Blog Archives

Another new tea logo: Fifty Shades of Earl Grey


After a variety of local artists have had the fun of producing logos for my tea bar’s house blends, I thought it was about time to do another one myself. Since drawing isn’t my strong suit, I decided to pick a blend where I could work from a stock photo to start, and that would be Fifty Shades of Earl Grey.

50 Shades of Earl Grey logo

I developed the Fifty Shades blend a few months ago at the height of popularity of the Fifty Shades of Grey books, which we still sell plenty of in our bookstore. It was a funny little thing to start, and I didn’t think it would earn a permanent spot on our tea menu, but this odd blend started picking up popularity.

DISCLAIMER: There is no connection whatsoever between this tea and the Fifty Shades of Grey books. This is not a licensed product, and it has not been endorsed or authorized. It is strictly a parody.

The tea is based on a Kenyan black tea with a bit of Ceylon and Royal Purple mixed in. Then, of course, it gets the bergamot oil that characterizes an Earl Grey – a lot of bergamot. On top of that is a melange of cinnamon, orange, lemongrass, cornflower petals, and other goodies. Some of the ingredients were added for flavor, and some for looks. I wanted a black & blue tea, and I wanted something with a dominating flavor. What can I say? I just couldn’t resist the wordplay.

Coincidentally, it’s certainly one of the prettiest teas we have.

For the background picture, I wanted to capture the feel of the book cover artwork without using any of their imagery. I found a stock photo I liked, clipped out a portion of the pot with the steam, extended the dark background, and then adjusted the tone to get that bluish-grey color we ended up with. For the text, I chose a typeface with the look & feel of an old typewriter font, but proportionately spaced, and then I kerned it to suit.

The tagline at the bottom? Well, once again, I just couldn’t resist.

Why Does My Tea Taste Like Coffee?


coffeemakerI try not to obsess over web statistics, for that way lies madness. I do, however, enjoy looking over what web searches bring people to my humble tea blog. One caught my eye today, as it seemed to be just begging for a blog post: “Why does my tea taste like coffee”?

I mentioned in my Keurig K-Cup post last month that the tea it produced did not taste like coffee. There’s a reason that was notable enough to mention: every other coffeemaker I’ve ever used is unable to produce decent tea once it’s been used for coffee. The oils in the coffee may clean off of the glass from the carafe, but they will impregnate the plastic parts of the coffeemaker and there’s not a darned thing you can do about it.

If you want to perform a test, try running a pot of plain hot water through the coffeemaker and take a deep sniff. Then take a sip and hold the hot water in your mouth for a moment. If you can detect coffee at all, then you aren’t going to be able to brew a proper cup of tea from that water.

If, however, you brew mostly strong black teas and don’t detest coffee, you can reach an acceptable compromise. Run that plain water through, but this time add a couple of tablespoons of vinegar to it. It will take another few pots of plain water to get the vinegar smell out, but it will help with the coffee. Once you’ve done that, run one last full carafe of plain water with a tablespoon of bleach. Rinse everything thoroughly and let it dry overnight.

It’s not something you can do with a hotel coffeemaker, but if you want to switch your coffeemaker into a hot water maker for tea, this is a great start.

Zane Grey Earl Grey: Coyotes of the Purple Sage


Coyotes of the Purple Sage LogoWith new tea blends, sometimes we come up with the tea first and struggle to think of the perfect name. Sometimes we come up with a cool tea name and then spend weeks tweaking the formula until we find just the right taste. And then the logo works its way into the equation.

Sometimes, however, everything comes together in a flash, and that’s what happened with this tea.

We were looking for ideas for a fundraiser, using a tea that had a real American West flavor to it. Being a tea bar/bookstore combo, a literary allusion makes things even better. As we were throwing out ideas, someone said “Zane Grey.” The next obvious leap was “a Zane Grey Earl Grey.” The next obvious leap was to Zane Grey’s best-known book, Riders of the Purple Sage.

The fundraiser is for the Yellowstone Wildlife Sanctuary here in Red Lodge, and two of the well-known noisy critters right by the entrance are a pair of coyotes named Bonnie and Clyde. We wrapped everything up by tying in the Wildlife Sanctuary and naming the tea Coyotes of the Purple Sage.

The ingredients for the tea came together pretty quickly as well. Black tea and bergamot oil are the base for most Earl Greys. Sage was pretty much a mandatory ingredient. A bit of lemon verbena and and lemon thyme added more citrus notes and the thyme goes well with the sage (I will resist breaking into song here), and a subtle touch of peppermint finished off the blend.

