Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Dragon Well: Style or Region of Tea?

Again I am inspired by one of the posts from Gingko at Life in Teacup: Discussion on Long Jing (2).

Is Dragon well (Lung Ching / Long Jing) just a style of tea or is it wedded to a particular region, like Pu-erh? (Pu-erh is named after a county; technically, the style of Pu-erh could be called hei cha--"black" tea, or post-fermented tea). I think it is ultimately good for tea producers and for the interest of sustainability and promoting and preserving local tea cultures to distinguish the notion of style and region in order to allow the non-controversial marketing, distribution, sampling, and purchase of teas of one style produced in many different regions.

Dragon Well originated in Zhejiang province, whose location is shown on the map below: (public domain image from Wikipedia, thanks to Joowwww).

But, as Gingko and many others have pointed out, you can find tea labeled as Dragon well from other provinces as well. Also, within Zhejiang, dragon well is produced in many different areas. According to Gingko's post, the tea produced in Hangzhou has been considered more desirable over the years.

What is "authentic"?

I think it can be problematic to say that a tea of one style produced in a different region is not "authentic". If the name of a tea refers to the style and not the region, such a label is incorrect. Is Vietnamese Sencha not sencha? What about Tie Guan Yin from Nantou? Or Ceylon Young Hyson? These are all examples I've tried...and I picked them because I all think they are outstanding teas...and they are all radically different from their counterparts from the original regions that produced these styles.

I love tasting how the aroma and flavor varies across different regions, even for tea produced according to the same or similar processes. I think that being able to make these comparisons is good both for preserving local tea traditions and for encouraging the creation of new ones. I also think that it improves people's sophistication...fitting in with the whole premise of the slow food movement, something I have been becoming more a fan of lately.

I think the ideal way to handle these things is to draw attention to where each style originated, but, except in the cases where the name refers directly to a region (such as Pu-erh) to refrain from judgments or value-statements like "authentic" or "fake". A term like "original" is a lot more descriptive. The naming scheme for some Chinese teas already incorporates both style and region. For example, mao feng green tea is grown in different regions; Huang shan mao feng is mao feng from yellow mountain in Anhui, whereas Wuyi mao feng is tea produced in the same style from the Wuyi mountains, and Ilam mao feng is produced in Ilam, Nepal.

How do Shoppers React to Accusations of "Fake" Teas?

Everyone is different, so I can't predict others' responses, but I can at least share how I react. When I read writing on a tea company website that makes disparaging comments about teas from other provinces, my first reaction is skepticism. One question immediately pops into my head: "Why do these people have a bone to pick?"

It is obvious that the vendors of tea from the original region feel threatened by similar products from other regions. But why respond with negativity? Negativity shows weakness and a lack of confidence. If they want to make their product stand out, though, they can do so by one simple method: push for accurate labelling of place of production. If a certain region is superior, and labelling is accurate, people will soon realize this and the producers in this region will be secure. Throwing around disparaging comments about teas being "fake" just because they originated in a different region communicates that the seller feels threatened--which communicates that, deep down, they are worried that their product might not be superior as they claim. Why send this message? All it will do is make fewer people want to buy the product.

I think a more positive response is that which Gingko has taken--put more information out there about the tea. I also think that, by questioning the notion that Hangzhou Dragon Well is necessarily superior, and pointing out that many tasters cannot correctly identify the region of production, Gingko demonstrates a critical mind--which immediately cuts through the B.S. and talking up of their product that some tea companies are guilty of. At least as far as I'm concerned, this makes me feel more comfortable buying a product.

So why talk up your product? Just put accurate info out there and it'll speak for itself!

Monday, August 30, 2010

"Awards" and Search Engine Optimization Scams

I was recently notified through the contact form on RateTea that my tea blog was given a "Top Tea Blog Award" presented by a website that shall for all purposes remain nameless. The email, sent by someone named Amy, linked to a page that was a collection of blogs that had received this award. The email read:
"Our unique learning system uses the resources available on the blogosphere as our teaching tool, as you are smarter than us when it comes to your topic of interest, and this is why you have been awarded as a top blog."

Flattering, right? My first response was excitement--this is great that I've created a blog that others have found to be a valuable online resource. I was excited because I know there are many legitimate lists of tea bloggers and awards.

The email then requests to add a badge to my blog to announce to the world that I have received this award. The badges, conveniently provided in different sizes with cut-and-paste segments of HTML, link back to the website.

