The Art of Tea

The Art of Tea collectionNormally, I’m all about quality of product rather than appearances but every so often that gets turned on its head. Take this set called “The Art of Tea” which was bought in South Africa. I’ve been reluctant to actually use any of the product inside but the primary motivation for buying this set was the attractive packaging.

Having said that tea degrades over time. Even though I didn’t buy it for the tea, it makes no sense to search high and low for the freshest first flush Darjeeling with the quickest shipping time and yet keep all of these (including one Darjeeling!) for over two years. It’s getting opened today, starting with the rooibos.

 Here’s what’s inside:AofT collection

  • Kenya Malaika (black)
  • Darjeeling (Indian black)
  • Genmaicha (Japanese green)
  • Jade Mountain (Chinese green)
  • Snow buds (Chinese white)
  • Jasmine pearls (Chinese flavoured green)
  • Earl Grey (Indian flavoured black)
  • Sakura (Chinese flavoured green)
  • Chai (flavoured black)
  • Sweet dreams (herbal)
  • Rooibos vanilla
  • Forest berries (fruit infusion)

It can be difficult to get tea gifts that are well packaged but this one certainly stands out. I think I paid around 200 ZAR (around €20 at the time) for the box. Good value considering anything similar that I’ve seen here costs double that.

Yixing stoneware

I mentioned Yixing in this post on ceramics but these stoneware teapots warrant their own post. Yixing teapots (zisha) are unglazed porous stoneware teapots made from clay that comes from the region of Yixing in Southern China. The Yixing clay has a very unique, iron-rich composition and the resultant stoneware is durable and a good insulator. More importantly, Yixing clay absorbs the flavour of its contents and over time develops a lining of tea deposits that enriches the flavour of tea.  Over years of use, the teapot changes in colour and flavour and these teapots are valued because of the fine teas they have brewed. Each Yixing teapot can only be used for one type of tea and it needs to be seasoned before it is used to clean it and to remove any firing/baking smells.

Yixing teapot

Yixing teapots date back to the 11th century but became popular in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) when tea leaves instead of powder become popular. Today they are mostly used for pu-ehr and oolong tea and there is no doubt that tea from these teapots is noticeably richer and more interesting. Making pu-ehr in a Yixing teapot is a little bit like serving white wine (or champagne 😉 ). Of course you can serve white wine warm in a plastic cup but if you have spent good money on a nice bottle, you will want to put in an effort to chill it and serve it in a proper wine glass to bring out the flavour.

 

Judging the authenticity of a Yixing teapot can be difficult. For this reason, I tend not to buy expensive Yixing (especially online). The tell-tale signs of real Yixing are solid dull colour but with sparkling flecks throughout. It has a rough surface (not smooth or shiny) and the inside should smell of earth rather than chemicals.

 

There are a huge variety of shapes and sizes but generally speaking they fit into three categories.

  1. Geometric forms – this is the most popular category and cubes and spheres are the most popular geometric forms
  2. Natural – these teapots incorporate elements of nature either by sculpting the teapot based on a natural element or by decoration
  3. Striated – usually the body resembles a flower by building symmetrical segments (petals) into a unit

Decoration (if used) usually takes the form of engraving, inlaying or slip painting.

The price depends on the quality of the clay (zisha or mixed), manufacturing (handmade or moulded), age, size and shape. It will range from €20 for a basic moulded teapot to hundreds of thousands for antique artisan teapots.

The video below shows Chinese yixing artist, Zhou Guizhen, creating a teapot:

 

 

When you drink the water, remember the spring (proverb)

Tea is ~99% water so there is no doubt that the quality of that water will make a difference to the flavours of the cup.
Tap water here is very “hard” so it leaves limescale on teapots and kettles and doesn’t taste great. Buying water is a complicated business though. Bottled Water is so heavily marketed it is difficult to disregard the branding and get a true comparison of the products. Here is a breakdown of the main types of water that are found here in Ireland:

  • Public mains water – goes through a set of treatment process before it is distributed to ensure that it is filtered and sterilised and fit for drinking. The main stages in water treatment are screening, flocculation, sedimentation (clarification), filtration, chlorination, fluoridation and pH adjustment. Chlorine is added to kill bacteria and afterwards ammonia is sometimes added to the water to reduce the taste left by the chlorine. Fluoride is also added to prevent tooth decay.
  • Filtered water – Filtering tap water with a simple jug filters will remove visible solids and most of the chlorine. They will improve the taste but it will not remove fluoride or change the mineral content significantly and so it will not soften the water.
  • Purified/distilled water –Water that has been produced by a process such as distillation, deionization, reverse osmosis or other process. It will have no minerals.
  • Spring water – Comes from underground source but naturally flows on the earth’s surface. It is naturally filtrated by passing through layers of rocks and soil. Spring water may be treated by ozonation, UV light and chlorination and unlike mineral water does not need to have a stable composition.
  • Natural mineral water – Natural mineral water come from natural mineral water springs and contains at least 240 parts per million Total Dissolved Solids (TDS). Natural mineral waters are pure at source and are distinguished from other types of bottled water by its constant level of minerals. It originates from a protected underground water source. No minerals or chemical preservatives may be added to the water.

Tasting water and matching it with food is a whole other world (see Bottled Water of the World). There is a range of factors that are considered in the taste of water but the mineral composition and the acidity level (pH) are two of the main factors for still water. Acidic waters have a pH of less than 7 and alkaline water have a pH greater than 7. Alkaline water tends to taste sweeter and softer than neutral or acidic water. The Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) is the sum total of all the mineral in the water (most commonly Calcium, Magnesium, Sodium and Potassium). These minerals give water a heaviness and it correlates with the hardness of the water.
Below is an interesting graph of pH and TDS plotted for the main water brands (source).

Mineral Water Comparison (Source)

Mineral Water Comparison (Source)

For tea making, we are looking for water that is not too mineralised and doesn’t have any dominant mineral that stands out. Distilled water (that has no minerals) is not good either because it is too flat. Ideally tea water would be neutral pH 6-8, have no chlorine and have total dissolved solids (TDS) of ~100ppm.

Still confused about what’s what with water? Interestingly, there are some good explanations in Bret Easton Ellis’s book “American Psycho” (excerpt here)!

Japanese Green Teas

I decided yesterday to taste two Japanese green teas together so I could compare them side by side. The first tea, a Sencha, is the most common type of Japanese Green Tea and would be drank on a daily basis in most Japanese homes.  Sencha is harvested in the Spring from the upper leaves of the tea plant that have been in direct sunlight.

The second tea, a Bancha, is also a common every-day tea in Japanese homes. It is made from later harvests of the tea plant or from the lower leaves and stems. It is therefore a coarser tea and it is considered to be a lower quality and less expensive tea than Sencha.

Although Sencha means roasted tea, both Sencha and Bancha are steamed and rolled soon after harvesting. The difference between the two teas is the quality of the leaves used. Where Bancha has come from lower, older leaves it will have less caffeine and less catechin (antioxidant) than sencha. However, where Bancha has come from a later harvest of upper leaves, it could have more catechins. Below is a short video from My Japanese Green Tea of the steaming, drying and rolling process at a Sencha plant


Sencha is considered a fussy tea in terms of preparation. While Bancha is can be prepared with boiling water for 30 seconds, boiling water on Sencha will bring out the bitterness and kill the flavor so Sencha needs a water temperature of ~80°C and a longer brewing time. For my comparison experiment, I decided to brew them both at 80°C for 2 minutes. If you don’t have a thermometer or a thermostatic kettle (I used my new Breville!), you can guess 80°C by waiting for small bubbles to appear on the inside of the kettle.  The bubbles need to be the size of shrimp’s eyes as opposed to crab eyes (85°C) or fish eyes (90°C)!

Looking at the dry leaf, both are flat leaf, emerald green. From the pictures below you can see that the Bancha includes stems. It probably isn’t obvious from the photos but it is clear when you have the leaves in front of you that the Bancha is also less regular and is more dusty. The Sencha has a deep musky aroma with some sweetness while the Bancha is more grassy with a malty sweetness.