My logo is an homage to the cover of the first copy of Riders of the Purple Sage that I read:

Riders of the Purple Sage Cover

Book Review: 20,000 Secrets of Tea


20,000 Secrets of TeaI read a lot about tea (what a surprise, eh?), and try to carry a decent selection of tea books in my bookstore. When somebody recommended the book 20,000 Secrets of Tea: The Most Effective Ways to Benefit from Nature’s Healing Herbs by Victoria Zak, I decided to give it a look. I confess I was put off by the subtitle, because it sounds more like a book of herbal medicine than a book about tea. Then I flipped the book over and took a look at the back cover. There I saw this:

“An Ancient Chinese Legend: Once there was a man who knew 100,000 healing properties of herbs. He taught his son 80,000 secrets. On his deathbed, he told his son to visit his grave in five years, and there he would find the other 20,000 secrets. When the son went to his father’s grave, he found, growing on the site, the tea shrub…”

Okay, that’s more promising. Especially this line in the next paragraph: “A simple cup of tea not only has the power to soothe and relax but to deliver healing herbal agents to the bloodstream more quickly than capsules, tinctures, or infusions.” That line indicates that they know the difference between tea and infusions/tisanes, and that this book is going to be about tea.

Oh, my, was I wrong.

Page one starts out with a description of the legend of the origin of tea. Chapter one continues on, repeating the story from the back cover and then providing some of the history of tea as a drink. Within five pages, it has transitioned to herbal infusions, and that’s pretty much the end of discussion of the tea plant (Camellia sinensis).

I flipped through the next 220 pages looking for more information about tea (after all, the next 20,000 secrets are all about the tea shrub, right?) and I all found was descriptions of various herbs along with multitudinous health claims about each (more on that in a moment).

I went to the index looking for tea. The index is 15 pages long, normally a good sign in a reference book. Under “tea” I found reference to pages 1-4, mentioned above. Under Camellia sinensis, nothing. Flipping through the alphabetical collection of herbs, tea isn’t even listed. I checked under “black tea” and found a two-page spread in the middle titled “Green, Oolong, Black: the legendary teas.”

Zak begins by repeating the origin legend from page 1, and then proceeds to talk about fermentation (none of those teas are fermented, although black and oolong are oxidized) and rates the three styles in order of “medicinal strength: (green, then oolong, then black). Nowhere does she mention white or pu-erh tea, and nowhere does she define what “medicinal strength” actually means. Obviously, when there’s so little information, it leads to gross overgeneralization. When you use up that little bit of space with statements like “Green tea’s polyphenols are powerful antioxidants are reputed to be two hundred times stronger than vitamin E. It has anticancer catekins (sic), which protect the cells from carcinogens, toxins, free radical damage, and help to keep radioactive strontium 90 out of the bones,” there’s no room left to describe the differences between tea styles, how to properly steep a cup, or any of the other subjects that I expected this whole book to be about.

Incidentally, none of those rather incredible health claims are footnoted, no studies are cited, and no backup data is provided.

All in all, this book is tailor-made for herbalists — especially those that don’t worry much about the scientific basis of their health claims — but pretty well useless for tea enthusiasts.

Complicated drinks, education, and consistency


Is there some particular tea concoction that’s “your” tea drink? Is it something complicated? You’ll hear people every day in Starbucks ordering coffees that take twenty words to describe, but we don’t run in to that much in the tea bar … yet.

PVP Online comic from January 27, 2012

Comic used with permission. Courtesy of Scott Kurtz and PVP Online.

Why is it that more coffee drinkers than tea drinkers tend to be like the guys in this PVP Online comic? I think it’s a matter of education and consistency.

Most of our regulars at the tea bar are like me: they order something different each time they come in. I may go through phases where I drink nothing but malty Assam for a few days, but then I’m back to switching it up. I also drink different tea in the morning than I do in the afternoon or evening. Of course, I’m also that annoying guy that will go into a bar four times, order something completely different each time, and then ask for my “regular” on the fifth visit.

We do have some regulars that are consistent, but their drinks tend to be simple: a cup of sencha, Scottish breakfast with a touch of milk, or iced mango oolong. As people learn the menu and zero in on what they like, that is beginning to change a bit, though.