I smell a link scheme:

This immediately struck me as a link scheme, an unethical practice of attempting to boost the prominence of your website in search rankings by generating links from other websites through some sort of incentive system. The idea is that if more blogs (or other sites) link to the one website, it will perform better in search results because search engines will see the links as a sign that the site is more authoritative.

The list of tea blogs that were said to receive these "awards" showed little evidence of editorial selection. Some of the most well-established and informative blogs out there, including Tea Guy Speaks, 39 Steeps, or the Walker Tea Review, are not included on this list. But at least one blog, A Sampleing of Camellia Sinensis is included, but has not been updated since March of 2009...because it has moved--announced prominently on the blog's homepage, to Puerh Drinker (John Grebe's Blog).

This demonstrates that the list of blogs selected was either automatically generated, or was hastily generated with poor editorial oversight. It seems their idea was to create a page of links to tea blogs that could be hastily thrown together, and then get these more legitimate websites and blogs, whose authors are honest people contributing quality material, to link back to the site. There's even a little subtle pressure to reciprocate the link:
"You can let your readers know you won by embedding the badge code to one of the different awards graphics found at:
If you choose to accept or decline inclusion in our resource list, please let me know."

It's a scam. The implicit idea--not stated explicitly because it would probably offend most bloggers--is that if you don't link back, you may be removed from the list. If you were really providing a valuable resource, they'd link to you anyway, based on the quality of your site, regardless of whether or not you link back.

Looking at the Website Itself:

Then, with a skeptical mind, I looked at the website hosting this "award". It is a site selling online degrees--even up through the "doctorate" level. The about-us page does not identify any names or corporation behind the site. There is absolutely nothing that could establish the legitimacy of this website. When I clicked through one of their online degree options, it referred me to a third party e-commerce site. Very shady.

The Scam Runs Deeper:

Out of curiosity, I wanted to see how far this scam had been taken. I typed "tea blog award" into google and was shocked to find three identically structured lists of tea blog awards on three identically structured websites. Suddenly, I saw some of the tea blogs that had been omitted: they were included on the other lists. Not only is this scam being used to generate links to one site--it's being used in a broader scheme involving other cloned sites selling other kinds of fake online degrees.

I then searched even more, and with more effort, found that this scam is being carried out in many different categories, not just tea. One of these sites listed 16 categories of blog awards on their page...but tea was not even included. They could be running this scam in dozens if not hundreds of different categories!

The Lesson?

Be skeptical of receiving an award like this. Be particularly skeptical of people who ask you to link to their websites. If something feels a bit off, dig deeper.

There's nothing wrong with asking someone to link to your website--I do it all the time--and I'm often very responsive when others ask me to link to or write about their sites. In fact, especially on this blog, I enjoy it! But...only if it's a legitimate site.

How to handle situations like this?

I don't link to the site--I don't even mention the site by name, because this might raise the site's visibility or drive traffic to the site--which is what the scammers want. If I've posted already (I admit, I've been roped in by scams in the past--and I was almost roped in by this one) I quickly delete the post--and instead I post about the scam, just like this post.

I would encourage others to adopt this approach. The more people get the word out about schemes and scams like this, the less they are able to works, and the better of a place the web is for everyone!

Sunday, August 29, 2010

TeaViews - A Tea Review Site with Forums

Gingko of Life in Teacup inspired me by a recent post about online tea communities to write some posts about tea communities myself. I decided to start by writing about TeaViews.

Teaviews is a group tea review website. The site has a team of reviewers, and solicits donations from tea companies which it then distributes to its reviewers, in a self-selecting process that pairs reviewers with the styles of tea that they most enjoy. The website has a blog-like format, and is indexed by brand and categories of different styles of tea. It also has a page for each reviewer so you can get a sense of where each reviewer is coming from in their approach of tea. Teaviews also has a tea discussion forum which is open to the public.

Teaviews is a well-established site, with reviews going back to mid-2007, and the forum goes back at least to early 2008. As of writing this post, Teaviews currently boasts 3,436 reviews of 2,539 different teas from 187 brands; currently the site lists 52 reviewers on their site.

What I like most about Teaviews:
  • The process of pairing reviewers with types of tea that they prefer leads to positive, enthusiastic reviews.
  • The website is attractive and easy to use.
  • The number of reviews is extensive.
  • The reviewers are independent of any tea company; because the site is not open to the public and is selective about its reviewers, the standard of quality of reviews is consistently high.
  • The reviewers are a friendly bunch, and many are active on twitter and other websites.
  • Although the forum is not the biggest or most active tea forum on the internet, I find that it is a very friendly place. I also like how the forum is a place where the general public can engage in discussion with the team of reviewers.

