Category Archives: Tea Thoughts
It has been a while since my last post. Ever so much has been going on in my life, and it’s starting to settle back down. Parts have been joyous and parts have been traumatic. I’m not going to try to stuff everything into a single blog post, but I’ll give you a glimpse right now and fill in the rest as I have a chance.
My main blog, at GaryDRobson.com, has been neglected as well, but I’m currently working on a series of updates there that my tea friends and followers might be interested in.
For those who haven’t heard, my book and tea shop, Red Lodge Books & Tea, was acquired by a cooperative in Billings, MT last year. I was excited and enthusiastic. I’d be managing a new shop twice the size of my old one, located right in the heart of Billings’ historic downtown. The 60-mile commute was a pain, but I could live with that.
That relationship is done.
I’ve spent over fifteen years on the retail side of the book trade, and that’s a long time. I’m still writing and publishing books, but I decided it was time to put my focus somewhere else. My daughter, Gwen, and I decided that it was time to open a new tea shop and drop the book part of the business, and thus was born the Phoenix Pearl Tea Tavern.
The name is a dual reference to phoenix pearl tea (a tightly-rolled jasmine green that I’m quite in love with), and to the fabled phoenix bird rising from the ashes of the old store.
What with opening the new shop and everything else that’s been going on in my life, I haven’t had a whole lot of time to blog about tea. That doesn’t mean, however, I haven’t been learning, experiencing, teaching, and collecting ideas to share on Tea with Gary. Life is still pretty crazy, so I’m not committing to a regularly weekly update schedule, but I am telling you that there will be a lot more posts coming on this site.
It’s good to be back.
As I write this, it’s getting pretty late, so I’m not drinking tea. Instead, I’m enjoying a steaming mug of green rooibos. It’s mild and a bit woody without a hint of astringency, and like its red cousin, it contains absolutely no caffeine. Green rooibos one of my favorite bedtime beverages. I made this cup with 16oz of water at about 200°F and one tablespoon of leaf, steeped for four minutes.
The answer to this question should be easy. All tea comes from the Camellia sinensis plant. It is not grain. It contains no gluten.
For those casually following the gluten-free lifestyle, that answer should be enough. But for those with celiac disease, a bit more detail may be required:
A lot of things are called tea that aren’t tea
As the first paragraph said, real tea comes from Camellia sinensis. But many (most?) people refer to anything that involves steeping leaves or flowers in hot water as tea: yerba maté, rooibos, chamomile, honeybush, and so forth. Technically, they are tisanes or infusions, but they are often sold as tea.
So if you’re buying actual black tea, green tea, oolong, pu-erh, or white tea, all is well. If you’re buying “herbal tea,” you’d better take a closer look at that label (Tazo Honeybush from Starbucks, for example, contains gluten).
Flavored teas have all kinds of additives
You may be getting a nice black tea that’s totally 100% gluten-free, but many flavored blends are sweetened. One of the things they may be sweetened with is malted barley, which does contain gluten. There’s not going to be very much of it, but it’s enough to cause problems for celiac patients.
So if you’re buying unflavored straight black tea, green tea, oolong, pu-erh, or white tea, all is well. If you’re buying flavored teas, you’d better take a closer look at that label.
Gluten in teabags? Really?
A number of tea companies use sealants for their teabags that contain gluten. There’s no gluten in the tea itself, but once you dip that bag in boiling water and the glue starts to melt, you’re picking up a tiny bit of gluten. By “tiny bit,” we’re talking a few parts per million in the brewed tea here, which is a tiny fraction of what it takes to cause reactions in someone with celiac disease. But if you’re actually looking for ZERO gluten content, we’re not quite there yet.
So if you’re buying loose-leaf unflavored straight black tea, green tea, oolong, pu-erh, or white tea, all is well. If you’re buying teabags, you’d better take a closer look at that label.
Now we’re getting into incredibly small amounts, but some tea companies (including Mighty Leaf, according to this article) use the same facility for manufacturing tea as they use for manufacturing products that contain gluten. There is a possibility of airborne cross-contamination from those products.
At this point, we might as well be talking about any other food product on the planet. Can we guarantee that there wasn’t a wheat field next to the farm where your tomatoes were grown? A big mug of tea might use 7 grams of tea leaf. Cross-contamination at 1 ppm means 7 micrograms of gluten. That’s about one millionth of the gluten you’d get from a couple of slices of bread or a pint of beer.