Bancha leaves

Bancha leaves

Sencha Leaves

Sencha Leaves

To prepare these teas, I put 3g of tea in a warmed ceramic teapot and add 150ml of water at ~80°C. I steep for 2 minutes. Both give a yellow/green liquor and both are cloudy but the Bancha is noticeably more cloudy. The taste of the Sencha is bright and grassy with a background meaty taste (unami). There is a sweetness at the start that is matched by a bitterness and astringency that comes out later. The Bancha is grassy and malty sweet with less of the meaty flavor and noticeably less astringency. Both are light and refreshing but I would describe the Bancha as milder, gentler green tea.

I combined each with a small pinch of salt beforehand to see how it brings out the sweetness. For the Sencha it mutes the astringency and gives a rounder flavor but I didn’t notice a big difference with the Bancha. Both of these were samples so I don’t know the price but one of my local tea houses has a Sencha for €11/100g and a Bancha for half of that (€5/100g).

Guinness World Records for Tea

I’m away for this week without access to technology of any kind (no email, phone, internet etc.) so this is a scheduled post that I wrote last Thursday.  I was in holiday mode when I wrote this and was looking for something fun so here are some world records on tea:

 

Largest cup of Tea
The largest cup of tea is 4000 litres (7039.01 pt) in volume and was produced by GlaxoSmithKline Beecham (Private) Ltd (Sri Lanka) for Viva, at Burgher Recreation Club grounds in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on 9 October 2010. The tea cup was named the “VIVA” tea cup. The tea cup itself measured 10 ft in height and 8 ft in width. Six 2000 watt heaters and a stirrer powered by motors and generators maintained the temperature of the tea at 75 degrees celsius.

 

Most cups of tea made in one hour (team of 12)
The most cups of tea made in one hour by a team of 12 was 725 and this was achieved by Devonshire Tea Limited (UK), at ‘Flavour Fest’ festival, in Plymouth, UK, on 19 August 2011. This attempt took place on day one of the event called ‘Food Fest’ in Plymouth.

 

Largest tea bag
The largest tea bag weighs 120 kg (264 lb 8.8 oz) and was achieved by All About Tea (UK) on board HMS Warrior in Portsmouth, UK, on 16 November 2011. The tea bag measures 2.48 m (8 ft 1.64 in) in length and width.
This event was in celebration of GWR Day 2011. The tea used is called ‘Portsmouth Tea’ and is a blend of African and Indian teas. The tea bag, which was made from cotton, is capable of making over 50,000 cups of tea.

 

Largest collection of tea bag tags:
The largest collection of tea bag tags is 839 tags and belongs to Daniel Szabo (Hungary), in Budapest, Hungary, on 4 September 2011.
The collection was displayed to the public at SzeptEmber Feszt 2011 and has been featured in several news articles.

 

 

Largest Tea Party
The record for the largest tea party is 32,681 participants and was achieved by Dainik Bhaskar (India) for the City of Indore, at Nehru Stadium, in Indore, India, on 24 February 2008. The official brew for the event was Brooke Bond Red Label and the event was supported by Tea Board of India.

 

Largest Tea Cosy Knitted
The largest tea cosy was knitted by members of the public, Bupa care homes residents across the UK and resident care homes in Spain and New Zealand at Ashley Park nursing home in Guilford, UK, on 9 April 2009. The final tea cosy included 1924 squares in total. It stands at 3.9 metres high and 11.1 metres in Circumference.

 

Largest Tea Monument
This isn’t in the Guinness World Records but World Record Academy says that “MEITAN, China–At 73.8 meters in height, and featuring a floor area of over 5,000 square meters, this unique teapot museum of Meitan, south west China, sets the new world record for the Largest Teapot Monument”

Ceramics

Bone Ash

Ingredients for Bone China (Source)

Someone told me during the week that some vegetarians and vegans don’t use bone china teacups. I wasn’t aware of this but it made for some interesting reading about the differences between bone china, porcelain and stoneware. I found out that bone china is made from a translucent white ceramic clay but it is set apart from fine china by containing a minimum of 25% bone ash. The animal bones are burned and ground before it is added to the clay. Bone China tends to be slightly translucent in nature. It is easier to manufacture than fine china, is strong, does not chip easily, and has an ivory-white appearance.

