Developing a good palate for tea really requires keeping notes. Remembering what teas you do and don’t like needs notes, too, for most of us. And I’ve been searching for a tea journal that I really liked for a while. There are some pretty good ones out there, but I’m an individualist. I had to do my own thing. And my own thing is called A Tea Journey: Your Personal Tea Cupping Journal.
(Caution: blatant self-promotion ahead)
This guided journal is designed to guide you through the next 100 teas you taste. Keeping notes about each cup of tea encourages you to drink your tea actively, paying attention to taste, aroma, appearance, and how it feels in your mouth. When you journal about it, tea becomes an experience to savor and linger over instead of just another drink.
Tea is a subjective experience. Between these covers, nobody’s opinion matters but your own. Don’t worry about what other people think of a particular tea; just record your own impressions.
Each tea page is numbered, so you can see at a glance just how many teas you have tasted and written about. Some tea journals (especially the cupping journals intended for experts and aficionados) use terminology that may not be clear to a beginner. At the front of the journal, I included descriptions of the common tea styles and some related tisanes (rooibos, honeybush, yerba maté, and so forth). Also, on the page facing tea number one, I included short descriptions of what to write in each section.
Comparative cupping is a great way to develop your palate. Get two similar teas and try them side by side, recording your impressions on facing pages of the journal.
Obviously, the best possible Christmas present for a tea lover would be one of these journals and a big box of tea — and maybe a copy of Myths & Legends of Tea.
Enjoy, and thank you for putting up with my utterly shameless self-promotion this week!
While writing this blog post, I was enjoying a cup of Houjicha, a roasted Japanese tea about as different from traditional Matcha, Sencha or Gyokuro as you could possibly get. The roasting adds a nutty flavor and a toasty aroma that go beautifully with a cold, windy Montana day.
On our way back from a book conference in Tacoma, Washington, my wife pointed out that we were passing an awful lot of stands selling fresh apples. Since it was the season, we picked a big place and stopped.
What an experience!
I knew there were different varieties of apples (Granny Smith, Red Delicious, Fuji…), but I had no idea how many there were. Different colors, sizes, and flavors. Apples that are great for munching, others great for cider, and still others great for applesauce. There are over 7,500 cultivars of apple, and even though this farm had fewer than 50 of them, I was completely and utterly overwhelmed.
And then the epiphany hit me: The way I felt looking at these apples, that deer-in-the-headlights look on my face, was just what I’ve seen on people’s faces the first time they walk into my tea bar. As an aficionado, I walk into a tea shop and start hunting for things I’ve never tried, strange varieties I’ve heard of but never seen, and old favorites that they may bring in from a different source than I do. To a newcomer, though, those 150 jars behind the tea bar might as well be full of pixie dust as tea.
The way the apple farmer led us through our selection is different from the way we guide people at the tea bar, but the general philosophy is the same. His job, like our job, is to help a customer pick something that will make them happy. if you’re going to be making apple butter, he’s eager to help you find just the right apples and suggest just the right procedure. That way, you’ll be back the next time you need apples. We do the same with tea.
Sometimes, we have the customer who knows exactly what they want. “Do you have a jasmine green tea?” they’ll ask. Or, “Can I get an English Breakfast Tea with a spot of milk?” Those folks are easy.
We also have the people who have a general idea of what they’re looking for, but they’re eager to experiment. “I’m looking for a cup of strong tea. What’s the difference between your Rwandan and your Malawi black teas?”
But the challenge comes when somebody has no idea what they’re after. That’s when we play a kind of twenty-questions game.
Q. Are you looking for a straight tea or something flavored?
A. Oh, just straight tea, I think.
Q. Do you like black tea? Green tea? Oolong?
A. I like green tea.
Q. Do you prefer the grassy Japanese styles or the pan-fired Chinese styles?
A. I had a really good Japanese tea one time that tasted really nutty. They called it green tea but the leaves were brown.
Q. Was it roasted? Does the name Houjicha sound familiar?
A. I’m not sure.
Q. Here. Smell this.
A. That smells great! I’ll have a cup of that!
This kind of conversation is what it takes to guide someone to something new. Hopefully something they’ll like so much that they’ll keep coming back for more. To expedite the process, we’re reorganizing the teas behind the bar.
On one side, we’re putting straight tea — and some straight herbs and related drinks like rooibos, honeybush, yerba mate, guayusa, and so forth. They’re organized first by style, so all of the white teas are together and all of the pu-erh teas are together. Within that grouping, they’re organized by origin: Ceylons, Assams, Kenyans, and so forth.
The other side has the flavored and scented teas, and it’s organized quite differently. Most people looking for a mango tea really couldn’t care less whether the base is white tea or green tea. All they care about is whether it has caffeine (and whether it tastes like mango, of course). To that end, the flavored side is grouped by flavor profiles: minty, fruity, flowery, and so forth. All of the berry teas are together, all of the masala chai is together, all of the Earl Grey is together, etc.
Hopefully, this will be a big help to people who think visually. They will be able to scan the jars and narrow in on something they like. When we’re done, we’ll post some pictures.
