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Is Your Tea Gluten Free?

Gluten Free Header

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).

But wait…

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.

But wait…

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.

But wait…


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.

The Logic of Tea Bar Redesign

Tea bar redesign header

It all started simply enough.

Doug looked at the jars of tea behind the bar one day and said, “This cubbyhole-based system is too constricting. We have space for nine oolongs. If we want to add a new one, we have to drop one of the existing ones. What if we went to a more open system?”

Logical enough. If they are arranged in a linear system, we can drop a white tea and add a black one, and everything fits fine. But that led us to a much deeper discussion. Do our groupings make sense?

The old back bar had teas arranged by style. All of the green teas were together, including the dragonwell, sencha, raspberry hibiscus green, Moroccan mint, and jasmine green. But that’s not how people select a tea. That’s not how we select a tea. When a customer comes in that doesn’t know what he wants, we go through a decision tree.

We start with, “do you prefer straight tea, or something flavored?” If they choose straight tea, we ask if they like white, yellow, green, oolong, black, or pu-erh. If they choose flavored, we ask if they want something fruity, flowery, spicy, creamy, or minty.

So why not set up the shelves that way? Very few of the people asking for a berry tea care whether the base tea is green, black, or oolong. They just want a berry flavor. It makes more sense to put all of our huckleberry teas together instead of having one with the black teas, one with the rooibos, and one with the yerba maté.

Back bar

The new structure puts all of the straight tea and herbs on the right, and all of the flavored blends on the left. Posing in the front is our tea plant, Tea H. White.

We went through our stock and found that if we grouped the herbs and tisanes (e.g., rooibos, yerba maté, guayusa…) with the straight tea, very close to half of our blends were flavored. So we arranged everything so that if someone says they’re looking for straight tea we take them to one side of the bar, and if they’re looking for something flavored, we go to the other.

Having an organization that customers can follow makes it less intimidating for people new to the tea world.

The straight teas are organized first by style, in order of oxidation (white, green, yellow, oolong, black, pu-erh). They are followed by the caffeinated herbs (maté, guayusa, yaupon) and then the caffeine-free herbs (rooibos, honeybush…). It’s nice to be able to point at the shelves and say, “everything from here up has caffeine, and from here down doesn’t.”

Straight teaWithin each style, the tea is arranged by origin, with blends coming first. In the picture above, you can see the black breakfast blends, and jars of black tea from China, Sri Lanka, Kenya, Rwanda, and Malawi. Most of our customers aren’t used to thinking about tea origins, and they’re intrigued by the diversity of sources.

“Where do you get your tea?” is one of the most common questions we get. It’s kind of difficult to answer. We deal with quite a few importers and distributors, but we also like to buy direct from estates and farms when we can; it helps us to be sure of what we’re getting. To answer the question, we included estate names on the labels where we can, and made a map to put between the two blocks of tea shelves.

Tea mapWe’ve had very positive reactions to the map. People say, “I’ve never had a tea from Vietnam. I want to try that one!” Sales of some of more obscure tea are increasing, and people seem to be enjoying comparing tea from different parts of the world. It’s a great way to learn about terroir and regional differences in processing techniques.

When we move over to the flavored side, priorities are different. Few people care about the origins, and virtually all of them are blended from geographically-diverse ingredients. We couldn’t organize those by origin if we wanted to.

flavored teaOn that side, we start with fruity teas at the top, grouping all of the berry together, the citrus together, and so forth. We then proceed down through the spicy teas (with masala chai getting its own section), flowery teas, Earl Greys, mint teas, and on through the flavor profiles. Since caffeine isn’t taken into consideration in the sorting of the flavored teas, we put codes on the labels to help people find what they want: a green O for organic, blue F for fair trade, red C for caffeine-free, brown M for “made in Montana” (mostly our house blends), and purple E for Ethical Tea Partnership.

Is this the perfect organization for every tea shop? Of course not. An herbalist might want to group the teas and herbs by reputed health effects, or by Linnaean classification of the plants. A tea house focused on food might group them by the foods they pair well with. A café focused on tea by the cup rather than bulk sales might group their tea based on what’s best hot, what’s best iced, what works well in a latte, and so forth.

