Friday, September 30, 2011

Comparing Teas at Their Best, vs. Controlled Tastings

Bon Teavant recently published a post about Professional Tea Cupping which I found interesting, and which provoked some thought for me. One of the ideas of the method of cupping communicated in this post is to sample many similar teas, under controlled circumstances: by keeping the amount of leaf, water temperature, and steeping time constant.

This got me thinking...when I sample teas, I tend to like to experiment with brewing each tea in different ways. Even with a particular style of tea, there are some individual teas that I like to steep longer or shorter, using more or less leaf, and occasionally I may even vary the brewing temperature. While the scientist in me is initially attracted to the idea of carefully controlled tasting times, the tea drinker in me observes that what I really care about is how each tea performs at its best. In some odd cases, I have even found teas that I do not particularly like on their own, but like better than most other teas of their style when paired with particular foods; see my old post Tea-Food Pairings: Spicy Food Enhances an Otherwise Undesirable Tea.

Comparing Teas At Their Best:

When comparing teas to find my favorites, I like to compare a tea at its best. Thus, if I had four Long Jings or four Tie Guan Yins of a similar style and level of roast, I would likely settle on different optimal ways of brewing each tea, if I took the time to get to know each tea. Comparing them at their best, I think it would be unlikely that I would always pick the same tea as my favorite that I would pick if I ran a single carefully controlled experiment.

I also suspect that if I ran several experiments with different steeping parameters, I would probably also pick different teas as my favorite. Certain aromas, flavors, and other qualities are very pleasing if there is just a hint of them, but unpleasant if there is too much of them. Bitterness, astringency, and vegetal qualities come to mind as these sorts of qualities.

Allowing For Acquired Tastes:

Another aspect of tea tasting that I like is allowing my taste for a particular tea to develop. My first impression on drinking a cup of tea, especially one that has a novel or peculiar quality to the aroma, is rarely indicative of how much I am going to enjoy the tea after trying it several times over a period of days or weeks. I remember the first time I tried green Se Chung oolongs; I was not impressed. Now, this family of oolongs is one of my favorites. Another type of tea I needed to acquire a taste for were the highly vegetal first flush Darjeeling teas, with tones of asparagus in the aroma. At first, I thought these teas tasted unpleasant; now I love them.

Professional Cupping Cannot Do This:

Professional tasters who are selecting batches for purchase and sale cannot invest this time into each individual tea. Presumably, professional tea tasters have years of experience, and highly developed palates, which give them a fairly accurate impression of tea from a controlled tasting. It also seems likely that their tastes are more well-formed, and they probably do not run up against new aromas that they have not yet acquired a taste for as often as I do. But I do wonder if this method actually selects the best teas, or if anything is lost in this carefully controlled approach. The unpredictability and wonder with which I experience tea drinking suggests to me that it is at least possible that indeed, a lot is lost.

What do you think?

What do you think? Do you have any experience with professional cupping? Do you like to compare teas with carefully controlled steeping environments? Do you find that you may prefer radically different brewing methods to bring out the best in different teas of the same style?

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Ideal Tea Sample Sizes: How Small, How Large?

This post explores the question of what the ideal sample size is to offer to a customer. Hopefully, it will be useful both to potential shoppers as well as to tea companies.

Pictured here are some different samples I have received recently:

Some samples also arrive in tins, although these are not pictured. In a later post I plan to talk more about the type of containers used for samples, but for now, I want to focus on one thing: the size of the sample. It is evident from the picture above that there is a fair difference in size of different samples. Keep in mind, the size difference can be even larger than the picture suggests, because different amounts of leaf occupy different amounts of space. The brown package contains a tiny amount of loosely-packed oolong, whereas the tiny vacuum pack in the back (which weighs much more) contains a much larger amount of tightly-rolled oolong.

Why are samples useful?

If you are a business, the value of offering samples is immense. In case it's not glaringly obvious, offering small sample sizes of each of your teas is a way to help your customers to discover which teas they like, while minimizing the risk of the customer making big purchases that they are unhappy with. The last thing you want is a customer to sink a large amount of money into a purchase that they find out that they do not enjoy. If, on the other hand, the customer purchases several samples and does not like one of them, the loss is relatively small, and the customer has gained useful information.

What is an ideal sample size?

In my opinion, the ideal sample size is small enough that there is not much waste if the customer does not like the tea and large enough to try the tea several times and experiment with brewing.

I have seen sample sizes ranging from 2 grams to 1 ounce (a little over 28 grams). 2 grams is, in my opinion, much too small, as it is only enough to brew a single cup of tea, Western-style. Such a small sample size does not allow for repeated sampling and thus does not allow for any experimentation with brewing. Gong fu brewing, of course, is out of the question.

28 grams, on the other hand, is too big. Fortunately, I have lucked out in my purchases, and all 1-ounce samples I have ordered have been quite enjoyable to me. Sometimes it can take me time to acquire a taste for a tea, but in most cases, if I've brewed a tea three or more times, over a week or more, and I still fail to appreciate it, I probably am not going to like it at all, and the remainder of the sample is wasted unless I can find someone else who likes it.

I think 15 grams, or a little over half an ounce, is a sweet spot for me, in terms of sample size. This allows for 6 or more Western-style brewings, or for 1-2 Gong Fu brewings, with leaf left over if only done once. Being able to experiment with different styles of brewing helps me to really understand the tea.

Sample Pricing:

The size of tea samples is closely related to pricing. For inexpensive teas, especially with smaller samples, the cost of packing and labelling the sample is probably going to be larger than the cost of the tea itself.

For pricey teas and larger samples, the cost of the tea becomes significant. This phenomenon is very clearly evident in the catalog of Upton Tea Imports, which has a minimum sample size of $1 for 15 grams, and many teas with this price point, but also many teas which go much higher, including for smaller samples (the priciest I've seen from them was $8 for 2 grams).

My recommendation to companies is to price your samples as low as you can without losing money or undercutting the price of the next-largest quantity after the sample. Why? Samples are a great way to bring in new customers, and they prevent existing customers from ending up with teas they are not happy with. You might say: "But what about people who just like sampling you, Alex? Won't they put us out of business?" First of all, I said as low as you can without losing money. But I also want to point out that the people, like me, who order obscene numbers of samples and then never order those teas again, are the people who really think about tea. I may never re-order the vast majority of teas I sample, but I write about each one of them online, and often talk about them with my friends. By catering to the sampling crowd, you get free advertisement.

What do you think?

If you are a tea drinker, what is your ideal sample size when you are looking to try new teas? How often do you order samples, and how big a factor is sample size in choosing whether or not to buy from a company?

And if you work for or own a tea company, how do you determine the sample size to offer? And how do you set the price?

