Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Teacology: A New Tea Blog

Today I published the first full post of a new tea blog. The blog is called Teacology, communicating how I like to talk about tea together with ecology, and take an ecological approach to my thinking and writing:

The first full post is titled Locally Grown Tea and Herbal Tea – Sustainability, Ecology, Economics, and is a rewrite or derivative post of my original post on this blog, Locally Grown Tea.

I am looking to have a higher standard for the posts on Teacology. I will likely update much less often, but I am hoping to put a greater amount of effort and care into each individual post.

Wordpress vs. Blogger:

The main impetus for this new blog is a switch from Blogger to Wordpress. I explained my reasons for making this switch in my introductory post Teacology – A New and Old Tea Blog.

But here's an explanation anyway:

  • Wordpress.com is really on top of spam blogs. Blogger isn't. I think this devalues blogs hosted on Blogspot domains, and I'm concerned both about the eyes of the public, and impacts on search engine optimization. I want to blog on a more reputable blogging platform that has higher standards for keeping out spam blogs.
  • The Wordpress.com team is extremely responsive about bugs. For example, when setting up my blog, I encountered a glitch in the CSS of a theme that I wanted to use. I posted on the Wordpress forum, and within a matter of hours, I had a response from staff that the problem had been fixed. This level of service is outstanding for any online service, and almost unheard of for a free service.
  • Wordpress.com offers better options for networking in new blogs with an audience. For example, when posts are tagged on Wordpress.com blogs, they are interlinked in with a master site feed, and new blogs will be shown in this feed even before they have established an audience. As example, check their master feed for the "tea" tag. This helps new blogs quickly reach a broader audience, and it also helps anyone (including bloggers looking to engage with other bloggers) locate posts on specific topics.
I basically have come to see Blogspot/Blogger as a semi-dead blogging platform for some time now. It is owned and administered by Google, but the company clearly does not put as much effort into it as their other products, like Google+ or Gmail. Over the past year, I've been irritated as I've seen chronic problems go un-addressed, problems as diverse as a lack of crackdown on spam blogs, the terrible spam filter for comments, and bugs in the default themes. Without addressing these problems, the Blogger admins have forced changes on us without our consent, like updating to a new back-end system, while doing so in a piecemeal manner that for a time left some components in the old system while we were forced to use new interfaces on others.

I do not plan on updating this blog regularly any more, but I will leave it here for reference, and I may post periodic updates if I ever feel a compelling reason to do so.

I hope that I will continue to see all of the readers who have been so engaging here in the comments, on my new blog Teacology! I look forward to interacting with all of you!

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Why I Stopped Updating so Frequently

It's been aeons since I updated! Well, more accurately, since some time late-September, a little over two months.

This morning I'm drinking Dao Ren Tea from Mountain Rose Herbs, a pretty straightforward Zhejiang green tea, organic certified, that was sold for a very reasonable price. You can read my review on RateTea. I have still been posting reviews there.

So why did I stop updating so frequently?

Short story, I wasn't getting anywhere near as much out of blogging as I was putting in. RateTea requires some maintenance and upkeep, and RateTea is more of a priority than this blog. Some good news is that RateTea's traffic has picked up and is close to establishing a new record high level!

I really appreciate the comments I get here, but to be blunt, my posts here don't attract enough attention to make it worth my while to post as often as I was. So I needed a break. I don't feel satisfied with putting as much energy as I was into my writing, if my audience is as small as it was. I've been brainstorming why this is. I have another blog on Wordpress.com that I've used as a convenient comparison, and I am starting to think that Wordpress is a better blogging platform for attracting views. On wordpress, even without having any subscribers, I would post something and BAM, a lot of people would read it, and I also would get fewer spam comments. (I get an unbelievable amount of spam here on blogger, AND the spam filter frequently sends sincere comments into the spam bin, from lovely people such as Steph of Steph's Cup of Tea or The Teaist.)

I think blogger has poor spam control, both for spam blogs and comments, and I think this hurts blogger's visibility. Over the past year, I've reported dozens of spam blogs to Blogger, only to see them stay up for months, and some never get taken down. With Wordpress.com, it's different. I report, and usually I get an email 3 hours later, a personal reply from a human being, thanking me, and the blog is taken down immediately. I love this. So I've been toying with the idea of moving this blog over to Wordpress.com.

I also keep considering the idea of starting a blog hosted on Tea Trade, but the site's slow load times have been a barrier to me doing this. But Tea Trade does have a really rich community of tea bloggers, and it makes a difference to me that it's run by people, Jackie and Peter, who really seem to love tea and love reading and writing.

More reasons:

But there are a lot of other reasons that I slowed down blogging. I also have a lot of other things going on in my life, and I've been publishing more things online on other topics and in other avenues. Here are some things I have going on:

Why This Way:

One of the most exciting things is Why This Way, which is a new group that some of my friends and I co-founded back in January. It's a belief system and organization that is run by consensus, a little like a hybrid of organized religion and Wikipedia. We started out calling it a religion, but after bringing more people into the group who did not think it was a religion, because it is run by consensus, we stopped presenting it as such. It's really hard to know what to present it as. It presents a system of beliefs and practices that are related to all aspects of life--but it is not exclusive with other religions or belief systems.

I think this group can potentially be really transformative. At the beginning of this group, we developed a way of communicating which is based on respect and truthfulness, which is designed to create fulfilling, positive dialogue on controversial subjects. So far, it's been working very well. Our group has had people participating from a broad range of religious traditions, and we've had a remarkably easy time reaching consensus on normally controversial or emotionally-charged issues.

I want to write more about this, but it's getting a bit off-topic here so back to tea.

Branching out:

I've also been thinking more creatively about ways to reach a broader audience of tea drinkers. Sometimes I feel like the existing tea subcultures on the web are a bit saturated and somewhat stagnant. Blogs have their dedicated followings, RateTea has a certain type of viewer, as does Steepster. There is some overlap, with a few die-hard fanatics like myself having presences on virtually all major online tea communities. But I also think there are untapped resources.

A while back I discovered the tea subreddit, which I wrote about. I like this community because it seems to have more of an influx of new people--but it's also limited by the format. If you like upvoting, downvoting, and brief comments with occasional links, that's great, but it's not always my preferred medium of expression. More recently I discovered Tumblr. Tumblr is a little bit of a big uncensored ball of teen angst (something I can relate to and appreciate), but it does have a lot of people on it who are interested in tea, who sometimes post about tea.

I also have been publishing more tea stuff on Squidoo lately. I've been finding my stuff on Squidoo is attracting more of an audience than my blog, relative to the effort I put into it, and the site also provides a lot of interesting opportunities for engagement, including polls, discussions, quizzes, and the like.

So I think I want to dedicate more energy to exploring these other communities, and perhaps searching for yet more.

But I'm hoping to keep updating this blog regularly--although not as frequently as before. I'm aiming for 3-5 posts a month now.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Lingering Lemon Myrtle in a Cup of Dragon Well

I haven't been updating much, and I have not yet explained why, but perhaps I can save that for a future post.

Today I am drinking a cup of dragon well green tea from TeaVivre (quite outstanding, I might add), and I used a basket infuser, brewing it in a mug. When I brewed it, I had forgotten that the last thing I had brewed in this infuser was lemon myrtle.

In spite of washing out the infuser, the cup has a noticeable lemony quality. I've noticed that lemon myrtle tends to linger like this, more than other lemony herbs.

