Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Monarda Tea Review

I often sing praises of the Monarda genus (some species of which are called bee balm, wild bergamot, or oswego tea) for use as an herbal tea, so I think it's time for me to share a review of a specific batch of it.

The harvest:

I'm not great on my species but my guess is either Monarda didyma (which I grow in my garden) or Monarda fistulosa. This one was lavender-blooming, which means it is likely either fistulosa, or a cultivar of didyma. The plant, in bloom today, is pictured on the right.

The harvest was from Delaware, in spring of 2010 (before flower buds had formed), and I used mostly leaves, with some tender stems, gathering from about the top 6-8 sets of leaves, and using more tips. I dried the leaves in a paper bag, away from sunlight. Thank you to the Baptist Student Ministry, University of Delaware, for growing this plant.

The Review:

For this review I used boiling water and a 10 minute infusion. I brewed the whole leaves in a mug.

Aroma is mostly of thyme and oregano, with a hint of mint, spice, and lemon. Faintly peppery. Less lemony than other Monardas I've tried. Compared to the bergamot orange used in Earl Grey, the aroma is more complex, more herbaceous, and less fruity.

There's some bitterness and astringency, especially at the bottom of the cup. The astringency has a very different character from tea. No sweetness, and a slight sourness. The overall character of this herbal tea is similar to black tea and particularly similar to a strong Earl Grey, in spite of the light color of the cup.

I find this tea very refreshing both hot and iced. It is outstanding to blend with black tea, as the aroma is similar to black tea (much more so than other mint-family herbs). People who like less bitterness may want to use a shorter infusion. I like strong teas, however, and this one was just right for me with a longer brewing.

Growing and Making Herbal Tea from Monarda:

If anyone hasn't yet tried making herbal tea from Monarda, I'd recommend trying it. In addition to making good dried herbal tea, it is outstanding fresh (adding fresh leaves to boiling water), which is how I usually drink it during the summer. Several species of Monarda are widespread use as a landscape plant and you may find some that you can harvest if you do some searching. For gardeners in North America, Monarda is a native plant which makes it grow with minimal care (especially in moist, sunny areas) and helps contribute to the native ecology. In particular, Monarda attracts bees and hummingbirds.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Camellia oleifera - a Cousin of the Tea Plant - and Tea Seed Oil

I think context is important in learning about any subject, and, having a divergent mind, I like to explore tangentially related topics. The tea plant, Camellia sinsensis, is part of a diverse and well-known genus, Camellia, many species and varieties of which are well-known as garden plants for their beautiful blooms. This genus is an important genus for humans for many reasons beyond tea. Some of these plants have important uses and properties that overlap somewhat with that of the tea plant.

One particular species caught my attention recently, and reading about it illuminated some facts about the tea plant that I did not know--that its seeds can be used to make oil.

Camellia oleifera - The Oil-seed or Tea Oil Camellia:

Camellia oleifera is also known as the Oil-seed Camellia, Tea Oil Camellia, or Lu Shan Snow Camellia. It is native to China, and is one of several Camellias, including Camellia sinensis, Camellia Japonica, and Camellia sasanqua, used to produce Tea Seed Oil. The name "oleifera" comes from the Latin "oleum", for oil.

This plant is a small tree, to 20 feet tall, resembling Camellia sasanqua, but has larger leaves. It is slow growing, and tolerant of some shade as well as full sun. It can be pruned to grow well with multiple trunks or with a single trunk. Significantly more cold-hardy than Camellia sinensis, it can be grown fairly extensively in the U.S., through USDA Hardiness Zone 6. It can be used in bonzai, and is also used in landscaping, where it is a robust plant, suitable for exposed uses such as parking islands and as a street tree. [ Source (PDF) ]

Health Benefits of Camellia oleifera:

I find it interesting that Camellia oleifera has been found to have some health benefits, including many that overlap with those of the tea plant. These benefits include antioxidant activity, and "bad" cholesterol (LDL) lowering properties. [Study]

Tea Seed Oil:

Tea Seed Oil or Tea oil, not to be confused with Tea Tree Oil (from an unrelated plant, not a Camellia), is used as a cooking oil in some regions of China. It is made from the seed of the tea plant, the Camellia oleifera plant, and a number of other camellias. The oil is also used, like many other vegetables oil, for other purposes, such as the production of soaps. Perhaps more on this in a later post!

