Monday, October 31, 2011

HELPS Wellness Teas: Taste and Quality of Herbs

This post is inspired by reading a review of HELPS Teas Organic R&R on Nicole's blog Tea For Me Please. I received a packet of samples from the HELPS brand (owned by the Pharmadus company) at World Tea East. If you want to read my full reviews (I have posted 4 and plan to eventually review all of them), you can read them on RateTea's page on HELPS wellness teas, although frankly, I recommend not reading those reviews and instead just catching the summary in this post:

Nicole was particularly harsh in her review of the R&R (rest and relaxation) tea, but, unfortunately, my reaction to these teas was similar. I haven't posted my review of this specific tea yet, but I've been quite disappointed by the quality of the blends from this company. They range from bland to undrinkable. At $5 for a box of 20 tea bags, such quality is completely unacceptable and is going to spell certain doom for this company in the marketplace.

On the R&R Blend:

Lemon balm is one of my favorite herbs: I drink it frequently, and I know what it tastes like. I've grown it, for years now, harvested it at different times of year, dried it, and brewed herbal tea from both the fresh and dried leaves. You can see a picture of it sprouting in spring of 2010, in my old blog post Four Herbal Teas You May Not Know About.

Passionflower, too, I've sampled on its own, and although it's more "herby", I also find it to have a more-or-less pleasing aroma, and a distinctive one too. Most people I know who have smelled passionflower describe it as strong smelling, but pleasant.

When herbs are bland:

When normally aromatic herbs (like lemon balm and passionflower) don't smell strongly aromatic, it's usually a sign that they're not fresh, and this is often a sign that the active ingredients that would promote relaxation are probably largely lost or decayed as well. Our society unfortunately often creates a strong pressure to drink things because they are "healthy", even if they taste bad. But our senses of taste and smell serve the purpose of ensuring that we only eat what is truly healthy...why ignore the messages that our own bodies and minds are telling us? If our senses tell us that the ingredients are not fresh, chances are, they are not fresh, and will provide little in the way of "health benefits".

This is not to say that all things that are good for us taste great. Some medicinal herbs are strong tasting, bitter, or have aromas that some people find unpleasant. But when you know what an herb tastes like when fresh, as I do with lemon balm and passionflower (and in these two cases, most people generally seem to think they both smell and taste quite pleasant as herbal teas), and your senses are sending you other signals, it's usually a sign that something is wrong.

The "right" ingredients are not good enough:

I think the combination of lemon balm and passionflower for a relaxing medicinal blend of herbs is a sound one in terms of being science-based and also having the potential to taste good. But the Pharmadus company needs to step up their quality control and use better herbs as ingredients if they want to be successful. If you want to drink a blend like this, I would recommend buying these herbs in bulk from a reputable herb company like Mountain Rose Herbs, if you want this sort of blend. Or, better yet, grow these herbs yourself!

I hope this post is not coming across as too harsh to the HELPS brand or Pharmadus company. I always want each company to succeed, and to do so by having a high-quality product. HELPS is obviously doing something right, as they seem to have picked herbs for their medicinal or wellness teas (and not just in this example) that are backed by solid science, and also that have the potential to taste good. But this product is simply not there yet. I recommend for this company to go back and re-think and re-design these products, perhaps starting by sampling herbs provided by other companies that focus on freshness and taste. And let this post also serve as a warning to any company thinking of launching a line of wellness teas...the quality of your ingredients is of paramount importance! People are not going to buy your product just because you tell them that it is healthy.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Tea Food Pairings - Black Grapes & Assam

The subject of tea-food pairings is one that I have been wanting to explore more, ever since I discovered about a year and a half ago that spicy food enhanced a tea that I did not otherwise enjoy, and similarly, that I found shou mei, one of my favorite styles of tea, did not go well with spicy foods. But today, instead of spicy foods, the foods in question that I'd like to explore are grapes:

Pictured on the left are black grapes, and on the right, red grapes. These grapes were grown in California, and are currently in season, so are inexpensive and tend to be relatively high in quality. While I prefer buying local produce, I definitely prefer buying California grapes, while in-season, to produced shipped from outside the country.

I typically eat some fruit with my breakfast, and I've had a lot of these grapes on hand recently, so I've been munching on them as I drink my morning cup of tea. In the course of eating these grapes together with different teas, I've realized something about tea-grape pairings. This is not the first time I've explored tea-fruit pairings; see Pare down the teas to pair with your pear for a similar post based on a terrible play on words, or Grapefruit and tea for my discovery that one of my favorite breakfast fruits often spoils the flavors of many types of tea.

Grapes and tea:

Certain types of tea have a natural grape-like quality. Both Darjeeling black teas and Bai Hao Oolong often have a quality said to resemble muscat grapes, a specific type of grape. Of the two grapes pictured above, muscat grapes are probably more similar to the black grapes on the left...which brings us into the realizations of pairing.

The red grapes above, I found to be relatively neutral among fruits. They were crisp, lightly sweet, lightly sour, and somewhat watery, making them refreshing without really dominating the palate. These grapes seemed to go well with just about any teas I drank for breakfast, black, green, oolong, Pu-erh, or white. They did not get in the way of my appreciation of the tea, nor did they enhance it.

Black grapes:

The black grapes however, were another beast. These were a bit stranger, not the usual grapes you buy at the supermarket. They had a dusty outside, and their skin was noticeably astringent. The interior was intensely sweet, but less sour than the familiar red or green grapes, and they had a strong, deep aroma, reminiscent more of raisins than of most fresh grapes.

I tried these grapes with a variety of teas and I found that they tended to overpower most teas, including lighter black teas, green teas, and white teas. However, the mornings that I drank strong Assam (lately I've been drinking a lot of Ahmad Tea's Kalami Assam), I found that these grapes not only went well with the tea, but helped me to enjoy the tea in a more intense and deeper way than I normally did. It was hard to notice which qualities were from the grapes and which from the tea, as both left lingering flavors on the palate, but I found that sipping the tea after munching on these grapes led to an explosion of a deep, fruity aroma, like in some of the better Keemun I've tried--qualities sometimes present in Assam, but not to this degree.

How about you?

Have you ever tried grapes like the ones described here? Do you like eating grapes with tea? Which teas and grapes do you think go well together?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Definitions of White Tea: Raising Eyebrows

This post was inspired by a series of conversations that I had with Tony Gebely of Chicago Tea Garden and World of Tea.

Perhaps this is the mathematician in me speaking, but I believe definitions are important. Without clear, agreed-upon definitions, dialogues, conversations, buying and selling, advertisement, and a variety of other business activities and everyday activities can become problematic. In some cases, such as in the case of white tea, definitions are not straightforward.

Definitions for a class of objects become problematic not in "typical" examples of their class, but in the atypical ones. One such problematic tea is pictured here:

This is shou mei(寿眉, longevity eyebrows) tea, purchased from Ten Ren tea. I chose this particular batch of shou mei to picture because it is the darkest in color that I have ever sampled. It looks like it may be closer to gong mei (tribute eyebrows), an even darker tea that is similar in style, and rarely available in the U.S. as it is considered low-grade.

The aroma of the dry leaf of this tea is suggestive of autumn leaves, so much so that it reminds me of playing in leaf piles in fall as a child. When brewed, this aroma becomes even stronger, and it has a dark brown color, a rich, caramel-like sweetness, and an almost tannic sort of astringency. In overall character, it is a lot more like a darker oolong than most white teas, but it shares many qualities of aroma in common with white teas; lighter shou mei can be very similar to darker examples of white peony / bai mu dan.

Is shou mei a white tea?

In order to keep this post as objective as possible, I have so far avoided the claim that shou mei "is" a white tea. Some individuals, tea companies, and other sources classify it as a white tea, but there are definitions floating around, such as two I reference below, under which it would not be classified as a white tea. However, I want to start by noting an observation: I have never seen any company selling shou mei tea and classifying it as anything other than a white tea. The companies which use definitions of white tea that would exclude shou mei do not sell shou mei. If you know of an exception to this rule, let me know, but I could not find one.

