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.

 

Nepalese tea – First Flush SFTGFOP

Until 2000, Nepal’s tea exports accounted for only about 150,000 kg per annum. However, due to liberalisation, the Nepalese tea industry has witnessed an exponential rise in tea exports in the last ten years. At present, Nepal produces approximately 18 million kilograms of tea per annum on an area of 18,149 hectares. The climate, soil and unpolluted air in Nepal are said to be ideal for tea and production is incentivised through government subsidies for machinery. CTC manufacturing accounts for 87% of production. The remaining 13% of Nepalese orthodox tea has a reputation for being outstanding.

Nepal First Flush Side ViewI received some tea samples last week from a Nepalese colleague who was kind enough to bring some back from his travels. There were a number of samples but one in particular caught my eye: a first flush SFTGFOP Black tea. As a first flush it was probably picked sometime in March or April and these teas are generally a milder and gentler tea than the leaves that are plucked later in the year.

Nepal First Flush The leaves are short and wiry and although the leaves are mostly brown you can see from the photo the white buds and some partially oxidised green leaves. The smell of the dry tea is strong and grassy.

Preparation: To prepare this tea, I put 3g of the tea in a gaiwan. After rinsing the leaves, I add the boiling water for 30 seconds but I felt it needed a little longer so I left it for about 40 seconds.

First steepThe first cup is sweet-smelling, light yellow and the taste is crisp and light with that very distinctive musky taste. Pungent is a word that suits this tea well (especially the second and third steeping) but not pungent in the usual sense of overpowering sourness but softly pungent as an interesting background that deepens the taste. This tea held well for six steepings with increasing steeping durations each time.

Among the rest of the samples is an Autumn SFTGFOP and I’m looking forward doing a comparison taste in the coming days.

 

Grading Black Tea

I’ve been tasting a lot of black tea over the past couple of weeks but before I start talking  TGFOP and BOP, I thought it would be worthwhile to have a reference article to go through one of the most common grading systems for black tea. The grading system has four separate scales that are based around the size of the leaf. Size is not directly correlated to quality but it is used as an indicator.

 ORTHODOX TEA

Whole leaf – the leaf remains intact during production (not broken or torn)

  • SFTGFOP – Special, Fine Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe
  • FTGFOP – Fine Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe
  • TGFOP – Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe
  • GFOP – Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe
  • FOP – Flowery Orange Pekoe
  • FP – Flowery Pekoe
  • OP – Orange Pekoe

Broken leaf – the leaf has been torn or broken

  • GFBOP – Golden Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe
  • GBOP – Golden Broken Orange Pekoe
  • FBOP – Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe
  • BOP – Broken Orange Pekoe
  • BPS – Broken Pekoe Souchong

Fannings are broken pieces of tea that have a granular texture. The small pieces mean that they release their taste and colour quickly, which makes them suitable for teabags.

  • FBOPF – Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe Fannings
  • BOPF – Broken Orange Pekoe Fannings
  • FOF – Flowery Orange Fannings
  • GOF – Golden Orange Fannings
  • PF – Pekoe Fannings

Dust is a powder tea that is smaller in size than fannings.

  • OPD – Orange Pekoe Dust
  • BOPD – Broken Orange Pekoe Dust
  • PD – Pekoe Dust
  • D – Dust

 

CTC  stands for Crush Tear Curl and is a modern manufacturing method where the tea leaf is chopped to small uniform pieces while it is being oxidised to black tea. This gives small granular pellets. There is a separate grading system for CTC tea that is also broken down into Broken Leaf, Fannings and Dust.

A few notes on the terms:

Orange – Orange does not refer to the citrus fruit or to an orange flavour. It comes from “House of Orange” which was the royal Dutch family where the finest teas were presented in the 1600s.

Tippy refers to the proportion of buds in the tea

Flowery mean that larger leaves as well as buds are present

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.

Da Hong Pao (Royal Red Robe)

I bought this Da Hong Pao (year & season unknown) at the Berliner Teesalon nearly 4 weeks ago but only got around to tasting it last weekend.

Da Hong PaoThis Oolong tea is produced in the Wuyi mountains of Fujian, China. See previous post on Da Hong Pao for the legend associated with this tea. Strip-style Oolongs like this one are unique to China and are easy to spot in a line-up because of their dark colour and stemless twisted leaves.