Monday, June 21, 2010

Fraudulent Ratings and Reviews

When I set out developing RateTea, I wanted to create a rating site whose accuracy could be trusted. Many rating websites are simply moneymaking schemes, designed to make a fun, interactive site, but with little regard to the accuracy of the information. While it would be nice for me to earn money through RateTea, I am not willing to compromise the integrity of the site in order to do so. I want to focus first and foremost on editorial integrity--ensuring that the material on the website, including both user-generated ratings and reviews, and the researched information on tea, is of the highest quality possible.

This attitude is central to all aspects of my life. I want to conduct myself with honor and integrity in everything that I do, and I will always sacrifice financial gain to do so, because I don't need to live an expensive lifestyle, and I have always had more than I need to survive comfortably.

Fraudulent Ratings:

RateTea has had a surprising problem with fraudulent ratings and reviews. The website clearly identifies both in the terms of use, and during the signup process, that it is prohibited for people to rate and review teas of a company they have an affiliation with. When signing up, people must select a pop-up menu that identifies whether or not they are affiliated with a tea company. People might object that no one reads terms of use, and while I agree with this, the message is communicated clearly in the signup process, and more importantly, it is common sense that it is dishonest and unethical to rate and review your company's own teas, especially when you lie about the fact that you are doing so.

There are several companies, all of whose teas are listed on the site, where there have been problems with such reviews. The problem is surprisingly transparent: a new user joins the site, usually with a hotmail or gmail email address, and creates some very high (usually 30/30) ratings of the company's teas all at once, never reviews any other company's teas, and never returns to the site or participates in the site in any other way.

Tracking Down the Offenders:

I have a bit of skill as a hacker and am very good at researching. With little effort, I once tracked down the identity of one of these reviewers, and found that he was a media consultant that had been hired by the tea company that the reviews had been written about. I deleted the ratings and politely contacted the person explaining our policy. I received no apology and indeed, no response at all.

How is there any honor and integrity here? If this person had admitted that he had written the reviews and apologized, there would have been integrity in that action; it would have been honorable and I would have forgiven the person's past actions: we are all human and make mistakes. But there is no integrity in failing to do so. Such inaction is shameful and sad.

How do other rating and review websites handle these problems?

Websites with a team of reviewers, such as Teaviews or Tea Review Blog generally don't have this problem because they know each of their reviewers, and the sites are not open to the public. Rate Beer, the site that RateTea is in many ways modeled after, handles things very similar to how RateTea does--their terms of use strictly prohibit rating beers when you are affiliated with the company.

Companies Reviewing their own teas on Steepster:

Steepster seems to have avoided the issue entirely...although their terms of use are much longer and more complex than RateTea's, my brief skimming of them shows no prohibition against a company rating and reviewing their own teas favorably. Indeed, extensive exploration of their site has shown me that a large number of tea companies rate and review their own teas. For many smaller companies, the overwhelming majority (and in some cases, ALL) of their tasting notes and ratings come from a company rating their own teas.

Do the ratings on Steepster have any integrity at all, if companies are allowed to rate their own teas? I know I am biased in answering this question because I have an interest in RateTea, and I have chosen to set it up the way I have, but I had thought about this issue long before Steepster had ratings. In fact, I had thought about this issue at length before I even knew Steepster existed. And many of the users on Steepster are honest (after all, I've participated there too, as cazort) and those are honest reviews just like all 278 of mine on RateTea.