According to this article, “research has suggested that a daily gluten intake of less than 10 milligrams (mg) is unlikely to cause significant damage to the intestines in most people with celiac disease.” The gluten you’d pick up from teabag glue or cross-contamination is less than a thousandth of that amount.
That same article says that, “In most parts of the world, regulations say that to be labeled gluten-free, a product can contain up to 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten.” That means a slice of gluten free bread could still contain 100 times the gluten of a cross-contaminated cup of tea!
I am not a nutritionist, medical practitioner, or scientist, but I think those numbers make it pretty clear that if someone with celiac disease wants to drink a few cups of tea every day, it’s going to be just fine.
As I write this, I’m sipping on a cup of Jinxuan Jade Oolong, a rich buttery semi-oxidized tea that has replaced Iron Goddess of Mercy as my regular morning cup. I steep it 3:00 in boiling water, and then get three more cups out of it, adding a half-minute of steep time to each successive infusion. Although it is of the “milk oolong” style, it contains neither milk nor gluten.
As I was browsing the web looking for inspiration and education (a futile effort, much of the time), I came across an interesting blog post entitled, “How Not to Be a Bad Starbucks Customer: 10 Things You Should Do.” It’s an intriguing short post that — at least in my mind — goes a long way toward clarifying the difference between the coffee world and the tea world. We can start with the easy part: it doesn’t say “coffee” in the title; it says “Starbucks.” Granted, the blog is titled, StarbucksMelody: Unofficial Starbucks News & Culture, so I guess it’s only natural to have it Starbucks-centric.
But this is the point: the U.S. doesn’t have a “coffee culture” per se, but there is a “Starbucks culture,” which comes from their undeniable domination of all things coffee. In large part, Starbucks culture is our coffee culture. And people are nervous about it. So nervous that they read blog posts about how not to be a bad Starbucks customer. They don’t want to embarrass themselves.
We need to make sure this never happens in the tea world.
Our job, as tea shop owners, barTEAstas (if I may coin a particularly ugly word), tea writers, tea growers, tea importers, and general denizens of the tea world, is to welcome, encourage, and educate newcomers. It is not to shame them, make fun of their lack of knowledge, or cause them to worry because they don’t know where to stand or don’t know our terminology. Unfortunately, the terminology issue has already reared its ugly head, and a big chunk of the blame falls on … Starbucks. As an example, there’s a wonderful tea drink called “masala chai.” In Punjabi, “masala” refers to a spice blend, and “chai” means tea. An obvious English translation would have been “masala tea,” but Starbucks went for “chai tea” instead, a rather boneheaded phrase that basically means “tea tea.”
But I digress (as I am wont to do) …
“Our job … is to welcome, encourage, and educate newcomers. It is not to shame them, make fun of their lack of knowledge, or cause them to worry because they don’t know where to stand or don’t know our terminology.”
When you walk into an independently-owned tea shop, you are not expected to know that shop’s terminology, customs, or culture. You don’t need to feel anxious about whether you’re going to commit some horrific tea faux pas. You just need to do one thing to be the customer we all love.
What you have to do to be an awesome customer
- Enter the tea shop with an open mind and tell us what you do and don’t like.
We’ll take it from there!
Referring back to the blog post that inspired my blog post, let me re-frame what StarbucksMelody had to say from a tea perspective.
Things you don’t have to worry about
The tea experience is supposed to be calm and relaxing. You shouldn’t be stressed out about whether you’re properly prepared to walk in and order a cup of tea. And you really shouldn’t worry about these things:
- Knowing our sizes — or weird words for our sizes.
We don’t expect you to walk in the door knowing our sizes. We’ll tell you. Or maybe we’ll have cups on the counter labeled small, medium, and large — or 8oz, 12oz, 16oz. Don’t be afraid to ask.
- Knowing what kind of tea we have
Coffee shops usually have a couple kinds of coffee out. They can do many things to it (add steamed milk, add flavor shots, pour it over ice, sweeten it…), but there’s generally just coffee and decaf coffee in that decanter behind the counter.
Tea shops usually have dozens (or hundreds) of different types of tea. Even our regulars don’t know them all, as most tea shops regularly add or drop teas. If you tell us, “I’m looking for a strong hot black tea” or “I’m looking for a fruity green tea,” we can help you find one. That’s our job, and we love doing it.