I'm a bit crazy in that I like participating in 16 billion different online communities...but if you haven't done so already, I'd recommend checking out Teaviews. I know I have an interest in one tea community website, but I think different sites have different strengths, and I would encourage everyone to look at all of what's out there.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Q&A About Drying & Blending Holy Basil (Tulsi) for Tea

I received the following inquiry through the contact form on RateTea:

... I have grown some holy basil (tulsi) to make my own tea (...) Should I dry the leaves or just use them in their natural state? (...) how mush leaf to make one cup of tea? (...) how long should the leaves steep? If I dry, should I crush the leaf into powder or just roughly (since I won't be using tea bags)? Can I dry in the microwave oven or should I use a dehydrator? After drying, how long can I store (in glass jars) before they go stale? Should the tea be consumed straight, or is it OK to mix with other teas?

I'm not the most authoritative source on this topic but I did the best to come up with an answer. After writing a response, I realized it might be useful to share my response publicly. I've edited the response slightly since then.

My answer:

I'm afraid I can't answer all your questions definitively but I can make a pretty good guess/recommendation. Holy basil, also known as tulsi, is a close relative of basil. I have had Holy Basil tea both fresh and dried. You can definitely make tea out of it fresh by steeping the fresh leaves in boiling water. Drying is mainly done to preserve the leaf, but it may concentrate some of the flavors. It does taste different fresh. I know nothing about differences in medicinal effects fresh or dry--and there is probably little known about this. Much of what has been studied scientifically has been on ethanol extracts of the dried plant.

How to dry? There are different ways to dry but I would recommend against drying in the Microwave. Usually you want to dry in a warm, dry, dark area--away from humidity and sunlight. However, drying in a bright area can be okay if it's done quickly. Too much exposure to sunlight breaks down certain chemicals. If you want a quick dry, you could try heating an oven to a very low temperature. But even this might cause some volatile oils to escape or break down, or cause the herb to burn/char. Experiment. My best luck with drying herbs has been to place them in a paper bag at the top of my furnace/hot-water-heater closet--which is warm and dry year-round--I'm lucky enough to have a room like that where I live. I've also successfully dried some herbs, including holy basil, in a sunny room though.

About blending, holy basil is very good on its own but also good to mix or blend. Commonly, holy basil is blended with black tea, but more creative blends are possible and can be delicious. One company that has done this extensively is Organic India; you might want to browse their listings to get some ideas.

If you're blending it for medicinal purposes and not just for a beverage, you would want to consult an herbalist or medical professional, preferably someone who knows something about Ayurveda--many western herb books don't even mention holy basil because it has not been widely known in the west until recently.

Lastly, about storing, when drying your own herbs, making sure they are completely dry is crucial. Herbs should be stored in an airtight container to preserve aroma, but if they have any moisture in them, they can quickly mold and/or break down in unpleasant ways. I have found that basil loses its flavor more quickly than tea. As a spice, I generally do not like using basil dried for this reason. However, my experience with holy basil to make tulsi tea has been that it keeps much better, and is similar to tea (staying fresh 1-2 years and then only losing flavor slowly). And, as I have mentioned on RateTea's page on storing tea, if you use glass jars, keep them out of sunlight, as sunlight can break down chemicals in the dry leaf.

Further Reading:

For more information on drying herbs, I found this useful resource: How do I dry? - National Center for Home Food Preservation. It provides some very useful tips.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Loose Tea in Coffee Shops

Face it...the U.S. has more of a coffee culture than a tea culture. And I love coffee shops, both as a great place to work when I am self-employed, and also as a hang-out space, and a community gathering space and place to host events. But that said, some coffee shops serve better tea than others.

An example of how to serve great tea in a coffee shop:

This example is from Barriques in Madison, WI, at the location on W. Washington, just SW of the capital. This is a great coffee shop (read my review on Yelp). Note my cell phone--yes, I really do time my steepings when I write reviews.

This setup is great. What are the ingredients?

  • Top-notch loose tea - in this case, Rishi Tea. The pictured cup above is an Iron Goddess of Mercy (medium roasted) from Nantou, Taiwan; Barriques has quite a selection of Rishi, I might add.

  • Use of a basket infuser - leaves room for the leaves to expand rather than a teaball or other constraining tea infuser.

  • Serving of the tea in a separate vessel - in this case, a glass teapot, which is given to you after you order the tea. This allows you to control brewing to taste. Barriques is generous with the leaf, allowing you to make multiple infusions.