Perhaps Steepster has a different purpose from RateTea. Is its purpose first and foremost to be a fun, interactive website about tea? If so, then it seems to be doing a very good job of this (quite frankly, a better job than RateTea, as judging by their higher level of participation). But this is not what I was aiming for. On RateTea's about us page, there is a sentence that reads: "We strive to offer the most accurate information on tea available on the web.".

This is what I care about. And honestly? I think we're already there. We screen out the fraudulent ratings. And I've put a tremendous amount of time into carefully researching the information on styles, regions, and brands of tea...and citing the sources of information when it is potentially controversial or when it pertains to critical topics like health or wellness.

So what do you think?

I have two questions for my readers...the first is a more practical one, the second is more existential, about what I should be doing with my time and if RateTea is really worth the while.

(1) Should I do more than just deleting fraudulent reviews? When there is a chronic problem, should I remove / unlist the tea companies that have had problems with fraudulent ratings? (Especially given that no legitimate users have ever reviewed any of these company's teas) Should I contact the company before taking such action (I'd be inclined to do so)? If the problem persists, should I bring out into the open that the company has been promoting its own products?

(2) Is this whole project a lost cause, or is it worthwhile? Do people care about the accuracy and integrity of a site? Or do they just want a site that's fun and looks good? Sometimes I fear that I'm never going to be able to make RateTea good unless it first takes off enough to pay for the skills that I don't have. I'm a lousy graphic designer and I don't always know what people want in a site. I do the best I can and sometimes it just doesn't seem good enough. What I am good at though, is researching, and maintaining the integrity and quality of information on a site. I just don't know sometimes if that's what people really value.

Thoughts? Thanks in advance.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Does Drinking Tea Change the Palate?

Pictured below is a pasta salad. I'm a big salad person. One of my ex-girlfriends liked to refer to an "Alex Salad"...which could be based on anything from pasta to rice to seafood, to just vegetables, just fruit, or some combination...but never containing any lettuce. These diverse salads all had a distinct character based on my own preferences and palate, which has developed in strange ways over the years.

This pasta salad is typical: pasta, feta cheese, beans, cucumber, red pepper, onions. What you can't see as easily are the seasonings and dressing: fresh spearmint, orange mint, ground coriander, olive oil, and a dash of sambal oelek (a type of Chili paste that is one of my favorites). No salt is added (not even in cooking the pasta) other than that in the sambal oelek and the feta cheese.

Not everyone likes my salads, although when people like them, they usually love them. They are frequently described as "strange" or "different". But people also remark that I tend to eat (and prepare) relatively healthy foods.

I did not like foods like this when I was younger. As a child, I was an embarassingly picky eater. I only came to develop a taste for food like this over time.

What in the world does this have to do with tea?

Lahikmajoe pointed out in his recent blog post that I like to talk about how drinking tea can develop the palate. I think that the simple act of drinking tea changes the way you perceive tastes. Tea is an acquired taste, for the simple fact that it is bitter, and also for the important quality that it is, in most cases, more aromatic than it is flavorful. Pictured below is a basic cup of black tea, brewed from a teabag, the brand of which shall remain unnamed:

It was a decent cup of tea, but nothing special. But I think that drinking even decent, somewhat generic tea on a regular basis changes the palate. I think this is especially true if we drink the tea unsweetened. Humans have a natural propensity to be cautious with bitter foods: many poisons are bitter, and our taste of bitterness serves to help us avoid poisoning in our natural environment. But over time, if a bitter food or drink makes us feel well and not ill, we will come to enjoy it. This is the very essence of an acquired taste.

Going back to the salad ingredients:

Mint, like tea, is a bitter, aromatic plant. The two plants have much in common, and it is no coincidence they are frequently blended, as in Moroccan Mint Tea. But most seasonings, spices, and herbs are similarly bitter and aromatic. Most of these spices are acquired tastes. Even the onions, a vegetable ingredient in the salad, can be seen as a flavoring, and share the bitter, aromatic qualities of the other spices and herbs.

