The answer to this question should be easy. All tea comes from the Camellia sinensis plant. It is not grain. It contains no gluten.
For those casually following the gluten-free lifestyle, that answer should be enough. But for those with celiac disease, a bit more detail may be required:
A lot of things are called tea that aren’t tea
As the first paragraph said, real tea comes from Camellia sinensis. But many (most?) people refer to anything that involves steeping leaves or flowers in hot water as tea: yerba maté, rooibos, chamomile, honeybush, and so forth. Technically, they are tisanes or infusions, but they are often sold as tea.
So if you’re buying actual black tea, green tea, oolong, pu-erh, or white tea, all is well. If you’re buying “herbal tea,” you’d better take a closer look at that label (Tazo Honeybush from Starbucks, for example, contains gluten).
Flavored teas have all kinds of additives
You may be getting a nice black tea that’s totally 100% gluten-free, but many flavored blends are sweetened. One of the things they may be sweetened with is malted barley, which does contain gluten. There’s not going to be very much of it, but it’s enough to cause problems for celiac patients.
So if you’re buying unflavored straight black tea, green tea, oolong, pu-erh, or white tea, all is well. If you’re buying flavored teas, you’d better take a closer look at that label.
Gluten in teabags? Really?
A number of tea companies use sealants for their teabags that contain gluten. There’s no gluten in the tea itself, but once you dip that bag in boiling water and the glue starts to melt, you’re picking up a tiny bit of gluten. By “tiny bit,” we’re talking a few parts per million in the brewed tea here, which is a tiny fraction of what it takes to cause reactions in someone with celiac disease. But if you’re actually looking for ZERO gluten content, we’re not quite there yet.
So if you’re buying loose-leaf unflavored straight black tea, green tea, oolong, pu-erh, or white tea, all is well. If you’re buying teabags, you’d better take a closer look at that label.
Now we’re getting into incredibly small amounts, but some tea companies (including Mighty Leaf, according to this article) use the same facility for manufacturing tea as they use for manufacturing products that contain gluten. There is a possibility of airborne cross-contamination from those products.
At this point, we might as well be talking about any other food product on the planet. Can we guarantee that there wasn’t a wheat field next to the farm where your tomatoes were grown? A big mug of tea might use 7 grams of tea leaf. Cross-contamination at 1 ppm means 7 micrograms of gluten. That’s about one millionth of the gluten you’d get from a couple of slices of bread or a pint of beer.
According to this article, “research has suggested that a daily gluten intake of less than 10 milligrams (mg) is unlikely to cause significant damage to the intestines in most people with celiac disease.” The gluten you’d pick up from teabag glue or cross-contamination is less than a thousandth of that amount.
That same article says that, “In most parts of the world, regulations say that to be labeled gluten-free, a product can contain up to 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten.” That means a slice of gluten free bread could still contain 100 times the gluten of a cross-contaminated cup of tea!
I am not a nutritionist, medical practitioner, or scientist, but I think those numbers make it pretty clear that if someone with celiac disease wants to drink a few cups of tea every day, it’s going to be just fine.
As I write this, I’m sipping on a cup of Jinxuan Jade Oolong, a rich buttery semi-oxidized tea that has replaced Iron Goddess of Mercy as my regular morning cup. I steep it 3:00 in boiling water, and then get three more cups out of it, adding a half-minute of steep time to each successive infusion. Although it is of the “milk oolong” style, it contains neither milk nor gluten.
Yesterday started out with the return of the bloggers to Tea Expo (it’s kind of like the return of the swallows to Capistrano, except noisier).
I was very pleased to find that The Tea Spot and Teas, Etc. were in the lobby to keep us all adequately caffeinated. I enjoyed cups of their tea before, during, and after the seminars. Interestingly, both companies had chocolate pu-erh blends, and both recommended steeping them for 4-5 minutes. That’s an awfully long time for a shu pu-erh. I went for 3 minutes, and quite liked both of them (sorry, purists).
My first seminar of the day was an absolutely fantastic start to Tea Expo: Jane Pettigrew and Bruce Richardson talked about “A Social History of Tea in the UK and USA.”
They walked us through the history of tea in the western hemisphere from the 1600s to modern times, covering everything from Catherine of Braganza to A&P (originally the Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company). A few of my favorite factoids from their seminar:
- “Monkey-picked oolong” isn’t picked by monkeys. That would be cost-prohibitive. It is just a term for the highest-grade oolong in the house.
- The “Queen’s closet” wasn’t a place to store clothes. It’s where she brewed tea and shared it with family & friends.
