Monday, April 30, 2012

Updates to Article on Caffeine in Tea, And One Company's Studies on Caffeine and Antioxidants

On my recent post Scientific Research I'd Like To See Done on Tea's Caffeine, Vitamin C, etc., I had some useful comments which pointed me to some published studies which I did not know about. Eetu Mäkelä shared a ton of useful studies, a few of which I knew of but many of which I did not. I've begun to incorporate some of the new information into RateTea, but as much of it is not public access and I no longer am within a university environment, it will be a slow process. But already, I've made a few substantive changes to the article on the caffeine content of tea, shown here:

One interesting source:

There is one particular source that I've added that I think might be interesting for people who are really interested in this topic, a study by Camellia Sinensis Tea House on the caffeine content of their teas, which you can find published on their page on Tea and Health. I want to thank Guillaume TR for sharing this study with me. This study reinforces the same general trend that already was established by the article and the other sources, that it is not possible to generalize about caffeine content as a function of broad types of tea (black, green, white, oolong, etc.)

This table, a screenshot of the study, shows a few key points that I like about this study: it shows that the amount of leaf was standardized, and it clearly shows the conditions each tea were brewed in, and it studies the teas using recommended brewing temperatures and infusion times, thus comparing the teas as they would be likely to be consumed, rather than using the same brewing time and temperature for teas that most tea drinkers are going to brew in different ways.

I found this study interesting to read over, looking at the particular values, but I also found the fact that this study was even carried out at all to be rather interesting. Camellia Sinensis Tea House is not the biggest company, and yet they had the resources and drive to carry out this study on a fairly large selection of their teas. I find this encouraging, as it suggests to me that similar studies would be realistic for a large number of tea companies.

A study on antioxidants:

The same company also did a study of antioxidant content. Personally, I'm a little less interested in this study, mainly for the reason that the more I learn about antioxidants, the more I realize that, when it comes to antioxidants, more is not better. RateTea's page on the antioxidants in tea explains more, and the section "Potential Health Effects" on Wikipedia's Antioxidants page goes into more depth about this. One thing is clear though from the results of the antioxidant study: there's no trend of one type of tea (green, black, etc.), or of steamed (Japanese) vs. pan-fired (Chinese) teas, or even of higher vs. lower priced or graded teas being higher or lower in antioxidants. Matcha, however, does stand out for the simple reason that you are consuming the whole leaf when drinking it.

What do you think?

Do you think you can trust the values established by a study like the one provided here? Do you think it would be beneficial in any way (to the business, or to tea culture in general) for tea companies to carry out studies of the caffeine content of the specific teas in their catalogues? Do you think the antioxidant studies are worthwhile, or are you skeptical of them, like me?

Friday, April 27, 2012

Side-by-side Comparison: Teavana Monkey-Picked Oolong vs. Life in Teacup Bai Ya Qi Lan

I recently engaged in a tea trade and tasting with a few friends who are casual tea drinkers, in which I brewed up Life in Teacup's Bai Ya Qi Lan alongside Teavana's Monkey Picked Oolong Tea, which is a Tie Guan Yin. I found this comparison very interesting to me because the two teas were actually quite similar to each other in certain ways, but the companies selling them were about as dissimilar as one could find. I have already reviewed both of these teas on RateTea, and you can find them here: Life in Teacup's Bai Ya Qi Lan, Traditional Green Style, Superior Grade, and Teavana's Monkey-Picked Oolong, along with some other people's reviews as well.

Although the two teas were from different varietals, both teas were greener oolongs, traditional sytles (not the modern green style), from Anxi County in Fujian province of China. Teavana is the biggest loose-leaf tea retailer in the U.S., a publicly traded company, with stores in high-end shopping malls. Teavana does carry a number of pure teas, like this one, but the company's focus seems to be more on blends. Life in Teacup, on the other hand, is a tiny company, run by one person, which focuses on pure teas, particularly Chinese teas.

People liked both teas a lot:

The reaction to both teas was generally very positive. People seemed to like the Qi Lan more, but the general feeling was that the teas were quite similar to each other.

My impression:

When I drink greener Tie Guan Yin on its own, I often feel that the aroma resembles orchids. However, drinking it side-by-side with the Qi Lan, I will say, although the Teavana Tie Guan Yin did smell strongly floral to me, it struck me as much less orchid-like than the Qi Lan. Qi Lan is sometimes translated as "profound orchid", so it makes sense that its aroma would be more orchid-like than the Tie Guan Yin. This is the first time I ever sipped two similar teas side-by-side like this, and it was interesting to see that the varietal named for orchids actually did smell more like orchids to me.

I found the Teavana tea to be more multifaceted. Its aroma was not just floral, but also had more woody tones. However, in the end, I liked the Qi Lan better.

Price comparison:

I thought these two teas were similar in quality; by taste alone, I preferred the Qi Lan from Life in Teacup, but only slightly, and there were aspects of the Teavana tea I liked more, notably, that it seemed much more complex whereas the Qi Lan was a bit simpler. Both produced multiple infusions, and with a similar amount of leaf and similar steeping lengths, they produced cups that were about equally flavorful and aromatic.

