Transparency of tea prices

On my quest for Darjeeling this year, I came across Tee Kampagne. The company was set up in Berlin in 1985 and deals exclusively with Darjeeling loose tea. They reduce packaging and shipping costs by selling in large quantities, online, directly to consumers. What impresses me most is the transparency of the costs and margins. I have not seen this level of disclosure by any other tea company.

Disclosure of Calculation - Tee Kampagne

Disclosure of Calculation – Tee Kampagne (Source)

Their 2014 first flush will only available in August. I’m not sure why it’s so late but from what I’ve read it will be worth the wait.

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.

Caffeinated: How Our Daily Habit Hooks, Helps and Hurts

Murray Carpenter approaches caffeine as a drug because most of us take it every day, it has predictable physiological effects and we are dependent on it. His new book Caffeinated: How Our Daily Habit Hooks, Helps and Hurts (Hudson Street Press) was launched on 13 March and sounds like it will make for a very interesting read:

  • Women on birth control metabolize caffeine twice as slowly—which means they get double the jolt from the same cup of coffee
  • Smokers metabolize it twice as fast so they needto up their intake to get the same buzz
  • Some people are genetically predisposed to metabolize caffeine slowly and they will be extremely sensitive to caffeine
  • 100 milligrams of caffeine daily is enough to get an adult dependent
  • 250ml of cola has ~24mg of caffeine but Coke used to contain ~80mg of caffeine (the same as Red Bull today)
  • Caffeine withdrawal-symptoms can include lethargy, irritability and headaches
  • Post-operative headaches are linked to caffeine withdrawal
  • Migraine, hangover and cold medicines often include caffeine and caffeine suppositories can be used medicinally
  • Extroverts get more cognitive enhancement from caffeine
  • A tablespoon of pure caffeine would kill you
Caffeinated Owls - Dave Mottram (Image Source)

Caffeinated Owls – Dave Mottram (Image Source)

 

As I previously wrote, there have been several papers written on the effect of caffeine on sleep disruption and even more papers written on the positive and negative effects of caffeine on other health issues. A major problem in this type of research is that the papers tend to use very different values for the caffeine content in beverages and foods  and most ignore the effects of other substances like theobromine, tanninic acid, caffeol etc.

For tea in particular it can be hard to pin down the precise caffeine content. Preparation plays a large role and differences in the time and temperature of steepings, the size of the tea leaf and the type of tea used will all influence the caffeine content of tea. The plant variety, soil, nutrients, picking season and the part of plant used will also play a role.

After a lot of searching, I eventually collected some reliable information on the caffeine content of tea.

[Note: moderate caffeine use is generally considered to be 200 – 300 milligrams per day]

 

Tea (~200ml after one steeping of three minutes)

Chinese white tea – 75mg

Darjeeling white – 56mg

Indian Green – 59mg

Kenyan Green – 58 mg

Chinese Oolong (Ti Kwan Yin) – 37mg

Assam (FTGFOP) – 86mg

Darjeeling Black (SFTGFOP1) – 54mg

 

For comparison here are some for coffee and other beverages:

Coffee (~200ml)

Coffee (ground roasted) – 115mg

Coffee (instant) – 80mg

Cola – 20mg

Decaffeinated coffee – 4mg

Espresso, single shot – 75mg

Espresso, double shot – 150mg

Red Bull (250ml can) – 80mg

 

Chocolate

70% Green and Black dark chocolate (30g) – 4.5mg

Green and Black milk chocolate (30g) – 2mg

White chocolate (30g) – 0mg

High Mountain Oolong

This is a light Oolong from the Taiwanese mountains. High mountain teas mostly come from central Taiwan and the particular growing environment at high elevation gives these “Gaoshan” teas a distinctly rich sweetness. It is semiball-rolled with the attached stems and was harvested in Spring 2013.

High Mountain Oolong

Preparation: To prepare this tea, I put 4g of the tea in a warmed porcelain teapot. I add a little water at 85 °C (when medium bubbles appear in the water). This water is discarded as a rinse and then I add about 175ml of water and let the leaves unfurl for 30 seconds. The steeping time increases for each subsequent steeping and I find that I can get at least 5 steepings from this tea. The liquor is pale yellow in colour but the sweet floral aroma is magnificent. To taste, this tea is subtle, creamy and gentle and has a long aftertaste. Overall, I think that the price of £9.95 for 50g is worth it for this level of quality.

High Mountain Oolong is available from Postcard teas.

Note: As with all reviews on this site, I purchased this tea and have no affiliation with the sellers or the tea estate.

Stale tea

Last weekend we spring-cleaned the kitchen (we are late for 2013 spring cleaning not early for 2014!). In the process, I found some very old matcha, which makes for an interesting comparison with the fresh matcha that I bought last week.

Matcha - Fresh and StaleHere are the photos. You can see that the fresh matcha is striking bright green but the old one is a dull, grey-green. Tea doesn’t spoil with time but it does loose its flavour and colour especially if exposed to air. Matcha is one of the brisker tea on the fading process. Ideally it should be used within a few weeks of opening but keeping it in an airtight container in the fridge can extend this a little. I’m ashamed to say that the old matcha was not in an airtight container, not in the fridge and has probably been on the shelf for well over a year. In other words, a perfect storm of matcha degradation!

