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Spicing up couscous

Jamaica Red Rooibos

Jamaica Red Rooibos, courtesy of Rishi Tea

I have played around quite a bit with tea as a flavoring for vegetables, rice, fish, and other dishes. A few months ago, I was trying to decide on a good tea combo for adding some extra flavor to couscous. Most of the time, I use actual tea (made from the Camellia sinensis plant). Late one evening, however, when I was enjoying a cup of rooibos — a.k.a. African red bush — it occurred to me that it might make a great ingredient as well.

Straight rooibos wasn’t quite the flavor I was looking for, but one of the more popular blends at our tea bar seemed like just the ticket: Jamaica Red Rooibos from Rishi Tea.

The tea is named for the Jamaica flower, which is one of the nicknames for a variety of hibiscus (Hibiscus sabdariffa) commonly used in tea. Rishi’s blend is complex. In addition to the rooibos and hibiscus flowers, it also contains lemongrass, schizandra berries, rosehips, licorice root, orange peel, passion fruit flavor, essential oils of orange and tangerine, mango flavor, and essential clove oil.

After a bit of monkeying around, I settled on a very simple recipe:

  1. Following the instructions with your particular couscous, bring enough water for four servings to a boil, and remove from heat.
  2. Add 2-3 tablespoons of Jamaica Red Rooibos and steep for seven minutes.
  3. Remove the leaves. I used a disposable tea filter. You could just as easily dump the leaves in the water and pour through a strainer.
  4. Bring the water back to a boil and add the couscous.
  5. Continue as you would for unflavored couscous.

For a little bit of extra texture, try adding a few tablespoons of chopped walnuts.

You can buy this tea from a variety of sources, including (of course) our own tea bar.

UPDATE May 2012: The Tea Bar’s website is now up and running, and you can order Jamaica Red Rooibos here.

Most popular teas of 2011

As 2011 draws to a close, I am looking over the numbers from our tea bar to see what have been our most popular and least popular blends. When we opened the tea bar I expected our biggest sellers to be what people are most used to, like English Breakfast and Earl Grey, and that’s essentially what the top two slots were. Beyond that, however, I got some surprises…

Red Lodge Books & Tea Bar#1: Ancient-Tree Earl Grey

This organic Earl Grey is made from 100-year-old tea trees and blended with pure bergamot oil. I’ve tried a lot of Earl Grey tea in my time, and this is probably my favorite, although recently I’ve been drinking more of our new house blend: Mr. Excellent’s Post-Apocalyptic Earl Grey.

#2: Gary’s Scottish Breakfast

This is a nice, strong, kick-in-the-pants first cup of the morning. It’s a blend of Kenya and Assam black tea. Traditionalists would steep it a long time and drink it with milk. I tend to prefer a fairly short steep (around 3 minutes), and I drink it black.

[Update: This is the tea I used in the Hipster Hummus recipe for our Chamber of Commerce mixer in February 2012]

#3: Organic Premium Masala Chai

I suppose this one shouldn’t have surprised me. There are a lot of chai fans out there, and the coffee shops tend to make their chai from mixes instead of brewing it up fresh like we do. I typically make this with milk and locally-produced honey.

#4: Organic Moroccan Mint

The popularity of this tea crosses seasons, as we sell just as much of it iced in the summer as we do hot in the winter. It’s a Chinese green tea with jasmine blossoms and peppermint leaves. I’m doing some experiments now as to the best way to aerate it when we serve it, which is typically accomplished by pouring it into the cup while holding the pot high in the air.

#5: Apricot Honeybush

This one took me by surprise. We have a lot of different rooibos and honeybush blends in the tea bar, and I added this one initially just as something fun and different. Who knew it would end up as our most popular caffeine-free drink?

#6: Peach White

This Chinese Pai Mu Tan white tea with delicate peach flavoring is the most popular iced tea in the tea bar, but it’s also wonderful hot.

#7: Montana Gold

This is a rooibos blend from our friends up at Montana Tea & Spice company in Missoula. They add cinnamon, orange peel,  cloves, and other goodies to produce a spicy caffeine-free concoction that definitely plays in Red Lodge.