However, Life in Teacup's Qi Lan sold for $3.99 for one ounce, whereas the Teavana Monkey-Picked Oolong sold for $25.00 for 2 ounces, well over three times the price. Is this because Teavana is overpriced? This may be part of the story, but another possible explanation, to share my own personal opinion, is that I think Tie Guan Yin tends to be overpriced relative to other varietals. Life in Teacup sells a Tie Guan Yin of the same grade as this Qi Lan for $9 for one ounce, still less than this Teavana tea, but only slightly so.

Notes on other teas:

As a side note, I brewed up some other teas, including Harney and Sons' Sungma Second Flush Darjeeling, and a 2009 Shou Mei from Life in Teacup, and they were generally well-received, with the exception of Teavivre's Mao Jian green tea, which people found too bitter. I must partly take responsibility for the brewing of this tea, as I think I brewed it on the bitter side, but on the other hand, I really love the bitterness. I recently had enjoyed a cup of this, brewed Gong Fu style by Evan of Pluck Tea. This tea, even when brewed with great skill, has a bit of an edge to it. I like this, but I understand it does not appeal to the broadest tastes, especially here in America where there is a pretty strong tendency to avoid bitter flavors.

What do you think?

Do any of my remarks here surprise you? Or do they seem to fit with your experiences?

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Top 5 Most-Viewed Pages for Styles of Pure Black Tea on RateTea

This post highlights the top 5 most-viewed pages on RateTea for styles of pure black tea. These styles include both blends defined by their character, like English and Irish breakfast, as well as those defined by their region of origin, like Darjeeling, as well as more specific varieties, like Lapsang Souchong or Golden Monkey. I did not include flavored teas on this list.

The category I'm selecting from is a bit of a hodge-podge, but the results are not at all surprising:

  • English Breakfast - The classic style of tea consumed with breakfast in England; strong, but not too strong.

  • Darjeeling Black Tea - One of the most well-known of the single origin black teas, widely known for artisan teas.

  • Assam - Known as a strong black tea, and also among the best-known of the single-origin teas.

  • Lapsang Souchong - The smoky black tea, one of the best-known Chinese varieties of tea.

  • Irish Breakfast - The stronger breakfast tea.

The runner-up is Ceylon. Yes, this list is boring. Hey, I can't make every post interesting, right?

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Where are the Keemun Tea Bags?

In the course of managing RateTea, I see all sorts of interesting patterns and trends, and make lots of random observations about the nature of the tea market, especially in the U.S. I've been thinking about Keemun black tea lately, as I recently received three samples of high-quality, loose-leaf Keemun lately. And today, I noticed a marked absence of Keemun tea bags on the U.S. market. As a huge fan of and advocate for loose-leaf teas, I don't get terribly excited about tea bags. But I do find this absence strange.

Pictured here is a diagram showing Qimen county in Anhui province, where Keemun originated, a photo of the loose-leaf Keemun Mao Feng sent to me as a sample from Life in Teacup, and a shelf at a supermarket in Delaware, with no Keemun for sale.

When I think of "mainstream" black teas, what do I think of?

When I think of the standard single-origin black teas which are mainstays of British tea culture (and thus, tend to be widely available in the U.S. as well), I think of Ceylon, Assam, Darjeeling, and Keemun. There are other teas, like Lapsang Souchong, which I also think of, but which I'm excluding because I think of this tea as a bit more unusual, with its strong smoky character.

Keemun is a pretty well-known tea in the mainstream. There are about as many individual Keemuns listed on RateTea as there are individual English Breakfast blends, and about twice as many Keemuns as Irish Breakfast blends.

All of these varieties of tea except Keemun are widely available in tea bags:

Ceylon, Assam, and Darjeeling are all widely available in tea bags, from mainstream brands. Lapsang Souchong is as well, as is Pu-erh and both darker and greener Oolongs.

In spite of the availability of loose-leaf Keemun, there is only 1 entry in RateTea's database for Keemun in a tea bag, and this entry is rather esoteric--a tea bag sold by Lupicia, a Japanese company best-known for selling loose-leaf teas. There may be other Keemuns in tea bags, but there are none that I know of from any of the mainstream tea companies, whose catalogues have been entered into RateTea in their entirety long ago.

Keemun tea bags are sold neither by companies specializing in British style teas (like Twinings), nor by companies like Foojoy or Ten Ren, specializing in Chinese teas, in spite of the fact that Keemun fits into both categories quite well.

What do you think?

Do you think that the absence of Keemun available in tea bags represents a vacant business niche? Do you think that brands that sell tea bags or whole-leaf sachets containing single-region teas would do well to add Keemun to their catalogue? Or is there some reason that there would not be much demand for a Keemun in tea bags?

My intuition is that the first company to offer a Keemun in tea bags would have it be well-received. I could imagine a company like Twinings, Foojoy, or Ten Ren finding it worthwhile to sell Keemun in tea bags, but I could also imagine a brand like Two Leaves and a Bud successfully selling a Keemun in whole-leaf sachets. I think that Keemun in particular might perform well in a western market, perhaps even better than Ceylon or Assam, as it tends to be rich and full-bodied, yet relatively smooth, and I've found that in America, a lot of people like robust tea but want something that is a bit smoother and less bitter.

