Tuesday, September 28, 2010

wikiCHA - A Wiki for Tea

Since I'm a huge fan of Wikipedia, and Wikipedia already has extensive information on tea, you might be wondering...why is this guy advocating for yet another wiki? And why for yet another informational tea site when he runs a tea site himself, RateTea? Will this not cause duplication of information?

Yes, wikiCHA is yet another wiki--specifically focused on tea, and yes, there will be some duplication of information. But I think there is a place for all these websites, as they have different standards and serve different purposes--they are complements. I also think that, given how much duplication of misinformation (especially on spammy blogs and the occasional carelessly written commercial website) there is out there on the web, having several more legitimate websites with more accurate information will certainly not hurt.

wikiCHA is run by Brandon of Wrong Fu Cha, but, like wikipedia, it's freely open to the public for editing.

Differences Between Wikipedia and wikiCHA:

Wikipedia is an encyclopedia, and appropriately has rather strict standards for the sourcing of material. (I find these standards, by the way, to be outstanding guidelines for quality scholarship.) Per Wikipedia's guidelines, all information is required to be verifiable in reliable sources, and a topic is only considered to be notable enough to warrant inclusion if significant coverage can be found in multiple independent sources. Although guidelines have some degree of flexibility, in general, company websites are not acceptable sources, as they are self-published. Similarly, blogs and other self-published sites are also not acceptable sources.

In the world of tea, this becomes slightly problematic, as tea companies are one of the main sources of information, and blogs can be another main one. Another problem is that a lot of the most relevant qualities of tea, such as flavor and aroma, can be rather subjective and are not exactly encyclopedic in nature.

wikiCHA is a valuable contribution to the "wikisphere" in that it is offers a bit more of a "free form" wiki. Although it may not be as rigorous as wikipedia, it provides a vehicle for adding and working with material that may not be suitable for inclusion on wikipedia, or that would be difficult to adequately source. Although it is still young and many parts of it are not thoroughly developed, I would encourage others to participate in it. When sites like this, which are democratic and controlled in a decentralized fashion, grow, it ultimately enriches the total body of information out there pertaining to tea.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Fresh Tulsi (Holy Basil) Tea

I make fresh herbal tea from home-grown herbs all the time. My favorite ingredients are spearmint, lemon balm, apple mint, and peppermint, roughly in that order. More recently, I discovered the joys of the Monarda sp., orange mint, and a number of other mint-family plants. Yet there is another herb in the mint family that I have fallen in love with for its use in herbal teas. This is tulsi, also known as holy basil, scientific name Ocimum sanctum or Ocimum tenuiflorum. I first tried Tulsi when I ordered some from Upton Tea Imports. Interestingly, this tea is one of the relatively small number of teas that has already received several reviews on RateTea (read the reviews, including mine).

It was not until several months later that I tried brewing tea from the fresh leaves of the tulsi plant. I discovered the plant growing in an edible garden at Michigan State University in East Lansing, while visiting a friend there on my trip across the midwest. The garden had just about every variety of basil that I had ever tried or heard of, and countless more I had never encountered before. Besides nibbling on a myriad of basils of all different sizes, shapes, and colors, I took the opportunity to gather enough tulsi for a single cup--it was quite plentiful and I couldn't even notice that any had been taken. The picture above is of the first cup of fresh Tulsi tea that I have ever brewed.

About the same time, and unbeknownst to me, my parents had obtained some tulsi seeds, and were growing it in their own garden. I have since been able to taste tulsi grown in their garden, and theirs is very similar. In both cases, the tulsi was the green-leafed variety.

What does it taste like?

Fresh tulsi tea is very different from dried tulsi (in my opinion, more than fresh mint tea is different from dried mint tea), but is still easily recognizable as the same plant. In both cases I brewed the fresh leaf by pouring boiling water over the leaves directly in a cup, and then steeping for at least 8 minutes. The aroma is much less suggestive of spice, and, as is typical of a fresh herbal tea, was significantly more vegetal. I enjoyed this, however: it imparted a lighter characteristic to the drink. The dominance of clove in the aroma is still noticable, but I find that in the fresh tulsi, the clove was more balanced with other aromas. There was also a bit of a muted peppery quality absent from the dried herb. I found the fresh tulsi tea also left a richer aftertaste.

