you don't have it. The following screenshot shows the header on Rishi Tea's homepage:

Now, here is the header on the store section of Rishi's site:

Notice that this is a completely different header...the footer on the page, incidentally, is also completely different. This confuses viewers of the website, and also slows them down. People used to exploring the store section of the site may return to the site by typing in the URL,, only to find an unfamiliar header. Similarly, someone who wanted to click one of the links on the homepage's header may have trouble finding it once they click through to the rest of the site. In the case of Rishi Tea, because most people viewing the site will view both the homepage and the store section, most users will actually encounter this inconsistency.

I think, unless absolutely necessary, it is best to avoid this sort of inconsistency. Sometimes having different toolbars is necessary in different parts of your site, but I think that it is generally better to have a common, base toolbar that is the same on the whole site, and then add additional toolbars to other sections of the site, rather than having a completely different toolbar.

As a side note, I really like Rishi Tea and I think their website is actually quite good: easy-to-use and informative. I'm picking on them in part because I like them as a company and want to draw attention to a company that I feel good about supporting.

Do not build a separate website for your "store":

Not all tea companies sell directly through their website; some brands, like most of the tea brands owned by Unilever and other large companies, have strictly informational websites. However, most tea companies sell tea online. And, if you do sell tea online, through a company-owned online store, then by all means, sell your tea on your main website and do not build a separate site for your store.

Why? People will come preferentially to your company's main website, and you will lose sales if your store is compartmentalized in a separate section or hosted on a separate domain, and not fully integrated into your site. Many people will visit your site and may not even know that you sell things online. Here's an example of a company that separates its store in a way that I think is likely causing them to lose a lot of potential sales. The following screenshot is from the homepage of Equal Exchange, a brand of fair-trade goods that sells tea, among many other products:

Note the small menu item shop in the upper-right-hand corner. How many people are going to click, or even notice this link? A large number of people may visit the Equal Exchange website, because they know the Equal Exchange brand, but may not know that the company sells its products online. And they may visit and explore the site without ever clicking or even noticing that link. They may leave the site without ever learning that this brand sells online.

When actually clicking the "store" link, there is a completely different header:

This header draws attention to the different categories of products for sale, and the little "shopping cart" box in the upper-right hand corner makes clear that this is a retail site.

Although I certainly have not tested this, I have a strong intuition that Equal Exchange would make more sales by integrating its sites so that the sales header and shopping cart appear on all pages of the main website. And, as with Rishi, I have singled out Equal Exchange because they are a company whose mission and values I like, and who I want to support. There are so many examples of other companies, including some companies that sell nothing but tea, who have a similar setup on their websites.

When to separate different sites into different domain names?

Adagio Teas provides a compelling example of when it can be beneficial to run separate sites on separate domain names. Adagio also runs TeaChat and a variety of other sites which, while affiliated with Adagio, are really oriented towards the tea-drinking community as a whole, and not exclusively Adagio customers. In this case, I think hosting the sites on different domains is a good choice. Adagio also uses a consistent (although not identical) look-and-feel across all the sites, and has its logo and name prominently displayed on all sites. This both helps the company gain visibility for its own brand, as well as providing transparency, a win-win situation.

If you're a tea company, and you are running some other tea-oriented websites, by all means put your company's name and logo prominently on your other sites--failing to do so not only is giving up a free marketing opportunity, but risks looking a little shady, which can actually harm your image.

What do you think?

Do you think these recommendations are sound? Can you think of any caveats, or do you have any quibbles with what I say here?

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Surface Area, Tea, Food, Physics: Do We Misuse The Word "Superficial"?

This post is about surface area, both as it pertains to tea, to food, and to everything about our world. In our culture, we use language in such a way that implies that, when dealing with anything, it's what's really inside that matters. Phrases like "on the surface", or the word "superficial" (which just means on the surface) are used to describe phenomena that are somehow more fleeting or transient, less reflective of true reality, and less important than things that are "deep", "on the inside", or "at the core" of something.

Diagram by Cmglee, used under CC BY-SA 3.0.