  • This setup is sustainable - not only is Rishi Tea a leader in sustainability among tea companies, so the tea itself is an excellent sustainable choice, but note the absence of anything disposable. The only thing missing in the case of Barriques is that they do not compost their tea.

I want to give a second example that is less-than-ideal but still pretty good. In Lancaster, PA, Chestnut Hill Cafe serves Rishi tea, using disposable paper tea filters. Slightly less-than-ideal brewing conditions, but appropriately, their tea is less expensive per cup. It's still high-quality loose tea and you can still control the brewing time and make multiple infusions.

Can we encourage more Coffee Shops to do this?

Yes. The key ingredient here is to let coffee shop owners (which includes both individual owners of independent coffee shops, and the management of chain coffee shops) that it's realistic to serve loose tea in coffee shops. A few key points are to let them know:
  1. It's already being done successfully.

  2. The quality of the resulting cup of tea tea allows you to charge more (covering the cost of the additional labor in serving the tea and washing the dishes) and still have a happier customer.

  3. Loose tea can be very inexpensive which can increase the profit margin and offset any additional labor costs.

  4. Although loose tea takes longer to prepare, it's still negligible in comparison to many of the more involved espresso drinks.

  5. Using loose tea means you stock loose tea, and can sell it--expanding into a new niche (being a tea shop), which can bring in additional business.

  6. Basket infusers + disposable paper tea filters give optimal "for here" and "to go" options.

  7. Serving high-quality loose tea in teapots bumps your shop up a notch or two in sophistication, which can have indirect positive effects on the rest of your business.

What do you say? I think it's just a matter of time before all coffee shops start moving in this direction.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Tea and Mood

This post is inspired by a recent post on the now defunct Indonique Tea Blog, which is titled Tea Effect (now only viewable on archive.org). Tea has obvious lifting effects on mood. Is this due to caffeine? Do the effects of L-theanine moderate and enhance the effects of caffeine, creating a "relaxed alertness"? Instead of exploring these questions, I will focus on a more personal account of my own experience of tea and mood, and provide an alternative explanation that I find to be more compelling.

Caffeine's Effects on Me:

I have never found caffeine alone to have a particularly positive effect on mood. Sometimes a single cup of coffee can leave me feeling sluggish and depressed, for reasons I do not understand. Too much caffeine, which can easily happen from drinking multiple cups of coffee or strongly caffeinated soft drinks, and can also result from carelessly drinking too many cups of tea in a Chinese restaurant, often leaves me feeling quite awful. Even before I notice the "caffeine jitters", I find too much caffeine makes me agitated and restless, and have trouble concentrating. But a single cup of tea, or a few cups spaced over a reasonable time-period never has this effect.

The first tea that I noticed lifting my mood:

In contrast to coffee, which just caffeinates me, I have found that tea can actually lift my mood. I've been a tea drinker for a long time--my parents are both big tea drinkers--but the first tea that I noticed really lifting my mood was Ten Wu Oolong from Ten Ren, which I first had in teabags, when a friend of mine from Hong Kong gave me a box in college. Ten Ren boasts that that that tea is their "finest Oolong tea available in tea bag form.", and I will not dispute this. I enjoyed this tea greatly the first time I tried it, but the first time I noticed its mood-lifting effects was years later, when I finally got my hands on it a second time.

I was drinking a cup of it while hanging out in the math lounge at the University of Delaware, which is pictured below:

Why am I taking the time to include this picture in my tea blog? I have consumed countless cups of tea in that lounge, so I think it is important to get a picture of that lounge in there somewhere, as it is important in the tea history of my life.

But at any rate, I drank a cup of Ten Ren's Ten Wu tea, and I noticed that I just felt good. Not perky, not hyped up, just a nice, wholesome, warm, happy, good feeling. Why? I don't know. I doubt it's L-theanine, because Gyokuro is supposedly highest in theanine, and I don't find that it makes me feel better than other sorts of tea (it certainly doesn't stand out the way the Ten Wu tea does).

Another explanation for tea's effect on mood?

Maybe the explanation is simpler. In our society, we are tempted to look for "scientific" explanations--ones that can be described by mechanisms on the level of physics, chemistry, and biology. In my older post Tea and Health: Beyond Chemistry, I explored the question of whether some of the health benefits of tea lie not in the chemistry of tea, but rather in the process of making and drinking tea and the relaxing effect this has on your mind and body.