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Babelcarp: A Website For Translating Chinese Tea Terminology

Today I want to introduce a resource that I have been using for quite some time, and that was very helpful in researching material for RateTea: this is Babelcarp: A Chinese Tea Lexicon, a website with an extensive database of tea terminology. Babelcarp is run by Lew Perin, who is available on twitter under the handle babelcarp.

What's in the name?

Babelcarp is a play on the name babelfish. The babel fish was created in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams, and came to life as Babelfish, an online automated language translator, which was run by Altavista back in the day, and is now run by Yahoo. Babel is an obvious reference to the Tower of Babel, well-known from the biblical story. Carp, on the other hand, are a diverse group of freshwater fish native to Europe and Asia; they are important in China; cultivated carp originated in China, so the carp is a suitable symbol of a Chinese translator. The word carp also means to complain or find fault--which is also relevant here, as using babelcarp can help you to become more critical of some of the misuse of Chinese tea terms that is common on the web and elsewhere in Western society.

Why use babelcarp?

Babelcarp is an exhaustive resource that goes very deep into Chinese tea production and culture. It's somewhere between a dictionary and encyclopedia...almost like a glossary specifically oriented for Chinese tea enthusiasts. To give you an example of how deep it goes, there is an entry on chaxiaoluyechan (Cha2 Xiao3 Lu4 Ye4 Chan2) = (茶小绿叶蝉 or 茶小緑葉), which is a leaf-hopper insect that is responsible for the unique flavor of Bai Hao Oolong.

Another feature I really like about babelcarp is that it provides the tones to pronounce the names in Mandarin (denoted by the numbers after the romanized syllables), and lists both simplified and traditional Chinese characters. Having both is important, as mainland China uses simplified characters, and Taiwan and many older Chinese communities in other countries use the traditional characters.

Visit babelcarp for yourself, type some terms into it, and see for yourself how useful it is! If you write about tea online, especially Chinese tea, you will likely find it an unparalleled resource. It's also good site to bookmark or remember if you regularly need to translate Chinese tea terminology. And hopefully, after this post, you'll easily remember the name.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Downtime, Tea, Birding, and Warblers

The term downtime or down time has two uses. In computing and information technology, or when referring to any sort of technology or machines, downtime refers to the time on which a system or machine is down or out of operation. In human terms, however, downtime can refer to a period of rest or relaxation. I hesitate to use the term "non-productive" because I find rest to be of paramount importance in productivity. In fact, one of the things I most like about drinking tea is that the time to make and then drink tea provides a break. Even if you drink tea at a desk, while working on other things, the act of pausing to take a sip provides a microbreak; these tiny breaks can reduce the risk of work-related injury, as well as enhancing your concentration and focus.

Today, however, I took more than a microbreak. After starting work fairly early, the servers that RateTea and a number of other websites that I run are hosted on experienced some downtime. While this was slightly annoying, the problem was fixed relatively quickly. During this time, however, I was unable to do the work I wanted to do. Given that it is still during the peak warbler migration season, I headed outside to Woodlands Cemetery to do some birdwatching.

Unfortunately, I did not have my camera on me; the above pictures are all pictures I have taken, of warblers, at various times. Today I saw a black-throated blue warbler, pictured upper-right, and a northern parula, pictured lower-left, and a black-and-white warbler, pictured top left. The other bird pictured here, yellow-rumped warbler, I did not see today (they tend to arrive in large numbers in a few weeks), but I also saw a chestnut-sided warbler, pine warbler, bay-breasted warbler, magnolia warbler, and American redstart. All in all, I saw 8 species of warbler and 23 total species of birds. Given that this was just a casual walk around an urban cemetery, and not a planned trip where I tried to see as many birds as possible, I find this amount of biodiversity staggering.

When I returned, the servers were back up. This was down time for me, but I was still working in a sense. I systematically gathered data on what birds I saw, and entered the data into eBird, which is a joint effort of the Audubon Society and Cornell Lab of Ornithology. eBird solicits data from casual volunteers as well as scientists and people conducting systematic bird surveys, and collects it into one master database, a lot like I collect data on tea into the master database at RateTea. If you birdwatch, eBird is an invaluable resource, but even if you just find wild birds interesting and want to learn more about them, I would also recommend checking out this site.

Warblers, Other Birds and Tea?

What do warblers, or birds in general, have to do with tea? I've noticed that a number of tea bloggers write about birds from time to time, and I've noticed that people who are interested in wild birds tend to be more likely to be interested in tea, and vice versa. Why? Often, I find tea bloggers mention birds when they mention changes in seasons, as the changes in which birds are present and in the birds' songs and behavior marks the changing of seasons.

But I also find that birds and tea actually have some more things in common, possibly because they are both organic or natural, dealing with living organisms: they both have a similar type of diversity. And both birding and tea appreciation involve honing one's perception. With tea, it's mainly smell and taste, and with birds, it's sight and hearing, that one develops. When one starts drinking tea, it's pretty easy to see and taste the difference between black tea and green tea. When starting to watch birds, it is also pretty easy to tell a crow from a sparrow.

The warblers, on the other hand, are often among the most challenging birds to identify. Many of them only arrive during a brief 3-week window of migration, once in the spring, and again in the fall. A large number of warblers have different plumage in different seasons, and have different male and female plumage. Furthermore, they're tiny, and most of them move very quickly; many of them tend to spend most of their time high in trees, where they are often backlit or hidden by branches or foliage. Learning to identify these birds is a lot like learning the differences between one tea garden and another, or being able to just look at a steeped oolong leaf and know what cultivar it came from. Birding and tea are both areas where one can continually learn more, developing greater skill and greater nuance in perception.

How about you?

Do you value down time? Have you ever experienced server downtime? Do you think one of the most valuable aspects of tea is way it provides a restful break? Do you pay attention at all to wild birds? Have you ever been birdwatching, had a bird feeder, and you ever heard of eBird?

Let me know!

Friday, September 23, 2011

Milestones: Happy Birthday RateTea

Happy Birthday to RateTea:

This past monday, the 19th, marks the 2-year anniversary of RateTea. This is a rather exciting milestone for me, and I feel rather silly having missed it.

Some of the biggest accomplishments related to RateTea lately involve a series of subtle and a few not-so-subtle changes to the visual design of the site, which I am hoping to continue, with the help of Sylvia, who is now working with RateTea on both the look and feel of the site, and as an editor. These changes include making a professional logo so that the site can have a consistent presence across the web, and printing business cards with the logo. And of course, attending World Tea East was also an important milestone.

My 500th Review:

Yesterday marked my 500th review on the site, which was a review of Maya Tea's Tulsi or Holy Basil. I've become quite a fan of this herb, having sampled 5 commercial blends of it. It is relatively tough to find 5 different commercially-available sources of Tulsi, although I currently have only 6 different sources listed on RateTea's page on Tulsi. I also have had tulsi grown myself...both fresh and add 2 more to that mix.