I find I actually really like the result...dragon well with a hint of lemon, more than I like most blends involving green tea and lemon. The reason is that it is subtle; often, when people add lemon flavoring to a tea, the lemon is intense, often masking a less-than-high-quality green tea. In this case, I'm drinking a very good green tea, and the lemon is just a hint.

How about you?

Have you ever tried lemon myrtle? Have you found that its lemoniness lingers on your teaware even after rinsing it out? Have you ever enjoyed a hint of a lemony quality in green tea? Do you think you'd like this more than the strongly lemony blends sold by most tea companies that sell lemon-flavored green tea?

Monday, September 3, 2012

Blind Oolong Tea Tasting with Evan, Brandon, and Others

I recently had the pleasure of attending a blind tea tasting, hosted by Evan Draper, who runs the not-so-active blog Pluck Tea. Incidentally, Brandon of Wrong Fu Cha also attended.

Pictured here is the setup at the very end of the tasting:

In addition to the tea, there were bowls of figs and concord grapes to snack on.

There were seven of us, and Evan proceeded to brew up 7 teas, each of which had been packaged with a mystery label that we opened after the fact. We drank four infusions of each tea. We each took note of all the teas while drinking them, and discussed them before revealing their identity. I took separate notes on each infusion.

I think this sort of setup is a great exercise, because it forces us to pay attention to the tea itself, without allowing us to bring preconceptions based on the tea's origin. We knew nothing about the brands or types of teas, although it was quickly evident that they were all oolongs. Evan used a gaiwan for brewing, rather than an Yixing teapot, which allowed for a purer experience of each tea, rather than having it be influenced by the seasoning of the pot.

Brewing for richness of experience instead of consistency:

One thing I liked about how Evan approached the brewing in this gathering was that the way he brewed these teas brought out different characteristics of the tea in each infusion, which I think helped greatly in the blind tasting setup. By contrast, some people (Evan has done this before) often carry out Gong Fu brewing in such a way that the tea keeps a more consistent character through each infusion. Although this can be pleasant for enjoying the tea, I found the approach Evan used here was more fruitful for actually understanding the tea.

The difference between these two approaches? I'm no expert at Gong Fu brewing but I tried to pay attention to what Evan was doing, and from comparing to my own experience, using a briefer second infusion, and a slightly longer first infusion, often seems to result in a more consistent character, whereas keeping the first two infusions closer in length seems to result in more of a difference between the two cups. The difference usually manifests in the first cup being more aromatic but the second being more flavorful, which I find helps to separate these two characteristics of the tea. However, it also can bring out different qualities of aroma between the first two cups.

Brandon's knowledge impresses:

If you are a die-hard tea enthusiast living within driving distance of Wilmington, Delaware, and have not yet had the opportunity to meet up with Brandon, I would recommend doing so. His knowledge and expertise of teas is uncannily impressive...it reminds me of my Ornithology professor, Greg Shriver, who can walk out in a salt marsh and hear a tiny, brief buzz noise, so quiet or distant that most people in the group did not even hear it, and he would immediately identify the sparrow to species level, long before anyone was able to actually see the bird.

Brandon not only pinned down the variety, county of origin, and style of production of most of these teas merely by sampling them, but was also able to identify the production date of the aged teas with a remarkable degree of accuracy. This level of tea identification skill not only shows that he has sampled a great number of teas, but that he pays attention to nuances of the tea's character enough to identify them with such specificity.

My thoughts on the teas:

I have not yet posted reviews of all the teas, but you can find my reviews of the first two, both from Seven Cups: Old Style Tie Guan Yin 2011, and Old Style Tie Guan Yin 2012. I liked the 2012 tea better, although I did not dislike the 2011 tea quite as much as the others present did, nor did I like the 2012 tea as much as the others seemed to.

The other teas were from the small company Floating Leaves, and I have yet to write up and post reviews.

To be honest, I was not wowed by any of the teas. The first two Tie Guan Yin's were in a similar style to a tea that I gave a 100/100 rating, Life in Teacup's Tie Guan Yin Traditional Roast Master Grade. That tea, granted, is pricier, but I thought it to show a world of difference. I've also had cheaper Tie Guan Yin's that I enjoyed more. The 2011 tea had too much sourness and too little flavor, and the 2012 tea had too much astringency, for my tastes.

There were a lot of oolongs from Muzha in Taiwan, which had been aged in various amounts, and one that was fresher, from 2011. None of these really impressed me. The only tea from Floating Leaves that I really liked was a Dong Ding Select, from Spring 2012. This tea had some interesting complexity, suggesting caramel in the aroma, but with a hint of mint in the finish, something I have never before encountered in a Dong Ding. But at $10 an ounce, it did not seem to compare with other teas in this price range.

The whole experience started to make me wonder if I perhaps have developed somewhat different tastes from the group gathered for this tasting. This morning I'm drinking a rather inexpensive Chinese green tea from Zhejiang province, Mountain Rose Herbs Dao Ren Tea, and I am enjoying it much more than I enjoyed any of the oolongs, in spite of Evan's greater skill at brewing (I've nearly always enjoyed a tea better when Evan brews it than when I prepare it myself).

How about you?

Have you ever participated in a blind tea tasting like the one described here? Have you tried teas from these two retailers? Have you experienced drinking tea with someone who has an insane level of tea identification skills? Have you noticed or thought about the distinction between brewing tea so as to retain consistency between different infusions, vs. brewing it so as to bring out different characters in each cup?

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

A Dream About Tea in an Asian Supermarket, Keurig K-cups, And An Interpretation

Last night I had a dream about tea. I recently published a page on Cazort.net outlining my philosophy of dream interpretation, and in the spirit of this page, I will share an interpretation. The setting of this dream is a place you can visit if you come to World Tea East, as it is right around the corner from the Pennsylvania Convention Center.

The Dream:

I was at an underground supermarket in Chinatown in Philadelphia, one that actually exists, under the building on the SE corner of 11th and Race, and I was buying tea there. In real life, I'm not crazy about this store's tea selection, and there is another store in Chinatown that I prefer for buying tea (across Race street), but in the dream, I was finding a lot of long jing (dragon well) green tea that I liked.

I suspect that the reason for the dragon well tea in the dream is that I've recently sampled two of these teas from TeaVivre, so I have been thinking about this type of tea. If you're curious, you can find my Review of TeaVivre's Organic Superfine Dragon Well, along with my Review of TeaVivre's Superfine Pre-Ming Dragon Well.

Back to the dream...in the dream I noticed some dragon well that looked very good in quality (it was a brand that I trusted) and was low in price, but when I put it in my shopping basket, I noticed that it was not loose-leaf tea, but rather, K-cups for a Keurig coffee maker. Frustrated, I put them back on the shelf and was looking through the boxes on the shelf to find actual loose-leaf tea instead of processed tea in a K-cup. There were few boxes of loose-leaf tea, but I found some.

My interpretation of this dream:

I suspect that the reason for the appearance of K-cups in this dream is that I have been reading about tea packaged in K-cups recently, and that I am not a fan of this idea, and have been considering writing a post on this topic. But, as I have yet to write the post, it looks like my subconscious created a story about them first.

In some ways I think this dream is symbolic of my struggle to promote loose-leaf tea, and food culture in general, and the way I often feel overwhelmed by a sea of consumerism, in which the products that I am working to move people beyond, still seem to be the dominant ones in society. K-cups seem to symbolize processed foods for me, as they're more processed than even tea bags, and they represent an even farther move away from brewing your own tea, and towards instant brewing, convenience at the cost of quality and sustainability.

Do you ever dream about tea?

Do you ever dream about tea? What do you think of my dream? Do you share my loathing of Keurig and K-cups?