Maybe tea lifts my mood because it tastes and smells so good, and because the act of brewing and then drinking tea places me into a more mindful state when I drink it. Maybe drinking tea reminds me of the happy and relaxing times all throughout my life, where I've used tea for a relaxing break, or shared tea with friends. Maybe Ten Wu tea makes me happy because I absolutely love the aroma, the qualities of the cup, or maybe because it reminds me of the fond memories of the time and place and people associated with first trying that tea. That explanation seems much more plausible to me than any sort of scientific or chemical explanation.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Afghan Tea, Afghan Food, and Afghanistan

After a frustrating apartment search in Madison, WI, I decided not to move. The downtown and surrounding areas seemed to be dominated by either slummy student housing or upscale luxury condos--neither of which is particularly my style, and I would have had to pay more than I was comfortable with to live in a situation I would be less than comfortable with. But on my recent trip, I had an interesting and seemingly unlikely experience relating to tea, food, and Afghanistan.

Why Afghanistan?

I deliberately chose to eat at an Afghan restaurant one day (Kabul Afghanistan & Mediterranean Restaurant), when I was searching for a place to eat lunch. Pictured below is a map of Afghanistan, courtesy of the CIA's World Factbook.

I am particularly interested in Afghanistan right now because it is the site of a brutal war in which the U.S., my country, is involved. I myself am neither a fan of war nor of terrorism, and I am eager to explore any options through which these sorts of conflicts and violence can be brought to a complete and peaceful end. I think that mutual understanding of culture is one of the best starting points both to prevent and alleviate conflict. I particularly think that a lack of understanding of the culture in countries like Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan is strongly connected to a U.S. foreign policy and military policy which continually fails to address the root causes of violent extremism and anti-U.S. sentiment in these countries.

Maybe something as simple as tea and a meal could provide a starting point to bridging these gaps.

What is Afghan Tea?

Afghanistan, like most regions of the world, has its own unique tea culture. The Jaya Tea Blog, in their post Afghan Tea Shop, describes a type of green tea consumed in Afghanistan which is also consumed in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir (regions which constitute a single state), a region that borders Pakistan and does not border Afghanistan, but is as close as one can get to Afghanistan within India. According to that blog post, in India this tea is called Kahva. Kahva is produced by boiling the green tea leaves together with spices, producing something that in the west could be called a "Green Chai" or a spiced green tea. Interestingly, this brewing method crassly violates the ubiquitous warning among both western and southeast-Asian tea cultures to not brew green tea with boiling water.

The type of tea I had, however, was different. The cup is pictured below:

It was black tea, and it was brewed with a very heavy dose of green cardamon, my favorite spice for use in tea. It is no surprise that I loved the result. The cup was strongly aromatic, but surprisingly smooth. Cardamon absolutely dominated the aroma--definitely much more cardamon than tea presence. I have no idea what kind of tea was used, but it was a black tea, and it had the character of a high-grown Ceylon tea, such as those from Nuwara Eliya. It was served without milk, with the option of lemon or sugar on the side. I tried half the cup without lemon and half with a few drops of lemon (as pictured--the lemon greatly lightened the tea--it was very dark before adding the lemon). I have no idea about the authenticity of this type of tea, or the restaurant in general. But I absolutely loved the tea; it was aromatic, but not particularly strong and definitely not too tannic, so I had a second cup.

The Food:

The food was simple but I enjoyed it greatly. I particularly enjoyed the soup served before the meal, which had several types of bean and was flavorful but light. Pictured below is the soup, some bread, and two sauces served on the side:

What struck me about this meal was that the taste, aromas, and textures of both the food and the tea were in many respects intermediate between what I know of north Indian cuisine and middle-eastern cuisine. The red sauce was very garlicky, lightly spicy, and tangy, and had a more middle-eastern character. The green sauce seemed to be made out of cilantro, mint, and hot peppers, and was very similar to an Indian chutney made of those ingredients. The bread was softer and spongier than pita, but more pita-like than any Indian bread I've tried. The tea, with its simplicity of two ingredients, tea and cardamon, contrasted greatly with the complexity of most Indian spiced teas, but the cardamon was definitely reminiscent of a Masala Chai--although in a fresher, lighter way.

What did I learn from this?

Something about tasting both the tea and the food "filled in the gaps" in a continuous transition of tea and food culture. I had tasted vague similarities between north Indian and middle eastern cuisine before, but the food on the table before me filled in a gap, much in the same way the Archaeopteryx fossil filled in a gap in the evolutionary record:

Just as Archaeopteryx made it easy to intuitively grasp the possibility that birds had evolved from reptiles, I found that tasting this food and tea made it easy to innately feel the connection between two food cultures that had previously seemed quite distinct from each other. And I had in a moment a glimpse of the unity of all cultures, and of all human beings.