This observation certainly raises eyebrows.

Now, let's explore a couple authoritative sources who would not classify shou mei as a white tea:

Tea Association of the USA:

The Tea Association of the USA defines a number of tea-related terms in their Glossary of Terms: Industry Definitions. Although not the be-all and end-all tea authority, this organization's official definition definitely carries some degree of weight. Their definition of white tea is as follows:

Proposed New Definition
The Tea Association of the USA has proposed a new definition.
In order for White Tea to be so termed it should be:
  • Processed in accordance with the strict harvesting and processing guidelines originally established in Fujian Province, China
  • Made from finely plucked tender shoots (buds) of Camellia sinensis, which are fired or steamed and then dried.
  • There should be no withering, fermentation (oxidation) or rolling of the buds.
  • The liquor of White Tea is very pale yellow in color, and mild tasting in the cup.

Now, I am going to shift to my own subjective opinions. I do not like this definition. I think it is problematic for several reasons. There is one glaring inconsistency which I point out below, but this can be easily fixed or set aside separate from the rest of the points. Besides this, the main reason I object to this definition is that I see it as too narrow, leaving many teas, including traditional Chinese white teas like shou mei, such that they could not be included in this definition.

Here are some things I dislike about this definition:

  • "strict harvesting and processing guidelines" -- why give one particular method of producing tea preference over others? This comes across as possibly stifling innovation by labelling experimental processing methods as "not true white tea". I want to encourage and promote diversity in tea culture, traditions, and production, which includes both the embracing of diverse traditions, as well as the facilitation of developing new traditions. This aspect of the definition has the opposite effect.
  • The definition refers to the liquor of the cup and the flavor...which are highly variable, depend on brewing methods, and are to some degree subjective, and the definition given is very constraining. Even white peony or bai mu dan, which nearly everyone agrees is a white tea, has a widely variable color and flavor. I think that in general, a good definition for a broad class of teas (like white tea, black tea, green tea, etc.) does not refer to color or flavor at all.
  • This definition is internally inconsistent, depending on how you interpret words..."no withering" and "no oxidation" would actually exclude all white teas. In most usage that I've seen, "withering" refers to the normal drying process used to produce all white tea. And all white teas, including silver needle, are a tiny bit more oxidized than green teas, because they are allowed to dry naturally rather than being heated to stop all oxidation, as green teas are. This is why green teas have a more vibrant green color than white teas. The definition refers to white teas being "fired or steamed and then dried", but this specification sounds more like the processing of green tea, and this part of the definition would include green teas made from tips or leaf buds.
  • (This is my biggest criticism of the definition) The "plucked tender shoots (buds)" part of the definition would leave a number of teas, such as shou mei, without a clear way of being classified as any type of tea other than just "tea".

I'm not even a member of this Tea Association, and I have no standing or authority to do so, but I vote no on this definition! Send it back to the drawing board and come back with a new definition!

Harney and Sons Guide to Tea:

Another source that carries some degree of authority is the Harney and Sons Guide to Tea; written by Michael Harney (of Harney and Sons), a major and well-respected figure in the tea community. This book has a wealth of information about tea, is well-written, and is accessible to newcomers in the tea world. How does this book define white tea? Although the book does not set out a clear definition of white tea in one place, the book talks as if there is a well-accepted definition, and from various quotes we can piece together what this definition might be. Both of these quotes are from page 19 of the book:

White tea buds are plucked and "withered" or "air dried"...

Consisting only of buds, white teas...

This remark seems to be going even further down the line of the "white tea must consist of tender shoot and leaf buds" definition that I have seen in a number of sources. "Consisting only of buds" would exclude certain teas that nearly everyone would agree is a white tea, including white peony / bai mu dan. In fact, this fact highlights an inconsistency in this book, for later, Michael Harney goes on to write a section on mai mu dan, in which he unambiguously writes from a place that Bai Mu Tan is a white tea, yet he acknowledges (p, 28):

...Bai Mu Dan also includes some mature tea leaves.

To be more accurate, there are some white teas, such as silver needle, which consist only of buds, just as there are some black teas, like Yunnan Golden Buds (dianhong jinya/滇紅金芽) which do as well. But this attribute does not define or characterize white teas as a whole.

Perhaps I am an odd sort of person, having studied so much mathematics that I want things to be logically consistent. But I do care about consistency, and I would like to encourage as many people as possible to question their definitions, and embrace definitions that do not have these sorts of problems. Perhaps the problem with Michael Harney's book is that it never clearly defines white tea, because I suspect, given Michael Harney's level of knowledge, that if he sat down and thought about this matter, he would be able to come up with a definition that did not have any of these contradictions or drawbacks.

How to define classes of teas?

So I don't claim to have all the answers, but I personally believe that a good definition for a class of tea (black, green, white, oolong, yellow, etc.) is:
  • Consistent.
  • Simple.
  • Based on production process, not particular cultivar, not appearance or color of the cup or leaf, and certainly not flavor.
  • General or flexible enough to encompass diverse traditions, to encourage innovation within the category (including styles of white tea that may not have been invented yet), and to leave out as few "problem teas" as possible.

I'm not proposing any definitions here. You can read what I have on RateTea's page on white tea. I don't claim to like my own definition; if you check the site frequently, you'll know that that page has changed and evolved as I've researched this topic. I even go back and forth on some Xue Ya (Snow Buds) a white tea or green tea? What about moonlight white (which I've seen classified as a white tea, black tea, green tea, or Pu-erh). But one thing is for sure...shou mei is a white tea, in my world.

Back to shou mei:

Why do I think this tea, so dark in color, is a white tea? The simple answer is that the production process is more similar to other white teas than to anything else: the leaves are plucked, allowed to wither naturally, and dried. There is a clear continuum of flavor and aroma from shou mei to bai mu dan to bai hao yinzhen (silver needle) and, at least to my palate, it is clear that these teas belong to the same class.

Perhaps a stronger argument is that classifying shou mei in any other category becomes more problematic. It's clearly not a black tea, there is no bruising and full oxidation process, even though it is more oxidized, and although it's dark in color, it does not remotely resemble any black teas in aroma. It also does not closely resemble green's not immediately heated the way green teas are, and it tends to retain no more green color than other white teas, and its aroma and flavor have almost none of the characteristic qualities of typical green teas. It's oolong-like in character, and shares the partial-oxidation with these teas, but there is little else that that would qualify it as an oolong. If forced into one of these categories, I can see it being treated as a green tea or oolong tea, but I think most people would agree that this wasn't a very accurate classification.

And because shou mei is not made primarily out of tips or leaf buds, a definition of white tea cannot be limited to "tippy" teas.

What do you think?

I would encourage you to propose your own definition of white tea. I don't really know how to define it, and I'd like to refine and improve on the definition I have on RateTea. The purpose of this post is mainly to step on some toes and provoke some discussion, but also to invite criticism of my own definitions and articles with the goal of refining my own definitions.

And...if you're one of those people who likes the narrower definitions of white tea, limiting it to only include teas with a large portion of tips / leaf buds, could you please answer my question: how the heck would you classify shou mei?

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Caffeine in Tea - It's Not Bad For You

The subject of caffeine in tea is an interesting one. Unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation surrounding both (a) how much caffeine is in tea, and (b) the effect caffeine has on your body. I have written at length about the caffeine content of various teas, so this post explores the second question.

Public perception of caffeine:

There seems to be a widespread public perception that caffeine is "bad". One way you can tell that this is the case is that a number of tea companies market their teas as being "low in caffeine", whereas teas higher in caffeine are usually not labelled as such, and instead labelled with euphemisms or indirect statements such as "energizing" or "good for starting the day". People want to feel energized, but they don't want to consume much caffeine.

The success of decaffeinated tea, which is often highly inferior in taste to tea in its natural, caffeinated form, is also a testimony to this negative public perception. Some companies even sell decaffeinated green tea extracts, so that people can obtain the "health benefits" of the tea without the caffeine.

