Monday, November 23, 2009

Locally Grown Tea

There are a lot of issues relating to both sustainability and tea. My page on RateTea summarizes a few of them. A lot of them, including fair trade, organic certification, and composting, are topics that most people are familiar with and that a fair amount has already been written about. I'm starting to think about another issue, however.

People don't talk much about locally-grown tea in the U.S. and Western Europe. It's generally assumed that tea grows in warm, tropical climates and needs to be imported in these countries. But this is not true. The tea plant, Camellia sinensis, is a relatively hardy plant, and while it generally likes a subtropical climate, it can be grown farther north than many people realize. Many of the famous tea-growing regions, such as the Darjeeling district of India, or nearby Nepal, are located at a high altitude where the temperature can actually get fairly cold and sometimes drop below freezing in the winter.

It would make sense that the continental U.S. and western Europe would have a number of areas suitable for growing tea, especially in the more moderate areas. Some interesting commercial tea operations prove this:
  • Pembrokeshire Tea Company's Tea Gardens - Located in Pemrokeshire, on the coast of Wales. - This claim has been since taken down, and I have received reports or allegations that this claim was fraudulent, and that no tea was ever commercially produced here.
  • Sakuma Brothers Tea - Grown in the Skagit Valley of Washington State
  • The Charleston Tea Plantation - Owned by Bigelow Tea and located near Charleston, SC.

Herbal teas:

Herbal teas, encompassing virtually any plant used in tea other than the tea plant, grow virtually everywhere that plants grow, from the tropics to the arctic. North America and Western Europe, in particular, are the origins of a countless variety of delicious herbal teas. Many of these can be easily grown in your own garden or backyard. Many plants used for tea, such as mint, are aggressive in certain climate zones, and can be grown in massive quantities with minimal effort. In addition to growing tea yourself, many herb teas are available locally--not just through small retailers but also from friends and neighbors who might have more gardening space (or expertise) than you do.

Why locally-grown tea (or locally-grown anything) is good:

Locally-grown anything, including tea, is important for promoting sustainability in that it:
  • Reduces transportation costs
  • Improves self-sufficiency - helps make your region (and you) less dependent on the outside world
  • Promotes diversity, especially in tea - because the flavor of any plant source of food or drink depends on the conditions in which it is grown, and the climate and soil conditions vary from one region to the next, each area will produce tea (and other produce) with a unique flavor.
  • Creates economic stability - droughts or disasters often happen only in one region of the world; as the total supply of a commodity becomes produced in more regions, the supply and price become more stable in the face of events that could catastrophically effect one source of the commodity.
Buying locally grown tea is something that only a few people in the U.S. and western Europe can do right now...but drinking locally grown (buying or growing your own) herb tea is something that almost anyone can do. But it's certainly something worth thinking about!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Article on Caffeine Content of Tea

Everyone is always asking me which teas contain the most or least I did some google scholar research and found a couple good articles, which I read, processed, and summarized in an article on caffeine content of various teas.

The basic gist of can't make generalizations about types of tea like green tea, black tea, or white tea containing more caffeine or less caffeine. Rather, the caffeine content varies more from tea to tea. Tippy teas contain more caffeine, and roasted teas contain less, roughly in proportion to the amount of tips, and the amount of roasting.

So...don't believe those claims out there about how white or green tea is "lower in caffeine" than black tea. It's not! Teas of all types are quite diverse and span a broad range of caffeine contents.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Antioxidants: Is bitter tea better?

I've been reading a book lately, Tea: Bioactivity and Therapeutic Potential, which is a collection of rather dense, scientific article about different facets of tea's biological activity.

I quote from the first article, by Miao-Lan Chen:

The catechins that are water-soluble, colorless compound[s] contribute to astringency and bitterness in green tea.

Catechins are the well-known antioxidants present in all tea. Not all of them are water-soluble, colorless compounds. And the authors stops after this remark and does not draw any inferences. But if catechins are bitter, could it possibly be that bitter teas are perhaps better for you? Just a thought...I've noticed that over time, my taste for bitter food and drink has developed considerably. The thought behind this had crossed my mind before, which is what was behind my rather far-out and speculative article on tea tasting for health.

Either way, I like bitter I'm going to keep drinking it just for taste!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Sage Tea made like Black Tea

This post and the preceding post have inspired a new post on Teacology: Oxidizing Herbs Like Black Tea or Oolong Tea.

My last post was about oxidizing herbs usually used in herb teas, in a manner similar to that used to produce black or oolong tea or red rooibos.

I made another successful batch the other night, this time out of sage (Salvia officinalis). I've had sage tea before but it is very strong and intense in aroma, and yet thin in body. I wanted to see if I could take the edge off the tea and develop it into something richer, more complex, and more mellow.

The production process:

1. Let the leaves partially wither (about 24 hours in a dark, dry area)
2. Roll the leaves to heavily and thoroughly bruise them.
3. Place them on a ceramic plate under a moist cloth
4. Let them sit for about 6 hours.