Porcelain - Sue Paraskeva

Porcelain Sue Paraskeva (Source)

Porcelain is a type of ceramic that is made from kaolin clay. It is also referred to as china or fine china. Kaolin is white clay that retains its white color when fired. It is usually covered with a clear glaze. Porcelain becomes vitrified (glass-like) during the second firing of a two-fire process at temperatures of over 1,300 degrees Celsius. It is considered “vitrified” if it absorbs less than 0.2 percent of its own weight. Porcelain tends to be finer quality than stoneware.

Yixing Clay Teapot

Yixing teapot (Source)

Stoneware is also a type of ceramic but differs in color and also in the way it is fired. Porcelain is fired twice but stoneware is vitrified during a single firing and the temperature is a little lower than used for Porcelain. The finish is warmer in color than Porcelain. An easy way to tell porcelain from stoneware is to look at the bottom rim, porcelain will be white whereas stoneware will be a natural color with a colored glaze on top. Yixing teapots (the famous unglazed porous teapots) are a type of stoneware that is made from clay from the region of Yixing in Southern China.

Finally, earthenware, again a type of ceramic, is made from white porous clay that is fired at a low temperature. It cannot hold water and is more chalky and easier to chip than stoneware. Terracotta is a type of earthenware. It is usually more suited to decorative use rather than household use.

Ode to my Bodum cup

The Bodum Tea for One

The Bodum Tea for One (Source)

Ok, I can’t write an ode but I do love this cup and I only realised how much when I tried replacing it. I don’t use this cup for preparing real tea at all but the Bodum “tea for one” is perfect for herbal teas.

Things I love about this cup:

  • It is double-walled with a vacuum between the walls so it keeps the liquid inside hot (especially with the lid on)
  • The double wall means that the outside doesn’t get too hot to handle
  • It came with the brew basket which has a mesh that is fine enough to prevent even small particles getting through (handy for when you grind herbs)
  • Some herbal teas need to have their vapours contained in order to maximise benefits and the lid is perfect for that.
  • The size of the brew basket means that bulky herbs are not a problem
  • The glass cup allows me to gauge how strong the tea is
  • The lid doubles as a saucer for the brew basket to stop it dripping
  • It doesn’t have a handle – weird I know, but I like that it doesn’t have a handle. It’s more symmetrical.
  • I’ve had this for over five years, use it three or four times a week and it is still not broken or chipped.
  • It is easy to clean. I’ve always hand-washed mine but it is dishwasher safe.
  • It is a good size for herbal teas (350ml)
  • The brew basket doesn’t absorb the flavour of the tea so you don’t get the flavour of the last herb that was prepared in it.
Yo-Yo Set

Yo-Yo Set (Source)

The “tea for one” is no longer available on the Bodum website and seems to be replaced with the Yo-Yo set. It looked like it might do the trick but it didn’t. It is not double walled and the lid is smaller than the cup so there are gaps all around that let out heat and vapours. A more minor issue is the handle. It just looks wrong but I would get over that if it were not for the other two problems. I foresee a bleak future for this cup at the back of the top shelf.

The situation is not completely hopeless. I can still buy the double-walled glasses on their own and try to find a brew basket and lid that fits them afterwards. In the mean time though, after five years of taking my bodum cup and strainer for granted, I’m now afraid to use it in case I break it.

 

Tea bag issues

Tea bags have been getting some bad press lately. Well, tea bags are always getting bad press for their contents but this time it is the bag itself causing the problem.

Silken TeabagsIt seems that the tea bags that are described as “silken” are actually made with plastic. Some of these plastics are food-grade nylon or polyethylene terephthalate (PET) but they have a melting point of ~250 °C and are generally not considered harmful to health. However, an article appeared in the Atlantic a couple of weeks ago that said that the molecules of these plastics would start to break down at a lower temperature (~76 °C) which could allow the bags to leach out toxins. The example in the article was a Lipton Pyramid Tea Bag made of PET but there was no concrete evidence of toxicity and no measure of toxins.