But I could be wrong; tea companies often do a lot of market research into deciding which teas to carry, and I suspect that many companies have already considered adding a Keemun in tea bags, and concluded that it was not the best business decision.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

On Soliciting Tea Bloggers to Review Your Samples

I've been uninspired to write lately, which is why my posts have slowed down a bit, but today I read a Google+ post by Nicole of Tea For Me Please that got me thinking and inspired me to write this post. So first, thanks Nicole!

Nicole commented about unsolicited comments from tea companies, which she describes as companies "...practically demanding that I write about their product and promote it to my readers without so much as a proper introduction..." This post sparked a lot of discussion.

Cinnabar of Gongfu Girl also offered a particularly relevant comment here: "It's always the same formulaic communication that starts with them saying how much they like my blog, followed by statements that prove they haven't actually read anything I've written."

The rude approaches described by Nicole, Cinnabar, and others in the discussion, can offend tea bloggers. They can make a negative impression, and they can make it unlikely that a blogger will ever accept or review samples from your company, or promote or write favorably about your company. In this post I want to explain how I think it is best to approach tea bloggers. This all seems like common sense to me, but the fact that so many companies don't follow it makes me think it is worth writing about.

Offering samples is a good thing:

First, I want to say that I love samples, and I think that sending free samples to bloggers can be a great way to gain visibility for your tea company. I'm certainly not trying to discourage tea companies from offering samples with this post. Rather, I would like to encourage tea companies to think about how they approach bloggers when offering samples.

Pictured here are some samples from Life in Teacup that I recently received. This company is one of my favorite tea companies, offering unusual Chinese teas that can be hard to find elsewhere:

Another very different shipment, also of high-quality Chinese teas, was from TeaVivre, a new tea company that ships directly from China, that has quickly gotten my attention as offering high-quality Chinese teas at reasonable prices:

If you want to read some reviews, I recently posted reviews of TeaVivre's Xin Yang Mao Jian and their Chun Mei (Zhen Mei), and of Life in Teacup's Zhang Ping Shui Xian, Charcoal Roasted, Zhang Ping Shux Xian, Traditional Greener Style, and Keemun Mao Feng. Stay tuned for more reviews.

So, how to offer samples?

If I were to give some advice to tea companies offering samples, I'd make the following points about how to approach tea bloggers:

  • Be honest, and avoid flattery. Don't say that you like a person's blog, or read a person's blog if you are just finding it for the first time. If you actually read the blog regularly and enjoy it, then it's okay to say this, but it is better to show this by commenting regularly or referencing the posts in your own writing. But if you just found the person's blog in a list of tea blogs, and are emailing them primarily to offer samples for reviews, then say that. There's no reason to be ashamed of making honest attempts to promote your business, but flattery and dishonesty can make a very negative impression. These sorts of actions come across to me as unnecessary, unprofessional, and desperate, three qualities you absolutely do not want associated with you or your business.

  • Understand that an offer of samples is an offer, and be fully content with bloggers refusing your offer. - It is reasonable to offer samples to a blogger with the understanding that they will review them if they accept the offer. But a blogger is always free to reject any offer of samples. Accepting samples, and reviewing them, even though it involves receiving a free product, is a lot of work. By offering someone samples, you are asking someone to do free work promoting your company. Getting upset at someone for refusing to do you a favor is never a healthy thing to do. And if you're upset, recognize that this is your own private issue and not the blogger's, and keep your thoughts to yourself--sending a nasty note to someone in a case like this is tremendously unprofessional and disrespectful.

  • Read the blogger's blog and site, and make sure they are a good match for your offer, before offering samples. - If you offer samples of flavored green teas to a blog that exclusively reviews Pu-erh, you're making clear that you did not take the time to even glance over what the blog is about. In some cases, bloggers post policies about samples and reviews; make sure to read these notices if one is posted. Always read the "about" page if a blog has one, and always read a number of posts before contacting the blogger. By contacting a blogger without checking to see that their blog is a good match, you are wasting your time as well as the blogger's time.

Watch who you hire to do your PR:

Nicole also remarked in her comment that in some cases, it seems that companies are paying PR firms to do this. I want to chime in, publicly, that I've also experienced this. In one exceedingly silly case, I was having trouble with a certain company posting ratings and reviews on RateTea which I suspected to be fraudulent. The pattern I saw was a series of new sign-ups, all with hotmail addresses, who would write a few reviews (with 100/100 or near-100 ratings) of this company's teas, and never review any other company's teas or log in to the site again. Needless to say, I deleted the accounts, but in order to cut down on spam, I did some detective work and tracked them down to a PR consulting firm that the company had presumably hired. I emailed the firm, and although I did not receive a response or apology, the fake reviews stopped.

The moral of the story here is to be very careful when hiring PR firms. Because a PR firm who engages in disrespectful behavior like this can damage your company's reputation, I would advise people to really drill PR firms on the topics of respect, ethics, and interpersonal communications, before hiring them. If a company cannot demonstrate to you that they consistently communicate respectfully, honestly, and ethically, then find another company.