In this post I will argue that this attitude towards caffeine is's a result of people taking an absolute "good / bad" view of a substance, rather than looking at a key concept: moderation.

People drink tea because of caffeine:

Granted, there are many reasons that people drink tea, inculding flavor, tradition, and expectations of certain health benefits. However, I do believe that, regardless of how many other factors come into play, caffeine is one of the primary reasons people drink tea, if not the primary reason. Tea does contain many other biologically active compounds, such as L-theanine; theanine in particular is known to interact with tea, so the topic becomes a bit complex, but the point is: tea contains caffeine, and people want to consume caffeine.

The evolution of caffeine:

Caffeine is an interesting chemical because it evolved in plants primarily as a biological defense. Caffeine is a poison, probably intended primarily to protect a plant against insects. This is why the caffeine tends to be concentrated in the tender new leaves, which are most in need of protection against being eaten.

Moderation is key:

The activity of caffeine in humans is in some sense a biological accident. A high enough dose of caffeine would kill a human, but a small dose provides a stimulating effect to the body and mind. Many chemicals are like this...nearly all drugs have a lethal dose and a therapeutic dose, and somewhere in between these there are middle doses where unpleasant side effects start to appear.

For caffeine, small quantities can provide a boost in alertness, improved concentration, and improved energy level. But higher amounts, or caffeine consumed at the wrong time, can cause a variety of unpleasant symptoms, both immediate and long-term, including jitters, feelings of malaise, weak and rapid heartbeat, anxiety, and insomnia. Some people are more sensitive to caffeine, either because of their own biology, or because of medications they are taking. But for the most part, the best way to approach caffeine is moderation. So, next time you hear or read someone explicitly or implicitly stating that caffeine is bad, respond by encouraging them to think about moderation rather than in strict good / bad terms.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Tea and Politics: Making Politics More Like Tea

This post is inspired by Stephane of Tea Masters, who recently posted Review tea like a liberal and brew like a conservative. This post contains a few subtle but humorous cracks at American politics (and possibly French, although I know nothing about French politics), in the course of giving very solid advice about brewing and selecting teas.

But I want to comment on something else in this post, which is an observation Stephane makes:

Politics and tea don't mix well. At a tea gathering (can't use the word tea party anymore!), it's best not to speak politics, a divisive topic.

I've found this statement to not only be true of the world of tea, but of most aspects of life that are not political. But rather than just accepting the divisiveness as politics, I would like to question it, and provide a proposal of a way to re-create politics as a topic that can be positive and empowering to talk about. And, I'd like to use tea culture as a model or analogy of how to achieve this goal.

Why is the subject of politics "divisive" in conversations?

Most of you have probably observed or participated in a conversation about politics that became heated, argumentative, negative, or confrontational. Maybe you were the one who got fired up or frustrated, or maybe you weren't, and either someone else got confrontational with you, or you just observed two people arguing with each other. Once the conversation becomes heated, people stop listening and start talking past each other, often repeating themselves. People's stress level elevates, little of value gets communicated, and the people in the conversation, as well as bystanders, usually feel that the experience is negative or unpleasant.

The natural reaction of many people is to then avoid the topic of politics, reasoning that politics is inherently divisive. This reaction is especially common among people who, like me, value listening and good communication, and want to create a relaxed, positive atmosphere in which everyone feels comfortable and appreciated. It's also a common reaction among people who value their time and don't want to waste their time with unproductive arguments.

But the negative sort of dynamic described above does not happen accidentally--it has certain clear causes, and by understanding these causes we can become empowered to prevent them, and keep the conversation positive. And, contrary to popular belief, the underlying cause is not the topic of politics. It is how we think about politics.

How we think about politics:

Cognitive psychology has actually made some interesting advances that have the potential to explain the influences of thought patterns and thought processes on mood and emotions. If you want to read more on this topic, I go into more depth on this topic in a post on another blog of mine, A Definition of Extremism: Correctly Identifying and Gracefully Handling Extremist Views.

One interesting pattern that is easily observable in these conversations is that the escalation of conflict usually follows the use of black-and-white statements and overgeneralizations, often in the form of labelling. Some of these statements or ideas are spoken out loud, but many of them are held implicitly, in our heads. "All democrats / liberals believe / do X, Y, and Z." or "All republicans / conservatives believe / do X, Y, and Z." Even the simple act of labelling a person or group as "liberal", "conservative", "socialist", or "libertarian" is usually fallacious and unnecessary--most peoples views are complex and cannot be fully described by these labels. Exaggerating statements are another big culprit.

What can we learn from tea?

Tea is generally not a divisive topic. Why? As with politics, the answer lies not in tea itself, but in how we think about tea.

Most of us acknowledge and embrace the fact that different people have different tastes in tea. Even when we associate with tea drinkers who are most similar to us, we regularly come into contact with people who have vastly different tastes from our own. And we do not think it strange or problematic when our tastes fact, often, we listen to each other's differences of opinions, and make mental notes of them in case we encounter a tea that we think a friend might enjoy more than we do, or if we're looking to give tea as a gift.

But it's not just the types of thoughts and statements we make in association with tea that differs from the heated political arguments described above, it's also the speed and style with which we think about tea and talk about tea. Tea is often embraced during a time of rest or relaxation, a break. Tea is not a focal point of action, it is a liberation from action. When we think more slowly and say less, we can think more carefully, and we can focus on the quality of our thinking and make sure that our thoughts and words flow into constructive ends rather than just causing an escalating argument.

Can't we do politics like tea?

I believe that we can learn how to do politics more like we do tea. Although there may be some cultural barriers and inertia holding us back, I believe it can be done.

We cannot control others' thoughts, but we can control our own. If we are more aware of our own thought processes, and are especially conscious of our word choice in our speech and writing, we can at least refrain from the sort of incendiary statements, such as the false dichotomies, overgeneralizations, exaggerations, and labels, that tend to upset people. We can listen to people and make it more likely that they feel heard and understood, and we can go out of our way to show respect to people who disagree with us, as well as encouraging others who agree with us to show respect to those with different viewpoints.

One of my attempts to move the culture of politics in this direction is the political platform, which I maintain and have developed with the consultation of countless others with a broad range of political viewpoints. If you are interested in seeing what a political platform might look like without the sort of "liberal vs. conservative" dichotomy that exists in the U.S. and many other countries, I would invite you to visit that site. I am constantly refining and updating the ideas contained there, so if you have any comments, suggestions, or criticisms, I'd be most grateful (the site accepts comments there, so please comment on these points there rather than here).

Think about politics like you think about tea:

But most importantly, just give it some thought, and question the notion that politics is inherently controversial. It's not politics, it's how we think about politics. And maybe if we thought about politics more similarly to how we think about tea, many problems in our society would solve themselves.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Tea on Twitter: Twitter Lists of Tea Accounts

This post was inspired by Nicole's recent post Twitter for the Tea Set, which gives some useful advice for how to use twitter effectively. Her post got me thinking about writing my own post about twitter, and I realized that I maintain a valuable twitter resource that many readers of this blog may not know about: tea-related twitter lists.

I already interact with numerous readers of this blog on twitter, but in case you're on twitter and have not yet connected with me, there are two places to do so: @ratetea is where I talk about tea under the official account of RateTea, and @cazort is my personal account, where I will share personal opinions and also tweet about things other than tea. Now for the good stuff:

My twitter lists:

Both for my own benefit, and for the benefit of everyone in the tea community, I maintain a number of twitter lists. You can find all the lists and brief descriptions on twitter, by clicking the screenshot above, but here is a more detailed description of most of them:

  • tea-companies - This list includes the official twitter accounts of tea companies (often, multiple accounts for bigger companies), prominent or important employees or owners of tea companies, and a few noteworthy individuals who sell tea on a small scale.

  • tea-bloggers - This list is a collection of tea bloggers, people whose blogs focus primarily on tea.

  • tea-chat - This is a list of "chatty" twitter accounts tweeting about tea--ones who generally will reply if you @-message them with something about tea. Most of these accounts tweet primarily about tea but some also tweet on other subjects.

