Comparing Apples and … Tea?


Comparing Apples and Tea

On our way back from a book conference in Tacoma, Washington, my wife pointed out that we were passing an awful lot of stands selling fresh apples. Since it was the season, we picked a big place and stopped.

What an experience!

I knew there were different varieties of apples (Granny Smith, Red Delicious, Fuji…), but I had no idea how many there were. Different colors, sizes, and flavors. Apples that are great for munching, others great for cider, and still others great for applesauce. There are over 7,500 cultivars of apple, and even though this farm had fewer than 50 of them, I was completely and utterly overwhelmed.

And then the epiphany hit me: The way I felt looking at these apples, that deer-in-the-headlights look on my face, was just what I’ve seen on people’s faces the first time they walk into my tea bar. As an aficionado, I walk into a tea shop and start hunting for things I’ve never tried, strange varieties I’ve heard of but never seen, and old favorites that they may bring in from a different source than I do. To a newcomer, though, those 150 jars behind the tea bar might as well be full of pixie dust as tea.

The way the apple farmer led us through our selection is different from the way we guide people at the tea bar, but the general philosophy is the same. His job, like our job, is to help a customer pick something that will make them happy. if you’re going to be making apple butter, he’s eager to help you find just the right apples and suggest just the right procedure. That way, you’ll be back the next time you need apples. We do the same with tea.

Sometimes, we have the customer who knows exactly what they want. “Do you have a jasmine green tea?” they’ll ask. Or, “Can I get an English Breakfast Tea with a spot of milk?” Those folks are easy.

We also have the people who have a general idea of what they’re looking for, but they’re eager to experiment. “I’m looking for a cup of strong tea. What’s the difference between your Rwandan and your Malawi black teas?”

But the challenge comes when somebody has no idea what they’re after. That’s when we play a kind of twenty-questions game.

Q. Are you looking for a straight tea or something flavored?

A. Oh, just straight tea, I think.

Q. Do you like black tea? Green tea? Oolong?

A. I like green tea.

Q. Do you prefer the grassy Japanese styles or the pan-fired Chinese styles?

A. I had a really good Japanese tea one time that tasted really nutty. They called it green tea but the leaves were brown.

Q. Was it roasted? Does the name Houjicha sound familiar?

A. I’m not sure.

Q. Here. Smell this.

A. That smells great! I’ll have a cup of that!

This kind of conversation is what it takes to guide someone to something new. Hopefully something they’ll like so much that they’ll keep coming back for more. To expedite the process, we’re reorganizing the teas behind the bar.

On one side, we’re putting straight tea — and some straight herbs and related drinks like rooibos, honeybush, yerba mate, guayusa, and so forth. They’re organized first by style, so all of the white teas are together and all of the pu-erh teas are together. Within that grouping, they’re organized by origin: Ceylons, Assams, Kenyans, and so forth.

The other side has the flavored and scented teas, and it’s organized quite differently. Most people looking for a mango tea really couldn’t care less whether the base is white tea or green tea. All they care about is whether it has caffeine (and whether it tastes like mango, of course). To that end, the flavored side is grouped by flavor profiles: minty, fruity, flowery, and so forth. All of the berry teas are together, all of the masala chai is together, all of the Earl Grey is together, etc.

Hopefully, this will be a big help to people who think visually. They will be able to scan the jars and narrow in on something they like. When we’re done, we’ll post some pictures.

In the meantime, if you are a tea retailer, keep on talking to people. If you’re a tea consumer, keep on asking questions!

Iron Goddess of Mercy


Iron Goddess of Mercy

You know how there are certain teas you just keep on coming back to like an old comfy shirt?

Endless tea choices
Yet once again here I sit
drinking tieguanyin

For those unfamiliar with it, Iron Goddess of Mercy is the English translation of tieguanyin. It’s a wonderful oolong tea. My favorite, obviously.

Tips for reading news about tea studies


Header - Tips for reading news about tea studies

As Dr. Oz is being thoroughly (and rightfully) shredded by the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee for pimping weight-loss scams, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that (a) there are a lot of valid health benefits to tea, and (b) virtually every news story about tea and health manages to misrepresent or misinterpret the scientific study they’re describing.