- Knowing how a particular tea is prepared
You don’t have to know the proper water temperature for white tea, the appropriate steeping time for Earl Grey, how to whisk a matcha, or how to rinse a pu-erh. That’s what you’re paying us for. We do know these things.
- Using the right terminology
You don’t have to know a bunch of super-secret, just-for-the-cool-kids terminology to order tea. If you ask for that floral green tea that’s rolled into balls and left in your cup while you’re drinking, we know what you mean. Often, the terminology changes from shop to shop. The tea shop back home might call that style Jasmine Pearls, and my shop might call it Jasmine Dragon Tears, and they probably come from different producers. Either way, if you can describe it, we can probably figure it out.
- Ordering something strange
It’s very common for people to come into my tea bar looking for something I don’t have. With any luck, I can do it anyway. You want a super-strong ginger Earl Grey latte with soy milk? I will pick the appropriate Earl Grey, add some ginger root, and make it super strong for you. No problem. If you like it, I’ll make you a big bag of the blend and write instructions on the bag for how to prepare it. That’s what brings customers back for more.
- How long your drink has been sitting out
This isn’t a coffee shop. Your tea hasn’t been sitting in a pot behind the counter for an hour. It’s being made fresh right there in front of you.
- Asking questions
It’s okay to ask questions. We encourage you to ask questions. Most of the people working in indie tea shops absolutely love tea and love talking about it. If you want to know which of our teas are organic, how much caffeine they have, or what the Ethical Tea Partnership is, or where our milk oolong comes from, go ahead and ask.
The tea experience is supposed to be calm and relaxing.
It all boils down to this: Tea shops are not a place for stress. Don’t come in worrying about how to be a good customer (although we do appreciate it if you finish your phone call before you walk up to the counter), just come in looking for some good tea and let us help you get it.
I came across a fascinating article the other day with pictures (and short captions) of tea as they drink it in 22 countries around the world. Obviously, picking one tea — and one style of drinking it — to represent an entire country is difficult, but they did an admirable job of it. What I appreciated, though, is that it got me thinking about the way we experience tea from other countries.
I was rather distressed that the caption they chose for the U.S. was:
Iced tea from the American South is usually prepared from bagged tea. In addition to tea bags and loose tea, powdered “instant iced tea mix” is available in stores.
Eek! As much as I enjoy a cup of iced tea on a hot day, I rarely stoop to tea bags, and never to “instant iced tea mix.” If you are one of my international readers (when I last checked, about half of my blog’s visitors were outside the U.S.), please don’t judge us based on that article!
Despite that, the article made me think about something: When we experiment with the drinks from other countries, we usually prepare them our own way. Yerba mate, for example. The traditional method of making mate in Argentina, Uruguay, or Paraguay is in a gourd, with water that Americans would call “warm.” Americans trying out the drink usually make it just like a cup of tea, using boiling water in a cup or mug.
With tea, many of us would have difficulty drinking a cup of tea like they do in another country. Follow that link above and look at their description of Tibetan tea (#5 on the list). I don’t know about where you live, but here in Montana, I can’t easily lay my hands on yak butter.
Nonetheless, it’s a lot of fun to research how people eat and drink in other countries and try to duplicate the experience. Even if you’re not doing it exactly right at first, it makes you feel connected with other people and their cultures.
When my wife and I were dating, we discovered a Moroccan restaurant that we both loved: Menara in San Jose, California. They had fabulous food, belly dancers, authentic music, and — of course — Moroccan mint tea.
Kathy and I loved enjoyed watching them pour the tea as much as we enjoyed drinking it. We sat cross-legged on pillows around a low table. The server would place the ornate glasses — yes, glasses for hot tea — on the table and hold the metal teapot high in the air to pour the tea.
I am not a big fan of mint teas, generally, and I do not sweeten my tea, but I absolutely loved the tea at Menara (and no matter what my wife tells you, it had nothing to do with being distracted by the belly dancer).
When I made Moroccan mint tea at home, it never came out the same. There was always something off about the taste. I tried different blends, but just couldn’t duplicate the flavor. Then I decided to try duplicating the technique.
Take a look at that picture to the right (a marvelously-staged and shot picture from chelle marie). Look closely at the glass. That, as it turns out, is what I was missing. Pouring the tea from a height does more than just look good; it aerates the tea, which changes the way it tastes and smells.