I find it interesting that my 500th review wasn't actually tea. Of those reviews, 92 of them are of herbal teas. I certainly am very interested in herbal teas and one of the things that I want to do is to convince people that just about any plant can be as interesting as tea, if you put as much effort into carefully cultivating it, and then appreciating it. But of course, most of my reviews are about tea--and pure teas, not flavored ones (276) so this is still where my focus is.

Happy first day of fall!

Another interesting milestone is the changing of the seasons; today is officially the first day of fall. I began the day today with a cup of Caykur's Earl Grey...this is a tea produced in Turkey, and the brand, Çaykur, is fully-owned by the Turkish government. This particular tea, although broken-leaf, was quite good, especially for its very low price. I hope to write more about Turkish tea, as the tea itself, and the economics of it, are both rather interesting topics.

But, for now, I must conclude this post...I have a busy day ahead of me, and it is raining. (I love rain.)

Food for thought:

What are some of your recent milestones in tea?

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Facebook Pages of Tea Bloggers & Tea Companies

Many of us are members of Facebook, and we regularly see facebook pages that we can "like". It has come to my attention though that, outside of people who actually run pages, a lot of people do not know or reflect much on the purpose or uses of these pages, and the effects or results that "liking" a page has.

This post is about how I think about these pages, and it also highlights some relevant tea-related pages. If you use facebook at all, you may find this post illuminating. And, if you are one of the readers of this blog who own or runs a small business, website, or even a blog, you will hopefully find a little useful business advice hidden in here as well.

Image courtesy of Fasticon.

What is the point of a page?

Businesses use pages for promotional purposes, and for managing their online presence. A page provides a "public face" for the business. Businesses that think of facebook pages strictly as a marketing vehicle are missing one of the primary benefits of having such a page: the page allows a business to receive feedback from customers and the general public, and interact with these people in a casual manner. Which leads into the next point:

For individuals running websites, pages can separate work relationships from personal ones:

I sometimes worry that I offend some people because I do not always add people back on facebook, when I receive friend requests from people I have business relationships with. Although I have added a number of tea people to my facebook, I do not always do so as a general rule. This is nothing personal, I just don't want to end up with more than the obscene number of people on my friends list, and I also want to keep some degree of separation between the friends I know face-to-face, who know much about my personal life, and the people I just know in the context of business, work, or blogging about tea, who do not and may not want to know these things.

Having a page for your blog or business, even if you are just one person, can help to maintain this separation. And then, you are still free (as I often do) to add individual people on facebook if you want to do so.

What you "like" influences the world:

Although it seems like such a casual think, "liking" a page influences the word in a small way. For one, it subscribes you to that page's posts, which will place them in your feed. But also, you are now counted in the supporters of that page, which will be displayed both on your profile and on the page itself.

When a page has more supporters, it becomes more influential, both because it has a greater ability to distribute information, and because with additional fans comes brand recognition and legitimacy. For a business, likes or fans have a tangible cash value, and Facebook capitalizes on this fact by making money from organizations advertising to receive more fans.

Casually or carelessly liking pages enables you to be counted in the support of a business or organization. Think carefully before liking a page: do you want to support this business, website, blog, or organization?

I recommend being careful about liking, but also being generous with it. I like lots of pages...I want to support my friends, and any business that I come into contact with that I think is a good, honest business with a mission I support, and organizations working for causes I support.

Some Tea Pages:

In case you want some tea pages to like, I have a few recommendations. This is by no means a comprehensive listing:

  • RateTea's Facebook Page - I run this page; it mostly posts updates and highlights random pages from the site; the material here is generally NOT the same as the twitter account, and I tend to post less often.

  • Life in Teacup, the page for the blog and tea company run by Gingko Seto, focusing on Chinese teas. This is a fantastic blog, and a fantastic company, if you are not currently aware of it.

  • World of Tea, a blog run by Tony Gebely; note, there is a separate page for Chicago Tea Garden.

  • Tea For Me Please - The page for the Nicole's blog Tea For Me Please.

  • Upton Tea Imports' Page - I could not possibly list all tea company pages, but I do want to list my favorite one. I particularly like how Upton uses facebook, highlighting new teas and interacting with fans/customers as well.

  • Adagio Teas' page - this page is a little more fun and off-the-wall than the average facebook page, and is also worth checking out.

Apologies for the pages I inevitably missed...if you are listed in my blog's sidebar, or regularly read this blog, have an active facebook page, and want to be listed, please comment or tweet at me, and I will be glad to get your page listed as well!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

There Is No Should

In this post, I want to highlight a particularly nasty word that sneaks into our vocabulary, and that, unfortunately, is deeply embedded in our culture. This is the word should. The essence of the word "should" is one person telling another person what to do. Should says: do it this way, the right way, or else you're doing it wrong. Should passes judgment, but without providing information.

The word should appears all over the place in tea culture:
  • You should brew this tea with water at such-and-such temperature.
  • You should try this tea, because it's so good.
  • You should store your tea this way.
  • You should look for this quality or that when buying tea.
  • You should use this brewing vessel for brewing this type of tea.
  • ...and of course, the infamous: you should not do X, Y, Z, or W.

...and the list goes on. First of all, I want to own up to the fact that I'm guilty of making some of these statements, both in my speech and my writing. My project to eliminate the word should is a work-in-progress, which I will get to below. But that said, I want to explain why I think these recommendations are problematic.

What's wrong with the word should?

Some statements are highly subjective. Take the statement: "You should try this tea, because it's so good." Although in some cases there is loose consensus about the relative quality of teas among certain small groups of people, teas are not universally "good" or "bad"...these are subjective statements. And yes, I have some objective data to back this statement up with a very strong argument.

On RateTea, I have programmed a matching system that allows users to compare their tastes in tea with each other, a lot like the way online dating sites calculate match percentages for compatibility of potential romantic partners. If you have rated enough teas in common with other users, you will be able to utilize this feature by visiting your profile or the profile of other users. What is my highest similarity with another user on RateTea? This would be 67%, with Marlena of Tea for Today, followed by 65% for the user MimiG; the next closest matches are in the 50%'s. 67% means that, if each of us try two teas, we tend to prefer the same tea only 67% of the time. And this is with the user on the site who has the closest match to my tastes.

Tastes are diverse! When you say "you should try/buy/drink this tea", you might be wrong. A safer statement to make would be: "I really love this tea, it is one of my favorites.", or if you really feel that it's likely the person would like it, say: "Based on what I know you like, I think you might really like this tea." -- and then leave the person to make their own decision, without telling them what they should or shouldn't do.