#8: Chocolate Maté Chai

Dessert in a mug! This velvety chai is made with yerba maté and pu-erh instead of black tea, and the standard masala chai spices are enhanced with cacao nibs & husks, vanilla, coconut, and long pepper. We usually prepare it with vanilla soy milk and local honey. It was also very popular during the summer as a base for boba tea.

#9: Carnival Maté

This is not your basic yerba maté. This yummy south-Argentina style beverage uses roasted maté with caramel bits, marigold, and Spanish safflower petals. I’ve converted a lot of coffee drinkers using this one!

#10: Jamaica Red Rooibos

This one sounded a little strange to me, but I brought it in to the tea bar on a whim. It’s another organic fair-trade blend. The Jamaica flower (Hibiscus Sabdariffa) is blended with organic red rooibos, along with lemongrass, schizandra berries, rosehips, licorice root, orange peel, natural passion fruit flavor, natural essential oils of orange and tangerine, natural mango flavor and natural essential clove oil. It’s awesome. I don’t just drink it, I cook with it, too.

What will be the big sellers in 2012? I think many of these will stay on the list, but we have some new blends that are selling strong right now (like our Hammer and Cremesickle Red and the aforementioned Mr. Excellent’s Post-Apocalyptic Earl Grey), and a lot more planned for the coming months. Half of the top ten for 2011 are organic, and I’m curious whether that trend will continue. Even though the organic teas tend to cost a bit more, people are willing to pay the difference.

A Tea Tasting and Class

Teapot and CupsThis article first appeared in the May 2010 issue of the Local Rag newspaper, describing a tea tasting and class I held at our bookstore before we added the tea bar.

When I was a kid, tea was something that came in bags with a little tag that said “Lipton.” Visits to a Chinese or Japanese restaurant introduced me to the “other” kind of tea: green tea. The first time I ordered tea in a nice restaurant, I encountered the fancy presentation box, containing exotic varieties of tea like chamomile, Earl Grey, English breakfast tea, and Constant Comment. In high school, I drove a delivery truck for an office supply store in Boulder, Colorado, and one of my stops was Celestial Seasonings.

By that time, I was probably a typical American tea consumer. I classified teas into herbal, green, medicinal, and “ordinary.” Not until quite some time later did I discover just how much I was missing, and in an April tea tasting at Red Lodge Books, I tried to pass on a bit of what I’ve learned. This article is a distillation of the talk I gave that day.

All “true” tea comes from the same plant: Camellia sinensis. There are three major variants. The China bush (var. sinensis), the Assam bush (var. assamica) from India, and the Java bush (var. cambodi). Within those broad categories are over 1,000 individual subvarieties. Just as red climbing roses and yellow tree roses are both roses, all of these subvarieties are still Camellia sinensis, the tea plant.

There are six generally-accepted ways to process Camellia sinensis leaves, which produce white, yellow, green, oolong, black, and pu-erh. Yellow tea is so rare that I decided not to cover it. All “true” teas have caffeine, including the delicate whites and greens. Red tea (a.k.a. African rooibos), which I’ll discuss next month, is made from a different plant that does not have caffeine.

White Tea

White tea is the least-processed, and generally lightest and sweetest-flavored tea. It is typically more expensive than black or green teas, and is recognized as having significant health benefits. It is brewed at a lower temperature, and steeped for a short time. The leaves can be re-used, to make 2-3 cups of tea from one teabag or container.

The white tea we tasted at the bookstore was Rishi’s organic Silver Needle (Bai Hao Yin Zhen), from the Fujian province of China. This tea was voted the best tea in the world at the 2008 World Tea Championships, and the best white tea in 2009. The taste is very light and subtle, and there is a wonderful jasmine-infused version available as well.

White teas start out as young budsets (an early bud with or two leaves). After picking, they are “wilted” indoors to get some of the moisture out, and then baked or panned. After a light rolling of the leaves, they are dried and packaged for shipment.