You’ll find the same thing with a well-whisked bowl of matcha (Japan), a traditionally-made cup of masala chai (India), a frothy-sweet boba tea (Taiwan), or a cold, refreshing Southern sweet tea (USA).
If there’s a tea shop or restaurant in your area that makes the kind of tea you want to try, get it there first. Otherwise, read a few blog posts, watch a few videos, check out a good book, and give it your best try.
Tea is more than just a beverage; it is a window into the cultures that consume it. Embrace the differences. Enjoy the differences. Enjoy the tea!
Cor, I’m gobsmacked! The world’s gone barmy! The Telegraph, that bastion of Britishness, has declared in no uncertain terms that 80% of Britons don’t know how to make tea! Not only that, it’s scientists that say so. Scientists! Why, just look at the headline:
Okay, let’s all just keep calm and carry on here. I have certainly addressed the subject of making the perfect cup of tea before. And scientists have weighed in, too. Why, there’s a British standards document from the Royal Society of Chemistry that explains it step by step. Even George Orwell defined the ideal cup (although I disagree with him).
You see, the world is filled with tea Nazis: people who aren’t happy with figuring out how to make their tea; they have the cheek to tell you how to make your tea. I am a much more mellow fellow myself. I believe that if you make a cup of tea and you enjoy it, you’re doing it right. You may not be doing it my way, or the Royal Society of Chemistry’s way, or George Orwell’s way, but you’re doing it in a way that makes you happy. It doesn’t get much more “right” than that.
But let’s set my sappy altruism aside for a moment and examine what The Telegraph and the scientists at University College London have to say. They do, as it turns out, have some quite valid assertions — although their science reporter may have been a bit hasty in his conclusions.
“Despite drinking 165 million cups of tea each day, scientists believe that most Brits do not allow the leaves to infuse long enough for the complex flavours to emerge. Researchers at University College London and the British Science Association claim tea must be allowed to steep for up to five minutes, far longer than the toe-tapping two minutes allowed by most drinkers.”
I’m going to start out by making an assumption here, and that is that we’re specifically talking about black tea. I make my assumption based on the fact that their entire article assumes you’re adding milk to your tea (I have never met anyone who added milk to white or green tea, although I did meet one sad little man who put milk in his oolong), and that you’re using boiling water, which is perfect for black tea or pu-erh but ruins white or green tea.
One of the characteristics prized by British tea aficionados is astringency (which Lipton’s calls “briskness”). Your average breakfast tea in the U.K. is steeped until it is quite “brisk” (which I call undrinkably bitter). The astringency is then cut with milk, and possibly sugar as well. Generally speaking, when I want milk I drink a glass of milk. When I want tea, I want it to taste like tea. I take mine black, which means I use shorter steep times to control the astringency.
“And they advise using a pot rather than a tea-bag in a mug to allow convection currents to swirl tea leaves fully through the water.”
Okay, I have to agree with them there. Teabags are evil, and here’s why:
Dried tea leaves swell as you steep them. To extract the maximum flavor (and caffeine, and antioxidants…) from the leaves, they need water flow around them. Teabags were introduced for convenience, and they are, indeed, convenient. On the downside, though, they don’t give the leaves room to swell, and they severely limit the flow of water around the leaves. To address this problem, tea makers generally don’t put high-quality whole-leaf tea in the bags. Instead, they use finely crushed leaves, known as “fannings” or “dust.” This increases the surface area exposed to water, allows them to make the bags smaller, and (here’s the evil part) use the lowest-quality tea that was passed over by all of the tea makers that buy whole leaf — what I refer to as “floor sweepings.”
The article goes on to quote Mark Miodownik, Professor of Materials and Society at University College London:
“It’s obviously subjective but I feel people are missing out on a drink which could be so much more sophisticated because they don’t wait for the tea to brew long enough. Tea is made of 30,000 different chemicals, it’s a very complex thing and those molecules take time to emerge and influence each other.”
He could well have stopped after the first three words. It is obviously subjective, indeed. Perhaps the first 10,000 chemicals that emerge are the ones you find tastiest, and the last 10,000 are the ones that I prefer. Should we both steep our tea the same? Of course not.
On an unrelated note, I sometimes feel that my formal training in electrical engineering and computer science does not really qualify me to speak as an expert on tea. Seeing The Telegraph quote a professor of “materials and society” as a tea expert makes me feel better.
