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I’m back. And not a moment too soon.


My Latest Adventure header

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.

Unfortunately, that relationship went down the toilet in March. The cooperative owes me a lot of money, including almost half of the money they agreed to pay for my old store, plus repayment of a loan I made to them and money we put on my personal credit card to buy products for the store. They haven’t even paid me my last two paychecks from February & March. But let’s not dwell on that right now.

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.

Interior 19-Oct-2017

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.

How much caffeine is in my tea?


How much caffeine is in my tea-header

I wish there was a simple answer to this question. It would be ever so cool if I could just say, “black tea has 45 mg of caffeine per 8-ounce cup.” In fact, a number of people say it is that simple. This graph came from the front page of the eZenTea website:

tea caffeine chart-eZenTeaAnd this one just showed up in my Twitter feed from SanctuaryT (the tweet said, “Finally, the truth about and !”):

tea caffeine chart-SanctuaryTThey make it pretty simple, right? But that’s not very useful when they disagree with each other! The first chart shows the caffeine green tea at 20 mg/cup and white tea at 10 mg/cup, showing that white tea has half as much caffeine as green tea. The second chart shows green tea at 25 mg/cup and white tea at 28 mg/cup, indicating that white tea has 12% more caffeine.

Then we get confusing (and frankly pretty silly) charts like this one from HellaWella:

tea caffeine chart-HellaWellaAll three charts have green tea in the same basic range (20-25 mg/cup), but the HellaWella chart breaks out black tea (which is 40-42 mg/cup in the other two charts) into “brewed tea” at 47 mg/cup and “brewed imported tea” at 60 mg/cup. Huh? “Imported”? HellaWella’s “about” page doesn’t say what country they’re from, but I’m going to guess from the spellings that they’re from the U.S. Sure, there are few small tea plantations in the U.S., but I would venture to guess that approximately zero percent of casual tea drinkers have ever had a domestically grown tea. In America, pretty much all tea is “imported.”

So why the discrepancies?

Because the people making these charts (a) don’t explain their methodology and/or (b) don’t understand tea.

As I explained in my three-part caffeine series (here’s part 1), green, white, oolong, black, and pu-erh tea all come from the same species of plant (Camellia sinensis), and in some cases, the same actual plant. We carry a black and a green Darjeeling tea that are picked from the same plants, but processed differently. No part of that process creates or destroys caffeine.

Let me make that clear: let’s say you pick a bunch of tea leaves on your tea farm. You divide them up into four equal piles. You turn one pile into green tea, one into white tea, one into black tea, and one into oolong tea. When you’re done, you make a cup of tea from each. Assuming you use the same water at the same temperature, use the same amount of leaf per cup, and steep them for the same time, they will all have the exact same amount of caffeine.

If that processing doesn’t change the caffeine content, what does?

  1. The part of the plant that’s used. Caffeine tends to be concentrated in the buds and leaf tips. A high-quality golden or white tea made from only buds will have more caffeine than a cheap tea made with the big leaves farther down the stem.
  2. The growing conditions. Soil, rainfall, altitude, and many other factors (collectively known as terroir) all affect how much caffeine will be in the tea leaves.
  3. The time of year the leaves were harvested. Tea picked from the same plants several months apart may have dramatically different amounts of caffeine.
  4. How long you steep the tea. The longer those leaves sit in the water, the more caffeine will be extracted into your drink.
  5. How much leaf you use in the cup. Use more leaves, get more caffeine.
  6. How big the cup is. This seems ridiculously obvious, but it’s something a lot of people miss. Anyone who went to elementary school in the United States knows that one cup = eight ounces. However, a four-cup coffee maker doesn’t make 32 ounces (8 x 4); it makes 24 ounces. They decided their coffee makers sound bigger if they use six-ounce cups.

Even if you and I measure the same amount of leaf out of the same tin of tea, your cup might have twice the caffeine of my cup, depending on how we like to fix it. Unless we both precisely followed the ISO 3103 standard for brewing the perfect cup of tea.

Unfortunately, the lab tests to assess caffeine content are expensive, so most tea shops never test their teas. On top of that, people can’t seem to agree on how to brew the tea they are testing. I read one study where every tea was brewed for five minutes in boiling water. That’s consistent, but it’s not realistic. You don’t brew a Japanese green tea that way, or you’ll have a bitter, undrinkable mess. Another, by Kevin Gascoyne, tested tea as most people drink it (e.g., black tea in boiling water, white tea in cooler water). That’s better but even still, Kevin’s way of brewing a particular tea may not be the way I do it.