IMG_5820Preparation (see post here about steeping): To prepare this tea, I put 5g of the tea in a warmed clay teapot. After rinsing the leaves, I add 150ml of water that is just below boiling (when it makes the rumbling sound) and let it rest for 30 seconds. The leaves are not as dark as this type of Oolong would normally be and the tea is a golden yellow on the first steeping. The second and third steeping are darker but never get to the deep amber that would be expected from heavy roasting. There is an earthy smell and definite sweetness in the taste. It is not unpleasant to drink but it lacks the full bodied, rich peaty flavour that this type of tea should deliver. I steeped this tea five times, increasing the steeping durations each time.

The tea €15 for 50g and I consider that too expensive for the quality of this tea.

 

Rooibos dispute

Geographical Indications

Some well-known Geographic Indications (Source)

I was surprised to hear that Rooibos is at the centre of a dispute between the South African Department of Trade and Industry and a French Company (Compagnie de Trucy). Matthias Leridon, president of Compagnie de Trucy, an investment company, says that they aim to create a luxury brand that includes Rooibos supplied by small producers. Leridon was a special advisor to the French Ministry of Defence and worked as a consultant in the office of the Minister for the Civil Service. Apart from Compagnie de Trucy, Leridon has set up a communications consultancy firm (Tilder) and sits on the board of directors of “African Artists for Development”.

Compagnie de Trucy is trying to secure the exclusive rights to market Rooibos in France by applying for a French trademark. Their application for the terms “Rooibos” and “South African Rooibos” was rejected but terms such as “Le comptoir du rooibos”, “Le palais du rooibos” are still under consideration. If successful, it would complicate the export of this local speciality to France and would involve the payment of royalties to the French firm. There is a trademark protection system call Geographic Indication (GI), which could be used to protect Rooibos. GIs points to a specific place, or region of production, that determines the characteristic qualities of the product. Examples include Darjeeling Tea from India, Champagne Wine from France, Gruyère from France and Connemara Hill lamb from Ireland. The database of EU geographical indications is here .

Rooibos overviewThe process for achieving GI protection isn’t straightforward though. Rooibos needs to be protected within its country of origin and receive official trademark status there before it could qualify as a GI in the EU. This caused some problems because South African law did not previously have protection for geographical indications. However, the government has just approved a new Act (the Traditional Knowledge Act) that includes a provision for the protection of good “originating in the territory of the Republic or in a region or locality in that territory”.

It seems a little paradoxical that GI legislation was led by the wine industry in France and yet now they are at the centre of a dispute on the opposing side of GI protection. I personally think that Rooibos is the Champagne of South Africa and should be protected as such.

Da Hong Pao (Royal Red Robe)

This Da Hong Pao or Royal Red Robe is an Oolong tea, produced in the Wuyi mountains of Fujian, China (a Unesco World Heritage Site).leaves

There are a couple of legends associated with this tea. One of them involves an Emperor of the Ming Dynasty who was travelling with his ill mother. The Emperor’s mother was cured by the leaves of the tea bushes that were growing on a cliff of the Wuyi mountain and in gratitude, the Emperor sent red robes to cover the tea bushes. Hence the name Royal Red Robe.  It is believed that three of these original bushes still survive today in the Wuyi mountain and so these bushes were insured in 2006 for $14,000,000. Tea has not been produced from these bushes for some time but when it was, it was reserved for the select few. On occasion, some went for  auction. In 2002, 20g of first generation Da Hong Pao apparently sold for $21,700 (source).

Clearly this is not that tea that I have! Cuttings have been taken from the original bushes to produce similar ancestral teas. The quality of the teas varies but the best grades are still expensive. The one that I have was a gift so I don’t know how much it cost but I hope it wasn’t too much because it was clear from the foreign matter and broken leaves (especially after steeping) that this is a low grade. I don’t know the year or harvest period of this tea.

leaves in bowl

Wuyi Oolongs are darker with ~80% oxidation.  They are earthier than other Oolongs and give a deeper colour after steeping. It is strip-style (as opposed to ball-rolled) so it is not packed as tightly as the Tieguanyin that I spoke about previously.

red robe glassPreparation (see post here about steeping): To prepare this tea, I put 5g of the tea in a warmed clay teapot. After rinsing the leaves, I add 150ml of water that is just below boiling (when it makes the rumbling sound) and let it rest for 30 seconds. This tea is brown-red in color and has a deep earthy and nutty smell.  The second and third steeping are deeper and darker than the first but not by much. I get six steepings from this tea with the steeping time increasing for each one.