My own personal battle with should:

When the season of lent comes around, I often have tried out giving up various things, inspired by others around me doing the same. Usually, my friends seem to give up foods, and sometimes people give up Facebook, or some other piece of technology. This past lent, I tried giving up the word "should". I was inspired to do so by an observation I made about my own psyche, that I had an internal dialogue that was often based on what I should or shouldn't do, and also based on what other people should or shouldn't do.

When I used the word should on myself, I would often feel guilty when I didn't do things that I had told myself I "should" do. I also found that using the word should on myself did not actually provide any additional motivation for me to do (or not do) certain things.

When I used the word should on others, I would often feel angry or frustrated when other people did not act the way I felt that they "should". I also found that telling people that they "should" do something never motivated anyone do to what I wanted. I often found that the word made other people resistant and closed-off.

Replacing the word should:

Getting rid of the word should proved to be a very difficult task. It took much longer than the season of lent to work on. I enlisted the help of numerous friends and asked them to call me out whenever I used the word. I found that I was using it incessantly, not just in my head, but out loud...especially when I was part of a group that was deciding what to do: "Should we do this, should we do that?" But I quickly developed ways to reword things without using this word, and I found that these other ways of wording things had the benefit of greatly improved specificity, and clarification of what I was trying to communicate:
  • Sometimes we say "should" when we mean "want to". "I should eat now." might mean: "I want to eat now." In a group, asking: "Should we do this?" sometimes can be replaced by the clarifying question: "Do you want to do this?" or the statement: "I would like to do this." But by being more specific about our desires, and asking other people to clarify their own wants and desires, we gain more information and ultimately make it easier for everyone in the group to be happy. And when alone, using the language of "want" rather than "should", we get in touch with our own desires, and help meet our own needs and do what we really want instead of what we feel a vague obligation to do.
  • Sometimes "should" implies something that might go wrong if the direction or instruction is not followed. Often, there is a specific reason for the need, and clarifying it makes the statement more powerful, and a better motivator. Instead of saying: "You should store your tea in airtight containers." you can say: "If you do not store your tea in airtight containers, the aroma can escape and the tea can lose much of its flavor." The second statement provides more information, and is actually more convincing or compelling in terms of motivating people to store their tea in airtight containers. But because the word "should" is not always associated with need, and is sometimes associated with subjective recommendations, it is often ignored when used to give advice...which leads into the next observation.
  • Sometimes the word "should" is totally superfluous, and describes a vague sense of obligation that is an artifact of some belief or thought that really does not apply in our current situation. An's feel like you "should" eat, out of habit, but you're not hungry. Maybe you ate a big, late lunch? Should you eat, if your body is telling you that you're full? Or, back to our earlier should brew this tea with 180 degree water. Really? I brewed it with boiling water, compared to steeping with 180 degree water, and I like it better with boiling water.

More resources:

If you liked what you read here, there are a number of good resources, blog posts, and articles on the web about the benefits of avoiding the use of the word should. One of my favorites is Tiny Buddha's How to Enjoy the Journey More by Eliminating the Word Should. There's another good post about should on The Unheard Word. I also found another very simple, but interesting take on the subject in a post titled Replace the word SHOULD with COULD (now only available on I found all of these to be good resources for getting more perspective on this topic, and they are all relatively quick reads.

How about you?

Do you use the word should? Have you worked on eliminating or reducing your use of this word? Have you seen any positive results from avoiding the use of this word? Do you know of any good writings / online resources on the word should besides those I've found here? Let me know!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Gyokuro: How Does It Make You Feel?

This morning I am drinking gyokuro, or to be more specific, Organic Gyokuro from Upton Tea, which is incidentally made in China. This tea is interesting for me on several levels. For one, it's a Japanese style of tea, made in China. I'm certainly no gyokuro expert, and I can't really testify to its authenticity or being true to the style, but I will say that I think this is a pretty good tea. But in this post, I don't want to focus on the way this tea tastes, or the question of whether China can produce high-quality gyokuro, but rather, the way this style of tea makes me feel.

How does it make you feel?

I actually love questions like "How does it make you feel?", and I have an amusing story about it. When I was at Oberlin college, I had a math professor, Robert Young, who taught Linear Algebra (a subject I initially found both hard and boring) and he somehow made it seem poetic and dramatic. It got better when I took Advanced Calculus from the same professor. He would write a theorem on the board, and then stop and ask, in a very loud voice: "So, how does this make you feel?" On some level, it was hilarious...some people approach mathematics as a dry subject, logical, precise, emotionless. But to many mathematicians, it is not like is more like art, poetry, or music...full of passion and emotion. Some theorems seem strange, often utterly ridiculous. Others seem really cool or exciting. Often, the exciting ones are ones that outline deep or useful connections between seemingly disparate branches of math or mathematical structures, so in a sense, our emotions can guide us towards deeper discoveries and understanding.

In mathematics, I found that asking the question: "How does this make me feel?" allowed me to tap into this hidden mental ability of intuition that I had...allowing me to guide my logic. I started seeing the logic as superfluous, the icing on the cake, or perhaps just a path through a jungle of symbols and equations, whereas underlying everything was a core idea, a sort of spiritual truth or destination, and it was emotion and intuition that allowed me to distill the essence of the truth, and find that path through the jungle.

Back to tea:

So, in short, I find that asking how something makes me feel is often a path to insight or truth. Why is this important with tea? Tea is something that we drink, it's a mixture of chemicals that we put in our body, and it affects our mind and body both through its chemistry and through the mental processes set in motion by our experience of drinking it. And it's important for us to reflect on how tea makes us feel because it may make us feel better, and it may make us feel worse. This feeling may depend on what tea we are drinking, and what state our bodies and minds are in to begin with.

It is important to ask this question because asking it allows us to take care of our bodies by giving our bodies what they need and avoiding things that may be harmful or stressful.

On Gyokuro:

Gyokuro is an interesting style of tea because it is one that I did not particularly like at first. I initially found it to be too vegetal for my tastes. But I paid attention to the way I felt after drinking it and I realized that I enjoy the way it makes me feel. It just seems to make me feel good, in a sort of centering way, a little bit like meditation does. I think this slowly started making me like it a bit more. I think I now like it at least as much as other styles of green tea, if not slightly more. I think this process of tasting and sampling, followed by reflection on how we feel is actually part of the process of forming acquired tastes.

What affects how gyokuro makes one feel? I have read in numerous sources that gyokuro is high in caffeine among teas, although I have not found a single source I truly trust on this matter, so as far as I'm concerned, this observation is still speculative. I have seen reliable sources, however, which say that gyokuro has about twice as much L-theanine as typical for tea. Theanine is not well understood, but it is known to interact with caffeine as well as to play some role in promoting relaxation. Does this explain gyokuro's positive, centering effects? Possibly. But it's hard to say for sure. All I can say with certainty is that I can try individual teas and find which ones I enjoy more...both in terms of their flavor and their effect on my mind and body.