Holy basil is known to have a number of medicinal properties, and among them, it has a noticeable relaxing effect. I found this to also be the case with the fresh tea.

So what's the bottom line? I think holy basil is a great option for making fresh herbal tea. My parents prefer to blend it with mint, whereas I prefer to drink it on its own. And according to my parents, it's also easy to grow, significantly easier than sweet basil, and they live in Pennsylvania, which has a very different climate from Tulsi's native habitat. The seeds can be hard to obtain, but if you can get your hands on some seeds or some plants, you might want to give it a try.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Tea Monoculture and Biodynamic Agriculture

I have a lot of problems with the way mainstream western society looks at gardening and agriculture. Even our choice of language and words is wrapped up in a worldview which I find to be out of touch with reality. The western worldview has historically been bent on subjugating nature, viewing it as something to be controlled, rather than something to be respected and revered. This worldview leads towards practices which work against, rather than with nature.

One of the words I find problematic is the word "pest". In this post I want to propose a different view. There are no "pests", only other life forms which eat plants that we humans happen to cultivate. Whether you believe life on earth evolved, or whether you believe it was carefully crafted by an all-knowing creator, we share it with other creatures, and like us, they need to eat too, or they will die. Naturally, populations of various species wax and wane in complex feedback cycles that create a natural balance. If any one species becomes too abundant, it will be seized opportunistically as a food source by another species. Plants are eaten by large herbivores and by insects which are eaten by other insects and birds, and both plants and animals are vulnerable to some degree to diseases caused by microorganisms like fungi and bacteria.

Pictured above is a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, which I observed and photographed a few years ago in the fall, in White-clay creek state park here in Delaware; the bird is perched in a cherry tree, where it was feeding. Visible in the photo is evidence of the way ecosystems work--the cherry's leaves show missing chunks and blemishes where they have been eaten by insects. The kinglet was picking tiny insects, spiders, and insect eggs off the leaves, especially the undersides of the leaves. Birds like this kinglet seek out abundant food sources, and naturally keep ecosystems in balance by tending to congregate around the areas that are being eaten most aggressively by insects.

Commercial Agriculture Represents a State Out of Balance:

Most commercial agriculture, including most commercial tea production, represents a state out of balance. In order to maximize yields (to maximize profits), as much of the land as possible is planted with a single crop. In nature, such a state would rarely exist for very long. And as happens naturally, insects, fungi, bacteria, herbivores, and anything that naturally eats (or can adapt to eat) this new abundant food source will eagerly defend on it. Diseases also are able to spread easily through monocultures of crops, as there are no physical barriers separating the plants, as there would be in a natural ecosystem.

Humans thus resort to chemical control in order to maintain their high yields. The following picture represents the way tea is typically grown, as a monoculture crop. No other plants are anywhere visible. This is the way in which most crops are grown, including most crops certified as "organic":

However, there are those in the world of tea who understand these issues, and have adopted a different approach. The Makaibari Tea Estate, whose teas are well-known and available through a number of different tea companies, as well as directly through their website, has managed their land so as to retain forest cover over 70% of it. This practice was inspired by Rudolph Steiner's notion of biodynamic agriculture. The essential idea is that by only cultivating a modest proportion of the land, humans are able to benefit from the natural balance of nature--the physical barriers separating the tea plants halt the spread of disease, and the other plants create habitat for a diversity of natural predators which keep insect populations in check. Furthermore, one can reduce the need for nitrogen fertilizers by the use of nitrogen-fixing legume trees. Such diversified ecosystems are also much more resilient to drought and other extreme weather than monoculture crops. In addition, a diversity of plants helps to absorb excess nitrogen. Tea plants do need nitrogen but do not have as high nitrogen needs as a number of trees. The benefits of such a system are numerous and diverse.

But does this model work? Does it produce good tea?