As you read articles about tea and health, it’s important to keep in mind that the person writing the article is usually not the person (or people) who actually performed the study it references, and that the reporter/blogger may have read only the summary, not the whole study. Also, in larger news operations, the person writing the headline isn’t the same person who wrote the article, and if they’re operating on a deadline, the headline may not accurately sum up the story.

Tip 1: Beware of extreme claims

There’s an article on Authority Nutrition entitled,”How Green Tea Can Help You Lose Weight Naturally.” It’s worth reading. There are good explanations of the benefits of tea, and it cites dozens of actual scientific studies. But any article that begins with a statement like “green tea is the healthiest beverage on the planet” should set off alarm bells. No, there’s never been a study that tested every single beverage on the planet (there’s never been a study of every style of tea on the planet, for goodness’ sake). No, we don’t have a generally-accepted definition of “healthiest beverage.” An opening sentence like that one tells you you’re about to read something sensationalistic, and you should view everything they say with skepticism.

Any article that begins with a statement like “green tea is the healthiest beverage on the planet” should set off alarm bells.

Tip 2: They only studied what they studied

There’s an article on Byron J. Richards Wellness Resources entitled, “The Effects of Green Tea on Weight Management.” The author is a Board Certified Clinical Nutritionist, the studies cited all appear to be properly-conducted randomized controlled trials, and the conclusions all appear to be valid. So what’s the problem? Reading this may make you want to rush to your tea cabinet and throw away all of those white teas, oolong teas, yellow teas, and pu-erh teas. You need to replace those all with green tea, right. Wrong!

The studies looked at green tea. Specifically, they measured catechins and caffeine in green tea. They never compared green tea with white tea — or any other kind of tea. White tea may be even better for weight loss. So might oolong, pu-erh, or yellow. If green tea is measured against anything else in a study, it’s almost always black tea. What’s the difference between green and black tea? Black tea is oxidized, and that process converts a lot of the antioxidants into other compounds (catchins are a type of antioxidant). But white and yellow tea isn’t oxidized, and oolong is only partially oxidized. Shu pu-erh is oxidized and fermented, and sheng pu-erh is fermented without being oxidized first. Don’t draw conclusions about your oolong from a study that never even looked at oolong!

Tip 3: There’s more to tea than antioxidants

I think it’s pretty universally agreed that antioxidants are a good thing, but they aren’t the only source of health benefits in tea. When I got in a tiff with Fox News’ Chris Kilham about misrepresenting studies, it related to a study that showed coffee had some great health benefits. Reading the study showed that it looked at one thing: caffeine. All of the health benefits it listed for coffee would apply just as much to tea, guayusa, yerba maté, or Mountain Dew. If you like black tea, don’t let yourself get talked out of drinking it just because it doesn’t have the same antioxidant content as green tea.

Tip 4: All green tea is not created equal

It’s wonderful to see an article like the one titled, “Green Tea,” on the University of Maryland Medical Center page. It has tons of information, cites numerous studies, and explains potential drug interactions and side effects. But, like all of the other articles, it just references “green tea.” Did they test Japanese steamed green tea like sencha? Pan-fired Chinese green tea like longjing? Or was it roasted (hōjicha), powdered (matcha), shade-grown (gyokuro), scented (jasmine), or rolled (gunpowder)? The Kevin Gascoyne study I referenced in my 3-part series on caffeine found tea caffeine content ranging from 12mg to 126mg per cup. Yes, the most caffeinated tea had ten times as much caffeine as the least. He found a similar range of antioxidant contents. If you want to replicate the results of the study, you have to know what kind of tea they used.

Tip 5: Pay attention to who funded the study

If they had done a study that found that green tea gives people smelly feet, how much publicity do you think that would have gotten?