This tea came from Beijing Tong Ren Tang on Shaftsbury Road, London. Because it was a present, I don’t know how much it cost but I wouldn’t be paying any more than about £12 for 100g of this grade.

 

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.

Tea-drinking in Early Nineteenth Century Ireland

There is an interesting paper here by Dr Helen O’Connell, which discusses how tea-drinking in Ireland was viewed in the early nineteenth century.

Tea was first introduced to Ireland in the mid 18th century and at first its cost kept it a luxury that was confined to the upper class and aristocracy. The cost of tea fell significantly in the eighteenth century and the removal of tariffs in 1784, the price was halved again. Tea smuggling was widespread and it was the smuggled, cheaper tea that Irish peasants enjoyed. Its popularity grew quickly and by 1830s, tea was in staple in people’s diets and widespread amongst the poor. It seems that English reformers saw the pastime of tea-drinking as “reckless and uncontrollable” and something that could cause “addiction, illicit longing and revolutionary sympathies”.

The rural workers in Ireland were seen as decadent and lazy and tea-drinking promoted these flaws in the lower classes. It was deemed that the consumption of tea was something that would “deepen the social backwardness seen to be endemic and unmanageable in rural Ireland”. The practice was seen as particularly distracting for women and elimination was necessary so they could focus on their homely duties and the prospering of the economy.  Behind these objections seems to be a theory that tea drinking would make the Catholic Irish appear more Irish (and less English). In addition, the symbolic equality attained by tea-drinking “could only prepare the ground for the eventual attainment of actual equality” which might render the reform impossible.

Dr O’Connell says that “the prospect of poor peasant women squandering already scarce resources on fashionable commodities such as tea was a worry but it also implied that drinking tea could even express a form of revolutionary feminism for these women. If that wasn’t enough, there were also supposedly drug-like qualities of tea, an exotic substance from China, which was understood to become addictive over time.”

Cottage Dialogues (1811)

Cottage Dialogues (1811)

English reformers distributed pamphlets to peasant households that condemned the drink and highlighted its dangers.  They emphasized the frivolity of wasting money on a substance that had no nutritional or practical benefits.

Mary Leadbeater, Cottage Dialogues, 1811

“Now if you both take to drinking tea, (and sure you can’t sit down to one thing, and he to another,) you must have a quarter of an ounce of tea, that is three half pence at the lowest; and two ounces of sugar, that is three half pence more; a four- penny loaf will be tight enough; two ounces of butter two pence; all that comes to nine pence, and hardly enough; and weak food for a man.”

While economic historians interpret tea drinking as a sign of wealth, Leadbeater attempts to interpret the practice as a sign of backwardness and an inability to manage the domestic economy.

Reference: O’Connell H. ‘A Raking Pot of Tea’: Consumption and Excess in Early Nineteenth-Century Ireland. Literature & History. October 2012;21(2):32-47

Oxidation

I briefly mentioned oxidation in my getting sorted post when I was talking about the different categories of tea and thought it might be worth talking about a little more.

Oxidation is basically what causes the leaves of the tea plant (that are green when they grow) to turn brown. It is a biochemical reaction which involves the absorption of oxygen (like when an apple is cut). Black tea is generally close to fully oxidised, Green teas are usually non-oxidised and Oolongs tend to be partially oxidised to varying degrees. Oxidation is pivotal to the processing of tea and will change its colour, smell and flavour.

Oxidation Chart

Oxidation Chart (Source)

Oxidised teas, are bruised (from lightly to extensively)  to break the  cell walls and allow the enzymes in the leaves to cause natural oxidation reactions. Heating the leaves stops oxidation by deactivating the enzymes. In this way the tea producer can decide on the extent of oxidation by introducing heat. Green teas are non-oxidised and so are heated early in the production process so that the oxidation process is skipped.

Sometimes tea-oxidation is called fermentation but no microorganisms are used so this is a misnomer. Generally when people talk about tea-fermentation they are talking about oxidation.

However, just to complicate matters, the proper micororganism fermentation does take place with pu-erhs.

There are exceptions to this, but here are the usual oxidation and fermentation levels:

Black tea – almost fully oxidised

Oolong tea – partialy oxidised (ranging from 12% – 80%)

White tea – minimal oxidation

Green tea – No oxidation

Yellow tea – No oxidation

Pu-erh – fermented (sheng pu-erh is not oxidised but shou pu-erh is)