Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Long Time No Tea

It's been awhile. It's been too well-heated in my dorm recently to drink tea, and the last time I tried to, I was punished for the aforementioned sin of heating water via microwave, because I spilled it on my legs and gave myself a couple second degree burns through my jeans!

We live and learn.

I'm still on my Sowmee white tea kick, probably because it has less caffeine. My SO is into Keemun Panda (Keemun is a region in China; it's a black tea.) and since we've found favorites, we're not terribly tempted to switch.

Trivia Time!

What do you think this utensil is for?

It's a honey spoon. The ridge lets you set your spoon (filled with honey) on the rim of nearly and tea cup or mug so it dissolves into the tea and doesn't sink down to the bottom all at once. How awesome is that? I saw this in a store and it took me forever to figure out what it was for!

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Almost Famous

I've run into hundreds of people (and by hundreds I mean less than five) who have said to me, "I hear you write a tea blog!" Yes! I do! They also want to know what I write about. I gave a brief scattered summary, and realized quite promptly that this blog is not terribly focused. I mean, we have our niche, obviously, but is there any limit to the things we can write about tea?

No, I say! No limit! I will, however, be taking suggestions.

And so that this post has some actual content, I will make this note.

I learned in a tea class that Chinese tea cups have no handles because if the cup is too hot to hold, the tea is too hot to drink! While this is sensible, I rather like the handle for everyday use, especially since I sin egregiously by microwaving my water!

I have found that while handles are useful for not dropping and breaking things, there is something pleasant about wrapping your hands around a nice warm mug, especially a bulbous one that fits your hands perfectly! Everyone is different, so I hope you find a mug that fits your hand someday, as my favorite mug does mine!

Monday, October 8, 2007

My New Favorite

So my new favorite tea is Sowmee White tea, which I purchased from Angelina's Teas here. It's a whole leaf tea, and while it's a little high in tannins on the first infusion (for a white tea) the second and third are smooth and sweet. It's probably the best white tea I've ever had, and because white teas release less caffeine than green, oolong, or black teas, it's perfect for those evenings when I want a cup to sip while I read.

Angelina's has more info on the tea, and they sell it for $1.85 an ounce. Enjoy!

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

What I Do Not Know

The list gets longer and longer every day, but it might be possible for me to sum up the categories of what I don't know about tea.

What Tea Is Healthiest for You: Is caffeine better for your cardiac system because it speeds up your heart rate? Does white tea have more anti-oxidants? Does caffeine actually dehydrate you? The answer to all of these is "Yes" and yet I still have no way to tell what's best for your body. It's almost certain, however, that drinking tea is better for you than not drinking tea, because all those "oldest people on earth" folks come from Japan, which is one of the top three nations in the world for per capita tea consumption. (I don't know that either, but it sounds good.)

How to Properly Brew Tea: I've had the same tea with different brewing times, water temperatures, rinsing techniques, and vessels, and they all turn out differently, but I can't tell what corresponds to what. Sometimes hotter water is better, sometimes not -- for the same tea! I think you just have to figure out a method that works for you.

Why Ritual Is Important: I've become very interested in the Chinese tea ritual, not that I know much about it. I've been wondering why ritual matters for drinking tea -- or in any arena of your life. Any suggestions?

Monday, September 17, 2007

How to Proceed

Well, it's been awhile since my last post, partly due to moving, and partly due to my increased knowledge and increased intimidation about tea. My increase in knowledge is directly proportional to my increase in awareness of precisely how much I do not know about tea, which is a lot.

The blogs I've found and made friends with take this a lot more seriously than I do, as do the tea mailing lists to which I subscribe. As a result, my endeavor henceforth is not to provide you with valuable information, but a qualitative account of my journey and slight bits of knowledge about tea. This will take place on a far less regular basis, but should provide a far more enjoyable result for any readers I may have acquired, or might down the road.

Next time: What I Do Not Know (Part 1 of ?)

Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Diet Debacle

It's the ultimate question on every tea-drinker's mind, even if they don't want to admit it. Are the rumors true? Is this tea helping me lose weight?

No! say the naysayers, insistent that there is no easy diet solution, and there is no way that anything commonly available could hold such an important property.

Yes! cry out the believers, ready and willing to buy into (literally) whatever hope they have left for shedding those last five, ten, or hundred and fifty pounds.

I'm no scientist, and I've done no careful studies, but since I've stopped drinking tea regularly in the past five weeks (It's hot down here in the Bible Belt in August!) I've gained five to ten pounds! Whatever weight loss properties tea does or does not have, I'm almost certain that the hydration was good for me, and the fact that I had been replacing sweet, salty, and fatty snacks with a zero-calorie treat kept me from gaining.