  • tea-misc - This list is an eclectic collection of twitter users who do something "official" about tea, but are not normal tea companies or bloggers. This list includes tea associations and organizations, people who run tea-related websites that do not have a blog-like format, and people who work in the tea industry in capacities other than blogging and working for tea companies.

  • herbs - This list collects herb companies and companies focusing on herbal teas, as well as websites, bloggers, and other twitter accounts with a focus on herbs, herbal tea, or herbal medicine. A few tea companies with a good selection of herbal teas or medicinal herbs can be found here as well.

  • tea-houses - This list is a collection of tea houses, tea bars, tea rooms, and local tea shops...any place with a sit-down atmosphere that serves tea.

  • sustainability - This list collects twitter accounts with a focus on sustainability and environmental issues. It contains a few tea companies and a lot of other accounts; I'm somewhat selective about what I list here.

  • health - Twitter accounts tweeting about health. This list is a general health-related list, not limited to tea-and-health related topics.

Let me add you to my lists:

If you run a twitter account that you think would make a good addition to any of these lists, or if you'd like to recommend another account that you think would be good to add, just @-message me, under the @ratetea account. I often list accounts under multiple lists, if relevant. You can comment here if you'd like, but I'd recommend tweeting, as that way you'll reach me while I'm signed onto twitter and can easily respond.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Old Posts on Herbs & Herbal Teas

Since this blog has far more subscribers now than it did a year ago, I periodically like to bring attention to some old posts that many of the newer readers may have missed...and today I want to bring attention to posts on the topic of herbs and herbal teas. Pictured is a collage giving a hint of what these posts have to offer:

Yes, I just said "herbal tea", a technically incorrect term which nonetheless is in widespread usage. This leads into my first post:

  • Is herbal tea tea? - In this post I explain why I use the term herbal tea both in this blog and on RateTea, even though herbal teas are not tea.

  • Monarda Tea Review - A review of herbal tea made from a plant of the Monarda genus, harvested locally in Delaware, with photos both of the plant and the steeping process.

  • Rooibos Protects Against Gamma Rays - I just had to draw attention to this post, which sounds too outrageous to be true, and surprisingly, is not.

  • Pineapple Sage Tea - Salvia Elegans - A post, with a photo, of one of my favorite plants to brew herbal tea from, and discussion of why you are unlikely to find this herb for sale on the market: this herb, delicious fresh, does not dry well.


Friday, October 21, 2011

The Best Teas: Is It Just About The Caffeine?

People who consider themselves tea connoisseurs, or perhaps even just tea enthusiasts, would usually like to believe that they have "discerning tastes", that they appreciate the "finer things in life", and specifically, the finer nuances of flavor and aroma when drinking a cup of tea.

Pictured here is some kukicha, one of my favorite styles of green tea, and one which demonstrates the spirit of this post: kukicha, tending to be low in caffeine, is not a usual focal point of connoisseurs:

This post is about a wrench thrown into the idea that we really have discerning tastes...the wrench is the observation that, at least to a large degree, people seem to seek out teas that are higher in caffeine. Not, mind you, teas they think are higher in caffeine, but teas that actually are higher in caffeine. (Which are two different things, unfortunately, due to the prevalance of misinformation in our society.)

But first I want to digress into the realm of beer and alcohol content, which offers a fascinating analogy of this same phenomenon:

Beer and Alcohol:

I was involved in rating and reviewing beer long before I got involved in rating and reviewing tea. In fact,, where you can find my profile if you're curious of my tastes in beer, was one of the major sources of inspiration for RateTea.

When I first started using RateBeer, I was so excited about the concept. I loved craft brews, and unlike most people in my age bracket, I had little interest in getting drunk. I saw my use of RateBeer and my passion for craft beers produced by local microbreweries as a rebellion against the dominant drinking culture in our society, which ignores taste and focuses on getting drunk as quickly as possible.

Something raises an eyebrow: Alcohol content and ratings:

After having used RateBeer for years, and drinking, rating, and reviewing hundreds of beers, I started noticing something. Beers with a higher alcohol content invariably received a higher rating on the site. I also noticed this same trend off the site, among people who considered themselves beer enthusiasts or connoisseurs...a large number of them tended towards the Belgian ales and barley wines, with their very high alcohol contents. These brews struck me as more like wine than beer. Personally, I like beer better than wine, and I think this preference is in part because of the lower alcohol content of beer.

As an example, my favorite beer, the Great Lakes Edmund Fitzgerald Porter, with 5.8% ABV (Alcohol by volume) scores a 3.87 with 1223 ratings. The Great Lakes Blackout Stout, a beer that I think is good, but not anywhere near as good, but which has 9% ABV, gets 3.93 (this subtle distinction in score is actually bigger than you might think on the site). Another example, from my hometown, is how Lancaster Brewing Co's Amish Four Grain, with 5.6% ABV is rated much lower than the same brewery's Winter Warmer, 9% ABV. Personally, I think the four-grain is a much better beer.

Back to tea:

I've unfortunately noticed a similar trend among teas, albeit with caffeine in place of alcohol. For example, among white teas, silver needle has more caffeine than bai mu dan, which has more caffeine than shou mei. Guess which ones tend to be more expensive and are often written about by "connoisseurs" as being somehow "better"? Another example...sencha vs. bancha. Another example: tippy black teas (whether Assam, Yunnan, or whatever) vs. their non-tippy counterparts.

Although there's certainly a huge amount of variability, the teas with more caffeine tend to be more expensive, seem to be preferred by people "in the know", and receive better reviews.

Possible confounding factors:

There are other factors that could be contributing to these trends. Some confounding factors that I've thought of are that:

  • Tippy teas (more tips / young leaves, less mature leaves) contain more caffeine, and also have a more smooth or delicate flavor, and people may prefer the smoothness or other qualities, so the association with caffeine is accidental.

  • Tippy teas are more expensive, and people may be buying into the psychological fallacy that more expensive means better quality.

  • Because tippy teas are more expensive, they're more actively pushed by tea companies because of the higher profit margin, and we tea drinkers are simply fooled by their marketing into thinking they're really higher quality.

And of course, it also might be true that people don't actually prefer these teas, that there's just an illusion that they do, again, probably because of tea company marketing (unlike the world of beer, where there is hard data suggesting that people really do prefer the beers with a higher alcohol content).

What do you think?

Do you think that the caffeine content of a tea influences how much people like it, and that people tend to prefer teas with more caffeine because of the caffeine? Or do you think that it could be explained by confounding factors? Or do you think they really don't like these teas at all and it's just an impression caused by tea company marketing?

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Cheap Tea: Loose-leaf Teas Offering Outstanding Value

I'm a bargain shopper, and a highly cost-conscious person in nearly all aspects of my life. I believe in spending money wisely. This post is about loose-leaf teas that are really cheap. This is not the first time I've written on this topic: back in April of 2010 I wrote about three unusually good inexpensive teas...but that was a long time ago, and I've discovered more deals since then.

The word "cheap" often has a negative connotation..."cheaply made", or "cheap quality". That's not what I'm getting at. By cheap, I mean that the price is really low, lower than you can typically get in tea bags. The teas in this post are not just inexpensive, they're outright cheap, bargain buys. But they're also remarkably high-quality. They offer, in my opinion, outstanding value...the best you can get for your money.

Ahmad Tea's Kalami Assam:

Pictured here is the loose-leaf of Ahmad Tea's Kalami Assam:

Price: $6.15 a pound. Wow, just wow.
Summary: A strong Assam black tea with remarkable complexity.
My full review.

Tradition's Oolongs: A-Li-Son (Alishan) and Dong Ding:

Picture here is a tin of Tradition's A-Li-Son (Alishan) oolong, with the loose-leaf brewing in a glass mug. This tea is a little pricier relative to the others, but it is a whole-leaf green oolong tea, with mostly unbroken leaves, and it's still really cheap:

Price: $7.95 for 100 grams.
Summary: Two offerings: A-Li-Son (pictured), and Dong Ding. Both are intensely aromatic, greener, high-mountain oolong from Taiwan. Unparalleled quality for this price.
My review of Tradition's A-Li-Son Oolong, and My review of Tradition's Dong Ding Oolong.