It seems to to me that it works very well. I've sampled a number of teas from Makaibari estate, and my reviews will demonstrate that I consider them to be among the best of the best: a black tea blend from Hampstead Tea, and a long-leaf green purchased through Upton Tea were my favorite two so far. Both were also surprisingly reasonably priced.

Moving Forward?

In today's world, the problems associated with monoculture--including monoculture of tea--are widespread. Even in highly developed countries like Japan which have stricter environmental standards, there are still problems such as soil acidification associated with high-nitrogen use from fertilizing of tea gardens. [Source] There are undoubtedly a number of economic factors which heavily influence practices of tea growing, and there are probably many barriers to its widespread implementation.

But I would like to see biodynamic agriculture, and other similar methods become the norm. I would like to see innovation focus on ecologically sound methods, rather than researching new ways to try to force monoculture to work better or produce even higher yields. I really do believe, based primarily on my understanding of science, that the world will be much better off if we moved away from monoculture and towards a more biodynamic and ecology-based approach. This change won't come overnight, but we would do well to set this approach as a goal to be achieved, and then start brainstorming about how to achieve it.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Tea as a Gateway to Eastern Cultures: Working out the Kinks in our Food Supply

Reading Jeanine's recent post on Tea and Meditation inspired me to write this post because it got me thinking (again) about tea and meditation. How is the title of this post related? What does eastern culture have to do with the food supply in the U.S.? And what do these things have to do with tea? They are all intertwined, as you will see.

There is a degree to which becoming interested in certain aspects of a culture (such as food or music) leads one to become interested in other, often deeper aspects, such as philosophy and history. For myself, this has certainly been the case, and not just for tea and eastern cultures, but for a all cultures.

One practice that I have recently been getting more involved in is qigong(氣功). This is the same "gong" as in gongfu(功夫) tea brewing. Qigong is an ancient art of movement and exercises that is hard to describe or classify...it involves meditation and has spiritual elements, and can also be considered a form of alternative medicine. The following public domain image was obtained from Wikimedia commons:

I first encountered qigong in the context of a class in Tai Chi Chuan(太极拳) I took some years ago while living in Cleveland. Recently I found a group in my town of Newark, DE, associated with the University of Delaware, which teaches and practices qigong regularly.

After one brief (30 minute) session, I became aware of a remarkable change in both my body and mind. For one, I felt very relaxed, as if someone had given me a very good massage, and with this relaxation came mental clarity. But what is most remarkable was that this feeling of relaxation and clarity extended throughout the next several days. After the second practice and experiencing similar results, I started to become more aware of how and why this was happening. Practicing qigong was making me more aware of the sensations in my body, which was making me become consciously aware of bad posture and/or tense muscles as I went through my normal daily activities, which was in turn allowing me to correct the bad posture and relax the tense muscles.

Through this experience I came to a key realization: through increased awareness of the sensations in our bodies, we are able to easily (and without much effort) correct and eliminate many small problems that we might not have noticed. These problems take their toll--bad posture and tension uses your body's energy inefficiently and can make one unnecessarily tired, can place strain on muscles and joints, can constrict blood flow, not to mention raising overall stress level, which has deleterious effects on health. Often, we don't even notice they're there...but when we become aware of them, we can fix them and enjoy increased energy and relaxation in their absence.

What does this have to do with tea?

It's no secret that I have a very specific agenda in creating RateTea: I want to help people to think about food and drink. I want them to think about flavor and aroma, and I want them to listen to their bodies. I also want them to think about where their food comes from, including the people and the business entities and social structures that produce the food and bring the food to their table. Just as tea can be a gateway into eastern cultures, it can also be a gateway into the appreciation of food and drink.

Working out the kinks in our food supply:

Our food supply has many "kinks" in it, and some overall "bad posture" so to speak. Much of the U.S. food supply is dominated by heavily processed foods which are often low in nutrients and loaded up with salt, sugar, refined starches, and unhealthy fats. Tea, being a primarily aromatic beverage with a fair amount of bitterness and very little sweet or salty flavor, can help retrain people's palates to pursue healthier food.