- “High Tea” isn’t the fancy thing many Americans think it is. It’s a casual family meal. The elegant tea you’re thinking of is “Afternoon Tea.”
- I’ve mentioned this one before, but there were no tea bricks dumped in Boston Harbor in in 1773. The Boston Tea Party tea was all loose-leaf — and quite a bit of it was green tea.
Every year I take another picture of this matcha stone at AOI. It just intrigues me. Last year I described it and even posted video of it, but I just can’t stay away from it.
One of the things I look for at Tea Expo every year is new and different tea. I do love the teas from the big tea-producing countries like China, India, and Kenya, but it’s fun to explore some of the varieties you don’t run into every day, from countries that aren’t represented in every single tea shop. We had a very pleasant tasting of Indonesian teas at three adjacent booths and found some great surprises.
The afternoon session “Amplifying Your Business Voice Through Tea Bloggers” was informative, even for tea bloggers. All of us look at things differently and run our blogs differently. I update this blog every Friday (most of the time, unless I’m late) with bursts of activity during events like World Tea Expo. Nicole Martin has been updating hers every weekday for the last six years. One of the blogs nominated for a World Tea Award this year hasn’t been updated since early 2014.
Some tea blogs are all about reviewing individual teas. Some are about teaware. Some are about stories. Mine is whatever happens to be either exciting me or annoying me at the moment. The big message from this session was, if you wish to work with tea bloggers, do your research first. Read the blogs. If you are selling flavored chamomile blends, don’t pick a tea blogger that’s a single-origin Camellia sinensis specialist. Geoff Norman told us that he didn’t know the difference between Yixing and Wedgewood, so don’t waste your time and money sending him a teapot to review!
Something else I’ll be writing about in more detail later is “Coffee leaf tea.”
The name may be a bit confusing, as this product contains no coffee beans and no tea. It’s a tisane (“herbal tea”) made from the leaves of coffee plants. I can’t stand coffee, but I found the flavor of this drink quite pleasant. The company’s focus is on extending the season (picking leaves when you can’t pick beans) and creating more jobs, but there will be more on that in a future post.
We all have our taste preferences, and mine tend to run towards pure (unflavored) tea. I’m not a big fan of ginger, either, but my wife, Kathy, and I couldn’t resist having our picture taken with this gigantic (and slightly creepy) Korean red ginseng root:
And, just as a close, my birthday is coming up and this automated pyramid satchel tea bagging machine is only $70,000. It would be an easy way to take some of my whole-leaf teas on the road with me. Hint, hint…
Cor, I’m gobsmacked! The world’s gone barmy! The Telegraph, that bastion of Britishness, has declared in no uncertain terms that 80% of Britons don’t know how to make tea! Not only that, it’s scientists that say so. Scientists! Why, just look at the headline:
Okay, let’s all just keep calm and carry on here. I have certainly addressed the subject of making the perfect cup of tea before. And scientists have weighed in, too. Why, there’s a British standards document from the Royal Society of Chemistry that explains it step by step. Even George Orwell defined the ideal cup (although I disagree with him).
You see, the world is filled with tea Nazis: people who aren’t happy with figuring out how to make their tea; they have the cheek to tell you how to make your tea. I am a much more mellow fellow myself. I believe that if you make a cup of tea and you enjoy it, you’re doing it right. You may not be doing it my way, or the Royal Society of Chemistry’s way, or George Orwell’s way, but you’re doing it in a way that makes you happy. It doesn’t get much more “right” than that.
But let’s set my sappy altruism aside for a moment and examine what The Telegraph and the scientists at University College London have to say. They do, as it turns out, have some quite valid assertions — although their science reporter may have been a bit hasty in his conclusions.
“Despite drinking 165 million cups of tea each day, scientists believe that most Brits do not allow the leaves to infuse long enough for the complex flavours to emerge. Researchers at University College London and the British Science Association claim tea must be allowed to steep for up to five minutes, far longer than the toe-tapping two minutes allowed by most drinkers.”
I’m going to start out by making an assumption here, and that is that we’re specifically talking about black tea. I make my assumption based on the fact that their entire article assumes you’re adding milk to your tea (I have never met anyone who added milk to white or green tea, although I did meet one sad little man who put milk in his oolong), and that you’re using boiling water, which is perfect for black tea or pu-erh but ruins white or green tea.
One of the characteristics prized by British tea aficionados is astringency (which Lipton’s calls “briskness”). Your average breakfast tea in the U.K. is steeped until it is quite “brisk” (which I call undrinkably bitter). The astringency is then cut with milk, and possibly sugar as well. Generally speaking, when I want milk I drink a glass of milk. When I want tea, I want it to taste like tea. I take mine black, which means I use shorter steep times to control the astringency.