UPDATE: After I wrote this post, but while it was still in the scheduling queue, a blog called The Tea Maestro put out a post about this same subject, titled “The Latest Buzz on Tea and Caffeine.” If you’re interested in caffeine and tea, I’d recommend reading it. If not, I can’t imagine why you’re reading this post!

The bottom line is that every tea is different. Very different. In fact, Kevin tested two different sencha teas and one had four times the caffeine of the other. If someone shows you a handy-dandy chart that indicates exactly how much caffeine a cup of tea has (as opposed to showing a range), it’s wrong.


While writing this blog post, I was drinking Green Rooibos from South Africa, which has no caffeine at all. It is a non-oxidized “redbush” tea that I blogged about back in 2011 (“I’ll have a green red tea, please“). I brewed this cup for 4:00 using boiling water. It’s a remarkably forgiving drink, and I’ve steeped it for as long as 10 minutes without ruining it. It’s usually good for at least two infusions.

Most popular teas of 2014


Most Popular Teas of 2014 header

I’m bringing back the old January tradition that I skipped last year, which is reviewing my tea bar’s most popular loose-leaf teas of the previous year. This time, it’s a little different. In the 2011 and 2012 summaries, I just looked at the overall bestsellers. This time, I’m going to break it down by category.

I don’t want my blog to be a commercial for the shop, but on the other hand, I do want to provide links to the tea bar’s website, in case readers are interested in trying out any of these teas. As a compromise, if you see a regular link in this post, it goes to another post in my blog. If you see the name of a tea italicized in square brackets [like this], it goes to that tea’s page on shop’s website.

Black Tea

My Scottish breakfast blend, which I call [Gary’s Kilty Pleasure] remains the top-selling unflavored black tea for the fourth year in a row. There’s something about the complementary maltiness of the estate-grown Assam and strong traditional flavors of the Mount Kenya black teas that really works together.

Oolong

The classic [organic tieguanyin], a.k.a. Iron Goddess of Mercy, topped the straight oolong charts. It is medium-roasted and lightly-oxidized, using traditional bamboo coal baking techniques. Most of our oolong drinkers like the flavored options, however, and mango was the top flavor of choice.

Green Tea

Overall, [organic Jasmine Green] did the best. There’s something about the delicate aroma of jasmine that really adds to the flavor of a good green tea. Of the unflavored, unscented green teas, it was Dragonwell (longjing) by a big margin!

White Tea

Our new Shou Mei narrowly edged out the [Yin-Zhen Silver Needles Supreme], even though it hasn’t made it to our website yet. On the flavored side, the [Peach Blossom White] blew away all of the competition. We don’t serve many cups of it hot, but it’s far and away the most popular iced tea at the bar.

Pu-Erh

It’s really hard to pin this one down. We get one answer if we measure sales by the ounce of loose-leaf tea sold, but a very different answer if we take into consideration all of the compressed pu-erh (beeng cha, tuo cha, brick, and so forth). In total mass, this year’s winner would have to be ripe “wild” pu-erh bricks from 2005.

Earl Grey

We have nine different Earl Grey blends, but the organic, fair trade [Ancient Tree Earl Grey] has not only been the number one Earl Grey, but has held a spot in our top three sellers overall for as long as we’ve been selling tea.

Masala Chai

In 2013, we made a scary move. We dropped the Rishi organic masala chai that had been our number-one selling tea and replaced it with a house blend. Several house blends, actually. Our house chai, which is made with estate-grown Assam and our own masala spice blend, did reasonably well, but then serendipity stepped in. We were experimenting around with a caffeine-free option, and blended our spices with rooibos and caramel. The first cup we brewed, Doug looked at me and said, “Oh my God! This is a ginger cookie in a cup!” We named it [Ginger Cookie Chai], and it became our top masala chai, and one of the best-selling teas overall. It also makes a great molasses cookie recipe!

The Holly family

Yerba maté has always been a good seller for us, so we decided to add the other two members of the holly family that produce caffeine: guayusa and yaupon. [Guayusa] became a staff favorite, and soon surpassed yerba maté. It’s an amazing drink that we just can’t get enough of!

Rooibos

We sell a lot of rooibos, and I am still surprised that the green rooibos outsells red rooibos by a factor of three. Yes, [Green Rooibos], which most Americans haven’t even heard of, is one of the top 15 sellers out of the 150+ teas and tisanes we sell. When it comes to flavored rooibos, [Montana Gold], a caffeine-free blend from our friends at Montana Tea & Spice not only handily tops the list of rooibos-based blends, but was our #1 seller overall.