In the meantime, if you are a tea retailer, keep on talking to people. If you’re a tea consumer, keep on asking questions!
We’re very excited to be working with resident artist Karin Solberg from the Red Lodge Clay Center, and we are featuring some of her matcha bowls in the store, and she came in to talk about them at this stop in the tour.
The teas we tasted were:
- Organic Sencha
- Organic Houjicha (roasted green tea)
- Organic Genmaicha (toasted rice tea)
- Organic Matcha
- Kukicha (“twig tea”)
- Bancha (“coarse sencha”)
- Sencha (“decocted tea”)
- Gyokuro (“jade dew”)
There’s a big difference between the way tea is usually served in U.S. tea shops, and the way it’s served in Asia. I’ve been trying for a while to come up with the right words to describe it, and my friend Kory did the job for me last week.
Kory was sitting at my tea bar, trying to decide what he wanted as I was preparing myself some wild shu pu-erh in a gaiwan. I offered him a taste, and he said he’d give it a try. He watched as I went through the ritual and filled a small cup for him. He tasted it and said, “I’m looking for something more passive.”
My first thought was that he was referring to the process of preparing the tea (he wasn’t, but more on that later), and I realized that he’d just given me the words I was looking for. American/European tea drinking is passive, while Asian tea drinking is more active.
When my son and I went to Bellingham and Seattle last month, two of the tea shops we visited exemplified this perfectly.
The first was an English-style tea house called Abbey Garden Tea Room. We sat at a table and ordered our food and tea. They steeped the tea in the kitchen, and brought us teapots (with the tea leaves removed), tea cozies, and cups. All that was required of us was to pour the tea in a cup and drink it. The pots were large enough that we didn’t need refills during our meal.
The second was a Chinese tea house called Vital Tea Leaf. We sat at the counter and talked to the tea expert on staff (her name was Fang). She asked what kind of tea we liked, and set up a gong fu tray in front of us with an assortment of teaware. For each tea, we smelled the dry leaves and the wet leaves, and watched as she prepared a few ounces of tea in the gaiwan, gently agitating the leaves and fanning the aroma toward us.
The Abbey Garden experience was passive tea drinking. We picked tea we liked, and it became secondary to the rest of our lunch. We focused on the food and chatting with each other. With the larger British-style cups, we only had to refill a few times during the meal. At most American-style tea houses, those cups would have been even bigger — probably 12 to 16 ounces, and there would have been no refills required.
The Vital Tea Leaf experience was active tea drinking. There were no distractions, and we only got a couple of ounces of tea at a time. We were engaged in the process the entire time, and it was all about the tea.
Most of the time, passive tea drinking is fine with me. I am sipping on a large mug of houjicha as I write this, and although I’m enjoying it, the tea in my mug isn’t my primary concern at the moment.
But there’s a lot to be said for the active tea drinking experience. Watching the tea steep (experiencing the “agony of the leaf”), comparing the changes from the first infusion to the next, smelling, sipping, tasting, and concentrating on the tea you drink. I think after I press the “post” button for this article, I shall pull out the gong fu tray and gaiwan and actively drink some tea!
Sidebar: What Kory really meant
In my opening paragraphs, I spoke about my friend who gave me the idea for the terms active and passive, and mentioned that the whole subject of this article isn’t really what he meant.
What he was trying to say is that the taste of the tea itself can be active vs. passive. For you beer drinkers out there, here’s a comparison. You’ve gotten together with a bunch of friends to watch the game on TV. Your friend hands you a glass of beer just as there’s some great action going on. You drink the whole beer without having any idea what it was (it was probably Bud Light). There just wasn’t enough taste to get your attention. That’s a passive drink.
On the other hand, if he had handed you an oatmeal stout, a lambic, or a double IPA, you probably would have stopped what you were doing to focus on the beer. “Wow. What is that?” You would have smelled and sipped, savoring the beer and missing the touchdown that put your team in the lead. That’s an active drink.
The wild shu pu-erh I spoke of at the beginning of the article is most definitely active. There’s a lot going on in that tea. It’s rich, deep, and complex, with flavors and aromas that are very hard for me to identify. Kory was interested in a good, but passive tea. Perhaps a Keemun black. You taste it, notice it, and then drink the rest of the cup without paying attention.
Okay, Keemun tea lovers. I’ve painted the target on my back. I await your wrath.
This article is the second of a three-part series.
It’s amazing. It seems like the more I learn about tea, the less I know — and the more I have to unlearn. Over the many years that I’ve been drinking and enjoying tea, I’ve picked up a lot of misconceptions. I’ve even been guilty of spreading a few of those. In the last couple of years, though, as I’ve been more actively studying tea, I’ve discovered the errors of my ways, and this article will serve both as an educational tool and a mea culpa for repeating things without doing my homework.
I already started the myth busting in the previous article with some discussion of decaffeination (Myth: decaf tea has no caffeine. Fact: decaf tea has had some of its caffeine removed). With no further ado, then, let’s continue the process by taking a look at a series of common myths and misconceptions about tea and caffeine, and the relevant facts for each.