All indications at the moment, though, are that this is going to work well for us. I shall, of course, report back when we know more…

While writing this blog post, I was drinking Lamdong Hoodoo, a Vietnamese black tea. Since I don’t take milk or sugar in my tea, I prefer black teas with low astringency, but I still like plenty of flavor. This one definitely fits the bill. A nice spicy flavor and aroma, but no bitterness. I steep it for 2:30.

World Tea Expo 2014, Day 2: Attack of the Clonals

WTE2014 Day 2 header

There’s more than one way to skin a cat … er … build a tea plantation. The common theme through much of what we saw today was exactly that: how to make tea plants.

Traditionally, humans have allowed plants to go to seed, and then planted those seeds. That involves a male plant and a female plant, and the mixing of DNA, which can have unpredictable results. For many crop plants, farmers came to realize that taking cuttings meant the new plant was identical to the parent plant. If you have a perfect cultivar, don’t pollute the DNA with random Mendelian fluctuations; keep the strain pure.

This process, whether it entails planting cuttings or grafting varietals onto different rootstock, is known as cloning. Today at the World Tea Expo, clonals and interesting varietals of tea plants turned into a bit of a theme for the day.

The day began with fellow tea blogger Geoffrey Norman (the Lazy Literatus) rushing up to me. “Bacon tea?” he asked frantically, “Where did you find this bacon tea?” I took him down to the appropriate booth (see yesterday’s post), and as we waited for them to brew bacon tea, he said, “Did you hear about the smoked green Assam at Tealet?”

I’ve been looking for a good green Assam for quite a while. The overwhelming majority of the world’s green tea comes from Camellia sinensis var sinensis: the Chinese varietal of the tea plant. Camellia sinensis var assamica, the Indian varietal, is quite different.

We wandered over to Tealet’s booth and found that they were in the middle of a video recording. We met up with TJ Williamson, who said that they did, indeed have green Assam (both smoked and unsmoked), but we’d have to wait until they finished the video thing. After we chatted for a bit, he said that he’d like to interview Doug and I for the World Tea Podcast. We spent the next hour sipping tea and talking into TJ’s microphone.

Podcasting with TJ

Totally not a posed picture of me (on the right), TJ (middle), and my son, Doug (left) recording the World Tea Podcast.

The smoked green Assam was unique. The first hit on the tongue was very astringent, and very different from the aroma. It had a full mouthfeel, and it mellowed to a light smoky malty flavor that was very pleasant. They steeped the first infusion with 188-190 degree (F) water, and the second infusion with 175 degree water was much less astringent and much smoother.

Much of our afternoon consisted of placing orders and tasting tea — two of my favorite things to do. We found a lot of different cultivars (many of them clonals), and ordered some great new tea for the tea bar.

One particularly significant stop was at Ajiri Tea. I know I have said a few unflattering things about a particular Kenyan tea company, but I’d like to note for the record that I’ve never had a problem with Kenyan tea. Ajiri in particular is doing some wonderful things.

When Kenya gained independence from Great Britain in 1963, many of the huge tea conglomerates retained their land and operations. Many tracts of land, however, were broken up into family farms and cooperatives, which now represent almost 60% of Kenya’s huge tea industry. That’s who we prefer to buy from.

Ajiri was founded not just to export tea, but to create jobs (the word “ajiri” is Swahili for “employ”), especially for women. The boxes for their tea are hand-made, as are the beaded string ties for the bags. All of the labeling and decoration on the outside of the boxes is handmade from dried banana tree bark, and profits go back to Kenya for educating orphans. This is a tea operation we can get behind. Look for their products on our shelves next month.


Me, with Kate Holby of Ajiri Tea. You can see some of their tea box designs in the upper left. I want a shirt in the pattern of Kate’s dress!

Ajiri tea boxes

Some of the handmade tea boxes from Ajiri. Every one is different.

The day continued with a class in rolling oolong teas, and the tea bloggers roundtable you’ve all been waiting for, but it’s after midnight and I am growing weary. I shall sign off now, and continue tomorrow with the World Tea Expo saga…

Tea plants as props? Thanks, #TeaAcrossAmerica!

When we first joined #TeaAcrossAmerica, I had visions of a big bushy tea plant in the front window at the shop. I still think we can build a neat window display around it at some point. When our tea plant, Tea H. White, arrived, the temperature outside was well below zero Fahrenheit. Even the windowsill seemed awfully cold for a little cutting that had just been shipped halfway across the country. So we set him on the tea bar instead.

Tea H White - Mar2014

Tea H. White today, about two months after his arrival in Montana.