Exercise helps. A healthy attitude towards food helps. Tea is no miracle formula, but if you stake out a middle position somewhere between the naysayers and the believers you're likely to end up in a darned good place.

In fact, I'm pretty sure that last part is true for most things in life. What do you think?

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Rows Upon Rows

The entrance to the Charleston Tea Gardens. The plants are beautiful, and they look healthy in spite of the adverse soil and weather conditions. I learned from the helpful staff that these plants were brought over from China and India, and that they are the few remaining plants which survived of the hundreds of thousands originally brought to be planted in the new world. They expect 6-8 flushes by this time of year, and the plants are just now beginning to grow their fourth flush. South Carolina is 7 inches short on rain for the growing season thus far. A flush is the new growth on a tea plant, and flushes are marked by when and where the last cutting took place.
There are over 300 varieties of tea plant on this plantation, according to the staff, though no one could tell me what they were. Their entire cutting process is mechanized, which means that they only employ 20 workers at the plantation, and only three field workers. Most of those 20 employees work in the gift shop. I'll give you more on the processing of tea tomorrow.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

The One and Only

The blogging hiatus is over, as is the extended vacation which was at its root.

But my vacation wasn't all fun and games. Just last week I went on a reconnaissance mission to the Charleston Tea Gardens on Wadmalaw Island SC. It is the only tea plantation in the entirety of North America. Why, you ask? Well, because the entirety of North America is entirely unfit for tea growth, except the "lowcountry" in South Carolina, or so the Bigelow corporation, which owns the entire 300 acre plantation, would have you believe.

I had my doubts.

The plantation is a fun visit. They have a free tour of the factory with video explanations and everything, a cute little gift shop with some surprisingly reasonably-priced merchandise, and "trolley tours" throughout the day for $10 a person which each have different focuses. I wasn't about to sit on a trolley for an hour and a half in a heat wave in the highest humidity area in the country (which is why they can grow tea there...), but I did go on the factory tour, which was interesting and informative.

I'll fill in more details as I upload and edit my pictures from the trip, but overall I'd say it was well worth the time and gas it took to get there.

And as for my doubts? They only had iced tea available to try, and it sucked my mouth dry from the tannins, but the flavor was unobtrusive. Their "First Flush" was the only one sold from there that wasn't a blend, and it smelled good, if a little earthy and stiff, but they won't sell the tea itself unless you pay $25 total for its packaging, which leaves you paying $16.50 per ounce! I'm still enjoying my dollar an ounce teas from Angelina's, so I didn't go for it. Since they have to pay American wages, it makes sense that it would cost a bit more, but I'm sure a large percentage is going to "The Man" (i.e., R.C. Bigelow, Inc.) and for tea that was grown outside of ideal conditions ... I'm not going to shell out those bucks, but to each his own.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Race to the Finish

I've posted a lot of things recently which involve steeping or cooking for specific periods of time. Tea can be wonderful and smooth if you figure out just the right timing for its infusion. However, in practice, I very frequently make tea when I'm in the middle of other things, or I start doing other things once my tea is steeping. It's easy to lose track of time (I once steeped some leaves for over half an hour), and it's hard to swallow the results.

As such, I've been looking for a tea timer for quite some time, to no avail. There are hourglass-type tea timers galore, but what I need is something that beeps at me until I remember that it's time to take five minutes out of my maniacal multi-tasking and savor my cup of tea.

I found kitchen timers that you dial and which BBRRRING! at you annoyingly, and even though those might work (they're hard to be precise with), I thought I could do better.

And I did! Behold, the scientific timer by Taylor. This is the best and cheapest scientific timer I could find. I was inspired by my summer job working in a biomedical research lab to get a timer like the ones I'd been using for two months to time my chemical reactions. It counts up, it counts down, it pauses and resets, all with just three buttons. There's a clip, a stand, and a magnet on the back, so you can use it just about anywhere. One AAA battery is used, which is included, and it got me well on my way to the requisite $25 for free Amazon shipping.

All in all it's just a little thing, but it makes my life a little less stressful. It's a good start, since I'll be going on vacation starting today!

What little things make your tea life, or your regular one, just a bit better?

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Cooking with Tea

There are hundreds of things you can do with tea other than drink it, and we'll discover them all eventually, I'm sure, but one of the most basic is using tea to make rice! Rice is really healthy, and even though carbohydrates aren't popular right now, you need some to have a balanced diet, and this is a great, tasty way to get them.