 

The old matcha still has a strong vegetal aroma but it doesn’t form the nice froth and the taste is unpleasant and slightly sour.

Brewed Matcha - Fresh and Stale

Not all the examples of stale tea are as obvious as matcha and of course it varies with vacuum sealing, conditions etc. but here are the general rules that I use:  greens: within 4/5 months (of the harvest date), light oolongs and early Darjeeling: within 6/7 months, black tea (apart from Darjeeling) within 12-18 months, pu-ehr and heavily roasted oolongs: whenever they’re ready – both improve with age.

For the teas that don’t age, I have a terrible habit of not drinking them quickly enough. When I find a tea that I love, I sometimes wait until I can make enough time to really enjoy it, or the right occasion, or someone to share it with. Some fine teas have been lost in this way and the matcha was a good reminder. From now on, I am going to be dedicated in keeping my tea list updated with the date of purchase/harvest. That might sound nerdy but it’s nothing compared to the plans I have for rules in excel and automatic colour coding depending on the best time to drink ;-).

Plucking Tea

When tea is harvested, different parts of the plant are plucked, depending on the quality of the tea to be produced, the type of tea, the country etc. Tea picking is an important stage in tea processing and historically much has been written about the activity and the women who carried it out. Chatterjee (reference below) for example, mentions one account of labour management in the Tang Dynasty where tea pickers were required to abstain from eathing fish and certain kinds of meat so that their breath might not affect the bouquet of the leaves. He also talks about how women’s hands and fingernails were inspected to ensure body oils and perspiration would not contaminate the leaves.

Today, it is generally accepted that for high quality orthodox tea, the leaves at the tip of the stem are hand-picked. Plucking the bud and adjacent leaves  encourages new shoots to grow. Dexterity and speed are required, as the pickers snap the top, tender stems using the index finger and thumb and breaking the leaves off with a quick snap although many farmers have adopted the time-saving method of attaching a blade to the index finger for snipping the stem.

 

tea pluck types: imerial, fine, average

Image Source

The tender leaves at the top of the plant are the freshest growth and the most tender and are the richest in catechins and theanine. Imperial plucking involves just the bud and one leaf. Fine plucking takes the bud and the two adjacent leaves at the top of the plant stem. Average plucking takes the bud and three leaves.

 

 

Below are two photos of a jasmine pearl tea. The photo on the left is before steeping and the one on the right is the unfurled leaf after steeping. The beauty and perfection of the unfurled bud with its adjacent leaf or two leaves strikes me every time I make this tea.

Jasmine pearls before and after steeping

 

Reference:
A Time for Tea: Women, Labor, and Post/Colonial Politics on an Indian Plantation  By Piya Chatterje, Duke University Press Books, 2001

7 types of Earl Grey

Earl Grey is a black tea that is flavoured with oil from the rind of bergamot orange, a fruit grown in Italy, France and South East Asia. Variations on the traditional blend include Lady Grey (a blend of earl grey with blue cornflower blossoms), Russian Earl Grey (Earl Grey with pieces of citrus peel and lemongrass) and Red Earl Grey (rooibos and bergamot).

Charles Grey - 2nd Earl Grey

Charles Grey – 2nd Earl Grey (Source)

Responsible for the name of the tea is Charles Grey. Charles was an English aristocrat who was educated in Eton and Cambridge and elected to Parliament at the age of 22. He married Mary Elizabeth Ponsonby (daughter of Baron Ponsonby of Imokilly, Co. Cork) and had six daughter and ten sons. Before he was married he had an illegitimate daughter with the Duchess of Devonshire, which is the subject of the movie “The Duchess”. He was prime minister of England from November 1830 to July 1834 and inherited the title of Earl from his father. Charles Grey was noted for advocating Parliamentary reform and Catholic Emancipation. Two of his most notable reforms were the Reform Act of 1832 and the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 but interestingly the monopoly of the East India Company in Britain’s trade with China ended while he was prime minister.

 

1928 Advertisement for Earl Grey

1928 Advertisement for Earl Grey (Source)

How he became associated with the tea is unclear. There are stories of good deeds in China that resulted in the recipe for the tea coming to his ownership. Another version tells how the blend was created by accident when a gift of tea and bergamot oranges were shipped together from diplomats in China and the fruit flavour was absorbed by the tea during shipping. Yet another version of the story involves a Chinese mandarin friend of the Earl blending this tea to offset the taste of limescale in the water at his home (at Howick Hall). In reality, it is not absolutely clear why the tea was named after Charles. However, the tea was served by the Greys when they hosted gatherings and Jackson’s of Piccadilly say that they introduced the blend in 1836 to “meet the wishes of a former Earl Grey”.

As a person who claims to not like flavoured tea, I currently have seven different varieties of Earl Grey on my shelf. Last Saturday I brewed all seven to compare and contrast. Among them were four loose leaf teas, one whole-leaf tea bag and two CTC tea bags. Historically, Earl Grey has a reputation for involving low quality teas that are masked by the bergamot  but each of these was absolutely drinkable and most of them were very pleasant. Going through the distinctions of each would get tedious so I’ve shortlisted the best of the crop.