Monday, August 13, 2012

Tea Bag Buddy, and on Selling Tea Infusers in a Supermarket

Lately I've been on a supermarket kick, exploring the selection of tea and teaware for sale in various supermarkets. Here is a picture I took in a Stop and Shop supermarket in North Adams, MA:

This product, highlighted in a special hanging display clipped in front of the shelves in the aisle with the tea, is Primula's Tea Bag Buddy. In this post, I am not going to comment at all on this product itself, as it is one that I have little interest in as a loose tea enthusiast. Rather, I'm going to propose an alternative of a product that could be sold in a similar location in supermarkets.

Selling tea infusers and loose-leaf tea in a supermarket?

I find the product placement of the tea bag buddy in the aisle with the tea to be interesting, as it shows that people are already selling tea accessories alongside the tea itself. This is important because it highlights a method that could be used to enable supermarkets to sell loose-leaf tea to an audience of tea bag drinkers, not accustomed to drinking loose tea.

Instead of the tea bag buddy or a similar product, the store could sell tea infusers, in the same location, clipped to a prominent hanging display. If I were running a store, I would choose to carry Finum Permanent Tea Filters. I would price them at cost, with the idea that the item was included only for convenience, not profit, and the product would encourage shoppers to purchase loose-leaf tea.

Then, I would carry a modest selection of loose-leaf tea. I would draw attention to the price-per-cup and number of cups in the loose tea, because people unaccustomed to preparing tea from loose leaf tend not to have a good sense of these things. It would make the product more accessible and appealing. Here is a marketing idea:

I chose Twinings as an example of a tea to show, because I have found Twinings to be the loose tea most frequently available in supermarkets in the U.S., and in many cases, the only loose-leaf tea avaliable.

Of course, Twinings or other tea companies could probably come up with much more attractive-looking specials. Even if the tea companies selling loose tea do not change anything about their packaging to draw attention to the number of cups of tea in the container, or the cost-per-cup, the supermarket or store selling the tea can do this themselves, perhaps in a special display, label, or sign. Most supermarkets already place a price-per-count on the price tag for various products. The label shown here is for Bigelow tea bags, and shows a unit price per 100 count:

Such labels would immediately show the clear lower price per cup of loose-leaf tea. With the extremely generous serving of 2.5 grams per cup (much more than most tea bags), Twinings loose-leaf tea, which usually sells for around $4 for the container shown above, would be much cheaper than all but the most bargain-priced teas. And there are numerous brands selling lower-priced loose-leaf tea as well.

What do you think?

Do you think that a display highlighting a small selection of loose-leaf tea, with a few low-priced, high-quality tea infusers clipped to hang prominently in the aisle in front of them, would get people's attention and draw some new people in to switch to loose-leaf tea? Do you think this sort of setup could be financially viable, or even possibly lucrative, for a supermarket?

Friday, August 10, 2012

SpecialTeas - Featured Defunct Tea Company

Back in June I featured an inactive tea blog, Tea Nerd. Today I follow suit by featuring a defunct tea company, SpecialTeas. SpecialTeas was still in business when I founded RateTea, but I did not have the opportunity to actually try any of their teas until after the company closed.

Most of what I know about this company is from reading the reviews and commentary of others. Here is a screenshot of the company's website in April of 2008, a typical example of what it looked like:

What did I like about SpecialTeas?

  • A clear focus on single-origin pure teas - Although SpecialTeas had quite a selection of blends and herbal teas as well, the company had a strong emphasis on single-origin pure teas. The website classified tea both by type and region, drawing attention to the influence of region on tea.
  • Large and diverse selection - SpecialTeas had a very large selection, not only carrying many different types of tea but many specific teas of certain types, such as a rather large selection of Chinese green teas and Indian black teas.
  • Good prices - The prices of the few teas from this company that I tried were quite reasonable, and I heard good things about the company's prices from people who had sampled more of the company's teas. All but a few of the ratings of this company's teas on RateTea give this company 5/5 or 4/5 on value.

If you want to read what is probably going to be my last ever review of this company, I recently posted a review of SpecialTeas 546 Mountain Peak Mao Feng Organic, a green tea from Zhejiang province which was quite pleasing.

Why did SpecialTeas close?

SpecialTeas was bought out by Teavana, and then closed. The buyout may have happened as early as 2005, even though SpecialTeas remained open for years after that; there's some strongly suggestive evidence for this buyout highlighted on RateTea's page on SpecialTeas. In 2005, the company was bought by a company that shared a business address and two key corporate officers with Teavana. The company has now officially announced that SpecialTeas has been merged into Teavana. The domain name specialteas.com now redirects to a page on Teavana's website announcing this merger, and offering free shipping to former customers of SpecialTeas. You can use this as a clever trick if you wish to obtain free shipping when buying from Teavana's website.

I personally think that much was lost when Teavana closed SpecialTeas. The two companies had quite different selection and pricing. SpecialTeas in particular had a much broader selection of single origin pure teas, and their prices also tended to be lower. I also never heard any complaints about pushy sales practices associated with SpecialTeas, which has unfortunately been a persistent complaint about Teavana, although to be fair, SpecialTeas did not have physical store locations of its own so it is hard to compare the two companies on this level.

Dragonwater Tea closes:

As another loss, there used to be a company named Dragonwater tea, which was supplied by SpecialTeas, and which closed when SpecialTeas was closed. I learned about this company through a 2009 thread on TeaChat about Teavana and SpecialTeas, in which people were speculating about the relationship between these two companies before any information had been made public officially. I found it interesting to learn about this company, because it showed how value can be lost in society when a company buys out its supplier and closes it.

The economics and ethics of the buyout:

Acquisition of a competitor is a prime example of an anti-competitive practice, generally agreed on by economists as having a negative effect on the economy because it reduces competition and thus reduces market efficiency. As such, these sorts of buyouts and closings raise ethical concerns for me. They are usually legal (with the exception of certain buyouts, restricted under US anti-trust law), but I am not convinced that they are the most ethical decision. I recognize that people have different values and beliefs about business and economics, but personally, I believe anti-competitive business behavior to be something that is often unethical.

Beyond ethical concerns about indirect economic effects, in the tea industry there is an additional, more direct ethical and human rights concern related to anti-competitive behavior. If a company buys out and closes a competitor that sells the same tea for a lower price, leaving the tea only available on the market at the higher price, the result of people buying the tea at the higher price is that a smaller portion of the money being spent on tea reaches the original producer. This causes wealth to concentrate in the already wealthy country, keeping the poorer producing country poor.

This is also a matter that concerns me.

What do you think?

Did you ever try SpecialTeas? What do you think of their buyout and closing by Teavana? Do you think Teavana provides a comparable experience to SpecialTeas, or has something of value been lost by the closing of this company? Do you think that this buyout constitutes anti-competitive behavior, or just part of normal, healthy business activity? Have you ever thought about how this sort of buyout could hinder fair wages for tea producers by causing wealth to concentrate in already-wealthier Western countries?

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Packaged Loose-Leaf Tea in an Indian Store: Lipton Yellow Label, Brooke Bond, and More

Recently I wrote about a Lipton Tea display in the Supreme Shop n Bag grocery store in West Philadelphia. One block east of this store is a small Indian grocery store, officially called "International Foods and Spices", but known by most people in the neighborhood as "The Indian Store on Walnut", distinguishing it from a similar store one block away on Chestnut street. (I love multiculturalism!)