“And they advise using a pot rather than a tea-bag in a mug to allow convection currents to swirl tea leaves fully through the water.”
Okay, I have to agree with them there. Teabags are evil, and here’s why:
Dried tea leaves swell as you steep them. To extract the maximum flavor (and caffeine, and antioxidants…) from the leaves, they need water flow around them. Teabags were introduced for convenience, and they are, indeed, convenient. On the downside, though, they don’t give the leaves room to swell, and they severely limit the flow of water around the leaves. To address this problem, tea makers generally don’t put high-quality whole-leaf tea in the bags. Instead, they use finely crushed leaves, known as “fannings” or “dust.” This increases the surface area exposed to water, allows them to make the bags smaller, and (here’s the evil part) use the lowest-quality tea that was passed over by all of the tea makers that buy whole leaf — what I refer to as “floor sweepings.”
The article goes on to quote Mark Miodownik, Professor of Materials and Society at University College London:
“It’s obviously subjective but I feel people are missing out on a drink which could be so much more sophisticated because they don’t wait for the tea to brew long enough. Tea is made of 30,000 different chemicals, it’s a very complex thing and those molecules take time to emerge and influence each other.”
He could well have stopped after the first three words. It is obviously subjective, indeed. Perhaps the first 10,000 chemicals that emerge are the ones you find tastiest, and the last 10,000 are the ones that I prefer. Should we both steep our tea the same? Of course not.
On an unrelated note, I sometimes feel that my formal training in electrical engineering and computer science does not really qualify me to speak as an expert on tea. Seeing The Telegraph quote a professor of “materials and society” as a tea expert makes me feel better.
Back to the point at hand, Mr. Miodownik goes on to say something that reinforces my point from above:
“Fair enough if you want a hot milky drink, but then why drink tea?”
The article explains that the UCL people have an answer to the question of whether the milk should be added before or after the tea is poured. They don’t, however, address the issue of whether the milk should be there in the first place. That’s because it’s subjective. Some of us prefer tea, instead of hot milky drinks!
I also particularly enjoyed their discussion of a tea study by a milk company, which quite refutes the premise of the article.
A study carried out by Cravendale milk in 2011 found that the perfect cup of tea needed eight minutes (two minutes with the tea bag or leaves, six more afterwards) before it reaches optimum flavour and temperature.
UCL tells us that tea must be steeped “far longer than the toe-tapping two minutes allowed by most drinkers,” but Cravendale says that a two minute steep is just fine as long as it can sit in milk for six minutes after it is steeped.
So who do we believe? The scientists or the milk company?
How about neither?
Make your tea the way you like to make it. Steep it until it tastes good. If you want to add milk, cream, lemon, sugar, ice cubes, honey sticks, a sprig of mint, a dash of cinnamon, or a soupçon of cayenne, then by all means do so.
As for me, I shall eschew teabags, brew my favorite black tea for 2:30 to 3:00, and sip it straight.
As I write this, I am drinking an 8-year-old aged shu (“ripe”) pu-erh tea from Vital Tea Leaf in Seattle. I started by doing a 20-second “wash,” swirling the leaves in boiling water and then pouring it off. My first infusion was 2:00, and the second was 2:30, as I wanted it a bit stronger. Proper British tea drinkers may want to stop reading now, as I steeped it neither in a mug nor a ceramic teapot, but in a brewing device made of (*gasp*) plastic. After drinking rich, earthy teas like this, it’s hard to go back to plain black tea!
I love you. Really I do. I’m not a picky guy. I’m certainly not a snob. I love a five-course meal at a five-star restaurant, but I also must confess a fondness for a “Snag Burger” at the bar down the street from my shop. I love a good Indian buffet, a medium-rare steak, authentic London fish and chips, and an authentic Inverness haggis with neeps & tatties. Basically, if the chef cares about how the food tastes, I’m probably going to enjoy it. And if your servers care about serving the customers, I’m probably going to enjoy being in your restaurant. I love eating out.
But we’ve really got to talk about your tea.
First, if your restaurant is even half a notch above fast food, you have more than one type of tea, right? It may be powdered sweepings from the factory floor in a Lipton teabag, but you’ll have a black tea, a green tea, something without caffeine, and either Earl Grey or Moroccan Mint. If you don’t offer at least those four, you’d might as well hang a sign that says, “Tea Drinkers Not Welcome.”