Back to the point at hand, Mr. Miodownik goes on to say something that reinforces my point from above:
“Fair enough if you want a hot milky drink, but then why drink tea?”
The article explains that the UCL people have an answer to the question of whether the milk should be added before or after the tea is poured. They don’t, however, address the issue of whether the milk should be there in the first place. That’s because it’s subjective. Some of us prefer tea, instead of hot milky drinks!
I also particularly enjoyed their discussion of a tea study by a milk company, which quite refutes the premise of the article.
A study carried out by Cravendale milk in 2011 found that the perfect cup of tea needed eight minutes (two minutes with the tea bag or leaves, six more afterwards) before it reaches optimum flavour and temperature.
UCL tells us that tea must be steeped “far longer than the toe-tapping two minutes allowed by most drinkers,” but Cravendale says that a two minute steep is just fine as long as it can sit in milk for six minutes after it is steeped.
So who do we believe? The scientists or the milk company?
How about neither?
Make your tea the way you like to make it. Steep it until it tastes good. If you want to add milk, cream, lemon, sugar, ice cubes, honey sticks, a sprig of mint, a dash of cinnamon, or a soupçon of cayenne, then by all means do so.
As for me, I shall eschew teabags, brew my favorite black tea for 2:30 to 3:00, and sip it straight.
As I write this, I am drinking an 8-year-old aged shu (“ripe”) pu-erh tea from Vital Tea Leaf in Seattle. I started by doing a 20-second “wash,” swirling the leaves in boiling water and then pouring it off. My first infusion was 2:00, and the second was 2:30, as I wanted it a bit stronger. Proper British tea drinkers may want to stop reading now, as I steeped it neither in a mug nor a ceramic teapot, but in a brewing device made of (*gasp*) plastic. After drinking rich, earthy teas like this, it’s hard to go back to plain black tea!
I suppose tea trivia is like any other kind of trivia. Some of the most fascinating trivia is also some of the least accurate. I did a little bit of searching around the web for tea trivia, and found some that were a little bit off, some that were just badly phrased, and some that were flat-out wrong. Here, for your reading enjoyment, are four of those inaccurate gems I dug up.
1. Iced tea was invented at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair by an Englishman named Richard Blechynden.
WRONG! This was the first “fact” in the top Google search for tea trivia (“51 Tea Facts Every Tea Lover Should Know“). The present a compelling explanation that it was hot, and his tea wasn’t selling, so he poured it over ice, thus inventing iced tea!
That’s a cool story — and it’s one you can find all over the Internet, but it’s all ruined if you happen to take a peak at Housekeeping in Old Virginia, by Marion Cabell Tyree. It was published in 1877, proving that iced tea had been around long before the St. Louis World’s Fair.
As a side note, Mrs. S. T. wouldn’t have had to “correct the astringent tendency” if she had used cooler water and not left the leaves sitting in them all day long.
2. The only tea plantation in the United States is located in South Carolina.
WRONG! Or at least quite out-of-date. This is the first piece of trivia on the tea page at funtrivia.com. There is, indeed, a fairly sizable plantation called the Charleston Tea Plantation in South Carolina, but they are far from being the only tea plantation in the U.S. There are also producing tea plantations in Washington (I have some of their white tea), Oregon, and Alabama. There are dozens of small growers in Hawaii, and new plantations that aren’t in production yet in various other states.
3. Tea bags were invented in 1908 in the United States by Thomas Sullivan.
WRONG! We’re going back here to the “51 Tea Facts” website from our first false “fact” above. This is their second piece of trivia, and so far, they’re batting zero. Again, they tell a fun story, but the story doesn’t address United States Patent #723,287, which was filed in 1901 and issued in 1903.
This pretty clearly indicates that Roberta C. Lawson and Mary McLaren invented the teabag well before Thomas Sullivan supposedly sent out little fabric pouches of tea that confused people put in their teapots.
4. Restaurants in Georgia are required by law to serve sweet tea
WRONG, but with a kernel of truth. Georgia Representative John Noel (D-Atlanta) did indeed file a bill with four co-sponsors just before April Fools Day 2003. He said it was “an attempt to bring a little humor to the Legislature.” The bill never made it out of committee. It said:
(a) As used in this Code section, the term ‘sweet tea’ means iced tea which is sweetened with sugar at the time that it is brewed.