Starway's Green Teas: Huangshan Mao Feng and Bilouchun (Bi Luo Chun):

This brand is a relative newcomer (at least to my eye) in Asian markets, but is now widely available. I'm less impressed with their oolongs, but these two green teas offer amazing deals:

Price: $2.95 and $3.95 for 6 ounces (170 grams).
Summary: Two single-region Chinese green teas of unparalleled quality for this price. The cheaper of the two is in the mao feng style, the other is a surprisingly passable bi luo chun.

My review of the bi luo chun, and My review of the huangshan mao feng.

Have you tried any of these teas? And have you found any deals lately?

Let me know! Share your insights into teas that are both cheap and good!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

New Homepage for RateTea

Some of you have likely already seen this, but in case you haven't, or in case you want to learn more, on Monday, we launched a new homepage for RateTea. Here is a screenshot:

Why did we redesign the homepage? While the old page was functional, we were getting the message from a lot of people that they were surprised when they learned the full extent of our site. Our site now has hundreds of researched articles on different styles, regions, and brands of tea. We wanted to better communicate at a glance how extensive the site is.

A lot of new visitors to the site also seemed to be misunderstanding what our site was about...thinking that the site sells tea (we do not) or not realizing that the site was open to the public. People also seemed to be missing the connection to the philosophy of slow food, as well as the emphasis on sustainability and environmental issues.

Some of our goals for this new homepage are to:

  • Make it easier to navigate: there are now more pages accessible in one click from the homepage.

  • Make it look sleeker and more professional, more pleasing to the eye.

  • Clearly communicate the full extent of the site, as well as the spirit, philosophy, and purpose of the site.

  • Encourage more active participation: there is a prominent sign-up box rather than just a discrete link, and the sign up process has been made simpler.

The following screenshot shows a new line of links that reflects the site's growing base of tea-related articles. We have now added a tagging system, classifying articles by subject (tea and health, tea and sustainability, brewing tea, and two categories we hope to expand more in the future: tea business and industry and buying tea).

What we removed:

If you miss the old "Styles of tea" box, you will be pleased to find that most of these same options are still available in one-click. Scroll down to "Updates to Styles & Varieties of Tea" and you'll see the little line "More:" (also highlighted above) which lists the major styles of tea. Or, for a more comprehensive listing, just visit the Styles page by clicking the tab at the top.

We also removed the drop-down box with the listing of brands of tea, because it had become redundant. We have since improved the searching and browsing features on the site. You can still look up teas by brand by going to the "Brand" page, or you can search by typing the name of the brand, or name of the tea, into the search box at the top.

There are a few small features, such as the news box and the twitter / facebook icons that we will probably add back soon. We just wanted to get the page out there because it had been in development for some time and we felt it was much better as-is than the old page.

Let us know what you think!

Let me know by posting a comment here, or for private remarks, contact us through the RateTea contact form. Do you think this new page more thoroughly communicates the depth and richness of topics covered by the site? Does it look more inviting ? Any suggestions for further tweaks that could move us farther in this direction?

Thanks in advance, and also, thank you for the numerous people who have already given us feedback!

Monday, October 17, 2011

What do you bring to tea blogging?

I was recently inspired by a post by Steven Knorr on The 39 Steeps, titled Unqualified but not disqualified. The post is a bit of a personal reflection, but it gets at the issue of qualifications or credentials as a "tea person" or "tea expert". One of my favorite quotes from this post is towards the end:
All I've got is the ability to type 90 wpm, a nose and a mouth, and a lively interest. And the ability to speak English fluently.

I can also relate to what Steven writes about ruts of depression or anxiety, times when I feel powerless. I think in our modern society, nearly everyone feels these things at some point in time, to some degree. When I'm in a bad place, some of the thoughts and worries that I have when I think about the effort I put into RateTea and this blog are ones like: "With so many blogs, websites, media outlets, and messages out there, how can I possibly get anyone's attention?"

This collage of screenshots captures just how many tea bloggers there are:

Those are all member blogs of the Association of Tea Bloggers, of which I am a member. Yet...the collage only shows some of their blogs, not a full list. And there are numerous tea bloggers who are not in this association.

The self-promotion mentality:

It's easy to see what's out there and to get into a mindset that I like to call the "self-promotional mindset". The thought process goes like this..."There are so many blogs out there." --> "Wow, it's so competitive." --> "I need to do a lot of clever marketing or strategizing if I am going to attract significant readership to my blog."

I think this is not necessarily a healthy mindset. At its extreme, it leads towards spammy behavior. I also think it's not based on truth. I think the biggest fallacy in this line of reasoning is the idea that the atmosphere of blogging is "competitive". This is a subjective interpretation of reality, and from my experience, it's not true. Bloggers form a community, and they are more interested in engaging with each other and cooperating than they are with competing against each other.

I also think that at its root, this mentality is based on thinking of blogging as "what can I get out of blogging" rather than "what can I bring to blogging". Yes, you can get things out of can generate revenue by serving ads on your blog, or by adding affiliate links to tea companies, and if you own a tea company, you can generate traffic to your website and make money by selling tea. But I still think that this isn't the best or most productive way of thinking about blogging.

Getting out of this mentality: what can I bring to blogging?

In the spirit of the famous JFK Inaugural address, "Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country".

I find it uplifting to focus on the fact that each person brings unique gifts to anything they try. Blogging is no exception. I think that this mentality actually helps people to get the most out of blogging as's a bit ironic, by thinking of giving most, you get the most. But it works like this: the best way to "promote" a blog is to write something unique and interesting, sharing from your own personal experiences, and writing from your own strengths.

What do I bring?

I have no credentials when it comes to tea, just my own limited personal tasting experience, which, relative to many bloggers, is not particularly deep. Visual design is also not my strong suit. Here I am, still using the default blogger theme, and the site that I've put the most effort into, RateTea, was made fun of on the Steepster forums for its visual design (before the recent updates, mind you, and we actually substantially redesigned the RateTea homepage again today, so hopefully it looks even better).

But I do bring something unique.

What I do think I have to offer is an above-average knowledge of ecology, some business experience, some gardening experience from the mid-Atlantic and midwestern U.S., and an academic statistics background that helps me to sort through the piles of research on the science of tea and health, and herbs and health. And I also bring a fairly quirky, zany mind with a knack for drawing deep connections between subjects that most people might not think are related.

And, back to Steven Knorr's 39 Steeps, I will say, I think that tea blog also has something unique to offer. It's eclectic, which makes it interesting to read and helps to inspire creativity. Steven also has discerning tastes, which makes me better able to trust what he writes, and, as diverse as the posts are, he seems selective about what topics he covers...I think a good bit more selective than I am. So, addressed both to Steven and numerous others: stop all the silly talk about not having any credentials! =)

What do you bring?

Think about what you bring to blogging...and consider commenting or writing a follow-up post. I would be curious to read what you personally believe your strengths are as a blogger and a tea enthusiast.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Antioxidants: Tea vs. Vitamins A, C, and E

This post is about the relationship between tea, antioxidants, and several different classes of antioxidants, including essential vitamin antioxidants (including Vitamins A, C, and E), synthetic antioxidants, and naturally-occurring antioxidants such as catechins and anthocyanins. I wrote about antioxidants last November, but this post goes into more depth.

Pictured here is one of my favorite fruits, a blood orange:

A blood orange is an interesting variety of orange that has a deep reddish color. The red pigment is due to the presence of anthocyanins, a class of natural pigments which are known to work as antioxidants. Another red-pigmented orange variety, the Cara cara orange, or red navel orange, is also pigmented red, but due to a different pigment, lycopene, the pigment giving tomatoes their characteristic orange-red color. I chose an orange because oranges have a reputation for being very high in Vitamin C. Vitamin C is also an antioxidant.