A sample solicitation:

If you want to offer samples to a blogger, it's really easy. First, make sure the blog is appropriate for your offer, and if not, find another blog that is more appropriate. Then write something simple, like:

"Dear X: I represent Y tea company; I'd like to offer you samples of teas for you to review on your blog, please let me know if you're interested."

If the person responds that they're not interested, thank them for their time and leave them alone. It's one thing if you have something specific more to say--that's fine, but including flattery, or adding a rude response if they decline your offer, will just dig you a deep hole that you may never get out of in that person's eyes.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Top 5 Keyword Combinations Sending Traffic To This Blog

I was inspired by Gingko's recent post top 10 search keywords in this blog to share my own top 5 post on this topic.

Online, a magnifying glass is often used to denote search. Here, I display a search and rescue helicopter to denote search. The helicopter is British.

So here are the top 5 keywords or groups of keywords (I aggregated a few related ones to form this list) sending search traffic to this blog:

  • alex zorach - This search term actually makes sense when I observe that very few of these visits to my blog constitute new visits; it seems people who already know of my blog are visiting the blog by typing my name into google.

  • tea blog or tea blogs - This search term is intuitive for me because my blog is a tea blog.

  • infusion vs decoction or decoction vs infusion - People finding my post Infusion vs. Decoction. This one does not surprise me; I shared this post because I knew that there wasn't much material on the internet discussing this distinction.

  • hourglass tea timer - This term lands on my post The "Perfect Tea Timer": An Hourglass Tea Timer, about a tea timer I observed in the Random Tea Room in Philadelphia.

  • wegmans tea - Landing on my page Tea at Wegmans Supermarket.

It's interesting how search keywords work. I think this sort of pattern is actually quite normal for blogs. I've run a number of other blogs; currently my idea blog is not very active, but it shows a similar pattern to both this blog and Gingko's, with a lot of the top search terms being rather random, and associated with images featured prominently in certain posts, but also with some search terms related to the subject matter of certain posts as well.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Create The Conditions For Your Business To Thrive: Che Guevara Offers Business Advice

One thing that I find a useful concept in business is an idea that I first encountered from a rather unlikely source, an individual who is best known for his anti-capitalist views: Che Guevara.

This post aims to address those sorts of tough business problems like:

  • I want to sell traditional Chinese or Japanese teas in the U.S. but what little tea culture there is seems to be focused on British-style black teas and flavored teas.
  • I want to start a tea business but I have no source of funding.
  • I want to start a locally-oriented tea room or tea shop, but there does not seem to be much local demand.
  • My business is not doing well because of external conditions beyond my control. (such as an ecoonmic downturn)

I claim that Che can help you out on all these points.

Who exactly is Che Guevara?

Che Guevara was a key figure in the Cuban Revolution, and is a bit of an icon or symbol in certain subcultures. There are a lot of things that I don't like about Che Guevara: he advocated for the use of violence to achieve his goals, and he advocated for a political system (socialism/communism) that I am not fully on board with. But there is a lot about him that I do like. And while I do not like all the results of this revolution, in which Cuba became a Communist country, I think it is important to remember that the revolution overthrew an oppressive government, run by Fulgencio Batista, who had seized power through military force after he was set up to lose a democratic election.

My thoughts on the history of Cuba and its interactions with the U.S. during the cold war:

As an aside, I'm sometimes irritated that I never learned any of this stuff when growing up, not in school, and certainly not in the mainstream news media; the popular media in the U.S. presented a one-sided view of things, painting a picture of Cuba as the "bad guys", and I think it is eye-opening to get a fuller picture of the history of Communist countries. Part of me wonders if Cuba wouldn't have had a freer society, and if the Cuban Missile Crisis wouldn't have happened, if the U.S. had discouraged Batista from seizing power or had cut off ties with him, and if the U.S. had not made an unprovoked attack on Cuba during the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion.

Back to Che Guevara's advice:

But, returning to the point of this post, I think Che Guevara offers some interesting advice in his famous 1961 manual on guerilla warfare. If there is one key idea that I would take from this book, it is the following (this is my own paraphrase, not a quote, as I do not have the book on hand currently):

Do not wait for the conditions to be right for revolution to succeed; make your revolution create these conditions.

Translated into the business world, this advice becomes:

Do not wait for the conditions to be right for your business to thrive, make your business create these conditions.

What conditions what Che Guevara talking about?

In this idea, Che Guevara was demonstrating systems thinking, which I recently wrote about. A person thinking in a rigid or linear fashion might say--the conditions aren't right for me to accomplish this task, so I need to wait. But the right conditions never come. Your country continues to suffer under an oppressive dictatorship, or your business languishes, or perhaps you never start your business at all, and instead keep working in a mindless, dead-end job.

The above diagram shows a way of thinking about achieving goals that leaves you unempowered. When you think in this way, it seems like there is no way for you to move towards your goals. The problem with this viewpoint is that most goals in life and in business are not one-time events, they are ongoing processes. A revolution, a business, a job, an organization, are all systems. There may be key events, such as the overthrow of a dictator in a revolution, or the founding of a business, which get the goal going, but without a coherent system, it will all be for nothing. A revolution that replaces one dictator with another, or with a dysfunctional governing system, does not solve the problems it set out to solve. Similarly, if a business does not have a sound business model or if it is not run effectively, it will fail.