You can’t automatically discount a study because the funding group had something to gain from it. Tea companies are the ones most likely to fund tea studies, after all. But take a look at “Green Tea Promotes Weight Loss, New Research Finds,” an article on Medical News Today (well, actually, it’s a press release, but they don’t make that obvious until the end). It’s very clear in reading the article that Lipton did the research, and that Lipton is very excited about having done the research. It’s a big company, and their PR department did a good job of really spreading the news about that study.

If they had done a study that found that green tea gives people smelly feet, how much publicity do you think that would have gotten? I always tend to pay a little more attention to research coming from neutral parties, or research that’s been duplicated by neutral parties.

Tip 6: Check to see if the methodology was realistic

WebMD has an article entitled, “Green Tea Fights Fat,” which does appear to actually compare weight loss effects of green tea with oolong tea. But read this sentence from the article carefully: “For three months, the first group drank a bottle of oolong tea fortified with green tea extract containing 690 milligrams of catechins, and the other group drank a bottle of oolong tea with 22 milligrams of catechins.”

First, they aren’t comparing green tea with oolong. Both groups drank oolong tea. In one group, they added green tea extract, and in the other, they didn’t. So this study actually compares drinking oolong with drinking oolong plus green.

Second, the average cup of green tea has 50-100mg of catechins. That means the “extract” they fortified the bottle of oolong with made it equivalent to 7-14 cups of green tea. That’s a lot of tea!

 

If you have specific reasons for controlling your intake of caffeine, L-theanine, catechins, and other components, then there’s plenty of research to plunge into. Focus on people who actually study tea rather than folks like Dr. Oz or Oprah. Look at the paper and see what they actually studied. If it doesn’t apply to you, move on to the next one. If it does, take it at face value without trying to overgeneralize.

But if you’re just looking for a healthy drink that tastes good, stop worrying and buy more of what you like the most. You’re likely to drink a lot more of a beverage you love than one you don’t. If you like to experiment, all the better! If you drink a wide variety of tea, you’ll get a wide variety of nutritional benefits, and you can enjoy yourself as you do it.

Glenburn Estate First Flush Darjeeling


Glenburn Estate First Flush Darjeeling

First flush Darjeeling
Steeped a scant ninety seconds
Puts champagne to shame

King of Jasmine Silver Needle


King of Jasmine Silver Needle

This is a sample of a scented white tea I got at World Tea Expo. I will be selling it in the tea bar and at RedLodgeTea.com within a couple of weeks. Love it!

Delicate; fragrant
I’m a sucker for jasmine;
White tea more than green

2005 Vietnamese Shu Pu-erh


2005 Vietnamese Shu Pu-erh

This posts kicks off the new “haiku tea reviews” section of my blog. I’m going to begin with a 2005 Vietnamese Shu “Pu-erh.” I use the quote marks because, technically, if it isn’t from the Yunnan province of China, it isn’t pu-erh; it’s dark tea. Nonetheless, this is a very nice aged ripe fermented tea, and a good start to the section:

Light color; rich taste
Every infusion unique
Where do I get more?

Yes, by the way, I’ll be using the 5/7/5 haiku structure here rather than the more modern American freestyle form. I learned it as 5/7/5 and it’s still what I like to write best.

Matcha at World Tea Expo 2014


WTE2014 Matcha header

Last week at World Tea Expo 2014, most of my time was focused on finding new things. I tasted new tea blends and fresh varietals, while browsing through billions of new gadgets, accessories, and tea-related products. I did try to make time to visit with our existing vendors and friends, and when we stopped at AOI, the company we buy our matcha from, I found something old rather than something new.

Have you ever looked at matcha powder and wondered how it’s made? Oh, it sounds very simple: take some high quality Japanese steamed green tea and powder it. But how do you powder it? Today, there are high-volume machines for absolutely everything, but matcha has been around for a very long time (see my posts about matcha and the Japanese tea ceremony for more information). How did they make matcha before the advent of machines?