Unlike the supermarket, the Indian store sells primarily loose-leaf tea, although it also carries some tea bags. It was hard for me to take one photograph that shows the whole of this store's selection, because it was rather spread out, so here's just a brief snapshot that shows only a small part of it, but gives you a general idea:

Reflecting the heavy influence of British culture on India, particularly Indian tea culture, there are numerous British brands represented here. Yorkshire Tea, PG Tips, and Brooke Bond are all represented, but there are quite a few others. There is single-origin Darjeeling and Ceylon tea available as well. Most of the tea sold here is straight black tea.

Lipton Yellow Label:

Lipton Yellow Label tea amuses me slightly, since the mainstream, generic "black tea" marketed throughout the U.S. also has a yellow label, but it tends to never be explicitly named this way. For some reasons, Lipton Tea imported from outside the U.S. often bears this name explicitly.

I have yet to try this tea, so I can't say if it is the same as the tea sold in the tea bags in the U.S. or not. I have been told that it is higher-quality.

Brooke Bond:

Brooke Bond is a particularly interesting brand to me. Most Americans do not know this, but Brooke Bond was originally a tea company of its own, and was the originator of the PG Tips brand. In time, the PG Tips brand soared to great popularity, and Brooke Bond's own brand of tea eventually fell out of popularity and was discontinued in most Western markets. Both brands are now owned by Unilever.

In many non-Western markets, however, including India and Pakistan, the Brooke Bond brand of tea is still not only strong but dominant. The Indian store mentioned above imports Brooke Bond tea, as it is not directly distributed in the U.S.

More to be said later perhaps...

There is a lot more to be said about this particular store's tea selection, but I will save it for a later date.

Have you tried Brooke Bond tea? Have you tried the "Lipton Yellow Label" tea imported from outside the U.S.? For those of you overseas, in which locations is Lipton Yellow Label sold as such, and, have you had the opportunity to try it to see if it is the same blend sold in the U.S. or if it is a different tea entirely?

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Mindfulness and the Dangers of Tea Blogging

I blog frequently, and of course, also review teas on RateTea, because I love to write, but there are sometimes downsides to my high level of enthusiasm for writing about tea.

One thing that I've noticed about blogging and reviewing teas online is that, when I write about tea often, I reach a point where I am constantly looking for ideas. I go through my day, and I see various things relating to tea, and think: "Oh, I can blog about that!" or "Oh, I really want to take a picture of that so that I can include it on my blog!" While this can lead to some interesting blog posts, it can also unfortunately take away from my experience of things in the moment; getting too sucked into this mentality can be a threat to mindfulness (or a different page on mindfulness for those of you more oriented towards pyschology than Buddhism).

Today there are no pictures, and I don't have anything to say about tea. I want to experience everything not only my tea, but everything in my daily life more mindfully.

Have you ever experienced this?

Have you ever struggled with the desire to write or blog about things taking away from your own mindfulness of them in the moment? If so, how do you balance your life and resolve this struggle?

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Black Dragon Tea Bar: Featured Tea Blog

It has been some time since I featured a tea blog. Today's featured blog is Black Dragon Tea Bar, a Seattle-based blog run by Brett Boynton, who, together with Virginia Wright, or Cinnabar, of Gongfu Girl, runs the small tea company Phoenix Tea.

The name of this blog is a clear reference to Oolong tea, Chinese 烏龍茶 or 乌龙茶, Pinyin wūlóng chá, which is literally translated as "Black Dragon Tea". The blog does have a lot of material on oolongs, but it is much broader.

What do I like about this blog?

  • Breadth and diversity of topics - There are surprisingly many tea blogs written by people with a lot of deep knowledge and experience with tea and Chinese tea culture. What makes this particular blog stand out is its breadth, focusing at times on the tea itself, on the process of drinking it, but on other times covering tea production, or even tangential topics like tea seed oil (not the same as tea tree oil; this one is actually made from the tea plant).
  • First-hand accounts from regions of tea productions - Brett Travels to regions of tea production, particularly, Taiwan. Not only are the direct travel accounts interesting on their own, but the fact that Brett travels makes me more likely to trust his knowledge of tea production and the teas themselves, especially from the regions in which he has traveled.
  • Brett is clearly an experimenter - I noticed this pretty quickly when I started reading this blog, and it is one of the aspects of the blog that keeps me seriously engaged with it. A couple recent examples of Brett's experimenting include a side-by-side cupping of broken-leaf Wenshan Baozhong, and a roasting experiment involving 2006 rou gui oolong. I love both the desire to experiment with elements of tea production or aging like roasting, and the practice of side-by-side comparisons, which allow for more objective gathering of information than comparing teas to memory.
  • Brett is a gardener and writes about it - Not only does Brett garden, he grows the tea plant in Seattle, and he also shares interesting tidbits from his other gardening adventures on his blog. And like me, he gets excited when vegetables overwinter in his garden! I especially recommend reading Brett's accounts of growing the tea plant, such as this may 2009 report explaining something about production and the more recent July 2012 report of an attempt at making oolong. Yet another thing I love about this blog!

Urban herbs:

One last thing I want to draw attention to about this blog is the Urban Herbs series, which relates both to Brett's broad interest in plants and gardening, and experience of tea and herbal infusions. Brett has set out to locate various herbs growing wild in the urban environment, and steep them as herbal teas.

I find this fascinating, both because I also share a desire to steep and drink infusions of various herbs other than the tea plant, and experience them with a richness similar to that of tea itself, and also because I love experiencing wild-harvested food and herbs, as I find it helps one to learn more about and become more connected to the local ecosystems.

Here is the entirety of the series, so far:

There's a lot to love about this blog, so I recommend checking it out, whether you're interested in oolong, tea production in Taiwan, tea culture in the US, growing tea in your own back yard, harvesting wild herbs in an urban environment, or (like me), all of the above!

Monday, August 6, 2012

Lipton Tea Supermarket Display

I'm continuously interested in tea in American supermarkets, mainly because supermarkets are a place of the mainstream, and what is going on in mainstream supermarkets says a lot about the reach of tea culture in the U.S.

Pictured here is a supermarket display from the Supreme Shop n Bag store, part of Thriftway Shop n Bag stores, located on Walnut St. in Philadelphia, between 43rd and 44th streets:

This is a large, attention-getting display, out in the middle of the aisle. It's hard to miss. Yet I find it disappointed me; the display got my attention, but in the end, was rather boring.

Missed business opportunity? Why not highlight more products?

This display takes up a lot of space, yet it only includes a single product. Judging by how full the display is, the display does not seem to be doing a great job of encouraging people to buy tea.

Lipton tea, although it is known for its basic black tea, has diversified a lot lately, and now offers herbal blends, flavored teas, and higher-quality tea offered in pyramid sachets. You can visit the Lipton tea page on RateTea if you want to check what products Lipton carries, or read some reviews; I've personally reviewed 10 different offerings from Lipton. The company also sells loose-leaf tea. This display doesn't highlight any of these products!

I don't know if Lipton chose everything about this display, or if it was more up to the supermarket, but, regardless of who made the decision, I think Lipton is missing an opportunity to highlight the diversity of its products.

What do you think?

Do you think Lipton is missing an opportunity here? Or do you think people really just want a discount on their basic black tea? Or is Lipton tea off your radar entirely?

Friday, August 3, 2012

Why I Don't Want You To Click This Headline

I want people to read the pieces I publish online; the more readers I reach, the better. My message reaches a broader audience, and in the long-run, I even earn more money as I gain visibility for RateTea indirectly. So why do I not want people to click on the headline for this blog post?