It makes more sense to think about goals as a system, pictured below:

Initially, you may not feel like you have the power to influence the conditions that affect your business (or revolution, or whatever other system you're trying to create), but if you brainstorm, specifically, about the things pictured in the yellow box above, you may get ideas of how to influence them. I want to provide an example that I think is particularly compelling.

In this example, and also for any sort of retail business, especially tea ones, part of those conditions are loyal customers, recognition of your name, and momentum of the daily functioning of your business. This momentum includes cash flow.

An example from a business:

When I was in high school, I worked for a bakery, Ric's Bread, located in Lancaster, PA. The bakery was founded by Ric Tribble, the father of my friend Max, whom I met in second grade. Ric was an important role model in my life, from whom I learned many things about business. Ric has since sold the bakery, but it is still operating.

Ric has started and run many businesses over the course of his life, including the bakery, at least one restaurant, and all sorts of odds and ends of things (including his own brand of Barbecue sauce, which was very good). He has also sold clothing, and real estate; recently, he returned to real estate, where he and his wife Mary (who was also instrumental in running the bakery) currently work for Puffer Morris Real Estate in Lancaster, PA. What I found particularly interesting about Ric is how he was able to create businesses seemingly out of thin air, requiring far fewer financial resources than most people talk about needing. How he did it with the bakery is particularly illuminating.

How Ric started Ric's Bread:

The first ingredient in the bakery was that Ric knew how to bake good bread, and people in town knew that Ric knew not only how to bake, but how to cook. Ric and Mary frequently had people over for dinner, and Ric was respected as an impressive chef in his circle of friends. To generalize this advice, Ric used a skill he had as a starting point for his business. Ric being a really friendly person and knowing a lot of people also helped a lot.

Ric partnered up with a coffee shop, Fred and Mary's (which is now closed), which had its own kitchen, with an oven suitable for baking bread, and started baking bread in the kitchen in the wee hours of the morning. Ric would bake bread for the coffee shop, in exchange for use of the kitchen. Because he was using the kitchen at a time when the coffee shop was not open and the kitchen was not being used, this deal cost the coffee shop much less than they gained from it.

Ric would then deliver the bread to subscribers, which included local restaurants and individuals. Soon, Ric had rented a small market stand at the Lancaster Central Market. It wasn't long before the business had grown to the point of renting a full-sized bakery and storefront. But by the time Ric wanted the storefront, the business already had a loyal customer base, including restaurants and subscribers to bread delivery. The bakery expanded into selling cinnamon buns, coffee cakes, muffins, foccacia, and all sorts of other baked goods. Early on, when Fred and Mary's was still around, the bakery used the relationship with the coffee shop to benefit both parties, with the signature loaves that they used to bake for the coffee shop called "Fred and Mary's Bread", both helping to draw in customers of the coffee shop to buy bread, and to advertise the coffee shop to customers of the bakery.

Back to tea:

Whether you're running a tea company, or thinking of starting one, you may find it helpful to use the sort of thinking described here. You don't need a lot of funding to start a tea business. People frequently start businesses out of their homes. Most tea companies have started out very small. Stash Tea started as a small business operated out of a house; Twinings started as a single tea room.

On starting a business:

Just like Ric had the momentum of being a skilled baker and chef, and having people know about his culinary skills, if you are a tea enthusiast, you likely have some momentum of your own, in that you know how to select and brew high-quality tea, and you serve it to others, who recognize you as someone knowledgeable about tea.

Stay tuned for future posts:

You may think that some of the points I mentioned at the beginning of this post are still beyond your control. How can you deal with an economic downturn? Isn't that beyond your control? Not at all. But this post is already too long. Stay tuned for future posts, in which I will explain how similar advice can help you protect your business against an economic downturn.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Conveying Authority While Writing on Controversial Subjects

Recently I wrote about whether or not and how to host informational tea articles on tea company websites. One point I made in that article was that well-written informational articles can convey an impression of authority or expertise, which can benefit a tea company or other business.

In this article, I want to focus on the writing and research itself and explain how people can convey authority and expertise through writing. Merely knowing a lot is not enough to impress someone: you must find a good way to present your knowledge.

Conveying authority through writing:

I believe that well-written informational articles can convey an instant impression of authority. I tend to be inherently skeptical of unfamiliar authors, but even when I am completely unfamiliar with the author or publication, certain aspects about the way someone writes can impress me and lead me to perceive the person as authoritative in their subject. While I have a lot to say about writing, what constitutes "good" writing can be a bit subjective, and is a whole topic in and of itself.

I don't think of myself as a very good writer, but I do think I understand certain key points that a lot of authors miss. A lot of these points boil down to how and when to be careful about citing sources, and about how to present statements about potentially controversial material. I sum these ideas up with a simple concept that I'd like to call the danger zone.

Be aware of what society considers "common knowledge" when writing:

When writing about tea, I find it useful to think about the collective consciousness about tea in society at large, that is, the body of beliefs that is "common knowledge"; this does not mean that everyone knows all the facts in this zone, just that a lot of people know many of them. This body of knowledge is going to be different in different countries and cultures, and it will also be different when you write for different audiences; it's worth putting a bit of thought into the questions of who your audience is. For a tea company writing informational material about tea, your audience might be your customer base or pool of potential customers. But no matter what group you are considering, there is going to be a body of knowledge that most people know about tea, and material outside this realm.