Anthocyanins also occur in high concentrations in certain varieties of tea plant. One particularly pronounced example of this is purple tea, which is a varietal of tea plant with dark purple leaves, loaded with anthocyanins. This variety was developed in Kenya. I recently tried purple tea for the first time, and I hope to write more about it in future posts.

Antioxidants in Tea:

One of the most popular topics when it comes to tea and health is that of antioxidants. Unfortunately, "antioxidants" have become a bit of a buzzword, and in some cases, a marketing scheme or even scam used to sell tea, or worse, sell herbal supplement products containing tea.

It is pretty well-established scientific fact tea is rich in antioxidants. If you want to read in more depth about these chemicals, there's a ton of info on RateTea's article on antioxidants in tea. What's less clear is the degree to which these antioxidants are actually beneficial to health. As strange as this may sound, although there's a fair amount of evidence that tea is good for your health, there's little to no evidence that the health benefits of tea can be attributed to the antioxidant activity of chemicals in the tea. The article explains more.

Essential Antioxidant Vitamins vs. Other Antioxidants:

Many people are surprised to learn that a number of essential vitamins, including Vitamin A, Vitamin C, and Vitamin C, are antioxidants. Perhaps more shocking to health nuts is the realization that the synthetic preservatives BHA (Butylated hydroxyanisole) and BHT (Butylated hydroxytoluene) are also antioxidants. BHA and BHT are both controversial food additives, and both show some evidence of having harmful effects on health, although the research on this topic is inconclusive. The point is, antioxidants are not necessarily beneficial, and can even be harmful.

Essential Vitamins, on the other hand, are very different beasts. Vitamins A, C, and E are all antioxidants. Although each of these vitamins can be problematic in extremely high doses under certain conditions (one form of Vitamin A, retinol, can be harmful in high doses, and others, such as beta-carotein, can turn your skin orange) they are generally quite safe. There is a lot of research suggesting that most people in the U.S. consume far too little Vitamin C, although this is a matter of controversy. Wikipedia has some good sources on this controversy on their section on Vitamin C's Daily Requirements.

The catechins, the antioxidants of green tea, and the theaflavins and thearubigins (together called tannins), are not essential nutrients. They may be beneficial to health, but they are certainly not necessary, and they do have some downsides (such as inhibiting iron absorption).

Tea or fresh fruits and vegetables?

As wonderful as tea is, it is not necessary to human health, nor is caffeine, nor is theanine, an amino acid derivative found in high concentrations in tea.

Fresh fruits and vegetables, for the most part (with a few exceptions such as certain Inuit diets), are necessary for optimal health. If you want antioxidants, eat a diversity of fresh fruits and vegetables...they're loaded with vitamin A, C, and E, nature's antioxidants. Drink tea if you like the taste, and the way it makes you feel.

What do you think?

I'm much of the information in this post is new, unfamiliar, or surprising to you, and how much of it is old stuff that you already know inside and out?

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Review of trYeh & trYeh Heritage Blend

When I attended World Tea East, I picked up numerous samples. Many of these I have reviewed and continue to review on RateTea, but since RateTea is only for ratings and reviews of teas sold to the general public, there were quite a few samples I picked up from companies that only sell wholesale. TrYeh was one of these companies. Since I know many tea company owners and employees read this blog, I wanted to write some reviews and posts about companies that are only in the wholesale or supplier business.

Here is a sample of loose-leaf tea from this company, that I review below:

Before we proceed to the review, I want to write about this company as a whole, and my impression of it.

TrYeh: About the Company

TrYeh is based in Berkeley, Ca, and is primarily a wholesale supplier of teaware, but also supplies a small amount of loose-leaf tea. The company had a stand in the middle of the exhibition hall at World Tea East, and their stand featured some beautiful pottery, including Yixing teapots in many different styles, simple and ornate, traditional and modern. I was struck by the affordable prices of these items, relative to their quality and appearance. The company keeps their prices private, so I won't share details, but I will say that the prices were set low enough that they could be sold with a reasonable markup, but still at a fair price offering good value. I did not brew tea with any of these pots, and I can't truly testify to their quality without having done this, but I will say that the company got my attention, and might be worth looking at if you are looking for a supplier of this sort of teaware.

According to their website, TrYeh designs all their pottery, and outsources production to China, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand. Their target audience is small retailers, which includes both tea shops as well as other sorts of small businesses. TrYeh also sells a few teas, which leads into my review.

Review of TrYeh Heritage Blend:

This tea was marked as TrYeh Heritage blend, Oolong tea, grade AAAA. According to their website, this tea has about a 30% oxidation level, and a mild roast, and is a blend of teas harvested in spring and winter.

The dry leaf is intensely and pleasingly aromatic. The aroma of the dry leaf is very middle-of-the-road among greener oolongs, with a moderate amount of roast but also floral and herbaceous tones.

I brewed this tea western-style, and have not yet attempted gong fu style brewing. Brewed with the typical teaspoon of leaf, for a few minutes, it produces a beautiful light greenish golden infusion. The aroma of the tea is very strong and much more pleasing than the already enjoyable aroma of the dry leaf: airy, light, floral, fruity, like a garden in spring. The floral aroma is boldly present, but gentle and less intense than in most greener oolong. The flavor is mild and sweet, almost no bitterness or astringency. It lasted through four infusions, with western style brewing, making each infusion progressively longer, which is impressive.

This tea definitely got my attention. It's a very balanced tea that I think would be likely to please connoisseurs and yet probably be accessible to those with less developed palates as well.

What do you think?

Have you ever had any experience with TrYeh? And did you find this sort of post useful or relevant, or would you prefer for me to focus on reviews that are more accessible and oriented to the general public?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Tea, Like a G6

This post is inspired not by any post on Lahikmajoe's blog, but by the spirit of the blog Lahikmajoe Drinks Tea, with its flippant style and oblique references to aspects of pop culture that have little to do with tea.

Like a G6 is a catchy 2010 pop dance song by the band Far East Movement. Tea originates in the far east, and the song Like a G6 is about drinking (not tea), and that's about where the similarity between tea and this song ends. Or is it? In case you aren't familiar with this song, I would encourage you to listen to it:

Apologies in advance if it makes you listen to a brief ad first--sometimes it has been doing this.

What the heck is a G6?

One of the funniest things about the song "Like a G6" is the repeated (incessant?) references to a "G6". Niles Hollowell-Dhar, who wrote the lyrics to and produced this song, explains in an interview that a "G6" is a made-up reference, chosen to rhyme with three-six, a reference to the rap group Three-Six Mafia. Group member Kev Nish explained in an MTV interview that it's a hyperbole, referencing G4 aircraft: "Drake talks about having G4 pilots on deck, so we said, 'What's flyer than a G4?' Of course, it would be a G6".

The point is, it's made-up, and it's a bit outrageous. Perhaps this has something to do with the song's popularity...people have a way of latching onto completely ridiculous things.

What in the tea industry is like a G6?

If you're still reading, and you're thinking: "This is pretty ridiculous, this post has nothing to do with tea so far." you're absolutely right, which is the point.

And there are tea companies, herbal supplement companies, and "informational" websites about tea which also put out information that is totally made up. Here are a few examples of such made-up claims:

  • White tea is lowest in caffeine and highest in antioxidants, because it is least processed. False! See caffeine content of tea and antioxidants in tea for hard facts breaking this myth.
  • Tea (usually green tea) is proven to help with X, Y and Z. False. Proof is a gold standard in science, and the scientific study of tea is very young and inconclusive. It is at best misleading and at worst, outright false to claim that any of the supposed health benefits of tea are proven. While there is suggestive evidence supporting a number of probable health benefits of tea, there is hardly any proof; many topics have only been studied in animal studies or epidemiological studies. See health benefits of tea for a more science-based approach.
  • You'll love this tea! or similar claims made in marketing. Really? You don't even know who I am. Different people have different tastes, so making a claim that a tea will be universally loved is just silly.
  • (Possibly the worst) False claims of organic status, or deliberately misrepresenting a tea's true nature or origin. Yes, this happens, see Pesticides found in organic tea, which is cited in a word of caution on RateTea's page on organic tea, for a particularly nasty case of mis-labelled "organic" tea.