How about you?

Do you gain insight into your life by asking yourself how various things make you feel, physically, or emotionally? Do you like gyokuro...the way it tastes, or the way it makes you feel? What teas make you feel the best?

Monday, September 19, 2011

Red Shiso (Perilla) for Herbal Tea

In this post I want to write about a fascinating herb which is important both as an herbal tea its own right, for blending with Japanese green teas, and for culinary uses. The English common name is Perilla, but as this herb is not well-known in Western cultures, and many people have not heard of it under this name. In Japanese, it is referred to as Shiso(紫蘇). If you want to learn more about this herb, there is a good Wikipedia page on perilla. The plant is in the mint family, the same family which also contains basil and coleus. Here is a picture of red shiso, a red-leafed variety of Perilla frutescens (there are several different species in the Perilla genus); this picture shows the clear visual resemblance to basil and coleus:

Shiso has a variety of uses. One of them is in blending with Japanese green tea, usually sencha. On RateTea I created a page for Shiso sencha, but the only two listings have both been discontinued. I haven't exhaustively searched for other providers of this sort of blend, but a quick google search shows that they are available, so hopefully I can get to adding some more soon. In Japan, shiso is used not only as a seasoning but also a vegetable.

The flavor and aroma of Shiso is is relatively mild but has a lot of different components to it. It is mildly suggestive of anise or licorice, but also somewhat resembles mint and basil, and it has a faint skunky quality. It is milder in flavor than basil and much milder than mint. I have found that many people find it very pleasing, but a small number of people find it to have an unpleasant aroma.

Perilla / Shiso Naturalizes Easily:

I took this photo in an alley or very small street in center city Philadelphia. This plant is widely used as a landscaping plant in Philadelphia, often co-planted with the tropical plant Coleus, which bears superficial resemblance to it. But, in contrast to the tropical Coleus, which cannot survive the cold winters in temperate climates, Perilla is adapted to cold-winter regions, and will easily naturalize. In Philadelphia and surrounding areas, it grows wild, coming up from seed (and usually retaining its red color). Some people even view it as an invasive species. Here is a picture of it coming up wild in a Philadelphia sidewalk:

Perilla is a highly vigorous plant, growing in between cracks in brick sidewalks, up against buildings, and in flower beds. As it is often planted deliberately, it's sometimes hard to tell where it has been planted and where it has come up naturally.

Herbal Tea from Red Shiso:

I gathered a bunch of this plant while on a walk in my neighborhood the other day, and brewed up a batch of it as a fresh herbal tea. The infusion shows a brownish purple color:

It was quite delicious. Like the dry leaf, the infusion smelled somewhere in between anise, basil, and mint, and had a slightly skunky finish. It was exceptionally smooth on the palate, and had a slightly sweet flavor, with only a hint of bitterness, and no astringency. Although some people might not like it because of the mild skunkiness, overall, I found this drink to be very pleasing and I could see drinking this regularly.

Eating Perilla:

In my last post, herbal infusions and cooked vegetable broth, I made the point that we often discard the broth after cooking vegetables, and that this broth can be viewed as an herbal infusion, and drunk. Conversely, when brewing an herbal infusion from fresh leaves, instead of discarding the steeped leaves, we can eat them as a vegetable. In accordance with the Japanese use of Shiso as a vegetable, I decided to eat the leaves leftover after steeping, and they were delicious! They had a mild flavor, similar to the infusion, and were fairly tender in texture, certainly more tender than a variety of greens, like collards or kale, which are widely consumed in the U.S.

Have you tried Shiso or Perilla?

Did you know about this herb before reading this post? Have you ever used it as a seasoning? Grown it? Eaten it? Infused it, either on its own, or blending it with sencha or other tea?

Friday, September 16, 2011

Herbal Infusions and Cooked Vegetable Broth

Pictured below is an herbal infusion: for once, I actually am not using the term herbal tea because there is nothing remotely tea-like about the process I used to create this liquid:

What is it? It looks a little bit like hibiscus tea, but it's not...a little too light perhaps? It does not taste remotely like hibiscus. This is nothing you'd ever buy at a tea or herb shop, it's the broth left over after cooking vegetables, a specific type of cooked green. Red-veined amaranth leaves, to be specific, called xian cai(莧菜/苋菜) in Chinese. Here are the greens themselves, after cooking:

I found the leaves to have a flavor most closely resembling green beans, but with suggestions of beets and asparagus. They tasted very familiar, even though I have never consciously eaten them before. If you click on the photo of the cooked greens, you can read more about my experience cooking and eating them. In contrast to some new vegetables, which often become more of an acquired taste, I think this vegetable would be pretty accessible to someone who likes the more familiar Western cooked greens and other vegetables.

What is amaranth?

In the U.S., amaranth is most known for its use as an alternative grain; it is generally available in health food stores, and is also gluten-free. It is also a relative of quinoa. In China and India, especially in warmer regions, however, amaranth is widely used as a cooked vegetable. Amaranth thrives in hot climates with poor soil, where the heat and soil are poor for growing greens like spinach that are popular in northern climates. I first learned of amaranth's use as a cooked green from an Indian gardener in Cleveland.

Vegetable Broth vs. Herbal Tea:

In our modern society, when we cook vegetables, we often discard the broth, viewing it as waste. Yet we then go out and buy herbal teas, carefully steep them, and drink them. At times, we even drink foul-tasting concoctions in search of their supposed "health benefits". In this post I want to highlight something so simple it's almost mindless. When you cook vegetables, the resulting leftover water is an herbal infusion; it's packed with vitamins, minerals, and beneficial phytochemicals--anything water-soluble goes out in the broth. And it's fresher and more nutritious than any infusion that you could make from dried herbs, as the drying process results in considerable loss and degradation of vitamins and flavor.

There are a few cases where it is not good to drink vegetable broth; some plants used as vegetables, such as pokeweed, have water-soluble toxins and which are only edible after repeated boiling and draining, but these plants are generally not widely available at stores or markets in the U.S.

What did this amaranth broth taste like?

If you're not used to drinking the leftover broth after cooking vegetables, it may taste a bit strange to you. The flavor is the very essence of vegetal...after all, the word "vegetal" is just an attempt to describe the aromas and flavors of vegetables when they occur in tea or other food or drink where we may not expect them.

It was definitely not the sort of thing that I would seek out to drink as a beverage, on its own, but it was also not at all unpleasant. Perhaps I would acquire a taste for it if I drank this sort of thing more. But the experience was interesting to me, and I think will inform my palate when tasting teas and herbal teas that have vegetal qualities.

What do you think?

Some questions come to my mind. Do you ever drink the leftover broth after cooking vegetables? What is the cutoff between vegetable broth, and herbal tea brewed from fresh herbs? Does this distinction only lie in intentions? What do you think of the vegetal qualities in tea? And have you ever tried amaranth greens?