This post provides some powerful examples that demonstrate that this way of looking at things is not always valid. The world, both on a human level, and a fundamental physical level, does not always work in the way that the the word "superficial" suggests. The surface, or the boundary of a region, is often where the most interesting things are happening, and this phenomenon is widespread at all levels in our universe.

Surface and Boundary in Biology:

Anyone who has studied microbiology will undoubtedly be familiar with the cell membrane. Cell membranes, a double layer of nonpolar (oily) and polar (like water) substances creates a barrier which separates the interior of a cell from the outside world. Complex channels exist in these membranes to allow a living cell to control what passes through its walls, and structures attach to the membrane to allow it to interact with the outside world. A large portion of biological research focuses on the cell membrane or the various proteins and structures that exist within it.

Tea And Surface Area:

The surface area of tea leaf is of critical importance in determining how the tea infuses in water. The infusion of the tea's flavor and chemicals into the water happens at the surface of the leaf, so increasing the surface area will make the tea infuse more quickly.

The following is a photo of Imperial Tea Garden's Moon Swirl White Tip, a green tea from Hunan province. The complex curls and folds of the leaf provide greater surface area than the small, tightly rolled pellets suggest.

Breaking up the tea leaf increases the surface area, thus making the tea infuse faster. Finely-broken tea, like fannings and dust, have the highest surface area to volume ratio, and thus infuse fastest. On the other hand, whole-leaf tea with thick, tough leaves has the highest surface area to volume ratio, and thus infuses slowest of all, considerably slower than whole-leaf tea with thinner, more delicate leaves.

Thinking about surface area also helps us to understand the infusion behavior of flavored teas as compared to pure teas. When flavoring is added in the form of extracts or essential oils, the flavoring is added to the surface of the leaf. While some of the flavor may permeate deeper into the leaf, it is concentrated on the surface. The flavoring thus infuses very quickly. This is why flavored teas often have the strongest aroma of their "flavor" in the first infusion, and then taste more like tea in subsequent infusions.

Food, Surface Area, and Nutrition:

Surface area is relevant in food and nutrition as well. The skin of fruits and vegetables tend to be richer in vitamins, minerals, and proteins than the interior. Although not all fruit and vegetables have edible skin, the ones that do often have remarkably more nutritional value in their skin. As an example, let's look at the potato:

The USDA Nutrient Database tells us that 100 grams of baked potato skins have 4 grams of protein, 8 grams of fiber, and 39% RDA of Iron. 100 grams of baked potato flesh, on the other hand, while slightly less caloric (probably because they contain more water), only contains 2% of Iron, 2 grams of protein, and 1 gram of fiber. Baked potatos are not a good example for comparing Vitamin C content because the skin of the potato is exposed to more heat than the interior, so, although the skin is richer in Vitamin C, baked potato skins have similar vitamin C content. This is just an example. In some fruits, such as apples, the skin contains much more vitamin C by weight than the flesh. Moral of the story: don't peel your fruits and vegetables.

This blue potato has a lumpy shape, increasing its surface-area per unit volume. Buying lumpy, irregularly-shaped varieties of fruit can actually lead to better nutrition by adding more surface area. Similarly, buying small fruits also has the same effect.

Surface Area And Information in Quantum Physics:

There is some relatively recent work in quantum physics that has suggested a most peculiar result: it is possible that the amount of information that can be stored in a region of space is bounded not by its volume, but by its surface area. If you're a physicist, you can find the original paper here: Operational view of the holographic information bound, published in Physics Review D, Vol. 82, No. 12, 2010.

Doesn't it sound bizarre and counterintuitive? In other words, imagine a filing cabinet. The amount of information you can put in the cabinet depends not on the space inside the cabinet, but on the amount of area on the walls of the cabinet.

What does all this mean?

The point is...the phenomenon of the surface being more important than the inside of something, and the surface area being more important than volume for various practical reasons, is a phenomenon that appears again and again at all levels of our world: with tea, with food, with microbiology, and with the very fundamental laws of physics at the smallest possible scales.

So next time someone describes something as superficial, stop to think...maybe they're actually describing the things that really matter in life.