Here is my own recipe for Jasmine Green Tea Rice:

2 tsps Loose-Leaf Jasmine Green Tea
1 cup long-grain white rice
2 cups water

Bring the 2 cups of water to a boil
Let it cool for 3 minutes uncovered
Steep the 2 tsps of tea in the water (in an infuser if you don't want tea leaves in your rice)
Rinse the uncooked rice in a colander
When the tea is done, remove it (if you used an infuser)
Add the rice to the water (which is now tea)
Bring the mixture to a boil
Reduce to an active simmer (less active than boiling)
Stir often

When the water has been absorbed, your rice is done! It should take about 20 minutes. If it takes much longer, be done anyway! Pour off the extra water, fluff with a fork, and enjoy!

Be careful, because you can't use a steamer or rice cooker to get this effect. When water vaporizes into steam it doesn't take tea with it!

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Decaf Anyone?

Tea offers lots of great benefits, including the steadier absorption of caffeine due to the presence of polyphenols in tea, which naturally reduce the caffeine intake your body is capable of. However, not everybody wants to be caffeinated, and certainly not all the time! A cup of tea before bed is an inviolable night-time ritual for many (myself included), and caffeine disrupts that.

Not to mention that many people complain about teas which have been processed and artificially decaffeinated. I think it may be that they taste processed and artificial!

What's a tea-drinker to do? Well, you do have options beyond chamomile, lemongrass, and rose hips.

80-90% of tea's caffeine is infused into tea during the first 30 seconds of steeping, while BBC News reported that "volunteers who drank tea that had been brewed for five minutes had blood antioxidant levels which were 60% higher than those who consumed a one-minute infusion." So you can easily ditch the first 30 seconds of that infusion if you don't want caffeine right then, or you can recycle tea leaves for a second or third cup (I find a fourth is usually pretty pointless).

If you have a late-night black tea craving, you could even make a first cup and save it 'til morning when you need that wake-up call!

And for five bonus summer points, put that extra first cup in the fridge overnight for a nice, cool, undiluted cup of iced tea the next day.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Varieties of Tea

There are six main types of tea derived from the Camellia sinensis plant, as well as many sub-varieties within those classifications. They are distinguished by the section of the tea plant which is used, and by the way in which they are processed, which generally refers to the amount of oxidation the leaves undergo.

Oxidation occurs when the chlorophyll in the leaves breaks down and releases tannins. This is controlled in tea processing by drying or compressing the tea, and maintaining certain levels of moisture and temperature.

Black tea, often called red tea in Asia, is the most common kind of tea in Western culture. It is made with the top 5-7 inches of the tea plant, and is fully oxidized. In general, black tea should be steeped for 4-6 minutes for the first cup, and always in water that has just been brought to boiling. Black tea naturally contains caffeine, about 60 milligrams for every five liquid ounces of tea. Black tea is the most common base for flavored teas.

Green tea is becoming more popular in the United States for its health benefits. Green tea is made with the top 1-2 inches of the tea plant and undergoes minimal oxidation, which means that it has lower tannin and caffeine levels, as well as a much more subtle and delicate flavor than black tea. Green tea should ideally be steeped for 3-5 minutes in water which has been brought to a rapid boil, but has cooled for about five minutes. Green tea is the most commonly rolled tea, sometimes being shaped into stars or cranes in and origami-like fashion by day laborers. Gunpowder tea is green tea rolled into small pellets which unfurl during steeping. Powdered tea is usually made from green tea, and it ground into so fine a powder that it dissolves completely when brewed. Yellow tea is a high-quality green tea, with a separate name because it was the tea served at the Chinese Imperial Court.

Oolong is not as well-known as either green or black tea, but it's processing places it between the two in terms of oxidation levels and the length of the tea plant harvested. It should be steeped and brewed similarly to black tea, but may provide a more complex flavor and a richer color.

White tea is made with just the bud and the first two leaves of the tea plant. It is often grown in shade to reduce chlorophyll levels, and is not oxidized at all. White tea has the lowest tannin levels and no caffeine, and the most fragile flavor, meaning it should not be mixed with additives like milk or sugar. White tea should be steeped for 2-3 minutes in water which has been brought to a rapid boil, but has cooled for about five minutes. Because white tea is made with more select parts of the tea plant, it can be more expensive than green or black tea, but there are many affordable varieties.

Pu-ehr is tea which has been fermented by being oxidized a second time. It is characterized by a deep earthy flavor which becomes less intense and more complex with age. Pu-ehr is usually aged 5-10 years, and, like wine, can be more expensive as it gets older, or in certain "vintages." Pu-ehr is stored in a large block, with pieces broken off to steep a cup. More recently it has been processed into balls the size of hard candies which are enough to make one cup. While pu-ehr is a more adventurous tea, it is worth try. The single-serving balls cost between 30 and 50 cents each. Pu-ehr is known to aid in digestion.