Interestingly, nearly all of these seasonings have health benefits. These benefits vary widely from spice to spice, and range from antioxidants to antibacterial, antifungal, and even antiviral activity, to stress-reducing properties, and properties positively affecting the absorption of various minerals and nutrients. Lately I've been working a lot on the RateTea page on mint tea, and I've been pleased to find that mint has a myriad of health benefits--great news because I love it and use it frequently both in cooking and to make herbal tea, but the other spices used in the salad also have their benefits.

Also of note is the absence of any sweetener or added salt in the salad. Acquiring tastes isn't just about including ingredients but is also about omitting them.

Another way tea can improve health?

Perhaps the health benefits of tea are not limited to the chemicals in the tea itself...but rather, extend to the fact that drinking tea develops our palate to prefer bitter, aromatic ingredients such as herbs and spices, which ultimately improve our health in a number of ways.

This development of palate is of particular importance in the United States of America, where many of us have been conditioned to prefer bland food, devoid of spices, sweet, devoid of bitterness and aromas...heavily processed, full of empty calories. Salt is the one flavor that is often included, and many Americans have a diet that is too high in salt.

Tea is the very antithesis of this bland, unhealthy food culture. Tea is bitter, aromatic, and contains very little to no sweet or salty tastes. Tea provides a means to train the palate to prefer healthy foods, a way to break out of our homogenized, industrialized food culture and return to our roots--a food culture of rich aromas, healthy doses of bitter herbs and seasonings, and fresh, healthy ingredients. This is closely related to the main premises of the slow food movement, which is another interesting, and related topic that I hope to explore more in the future.

So drink up!

Friday, June 11, 2010

Very Long Steeping Times

Do you ever let tea steep for a very long time? Much longer than a company or common knowledge recommends? I find myself doing this rather often, and not always by accident. It's something that doesn't work with every tea, however, and it only works well when you want a specific kind of experience.

What kind of tea does this work with? What qualities does it tend to bring out?

I find this works best with oolong, green, and white tea, and sometimes Pu-erh, but I generally avoid it with black tea. I also avoid it with stronger teas. It works best with teas that are on the weaker side, and are low on bitterness and astringency. It's particularly good when you want to bring out more bitterness.

Pictured below is a cup of Teavana's Three Kingdoms Mao Feng, my favorite example of a tea that I think is greatly enhanced by long steeping times. I have found I prefer brewing it for 8 minutes rather than Teavana's recommended 1 minute (picture is of a cup that has been brewed for 8 minutes):

I found this tea to be too weak, and a bit boring, the first time I tried it. It's not my favorite green tea by any stretch of the imagination; right now, a Ceylon Green from Oliphant Estate holds this title. I like teas, like that Ceylon, with more kick, more bitterness, more depth to the aroma, and more overall strength. But all of these characteristics are ones that can be brought out by longer steeping times. Upping the infusion time on the Teavana Mao Feng to 3 minutes wasn't enough to me. I settled upon 8 (or more), resulting in a cup of tea that had a very pleasant bitterness and felt darker and deeper. In some respects, the smoothness of a tea actually gives you more flexibility: if there is little bitterness and astringency, you can always brew longer.

Is there a downside of long brewing times?

There are many downsides. Besides the obvious problem of bringing out, at times, overwhelming amounts of bitter, sour, or astringent qualities, there are a few other drawbacks. Generally, if you steep a tea for a very long time, it's done; you will only get one infusion. I find, at times, when doing multiple infusions, I like to use a very long infusion for the last one, to squeeze the last bit of flavor out of the leaves. But other times I just like to make a single, long infusion.

The main downside of this, compared to making many brief infusions, is that all the aroma components get combined (jumbled!) together into a single cup. When making multiple brief infusions, each cup of tea has unique nuances to the aroma and flavor. These are bowled over when you use a single, long steeping time. However, the single resulting cup is often very complex, as it has all the components that often come out individually in each steeping, so this combining can be viewed as either an asset or a downside, depending on your perspective.

Try it out if you haven't, and let me know what you think.