You can decaffeinate tea at home with a short “wash”
I picked up this one in several books and numerous articles on the web. In its most common form, the myth says that if you add boiling water to your leaves, swish it around for a short time (most commonly 10 to 30 seconds) and then dump it, you’ve just removed most (claims range from half to 80% or more) of the caffeine.
Bruce Richardson debunked this in his article, Too Easy to be True: De-bunking the At-Home Decaffeination Myth, which appeared in the January 2009 Edition of Fresh Cup magazine. Working with a chemistry professor at Asbury College and one of his students, they determined that it took a 3-minute infusion to extract 46-70% of the caffeine from the tea leaves. You could do a 3-minute wash, I suppose, but you’d be extracting 46-70% of the flavor, too.
Kevin Gascoyne presented some of his research in a 2012 World Tea Expo seminar: A Step Toward Caffeine and Antioxidant Clarity. He used a batch of Long Jing Shi Feng (a green “Dragonwell” tea), which he steeped for varying amounts of time. He measured caffeine content of each infusion and graphed the results. At 30 seconds, a bit over 20% of the caffeine had been removed. By 3 minutes, it was around 42% (even lower than Richardson’s numbers). It was 8 minutes before 70% of the caffeine was extracted, and the graph pretty much flattened out there.
This process is roughly cumulative, so if you infuse your tea for 6 minutes, you’re getting about the same total caffeine as if you’d infused those same leaves 3 times, at 2 minutes per infusion. My favorite shu pu-erh may not have more caffeine than, say, your favorite sencha, but by the time I’ve finished off my 7th infusion — and you’ve infused your leaves once — I’ve probably consumed more caffeine than you have (although I’ve had 7 cups of tea and you’ve had 1).
Green tea has less caffeine than black tea
Pretty much every piece of research in the last decade has debunked this myth. And when I say “debunked,” I’m not saying that the opposite is true; I’m saying that different teas have different caffeine content, but the processing method has little to do with it.
For example, Kevin Gascoyne, in the seminar I mentioned above, presented a chart of the teas that he’d tested, ranked by caffeine content. Aside from the pu-erh teas clustering toward the center (we’ll look at why in a moment), the distribution of styles (white vs. green vs. oolong vs. black vs. pu-erh) was almost random. Even very similar teas had very different caffeine levels, like the Sencha Ashikubo with 48 mg of caffeine and the Sencha Isagawa with 12 mg.
As Gascoyne analyzed his data, he came to the conclusion that there’s a certain amount of caffeine in the tea leaves, and the processes of picking, crushing, steaming, pan-firing, rolling, oxidizing, fermenting, drying, and tearing neither create nor destroy caffeine (one exception to this, according to an article on RateTea, is that roasting a tea like houjicha can dramatically reduce caffeine). If a particular tea bush in Taiwan produces a very high-caffeine oolong tea, then that exact same bush would produce a very high-caffeine black or green tea.
The caffeine content depends on many things, including the varietal of bush, the type of soil, the fertilizer used (if any), the weather, the season when the leaves are picked, and maybe even the time of day. Richardson’s article says that adding nitrogen fertilizer can raise caffeine content by 10%. Gascoyne said he analyzed tea picked from the same plantation at different times of year and found dramatically different caffeine levels.
White tea has no caffeine (or very little)
This one is not only a bad generalization like the previous myth, but often completely backwards!
Another thing that affects caffeine extraction is the part of the plant you use. Caffeine is a natural insecticide. The caffeine tends to congregate in the newer growth, thus protecting the plant from bugs that might eat its tender shoots and young leaves. Richardson’s article described research results from Nigel Melican, the student doing the analysis. His caffeine percentage findings were:
Second leaf- 3.6%
Two leaves and a bud-4.2%
Since the finest white tea is often made from all buds or a bud-and-a-leaf, it will actually have significantly higher caffeine than a strong black tea made from the whole stalk or the 2nd-4th leaves.
When hydrating, you should avoid caffeinated beverages
According to Kyle Stewart and Neva Cochran in their seminar, Tea, Nutrition, and Health: Myths and Truths for the Layman, at World Tea Expo 2012, “studies show no effect on hydration with intakes up to 400 mg of caffeine/day or the equivalent of 8 cups of tea.”
The Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine agreed. In their 2004 reference intakes for water, they state: “caffeinated beverages appear to contribute to the daily total water intake similar to that contributed by non-caffeinated beverages.”
In other words, if you want to drink six pints of water per day for health reasons, it’s perfectly fine to steep some tea leaves in that water before you drink it!
You shouldn’t drink tea with caffeine at night
Stewart and Cochran cited another study in their seminar which analyzed tea and sleep. They found that people unused to caffeine would experience longer times to fall asleep and lower sleep quality, as would people who consumed more than 400 mg of caffeine per day (around 8 cups of typical tea).
People who spread their consumption out through the day, maintaining caffeine in the system (cups at 9:00 am, 1:00 pm, 5:00 pm, and 11:00 pm) were able to sleep with little disruption.
But what if you have no tolerance for caffeine, or you need to maintain very low levels? In the third and final part of this series, we’ll explore some alternatives you might want to try.