And like any body of knowledge, this public tea knowledge is going to include both truths and falsehoods. I want to denote this knowledge by the following diagram:

As an example, the green zone might contain statements like "Irish Breakfast is a strong black tea." or "The Japanese drink mostly green tea." The blue zone might contain more esoteric statements like: "Huang Jin Gui, meaning golden osmanthus, is a type of Oolong tea produced from a specific varietal of the tea plant." The dark red zone, which is what I call the danger zone, contains common myths, like: "White tea is lower in caffeine than black tea."

Writing in the danger zone:

A key guiding principle in conveying authority, I have found, is to delve into the danger zone, but be most cautious in this zone. When writing in this zone, I find it is more important than normal to follow up your statements with citations to sources backing your points, and it is also important to begin the statements by presenting the "common misinformation". The goal is to connect your statement into the web of knowledge of your readers.

I find it useful to picture people's belief systems and knowledge about the world as a web of related ideas or beliefs, like the above diagram. Every person's knowledge includes true (green) and false (red) statements. Connecting with readers about true statements is easy, but if you write exclusively about true statements that people already know, you will bore your readers and lose your audience.

If you make a statement about some piece of knowledge in the danger zone without explanation, you may lose some of your readers, because they might think that you don't know what you're talking about. People have a natural tendency to evaluate new material presented to them by comparing it to the body of knowledge in their head; if the information doesn't fit, people become distrustful of the source. We all do this, and it's not necessarily a bad thing. But it's important to be aware of it when writing about a piece of information about which there is widespread misinformation circulating in society. Some examples of how I like to handle this:

  • (Regarding white tea) It is a widespread myth that white tea is lower in caffeine than other types of tea; there is no clear pattern of white teas being higher or lower in caffeine when compared to black teas or green teas. (Cite a source or link to a fuller explanation)

  • (Regarding the myth that green tea is the only "healthy" tea) Green tea received a lot of initial attention with respect to the health benefits of tea, largely for historical reasons: most of the early research on the health benefits of tea was conducted in Japan, where people drink almost exclusively green tea. Subsequent research has found evidence of health benefits of other types of tea as well, and there have been no thorough comparisons which have exhaustively established that green tea is any healthier than other types of tea.

These statements may not convince everyone, but I think that this approach is much more likely to do so than a mere assertion of some fact. And when you do convince someone, you have conveyed authority. People will come away from your writing thinking: "I just learned something new." and will attribute this to your writing, which makes it more likely that they'll come back for more.

What do you think?

Do you find this model for thinking about knowledge and writing to be at all accurate, useful, or helpful?

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Top 5 Countries Producing Fair Trade Certified Tea, According To RateTea

The issue of fair trade certification is complex, not only in the tea world, but across the board. Anyone who has read my article on fair trade tea on RateTea will know that I don't see fair trade as an instant solution to the problems associated with the large disparities of wealth between the industrialized countries like the U.S. and Japan and the historically poorer ones like China and India. That said, I think fair trade is a generally good idea, and I like to support it, such as by making RateTea's listings able to be searched and filtered by fair trade status, as well as supporting critiques that can potential strengthen the system of fair trade certification.

This post highlights some interesting observations about which countries have the most fair trade certified teas on the market in the West. These coarse observations are not exact, they come from RateTea's database, which may have various biases, but the difference is pronounced enough that I feel pretty confident with the order. Here are the leading countries producing fair trade certified tea:

  • India - India comes out a clear leader in this contest, with China coming in a noticeably-lagging second. This was intuitive to me; although China and India produce a roughly comparable amount of tea on the global market, and although China definitively leads India in terms of diversity of the teas it exports, China lags behind in terms of transparency, a key factor in fair trade certification.

  • China - Second place, as discussed above.

  • Sri Lanka - The only other country to produce an appreciable amount of fair trade certified tea, Sri Lanka produces fair trade certified teas in a number of regions, including Uva, Dimbula, and Nuwara Eliya.

  • Nepal - The only fair trade certified teas I know of come from Kenchajangha / Kangchenzodnga estate, but there are so few runners-up in fair trade tea after the big three that this one tea garden, whose teas are relatively widely available in the west, seems to be enough to put Nepal on the map.

  • Kenya - Kenya barely makes it onto this list; interestingly, all the fair trade certified Kenyan teas in RateTea's database are tea bags, sold by UK companies.

There's only one runner-up, Vietnam, with two fair trade certified teas. Every other country is a big zero.

Interestingly, the ordering in this list is the same regardless of whether or not you include flavored teas when compiling the ranking.

Do you have anything to add?

Do you have any interesting information that I have missed, possibly explaining this ranking? Are there any important fair trade certified teas that I've missed (and that would put other countries on this list, or possibly, even change the ranking of the countries, because the sample size is so small for the last ones?)

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Scientific Research I'd Like To See Done on Tea's Caffeine, Vitamin C, etc.