Another type of plastic used in these silky tea bags is polylactic acid (PLA), a biodegradable plastic made from cornstarch (which can be genetically modified or not). This bioplastic is commonly used as the input material for 3-D printers and doesn’t seem to carry the same health concerns as PET. While technically PLA is biodegradable and may well break down into its constituent parts (carbon dioxide and water), it needs an industrial composting facility heated to 60 °C and the addition of digestive microbes. In a compost bin, or in a regular landfill, there is no evidence that it will break down there any faster than any other form of plastic (source).

The bad news didn’t stop there though. Apparently paper tea bags may have similar culpability.  Many paper bags are treated with epichlorohydrin as a paper reinforcement to stop the tea bag tearing.  Epichlorohydrin is also used to make insect fumigant and is considered to be a carcinogen and moderately toxic. The exposure limits set by WHO are 0.4 μg/litre. I’m assuming that moderate tea-drinking with these tea bags would leave you well below the exposure limits but I can’t find confirmation of that.

Silken TeabagI tend not to give too much credence to health warnings like these but it might be worth checking the packaging if you use a lot of tea bags.

Growing Tea?

I got a letter this morning from the County Council about my allotment application. I have been offered a lease on a 10m x 20m “transition” allotment.

The plan is keep it simple with carrots, spinach and maybe potatoes but for future years I have noted that there is nothing in the lease agreement that prevents me from starting a tiny tea plantation so I did some investigations. Most of us have heard of the decorative camellia plant but the tea variety (Camellia sinensis) is becoming popular for gardeners. Although it prefers subtropical climates the Camellia sinensis plant is both resilient and adaptable.It is an evergreen shrub but can grow up to 17 m high. In cultivation, it is usually kept below 2 m high by pruning. Its bright green leaves are shiny, and often have a hairy underside. Its fruits are brownish-green and contain one to four seeds.

The fragrant flower of Camellia sinensis

The fragrant flower of Camellia sinensis (Source)

There are three major varieties: Camellia sinensis var. sinensis (Chinese tea),  Camellia sinensis var. assamica (Assam tea, Indian tea) and Camellia sinensis var. cambodi  (Java tea). It seems that Chinese camellia is the original tea plant and is hardier than the other varieties. It has relatively small and narrow leaves and produces fragrant white flowers in autumn. Given the right conditions, a tea plant can grow and produce for 50-100 years.

C. sinensis var. assamica is taller in its natural state and can grow into a loosely branched tree to a height of about 17 m. It is a less hardy variety with medium, droopy, leathery leaves. It needs well-drained soil and needs ample water but it is the most cold-sensitive camellia.

Camellia sinensis var. cambodi is used to create hybrids and not grown on its own so much but it can also grow quite tall and has the small white flowers when temperatures cool in autumn.

Tea can be propagated from cuttings or from seeds but the seeds take extra time. From seed, it will take 2-3 years to be ready to harvest. The plant likes regular harvesting and the new shoots can be used for tea. They need to be properly pruned back every four years to rejuvenate the bush and keep it at a convenient height.

Camillia sinensisFor planting, Camellia sinensis likes well-drained, sandy, acidic soil but will do well in other soil types too. They grow well in sunny areas but light shade develops the flavor of the leaves. They should be kept 1 meter apart to avoid competition. Camellia bushes are drought-tolerant and will survive dry summers. The problem for Irish weather conditions is that they need to be kept in a dry atmosphere to avoid mildew developing and the plant prefers “not very frosty dry winters”. Ideally, day temperatures of ~25 °C and night temperatures of >10 °C. Considering it is the end of March and there was snow on the ground here this morning, I’m guessing they would need to be kept in a greenhouse or indoors for most of winter and spring to survive.

I notice that there are a few tea plantations in the UK (Cornwall, Kent Pembrokeshire) so it seems that it is definitely possible to grow Camellia sinensis outside a subtropical climate. I might give it a shot at some stage but probably just as an experiment in a pot so I can move it indoors.