Amber is from the South. She likes her tea sweet, and she loves boba tea (a.k.a. “bubble tea”). I finally put the “Amber special” on the menu so she didn’t have to describe her boba tea made with Cinnamon Orange Spice tea, vanilla soy milk, and triple the usual sweet syrup.

Phyllis isn’t much of a tea fan, but she found herself drawn to Hammer & Cremesickle Red, which is a rooibos/honeybush blend. She likes it prepared as a latte with frothed 2% milk and a bit of honey.

Starbucks has dramatically changed coffee culture, much as McDonald’s has changed restaurants (I’m going to catch grief for that one, I know, but keep reading). You can go into a McDonald’s in an unfamiliar city, and you know that Big Mac and fries will be just like the ones back home. Similarly, you can go into any one of 19,555  Starbucks franchises and be comfortable that your half-caf double-shot venti skinny hazelnut macchiato will taste just like it would from the franchise back home. They have taught the world their own terminology (education) and made sure that the drinks are prepared exactly the same at each franchise (consistency).

Let’s look at those two factors as they apply to tea:

Consistency

The world of tea is generally not a good place for consistency. Even for fans of a single type of tea, the options are legion. There are dozens of matchas, hundreds of oolongs, and each has its own unique flavor. My tea bar offers six types of milk (nonfat, 2%, whole, half-and-half, vanilla soy, and almond), where another may offer 1%, light soy, and whole. When I went into the tea business’ closest thing to a national chain (Teavana – you can read about my visit here), they didn’t offer milk at all. You may go into one tea shop that has a hundred Chinese green and white teas and an English tea shop that has only black teas.

There’s a strong parallel to be drawn here with independent bookstores and big chains. You can find exactly the same books at a Barnes & Noble in Austin, Texas as you’d find in San Francisco, Denver, or New York. On the other hand, two indie bookstores a block apart can offer completely different experiences.

Tea aficionados revel in this. I enjoy wandering into a tea shop that has dozens of different pu-erhs available and tasting something I’ve never had before, even though I know the odds of finding that 1935 Double Lions Tongqing Hao anywhere else are close to zero (and the odds of being able to afford it are similar).

Tea shops can help a lot with this problem by proper labeling and by knowing the products well enough to compare our wares with popular brands from elsewhere. If someone walks into my shop that likes Constant Comment, I can guide them to my closest loose-leaf blend (that would be the aforementioned Cinnamon Orange Spice). If someone buys a mountain-grown Wuyi oolong in my shop, the next tea shop they visit should be able to give them something with a similar flavor profile.

Consumers can help by asking questions. If I have a breakfast tea I enjoy, I’ll ask the shopkeeper what’s in the blend. Then I’ll know to ask for an Assam/Tanzanian black breakfast tea blend next time I want something similar. I watch (or ask) how much leaf they use and what temperature the water is. Again, if I don’t know how they brewed it, I can’t ask for it to be prepared that way next time.

Education

The tea industry is where coffee and wine were a few decades ago. The average person has no idea what the difference is between a green tea and a white tea, but they know the difference between Merlot and Chardonnay. Tea people need to focus on education the same way wine and coffee people have done.

Educating customers is a bad thing for the mediocre shops. The more people learn about tea, the less likely they are to buy lower-grade products, and the less likely they are to buy from people who don’t know what they’re talking about. Once the person who’s been buying pre-sweetened chai from a box tastes fresh-brewed chai, they won’t be switching back.

On the other hand, education is a great thing for consumers and for good tea shops.

The more you know as a consumer, the better you’re able to find what you like and recognize the good products (and good prices). Educated consumers will frequent the better shops, and spend more money there, benefiting both the shop and the customer.

Tea and caffeine part III: Decaf and low-caf alternatives


Caffeine Molecule

The loneliest molecule?

This article is the second of a three-part series.

Part I: What is caffeine?
Part II: Exploding the myths
Part III: Decaf and low-caf alternatives

So you’ve decided you like tea, but you really don’t want (or can’t have) the caffeine. What are your alternatives?

Well, first there’s decaf tea. As Part I of this series explained, decaffeination processes don’t remove 100% of the caffeine, so this is a reasonable alternative if you want less caffeine, but not if you want none at all. There’s another problem with switching to decaf: the selection of high-quality decaffeinated tea is — let’s just say, limited.

It’s easy to find a decaf Earl Grey or a decaf version of your basic Lipton-in-a-bag. But if your tastes run more to sheng pu-erh, sencha, dragonwell, lapsang souchong, silver needle, Iron Goddess of Mercy, or organic first-flush Darjeeling, you have a problem.