I started crying when I thought about this. Why are we over there killing each other? How can we stop the violence? We have to...we are all humans, and we are just killing our own people. How can we achieve a lasting peace?

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Lingering Flavor of Lemongrass

Lemongrass, more well-known as a seasoning used in Thai and Vietnamese cooking, is also frequently included as an ingredient in herbal tea or flavored tea blends. It can also be used on its own to make an herbal tea, and I've found it quite pleasant for this use.

I've noticed that lemongrass has a particularly persistent flavor, however. When I brew an herbal infusion of straight lemongrass it in a teapot or using a tea infuser, even when I thoroughly clean the pot or infuser, the characteristic hints of lemongrass linger in whatever tea I brew subsequently.

I just did this with Teatulia's Lemongrass (which I was quite impressed by--link is to my review). Now I'm drinking Amber Oolong Select from Upton Tea Imports, and there is still a noticeable lemongrass flavor present.

I wonder why this is the case? Has anyone else noticed this? Any other ingredients you've found that leave a lingering quality when you steep them in a teapot or tea infuser?

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Not Your Cup of Tea: Writing About What Other People May Enjoy

This post was inspired by one of Lainie's posts: Bad Tea or Bad Taste?, which got me thinking about how one determines, if you are drinking a tea that you don't really like, whether it's bad or whether it's just not your cup of tea.

What is important to write about when you review a tea? The appearance and smell of the dry tea leaf? The brewing process? The aroma of the cup? The flavor? The differences between each infusion, if you use the tea for multiple infusions? How you feel after drinking the cup? The thoughts and sensations evoked during the whole experience?

Maybe there's something missing from this type of review.

Sharing Tea With Others:

When I share tea with other people, I'm often struck by how different people's opinions are on the same tea.

My parents are big tea drinkers, and have quite different taste from me. My father has a broad range of teas that he enjoys, and doesn't tend to have as strong opinions on them as I do. It's hard for me to predict what he likes, but he tends to like a lot of the same teas that I do, and also some teas that I dislike. I find we are more likely to share opinions on inexpensive teas (we both like foojoy tea bags, for instance) than pricier teas.

My mother is very different. She rarely likes any tea that is not very strong, full-bodied, and usually quite bitter--but she also has a strong propensity to like fruity and floral aromas, and she (like me) loves mint and other mint-family herbs. She loves Russian Caravan and gunpowder, but Lapsang Souchong is too smokey for her. Rose-scented black tea is one of her favorites, and she even loves rose-scented green tea, but doesn't like most straight green tea. But for some reason she likes dragon well--she says it has less of the grassy quality that she dislikes in most green tea. And she loves oolongs, especially more bitter ones. And she loves roasted teas--including hojicha and darker-roasted oolongs. She absolutely cannot stand pouchong, saying it's bland and fishy. Over the years, I've developed an intuition for what kinds of teas she likes. I can't predict with 100% accuracy what she'll like, but I have a pretty good sense of it, even when her tastes are very different from mine.

Writing About Who Might Enjoy a Tea:

If you are writing reviews for others, even after the natural self-selection that takes place when readers seek out bloggers or reviewers who have similar taste, many of your readers will inevitably have substantially different tastes from yours. I designed a user-comparison algorithm for RateTea, and, interestingly, the highest "similarity" I had with any other user was 59%--meaning that if given the choice of two teas, we would prefer the same tea only 59% of the time. Tastes are diverse enough that even the people with whom we share the most similar preferences are going to have substantial differences!

It makes sense then in your reviews to think about who might enjoy a tea, and to write the review with this in mind. I don't like the aroma of cinnamon. If I dislike a tea (such as a chai blend) for the sole reason that it has a strong cinnamon flavor, I note this--because a cinnamon lover can then use that information to know that they might be likely to really enjoy that blend. The same goes for bitterness.

Occasionally I'll try a tea that I really don't like, but I have a compelling sense that someone I know might really enjoy it. There's nothing wrong with writing about teas that you don't like! But...try to think about who might like it, and write about that. You can even say explicitly: "This is not my favorite style of tea, but I thought it was very good for what it was", or "This wasn't my favorite, but people who like X, Y, and Z qualities might really enjoy this one."