Another problem is that much of our food supply is produced in environmentally unsustainable ways--not just because of how it is grown (factory farming which often relies heavily on chemical inputs and has devastating ecological effects)--but also because it is shipped over long distances, which uses a great deal of energy, and results in a lack of freshness when the food reaches the shelf. Furthermore, the food industry is dominated by large agribusiness companies which often lobby for legislation that makes things worse for people and for the environment.

But a lot of the solutions are easier and less costly than one might expect. For example, throughout America people have lawns and yards which aren't being used to grow anything. The rain and solar energy falling on these yards is a resource that is being completely wasted. These yards could all be turned into gardens, providing a wealth of fresh food right at the site where it would be eaten. People already plant trees in their yards...they could plant fruit trees instead.

As in the case of qigong and the body, sometimes the problem isn't that the solution is difficult, costly, or complex, it's just a question of becoming aware of how your body works so that we can stop holding unnecessary tension and clouding our mind with unnecessary thoughts. Our society is like a body--we are all connected. When we become aware of how our food system works, we can work out the kinks. They are unnecessary. And they will work themselves out naturally as we become more knowledgeable about our food and where it comes from.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Less-Known Teas: Grab Attention With Tea from Unusual Regions & of Unusual Varieties

A discussion on the LeafBox Forums, which is unfortunately no longer available, titled "What do you want from an online tea seller?" got me thinking. When writing my reply, I realized that one thing that draws me to an online retailer of tea (or any tea retailer for that matter) is when the company sells tea from unusual regions, or interesting-looking varieties of tea that I am able to verify are legitimate named varieties of tea, but that I have not heard of.

Unusual Regions:

One such company is Shanti Tea; I have yet to try anything from this company, but their offerings look interesting. Besides selling single-region and single-estate teas from a number of well-known regions, Shanti Tea has some unusual offerings, including tea from Jalpaiguri, India (a district in West Bengal that borders Darjeeling), a green tea from Shandong, China, and even a tea (not an herbal tea) from Guatemala.

I also have noticed that I tend to love green teas from Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam. Upton Tea Imports sells a few teas from Thailand and Laos, but these constitute a tiny portion of their offerings.

Unusual Varieties of Tea:

It is no secret that I am a huge fan of the se chung oolongs, including Mao Xie, Ben Shan, Qi Lan, Fo Shou, and Huang Jin Gui. It is so easy to find Tie Guan Yin--to the point that I virtually ignore it when I see a Tie Guan Yin offered by a tea company--it doesn't get my attention. Any of the se chung oolongs immediately grab my attention because they are hard to find, and from my experience, even though they are regarded as "less desirable" than Tie Guan yin, they are generally only sold by companies that have a distinct focus on high-quality Chinese oolongs. Part of this is because they aren't well-known...so they have no value when dropped as a buzzword.

I also think there are other teas like this. I've generally had good experiences with various styles of Chinese green teas that are not well-known as well. I also like Yunnan greens, which again, seem to take a back burner to Pu-erh and even to Dian Hong (Yunnan red) like Yunnan Gold.

The same goes for scented and flavored teas. Most tea companies sell an Earl Grey and a Jasmine, but it's harder to find Osmanthus-scented tea (which I absolutely love). Also, some of the unusual blends, including plants and flavorings I've never heard of, can grab my attention, such as Teatulia's blend of black tea with the Neem tree. Another example would be Chicago Tea Garden's pu-erhs, which include several scented pu-erhs that stand out among the typical offerings.

Break out of the pattern:

Perhaps most tea drinkers aren't like me...and perhaps some tea companies need to cater to the masses by carrying mainstream and widely-known teas that everyone is looking for. But I know that I appreciate it when tea companies offer something genuinely unusual and different. Perhaps if more people sought out to experiment with trying tea from new varieties and regions, it could create a strong impetus for all tea companies to diversify.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Hojichai - Masala Chai made from Hojicha

I'm not normally a fan of milk in tea, but Lahikmajoe's recent post milk in tea got me thinking about the question: when do I most enjoy milk in tea? I puzzled at this question because I couldn't think of a single tea that I really preferred with milk. But then I recalled that I always add milk to coffee.