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Ginger in Tea and Herbal Teas

I love ginger; it is one of my favorite spices and I use it heavily in cooking. I have even grown is relatively easy to grow indoors. In the spirit of raising awareness between the food, tea, and herbs we eat, and the plants they come from, here is a picture of a ginger rhizome, sprouting:

Ginger is the rhizome of a grassy plant, Zingiber officinale; the rhizome is storage area below the ground, looking like a root but technically part of the plant's stem; the rhizome stores energy, nutrients, and water so that if the above-ground part of the plant is threatened or dies, the plant can regrow when conditions are right. This adaptation allows ginger to survive drought, as well as having its leaves and stems eaten. The strong-tasting chemicals which give ginger its flavor are concentrated in the rhizome, to protect this most important part of the plant. I wish I had a picture of the ginger plant that I grew for two years, but I cannot find one. The ginger plant looks like a grass, here's a photo of the ginger plant on Wikimedia commons. This picture looks nearly exactly like what my plant looked like.

This next photo shows fresh ginger root which I have sliced in order to brew up a batch of iced tea:

Dried Ginger vs. Fresh Ginger:

One reason I feel particularly compelled to share these pictures and this post is that, over the years, I've tried a number of blends containing dried ginger, and they just don't do it for me. I think that ginger is one of those spices that is best fresh, and that loses most of its character when dried.

Still, I do sometimes enjoy teas and herbs which have been blended with dried ginger. I will say, I do not have any dried ginger in my cabinet, and I have never bought it; fresh ginger root is a staple in my household.

Medicinal Properties of Ginger:

Ginger is a fairly common ingredient in herbal blends. It has potent medicinal properties, or supposed "health benefits", to use a buzzword I have become slightly annoyed with lately. Ginger is used traditionally to settle the stomach and provide relief from nausea. I personally find it to be very effective for this purpose. Wikipedia's article on ginger is fairly well-referenced and explains these medicinal uses, and what is known of the chemistry of ginger, in more depth.

Ginger as a Flavoring for Tea:

Ginger is also used as a flavoring in black tea, sometimes on its own, but often when paired with peach. Adagio Teas sells a black tea flavored with ginger, and a number of brands, including Adagio, Republic of Tea, Revolution, Stash, Bentley's, and many others, sell ginger peach tea. These ginger-peach flavored teas, usually but not always black teas, are very popular. I used to regularly visit a coffee shop in University Heights, OH, which sold a ginger peach tea, and it seemed that more customers ordered this tea than all the others combined. I will say, even though I'm not a huge fan of flavored teas, I do like this combination.

Ginger is also a common, but not necessarily defining ingredient in masala chai or spiced tea. I like including some ginger in chai, but I generally do not miss it when it is absent (unlike cardamom).

Ginger in Herbal Blends:

Ginger is widely used in herbal blends. One of the most common combinations is lemon ginger. While I find that lemon and ginger go very well together (one of my favorite combinations for an iced herbal drink is boiling fresh lemongrass and fresh ginger root, then chilling it), I find that most herbal blends focusing on ginger, and relying on dried ginger, just don't do it for me. Teatulia has an odd ginger herbal infusion that also includes the herb Vasaka (Justicia adhatoda). I wasn't really a fan of this either...the Vasaka is extremely bitter; while I normally like bitter flavors, it was too bitter for me, so I suspect it is probably too bitter for a majority of others as well.

How about you?

Do you ever use fresh ginger as a flavoring for tea, or for making herbal infusions? Do you like the presence of ginger in masala chai, or other blends? Do you notice much of a difference between fresh and dried ginger? Have you ever tried growing ginger?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Meeting People at World Tea East

This weekend Sylvia and I attended World Tea East representing RateTea. It was wonderful...we got to sample countless teas, learn of new companies, and most exciting to me, I got to meet and talk face-to-face with a number of people that I normally only interact with over the internet. I could not possibly do justice to writing about all the people I met, and I do not want to leave anyone important out, as I inevitably would do, so I'm focusing on some interesting observations I had.

Feeling at Home:

I have attended numerous business-oriented events over the course of my adult life, but I had never before attended a trade show, so World Tea East was somewhat of a new experience for me. But it was still somewhat familiar. I have a large enough sample from my past experiences to say that I feel more at home in some types of business-oriented events than others. In this event, I felt very comfortable.

Clothing & Dress:

One interesting observation to me was that there was little conformity in terms of how people were dressed. There were a handful of people in suits, others walking around in jeans, t-shirts, and sneakers or flip-flops, and all manners of outfits in between. Some outfits were drab and unobtrusive and others were colorful, creative, or elegant. Before attending the event I had the thought: "What do I want to wear?" and in retrospect I almost feel silly thinking this, having reflected on the various things I saw people wearing in the show, and how comfortable all of them looked. I probably would have been just fine with any of the outfits I wear in my daily life, and this realization produces a reassuring sense of feeling at home.

Diversity, but Where Are China and India?

There was also a fair amount of diversity in terms of people (and companies) of different national origins, giving good representation to the international tea community. One thing I noted, however, was a remarkable absence of Chinese and Indian people and companies. China and India, between the two of them, account for a huge portion of the world's tea production, as well as being the origin of numerous styles of tea and many of the world's highest-quality teas.

In my daily life, I meet and come into contact with a large portion of Chinese and Indians, in colleges and universities, and also Chinese-Americans and Indian-Americans. The disproportionately tiny presence of Chinese and Indian people at the expo, in contrast to people from Kenya, Japan, or even Germany (which has a very active tea culture) was striking to me.

I suspect that the lack of a strong presence of people and companies from China and India at the show says something about the structure and organization of the tea industry, and perhaps the global economy as a whole, or at least the economies of these countries. Japanese tea companies have been directly expanding into the U.S.; a large number of these companies now have U.S. based operations. (Did you know Yamamotoyama now owns Stash Tea?) But the same does not seem to be true of Indian and Chinese companies.

There were plenty of Chinese and Indian teas being displayed around the exhibition hall, and many of the companies present owned Chinese subsidiaries or had offices in China, which they used to source their teas. I have not done any research to back this up, but I suspect that there are fewer Chinese and Indian companies with operations physically located in the U.S. This observation raises some very interesting questions. For one, I'm curious if it's actually true as I suspect it is, and for two, I'm curious about why (I have a few theories that popped into my mind), so I hope to follow up with a future post on this topic at some point. But for now, one more observation:

The Tea Industry vs. Corporate Culture:

Another thing that struck me when talking to a number of people about their businesses, and how they became involved in tea, was that there was a certain commonality in language that came through. I heard a lot of people talk about the corporate world, in the sense of: "I worked in the corporate world for X years before..." and so forth. Keep in mind, in the very literal sense, many of these people are still working for corporations, albeit much smaller ones, and a large number of them founded or own corporations.

