Category Archives: Tea Thoughts
I mentioned theanine (C7H14N2O3) in the first post of my caffeine trilogy, but I haven’t really gone into any detail about it. I suppose now is as good a time as any.
Theanine (or more precisely, L-theanine) is an amino acid found in tea, guayusa, and certain mushrooms. It acts as a relaxant, helps to improve concentration, and adds a savory (umami) flavor to whatever it’s added to. Most importantly — at least when we’re talking about tea — is what it does when combined with caffeine.
At the 2012 World Tea Expo, I attended a session entitled “Tea, Nutrition and Health: Myths and Truths for the Layman,” presented by Kyle Stewart and Neva Cochrane. They discussed the relaxation and alertness affect of tea, and also noted that a “2012 study found tea was associated with increased work performance and reduced tiredness, especially when consumed without milk or sugar.”
This caught my attention not only because of the increased work performance, but because it validated my personal preference for tea without sweetener or milk.
Stewart and Cochrane attributed the increased work performance to the combination of caffeine, theanine, theophylline, and theobromine. There have been some excellent articles on theanine, including Tony Gebely’s “Theanine: a 4000 Year Old Mind-Hack” and RateTea’s “L-Theanine and Tea.”
Both of them agree with the conclusion that theanine coupled with caffeine produces a seemingly-contradictory combination of relaxation and alertness. This isn’t news to tea aficionados, of course. People have been relaxing and focusing themselves with tea for millennia. Many of the health benefits of tea come from the caffeine, and those obviously apply to theanine-free drinks like coffee, cola, and cocoa.
Caffeine by itself doesn’t work quite the same way, however.
The “spike & crash” affect of caffeine is well known to any coffee drinker. You’re droopy and tired, you have your morning cup, and you swiftly find yourself wide awake and full of energy. A while later, bam! You’re back where you started, and possibly in a pissier mood than when you started. Yes, I said “pissier.” It’s a technical term. When drinking tea, thanks in large part to the theanine content, the effects take longer to kick in, and also take longer to wear off. Mixing a relaxant (theanine) with a stimulant (caffeine) works quite well in this case.
Wikipedia summarizes a half-dozen studies with this statement:
“Theanine has been studied for its potential ability to reduce mental and physical stress, improve cognition, and boost mood and cognitive performance in a synergistic manner with caffeine.”
“Boost mood,” eh? As I wrote last week, there has been at least one study that indicates tea improves mood. That study, however, defined a good mood as decreased fatigue. It appears that there may be more to the mood-enhancing effects of tea than my previous post indicated!
Sometimes my wanderings around the Web are a pure waste of time, and sometimes I end up finding something delightful. This is one of the delightful ones.
While browsing DeviantArt (a website for artists), I decided to search for tea-related stuff. Lo and behold, I found some wonderful drawings of “Tea Dragons” by Thomas S Brown. The dragons are whimsical, and each one just cries out for a story — or at least a good caption. My favorite, with my own caption added, is the White Tea Dragon:
Tom, who goes by “CopperAge” on DeviantArt, said that he originally started doing tea dragons as sketch cards for cons and steampunk events. He’s done about 20 of them so far. When he showed them to his wife (and creative partner), Nimue, she came up with the idea of writing a tea dragon book. They are currently shopping the book around with different publishers. According to Tom, she channeled Lewis Carroll a bit as she wrote it.
The steampunk origins of the tea dragons show better in “Tea Dragon Moon,” which I’ve also taken the liberty of captioning. Note that I haven’t read the book, so these captions are coming straight from my imagination and have nothing to do with Tom and Nimue’s book.
I’m sure the question running through everyone’s mind, though, is what Tom’s favorite tea is. Looking at the “Tea Dragon Moon” illustration, I figured it would be some kind of über-industrial super-smokey lapsang souchong. I suppose his response fits just as well, though. He said he likes a strong black tea, but he’s “not averse to Earl Grey and occasionally a bit of Jasmine.” I suppose, actually, that his “Grand Tea Master” might be brewing up a batch of jasmine tea, or maybe lotus blossom…
Since we’re on the subject of lapsang souchong, though, Tom did mention that he was recently commissioned to produce a tea label. It’s for an Earl Grey/Russian Caravan blend. Hmmm. That could end up similar to my own Mr. Excellent’s Post-Apocalyptic Earl Grey. I’ll have to track it down when it’s ready and give it a try.