You can try the “wash” home-decaffeination method, but I explained a couple of days ago why that process is overrated. You’re likely to be able to remove 20% or so of the caffeine that way, but that’s about it.

Another alternative is simply to brew weaker tea and/or use more infusions. Let’s do the math for an example. Assume you’re a big fan of an oolong that contains 80 mg of caffeine in a tablespoon of leaves, and you drink four cups of tea per day.

If you use a fresh tablespoon of leaves for each cup, and you steep it for three minutes, you will be extracting about 42% of the caffeine in each cup, which equals 34 mg per cup, or a total of 136 mg of caffeine for the day. If you shorten your steep time to two minutes, the extraction level drops to about 33% (total of 106 mg). Alternatively, you could use the leaves twice each time, so you’re extracting about 63% of the caffeine, but using a total of half as many leaves (total of 101 mg). Or, if you don’t mind significantly weaker tea, just use 1-1/2 teaspoons of leaves instead of a full tablespoon. Half the leaves means half the caffeine (total of 68 mg).

No caffeine at all

If you look through the selection of teas in a health-food store, you’ll notice that most of them have no tea at all, and the vast majority of those non-tea drinks have no caffeine. The problem is that chamomile for a tea drinker is like Scotch to a wine drinker; it’s just not the same.

There are a couple of beverages, however, that are somewhat similar to tea. Both come from South Africa and both are naturally caffeine-free.

rooibos plant

The rooibos plant (Aspalathus linearis)

Rooibos is often called “red bush” in the United States because the way it’s usually prepared leaves a deep red infusion. Typically, rooibos is oxidized (not fermented) like a black tea. It can also be prepared more like a green tea. I blogged about green rooibos last August if you’d like to know more about it.

North American news shows, along with people like Oprah and Dr. Oz, have been singing the praises of rooibos lately, bringing it more into the mainstream awareness. It is very high in antioxidants and much lower in tannins than a black tea. Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of independent research published about it yet, so many of the claims can’t really be backed up. The one that can be backed is that it has no caffeine and it tastes kind of like black tea (green rooibos is a bit grassy with malty undertones, more like a Japanese steamed green tea with a touch of black Assam).

The honeybush plant has a number of distinct species. Pictured here is Cyclopia meyeriana.

Honeybush, like rooibos, grows only in South Africa. Also like rooibos, it is naturally caffeine-free and can be prepared either as a red or a green “tea.” When blooming, the flowers smell like honey, and honeybush tends to be somewhat sweeter than rooibos. Honeybush isn’t nearly as well-known as rooibos in the U.S., and the green version is very hard to find. I’ve found that if you want a flavored honeybush, citrus complements it very well. My “Hammer & Cremesickle Red” is the most popular honeybush blend in our tea bar (here is a blog post about it, and you can find it on the store website here).

A blended approach

If you like the idea of reducing your caffeine intake, but you don’t like the idea of a weaker tea (as I described above) or switching to rooibos or honeybush, you might want to consider blending. If you mix your tea half-and-half with something containing no caffeine, then you can still brew a strong drink, but get only half the caffeine from it. Combine that with the other tricks, like taking two infusions, and you can cut it even farther.

Tea and caffeine part II: Exploding the myths


Caffeine Molecule

A misunderstood molecule

This article is the second of a three-part series.

Part I: What is caffeine?
Part II: Exploding the myths
Part III: Decaf and low-caf alternatives

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:

Bud-6.3%
First leaf-4.6%
Second leaf- 3.6%
Third leaf-3.1%
Fourth leaf-2.7%
Leaf stalk-2.0%
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.

Tea and relaxation


Keep calm and have a spot of tea

Thanks to Fanciful Ink for the image!

If you’re looking for a whole afternoon of spirited discussion, ask an herbalist, a tea expert, and a doctor about the relaxing properties of tea. Any such discussion is immensely complicated by the dizzying variety of tea available, the thousands of herbal blends (“tisanes”) that herbalists call tea, and the dearth of comparative scientific studies.

My wife and I attended several sessions at World Tea Expo this month that discussed caffeine and health benefits of tea, and (since our tea bar is in our bookstore) I’ve read quite a bit on the subject. I think I know less now than I did when I started, but let me pass on a little of what I’ve learned.