You're already here, so the headline already got your attention and drew you in. First I have a confession to make: The headline was not fully truthful. On some level, I wanted you to click it, but on another level I did not. Why not? The answer lies in how I feel about sensationalism. I included a less-than-truthful headline, a form of exaggeration, in order to draw in readers.

The part of me that did not want you to click the headline did not want you to because I do not want people to be swayed by sensationalistic headlines. In my ideal world, I would like people to be immune to these sorts of headlines. Below, I explain why I think this would make the world a better place, and how you can help to advance this goal.

What is sensationalism?

Wikipedia has a rather spotty and incomplete article on sensationalism, which, although the article as a whole could use some improvement, I think hits the nail on the head with its initial definition:

Sensationalism is a type of editorial bias in mass media in which events and topics in news stories and pieces are over-hyped to increase viewership or readership numbers.

This definition cites a page about sensationalism on the website of FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting), a non-profit organization dedicated to addressing media bias and censorship.

Sensationalism causes problems in the tea world:

I want to visit some topics that I have heard people in the tea community complain about frequently:

  • Inaccurate public impression of science - My recent post about the tea and prostate cancer headline is an example of how even very mild sensationalism can have a powerfully negative impact on public perception of scientific knowledge.
  • Tea and weight loss fads - Tea, particularly green tea and oolong tea, and to some degree Pu-erh and white tea as well, have become associated in American society with weight loss fads. There are numerous negative impacts to this association, from people being put off from green tea because they try bad green tea sold as a weight-loss product, to negative body image issues promoted by marketing aimed at women. And most importantly, this whole approach takes away from people focusing on the quality and taste of their tea, and enjoying tea and the process of drinking it. And lastly, sites promoting tea as a weight loss product are not particularly truthful; for a more truthful approach I recommend reading Gingko's post on the slimming effect of tea.
  • Myths and falsehoods circulating about tea - A lot of the myths about tea surround the caffeine content of tea, such as the myth that white tea is lowest in caffeine among teas. A lot of other myths pertain to unsubstantiated health claims, which can range from the mundane to the absurd. Fortunately, there are a lot of people out there committed to ending these myths, including such people as Michael J. Coffee who runs Tea Geek, or Brandon of Wrong Fu Cha, who also administers WikiCha and is one of the numerous contributors to TeaDrunk, another great place to get solid info that breaks through myths and misconceptions. I also appreciate the casual skepticism expressed by bloggers like Lahikmajoe, or Nicole in her post Health Benefits Schmealth Benefits. And it's also worth noting the ATB (Association of Tea Bloggers) Criteria, point 6, also get at this issue; another thing I love about the ATB.
What can you do?

I think there are numerous things you can do to curb sensationalism in news, especially in how you read news online, and how you participate in social media and various online communities. Some of my recommendations:
  • Slow down - Sensationalism thrives on speed. Sensationalism flourishes and sensationalistic headlines are rewarded in an environment where people act on snap judgments, rather than thinking deeply, which leads into the next points.
  • Read deeply - Do not just skim pieces. Read them in their entirety and take time to think about them. Does this seem like more work? This leads into my next point.
  • Read less - Be more selective of what you read. As you read more deeply, you may reach a point like I did, where I realized that an overwhelming majority of what I was reading was remarkably low-quality, in that it communicated little new information, or was hastily thrown together, or it cited no sources, or that it was presenting opinions or mere assertions as fact or objective truth. These realizations are a good thing; they will help you to cut out whole media outlets, blogs, and websites. You will also get a better idea of what sorts of topics you wish to read on which sites. You may subscribe to a blog that posts almost daily, like this one, but you may find that only a small portion of the posts interest you enough to actually read them. This is a good thing! When you have less to read, you will be able to read more deeply.
  • Think carefully before sharing - Never share or re-share a post without reading it. Put some thought into what pieces you decide to share or re-share on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, social bookmarking sites, or through linking to from your blog or website. Think about what effect you are having by sharing a work or webpage. Is the work truthful? What effect will it have on the world for you to share it?
Sensationalism in the media only thrives when we fuel it. If we ignore it, and instead focus on high-quality, thoughtful journalism, scholarship, blogs, and other media, the sensationalists will just spin their wheels and eventually run out of steam.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

New Social Networking Icon Library For RateTea

I'm pleased to announce a new page on RateTea highlighting a comprehensive selection of RateTea Social Networking Icons, in different resolutions and three different color schemes. The page also has guidelines for making your own icon out of the RateTea logo.

Check the right sidebar of my blog to see how they can be used by an individual to link to your profile, alongside your accounts on Twitter, Facebook, Steepster, Google Plus, and other sites:

The use by tea companies is similar; tea companies can link them directly to the page for their tea brand. Tea companies can benefit from these icons by encouraging existing customers to rate and review your teas, reaching a broader audience than with reviews published only on the company website.

If your company already has existing reviews, linking can benefit you because shoppers unfamiliar with your company will be more likely to trust reviews published on an independent, third-party source than reviews on your own site.

What do you think? Any requests for new styles or dimensions?

The current array of icons there is limited to three colors, but we have a large array of other colors and styles that we have not published. Do you think there would be any other colors, styles, or dimensions that you would like to see? If you want something that we do not have displayed, Sylvia or I can probably design one for you in a brief period of time.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

On Comparisons of Sandpiper Size and Tea Tasting: Lessons From Kaufman's Advanced Birding

My girlfriend Kelsey recently gave me a present, the newer edition of Kenn Kaufman's book "Advanced Birding". I'm finding this book has a lot of universal relevance to my life, including to the subject of tea tasting.

It's shorebird migration season, and the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge has been filling up with migrating shorebirds, including an abundance of Least sandpiper, Killdeer, and Lesser Yellowlegs, as well as smaller numbers of Semipalmated plover and a lone Pectoral sandpiper, which I have now seen twice. Identifying these birds is tough, and in many cases, size is an important clue.

One thing that Kaufman, widely respected as an expert birder, points out, is that without a size reference, it is impossible to accurately gauge size. Want an example? Look at this bird, which I photographed in the refuge recently:

How big is it? The photo alone gives no size reference. If I tell you that it is a Least sandpiper, and you know how big that is, then you have a reference. Let me give another example. How big is the same species, the least sandpiper (the smaller bird) in the following photo?

This photo was taken near Las Vegas, by Lip Kee Yap, and is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

The bigger bird on the left is a Killdeer, a bird, common across much of the US, which can be found both in open, grassy areas like lawns, gravelly areas like railroad beds, and on mudflats alongside sandpipers. Seeing the two birds side-by-side gives us a size reference.

Size is an important clue in bird identification, especially when comparing visually similar birds, like the greater and lesser yellowlegs, or pectoral sandpiper, which is visually similar to the least sandpipers pictured here. Just how similar, you ask? Look for yourself:

This photo is by Andreas Trepte, and is licensed under BY-SA 2.5.

Is this bird bigger than the first bird? Yes, it is significantly bigger, and if you saw them side-by-side, you'd be able to see this very clearly. But looking at one bird alone, with no familiar objects for comparison, the size is impossible to see. And without a size reference, anyone other than an expert would have a tough time knowing that this is even a different species from the sandpiper in the first two photos. Both species have essentially the same plumage pattern, and both have yellow legs, and very similar bill shapes and sizes, and body shapes as well.

But check out these photos of a pectoral sandpiper alongside a Killdeer, or two pectoral sandpipers near a least sandpiper, and you'll see that it's hard to confuse these two species of sandpiper when you see them with a clear size reference, such as side-by-side, or near another species of familiar size. The pectoral sandpiper is much larger!