A final note on DeviantArt: don’t be put off by the name, or because members are referred to as “deviants.” The site is simply a great place for artists to share their work and communicate with each other. Sure, it has nude elves, but there’s a lot of wonderful traditional art in there, too. There’s a “family filter” you can turn on if you’re offended by nude bodies. If you’re an art fan, go take a look at the site.
Looking for something pithy and educational about tea today? Well, you picked the wrong blog post. Today I am just posting a free association of recent observations and happenings at the my tea bar.
Never give up. Never surrender.
I love pu-erh tea. I have far more of it in the tea bar than our local population can justify, especially if you include the “dark tea,” which is tea fermented like a pu-erh but not produced in Yunnan. I have grown used to having to explain pu-erh to every person I mention it to. It’s part of the education mission of the tea world.
Then, one of my regulars brought in a friend from out of town. He bought a quarter-pound each of Irish Breakfast and my own Scottish Breakfast blend (which I call “Gary’s Kilty Pleasure”). He asked for something different, and I asked if he’d tried pu-erh. He knew what it was! He liked it! We probably spent 15 minutes talking about pu-erh and he bought a tuo-cha (bird’s nest shaped pu-erh cake) and some loose pu-erh. The education efforts of tea shops around the country are paying off!
I hate cheap equipment.
Some of the equipment in the tea bar has worked beautifully since the day we bought it. Some has been a source of endless frustration.
The milk heater/frother units we got from Keurig? One broke in just over 3 months, the other in just under a year. Fragile parts, hard to clean, cheap construction. The ones we got from a company I’d never heard of? Both working beautifully.
Tea timers? I suppose it’s not the manufacturer’s fault that we drop them from time to time. But some timers survive multiple drops and some die after the first.
Frothing wands? I just had to deal with our third dead wand in a year. They really should last more than six months. This just isn’t acceptable.
Never put out pressed tea samples
Found this out the hard way. One of our distributors carries these wonderful little pressed hearts of tea they call Antony & Cleopatra. I thought it was a cool novelty idea and ordered a pound of them. They’re black tea, not a pu-erh like most pressed teas. They are actually halfway decent black tea, which makes them better than just a novelty item. Just drop it in the teapot, pour in boiling water, and in a few minutes you have a cup of tea.
I put a big jar of them (sealed, of course) on the tea bar and a little plate (actually a cute little teapot-shaped teabag holder) in front of the jar with some of the tea hearts on it. Can anyone guess what happened? Anyone? Bueller? Yeah, that’s right. People ate them. Apparently compressed tea leaves make pretty yucky-tasting cookies. Who’d have guessed?
Bleach is your friend
Ever hear commercials for cleaning products that say “even gets out tough tea stains?” There’s a reason for that. Tea stains everything, especially infusers, filters, and teapots. Luckily, a tablespoon of bleach in a pint of water will get rid of all those tea stains in no time flat. Of course, you’ll be rinsing the bleach smell out for a little while, but it’s worth it. Sparkly clean!
Everybody thinks lattes have to have coffee in them
“Latte” is used in English as a short form of the Italian “caffè latte,” which simply means “coffee with milk.” Other drinks can have milk in them, too. Tea lattes are absolutely wonderful drinks. Generally speaking, they have two ingredients: tea and heated/frothed milk. Sometimes a sweetener. So why is it that people keep asking what kind of coffee we add to our tea lattes? They aren’t tea caffè lattes. They are tea lattes.
There. I feel better now.