The leaves turned completely black by this point. Then the final step:

5. Heating for 5 minutes at 225 degrees in the toaster oven.

The result? An herbal tea that brews a light brown color, and has an aroma much like gingerbread cookies. There's a fair amount of toastiness (perhaps I'll go lighter on the final heating next time) and a pleasant suggestion of sage in the aftertaste, but the strong sage aroma does not dominate as it does with the fresh or plain dried leaf. The aroma is much more complex and multifaceted than that of straight sage tea. I think this is my most successful attempt at oxidizing herbs yet! I am going to work on refining this process and see where it takes me.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Oxidizing Herbs like Black or Oolong Tea

This post and its follow-up have inspired a new post on Teacology: Oxidizing Herbs Like Black Tea or Oolong Tea.

I've read a lot about the tea production process in the course of researching tea for writing the material on RateTea. One basic thing that people learn when they start learning about tea is that black tea is oxidized whereas green and white tea is not. Oolong tea is "partially oxidized", placing it somewhere between green and black teas.

One thing that comes out when you start researching teas and herbal teas is that the process of oxidizing leaves before brewing tea is not something limited to the tea plant (Camellia sinensis). A similar process is also used to process Rooibos and Honeybush tea. The process doesn't exactly work the same way (rooibos and honeybush is collected and placed to oxidize in heaps, from what I've read, whereas the tea plant is oxidized in a more controlled environment, indoors).

The New Idea:

I thought...why not try a similar process with herbs? My family and I already grow and dry a variety of herbs for tea, including spearmint, peppermint, lemon balm, sage, orange mint, and wild bergamot/bee-balm/oswego tea, to name a few. We have already experimented extensively with different blends, times of harvesting, and ways of drying.

A couple months ago, I began some trial runs, experimenting with different ways of oxidizing the leaves, using several different kinds of herbs. The processes are similar but can be summarized:

Gather Leaves -> (optional and variable) Let them wither/dry partially --> Crush / Bruise the leaves --> Place them in a cool, moist place and let them sit --> heat to stop the oxidation

I placed the teas on ceramic plates to oxidize, covered by a moist cloth. The leaves generally turn a black color, much like black tea. I heated them in a toaster oven at a low temperature, just above boiling point. I tried varying the time of oxidation, the moisture, and the time and temperature of heating.


The results were mixed...some were definitely better than others, but overall they were surprisingly good. Most of the teas resembled oolongs more than black teas in their level of oxidation, suggesting that perhaps I need more thorough bruising of the leaves or a longer oxidation time. The best result by far, and the one that most resembled black tea was one I obtained by gathering lemon balm, rolling the leaves to bruise them heavily, and then placing them overnight in a cool, moist place.

The flavor of this new tea was complex and hard to describe. Surprisingly, the brewed tea had a more vegetal aroma than tea made from normal dried lemon balm. The aroma also had a few floral tones totally absent from normal lemon balm, and a hint of toastiness. The lemon aroma was diminished slightly but remained fairly strong. The leaf infused more quickly, and brewed a much darker color (but not as dark as black tea).

I look forward in continuing my adventures in oxidized herbal teas. I also had decent results using apple mint and wild bergamot. I'm currently working on some sage and I'm going to see how that comes out and will post updates here! I would encourage others to experiment with oxidizing herbs for tea too!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Adding citric acid to teas

This post has inspired a newer, more extensive post on my newer tea blog Teacology: Adding Citric Acid to Teas or Herbal Blends.

What am I going to write about tonight? I'm going to write about two of Tazo's herbal teas: Wild Sweet Orange and Passion. These teas are both beautifully aromatic...enticing, fruity. Both teas have the remarkable property that they brew a liquor very close to the color of their teabags.

And both of these teas fail! They are much too sour. Both of these teas have added citric acid? Why? They would be perfect without them...both teas already have hibiscus (Passion as the main ingredient) which imparts a fairly strong sour taste on its own. The acidity of these teas makes them feel unpleasant on my tongue, and harsh on my stomach. As far as I am concerned, they're undrinkable, and that's a pretty harsh judgment.

Fortunately (for anyone who is ever stuck with a box of them), there is an easy the teabag under running water very briefly--10 seconds is enough. Citric acid is highly water soluble, and will almost completely wash out...but a brief immersion in cold water leaves most of the aromatic chemicals in their place. The result? Two beautifully balanced herbal teas.

I still wonder though...why in the world did Tazo choose to add the citric acid? One thing is for's not the only company to do it. Celestial seasonings adds citric acid to some of its teas. Interestingly, the well-known and very sour red zinger shows no citric acid on its ingredients list; the sourness in that case is obtained mainly from Hibiscus.

One more criticism: Tazo's Website is based totally around flash player and doesn't even have an option for people who don't have flash (or choose not to use it). Bad bad bad web design practice!!! In particular, this means I can't link to a sub-page describing the teas I am discussing or listing their ingredients!