Yes, if you read the sorts of claims above on a tea company website, they are making it up, like a G6. And be careful to actually look into organic and fair trade certification rather than just believing it whenever you see the word "organic" or "fair trade" thrown onto a product.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Seasonality of Tea and Nature

One of my favorite aspects of reading tea blogs, which is more evident in some blogs than others, is reading about nature. Among these blogs, one of my favorites is Tea for Today, where Marlena often adds detailed little notes about birds she observed, and often includes nature scenes. I also love Tea Musings, a blog with original poetry; many of these poems focus on aspects of nature and the changing seasons. I very highly recommend both of these blogs if you love nature as much as I do.

The way I view it, becoming interested in and knowledgeable about tea, beyond a certain level of introductory knowledge, requires becoming interested in nature. In this post I want to show how the seasonality in tea is part of a broader trend of patterns that exist in numerous other plants and animals. Here's a picture that, for me, captures this time of year, early fall:

This photo shows a black-and-white warbler in fall plumage. This is a first-year bird. The fall migration season of birds is characterized by an abundance of newly-raised first-year birds, travelling south for the winter. In the background are the yellowing leaves of a hackberry tree, partly bare already. Hackberry trees, of the Celtis genus, lose their leaves relatively early, but this year, many of these trees lost their leaves particularly early. In nature, there are fluctuations in the health and population of nearly all living things, including plants and animals. Just as the tea harvest is different each year, each tree species fares better some years than others, insect infestations wax and wane (attacking stressed trees more easily), and bird populations grow, shrink, and move in response to the abundance of food. These hackberry trees, partly defoliated and full of insects, and also full of ripe fruit, attracted huge mixed flocks of migratory warblers, who help to control the populations of these insects.

The changing of the seasons is evident in this bird; compare its appearance to a photo I took of the same species in spring, in the same area:

The background shows the intact, yellow-green leaves of spring, in this case, on a white oak. This bird has a black throat and cheek, signaling that it is a male. (I'm pretty sure the first bird is male too). You can click the photos to learn more about these birds.

One reason I wanted to share these birds is to make an analogy to the seasonality of tea. Both of these birds are clearly identifiable as black-and-white warblers. The differences between them are noticeable, especially after someone points them out, but they might not be immediately evident to an untrained eye. This difference is a lot like the difference between the different flushes or harvests of tea, for instance, Darjeeling black tea. A connoisseur would usually (not always) be able to easily distinguish first flush from, say, autumnal flush (which, by the way, is coming available right now). But inexperienced tea drinkers often (not always) would not. I think in this respect, seasonal distinctions in the different qualities of tea are a lot like the seasonal differences in bird plumage. There is a certain unity in how nature works and is organized.

Changing of the seasons:

The changing of seasons is a very fundamental aspect to human existence. Some areas, such as the eastern United States, where I am located, have four well-defined seasons, whereas other areas have fewer, more subtle, or different seasons. For example, San Diego has a cool, slightly rainy season in their "winter", a cloudy but generally rainless spell around May-June, and then a sunny late summer and early fall, sliding back into the cooler, slightly rainy winter. Only certain climates produce the familiar fall or autumn with changing tree colors and fallen leaves of diverse colors:

Many of the major tea-growing regions have very strong, well-defined seasons, but these seasons do not always correspond to what most Americans or Europeans know of as seasons. South and Southeast Asia has a strongly pronounced monsoon season, much more pronounced than any of the seasonal precipitation patterns in North America. Most of Asia has wet summers and dry winters. The dry winters produce a greater swing of temperatures during the winter than similar areas experience in North America...but Asia experiences fewer heavy snow events. Some tea-growing areas, including much of Sri Lanka, and parts of Africa, have a bimodal precipitation pattern, meaning that there are two distinct wet seasons and two distinct dry seasons in each year. In many tropical regions, the seasons are poorly defined at low altitudes, where it is warm year-round, but as altitude rises and it becomes both colder and rainier, the seasons become more pronounced. This effect is evident on the west-coast of the U.S., such as in how high altitudes in Southern California show a full four seasons like the east coast.

Unfortunately, our modern society has often disconnected us from the seasons. Carefully climate-controlled interiors of offices, homes, and cars make us comfortable, but disconnect us from the world outside. Year-round avaliability of normally seasonal foods like apples, oranges, or even lettuce, further disconnects us. We lose touch with nature. Is this what we really want? I don't want it at all, and as I've gotten older, I've realized that I'm willing to give up something (i.e. no apples in spring, no plums in winter) in order to be more in touch with what's really going on. I also have found that the food I eat tends to taste better, and also be more affordable, when I eat what's in season. Living this way is also more sustainable, as eating and using what is seasonally available requires fewer resources; it involves working with rather than working against nature.

The following photo of a red Bartlett pear and a Valencia orange looks natural, but is not: Bartlett pears are a fall crop of cold climates, and Valencia oranges, a late winter / early spring crop of milder climates. It's simply not possible that these were both produced locally--not even both on the east coast of the US. One of these was clearly shipped across the globe from a different climate:

The same things are true of tea, to a degree:

Single-harvest teas vs. blends:

Naturally, as the growing conditions of the tea plant change throughout the year, the character of the tea produced changes, sometimes radically. Large tea companies, including the brands of tea owned by Unilever, seeking a consistent product, often blend-out these differences, changing the proportion of teas used in their blends in order to retain a consistent flavor and character of their tea year-round and from one year to the next.

While I can understand the drive to consistency, I resist it. I want to taste that variability. And I want to stay true to production methods that work with nature, rather than working against it. Nature has variability. I want to taste that variability, and I certainly don't want to pay to blend it out.

How about you?

Monday, October 10, 2011

Cups & Chairs Tea Shop, Philadelphia

This post is about a tea shop in Philadelphia, Cups and Chairs. I recently learned about this shop because one of my friends started working at it. This photo shows the interior of the shop:

I wanted to take a picture of the storefront too, but it started to rain when I was there, and I didn't get a picture of the outside. The store was very cute, and the inside very clean, new, sleek, and well-kept, yet while still being cozy and comfortable. The storefront had a bright, open feel, located on a corner, and with big windows looking out on the street.

The shop is located on 5th street, just south of Bainbridge (which is just south of South Street). This neighborhood is somewhat's very near the busy commercial district on South Street, and in a relatively high-density area, but enough off the beaten path that I can see many people overlooking this shop.

What does this shop have to offer?

This shop sells loose-leaf tea, sells a small selection of teaware (pictured below), and sells some food, in a pleasant, casual, sit-down cafe type atmosphere. This shop is very much like a typical "coffee shop", except that it focuses on tea and not coffee.

The first two pictures do not show that there is a whole second room with a much bigger seating area. This shop has quite a lot of seating, and has both tables and chairs, as well as a sizeable cozy nook with cushiony sofas in the back:

Because of the layout, and the fact that it started raining so I was unable to take a picture from outside looking in, it was hard for me to capture the size and extent of this shop, but I will say it was very large, easily enough to accommodate 25 or so people sitting down and enjoying tea. The shop features free wireless internet; I did not have my laptop, however, so I was not able to test its reliability. But I can see this being a very pleasant place to work from.

Further thoughts:

I ordered a cup of kabusecha, and it was decent, although I'm not particularly knowledgeable about this type of tea (a shaded tea which is shaded for a shorter period than gyokuro). I don't think I would regularly buy my tea here, however. Although there was a good selection, there wasn't anything in the selection that really jumped out at me as being an amazing buy in terms of value or quality. For example, I regularly buy black teas from Upton Tea Imports, and I think they set the gold standard in terms of value...because I can buy high-quality single-estate teas for $7 for 125 grams, sometimes even less, the bar is set pretty high for me to buy something in a local tea shop. I also am drawn in by something truly unusual -- and will often pay a price premium for such teas -- but there wasn't anything in this shop that jumped out at me as truly unusual, such as teas from regions I have never tried before, or unusual styles or varieties of tea.