And for those of you who already do this, I'd be curious to hear...what teas do you like to steep for a very long time? How long?

Monday, June 7, 2010

Association of Tea Bloggers

I am happy to announce that this blog has recently been accepted into the Association of Tea Bloggers. I have known about this association for quite some time and have enjoyed reading a number of its member blogs. This association serves multiple purposes. It is useful on its own as a somewhat selective list, but it also has forums and other member-only resources, as well as other public features such as an aggregated feed for all member blogs (although who could keep up with reading that much, I can hardly imagine!)

I think it's great, and ultimately empowering, when bloggers interact with each other, and I'm glad to be able to participate in another organization and community that facilitates this sort of interaction.

I would encourage people who are already active tea bloggers to at least check out the website of the Association of Tea Bloggers; even if you have no interest in joining, the website is a good resource and can help you to discover and connect with active tea bloggers.

Another List of Tea Bloggers:

Also of interest to people who want to network and connect with tea bloggers is RateTea's twitter list of tea bloggers, which I maintain. This list currently contains 71 twitter accounts of tea bloggers, some more active than others. If anyone would like to be included on this list and is not already on it, just sent an @-message to RateTea.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Multiple Infusions with a Pause

This post is about a new technique for brewing tea with multiple infusions that I discovered by accident...but first I want to clarify something about the term "multiple infusions".

When people think of multiple infusions, they usually think of one of two things. The first is the method of Gong Fu brewing, which usually involves brief infusions (often on the order of 15-30 seconds but sometimes longer) using a larger quantity of leaf. The second is a more "western-style" brewing, which amounts to brewing with a quantity of leaves closer to 1 teaspoon per cup, brewing times on the order of 2-3 minutes, and then repeating for even longer.

I find Gong Fu brewing yields very different results from western-style brewing with multiple infusions. If I had to summarize the difference it would be that Gong Fu leads to more nuance, with subtle differences between each cup that are lost in longer infusions. However, Gong Fu is more involved: I'm more likely to use western-style brewing in my day-to-day tea drinking, as I find it easier and more convenient. I experiment a lot with brewing. By accident, I discovered a new brewing method that is both very convenient with my lifestyle and yields good results.

Letting tea leaves sit between infusions:

It started when I would only feel like drinking one cup of tea, but knew the leaves were good for more infusions. I had made a cup of tea in the morning, Upton Tea Import's Oolong Se Chung, which I find to be outstanding for multiple infusions. I had brewed a single 3-minute infusion, drank the cup, and I later returned to want another cup of tea, after the once-used leaves had been sitting for a few hours.

I made a second, 5-minute infusion, and I was surprised to find the resulting cup extraordinarily flavorful--much more so than an otherwise identical infusion made more shortly after brewing the first one, as I usually had done. The cup was more aromatic, with tones in the aroma I had not yet noticed or experienced with that tea, and it had a richer flavor, was more full-bodied, and had more depth to it.

I have since deliberately tried this technique out with other teas and the result is similar. I find it works very well with large-leaf, whole-leaf oolongs, and less well with green teas. Today I tried this out with Golden Osmanthus Oolong / Huang Jin Gui from Life in Teacup, a Se Chung oolong which is similar in overall character to Upton's. This cup, still brewing, is pictured below:

The result was delicious; I just finished it while writing this entry. I also find that this technique works very well with Dong Ding oolong. I have found that for best results, I like to make the pause at least an hour in length, and use it before the last infusion. In some teas, I have noticed greatly enhanced flavor when letting the leaves sit for as long as four or more hours, as compared to only one.

My theory to explain why this technique works:

Multiple infusions work primarily on whole-leaf teas with large, thicker leaves, because the diffusion rate of water and various aroma and flavor chemicals is low. After brewing tea, the used tea leaves are still wet, with the leaves themselves saturated with water, and a thin layer of water on top of the leaves as well. I suspect that diffusion is still happening as the wet leaves are sitting; when the leaves are finally infused, more of the flavor and aroma is able to be released into the cup.