So let’s start with that. When we order a cup of hot tea, either ask what kind we want, or present us with a basket or box containing a selection to choose from. Don’t just bring out a cup of black tea and then let us find out later that you had other options.
RULE 1: Tell us (or show us) the options!
Next, don’t grab the water until you’re on the way to the table. If we’re ordering black tea (and that includes Earl Grey), then we want that water boiling, or darned close to it.
RULE 2: Hot water. Really hot water.
And now, a big no-no. Don’t ever ever put the tea leaves (or tea bag) in the water before you bring it to us. The only exception to this rule is if you run a tea shop and your waitstaff plans to monitor the entire steeping process for us, in which case you’ll be controlling the steep time as well.
RULE 3: The tea meets the water at the table.
There are several reasons for this.
First, most serious tea drinkers have their own opinions on how long their tea should be steeped. I typically short-steep my black teas and drink them straight. My friend Angela steeps hers long and strong and adds milk. There’s no way to prepare a cup of tea that will make both of us happy. You have to let us do it ourselves.
That said, if you start the tea steeping in the kitchen, we have no idea how long the leaves have been in the water when it gets to our table. A glass carafe (like the one in this post’s header) helps that, but if we don’t know the particular brand and style of tea you’re serving, it’s really hard to judge by the color.
Additionally, not all tea takes the same water temperature. If I’m drinking black tea, I’ll pour in that boiling water the second it gets to me. If I’m drinking green or white tea, I’m going to let the water cool a bit first. Boiling water makes green tea bitter.
Once our tea is steeped to our liking, we’re going to want to remove the leaves from the water — or pour the water off of the leaves.
RULE 4: Give us something to do with used leaves or teabags.
I’ve been in many restaurants that give me a cup of water and a teabag, but no saucer to put the bag on when I’m done steeping it. I really don’t want a soggy teabag on my dinner plate, and you probably don’t want it on the tablecloth or place mat. Even the nice places that bring me a pot of water with a strainer full of leaves and a cozy to keep the pot warm sometimes don’t provide a place to put that strainer. Oh, and this reminds me of rule five:
RULE 5: Don’t just dump leaves loose in a pot with a spout strainer unless it’s a single-serving pot.
It’s frustrating to pour off a cup of tea and know that by the time I’m ready for the second cup, it will be oversteeped and nasty and there’s not a thing I can do about it.
Those five rules will cover the basics. All but the real tea snobs can make something acceptable to drink if you have a few choices (which need to include unflavored options — don’t just give us Earl Grey, mint, fruity stuff, and herbal stuff) and serve it properly. But if you’d like to upgrade the experience and really make us tea drinkers feel welcome, here are a couple of bonus tips:
BONUS TIP #1: Make sure all of your servers can answer rudimentary questions about your tea selection.
Everyone who works there should know which of your teas have caffeine and which don’t. They should know the difference between green and black tea (and know that Moroccan Mint is green and Earl Grey is black). They should know the teas from the tisanes (herbals), and they should know which ones are organic and/or fair trade.
If you serve leaf tea, as opposed to bagged dust, give the staff a bit more information, like origin and style. You want your server to be able to tell a customer whether that red wine is a Merlot or Zinfandel and whether it’s from Bordeaux or Napa Valley. Why shouldn’t they be able to say whether the black tea is a Darjeeling, a Ceylon, or a Keemun?
BONUS TIP #2: Give us a couple of upgraded options.
Offering a oolong, a white tea, or a pu-erh makes me feel like you really want me to enjoy the experience. I don’t even mind paying more for a Bai Hao or a Silver Needle. It’s like offering some really nice wines in addition to the everyday wines; or offering craft beer in addition to Bud Light. That tea can make a good meal a really memorable one.
Attitude is everything in the service industry. If you and your staff are proud of the food you serve, it shows. Steak lovers look for restaurants that take pride in their steaks. Tea lovers look for restaurants that take pride in their tea. Most of the time, we’re lucky to find a restaurant that will even put a bit of effort into their tea, much less take pride in it.
If you aren’t a tea expert, find one and ask for advice. Show that you’re trying, and that you take as much pride in your drinks as you do in your food. We will notice. You will turn us into regular customers. We’ll be happy and you’ll be happy. We all win.
While writing this blog post, I was drinking Jasmine King, a jasmine silver needle white tea. The touch of woodiness in the tea blended beautifully with the heavenly aroma of the jasmine. I don’t drink a lot of white tea, but I’m getting hooked on this one.