(b) Any food service establishment which serves iced tea must serve sweet tea. Such an establishment may serve unsweetened tea but in such case must also serve sweet tea.
(c) Any person who violates this Code section shall be guilty of a misdemeanor of a high and aggravated nature.”
Although I have a lot of friends in the South that would have supported this bill, it definitely did not become law.
5. The tea dumped in Boston Harbor in 1773 was in bricks
WRONG! I’ve seen this picture all over social media today with the caption, “This is what the tea looked like that was dumped into the Boston harbor.”
No. No it isn’t. As this excellent debunking points out, historians at the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum say that the three ships that were raided that night contained 240 chests of Bohea, 15 of Congou, 10 of Souchong (all black teas), 60 of Singlo, and 15 of Hyson (both green teas)–all in loose-leaf form. Not a brick of compressed tea to be seen.
While writing this post, I’m enjoying a cup of wild shu (“ripe”) pu-erh, which has been out of stock in my tea bar for months. I’m very happy that we just got it back in. It’s a 6-year-old pu-erh that comes in brick form (unlike the tea at the Boston Tea Party), and it is one of the richest, earthiest, most complex shu pu-erh teas I have. I love this stuff.
I stepped away from the horse and let the saddle fall in the mud. The old Arab mare looked dejected, embarrassed. As well she should be. Anger still flashing in my steely eyes, I reached for my teddy bear cup on the post by the barn door. I needed the warm, soothing taste of a good first-flush Darjeeling. Despite the cold, a bead of sweat ran down my temple as I lifted the cup to my lips. Tepid. Of course. Just like the horse’s performance when we rounded up the bulls.
Oh, wait. Robert Godden asked for a non-fiction blog post. He and two other studly tea bloggers have a blog called “Beasts of Brewdom: The Men of Tea. Huzzah!” Yes, it appears that while biting the top off of a whisky bottle and wiping the excess testosterone from his eyes, Godden decided to use the word “huzzah” in the name of a tea blog for men. Strange creature, this Godden.
Then, to make things even manlier, he decreed that challenges would be issued to grizzled specimens of manhood such as myself, and that the title of the blog post must be the title of a romance novel from some British publisher called Mills & Boon. Somehow, I was lucky enough to draw the title, The Dream and the Dancer.
I lowered the cup and glanced to the house. Lo, what vision of loveliness to my virile eyes did appear? My wife, Kathryn, dancing in the living room as she did her dusting (don’t look at me like that — everyone’s wife dances while she dusts, right?). I took another sip of the lukewarm Darjeeling and set the cup down on the post. I hefted a pair of 12-pound double-bit axes to my shoulder and set out to the shed. I had three cords of wood to split before I could go inside to my wife and the delicate new Taiwanese oolong we had just purchased. The splitting would go faster if I used an axe in each hand.
Tea is oft considered a woman’s domain. We muscular paragons of manhood are expected to go more for coffee sludge that’s been boiling over a buffalo chip campfire for the last 12 hours. Or perhaps a pint of Jack Daniels downed in a single long draught. But tea should not be the demesne of the ladies. Was the Emperor Shennong (who reputedly discovered tea five millennia ago) a woman? Charles, the 2nd Earl Grey, for whom is named perhaps the best-known tea in the western world? Sen no Rikyu, who developed the Japanese tea ceremony? Of course not! They were men!
I have a dream.
I dream of men realizing that there’s nothing feminine about a hot steaming cup of smoky lapsang souchong!
I dream of women saying, “Look at that sexy studmuffin over there drinking pu-erh tea. He must be a staunch fellow, indeed!”
I dream of sweaty rugby players saying, “Put away that girly java and get me a proper cup of sencha.”
The chores done for the day, I headed back to the house. I stretched my aching muscles as I strode up the front walk, and looked at the window to see if I could catch another glimpse of my wife dancing through the living room. That’s when the mountain lion appeared. He stepped out from behind the tractor, muscles rippling under his thick pelt, and stopped in the middle of the walk, his yellow eyes flashing at me. I continued walking toward him, our eyes locked. We both tensed as the distance between us closed. “I want tea and you’re in my way,” I growled at him. The lion looked down and slunk away, recognizing that I was in no mood to deal with him. I stretched my sore shoulders and continued to the house, where Kathryn met me at the door. With a smile, she held out a hot, fresh cup of jade oolong. I held it to my nose, closed my eyes, and inhaled deeply. “You might want to shower before dinner,” she said softly.