I also wasn't crazy about the glass jars with samples of tea (for smelling). Glass is not a good way to store tea, especially in a bright store like this one, because light causes the tea to break down. Needless to say, the samples did not smell particularly fresh. I will point out, however, that Cups & Chairs stores its actual tea, the tea that is for sale or used to brew the tea you order, in opaque metal tins, pictured here:

I would be more likely to come back because of the ambiance or atmosphere...this place is just really nice on the inside. It strikes a balance between modern and old, between cozy and professional, and between quiet and active. Unfortunately, its location doesn't correspond well with places I tend to go in the course of my daily life in Philadelphia, so I probably won't be here particularly frequently, but I would like to recommend it especially to anyone who lives nearby and wants a cafe to hang out in that offers a change of pace from the coffee-centered coffee shops that dominate most of the cafe scene in most American cities.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Peter at Leafbox Tea Writes on Spam Blogs

This post is a follow-up post to the post Tea Spam: "Boutique" Spam". I received a wealth of responses to this post, some in private. Several different people pointed out a connection between a tea company and the spam site using automated posts, which I described in my earlier post. One of these responses I agreed to publish on my blog, because it was too big to put in the comment box on the original blog post. This was written by Peter of Leafbox Tea. Upon issuing this post, I received a cease-and-desist letter from the said company, after which, upon consulting with Peter, we removed mention of this company's name.

If you are curious what company it is, we encourage you to do your own research; the information we used to research this post is all in plain view and the public record.


The following reply was authored by Peter. As a disclaimer, I will say that it does not represent my own views, but I will say that I think the viewpoint is worth reading and reflecting on. I do not agree with everything communicated in the reply, and I clarify a few points below.

But at a very minimum, it is clear that the tea company in question has some relationship to the spam site, as the company is advertising there without affiliate links, and is located in the same physical neighborhood. In the spirit of Wikipedia I would like to assume good faith. If the sites are separate, and the advertisement is paid advertisement, then it consists of paid links, which is a violation of Google's guidelines, and is an unethical "black-hat" technique to manipulate search ranking. If there is a relationship, then the whole site is such an operation. I would like to encourage the owner of this company to (a) clarify his relationship to the site (b) if he runs the site, take it down, or at least, remove the automated content and leave only the legitimate, uniquely authored content, or, identify the source of the content and how it has been modified. (c) if he does not run the site, to cut off any relationship he has with the site -- including stopping advertising on it.

In the long-run, this will actually be beneficial to this company's business, regardless of whether or not the sites are affiliated. Google is good at detecting link schemes, and it explicitly says so in their webmaster guidelines. Following these guidelines helps to maintain an image of public integrity, and also protect their placement in search rankings, by either shutting the site's automated spam content down (if they run it), or by distancing themselves from the site and helping to shut it down (if they do not).

Peter's Reply:***This posting has been redacted by its original author due to the issuance of a cease-and-desist letter. All direct indications of the company and principals in question have been removed.***

I love that you brought this up because that site was brought up earlier this year by a very popular online tea personality. That person linked that site to a currently operating online tea company. I will do the same here, because it took me about ten minutes to confirm that connection with some Google-fu. It is owned by the tea company XXXXXXXXXXXX. The owner of XXXXXXXXX has threatened libel suits for anyone calling him a spammer.

A note about that offending site: It is not intended for human viewers and everything about it is probably automated - it is intended only for Google. When you look at it from a SEO (search engine optimization) point of view, it is a very nice piece of work.

Google checks sites that are updated frequently, no doubt that Google is crawling that thing several times a day. There is a correlation between the SEO keywords used on that site (loose leaf tea) and the keywords used on XXXXXXXXXX (also loose leaf tea). Both sites feature this prominently. However, Google gives a lot of weight to what it calls Authoritative Sites but it doesn't distinguish (yet) from robot created sites and human created sites. The constant flow of content, and the offending site is developing itself as an authoritative tea site (even if humans never visit it) - as it goes up in age and rankings, the sites it links to also go up in rankings.

Now, I did check some of the articles through google and of the five I checked, all were copied from places that are intended to be copied (i.e. When looking for plagarism, I find it easier to grab a large chunk of text from the article and search it in Google. If all of the sources for the site are material designed for this purpose, then he is not plagarizing - its just an aggregation of material meant for that.

I won't go so far as to call the owner of XXXXXXXXXXX a spammer, but in terms of website building - I do think that what he has done is absolutely unethical as a tea industry businessman. He may be thinking that all he has done is built a cog in the great Google machine, but when real humans spend time on his attractively designed site - he is doing a great diservice to tea drinkers and consumers because of the amount of cheap, unsubstantiated, and inaccurate information posted there.

Now, how do I know that the site is owned by XXXXXXXXX? What is my evidence?

~ There are five ads on the left side of the blog. Only one is not an affiliate ad, the one that links to XXXXXXXXXXX. I do think there is a certain irony in him being an affiliate advertiser for his competitors...(affiliate ad links don't affect Google rankings - he wants Google to give credit to the links to XXXXXXXXXX)

~ The physical addresses for each business carry much in common. This is all public information made available on the respective websites. Both companies show an address in the city of Carol Stream, Illinois in the zip code of 60188. Maybe a coincidence, but it gets better. XXXXXXXXX's business address is in the 600 block of Kamiah Court (which is, according to mapping, a neighborhood of single-family homes). The business address of the offending site is 780 West Army Trail Road #178, which is the address for the local UPS store nearest Kamiah Court. In fact, that UPS store is located in the closest shopping center only about a 5 minute drive from his house. It is actually less than a mile away. The #178 would be the post box number inside the store should anyone want to send him a letter. I do not believe this is a coincidence.

~ I have not called the phone numbers I found for each site - Offending Site: 773-458-0092; XXXXXXXXXXX: [removed]; but I strongly suspect we would get [removed] on the line for either one of them. Reverse lookup puts both phone numbers in Carol Stream, Illinois.

My thoughts on this are that, as a member of the community, with a vested interest in the expansion of the tea industry through ethical means and accurate information, XXXXXXXXXX should be boycotted as a tea company until they remove the offending website.

I see nothing illegal taking place there, but I do see badly written articles, that are often written without any substantiation or supporting material. There are also calls to "Trust us" on the offending site, which I find rather repulsive. Additionally, the sources these articles come from exist solely to serve as another cog in the Google SEO machine - and they only exist in the first place to manipulate Google rankings for those who write them.

There is a lot of unethical practice when it comes to SEO, I do think this offending site qualifies by not properly displaying what it is - an aggregator. In fact, the About page blatantly lies about the creation, writing and origin of the articles, because, as we've shown, the creators of the site do not write them.

Again, I am calling for a boycott of XXXXXXXXXXXXX until the offending site is removed or corrected to state that it is an article aggregator, that the articles are not original to the site and that they are sourced automatically from around the net and serve no purpose but raise Google rankings.

A few clarifying points:

Back to Alex again: it actually is illegal, a violation of copyright law, to publish content from EzineArticles and most other article directories, in a modified form. I am an author on EzineArticles: you can visit my author profile, as well as a number of other websites. The terms of this site clearly specify that publishers must (a) credit the original author and the source of the article, and (b) publish the article as-is, without any modifications. If these terms are not followed, the publisher does not have any legal right to use the article, and publishing it constitutes copyright violation.

I don't know the original sources of these articles. It is conceivable that they are from a source that allows free republishing, or that the site owner has obtained the original author's permission. However, the use of automated software to write articles written for search engines and not humans is unethical and is a violation of Google's webmaster guidelines.

I also want to point out that Google actually is remarkably good at identifying computer-generated content. Search is the company's primary product and focus, and they have whole teams of intelligent people. "Black-hat" search engine optimization practices can only hurt a company in the Google's team adapts to them, these practices will end up penalizing rather than rewarding sites that use them. The same is true for other companies in the search business, including Yahoo and Microsoft (Bing).