Perhaps, I thought, it's the roasted aroma that blends well with the milk, at least for my palate. I love roasted oolongs, but the thought of adding milk to them did not seem at all appealing. This brought me to the idea of adding milk to hojicha, which is one of my favorite teas. I decided to use Upton Tea Imports TJ41, Organic Ho-Ji Cha Kamakura:

I picked this tea because it had the darkest roast of any of the hojicha I had on hand--this was important to me as I was seeking a tea which had a coffee-like aroma). The results were good, but a bit on the bland side...hojicha is already a gentle tea, and adding milk took it too far in this direction; I then had the idea of adding spices to create "hojichai", which I admit appealed to be in large part because of its terribly gimmicky name. After some experimentation I settled upon the following process, which is somewhat different from how I would normally make a spiced tea from black tea.

Recipe for Hojichai:

This spice combination, as well as the ratios and process, might strike you as a bit odd, but I found it worked well for this tea. Part of the strangeness of this recipe is due to my own personal tastes (I'm not a big cinnamon person), but part of it is due to the fact that hojicha has a very different character from black tea. Here's what I came up with:
  • Two teapsoons of loose hojicha per cup
  • Three pods of green cardamom per cup
  • Three thin (~1mm) slices of fresh ginger per cup
  • A dash of powdered allspice
  • No sweetener -- I would recommend honey if you wish to sweeten it though.

I brewed the tea for 3 minutes; I used a little bit less than one cup for each final cup, leaving room for milk. After brewing I removed the tea leaves and kept the tea warm over water (not boiling) with the spices for about 5 more (or to taste--longer = stronger spice flavor). Then I took it off the heat and added milk (about 1/10th of the cup) at the end. I tend to avoid heating milk, although it is fine as long as you don't let the water get too close to boiling. You can then remove the spices if you want.

People experienced in making chai will realize that this recipe calls for a very large quantity of ginger. This is to add "kick". Normally, masala chai is made from a fairly strong black tea. Hojicha may have a rich, full roasted aroma, but its flavor is extremely smooth and mellow. I occasionally add ginger to masala chai, but in this case I found it to be mandatory. When I tried making the tea without ginger, it smelled nice but the flavor was lacking something. Three slices of ginger added just the right amount of bite.

What is this "Hojichai" like?

In some ways it's like any kind of masala chai, but in other ways it's very different. The strong roasted aroma of the tea I find that because of the mellowness of the hojicha base, the aroma of the spices comes out more. I also find that, although the final tea I settled on was strongly aromatic and flavorful, it was considerably gentler on the stomach not only compared to straight tea, but also compared to Masala chai. Hojicha tends to be lower on caffeine and I found this blend did not feel particularly caffeinated to me...but also, the ginger I think settles the stomach. I felt very mellow and settled after drinking this tea.

If you like hojicha, and you like masala chai (and perhaps even if you don't), I'd recommend making some of your own hojichai--and if you do, please let me know how it turns out and what recipes you come up with!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

TeaDrunk Forum: Low-Profile but Informative

This is the second in my series of posts about websites, after my feature on teaviews. The TeaDrunk Forum, teadrunk.org, is an often-overlooked resource and online tea community. The community presents itself as a "Multilingual Forum for Chinese and Japanese Tea". Pictured is a screenshot:

As you can see from this screenshot, it's a pretty minimalist layout, clutter-free and easy to read.

What is special about this particular forum?

It's not a very extensive forum. Posts are infrequent and sparse. But what I find distinguishes this forum is the quality of posts and the uniqueness of information contained therein. My first several introductions to this forum came through google search results. When researching relatively esoteric styles of tea or other tea-related topics, I often found that discussions on this forum were among the few English-language sources available.

I would love to see this forum grow somewhat, although I'd be hesitant to encourage large numbers of people to sign up because I hope it retains its quality and focus. But even as-is, it is a valuable resource, something that would be beneficial for people to read even if they do not choose to participate.