Tea H. started out as a decoration and a passive tool for raising awareness of American-grown tea. Every now and then, I’d point at him and say, “that’s a tea plant.” Perhaps I’d explain what the significance is of Camellia sinensis and talk about Tea Across America. Perhaps not. But that slowly began to change.

I found myself saying things like, “we could make black tea, white tea, green tea, oolong, and pu-erh, all from this plant here.” I was pointing at the plant a lot.

Then it got more specific. I’d point at the bud and leaf at the end of a branch and say, “this right here is where the plant concentrates its caffeine.” I’d point at a smaller, brighter-colored leaf and say, “this leaf would find its way into something like this oolong tea we’re drinking, but this big leaf down the stem would probably be broken into dust and stuffed in a Lipton teabag.”

In the last week, I’ve referred to little Tea H. White every day.

I brewed up some taiguanyin, and showed a customer the dried, rolled-up, tadpole-shaped leaves. Then I pulled an unraveled leaf from the infuser and held it next to a similar-sized leaf on the tea plant to show that it really is a whole tea leaf.

I showed someone the soil in the plant’s pot and explained that Camellia sinensis can grow on steep hillsides at high altitudes where other crops can’t thrive, and talked about what that’s done for the economy in places like Kenya’s Rift Valley.

I was talking about the ancient tea forests near Mannong and Manmai in the Yunnan province of China, and I walked over to Tea H. White and said, “little tea plants like this one can grow into 30-foot trees and live for a thousand years or more.”

Just today, someone asked what variety of tea Orange Pekoe is. I started to explain that it’s not a variety, it’s a grade. Then I went over to the tea plant and showed them what a pekoe is.

My tea plant has become an educational tool.

As I’ve said many times before, the primary job of a tea vendor today is education. Learn everything you can about tea, and then pass it on to your customers. It pays back in spades when you can find the perfect tea for somebody and they turn into a tea fan (and a loyal customer)! I live for the aha moment, when somebody really “gets” what tea is all about. Having a real, live tea plant sitting on the tea bar makes for more of those moments.

Someday, that plant will grow into a tea bush, and we’re going to produce a batch of tea from it. Between now and then, however, the plant will help to educate hundreds of people about the world of tea.

Tea H. White arrives in Montana


Back in November, I wrote about #TeaAcrossAmerica, a program that’s putting tea bushes in all fifty states plus the District of Columbia. By joining the program, I agreed to host Montana’s tea plant, which arrived at my tea shop yesterday. The plant, which we named “Tea H. White,” is a China bush (Camellia sinensis var. sinensis), which is tolerant of cold, but not nearly tolerant enough to spend a Montana winter outdoors. The plant can take an occasional light frost, but not temperatures like the -27(F) we had for a couple of days early last month. This means that Tea H. White will be living indoors.

Tea H. White

Tea H. White comes out of his shipping container and gets introduced to his new Montana home.

My tea bar has east-facing bay windows that should be a great place to keep the plant, with full morning sun and afternoon shade. We’ll have to work on the humidity, since it’s pretty dry out here, but we can do that. In the picture above, you can see that our cutting came out of the shipping box a wee bit dehydrated, which is to be expected after a few days in USPS trucks and planes. The first thing I did — after dragging him around the store and showing him to everybody — was get him into the sink, where he soaked up a lot of water and started perking back up.

Tea H White

A very thirsty little tea bush gets a big drink.

Why the name? Well, our shop is a bookstore, which is why we’ve gone with literary names for some of our tea blends (e.g., Lady Greystoke and Fifty Shades of Earl Grey). In looking for the author-related puns, Tea S. Eliot was the first to pop to mind, but Shannon Brewer Land already used that name for the Alaskan Tea Across America plant — although she later changed it to Captain James Tea Kirk.

The Sword in the Stone

The Sword in the Stone, the first book of T. H. White’s series, The Once and Future King.

As it turns out, Tea H. White is a better name for our plant anyway. T. H. White is the author of the groundbreaking The Once and Future King series, which tells the King Arthur legend starting with Arthur’s childhood. We are definitely lovers of fantasy novels and Arthurian stories, and as a children’s author myself, I really enjoy good young adult literature.

As soon as little Tea H. White started perking up, our assistant manager, Doug, was ready to pluck a leaf and start drying it. After fighting him off with my trusty pu-erh knife Excaliber, we decided to let the plant turn into a bush before we start trying to drink it. I sympathize with Doug, though. Patience is not my strong suit either.