Other herbals

When you think of herbal tea, what’s the first herb that pops into your mind? Probably chamomile. Personally, I’m not a big chamomile drinker, which probably explains why none of my chamomile blends compete with [Evening in Missoula], another complex and wonderful blend from Montana Tea & Spice.


While writing this blog post, I was drinking an organic Iron Goddess of Mercy (tieguanyin), as I so often do. It’s a soft and flavorful oolong that’s lightly baked and medium oxidized. I usually use my leaves at least three or four times, brewing it with 175-degree water. I make my first infusion light (2 1/2 minutes), and then add 30 second to each subsequent infusion.

The Rooibos of South Africa: Stop 7 on the World Tea Tasting Tour


If you’re looking for a drink with all the health benefits of tea, a similarly great taste, but no caffeine, look to South Africa! Rooibos is made from the South African red bush (Aspalathus linearis). Using rooibos instead of tea is a great way to enjoy a caffeine-free hot (or iced) drink without using any chemical decaffeination process. Rooibos is full of antioxidants, Vitamins C and E, iron, zinc, potassium, and calcium. It is naturally sweet without adding sugar.

South Africa-Slide01

Rooibos grows only in the Western Cape of South Africa, and a similar plant called honeybush (the Cyclopia plant) grows in the Eastern Cape. Its flowers smell of honey, hence the name. The taste of honeybush is similar to rooibos, though perhaps a bit sweeter. Like rooibos, honeybush is naturally free of caffeine and tannins; perfect for a late-evening drink.

The teas we tasted were:

  • Red rooibos (organic)
  • Green rooibos (organic)
  • Honeybush (organic)
  • Jamaica red rooibos (organic, fair trade)
  • Bluebeary relaxation (organic, fair trade)
  • Iced rooibos
  • Cape Town Fog (a vanilla rooibos latte!)

South Africa, as the name implies, sits at the very southern tip of the African continent. It completely surrounds a small country called Lesotho. South Africa covers 471,443 square miles (about three times the size of Montana) and has a population of 51,770,000 (a bit more than Spain). Despite wide open spaces in the middle of the country, the large cities make it overall densely populated.

The country has the largest economy in Africa, yet about 1/4 of the population is unemployed and living on the equivalent of US $1.25 per day.

Red rooibos

Rooibos isn’t a huge part of the South African economy. It does, however, employ about 5,000 people and generates a total annual revenue of around US $70 million, which is nothing to sneeze at. The plant is native to South Africa’s Western Cape, and the country produces about 24,000,000 pounds of rooibos per year.

The name “rooibos” is from the Dutch word “rooibosch” meaning “red bush.” The spelling was altered to “rooibos” when it was adopted into Afrikaans. In the U.S., it’s pronounced many different ways but most often some variant of ROY-boss or ROO-ee-bose.

I’ve written quite a bit about red rooibos in several posts — and about the copyright issues — so I won’t repeat it all here. Rooibos is also great as an ingredient in cooking: see my African Rooibos Hummus recipe for an example.

Green rooibos

Green rooibos isn’t oxidized, so it has a flavor profile closer to a green tea than a black tea. Again, I’ve written a lot about it, so I’ll just link to the old post.

Honeybush

Honeybush isn’t one single species of plant like rooibos. The name applies to a couple of dozen species of plants in the Cyclopia genus, of which four or five are used widely to make herbal teas. Honeybush grows primarily in Africa’s Eastern Cape, and isn’t nearly as well-known as rooibos.

It got its name from its honey-like aroma, but it also has a sweeter flavor than rooibos. It can be steeped a long time without bitterness, but I generally prefer about three minutes of steep time in boiling water.

Jamaica Red Rooibos

I decided to bring out a couple of flavored rooibos blends for the tasting as well. The first is Jamaica Red Rooibos, a Rishi blend. It has an extremely complex melange of flavors and aromas, and is not only a good drink, but fun to cook with as well (see my “Spicing up couscous” post).

Jamaica Red Rooibos is named for the Jamaica flower, a variety of hibiscus. The extensive ingredient list includes rooibos, hibiscus, schizandra berries, lemongrass, rosehips, licorice root, orange peel, passion fruit & mango flavor, essential orange, tangerine & clove oils

BlueBeary Relaxation

BlueBeary Relaxation one of the blends in our Yellowstone Wildlife Sanctuary fundraiser series (the spelling “BlueBeary” comes from the name of one of the bears at the Sanctuary). It’s an intensely blueberry experience that’s become a bedtime favorite of mine. It’s like drinking a blueberry muffin!