Back to tea:

I've lost count of the number of times I've described a tea as being "more bitter than" or "sweeter than" another tea, or having more of this aroma or that aroma, when I was only tasting one tea, and comparing it to memory. Do I really know this for sure? In a coarse sense, yes. I can probably tell that a stronger-than-average Irish Breakfast tea is more bitter and robust tasting than a lighter-than-average Darjeeling First Flush, just how, in the field and without a size reference, I can probably tell that a turkey is larger than a sparrow, even if I am only seeing one bird.

But for subtle differences in taste, I'm not sure we can know these things with much certainty, without actually tasting teas side-by-side. I wrote about some time ago, about how mood affects how we perceive taste. When comparing to memory, there is the possibility of remembering things in a skewed fashion. Our memory of an earlier tea when we try a new tea and make a mental comparison may be clouded by our expectations of how we think the new tea is going to taste, and tainted by how favorably we feel about the companies selling both the tea we are drinking and the tea we are comparing it to in our mind.

I'm not convinced I have the ability to be particularly accurate when it comes to these sorts of things.

What do you think?

How much do you think you can tell about how a tea you are drinking compares to a tea in your memory? Do you think the subtle tastes and aromas of tea is easier to compare without direct reference than the size of a lone sandpiper on a distant mudflat? Or do you think we can sometimes be a little over-confident with our comparisons of a tea we are drinking to another tea in our memory?

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Tea And Prostate Cancer: Keep Headlines Truthful and Stay Out of Advocacy on Points You Don't Know

This post centers around the relatively recent study published on the topic of Tea and Prostate Cancer. If you're interested, here is a link to the actual study: Tea Consumption and the Risk of Overall and Grade Specific Prostate Cancer: A Large Prospective Cohort Study of Scottish Men.

In this post, I highlight something that happens on a nearly daily basis, which oversteps an ethical boundary for me, in the area of popular science coverage by the media. I also examine the way the UK Tea Council reacted to this research, and I urge them to take a different approach, which I think would ultimately be more helpful not only for the tea industry as a whole, but for their own organization, and for the state of popular science in society at large.

Specifically, I call them to focus their efforts on the media, ensuring truthful comments, rather than making statements about scientific studies in which they had not played any direct role.

An article about tea and health, where the headline poses ethical problems for me:

An article was recently published in the Telegraph, a UK newspaper, with the headline "Men who drink 7 cups of tea are 50 per cent more likely to develop prostate cancer". I am not going to link to this article because I have ethical problems with the choice of headline, and I do not wish to endorse it. You can find it in a search engine if you want. Here is a screenshot of the article:

I see a serious ethical problem with the choice of headline: it is less than fully truthful, and, when read in isolation, could be misleading. The objective reality is that a recent study found evidence that men who drink 7 cups of tea are 50 per cent more likely to develop prostate cancer. It is not truthful to state as fact that "Men who drink 7 cups of tea are 50 per cent more likely to develop prostate cancer".

Because a far greater number of people see a headline than actually read the article, even though the sub-heading of the article, and the article's text itself, clarify the more truthful, objective reality of the matter, a large number of people are going to read only the headline, and settle on the piece of information presented as fact (which is the result of a single study, certainly not accepted as scientific fact). I think that, collectively, this sort of simplistic news coverage leads the public consciousness to oscillate between one-sided views, like "tea is healthy" or "tea is unhealthy" rather than thinking holistically, and in more balanced terms.

The fact that this practice is the norm in the mainstream media does not make it ethically okay. Personally, I find it conflicts with my beliefs, as it less than untruthful, and I think that this sort of sloppy choice of headline serves to encourage simplistic thinking and spread misinformation. I would urge all news media to put greater care into maintaining truthfulness in headlines, and I would encourage all readers of media to put pressure on the businesses that run these organizations, to have greater integrity in their choice of headlines.

The UK Tea Council's Reaction:

The Tea Advisory Panel, which is run by the UK Tea Council, issued a statement which was presented in this article, that the "research was flawed and the higher incidence of prostate cancer could be attributed to other factors, such as smoking, stress or diet."

I also have ethical problems with this advisory panel issuing a statement on this matter. Was the person who made this statement directly involved in the research? Did the council include one or more of the scientists who carried out the peer review in the journal in which the study was published? Have they conducted a thorough meta-analysis of the research to date on tea and prostate cancer? I suspect that the answer to all three of these questions is no.

From a scientific perspective, if this person is just making an assertion of fact not backed by any evidence, their statement has no validity whatsoever. I definitely think that scientific research needs to be approached with a critical mind, and I think people and groups outside the scientific establishment often offer valid and useful criticisms of science. But I also think that blind criticism coming from an industry interest group has no role in science, and no credibility in my eyes.

I would like to call anyone who is a member of the UK Tea Council, or who has any sway over them, to ask them to refrain from these sorts of statements, and instead, to focus their efforts on the media, like the Telegraph (and numerous other papers), who have chosen a less-than-truthful headline. The study was just a scientific study, and it found some strongly suggestive evidence, but it certainly did not establish anything as undisputable fact. If there are flaws with the study, it will take deeper scrutiny, considerable time, and possibly further research to uncover them. It is highly doubtful that anyone from the UK Tea Council would have had time to scrutinize this study deeply enough to uncover any serious flaws in it, in the brief time between when it was published and when the advisory panel issued their statement.

What do you think?

Do you agree with me that the original headline, as shown here, is less-than-truthful? Would you prefer media to use greater care in creating headlines that are truthful when read on their own?

How do you feel about the statement from the UK Tea Council's Tea Advisory Panel? Do you think they have also overstepped an ethical bound? Do you agree with me that it would advance the public interest more for them to focus more on the truthful presentation of the study by mainstream media, than to make statements about a study in which they had no involvement and have not taken the time to scrutinize in depth from a scientific perspective?

I think that if the UK Tea Council's Advisory Panel focused on the media in the manner described above, they would ultimately be having much more of a positive impact on the world, in terms of promoting an accurate public understanding of the facts in this case. I also think they would look a lot more credible, both to me, and to the scientific community as a whole.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Price and Deals When Buying Tea Online

I recently received a box of samples from the newly launched Paisley Tea Co, which is an effort of Two Leaves Tea (Formerly Two Leaves and a Bud).

This post is not about the company's teas; I have more to say about them later; if you're itching to read more, you can peek at my lengthy review of their English Breakfast on RateTea. This post, however, is about a phenomenon that I've seen occur with a variety of companies that sell online. This post is directed both at tea shoppers and tea companies, and I hope there will be some useful tidbits in the post for both audiences.

Pictured here is a clipping from a screenshot of the page for Paisley Tea Co's Organic English Breakfast, on the official online store of Two Leaves Tea:

The price, for a box of 24 tea bags, is $5.95. Now, take a peek at this screenshot, taken from Amazon.com:

Now the price is $3.82. But the product is out of stock. I discovered this page, supposedly selling this tea, after reading a post on The Everyday Tea Blog, titled Paisley Tea Co, Organic Double Earl Grey. This price is discounted over 35% off the price listed on the company's official site. A little more searching turns up the following listings:

These are sold by Amazon.com's Add-on program, and some of them are in stock. This program lists items that would be cost-prohibitive to ship on their own, and they are intended to be purchased when someone makes a larger ($25 or more) purchase from Amazon, and they ship for free in these large purchases.