Kukicha is made from the twigs of the tea plant, which are harvested in winter. They are roasted or smoked and brewed for a very different tea experience. The twigs should be steeped for up to ten or fifteen minutes in near-boiling water.

Tea today is generally regarded as a beverage derived from the infusing of plant material into hot water. People buy and drink tea made from just about any kind of plant material. If this did not cover the tea you generally drink it is likely because you drink herbal tea, the name for any tea which does not contain Camellia sinensis.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

The Beginner's Tea Kit

Tea is a great hobby. It has a rich and unique culture complex enough to challenge your mind, while it's varieties are complex enough to challenge your taste buds. But for someone who has only drunk bagged tea at hotel continental breakfasts, it may be intimidating to get started.

Hence, a list, with the bare necessities to get started making tea for yourself. There will be a similar guide to the necessities for making tea for groups, including electric kettles and tea sets. The objective here is affordable, intelligent design that will enable you to discover the joy of tea for under $20.

I know this is kind of an ugly color -- they call it "bamboo," but it also comes in black, white, red, and periwinkle. The lid doubles as a saucer or a tray for the infuser, which fits inside the cup. The cup is ceramic, which is the best material for steeping tea, and is microwave safe. Even though you should generally pour your hot water over the tea leaves, this gives you options.

If you don't have kids or rowdy dogs, this is the teacup for you. It's all glass, which means there are no odors or tastes to be leaked into the tea by the infuser, and the slits cut in the nested infuser allow for a minimum of dregs while still infusing your tea. If you can keep it in one piece, this is the best option for great tea, and at the same price as above!

Do you have more teacups than you need already? This is the infuser for you. Made of polycarbonate plastic it has a large bowl to hold orange or lemon peels and still allow a free circulation of water for the best cup of tea you can brew. A good infuser like this is a great buy for around $10. Also available in red and green, although the green rivals the bamboo color above in terms of unhealthy colors for bodily fluids.

These accessories should offer enough selection to fit whatever tea needs you have ... in the beginning. Next time we'll have the beginner's teas themselves.

The Perfect Cup

How to begin a tea blog? How about with instructions for brewing the perfect cup of tea? This is a rewrite of an article I published online.

Drinking tea regularly is great for your physical and mental health, but many people don't like tea because it tastes weak or bitter. It doesn't have to. You can control your tea's strength depending on how you steep it to make the best and most flavorful cup with the tea you've got.

First Things First: Never use soap on any dishes you use in association with tea. Because tea is so delicate, the “flavor” of soap can taint your tea quite easily. Always rinse your tea dishes in scalding water to keep them sanitary.

Steeping Mechanism: Don't use paper tea bags! The biggest thing people dislike about tea is how it can taste dry - after you swallow your mouth puckers and dries out a little bit. That taste is the result of tannic acids, which are found in most vegetable products, especially paper. If you have a tea you love that only comes bagged, remove it from the bag and put it into an infuser with very fine holes or mesh. If your tea comes in silk bags, those don't have as much tannic acid, but are still not preferable compared to a glass or plastic infuser. Metal infusers will work, but some people notice a slight metallic taste in using them. If you don't mind dregs at the bottom of your cup, the best thing to do it brew your tea loose.

Steeping Time: The following are guidelines - trial and error can help you more than anything. Herbal, white and green teas should steep for 2-4 minutes. Black, pu-her, oolong and rooibos should steep for 3-5. Another telltale marker is when the color of the water ceases to increase in intensity. Tea can and should be steeped up to three or four separate times, and the best of those is almost always going to be the second steeping, when most of the tannic acids are gone, but the leaves are still strong.

Additives: The best way to enjoy tea is to add nothing to it. Take a sip and hold it on your tongue. Try to distinguish the different flavors. Is it sharp, earthy, sweet or smooth? If you find a tea is too bitter you may want to add sugar to it. If you find it weak, milk may be a better choice. Remember not to add milk to any tea with lemon or other citrus fruits, or the milk will curdle.

Making the Tea: Use one teaspoon of tea leaves for each cup of tea you plan to make. If this is the first cup you've made with these leaves, rinse your tea briefly in cold water to wash off the tannic acids. Bring water to a rapid boil and let it cool to just below boiling. Always pour the hot water over the tea, and never just stick your tea in the water. Let it steep for time appropriate to your type of tea. Remove the infuser after time has elapsed, drain it, and drink up!


Saturday, July 21, 2007

Tea-ing Off

Welcome to Infuse Me! This is a place to learn about different kinds of tea, how to make it properly, health benefits, recipes which involve tea, product reviews, and everything related to the second-most popular beverage in the world! Feel free to comment and ask questions, tell me I'm wrong, or just say hello.