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Tea Information, Misinformation, and Quality of Scholarship

I'm catching up for my time away from posting! A.C. Cargill just wrote a thought-provoking post title Too Much Tea Info, which sparked me to write this post--I just couldn't wait. I am excited to see bloggers questioning the legitimacy and accuracy of information about tea (or about anything) on the internet.

Passing on Misinformation & Myths:

Like A.C. Cargill, I also believe that most people are basically honest, but I also think that there's a large degree to which most people do not have the highest standards of fact-checking and do not understand how to do rigorous research. Because the majority of people pass information on without questioning it, all it takes is one person to make up some false information, and sometimes hundreds or thousands of people will pass it on. A great example of this is the widespread myth that white tea contains less caffeine than black tea--this is totally false, as some white teas are much higher in caffeine. And yet, thousands of websites make the false claim about white tea being low in caffeine. Teavana is one such company that makes this claim. On their page of Low Caffeinated Teas (which has since been taken down, thankfully, but the old page can be viewed, by source only due to an HTML error, on archive.org) they list Silver Needle White Tea, and Snow Peak Downy Tips White Tea...both tippy teas that are high in caffeine. This is very sloppy and is a major, and potentially dangerous oversight. This is a particular matter of concern because people often seek to limit their caffeine intake due to medical reasons, including pregnancy, or drugs that interfere with caffeine metabolism.

How I Maintain Accuracy:

One of my main motivations behind the creation of RateTea was to combat misinformation and set a higher bar for the quality of tea-related information on the web. To achieve this goal, I've taken great lengths to make RateTea a place where people can trust the information. Where there is conflicting information, such as on the page on Milky Oolong, I take effort to identify which sources say what, and I try to reconcile the conflicting perspectives. In the case of something subjective like describing aroma and flavor, I'm more than willing to use blogs as sources. But where health topics are concerned, I have higher standards, relying on quality scholarly work in peer-reviewed journals.

Honestly, I am not the most rigorous scholar out there. I've made numerous mistakes, both on RateTea and on other information sites and articles I've worked on. And I am always very eager to fix or improve material on one of my websites or articles.

The keys to making information as accurate as possible:

I think that the key in making an informational webpage or article that someone can trust is (a) identifying the source of your information, (b) using the most reliable sources possible, and (c) admitting when your sources are questionable, conflicting, or hard to verify (as with the page on Milky oolong, or on scientific topics where some evidence exists but the research is sparse, young, conflicting, or inconclusive).

Higher standards for health-related topics:

For health-related topics like the health benefits of tea, or the new article on tea and pregnancy, blogs and company websites are not acceptable as sources. In the case of health info, accurate scholarship not only involves using primarily articles published in peer-reviewed journals, but also questioning them: is the research current, or have the results been disproven by more recent research? Is there an isolated study supporting a certain idea, or a handful of studies all conducted by the same team of researchers, or a scientific consensus built over many years, by many different researchers? Is a certain viewpoint being pushed by an organization with a known bias? (Even non-profit scientific organizations can have well-known biases.) Does the research all point in the same direction or does it conflict? It's not only important to present what is known, but it's important to present the degree of certainty which can be placed in whatever results are thought to be true.

Learning from Wikipedia:

To anyone who is interested in learning more about how to conduct rigorous scholarship, I would point them in a very unusual direction: Wikipedia. Wikipedia is widely regarded in the public eye as a place where information cannot be trusted, for the simple fact that anyone can edit it. But I would challenge this notion: I think that if you check the edit history of a page, and ignore blatant vandalism, advertising, and other destructive or careless edits, Wikipedia is actually among the most accurate informational sources out there, especially on controversial pages where there are a large number of active editors constantly revising the page. And perhaps most importantly, there is a lot that can be learned about how to conduct scholarship and how to write and cite sources, by closely examining Wikipedia's guidelines.

Wikipedia's guidelines for identifying reliable sources are, in my opinion, spot on. Another, more subtle, but equally important guideline are Wikipedia's policies for writing with a Neutral Point of View. It's no secret that being an active wikipedia editor for years has helped me to become a better researcher. While my liberal arts education certainly helped somewhat, my professors never ripped my work to shreds the way the often-anonymous community of wikipedia editors does on a daily basis. People who want to improve the quality of their research would do well to read those guidelines, and perhaps even better, to start participating in Wikipedia.