I was perusing a post from a fellow tea blogger about World Tea Expo 2013 … well, perhaps I shouldn’t call it a “post.” It’s more of an essay. Or perhaps a minor tome. If you bound it in creepy leather and added a few paragraphs about demons, you could even call it a small grimoire. But I digress…
Ahem. Anyway. Geoffrey F. Norman (a.k.a. “the Lazy Literatus“) wrote about his experiences at the expo and featured a little snippet about me in which he mentioned one of my blends: Mr. Excellent’s Post-Apocalyptic Earl Grey tea. I mention this for four reasons:
1) He posted this picture of us with the caption, “Tall Montanan is Tall.”
2) It’s a good blog post. If you’re interested in tea and/or World Tea Expo, I recommend giving it a look.
3) It reminded me that I promised to send him a sample of Mr. Excellent’s Post-Apocalyptic Earl Grey and forgot in all the hubbub. Sorry, Geoffrey. I’ll get that on its way ASAP.
4) And, last but not least, he’s a perfect example of not blogging on a schedule!
When I’m bored and not inspired enough to write something, I sometimes read silly things like blogging tips. They always seem to include the obvious, like “write interesting things” and “allow your personality to show through.” They also all seem to include, “always blog on a regular schedule.”
Somehow, this doesn’t seem to work for me. When I raised the question at the tea blogging roundtable at World Tea Expo last month, I couldn’t find a single serious tea blogger that blogged on a regular schedule. Why is that?
According to the pundits, having a regular update schedule gives your readers something to look forward to.
But what does a regular update schedule do to the quality of your blog?
I understand deadlines in the magazine and newspaper business. I’ve been on both sides of those. And books. The editor needs to know when the manuscript will be complete to schedule copyediting and cover design and all of that other fun stuff. None of that, however, applies to a blog.
In my humble opinion, a blog like this one can be badly damaged by the obsessive urge to post on a schedule.
“I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”
— Douglas Adams
I do not presume here to speak for other bloggers. In fact, I would love to hear the opinions of other bloggers in my comments. Speaking just for myself, then, I believe that two things inspire good blog posts: inspiration and breaking news. Neither of those things is enough by itself. They both require passion and at least a smidgeon of writing skill.
Neither of those things happens on a schedule.
I may see something new and interesting while scanning a news site, tea blog, newsletter, or even Facebook or Twitter. What would be the appropriate reaction?
(A) This is cool! I must let all of my readers know about this post haste while I’m still excited about it and it’s still news!
(B) This is cool! I must put this on my schedule of things to write about. How does three weeks from Thursday sound?
I don’t know about you, but for me writing it now produces a good blog post, and by the time three weeks from Thursday rolls around something else has caught my interest.
“I am definitely going to take a course on time management… just as soon as I can work it into my schedule.”
— Louis E. Boone
Or what about the flipside? It’s blog update day. My deadline is coming at me like an enraged ROUS (that’s Rodent of Unusual Size for those of you who aren’t fans of The Princess Bride) with its tail on fire. I can’t think of a bloody thing to write about. I scratch out something marginally adequate, thus making my deadline. My dear readers say, “Gary’s certainly off his game lately, isn’t he? Mayhaps we should read Robert Godden instead. He’s not boring.” I’m having a hard time seeing the win in this scenario.
I will continue, then, writing for my blogs when the spirit moves me or when I have something to write about. I really do try to get in about a post a week on this blog and two or three posts a month on my other blog. This is my sixth post this month on Tea With Gary. I think I’ll celebrate with a nice cup of pu-erh.
Mind if I close with a little bit of xkcd? Of course you don’t. Unless you don’t like four-letter words. In that case, stop reading now.
I’m not a tea snob, but — oh, who am I fooling? Of course I’m a tea snob. But that’s only because my favorite tea is objectively and fundamentally better than your favorite tea. And my favorite sports team could absolutely kick the snot out of your favorite sports team. But I digress…
I drink tea all day at work. Of course. “Work” is a tea bar and bookstore. I can’t read books all day, but I most certainly can (and do) drink tea. Whether I’m having my favorite tea or experimenting with something new, I time my brew. I do the same at home, in hotel rooms, and — quite discretely — in restaurants.