Green Tea

Green tea is the traditional tea of China and Japan. It has long been lauded for its healthiness, and intricate ceremonies have been developed around its preparation. People study the Japanese Tea Ceremony for years before performing it publicly. Like white tea, it is brewed at lower temperatures, and can yield 2-3 infusions.

The green tea we tasted was an organic Sencha from the Kagoshima Prefecture of Japan; voted the best green tea in the 2008 championships. It is a very traditional green tea, grown in volcanic soil, yielding a deep almost grassy flavor.

After picking, the leaves are steamed or panned, rolled, and then dried. Sometimes, they’ll be formed into balls or other shapes before drying.

Oolong Tea

Oolong is a very highly-processed tea; one of the most complex to produce. It is generally flavorful and rich without the bitterness often associated with black teas. Unlike green and white teas, the leaves are partially oxidized, which darkens the color and intensifies the flavor.

We tasted an organic Wuyi Oolong. The Wuyi Mountains in Northern Fujian are where oolong tea was first produced, and this variety has a roasted aroma, complex flavor, and sweet finish.

To make oolong tea, the freshly-picked leaves are first wilted (partially dried) in the sun, and then again indoors. They are tossed in a basket to bruise them, and then partially oxidized (typically anywhere from 30-70%). After oxidation, the leaves are baked or panned, and then rolled. The final steps are drying and firing, which produces the smoky aroma.

Black Tea

By far the most common type of tea in Europe and India, black tea is usually brewed hot and strong. Many cultures serve it with milk, sugar, or both to mitigate its inherent bitterness, and it is often flavored with lemon, orange, or other spices (Red Lodge Books has a fascinating vanilla black tea). Black tea flavored with bergamot is known as “Earl Grey.” Black teas are also the basis of English and Irish breakfast tea. Unlike white, green, and oolong teas, black teas are generally only infused once: use the leaves and discard them.

At the tasting, we had Rishi’s organic fair-trade China Breakfast, which won “best breakfast blend” at the 2009 World Tea Championships. It’s rich, malty, and robust; great for the first cup of the morning.

Black teas are usually made with an indoor wilting, followed by a cutting or crushing step. This can range from a light crush to a full “CTC” (crush-tear-curl). This exposes more of the leaf’s insides to assist in oxidation. Black teas are 100% oxidized, yielding higher caffeine content and stronger flavor. Following oxidation, leaves are rolled and dried.


This is probably the least familiar process to Americans, but it has been around in China for centuries. What differentiates it from black or oolong tea is a fermentation step at the end of processing. Although the term “fermented” is often incorrectly used instead of “oxidizing” for black teas, pu-erh is the only variety that is actually fermented.

2009 Tong Qing Tang

A cake of 2009 Tong Qing Tang Pu-erh tea.

If you’ve ever had a mulch pile, you’re familiar with the process: plant matter is piled up wet, and left alone. The inside of the pile grows hotter as it ferments. Unlike most teas, which are served as fresh as possible, pu-erh is often compressed into cakes (sometimes immense bricks) that can be stored for years. Century-old pu-erh cakes are sold at auctions for thousands of dollars.

Pu-erh is brewed in boiling hot water, and can be re-infused at least 6-8 times. I’ve used leaves ten times and still gotten good flavor from the tenth infusion.

At the tasting, we had a classic loose-leaf organic fair-trade pu-erh from Yunnan, China. The flavor was earthy and rich. The description may seem off-putting to some, but it’s definitely worth trying a good pu-erh.

Copywriters and tea marketing experts

FDA LogoThese days, you can’t be too careful what you say on a tea website. Last year, Unilever was warned by the FDA for claims they made about “Lipton Green Tea 100% Natural, Naturally Decaffeinated.” A week later, they warned Dr. Pepper Snapple Group about claims they made concerning “Canada Dry Sparkling Green Tea Ginger Ale.” Earlier this year, the FDA’s target was Diaspora Tea & Herb (d.b.a. Rishi Tea) for a wide variety of health claims on Rishi Tea’s website.

Given these warning shots fired across the bows of the big boys, the whole industry is being careful about making nutritional claims for tea. But we still need to say more about tea than just “this stuff tastes really, really good” — although that’s generally good enough for me.