Iced rooibos

To make a really good cup of iced rooibos, prepare the hot infusion with about double the leaf you’d use normally, because pouring it over the ice will dilute it. Both green and red rooibos make great iced tea. I prefer both styles unadulterated, but many people drink iced red rooibos with sugar or honey.

Cape Town Fog

This South African take on the “London Fog” is a great caffeine-free latte. To prepare it, you’ll want to preheat the milk almost to boiling. If you have a frother of some kind, use it — aerating the milk improves the taste. Steep the red rooibos good and strong, and add a bit of vanilla syrup or extract. We use an aged vanilla extract for ours. Mix it all up, put a dab of foam on top if you frothed the milk, and optionally top with a light shake of cinnamon.

 


This was the seventh stop on our World Tea Tasting Tour, in which we explore the tea of China, India, Japan, Taiwan, England, South Africa, Kenya, and Argentina. Each class costs $5.00, which includes the tea tasting itself and a $5.00 off coupon that can be used that night for any tea, teaware, or tea-related books that we sell.

For a full schedule of the tea tour, see my introductory post from February.

Rooibos: The African Red Bush


How have I been at this blog for so long without writing about rooibos? Oh, I know this blog is about tea, and I did write a post about green rooibos last year, but I haven’t covered straight red rooibos yet.

Rooibos comes from a bush called Aspalathus linearis, which grows in the west cape of South Africa. The name “rooibos” is from the Dutch word “rooibosch” meaning “red bush.” The spelling was altered to “rooibos” when it was adopted into Afrikaans.

Rooibos (Aspalathus linearis)

The rooibos bush (Aspalathus linearis) in bloom

Rooibos is also often called “red tea,” but most tea professionals shy away from that name for several reasons:

  1. The term “red tea” is used by the Chinese to refer to what we call “black tea.” No sense having two different drinks with the same name.
  2. Rooibos isn’t tea, since it doesn’t come from the Camellia sinensis plant. Instead, it is a tisane or herbal infusion.
  3. Rooibos only has that rich red color when it’s processed like a black tea. Green rooibos is more of a golden honey-colored infusion.

A Touch of RooibosRooibos is a tasty drink that is also good for cooking. Hopefully, I’ll have a chance sometime soon to write a review soon of the cookbook A Touch of Rooibos. I have been looking through it lately and it’s filled with interesting ideas. Generally, when used for cooking, the rooibos is steeped for quite a while and then reduced to a thick syrupy consistency. Unlike black tea, it can be steeped for ten minutes or more without becoming unpalatable and bitter.

Unlike “real” tea, which all has caffeine, rooibos is naturally caffeine-free. Since the flavor is similar to a mild black tea, this makes it a favorite bedtime beverage for many tea drinkers. Rooibos is also high in antioxidants.

Herbalists make many claims about the health properties of the rooibos tisanes. The Web site for the South African Rooibos Council (SARC), in fact, has very little information that isn’t in some way tied back to health claims. There are more and more studies being done, but available data are lacking in specifics (in my opinion, anyway) so I’m not going to quote any of those there. Feel free to check SARC’s site for lots of studies.

I don’t mean to imply that rooibos is only about the health benefits. It is, in fact, a very tasty drink. Most rooibos drinkers in the U.S. enjoy it straight or with a bit of sweetener (honey or sugar). In South Africa, it is commonly served with a bit of milk or lemon as well as honey. A group funded by SARC and Stellenbosch University has recently developed a “sensory wheel” for rooibos, describing both the desirable and undesirable aspects of flavor and mouthfeel. If you are interested in more information, click on the wheel below.

Rooibos Sensory Wheel

Rooibos Sensory Wheel as described in the article “Sensory characterization of rooibos tea and the development of a rooibos sensory wheel and lexicon,” available on Science Direct. Click the wheel above to view the article — there is a charge for the full text version.

rooibos sensory wheel articleAlso, there is an article you can download in PDF format (click the thumbnail to the right to download) that describes the sensory wheel and the process used to create it.

Compared to tea, rooibos is a pretty small market. South Africa’s annual rooibos production is about 12,000 tons. That output is about equivalent to annual tea production of the Darjeeling region of India, or about a tenth of the tea production of Japan (the 8th largest tea producing country). Nonetheless, rooibos is important to South Africa, employing about 5,000 people and generating about $70 million in revenues.