All generalizations are wrong (including this one)

Virtually all of the comforting over-generalizations we pick up from Oprah or Dr. Oz are wrong. Green tea has no caffeine? Yes, it does. In fact, matcha (powdered Japanese green tea) had the highest caffeine content of any tea tested in the study presented at World Tea Expo 2012. White tea has the most antioxidants? Again, not necessarily. Oolong is just black tea that wasn’t allowed to ferment all the way? Wrong on two counts! Black tea isn’t fermented (it’s oxidized — pu-erh tea is fermented), and oolong uses a completely different process from black tea.

I have a different take on the subject, though. When I’m thoroughly stressed out and I fix a cup of tea, I don’t attribute the calming effects of the tea on chemical content, antioxidants, caffeine levels, or mystical magical herbal properties. I believe there are three factors at play: ritual, scent/taste memory, interruption, and expectation.

Ritual

Even before I have my first sip of the completed beverage, I can feel the stress slipping away just by going through the ritual of getting out my favorite cup, heating the water, measuring the leaves, and steeping the tea. Ritual is comforting and familiar; it is the basis of techniques like yoga.

When I got sick as a little boy, the ritual was always the same: my mother would tuck me in to bed and make me a hot cup of tea and a couple of pieces of toast. Then, it was just cheap teabags and white toast. Today, it would be Huang Jin Gui oolong and rye toast. But either way, the ritual has a soothing effect all its own.

This is one of the advantages to brewing a fresh cup of tea instead of pouring some iced tea from a pitcher or popping the top off of a can or bottle.

Scent/Taste Memory

Much has been written about the power of scent memory. A whiff of rose and I’m transported back 25 years, walking through a rose garden in San Jose, California with my wife. One sniff of skunk and I’m in junior high school with my best friend, Brian, rubbing tomato juice into his dog’s fur. A hint of rum and … well, let’s not go there.

If tea is a part of your relaxation ritual and you make a point of relaxing with a cup of tea, then the aroma and taste of tea will have a calming effect, whether your tea of choice is a strong malty Assam, a delicate silver needle, or a rich shu pu-erh. Slurping down a bottle of RTD (ready-to-drink) tea just isn’t the same as savoring the aroma of a fresh-brewed cup of tea and swirling that first taste around your mouth.

Interruption

Never underestimate the power of interruption. My father always told me when I got frustrated or angry I should take a break and do something else. When I hit a roadblock in my writing, I can often get past it by stepping away from the keyboard for a little while. Again, this is why it works to prepare a cup of tea. The whole time you’re putting the water on to steep and browsing the cabinet for the right tea to drink, you are focused on something other than the problems of the day. Take a deep breath, take your time, and you’ll feel the soothing effects of the tea before you even drink the tea.

Expectation

If you think something will calm you down, it will. Doctors call this the placebo effect, and it really does work — it’s the entire basis of homeopathy, for example, where they give you very expensive water and it actually has an effect on some people because they believe it will work. Since the word “placebo” carries negative connotations, I will just refer to the power of expectation.

This works with no appeal to authority at all, but it works better when someone you trust makes the suggestion. If a shady-looking huckster on a street corner sells you some tea that’s “guaranteed to mellow you out,” it probably won’t help you. If a doctor (or herbalist, or your mother) gives you the exact same tea and says it will calm and relax you, it probably will.

If you put all of these elements together, you realize that there’s no magic to the relaxing properties of tea. It works, and it works for a lot of reasons. In fact, it worked very well for me earlier today. So grab a spot of tea, keep calm, and stay relaxed!

The Lady Greystoke logo


Does it seem like I’ve got a theme going on this blog lately? I’ve had quite a few posts about the fun we’ve been having with logos for our house blend teas. Some great artist friends have done logos for us, including Al Jones (Hammer & Cremesickle Red Tea and Robson’s Honey Mint), Brandon Pope (Mr. Excellent’s Post-Apocalyptic Earl Grey), and Suzanna Bailey (MaterniTEA). Now, I’d like to introduce the latest in the series: Doug Bailey (Suzanna’s husband) made us a logo for our Lady Greystoke tea (the story behind the blend is here).

Lady Greystoke logo by Doug Bailey

Lady Greystoke logo by Doug Bailey

As with the other artists, I didn’t give Doug any direction at all beyond explaining the origin of the name and the ingredients in the blend. He picked up on the “wild yet civilized” aspect of Jane Greystoke, and being Doug (his nickname is “the Beerbarian”), he added a saber-toothed tiger. I don’t remember any saber-toothed tigers in the Tarzan books, but that’s probably just because Edgar Rice Burroughs didn’t think of it.