For an example of how far companies are going these days, we got a promotional mailer at the bookstore today from Numi Tea. They are a fine company, and I’d be happy to resell some of their products in our tea bar. The mailer has some traditional marketing language (with appropriate footnotes, of course), just as I’d probably write myself:

“[Pu-erh]’s unique fermentation process results in more antioxidants than most green teas and is traditionally known to help weight management*, improve digestion and naturally boost energy.”

Well, I hope I wouldn’t write it exactly like that, but given a bit of tweaking to the grammar and punctuation, it’s a reasonable sentence.

The first claim is footnoted “*Along with a healthy diet and exercise.” Okay. I’ll buy that. Given enough healthy diet and exercise, lots of things help with weight management. The other two claims are very difficult to measure and/or prove. Vague claims typically don’t draw the ire of the FDA, so they’re probably safe.

But it was the next section that made me chuckle. It says, and I quote:

“Every blend is freshly brewed, made with full-leaf tea and uses 100% real ingredients for a pure Pu-erh tea taste.”

Wow! It uses 100% REAL INGREDIENTS! Is that the best they could do? Really? Can you imagine the certification process for that? “Is this an ingredient? Yep!” I carry 100 different teas in my tea bar, and I can guarantee you that every single one of them carries 100% real ingredients. Yep. Not an unreal ingredient in the bunch.

I did a bit of further looking, and found that the front cover of their mailer says, “Real ingredients. 100%. Nothing else.” There’s a whole section of their website called “100% real ingredients.” There’s a paragraph on that page of their site that says:

“For a pure, authentic taste, we blend premium organic teas and herbs with only real fruits, flowers and spices. We never use ‘natural’ flavorings or fragrances like other teas do.”

I’m pleased to hear that they only use “real” ingredients, and not “natural” ones like everyone else. Come on, Numi. You make some absolutely fantastic teas, and your organic and fair-trade programs are excellent. I’d like to see you spend more time talking about that — which really does differentiate your products — and less time talking about being “real,” which means absolutely nothing.

Twinings changes their Earl Grey. Stop the presses. Or don’t.

Twinings Earl GreyThe tea world is all a-twitter because British tea giant Twinings has changed the formulation of their Earl Grey tea after over a century and a half. This is being likened to the “New Coke” fiasco. It’s difficult to address a subject like this without puns, so let me get this out of the way and call it a tempest in a teapot.

When it comes to Earl Grey tea, we are swimming in a sea of alternatives. Every tea company has their own twist on the blend, and the only things they have in common are black tea and bergamot. In fact, even the black tea part is optional these days. You can get Earl Grey made from Chinese tea, Indian tea, Ceylon tea, or Kenya tea. You can even get white Earl Grey, green Earl Grey, red Earl Grey (which is made with rooibos rather than tea), or Mr. Excellent’s Post-Apocalyptic Earl Grey. The amount of bergamot can vary from just a hint to enough to knock your socks off. You can get your Earl Grey with lavender or dozens of other additives.

I am most amused by the Earl Grey variants that they call “citrus” Earl Grey. Hey, guys, all Earl Grey is citrus. That’s what bergamot is. It’s a variety of orange.

The bergamot orange.

We’ve done some experimentation in our tea bar. Since Earl Grey tea is hugely popular — one of my personal favorites, in fact — we started out with four Earl Greys: an Ancient Tree Earl Grey, Empire’s Earl Grey Supreme, a rooibos Earl Grey for the caffeine-free crowd, and our own lavender Earl Grey blend we call The Countess (here’s why we don’t call it Lady Grey). Yes, we know that’s not what’s in Twinings’ Lady Grey. We don’t care.

We knew those last two were going to be specialty drinks. The purists wouldn’t be interested in either one. The first two would be a horse race for popularity.

Rishi’s offering is my personal favorite. It’s a very straightforward Earl Grey made from organic fair-trade Yunnan Dian Hong. The Earl Grey Supreme from Empire Tea includes quite a bit more bergamot and some other citrus as well. The horse race became a runaway. Rishi’s Ancient Tree Earl Grey is the most popular tea at the tea bar (judging by ounces sold), outselling the high-bergamot Supreme by a four-to-one margin. If I were the type to draw conclusions based on a single data point, I’d say that adding more bergamot to Earl Grey isn’t a good thing.