3 of the 7 earl greys

The nicest tea was a blend of Chinese black tea from Tea Palace. It was a beautiful earthy tea that was balanced with a gentle bergamot flavour. Second place went to a blend from Damman Frères. The presence of blue cornflower blossoms and sunflower petals means that technically this is a Lady Grey but it was sold as Earl Grey so we included it. The Chinese black tea in this blend stood up well with the bright citrus flavour and again gave a harmonious flavour. Of the two CTC teabags, the Marks and Spencer brand was the more interesting of the two. It used a Sri Lankan black tea that gave their blend a rich, powerful base.

The most interesting conclusion from tasting all these teas is that aroma of the loose leaf gives very little indication of the taste. The strong perfume smell of the Dammann Frères was off-putting but that overpowering fragrance did not translate to the taste. Similarly, one of the teas was an earl grey lavender and the aroma was distinctly soap-like. But again, that soapiness did not translate to taste.

Some notes on preparing earl grey tea: Freshly boiled water should be used. A steep time of 1.5 minutes is good for the loose leaf teas (3g tea and 150 ml water). The CTC tea bags steep in 40 – 45 seconds (200 ml water). All the teas were drank black.

Too much tea

Tea is a natural source of fluoride and at moderate levels is regarded as good for teeth. This article from the New England Journal of Medicine describes a 47-year-old woman who used 100 to 150 tea bags every day for over 17 years. The woman was ingesting ~20mg of fluoride every day which resulted in complete tooth loss and bones that were seven times denser than normal. Aside from tooth-loss, the fluorosis led to severe brittle bones and pain.

Everything in moderation….

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:

 

 

Let the record show….

In case there is an impression that I sit around drinking only good tea, let the record show that I drink my fair share of foul liquids. In the interest of not turning the site into a rant I have gathered some of the worst offenders into one post. Some are bad teas but some are just teas that do not appeal to my palate.

Pu-ehr AntiqueThis first tea is probably the worst of the lot so let’s just get it over and done with. It is a pu-ehr that was stupidly bought by me in a supermarket in France. The dried leaf of this tea has off-notes that is a mix of rancid and tar. If the aroma of the dried leaf is so strong it doesn’t bode well for the liquor but I brewed it anyway. It is undrinkable and I mean undrinkable in the sense of I’m afraid to put the dried leaves into the compost-bin in case it contaminates the compost and I end up eating carrots next year that taste like this tea. As pu-ehr goes, it wasn’t at all expensive (I think around €7-8) but I hate to think of someone who normally buys black tea deciding to experiment with this loose leaf pu-ehr. I can see them now mentally filing pu-ehr into the same category as cod liver oil.

 

 

Pu-ehr lemonThe second offender also involves pu-ehr but in this instance it is more subjective. I very rarely drink flavoured tea and I cannot imagine a situation where I would pick up a packet of lemon pu-ehr and hand over cash for its purchase. I’ve come to the conclusion that it was a a free sample that I picked up somewhere. It tastes unsurprisingly of lemon but it is artificial and dull and is just so wrong.

 

 

This next one is completely subjective and I’m sure plenty of people would like it. I visited Nigiro Tea last year when I was in South Africa to buy some of their famous “Orange & Spices” rooibos which is flavoured with cloves, cardamom, cinnamon and orange. I could have cried when they told me that they were all out and would not be restocking until the following week. I wanted to buy one of their rooibos teas to take home so the shop assistant recommended the caramel rooibos. My conspiracy theory says that she knew I was flying out the next day and figured that the chances of me calling back to complain and return any tea were low so she sold me the dud tea that wasn’t selling. The less paranoid side of me says that some people might actually like this sickly sweet blend.

 

Immune BoostThe Immune Boost from Tea Palace is next on the list. It has a nice list of ingredients: orange peel, ginger, echinacea and ginseng but the taste is bitter and unpleasant. This tea usually ends up in a competition with Lemsip for the award of worst tasting medicinal fluid. In case my taste buds were altered by being sick, I tried to drink this when I was well again but the outcome is the same. It wasn’t bought with flavour in mind but my immune system will have to do without this particular boost.

 

And finally, cold infusions. Yesterday seemed like a good day to embrace the concept of cold infusion after Met Éireann announced that it was the hottest day in Ireland for seven years. I’m still a little bewildered at the idea of of making tea from cold water but I was ready to be the early adopter and started with a green tea/rooibos/lemon myrtle mixture. It doesn’t taste like green tea or rooibos. It is just water with a dull hint of citrusy flavour. I could drink this as a water replacement but definitely not as a tea replacement so after being so open-minded in the build-up to the tasting, I have made the snap decision that cold infusions are not for me.

It is difficult to avoid the occasional cup of bad tea but most of the incidents above  could have been avoided by sticking to my guiding principles of tea-buying 😉

  1. Don’t expect to find good quality loose leaf tea in supermarkets
  2. Don’t fall for the sales pitch/taste before you buy
  3. Tea is not a medicine
  4. Tea needs to be made with hot water