AOI had the answer in their booth: a hand-carved millstone designed for tea leaves.

matcha mill

The upper stone has a hole in the top where dried tea leaves are inserted, and a vertical wooden shaft in the lower stone keeps it centered. There are grooves that move the ground-up leaves out to the lower stone’s dish. Of course, I had to try it, and then I made a short video of my son using the mill:

I saw a lot of cool gadgets, but this is the one I’d like to have sitting next to my desk at home. Unfortunately, it wasn’t for sale…

World Tea Expo 2014, Day 3: Revenge of the Pu-erh


WTE2014 Day 3 header
If you haven’t already read Day 1: The Saga Begins, Day 2: Attack of the Clonals, and Tea Bloggers Roundtable, you might want to read them first for context. If not, that’s fine. Read on. No biggie.

The third day of World Tea Expo 2014 started rather unexpectedly, as we pulled into the parking garage and encountered Harley Quinn. On roller skates. As we walked to the expo center, we met up with a variety of other comic characters — along with some characters from movie and TV shows. Yes, it was cosplay time at a comic book convention. Parked in front of the expo center, we saw a variety of vehicles: Kit from Knight Rider, three (Count em! Three!) Jurassic Park tour vehicles, the Back to the Future DeLorean, complete with a dead ringer for Doc Brown, and quite possibly the most awesome Batmobile I’ve ever seen.

WTE cosplay

That wookie was BIG! I’m guessing he drinks a lot of good healthy Taiwanese oolong.

Once we got past the Star Wars crowd, however, it was back to the business of tea. And most of that consists of placing orders on the last day of expo to catch all of the show specials. Most of what we purchased was pu-erh tea, which I drink a lot of these days. A good part of the reason we buy so much pu-erh at the World Tea Expo is that there’s a rich variety available, but it can be hard to find in the U.S.

Looking for a nice first-flush Darjeeling? Every major tea importer or distributor has one. Sencha? There’s hardly a catalog without at least one. Earl Grey? Even grocery stores in Montana are likely to carry more than one. But if you’re looking for unique and tasty pu-erh teas, you just might have a long (and pleasant) task ahead of you.

At World Tea Expo, there’s a broad variety of pu-erh laid out on tables all across the expansive show floor, almost all of it compressed into cakes of some form or another. One of the most intriguing we came across this year is a jasmine sheng pu-erh. It has the same jasmine aroma that any Chinese green jasmine tea has, but the underlying flavor is much more robust. A touch of the expected pu-erh earthiness comes through, along with more astringency than most. Part of the astringency is explained by the relatively long steeping time that LongRun used in their booth. They steeped for about four minutes. When I got it home, I played around and decided two minutes is more my speed on this one.

jasmine sheng pu-erh

These are 100 gram beeng cha cakes, which are significantly smaller than the traditional 357 gram cakes. This also makes them more affordable for someone who’s experimenting.

Yes, I can hear the faux gagging sounds coming from the purists, aghast at the idea of scenting a pu-erh tea. Pish tosh, I say to you. I’ll drink my straight pu-erh in the morning, but this lightly scented jasmine delight is just the thing for mid-afternoon. Also, being such a young fermented tea (2012), it will continue to get better and smoother for many years, aging like a fine wine. If you end up with enough self-control to put some away for five more years, it will be awesome!

Two other interesting things about that picture: the color of the tea in the glass in the background, and the pu-erh knife in the foreground. If you’re used to shu (“ripe”) pu-erh, which brews up very dark red, this pale green concoction will look mighty odd. I suppose if I wanted to really show the color, I wouldn’t have set it on a dark wood counter, but that’s beside the point. Sheng (“raw”) pu-erhs are much lighter and more delicate than the “in your face” shu pu-erhs.

For breaking apart pu-erh cakes, you don’t want a regular sharp knife. Cutting it will tear the leaves. What you want is a pointed knife that will slide between the layers of leaves and flake them apart. This pu-erh knife, which they call a “needle,” has a very sharp tip and basically no edges at all. I also like the ceramic handle.

In addition to the other pu-erh cakes we bought, my friend and fellow tea blogger Geoffrey Norman slipped me a little present: two “pu-erh” teas from different countries.