When conducting research on tea in the course of working on RateTea, I'm often surprised at how little basic scientific research there is out there on the chemical components of various types of tea, such as caffeine, vitamin C, theanine, and the various antioxidants.

Former president George W. Bush, pictured above, conducted a Q&A session in 2005, pictured above; this session, which focused on the topic of terrorism, still left me and the rest of the world with many unanswered questions about tea.

For example, when writing the article on the caffeine content of tea, I found only a handful of studies, and these studies did more to break down myths (like the myth about white tea being low in caffeine or black tea being high in caffeine) than they did to establish clear patterns of which teas have more or less caffeine. When working on the article on the vitamin C content of tea, I found even fewer studies. The results for theanine were similar; I found sources establishing that Gyokuro and Anji Bai Cha were high in theanine, but I did not find much in the way of thorough research characterizing which teas are relatively higher and lower, and explaining why this would be the case.

Some questions I'd like to see answered scientifically:

  • Since it is known that green tea contains measurable vitamin C, whereas black tea contains either no vitamin C or only traces, I'd be curious to see if there is any vitamin C in the greenest of oolongs and the greenest of Darjeeling "black" teas, especially first flush. Given that some of these teas are greener in color than some green teas, I suspect many of these teas are as high in vitamin C as some green teas.

  • I'd like to see some work on the levels of various chemicals in whole leaf tea, compared to broken-leaf tea, including the contents of various tea bags containing fannings or dust, and sachets containing whole leaf tea. These sorts of studies would be necessary to definitively answer questions comparing loose-leaf tea to tea bags.

  • I'd like to see more work thoroughly exploring how the chemical components of tea differ from higher grades of tea, which tend to be more expensive, to lower grades of tea.

  • I'd like to see studies that compare the chemical composition of tea to subjective impressions of its taste and other qualities, conducted by panels of experts and everyday tea drinkers, using blind taste tests. This would shed some light into whether or not impressions of freshness and quality correspond well to chemical changes in the tea.

  • It is known that both Vitamin C and other antioxidants in tea tend to break down slowly over time, and that this process is slowed in teas that have been heated (like green tea). I'd be curious for work establishing how fast these chemicals break down, and if substantial breakdown happens before there is a noticeable change in the aroma or flavor of the tea. I'd also be curious to see if white tea would (as I would suspect) initially have a greater vitamin C content than green tea, but that the vitamin C would break down much faster than in green tea.

These are just a few of the questions that come to mind. Some of these would have health implications and would help answer questions about which teas are healthiest. Although I tend to focus primarily on taste, I would like to have a scientifically-valid answer when people ask me questions about which teas are healthiest. Currently, I find myself giving vague answers to these sorts of questions, because there's not enough research for me to give more thorough answers.

Low-hanging fruit?

Some of these questions seem like they'd be relatively inexpensive and straightforward to answer, as they'd just be a question of testing enough samples through fairly routine methods. Given all the highly expensive, specialized scientific work done nowadays, it seems like a lot of these questions would be more fruitful to pursue. I'd like to offer a hint to academic researchers looking for an easy publication that could attract a lot of attention: these topics might offer some low-hanging fruit.

Pictured here are some low-hanging fruit of the Sorbus aucuparia plant (Rowan tree or European Mountain Ash).

It seems silly to invest a lot of money in costly research on tea, such as controlled clinical trials of green tea supplements, when some of the most basic questions about tea's chemical components remain unanswered.

What do you think?

What sorts of scientific work would you like to have done on tea? Do you think the above questions would be interesting? Do you know of some studies that I've missed that would answer some of these questions or add useful conclusions to the pages I maintain?

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Oxidation of Tea And Classifying Tea As Black, Green, Oolong, Etc.

When I first got into tea, my level of knowledge was a lot more basic than it is now. I had heard the standard adage "black tea is fully oxidized" and its counterpart "green tea is unoxidized". I initially thought that the different classes of tea (black, green, oolong, etc.) were characterized or defined by their levels of oxidation. I was surprised when I found teas that seemed to be exceptions to this pattern. What I found when researching more deeply was that differing levels of oxidation alone does not define or separate the different classes of tea, and that these classes are usually defined by the production process as a whole, which usually, but not always corresponds to certain differences in levels of oxidation.

Reflecting on these exceptions, and wanting to create a better resource on the topic of tea and oxidation, I recently published a new article on RateTea about the oxidation of tea, in which I go into more depth about the level of oxidation among the various tea types.

I would encourage you to take a peek at that article, and if you think it is a worthwhile resource, to consider linking to it when you need a reference on the topic of tea and oxidation. In this post though, I want to delve more into some of the specific teas that inspired me to think in more nuanced ways about oxidation, and ultimately led to that article.

Very green black tea: Darjeeling first flush:

Darjeeling is a black tea, but it often is not fully oxidized. In some cases, it is as green in color (both of leaf and brewed cup) as a number of green teas. Look at the following examples:

Pictured here are, the first two from Upton Tea Imports, Arya Estate First Flush SFTGFOP1, and Thurbo Estate TGBOP Cl/Tip First Flush, then Makaibari Estate Darjeeling 1st Flush from Arbor Teas, and last, Adagio's Darjeeling #1. I featured these teas mainly because of their visual characteristics, although I will say that I've tried the first three and they're all delicious, and they all have a greener character when brewed. The greenest character in a tea presented as a "black tea", however, was, also from Upton, Castleton Estate TGBOP Ch. First Flush; this tea produced a cup lighter in color than a typical Chinese pan-fired green tea, and barely resembled black tea at all, with a very light character and tones of mint.