Sometimes you can find deals online:

If you are looking to buy a product online, you can sometimes find it cheaper than the list price on the company's main website. You may also sometimes find coupon codes if you search for them. This can be good news if you are a tea drinker looking to buy tea online. Three suggestions I'd have if you want to look for deals on a product you've already decided to buy would be:
  • Check Amazon.com, eBay, and other major online marketplaces.
  • Try searching Google shopping.
  • Do a basic search for coupon codes for the company you are buying from.
Is this sort of setup beneficial for the company selling the tea? Often, yes, as I explain below. I do want to point out, however, that these "off-the-main-website" deals usually are limited to larger, more mainstream tea companies.

Why do such discounts exist?

Teas can be available at a discount for a variety of reasons. Some of them include:
  • If a company is hoping to sell a major portion of their products through Amazon, eBay, or any other marketplace website which has its own reputation system, sellers sometimes initially sell products at a discounted price in order to establish a track record. They forgo additional profits as an investment to establish their reputation. This practice is most common with smaller companies.
  • If a company is launching a new line of teas, or a new tea brand, like Paisley tea in this example, they may offer a discount to help jump start their new products.
  • Sometimes packaged teas end up in the hands of a company (or individual) that cannot easily sell them or put them to use, and wants to get rid of them, and they then mark the price down below the company's list price, as a way of recovering some of their loss. Discount stores can also buy random shipments of tea for discounted prices, and sell them at a modest profit, still below list price.

A word of caution on bargains being displayed but not available:

I just want to highlight one potential problem that can arise from a setup like the one here, especially if it persists in the long-run.

I think that it can be potentially problematic, and can hurt companies, when there is a lower-priced item available on a third party website, but the item is out of stock. This is especially true if the price is presented as a normal price, rather than being advertised as a special discount (sometimes this can be harmful even if it is in stock). If a person searches around and somehow finds the bargain-priced item labelled as normal (like the Amazon example above), they may get excited and think: "Wow, at that price, I want to buy this product." But then they go to buy it and it is out of stock. But then they see the same product for sale on the company's official site, or in a supermarket, or another store, for the normal price, and it seems overpriced, in comparison to the discount price. They'll be likely to think: "Wow, this store is price gouging." or "This tea is overpriced." and not buy it.

Policing prices:

Pictured here is a rather old police car, a Ford Mustang to be precise; the concept of price policing really has nothing to do with the actual police, and tends to be enforced through contracts between wholesalers and distributors, rather than criminal law. This picture is included strictly for amusement.

Some companies actively police their pricing, enforcing minimum retail prices, because they worry that if their products are too widely available for low prices, they will lose money because people will become less interested in buying the products at a higher price. For example, there is a shoe store that I like very much, called The Natural Shoe Store, on 40th street in Philadelphia. The staff of this store have told me that one company threatened to stop selling them shoes because they had priced them too low, even though they were still selling the shoes at a comfortable profit over the wholesale price.

I don't like the idea of price policing like I described here. I think it goes against the idea of the free market economy, and even if it benefits one business, I think it tends to harm the economy as a whole. But I do think that it is good for businesses to think critically about who is going to see what prices where, and what conclusions they will draw from them. Offering discounts and deals can be a great way to jump-start a new line of teas, or a new brand of tea like Paisley here. In some cases, though, it may be better not to discount.

Rather than policing prices, I think a better approach is to be cautious about where, when, and how much you discount your products.

What do you think?

Do you ever shop around for deals on tea online, that is, deals that go beyond the price listed on the company's main website? How about when buying other sorts of products? For companies: when do you think the best time is to discount? And what do you think of the idea of price policing. Tea companies: would you ever do it? And tea drinkers, do you think it's acceptable for a company to do, or does it undermine the ideals of a market economy?

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Confession About The Type of Tea Kettle I Use

Today I want to share a confession that may be astonishing to some of you.

I recently read a post on Uniquely tea, about tea kettles, in which Denise asks the question of what type of tea kettle people use. I originally posted my comment on that blog, but then I realized that it was interesting enough to share here as a post of its own:

My confession...I do not even own a tea kettle! I exclusively heat water for tea using a regular pot on the stove, usually, a copper bottom revere ware pot, to be precise. When the water is sufficiently hot, I pour it into a mug, teapot, or gaiwan, depending on what mood I'm in.

Why no tea kettle?

My apartment has a very small kitchen, with limited storage space. As I love food and love to cook, I have a variety of large implements, including a blender, toaster oven, and lots of food supplies. I also have a lot of cupboard space taken up by loose-leaf tea. I don't need a tea kettle to heat water, and as such, a tea kettle takes up unnecessary space. A pot, on the other hand, can be kept perpetually on the stove, because I can use it for a wide variety of purposes, including both heating water for tea, and cooking. Sometimes, especially when cooking for others in the winter, I cook using all four burners, so any implement that goes on the stove that cannot be used to cook food is taking away from my valuable kitchen space.

In the past, I've lived with people who had tea kettles, including an electronic water boiler from Zojirushi. As nifty as this device was, I did not really miss it. Electric kettles also take up a lot of space, and are less efficient from an energy usage standpoint, when compared to a gas stove, although they tend to be more efficient than electric stoves. (Gas is more efficient for heating than electricity, because over 3 times as much fuel needs to be burned to capture the free energy to produce a given unit of electricity, whereas when burning fuel directly, all available energy is converted to heat). And there's something I love about the old-fashioned process of heating water up in a pot on the stove.

I've been living without a tea kettle for well over three years now. I'm quite adept at pouring water from a large pot, into a small brewing vessel, and I rarely spill hot water, but in case I do, I usually pour over the sink anyway. And it works for me just fine!

What do you think?

Do you think I'm crazy for being such a die-hard tea enthusiast, and not owning a tea kettle? Do any of you also go without a tea kettle for heating water?

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Nitrogen Fixing Plants to Fertilize Tea Organically

Recently, Brett of Black Dragon Tea Bar shared a post, titled Organic Tea in Mucha, sharing details of his visit in January of 2010 to a region, Mucha(木柵), in northern Taiwan. If you scroll down through the photos, you will see something that I found very interesting, a photo of a nitrogen fixing cover crop planted in between rows of tea plants. In this post, I want to explain why this practice is used, and how it can be beneficial in terms of reducing the environmental impact of tea production.

Most of us are familiar with a number of nitrogen-fixing plants. Most Americans are familiar with clover, which grows in lawns throughout much of North America:

The above photo shows red clover (center, with the larger, more oblong leaves), and white clover (the smaller leaves around the edge, with a rounder shape). Both of these two species are native to Europe, and not to North America, but have become widely naturalized in North America, especially white clover in grassy lawns.

Here is another nitrogen fixing plant, beans:

These are fava beans. Clover, beans, and the nitrogen fixing plants planted in between the rows of tea plants in Brett's original post, are all legumes. Legumes are a plant family that have the remarkable ability to "fix" atmospheric nitrogen into a form able to be utilized by plants. A few other plants, such as Alders and Bayberries, can also do this, but legumes are the most commercially important and also the most widespread in most ecosystems.

Why is nitrogen fixation such a big deal?

Nitrogen is one of the major chemical elements used in life; proteins, the basic building blocks of life forms, including both plants an animals, are rich in nitrogen. Nitrogen is a very common element; nitrogen gas makes up about 80% of the Earth's atmosphere. Yet in many ecosystems, and in much commercial agriculture (including much tea cultivation), plant growth is limited by available nitrogen. Why?