That, however, is exactly what Twinings just did (and a touch of lemon, too).

This isn’t really going to affect me. They may have been first out of the gate with Earl Grey, but theirs has never been my favorite formulation. I think it will be a good thing for the tea business, though, as it will drive the old-line Twinings Earl Grey purists to get out and experiment a bit. We’ll see where it goes.

Update: 7 September 2011

That didn’t take long. Andrew Brown at the Telegraph blogged (actually before my post came out, so I suppose my research was inadequate) that Twinings has released “Earl Grey: The Classic Edition” to satisfy discontented fans. It’s an interesting post. The thing I find most interesting is the biography line at the top, which says, “Andrew M Brown is a writer with an interest in mental health and the influence of addiction on culture.” Good qualifications for someone writing about tea, eh?

How important is the word “organic”?

USDA Organic SealAbout 40% of the teas we offer at our tea bar are certified organic. Generally speaking, those teas run about 50% higher in price than the non-organic alternatives. In most cases, however, they outsell their non-organic counterparts by a fairly healthy margin. In tough economic times, that says something. But what does it say?

UPDATE 2017: The price difference between organic and non-organic teas is a lot smaller now. There are also a lot of alternatives to USDA organic programs, like the ones I wrote about in 2015.

Let’s say you were to prepare two cups of tea, processed identically, with tea grown in neighboring plantations. Identical weather and soil, but one organic and the other not. Would you be able to tell those two cups of tea apart? I doubt that I would. Yet as I write this I’m drinking a cup of USDA Organic Earl Grey tea, for which I paid quite a bit more than the “brand X” earl grey that I could have prepared instead. Why? Because I like it better. But the real question is why I started drinking that particular earl grey in the first place.

To me, the “organic” label doesn’t necessarily mean you have a better product. Conversely, lack of organic certification doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with it. But when I’m looking at new tea for home or the tea bar, I look for the “USDA Organic” logo because it means somebody went to a lot of effort to get that certification. They cared enough to wade through the mounds of required paperwork and certify the origins of every ingredient. That’s a lot of work, and it means they take pride in their product.

On the front page of the current issue of our local paper, The Carbon County News, there’s an extensive interview with Bonnie Martinell, one of the owners of the On-Thyme Gourmet, the farm that grows the sage and apple mint tea we sell. They quoted her as saying:

“We were certified organic but the process became so burdensome. We tried to keep up with the forms but they are about five inches deep to start with and they keep coming back for changes with another five inches. You can’t function with all the paperwork.”

I’ve heard the same thing from other farmers and ranchers in this area. When I had my ranch, I couldn’t certify my cattle as organic because they had grazed for six months on BLM land, where I had no control over what they might have eaten.

If there’s an organic tea that I like, which sells well in my tea bar, I’m not going to stop selling it if it suddenly becomes non-certified. To me, it’s still the same product. I consider the “Certified Organic” label to be a shopping aid, not a label requirement. It guides me to producers who care enough to put extra effort into their product. I think it helps me to find good tea.

What about the price issue? Well, most tea is pretty inexpensive. The majority of our organic loose-leaf teas sell for $3.00/ounce or less. Even a big 16-ounce mug like the one I use at home only needs 5 or 6 grams of tea, which means about five cups per ounce. I generally use my leaves twice, which doubles the yield to ten cups per ounce. That’s 30 cents per cup for the organic tea, versus about 20 cents for a non-organic equivalent. A dime a cup difference. I’d have to drink a lot of tea before a dime a cup would break my budget!

And in the tea bar, I charge the same price for a cup of just about every tea in the store (we do charge more for some specialties, like boba and chai), so as a consumer, you’d pay the same for the organic as you would for the non-organic.

My conclusion: argue all day long about what “organic” really means, but I don’t think it matters. When I’m buying unfamiliar tea, I’m going to look for that label!

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