Very dark green tea:

Although there are plenty of green teas that are more moderate in their color, truly dark green teas, I have found, are rarer than "black" teas which exhibit a highly green character. One particular example stands out, a large-leaf green tea, produced in Thailand from the Assamica cultivar, which I purchased from Upton tea. Here are Upton's pictures of the leaf:

As you can see in the photo, which accurately depicted the tea as I sampled it, this tea was much browner than green in color. You can read my review of this tea for more about my experience with this tea.

The color of the brewed cup was also quite dark, closer to a typical black tea than other green teas. However, there was little about this tea's flavor, aroma, or other characteristics that resembled black tea in any way. I don't have a way of objectively measuring the oxidation level of teas. I wonder if the dark color of this tea were due to oxidation, or were just due to other factors. I honestly don't know what to expect about a tea like this.

Dark white teas:

Darker white teas, like shou mei and bai mu dan (white peony), are fascinating to me because they create problems for some of the older definitions of white tea, as I explore in my post definitions of white tea: raising eyebrows.

But I have found that learning about these white teas has also taught me a lot about the role oxidation plays in tea production, and the way varying production processes impact tea's characteristics through halting or allowing oxidation. For example, the fact that white tea's production does not denature the enzymes responsible for oxidation in the way that the heating does in the case of green tea, enables white tea to oxidize more than green tea, but because the leaves are quickly dried, this process is not allowed to carry out completely. But because larger leaves contain more moisture, the larger-leaf teas oxidize more. This phenomenon also explains why certain teas like moonlight white exhibit a lighter color in years of drought: when the leaves are dry, they dry out completely more quickly during production, thus allowing for less oxidation.

What do you think?

Let me know what you think of the new article on tea and oxidation. I'd appreciate any corrections or additions if you think it can be improved. I'd also like ideas if you have specific articles (including ones you may have written) that you think would make a good addition to my list of further reading at the end of the article. And if and when you think the article is an accurate, comprehensive resource on the topic of the oxidation of tea, I'd like to ask you to link to it as a reference when you mention the oxidation of tea. Thank you in advance!

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Masala Chai at Cafe Clave

I'm still basking in my success of "getting" as many people as I did with my April fool's joke. Tallying up the blog comments, comments on various forms of social media, and private remarks, I think I had well 100 people going. Mission accomplished!

I like finding different coffee shops in different areas, so that I can work from them on my laptop. When in West Philadelphia, I frequently work from Cafe Clave. This post is both about the cafe and about their masala chai.

Cafe Clave is a small cafe and coffee shop with a Cuban music theme to it. It is named after the claves, a key (haha) percussion instrument in Afro-Cuban music. In contrast to the music, the cafe tends to be rather quiet, and I've found it to be a good place to work on my laptop when working on my websites. The cafe also serves some very tasty home-made food, and serves Novus tea in whole-leaf sachets. If you are visiting Philadelphia and want to check this place out, it's on Locust Ave. between 43rd and 44th streets.

The cafe also has live salsa music; the picture says that the music is on Friday nights, but it has since been moved to Thursdays. I will say one thing...the band is amazing.

Cafe Clave's Masala Chai:

I recently tried the Masala chai made by Cafe Clave. This cafe serves its own proprietary blend of spiced tea, made from scratch by blending loose-leaf black tea and spices. The base black tea is itself a blend, including loose-leaf Turkish black tea from Caykur, and a slightly stronger black tea from Ahmad tea. If you want to know exactly what goes into it, go to the cafe and see for yourself!

I really like this particular rendition of masala chai. The base teas are high quality and balance strength with smoothness. The spices go heavy on anise and cardamom, two of my favorite spices. And the cafe sweetens it to taste, rather than pre-sweetening, so I was able to order an unsweetened variety.


It is hard for me to find Masala chai that I like better than the stuff I can prepare at home, but I think I've found some.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

RateTea to be Bought Out By Teavana (April Fool's)

I'm giving an inside peek here to my most loyal subscribers, before I share the official post via the RateTea newsletter.

I love working on RateTea, but it's a lot of work, and there are a lot of other things that I've been wanting to pursue in my life. Recently, I've been receiving increasing attention from various companies, expressing interest in buying out RateTea. Most of these offers did not impress me, for the simple reason that people were not able to provide me with enough cold, hard cash. But after some deliberation, I have decided to accept one of these offers.

RateTea will be purchased by Teavana Holdings, Inc, for an undisclosed sum of money. I will continue to work with the site for the next three months to facilitate the transition, after which the site will be completely run by Teavana. The Teavana management has assured me that they will do everything in their power to maintain the site's impartial character, and that Teavana's teas will be treated just the same as other company's teas.

As Yahoo! Finance's profile on Teavana shows, Teavana, following their recent IPO, is one of the few tea companies with enough cash to actually buy RateTea for the price I was asking.

Did I get you?

Haha. April fools.