The tea industry is an industry in which there are lots of small businesses, many, in fact, tiny businesses, run out of people's homes, or on the side. Many of the larger tea companies actually started off in this manner as well. (RateTea, incidentally, started a couple years ago as a side-project that I was only dedicating a few hours a week to.) I think this is yet another aspect of the tea industry that makes me feel comfortable there.

In Summary:

I'm very glad I attended World Tea East! It was immensely valuable on so many levels, and in addition, it was a lot of fun. Do you have any thoughts or comments on my observations?

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Yunnan Gold: More Expensive. Better?

This weekend I attended World Tea East, and it was wonderful. I hope to write more about this event soon, but for now, I've been catching up on more routine tasks, including reading blog posts that I was behind on well before attending the expo.

One recent blog post that struck me as notable was Lahikmajoe's post you pay more for appearance. If you haven't yet read this, I recommend at least glancing at it, as it will make this post make more sense. This post talks about the appearance of tippy Assam teas. A comment on the post then brings up Yunnan Gold or Golden Yunnan teas, a tippy type of Dian Hong or Yunnan Red, the style of black tea produced in China's Yunnan Province. In the spirit of this subject, and in case you don't know where Yunnan province is, here is a map of China with the province colored in a rich golden color:

When I first started sampling and researching Yunnan teas, I was under the impression that all tips were golden in black teas, and that the golden color corresponded in a fairly straightforward way to the portion of buds. According to the post above and the conversation it references, this correspondence is not so simple. I had seen tippy Assam with golden tips as well, and I had read that the Yunnan Pure Gold teas were made exclusively of tips. But if you are a Yunnan enthusiast, as I am becoming (the more of these teas I try, the more this becomes one of my favorite styles), or if you are experienced with trying a wide range of tippy black teas, you will likely know from experience that the golden color does not always correspond perfectly to the portion of tips, nor to the character or quality of the tea.

But it does seem to correspond fairly well to price, which begs the question:

Does Golden = Better?

I was curious to see if I had been roped into the idea of golden = better, so I looked back to my recent ratings and reviews on RateTea to find some Yunnan Gold teas that I had tried recently. The three teas I most recently sampled, starting with the most recent, were Adagio's Yunnan Gold, Life in Teacup's Yunnan Golden Bud, and Rishi Tea's Golden Yunnan. These links will take you to my reviews.

Keep in mind, these companies also sell other Yunnan teas (Rishi has a less golden and more golden one), so I'm not necessarily comparing teas of similar grades. But that's the point. These three teas are pictured from left to right, Adagio's, then Life in Teacup's, then Rishi's:

These photos were not taken side-by-side. Although the lighting and composition of these photographs is obviously different, and it's hard to get an exact comparison of the way the leaf looked, I will say that having seen all of these teas up-close, Rishi's looks the least golden of them, as the picture suggests, and the other two teas are similar in color and appearance.

Interestingly, Rishi's got the highest rating from me. The other two I gave identical ratings. In my review, I noted when trying Adagio's that I think I prefer the darker teas somewhat.

How do they compare by price?

Rishi's is $4.00 an ounce, or $14.75 a quarter pound. Adagio's is 1.5 ounces for $12. Life in Teacup's is $7.99 an ounce. It looks pretty clear...golden is more expensive. And at least from my limited sample size, I do not necessarily prefer the golden color, and at this point, I do not think it is worth paying for. This impression may change as I sample more teas and/or as my palate develops, but for now, I'm thinking it's at least possible that this golden color is more for show than anything else, and does not adequately reflect higher quality as manifested in the flavor and aroma of the brewed tea.

What do you think? I'd be curious to hear your opinions and experiences on this matter.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Tea on a Rainy Day - Rain Sharpens the Perception?

Today it is a rainy day here in Philadelphia. I just finished drinking a cup of Upton Tea Imports' ZG46: Ding Gu Da Fang Organic, and you can read my review of this tea on RateTea. I am currently looking out the window to rain, which is slowing somewhat.

I find rain to be rather difficult to photograph. Here's my most successful attempt today:

One thing I love about the view out my window here is the way the wire is flat enough that it accumulates a whole row of cute little water droplets whenever it rains. This occurrence is a pleasing little interplay between human edifices and nature, much like the view of the street tree against the brick building, or the tea that I drink, which is a complex product of a natural plant species that has been carefully processed by humans.

Rain enhances my appreciation of color, and of tea:

People often talk about rainy days as if they are gloomy. But I find that rain actually brings out the colors around me. Even though it is darker on rainy days, and the sky grayer, I find that the grayness and subdued lighting draws attention to colors around me, especially the colors of leafy plants and brick. Colors often look more vibrant to me on a rainy day.

Rain also enhances my appreciation of tea. I love tea on just about any day, but I particularly love tea on cool, rainy days like today.

Does rain improve your ability to enjoy tea? Or color?

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Tea and Public Transportation

What does tea have to do with public transportation? Other than the fact that I love tea, and I love public transportation, there's not much of an immediately apparent connection, but as I will show,my reasons for loving both tea and transit are actually surprisingly similar. And on a personal note, both tea and transit are areas in which I have worked directly.

Now, I am working in the area of tea, with RateTea. And in Cleveland, Ohio, I worked in operations research for GCRTA, Cleveland's transit system, and I also worked on several projects for a consulting firm, RNR Consulting, which largely specialized in working with transit agencies.

Why do I love public transportation?

Pictured here is the SEPTA Market Street Line, in Philadelphia, locally called the "El" as it is an elevated line at both ends (a subway in the middle):

I love public transportation for a variety of reasons, many of which actually mesh with my interest in tea.

  • A ride on transit allows for time to relax or meditate, in contrast to driving a car, which requires intense focus and concentration, and can be very tiring. Even riding as a passenger on transit is much more relaxing than riding as a passenger in a car -- public transit gives one more space to stand up and move around. I find that, for me personally, there is a lot in common between the state that my mind and body is put into when I drink a cup of tea or take a ride on public transportation.

  • Transit is inexpensive and sustainable. A ride on a bus or local train usually costs between $1.25-$2.00, more for regional trains. If one is able to use transit to live without a car, the savings can be immense. Even if you own a car, like me, you still save money on parking and gas, and in a city like Philadelphia or New York, parking is usually more than the cost of a bus or subway ride. The additional cost of energy and resource usage per person riding transit is negligible...that means, when you ride an already running bus or train route, you add little to environmental impact. I find this parallels tea because, compared to other beverages (soft drinks, alcohol, even coffee), tea is inexpensive, and has less of an environmental impact associated with its production.