Yes, we are men. We can use our rippling muscles to stack ten tons of hay, and then relax with a delicate cup of tea. We can sip an Earl Grey with our friends while debating whether that noise coming from the Camaro is a tappet problem, or just a loose fan belt. We can drink half a glass of iced tea, and then pour the rest over our heads to cool down after setting a new obstacle course record. We can share a pot of tea with a friend after beating each other bloody in a boxing ring.
Tea has been the drink of manly men for over 100 generations. So, gentlemen, the question isn’t whether tea is manly enough for you — the question is whether you are manly enough for tea.
(Caution: Just in case the title of this video doesn’t give it away, it does contain some foul language)
Every now and then, I check my site statistics. This is to serve you better, of course, and not because of some neurotic compulsion to see whether I have more followers this week than last. Among other things, I look at the search terms that you have typed into Google (or whatever) that brought you to my humble website. One that took me by surprise a while ago was “Gary Wit Da Tea.” I understand how “Tea With Gary” could be transposed easily enough into “Gary With Tea,” but “wit da tea?” Hmmm. So I did a little search of my own and discovered this fine fellow named Gary Hayes. Now, it’s understandable that Mr. Hayes (a.k.a. “Gary With Da Tea“) had escaped my radar. After all, the fellow’s only been doing his radio show for a couple of decades, and he has a paltry 65,000 followers on Twitter. That’s only about a hundred times my humble Twitter readership. Oh, he also has an IMDB page. Here are a few excerpts from their mini bio of that other Gary with that other kind of tea:
His ever-popular “Colour of the Day”, fashion reports, flawless entertainment news and celebrity gossip (which Gary calls “Da Tea”) are can’t-miss features for Rickey Smiley Show listeners and Dish Nation viewers. At every radio appearance and community event, listeners flocked to his live remotes to see for themselves just who was pouring “The Tea”, and serving up the celebrity dish! It wasn’t long before he was asked to join The Rickey Smiley Morning Show team, where “Da Tea” is now poured daily.
Brimming with curiosity, I searched for pictures of Da Tea Man. Holy cow! We’re virtually twins. All I have to do is shave my beard, buzz my hair, and acquire a shiny suit and you’d have trouble telling us apart. I’m telling you, next time I’m in Dallas, I have to get my picture with him. Wait a minute. He is the one in Dallas, and I am the one with the cowboy hat? Hmmm again. Since I’m sure a daily radio show doesn’t take much time at all (trust me, I used to do a 2-minute weekly live promotional segment on KMXE in Red Lodge, MT, so I’m clearly an expert), I’m going to check in with him. Maybe we can write guest posts for each other’s blogs.
You know how I’ve been adding that little paragraph at the end of my blog posts that tells you what tea I was drinking while I wrote it? As you might have guessed, I’m not drinking tea at the moment. I’m having a glass of red wine. That must mean Gary Hayes is the one having tea at the moment. Darjeeling, perhaps? Yeah, he looks like a Darjeeling kind of guy.
I have some strange friends. One of them is a rather … unique … tea blogger from Australia named Robert Godden (his blog, for those who dare to look, is Lord Devotea’s Tea Spouts). One day last week, I signed on to Facebook, only to see that Robert had tagged me in a post. That’s never a good sign. I followed the link to find this: My first thought was, how do you punctuate that? I imagine a restaurant reviewer getting a call from her editor. “Yeah? What do you want?” The editor responds with, “Fine words. Butter. No parsnips.” Check. Got it. Like her other reviews, this one should be fine words. Maybe the next issue of the magazine has a Paula Deen theme: every article must include butter. And the editor probably hates parsnips. It makes sense — in the same kind of twisted way that any idea of Robert’s makes sense. But what does all of this have to do with tea bloggers? Should I write about Tibetan yak butter tea? There aren’t any parsnips in Tibetan yak butter tea. But then it hit me. He’s using “butter” as a verb. Buttering parsnips is a good thing. You want to butter your parsnips. But you can’t do it just with fine words. It requires action. Fine words alone ain’t going to butter any parsnips. That does mean something in the tea world. There are all kinds of ways to promote tea. You can describe a tea using fine words: “This astonishing infusion has sylvan