Part of the fun of the tea business is the names. The names of the teas themselves are wonderful — from classics like Iron Goddess of Mercy to house blends like Mr. Excellent’s Post-Apocalyptic Earl Grey — but the industry terminology is fun as well. Let’s take the “orange pekoe” grading system used for black teas from Sri Lanka (Ceylon) and India.
I can’t count the number of times someone has come into the tea bar telling me they like flavored teas. “You know, something like that Orange Pekoe stuff.”
“Actually,” I have to explain, “that’s not a style of tea, but a grade. And it has no flavorings at all. Nope. No orange in it.”
What I generally don’t go on to explain is how that whole pekoe grading system works. Let’s start with the words “orange” and “pekoe.” A pekoe is a tea bud, the unopened leaf at the very tip of a branch. A pekoe tea, then, would contain the buds and smallest leaves adjacent to the buds. To further confuse matters, the word “pekoe” in grading tea doesn’t mean quite the same thing as it means when speaking of tea buds. We’ll get to that in a moment.
“Orange,” as I mentioned above, has nothing to do with fruit. What it does actually mean is open to debate. It could refer to the color of the oxidized leaves. It could refer to the color of the brewed tea. It could refer to the Dutch royal family (the House of Orange). All that really matters is that in tea grading, any whole-leaf black tea qualifies as an Orange Pekoe.
So what about all those other letters? The joke in the tea business is that FTGFOP stands for “Far Too Good For Ordinary People.” In reality, it stands for “Fine (or Finest) Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe.” Referring to a grade of tea as the “finest” isn’t good enough, of course, so there are actually several grades above that. Here are the basic grades:
- OP (Orange Pekoe): A whole-leaf black tea.
- FOP (Flowery Orange Pekoe): Long leaves with some tips (pekoes).
- GFOP (Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe): An FOP with more tips.
- TGFOP (Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe): A GFOP with a whole lot of tips.
- FTGFOP (Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe): Traditionally the highest-quality grade of black tea.
- SFTGFOP (Special Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe): Sorry, we needed one more grade.
For the true connoisseur, a grading system can never have fine enough gradations, so you can also elevate each of these grades another half-point by adding the number “1” after it. Thus, despite the industry joke, there are three grades of tea better than FTGFOP (FTGFOP-1, SFTGFOP, and SFTGFOP-1).
Let me reinforce an important point here: this grading system is used only for black teas, and only in a few countries. China, for example, rarely grades its teas using this system, although Kenya is doing more of it as their teas increase in quality.
Are there lower grades?
I thought you’d never ask.
The majority of tea consumed in the U.S. and U.K. is in teabags. In a traditional teabag, there’s little room for the hot water to circulate or the leaves to expand as they absorb water. The solution? Break those leaves into smaller pieces. That exposes more of the surface area of the leaf to water and allows more tea (by weight) to fit into a smaller area.
OP-grade teas use whole leaves. There is a series of grades below OP that include the letter B for “Broken.” BOP (Broken Orange Pekoe), FBOP, GBOP, and so on. There are also a couple of broken grades below BOP, including BP (Broken Pekoe) and BT (Broken Tea).
So that’s what’s used in teabags? Nope. Let’s drop another grade.
After the processing facility has sorted out all of the Pekoe and Broken Pekoe grades, what’s left is known as “fannings.” Grades like PF (Pekoe Fannings), FOF (Flowery Orange Fannings), and TGFOF (Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Fannings). These are the grades used in most decent-quality teabags (high-end teabags may use whole-leaf teas, typically in a sachet-style bag).
“Decent-quality teabags?” I hear you cry. “Are you implying there’s another grade below fannings?”
Yes. Yes I am.
The smallest-sized particles of tea — too small to be fannings — are called “dust.” There are different grades of dust, of course, depending on the tea leaves they come from. You may encounter PD (Pekoe Dust), GD (Golden Dust), FD (Fine Dust), and others. Typically, though, grades like that don’t make it onto commercial packaging.
So these lower grades suck?
No, I didn’t say that.
Fannings from an extraordinary tea will produce a much better drink than whole leaves from a mediocre tea. There are a lot of factors to take into consideration, but the number one factor is your own preferences. As I’ve said before on this blog, I’m not a tea Nazi. It won’t hurt my feelings a bit if you prefer the cheapest grade of Lipton teabags to my shop’s whole-leaf FTGFOP-1 First Flush Darjeeling. In fact, it would be quite a waste of money to buy a tea you don’t like.
In a way, buying tea that’s highly-graded on the pekoe system is like buying organic. What it really tells you is that you’re dealing with a legitimate tea producer that cares enough about their product to pick it right and have it graded by experts.