Why do I do this? Because my OCD requires me to prepare each tea precisely the same or I won’t enjoy it? Of course not! And, by the way, the acronym should be CDO, so it’s in alphabetical order. But I digress again…
If I don’t use a timer, there are two different ways I end up brewing my tea:
The impatient understeep
The tea is ready, right? That color looks about right. Man, that smells delicious. It must be ready by now. It feels like it’s been steeping all afternoon. That’s it. I can’t wait any longer. I’m drinking it now.
Hmmm. I wonder why this tea tastes so mild and watery?
The distracted oversteep
I have a couple more minutes until this tea is ready. I’ll run over and put that tin away. Why did nobody wash this infuser? I’d better put some more water on to boil. Oops, the phone is ringing. I’d better answer it.
(20 minutes later) Oh, my tea is probably ready. I wonder it’s so bitter and nasty?
By using a timer, I avoid both of these problems.
By timing tea for customers, I also assure that they get a consistent cup of tea every time they visit. In that case, being diligent about the amount of leaf, amount of water, steep time, and any other variables I can control means that our tea is shown off well, which encourages people to buy loose tea.
Finally, almost two years after launching this blog, I have procured the dot com domain to use with it!
The old domain (teawithgary.net) and the original domain (teawithgary.wordpress.com) still work, but if you have any links to this blog, you might want to update them to the new name.
When I first decided to look for a custom domain, teawithgary.com was taken, although I can’t imagine what anyone else was actually doing with it. It pointed to an auction page. About a year ago, I put in a bid and promptly forgot about it.
Two months ago, I finally got serious and decided I needed a dedicated domain instead of a WordPress domain. I took a quick look and found that teawithgary.com was still taken by someone else, so I registered teawithgary.net and brought it online in March. This month, I found that I’d won that auction from long ago, so I get to change names yet again.
Luckily, our friends at WordPress are easy to work with, and the change went through quickly, although depending on where you’re located, it may take another day or two before the new name works.
If you have any problems with accessing the blog under its new domain name, please leave me a comment here and I’ll look into it.
For some reason, there seems to be a lot going in in the world of Kenyan tea this month!
Kenya is the world’s largest exporter of tea. Not the largest producer, for they consume less than a tenth of the 345,000 tons of tea they produce each year — as opposed to China, which produces about 1.25 million tons, but consumes a staggering 1.06 million tons of it.
The fifth stop on our World Tea Tasting Tour was the Tea of Kenya, which we held last week. I’ll be posting notes from the class and tasting shortly.
One of the things I’m most excited about is a new development in purple tea. The orthodox purple tea that I first wrote about in 2011 has a great story and many benefits. Tastewise, though, it is more astringent than I usually prefer, since I typically don’t take milk in my straight black tea. In other words, it’s just not my cup of tea (I’m allowed to make that pun once a year — it’s in my contract). This year, however, Royal Tea of Kenya has a new handcrafted purple tea that I just got a sample of in February. Ambrosia. Absolutely wonderful stuff. I have a kilo on the way, and I’ll write up some decent tasting notes once it arrives.
CAUTION: Before doing business with Royal Tea of Kenya, please read my post from May 2014. There are at least a dozen companies (mine included) that report paying for tea and never receiving it!
For our tea tasting, they sent us a marvelous new chai (An African chai. Who’d have thunk it?) called Nandi Chai, after the Nandi peoples of Kenya. The tea is a blend of Kenyan black and purple varieties, and all of the spices are Ethiopian. I’ll be writing more on that later.
In other news, the Kenyan tea industry is trying to lower its costs and carbon footprint. An article in Tea News Direct says that four factories managed by the Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA) are going green through the “Gura project,” which will build a hydroelectric plant on the nearby Gura river. The factories will receive carbon credits from the Clean Development Mechanism, which is part of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
To end on a lighter note, there’s a post on the English Tea Store blog today that included a picture of what they called the ugliest teapot in the world (picture below). I honestly can’t decide whether it’s the ugliest or the most awesome. Had I spotted one when I visited Kenya decades ago, I would have almost certainly purchased it.