Doug is a pencil kind of guy, so he gave me the logo as a pencil sketch and I colorized it. I’ve always done my colorizing by scanning the image, loading it into Photoshop, making the background transparent, and then painting behind the image. This has the disadvantage of taking out light shading and fine detail from the original sketch, and Doug did a lot of shading in this one.

This time around, I added the color by creating new layers for each element (16 layers in this case) and setting the layer to a linear burn. That way, I don’t have to modify the original layer at all, and any shading — no matter how subtle — shows through the color.

As an aside, I’ve always preferred to drink my Earl Grey teas hot. I got to thinking about iced Earl Grey today when a customer ordered an iced Lady Greystoke at the Tea Bar, so I had to give it a try. The addition of the lavender, rooibos, and vanilla really seems to make this a smooth iced tea. I may be drinking more of it iced.

Steeping Times


Chi Tse Beeng Cha aged pu-erhThe World Tea Expo in Las Vegas has been a phenomenal (and somewhat overwhelming) experience. It will take quite a while for everything to sink in. There were some fascinating trends discussed at the show, and I also learned a lot about just how differently people enjoy their tea.

As I’ve mentioned in the past, I am not a tea Nazi. It matters not to me whether you make your green tea with boiling water, steep your Darjeeling for ten minutes, or whisk your matcha with an electric frother. However you enjoy your tea is the right way for you. Personally, I like my tea steeped much less than most of my friends. A couple of minutes is plenty for most robust black teas in my humble opinion, and I give many of them less than that.

Opening day at the Expo for me was the World Origins Tea Tour. We had presentations from representatives of eight different countries, and tasted teas from each one. The conference organizers were clever enough to put the seminar rooms directly across the hall from the restrooms and give us a 15-minute break between countries. Speaking on behalf of the entire audience, I’d like to give the World Tea Expo a hearty “thank you” for that move! I’d also like to compliment the staff on providing 140 people with 30 different teas to sample and getting them all out to us promptly, and prepared perfectly. In case you didn’t do the math in your head on that previous sentence, they served 4,200 cups of tea at the right temperature with both dry and wet leaves to pass around the table. That’s pretty darned impressive.

The audience members at the World Origins Tea Tour asked lots of questions, and many of them were about how the presenters preferred to make their tea. The first country presented was China, and the speaker said that he rarely steeped tea for himself more than about 30 seconds. I’ve been known to steep a nice aged pu-erh (or pu’er or puer or puerh or…) for 30 seconds, but have never actually tried such short steep times on other teas. He drove me to experiment. He also drove me to ask more questions around the show floor.

I came across a brochure that said the traditional way to prepare pu-erh tea was a ten-second “wash” (rinse the leaves in hot water and discard the water) followed by a twenty to thirty-second steep. I also came across a company that was handing out samples of some beautifully packaged single-serving pu-erh discs. The samples suggested a four-second steep time. Yes, I said four seconds. I asked the woman running the booth if that was right, and she said it was. She placed some tea leaves in the infuser of a glass teapot and poured boiling water through the infuser into the pot. The total steep time of the tea was the few seconds it took for the water to drain through the slits in the glass. She poured some for us, and it had plenty of flavor: rich and complex without being overwhelming.

A whole new world has opened to me. I’m going to be playing around quite a bit with über-short steeping times to see what I get. I’m anxious to get back to the Tea Bar and experiment with some of my friends.


As a side note, by the way, we were staying in the LVH (formerly known as the Las Vegas Hilton) in the block of rooms reserved for the Tea Expo. As with my previous experience at Bally’s, the front desk refused to provide any means of heating water in the room so that I could make my own tea. I went to the front desk and asked to speak to the manager. I explained that if their hotel was hosting the WorldTea Expo, they really should let us make tea. He explained that we could rent water heaters, but they only had two, and it cost twice as much to rent one as it would cost to run out to the store and buy one.

Unlike Bally’s, however, the LVH manager said that I could call room service and request hot water a few times a day if I wished. They would rush it up to the room at no charge and do their best to keep it hot. That still leaves them a notch below every cheap motel in Montana (which all provide free coffeemakers and wi-fi), but several notches above Bally’s. I know the decision not to offer a microwave in the room was made way above this manager’s pay grade, so I don’t blame him for the situation. In fact, I’d like to offer him a hearty thank-you for his exemplary customer service.

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