Geoff Norman pu-erhs

I’ve talked about spelling of Chinese teas here before, so don’t let Geoff’s “puer” and my “pu-erh” throw you off. The transliteration from Chinese into English will never be perfect, and often you’ll find different translators spelling the same words in different ways. The spelling Geoff uses is how the town of Puer appears on most maps, so it may end up winning out eventually if we ever come to consensus, but until then I’ll stick with my way.

Speaking of the town name, that’s why “puer” appears in quotes on the tube. Technically speaking, you’re not supposed to use the name pu-erh unless the tea comes from the Yunnan province of China, where the style originated. The tea is named for the town where it was processed and marketed. A fermented tea from anywhere else should be called a dark tea rather than a pu-erh. We’ll see if that works out as well as “masala chai.” Translated into English, that one should be “masala tea,” indicating a tea made with a masala spice blend. Instead, most Americans call it “chai tea,” which translates to “tea tea” and loses the whole meaning. *sigh*

There are fermented teas (pu-erh style dark teas) made in a number of places outside of Yunnan. In addition to the Taiwanese and Vietnamese I got from Geoff, I bought dark teas from Fujian and Anhui provinces, and I am carefully aging a Laotian beeng cha as well.

There is no other style of tea that has the variety pu-erh does. Some I steep for minutes, and some for mere seconds. Some brews so dark you can’t see through it, and some as light as a short-steeped dragonwell. The colors range from yellowish-green to orange to deep red. The flavors are all over the map. You can steep pu-erh leaves a dozen times, and each infusion will be different from the last. If you haven’t experienced pu-erh before, don’t blindly order some online. Go to a tea shop and talk to someone who really knows the style. Try several different ones to narrow it down. Only then, make the investment in a good pu-erh cake to take home and enjoy.

Tea Bloggers Roundtable 2014


Tea Bloggers Roundtable 2014Last night at World Tea Expo 2014, we had fun on the Tea Bloggers Roundtable.

The moderator, Naomi Rosen (Joy’s Teaspoon) asked us questions, guided the discussion, and took comments from the audience. The panel consisted of (left to right):

Nicole Schwartz (AmazonV) live tweeted questions and answers for those who couldn’t attend, and Geoffrey Norman (Lazy Literatus), who was on the panel last year, heckled us from the audience.

Our friend TeaPigeon from the exhibit floor (pictured below) was unable to attend the roundtable. Something about too much oolong.

pigeon

That isn’t pavement, it’s the comfy carpet of the exhibit hall floor beneath the tired feet of TeaPigeon. We declared him our official show mascot. For more pictures of him and a buddy, check #TeaPigeon (and #TeaPidgeon) on Twitter.

We answered questions on a number of topics, and got some great audience participation, too. Among the topics were:

Q: What do you do if someone sends you a sub-par tea to review?

A: Most of us review only what we like, so if we get a bad product we don’t talk about it. If we do, we tend to lay it on the line.

Q: What’s the best time of day to update the blog and social media?

A: For the most part, we don’t post to the blogs on a schedule (except for Nicole, who posts at noon Eastern time), but we try to do the social media links early in the morning, as most folks check their Facebook and Twitter feeds first thing when they get up. Some of us repeat links in the afternoon, typically with different text.

Q: Do you blog about tea and health?

A: That’s a topic that’s in much demand, but there’s so little proper scientific research that we’re all hesitant to do it. Studies tend to be myopic (good word, Chris!), and media coverage of the studies often distorts the results. The dearth of data means everyone’s looking for solid information, but the research is time-consuming and can be expensive; not all of the studies are available for free on the Internet.

Q: How do you deal with word count?

A: Some tea bloggers (Geoffrey, for example) worry about whether their posts are too long and rambling. Others (like me) want to make sure there’s enough content to make them worth reading. The beauty of the Internet, though, as compared to print media, is that we don’t have hard limits. Doug Robson pointed out from the audience that for the first time in history, we have a medium with infinite scrolling. You can fit ten thousand words as easily as you can fit ten words. There’s no reason to trim it back.

Well, I need to get going and hit the last day of Expo, so I’ll cut this post short and talk more about tea blogging later. In case you’re interested, I started my day with a lovely golden tip Yunnan tea from TeaSource. That’s my kind of black tea!

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