This is part two of my article on the Japanese stop of our World Tea Tasting Tour. Part one was posted a few days ago.
The Japanese tea ceremony has been around for a very long time, but it was solidified into its current form in the 1500s by a man named Sen no Rikyū. He was an adherent of a philosophy called wabi-sabi, which honors and treasures simplicity, transience, asymmetry, and finding the beauty in imperfection. Rikyū applied this to the tea ceremony, developing what became known as chanoyu: the Way of Tea.
He removed unnecessary ornamentation from tearooms, typically reducing the decor to a single scroll on the wall and a flower arrangement designed to harmonize with the garden outside. Everything else in the room was functional. Chanoyu teaches four fundamental principles known as wa kei sei jaku, intended to be not only the core of the tea ceremony, but a representation of the principles to incorporate into daily life.
Wa (harmony) was his ultimate ideal. From harmony comes peace. Guest and host should be in harmony and man should strive for harmony with nature, rather than attempting to dominate nature.
Kei (respect) allows people to accept and understand others even when you do not agree with them. In a tea ceremony the guest must respect the host and the host must respect the guest, making them equals. The simplest vase should be treated as well as the most expensive, and the same politeness and purity of heart should be extended to your servant as to your master.
Sei (purity) is a part of the ritual of the tea ceremony, cleaning everything beforehand and wiping each vessel with a special cloth before using it. But that is only an outward reflection of the purity of the heart and soul that brings the harmony and respect. In accordance with wabi-cha, imperfection was to be prized here as well. To Rikyū, the ultimate expression of purity was the garden after he spent hours grooming it and several leaves settled randomly on the assiduously manicured walkway.
Finally, Jaku (tranquility) is the ultimate goal of enlightenment and selflessness. It is also the fresh beginning as you go back with fresh perspective to examine the way you have chosen to implement harmony, respect, and purity into your life.
There is a long list of implements that are used in the preparation of matcha, which is the powdered tea used in the tea ceremony. The four that I concentrated on in this class were the bowl, scoop, whisk, and caddy. It could be argued that others are as important, or even more important, but I chose to focus on the ones that are used at home when you make matcha, even if you are not participating in a tea ceremony. The link in the slide above is a great place to learn all about the ceremony itself, and the site contains a detailed list of chanoyu utensils.
In preparing matcha, the bamboo scoop is used to take tea powder and place it in the bowl. After adding water, the whisk is used not only to mix the powder, but to aerate the mixture, leaving it slightly frothy.
Of all of the tools of chanoyu, the bowl is probably the most personal.
We were lucky enough to have Karin Solberg, who created the matcha bowls we sell at our store, talk about the process of creating and decorating the bowls. Karin has done some lovely work, and we enjoyed learning from her. There is a picture showing some of her bowls in part 1 of this article.
I have said many times before that tea is a very personal thing. Nobody can tell you what tastes good to you. The “right” way for me to enjoy a particular tea could be quite different than the “right” way for you to enjoy that same tea. To Rikyū, however, the tea ceremony was not about what made your matcha taste the best. It was all about using the ritual to clear your mind and help you to see things more clearly. It was about achieving harmony, respect, purity, and tranquility.
Outside of the ceremony, however, I would argue that your way of relaxing is the right way of relaxing, whether it means sitting on your front porch with a steaming hot cup of Earl Grey, preparing a delicate silver needle tea to enjoy with a friend, or laying back in the bathtub with a fragrant jasmine green tea. Tea should be a pleasure, not a chore, and the ceremony is about sharing that pleasure with your friends and guests.
If you live in the area and were unable to attend this session, I sure hope to see you at one of our future stops on our World Tea Tasting Tour. Follow the link for the full schedule, and follow us on Facebook or Twitter for regular updates (the event invitations on Facebook have the most information).
I have finally gotten around to registering a domain name for my tea blog, and as of today it is TeaWithGary.net. The old domain, TeaWithGary.wordpress.com, should still work and all of the old links should work as well. If you do find any broken links to Tea With Gary posts, I’d sure appreciate it if you let me know.