The answer lies in the electron structure of nitrogen atoms, and the corresponding molecular structure of nitrogen gas, depicted here in this molecular diagram:

Nitrogen has an electron structure which is three electrons away from a stable state, unlike Oxygen, which only is two electrons away. Nitrogen atoms thus achieve a more stable state by pairing up, and "sharing" electrons. This setup forms what can be viewed as a "triple bond", pictured by the triple line between the two atoms in the diagram above. This bond is very hard to break, and the state of nitrogen gas is very stable. The oxygen molecule only has a double bond, which is easier to break. Oxygen gas is thus much less stable, which is why things burn--combustion is just a chemical reaction with the oxygen in air.

Getting nitrogen into a form that can be used by living things like plants and animals, to build complex organic molecules, is somewhat of a big deal. Most life forms cannot do this. Legumes do not even do it on their own; they do so by having special nodules on their roots, which contain anaerobic bacteria (bacteria that function in an oxygen-free environment), which do the work for them.

If you want to learn more about this, I recommend looking at Wikipedia's pages on the Nitrogen cycle, and Nitrogen fixation.

Nitrogen and tea:

The tea plant, like most plants, cannot fix its own nitrogen. Thus, when tea leaves are continuously harvested, nitrogen is continually removed from the system consisting of the tea plants and soil in which the tea is growing. This nitrogen must be replaced, or else the tea plant will eventually start exhibiting stunted growth and stop being productive.

There are several different ways of achieving this:

  • Application of organic fertilizer, such as soil or mulch derived from compost, manure, mulched wood, or other organic sources.
  • Synthetic or mineral-based fertilizers, such as ammonia fertilizers (in which atmospheric nitrogen is converted in an industrial process into a form that can be absorbed by plants), or nitrate-based fertilizers (which can be synthetic or naturally-occurring minerals).
  • Growing the tea plant together with nitrogen-fixing plants, such as the example given in the Black Dragon Tea Bar blog post Organic Tea in Mucha.
  • Rotating crops from year to year, such as growing beans and corn in alternate years, or growing other nitrogen-fixing annual crops alternately with crops with a higher nitrogen requirement. This approach does not work with tea cultivation because the tea plant is a perennial plant and requires multiple years to reach commercially viable production.

Nitrogen-fixing plants can be highly effective at adding nitrogen to agricultural ecosystems. Because these plants have access to an effectively infinite amount of nitrogen (far more than they themselves need), these plants tend to "bleed nitrogen" out into the surrounding ecosystem, through their roots. The plants also have leaves and stems that are extremely high in nitrogen. Nitrogen-rich leaves tend to be more delicate in texture and break down more rapidly than carbon-rich leaves (the leaves of the tea plant, by contrast, tend to contain much less nitrogen than most legumes), so the nitrogen used by these plants tends not to stay tied up in the plant itself very long.

Photo by Sebastianjude, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Nitrogen-fixing plants do not solve all a plant's nutrient needs. Plants, including tea, also require phosphorus and numerous trace minerals for healthy growth, so nitrogen-fixing plants cannot completely eliminate the need for the application of fertilizers. But they can greatly reduce it.

Another benefit of nitrogen fixing plants over synthetic fertilizers is that the way that the nitrogen enters the system, when provided by nitrogen-fixing plants, tends to be more beneficial to the overall ecosystem. When applying synthetic fertilizers, like ammonium nitrate based fertilizers, a lot of the nitrogen simply runs off into the water, which can create nutrient pollution downstream. Nitrogen fixing plants put the nitrogen directly into the soil and the leaf litter, gradually over time, so they can provide the same benefits to the crops being grown while greatly reducing nutrient pollution downstream.

What is your experience with nitrogen-fixing plants?

Have you ever gardened or been involved in agriculture where you benefited from nitrogen fixing plants, such as beans or other legumes (including both legume crops, and trees planted strictly for their fertilizing properties)? Did you know about nitrogen fixation before reading this post, or is this a new concept for you?

Monday, July 23, 2012

"Herbal Water"? A Skeptical Review

This past thursday, July 19th, I had the pleasure of attending the Baltimore Ave Dollar Stroll, a fun and lively event that happens three times a year in West Philadelphia, twice in summer and once in early fall. This event features $1 items from a variety of restaurants and cafes. It falls on a thursday, so that it coincides with the smaller of the two days of the Clark Park Farmer's Market. This is the sort of event that I'd recommend going to if you know a lot of people who live in the neighborhood, and not otherwise. There are long lines, and the fun is mainly in the community and the opportunity to see and chat with your friends and neighbors while waiting and wandering. I loved it!

There wasn't much tea happening at this event, but I did notice a product which I found very intriguing, and which is tangentially related to the topic of herbal teas, and this was Ayala's Herbal Water:

This bucket of "herbal water" bottles, incidentally, was being sold by Mariposa Co-op, which I wrote about recently in my post about the tea bag selection in the co-op. I picked out a Lavender Mint "herbal water", pictured here:

I also had the opportunity to sample the Lemongrass Mint Vanilla flavor, which one of my friends bought.

What exactly is this "herbal water"?

These herbal waters are very simple: they are seltzer water or carbonated water, flavored with organic-certified herbal extracts and natural flavor.

How do I feel about these products?

I have mixed feelings about these products. On one level, I love that they offer a flavorful carbonated beverage that is not sweetened. As an alternative to typical soda / soft drinks, I think these are a great alternative, and given the choice of these herbal waters vs. conventional soda, I'd take these products any day.

But these products still seem like a bit of a waste to me; for a company emphasizing organics, they don't seem like the most sustainable choice. They involve a lot of energy-intensive activities, with the packaging, glass bottle, and marketing, merely for a small bottle of flavored water. Why not just fill your own bottle with tap water? They are also rather expensive, not particularly original, and have a much cheaper substitute good.

For years, supermarkets have been stocking flavored seltzer waters, which are just carbonated water with added natural flavorings. I have been buying these for a long time as an alternative to sweet sodas when I want a carbonated drink. These flavored seltzer waters are very cheap; most supermarkets sell them for under $1 a liter. The difference with Ayala's products are that they contain actual herbal extracts rather than being flavored exclusively with the vague "natural flavorings", which in the US, can refer to extracts and essential oils, but can also refer to highly-processed flavorings such as distillates, protein hydrolysates, and products of roasting, heating, or enzymolysis. Here's a link to the official definition of natural flavor in the US, in case anyone is interested.

For the record, Ayala's herbal waters still do contain natural flavorings. If you want a product flavored exclusively with extracts or essential oils, you'll need to locate your own water-soluble extracts and flavor your own seltzer water.

My review of the two "herbal waters" I tried:

To give Ayala credit, I did find each of these products considerably more nuanced tasting than the flavored seltzer waters available in the supermarket.

I preferred the lavender mint to the lemongrass mint vanilla, although I liked both. The lavender mint was crisp, clean, and refreshing. The flavoring struck me as relatively light. Overall, both bottles tasted more like seltzer water than they did like iced herbal tea. I would have preferred a significantly stronger flavoring.

My friend remarked that the lavender mint water tasted like soap to her. I can see this, but it did not bother me. I think a lot of people associate lavender with "soap" smells and less with "food" or "drink" smells. The lemongrass mint vanilla, I found slightly less refreshing, because the vanilla led to a creamy finish, rather than a crisp finish present in the other soda. As it was hot and I was drinking this drink to quench my thirst, I found the lavender mint more refreshing.

What do you think?

Have you tried these? Do you think you would try them? Would you ever buy them? Do you think these sorts of products are a good idea? Do you share my sentiment that it would be a great thing if people would switch away from sodas to these sorts of drinks, but that in the big picture, these are not the most sustainable option?