Andrew Weil's Essay: A Life With Tea

One of my friends recently pointed me to Andrew Weil's essay: A Life With Tea. Andrew Weil is a prominent medical doctor who is one of the most mainstream advocates of alternative medicine. He founded the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, and he generally advocates for an integration of western medicine and "alternative" medicine practices, using western medicine primarily for crisis intervention and alternative medicine primarily for maintaining wellness.

I love this essay because it touches on all the key ways in which I connect with tea: the healthful properties of tea, the exploration of different taste and aroma experiences when drinking tea, and the meditative aspects of the process of preparing and drinking tea.

It's a brief article that a number of others might enjoy!

Comment Spam: Unnecessary & Counterproductive?

I just received a spam comment on my blog, from "Justin", promoting the company Element Tea. The comment linked twice to their website, and listed a long string of spammy keywords.

Why do people do this? Comment spam is totally unnecessary. I think it's perfectly acceptable to post comments on blogs as a means of letting people know about your website, so long as you are sincere and respectful of the blogger, writing the comment out of a genuine desire for communication, and not a blatant attempt at promoting a website by writing text that is clearly written for a search engine, not for a human.

Most bloggers, including myself, are very generous about approving comments. If someone wants to include links in their comment, that's fine...even if it's a link to a page selling or promoting their product. But the key is to post a relevant comment, written for human readers.

I don't know if the owners of Element Tea made this comment, or if it was an unknowing employee or friend thinking they were doing a good deed, or if it's someone they've hired to do SEO. There are times when a company hires someone as a consultant to improve the search rank of their site, and then that "consultant" goes around comment spamming. But either way, it's not a good idea. I'm always open to genuine discussion, I love learning about new tea companies, and in fact, I love putting out effort to freely promote companies through listing them on RateTea, adding them to twitter lists, and writing about things that I like about them. There is absolutely no need to ever spam my blog!

Monday, August 2, 2010

Photographing Tea: Color Calibration

I don't know much about photography, but I do take a lot of pictures with my pocket digital camera, and I know the basics of how to use a photo editing program (GIMP, The GNU Image Manipulation Program, being a free software alternative to Photoshop, is my program of choice).

The appearance of dry tea leaf contains a lot of information about a tea: the shape of the leaf, how tightly it is rolled, the texture, and not least importantly, the color, all tell you something about the tea. This post focuses on this one aspect of photographing tea: color.

Color can easily be edited. Can you spot the originals in this photo I've taken? Both the top row and bottom row have one original, and three edited pictures of a type of loose tea. Can you, on the basis of looking at the pictures, identify the type of tea?

Which tea in each row is the original photograph?

The tea in the top row is an oolong. But what is its level of oxidation? The leftmost photograph would have us believe it is a very green oolong with little roast, whereas the third photo presents a more heavily oxidized/roasted oolong, and the other two are somewhere in between.

The tea in the bottom row is a little less clear. The first picture looks clearly like a green tea, whereas the second looks like a Darjeeling or other lighter black tea, and the third looks like black tea.

The answers:

The original image in the top row is the second. This oolong has a greener character but moderate roast. The original image in the second row is the first--this is a Chinese pan-fired green tea.

Even without photo editing software, it is possible to greatly change the color of loose tea in a photograph, by changing the lighting and composition.

This little exercise illustrates the importance of some sort of reference frame for assessing color in a picture.

A Photographic Reference for Color Calibration:

A great example of using a reference for a photograph can be found in the second photograph on this recent post on Fazia Rizvi's tea blog. Look at the cherries, celeries, and peas. It is clear that this tea has a golden color, comparing it to the vibrant red and green of the fruit and vegetables.

So what to do if you're a tea company?

Photographing all your teas under similar lighting conditions, and using consistent editing, is a good place to start. Even if you do not contain a reference frame in all photographs on your website, having some sort of reference somewhere might be beneficial. One of the few companies that does this is Teavana. While at first I thought it looked just like a marketing scheme (and while it may serve this purpose as well), it does make the color of their loose tea easy to assess in photographs.

But in the absence of a reference frame, there are still things you can do to make your loose tea images a bit clearer. A very simple thing to do is to adjust the color levels to cover the full range of values. By adjusting the light levels, one can make it easier for the viewer to see subtle differences in color. It's surprising how many tea companies fail to do this, and display images on the websites with a decisively washed-out look.

Not only do bolder colors look better, but they communicate more information about the tea. But...make sure to keep your photographs honest: it's also possible to make green tea look like black tea, and vice-versa. Editing taken too far can mislead customers and lead them disappointed when the tea they order. The best photo communicates as much information as possible, and looks as close to what the tea actually looks like when it arrives.