I am curious. I’d like to know whether this is the first tea bush in Montana. Has anyone else tried this experiment? Is there a little tea garden growing in a greenhouse in Missoula? A tea bush in a shop in Helena? A cutting thriving in someone’s sun room in Bozeman? If any of my readers know about another Camellia sinensis bush in Montana, let me know. I’d love to compare notes with someone else who’s done this!

Joining Tea Across America

#TeaAcrossAmericaThe more I learn about tea, the more I want to learn. The more I experience, the more I want to experience. I experiment, I read books, I read blogs, I attend tea conferences, and I take classes. I buy tea from all over the world, and try out different blends and combinations. Basically, I do whatever my budget allows.

Teany the Tea Plant

This is Naomi’s little plant (she represents Nevada in #TeaAcrossAmerica). She named it “Teany.” I’m now taking suggestions for a name for my plant when it arrives.

One thing my budget has not, alas, allowed has been traveling to the world’s great tea growing areas and getting familiar with tea bushes. My tea experiences all start with processed leaves, not with the plants themselves. Today marked the first step in changing that.

I got a phone call this afternoon from Naomi Rosen, of Joy’s Teaspoon. I met Naomi at a blogger’s panel at World Tea Expo 2013 this summer (CAUTION: this link to World Tea Expo plays video and makes noise — careful where you are when you click it). Naomi was calling because she’s working with Jason McDonald of FiLoLi Tea Farm and the United States League of Tea Growers on a new initiative they call #TeaAcrossAmerica.

Their simple yet ambitious objective: put a tea plant into every state and the District of Columbia. Some U.S. states already have established tea plantations. Others have hobbyists with a few bushes going. Many states have climates that Camellia sinensis considers inhospitable. I happen to live in one of those states: Montana.

Naomi asked if I’d be willing to represent Montana in #TeaAcrossAmerica, and I jumped at the opportunity. To participate, I need to take a cutting from FiLoLi Tea Farm in Brookhaven, Mississippi, and grow it here in Montana. Jason has written up some directions to make caring for the cutting easier, and I’ll be able to keep it indoors where the harsh Montana winters won’t kill it. My tea bar has east-facing bay windows that should be a great place to keep the plant, with full morning sun and afternoon shade. The only problem will be humidity — it’s very dry here — but we can deal with that.

It’s going to be a month or two before my little tea bush arrives, so we have plenty of time to prepare. I will keep everyone up-to-date on the progress as we get things going. In the meantime, thanks to Jason for the opportunity and to Naomi for suggesting me as a volunteer!

United States League of Tea Growers

What’s the difference between Japanese and Chinese green tea?

sencha leaves

Japanese sencha leaves

As I did last month and the month before, I took a look at some of the search terms that brought people to this blog and found a question that I didn’t really address. This time: “What’s the difference between Japanese and Chinese green tea?” The obvious smart-aleck answer is that one comes from Japan and the other comes from China, but it runs a bit deeper than that.

First off, it’s not the plants themselves. The first varietal discovered of the tea plant is Camellia sinensis var. sinensis: the Chinese tea plant. About 1400 years ago, during the Sui Dynasty, Buddhist monks introduced tea — and the tea plant — to Japan. This means that the same varietal of tea plant is growing in China and Japan.

Terroir, on the other hand, can definitely have an effect. The climate, soil, and other factors can definitely affect the taste of the tea. Also, the Japanese have been crossbreeding and developing their strains of tea plant for over a millennium.

The biggest factor in the taste, though, is a very simple one: the process.

The difference between black tea and green tea is oxidation. Black tea is fully (or near-fully) oxidized, while green tea is not oxidized at all. There is an enzyme in the tea leaf that starts the oxidation process as soon as the leaf has been broken or bruised. Making green tea requires a “kill green” step that destroys the enzyme and stops the tea from oxidizing. That step requires heating the tea leaves quickly to at least 140 degrees.

To make Japanese green teas, such as sencha, bancha, and gyokuro, the leaves are steamed. To make Chinese green teas, such as dragonwell or gunpowder tea, the leaves are pan-fired. Just this simple difference in processing gives Japanese teas a rich grassy flavor and Chinese greens more of a vegetal character.

Granted, I am oversimplifying, but this is the fundamental answer to the question.

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