The leaves of the rooibos bush are more like needles than the broad leaves of a tea plant. To produce red rooibos, the leaves are harvested, crushed, and oxidized using a process based on the one used in making Chinese black tea. Typically, the leaves are sprayed with water and allowed to oxidize for about 12 hours before being spread out in the sun to dry.

Green rooibos, as the name implies, is unoxidized or very lightly oxidized, and is processed more like a green tea.

For more information about the rooibos industry, I recommend the article Disputing a Name, Developing a Geographical Indication, from the World Intellectual Property Organization.

It’s logomania! A MaterniTEA logo by Suzanna Bailey


MaterniTEA logoNew tea logos are coming fast and furious as our artist friends send us their guest drawings. Our latest is by the lovely and talented Suzanna Bailey. Let me tell you a little bit about this tea before I talk about the logo, though.

I am a tea lover, not an herbalist. Let me repeat that for emphasis: I am not an herbalist. I am not trained in the healing powers of herbs (and I believe that most of the claims about most of the herbs are horse-hockey, but that’s another story), but I know what people ask for at the tea bar. We seem to have a lot of pregnant women in town these days, and most of them come in requesting either ginger or mint for their morning sickness.

I did some reading, and found that most of the published studies agree that those are two herbs that settle the stomach well. I know ginger works for me. Doing a straight ginger-mint blend, however, tasted pretty wretched. I started monkeying around with combinations — carefully avoiding caffeine — and came up with MaterniTEA. It uses green rooibos, Egyptian chamomile, and honeybush as its base, along with the aforementioned organic peppermint and ginger. A touch of orange extract for flavor, and we have something that tastes good as well as helping with the nausea that triggered this whole thing.

In keeping with the philosophy I described in the last tea label post, I didn’t give Suzanna any specific instructions. I just described the tea and threw out a few adjectives like “soothing” and “relaxing,” and got out of her way. She came back with several pages of ideas and sketches, and one of them really caught my eye. My wife, Kathy, and I absolutely loved the look of the steam rising from a teacup in the shape of a pregnant woman.

Suzanna has an amazing eye for color, so she did all of the drawing and the coloring for this one — she just asked if I could fill in the lettering. Once again I am thrilled with the results and we’re having posters made of all of our custom tea logos.

Thank you, Suzanna!

I’ll have a green red tea, please


Green rooibosI’ve been drinking rooibos (a.k.a. “African redbush,” a.k.a. “red tea”) for years, and stocked our tea bar liberally with varieties of it. All of them use the same base plant — Aspalathus linearis — prepared with an oxidation process similar to what’s used for black tea. The plant is naturally caffeine-free, which is a great boon for those of us who aren’t fans of chemical or pressure decaffeination techniques.

Rooibos has developed quite a following, especially with all of the press it’s been getting for being high in antioxidants. Only recently, however, have requests started coming in at the tea bar for “green” rooibos.

I am in the tea business because I love the flavors of tea. I’m not an herbalist, so everything I do with tea starts with the taste. I ordered in some green rooibos for the tea bar, and gave it a try. Green rooibos has minimal tannin content, so bitterness isn’t a danger. For my first try, I made a cup using 195-degree water (I’m at 5,500 feet altitude, so that’s about 7 degrees below boiling), and steeped it for 5 minutes. I used one tablespoon for a 13-ounce cup, and did not add anything (no lemon, sugar, milk…).

The first thing I noticed was the color. The liquid is a beautiful golden honey color, quite different both from most green teas and from the traditional red rooibos. The tea is smooth and woody, with just a hint of grassiness and nut flavor. True to promise, there’s no bitterness at all, and no need for additives. Just to push the limits, I re-used the leaves, steeping them for 10 minutes this time. The flavor and aroma were almost identical to the first cup.

There are a lot of claims out there about green rooibos being significantly higher in antioxidants than traditional red rooibos. A quick perusal of the research still shows mixed results on that, so I’m not going to take a position on the health effects. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m in it for the taste!

While writing this, I realized that I had tried it hot, but not iced. The folks over at Suffuse Rooibos say green rooibos makes a fantastic iced tea, so I took a break to make a cup of iced green rooibos (the research is the best part of this job!). I brewed it the same way (5-minute steep time), and poured it directly over a cup of ice cubes — again, I didn’t add anything to it. I found it refreshing and tasty; excellent for a hot day when I don’t want to overload with caffeine. I will definitely be drinking more of this!

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