aroma, full buttery mouthfeel with floral overtones, notes of antebellum parsnip and yak musk, and a mild nutty aftertaste.” You can pitch the benefits of a tea using fine words: “This health-laden tea is Ethical Tea Partnership certified, loaded with theanine and antioxidants, 100% organic, and picked only by virgins on the full moon. Oh, and the label was drawn by a Seattle artist who dresses only in all-natural fair-trade hemp.” You can market the tea shop that sells a tea using fine words: “Our tea house was founded in 1492 by two monks and a tea farmer. We have buyers in 17 countries who hand-select every single leaf that appears in our shop. Every one of our stock clerks has a PhD in botany and is an ITMA Certified Tea Sommelier™.” But none of those fine words are what really butters your parsnips. What’s important is whether you like the tea, not whether the barTEAsta is a stunningly-good-looking expert in selling tea. You don’t want to get sucked in by all of the fine words on the label, buy a $20 bag of fine tea, and then have it rot in the pantry because you don’t want to drink it. Instead, buy your tea from a shop that lets you taste it before you commit. Buy a cup, or avail yourself of a free sample if they offer one. If buying tea online is your thing, ask if you can get a sample with your next order. If you’re buying $50 worth of tea, I doubt they’ll begrudge you a tablespoon or two of some other blend — especially if you’re a regular. Don’t ask them to send you a sample for free if it’s not piggybacked on an order, though. That’s not nice. Even if it’s just ten grams of tea, they would still have to pay for the packaging and shipping. Taste it. Enjoy it. Make sure it’s a tea that you’ll actually drink a big bag of. Then make your purchasing decision. Read the fine words. Listen to the sales pitch. But remember, the proof is in the pudding — err — parsnips. (Just click on the picture above for a buttered parsnip recipe)
While writing this blog post, I was drinking tieguanyin (a.k.a. Iron Goddess of Mercy), a soft, flavorful oolong tea. I brewed this cup for 3:00 using boiling water. I often do it with cooler water, but I’m feeling saucy today. Not saucy enough to add yak butter, but saucy nonetheless. In my not-so-humble opinion, the second infusion is better than the first.
POSTSCRIPT: Posts from the other bloggers that have answered the challenge are starting to appear. I shall add each to this list as I discover it:
- Robert Godden: thedevotea.teatra.de/2015/02/27/fine-words-butter-no-parsnips/
- Jo Johnson: scandaloustea.teatra.de/2015/02/27/fine-words-butter-no-parsnips/
- A. C. Cargill: accargill.wordpress.com/2015/02/27/fine-words-butter-no-parsnips/
- Rachel Rachana Carter: iheartteas.teatra.de/2015/02/fine-words-butter-no-parsnips/
- Jen Piccotti: internationalteamoment.blogspot.com/2015/02/a-fine-words-butter-no-parsnips-moment.html
- Ken Knowles: lahikmajoe.me/2015/03/01/fine-words-butter-no-parsnips/
- Nicole Schwartz: amazonv.blogspot.com/2015/02/fine-words-butter-no-parsnips.html
- Naomi Rosen: www.joysteaspoon.com/blog/fine-words-butter-no-parsnips-ummm-what
- Jackie Davenport: cupsofteawithjackie.teatra.de/fine-words-butter-no-parsnips/
Unlike some of the other questions I address here, this one has a very straightforward answer. The healthiest tea is the one you’ll actually drink.
Figuring out which specific tea has the most health benefits is a complex task. Most styles and brands don’t have lab analysis of their antioxidant content, caffeine levels, and other details. Many scientific reports and studies are being misinterpreted, and others are being oversimplified.
Here’s the bottom line, though: if you don’t like the taste of a tea, you won’t want to drink it. You’ll have fewer cups per day. You’ll use smaller cups. You’ll use less leaf.
But if there’s a variety that has a bit less benefit — perhaps half of those healthy amino acids you’re after — and you love the flavor, you’ll drink more. You’ll use one of those big American mugs instead of a dainty British teacup. You’ll make it stronger. You’ll sneak in extra cups because you enjoy it. And even though each cup has less of what you’re trying to get, you’ll get a lot more.
So if your goal is to drink more white tea, don’t just buy a pound of the first (or cheapest) white tea you find and choke it down. Experiment! Try a variety of white teas and buy the one you really enjoy drinking. If you want green tea and you don’t like the Chinese variety you tried, try a few Japanese green teas.
Whether you’re in this for the health benefits or for because you enjoy tea, it’s fundamentally all about the taste!