  • Transit and walking go hand-in-hand. Transit routes rarely take you from door to door (although, I must admit, there is a trolley stop directly out my door, closer to my building than I can usually park my car, so sometimes, I actually get to enjoy this luxury). But, in general, when you take public transportation, you also need to walk a bit. Public transit is thus good for your is by no means essential to a healthy lifestyle, but it can contribute to health, especially if you use transit and walking in place of long car rides.

    In this respect, public transportation is also a lot like tea. Tea is a generally healthy beverage, unlike soft drinks, energy drinks, and other highly-processed, artificial drinks. But it's no magic bullet. Riding a bus can make you walk (and thus exercise) more, and exercise is known to reduce cancer and heart disease risk, right? But you never would suggest that riding a bus will cure cancer or prevent heart disease...and that's I think a good analogy for the relationship between tea and health.

  • Riding transit and loving it requires loosening your expectations. Unless you are lucky enough to live in Germany, buses or trains rarely arrive exactly when scheduled. There is structure and organization to the transit system, but also unpredictability. I think this is a lot like the world of high-quality loose-leaf tea. If you are satisfied to drink the standardized products like Lipton, products whose consistency is maintained through extensive quality-control processes, then you always know what you're getting. But if you want single-region or single-estate, single-harvest teas of specific varieties, you will need to loosen your expectations. The same tea will not taste the same each year...each year it will be different. And a similar style of tea or grade of tea may taste radically different from one estate to the next, or from one region to another. Yet the pattern is still evident: the teas are still recognizable as their style. Just as the bus still gets you to your destination, even when it is late.

If you're coming to Philadelphia:

If you're coming to World Tea East, you're going to be lucky enough to be located right near most of SEPTA's major routes. While there's certainly plenty to do within walking distance of the convention center, you will also have access to most of the city with a direct transit ride, in case you want to go somewhere a little farther away.

A few tips: (1) the "transit" feature in google maps is outstanding in Philadelphia. Type in the info that you would to get directions normally, but then hit the little bus/train icon, and google will calculate the best routes to take using transit--usually giving you a few different options. You can ask it for immediate advice or schedule a trip in advance. (2) SEPTA's website has lots of good information too.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Tie Guan Yin, Modern Green Style, Everyday Tea

Recently, one of my friends gave me a canister of tea that he brought back from China. He told me that he isn't sure exactly what it is, but that he's pretty sure it's a low-end modern-style green Tie Guan Yin. I can barely read any Chinese, but I did not recognize any of the characters on the canister...not tea, not oolong, not Tie Guan Yin...I'm pretty sure this is one of those generic canisters that doesn't contain any useful information about the tea:

Everyday tea?

I am interested in learning about many different facets of tea culture. While I naturally seek out higher-quality teas, teas that offer outstanding value, and teas whose aroma and flavor I most prefer, I also like being exposed to the teas that people most commonly drink. There is a pretty big disconnect between the tea culture in the U.S. and Western Europe, and that in China and other countries in Asia. Most people in the U.S. who are seriously into Chinese and Japanese teas focus on the artisan teas, the best teas to come out of these countries.

I was particularly interested in this tea because, at least from what I've heard from people who have travelled in China, and from Chinese people I've met in America, these modern green-style oolongs are extremely popular nowadays, and much of what people consume would be considered low-quality by connoisseurs. It can be hard to find teas in America that correspond to everyday teas that people would drink in China, as in western countries, the low-end of things is dominated by British-style teas, the standard black breakfast tea. When low-end oolongs are available, they tend to be darker roast, as the American palate is not particularly accustomed to greener oolongs.

Here is a photo of the tea itself, with a nickel for size comparison:

Note the large size of the rolled leaves...although it's not true as a strict rule, higher-quality oolong teas often have more tightly rolled leaves. These leaves are very loosely rolled, more so than any other oolongs in my cabinet right now.

The Review:

The dry leaf, upon opening the canister, has almost no aroma. This is usually a pretty bad sign. What aroma there is is pleasant though: weakly herbaceous and weakly woody.

I brewed the tea using a generous amount of leaf and a long steeping time (5 minutes). I have since experimented with brewing and found that this tea is not particulary picky about brewing temperature, but being mild in aroma, does require longer infusions or generous amounts of leaf to extract good flavor.

The resulting cup is mild in aroma, but more aromatic than the dry leaf, and surprisingly rich in flavor. This tea is more flavorful than aromatic, which is rather unusual among teas, and the flavor was actually very pleasant.

The tea's aroma is mostly herbaceous tones, with a hint of woody qualities. There are tones of celery and fresh leaves. There is no floral aroma, unlike most green oolongs. This tea, brewed on the first infusion, tastes a lot like the later infusions of a higher-quality greener oolong (of any varietal). Often, some greener oolongs, when you steep them multiple times, will eventually lose their floral tones and become more herbaceous, with tones that I like to describe as resembling celery or parsley. This tea is very similar.

The flavor however is richer than these later infusions of other oolongs. It is fairly bitter, and pleasingly so, and with a moderate astringency, but not too much. Not particularly sour, which I like, and not at all sweet.

Could I drink this tea every day?

Actually, yes. It's really not bad. Although the aroma was a bit flat, there was little unpleasant about it, and I found it brewed a flavorful cup. I also liked how I felt after drinking it. I'm not sure how accurately this tea represents the everyday teas consumed in China, but I can definitely see how people would be content drinking this style of tea every day. Compared to low-quality darker oolongs and green teas, I would take this one any day. And it's really not that low-quality, it is still a mostly-whole-leaf tea.

So please tell my impression of this tea and its relationship to everyday teas in China at all accurate, or am I way off here?

Monday, September 5, 2011

World Tea East - I Will Be There

Happy labor day!

I am pleased to announce that I will be attending World Tea East, the new, Philadelphia-centered event run by the organization that is behind the World Tea Expo, where I will be representing RateTea.

Since I created RateTea and started blogging about tea, about two years ago, I have read two rounds of excited posts about the World Tea Expo. I have thought seriously about attending the World Tea Expo both years, but did not. With this new event so close to home for me, there's no reason not to attend.

I am excited to meet lots of new people involved in the tea industry, but I think one of the things I am most eagerly looking forward to at this event is the opportunity to meet tea bloggers, and employees and owners of tea companies, and others in the tea industry that I already interact with online, through blogs, twitter, or RateTea. If you are someone who I regularly interact with, and you are coming to this event, please let me know so that I can be sure to meet up with you.

I also want to say that I am excited about the fact that there has been enough interest in the World Tea Expo to spark the spinning off of this second event in a new location. I think this bodes well for the specialty tea industry, which, following up on the slow tea / slow food connection in my last post, also bodes well for a more sustainable and diverse culture of food and drink in society as a whole.

More information:

For more information on this event, you can read the official press release about World Tea East.