Saturday, June 30, 2007

Magnitude 6.3 Earthquake in Pu-erh

An earthquake struck the heart of the Pu-erh tea growing region of Yunnan province in China earlier this month. I wonder what the tea gods are trying to tell us??

For more info on the earthquake, check out this ReliefWeb link.

Tea drinkers worry that prices of pu-erh will go up even more. According to the UK Telegraph, pu-erh prices were already on the rise in 2006--increasing 50% that year alone. Since the quake, prices have risen another 30-50%. Pu-erh is now worth its weight in gold six times over!

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

My first tea review - Monkey Picked Oolong

Monkey Picked Oolong

铁观音 ; tiěguānyīn

This tea, from the Fujian province of China, traces its name back to when Buddhist monks trained monkeys to harvest the youngest leaves from the tops of wild tea trees. This tea is also known as "Iron Goddess of Mercy," alluding to Buddhism’s bodhisattva of mercy and compassion. The source of this tea is Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco, and is priced at $95/lb ($5.94/oz).

The dry leaves have two distinct tones of green, a light green and a dark swamp green, demonstrating the partial fermentation of the tea oils. Hues of orange and blue are subtly apparent. Observing how the small pellets unfurl as they are brewed, they must have been carefully hand-rolled—first lengthwise from both edges to the middle of the leaf, and then these strips were rolled into pellets.

1st brew, 20s
2nd brew, 30s
3rd brew, 40s
4th brew, 50s

By the third brew the leaves are fully open. After pouring out the tea liquor, the leaves are glossy and have an even color tone. The leaves appear young, being 2” long at most. They have serrated edges with occasional edge-tears, probably from traditional basket tumbling—or “yaoqing” in Chinese (摇青; yáoqīng).

The third brew is the best of the four infusions. The fourth brew is still potent, but the flavor begins to wane.

Each brew produces a bright, orange-green liquor with a still film on the surface depicting the islets of a river delta, steaming as if the morning river fog is being lifted away by the sun.

To be tasted with the nose while sipping, this tea is full of floral notes reminiscent of high mountain pastures in early springtime, combined with a bright aroma of fresh coastal conifers. It has enough body to satisfy without any earthiness or taste of Chinese herbs.

The mouthfeel is buttery and slightly viscous, and rolls off the edges of my tongue like the water of a thermal spring over the rounded edge of a smooth stone. There is no oily film after swallowing, but rather a hint of dry astringent aftertaste that tonifies the roots of my teeth and tingles my brain.

The effects of this tea are softening to the body and arousing to the mind. My throat chakra softened, blossoming open. I felt wide waves flow up the back of my head. My attention was drawn to my breathing—slow, steady, and soft-bellied. My mind became alert with the same freshness of the tea’s flavor, and my eyes brightened. A calm sense of well-being made the corners of my mouth turn up, and I experienced a euphoric levity.

This is a good early afternoon tea to be enjoyed in the summer sun and fresh air, and is easily my favorite oolong so far. I am always looking to try new teas, so get in touch if you would like to make a trade! :)

Has anyone else tried this tea or something with a similar name? What do you think of it?

Monday, June 25, 2007

The Empty Boat

The Empty Boat
by Zhuangzi, 4th cent. BC

Should a boatman while crossing a river
Have an empty boat crash into his boat
Even if he is a man who is quick to anger
His anger will not rage.

Yet if he sees someone in that boat
He will yell and scream telling him
Get out of my way.

And if his yelling is not responded to
He will yell all the louder
And begin swearing and cursing.
All that just because someone is in the boat.
Yet if it were an empty boat
He would not be angry nor shouting.

If you are able to empty your own boat
That is empty yourself of yourself
During your time in the world
There will be no one opposing you
There will be no one out to harm you.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Milk bags benefits of tea? UPDATE!

For a great new article on the issue about adding milk to your tea and its influence on its antioxidant capacity, check the latest addition to Chemistea : The cream of the crop - interactions of black tea and dairy. The tea chemist concludes:

Since theaflavin now exists as a [casein-theaflavin] complex, it loses the antioxidant properties it once posesses... the antioxidant potential of the tea after milk has been added is roughly 80% of it's original."

The scientific study that tb cites focuses mainly on the polyphenols found in green tea, analyzing the masking of many individual polyphenols that are abundant in green tea and not so abundant in black tea. It does so for both green and black teas, and gives proportions for how each polyphenol accounts for the total antioxidant masking in both teas (see Figure 5 in the PDF). Accordingly, theaflavin only accounts for 0.6% of the total antioxidant masking, whereas tb considers theaflavin to be the main culprit involved. The source article does not however analyze thearubigin, and I assume this falls under the "unknown" category in this study. In fact, 85% of what contributes to the masking that beta-casein provides is in the "Unknown" category. What is the antioxidant that is masked by milk proteins? The study speculates:

Probably tannins, polymers of oxidized polyphenols (9), have a significant contribution to the antioxidant capacity of black tea."

Could it be thearubigin? The study specifically mentions polymers as contributing to the antioxidant capacity of black tea. This likeliness that it is thearubigin is confirmed by another study, which says: "The major fractions of black tea polyphenols, accounting for >20% of the solids in brewed black tea, are known as thearubigens."

But how thearubigen and its polymer chain reacts with milk proteins, we do not know. According to tb, the thearubigin polymer chains that are almost instantly formed when released into hot water are stable enough that they will not react with the compounds in milk. Is this true? And if so, which antioxidants account for the majority of the masking done by milk proteins?

More questions to answer, the search for tea knowledge continues!! Time to ponder and enjoy a good cup of green tea :)

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

The ABC's of T

Tea 101

When I say tea, I don't mean just anything boiled in water that's drinkable. Tea is often confused with these herbal decoctions, a.k.a. herbal teas, herbal infusions, "teasanes," Wildberry Zinger, etc. Nope... I'm talking about that one divine plant, scientifically classified as Camellia sinensis. Camellia is the genus, and sinensis, the species, means "Chinese" in Latin. And not just any part of the plant can be used to make the #1 consumed beverage in the world (after water), only the leaves. Here are some other interesting facts about the plant:

  • Camellia sinensis is native to tropical regions of southeast asia, preferring heavy rainfall and acidic soil conditions.
  • The plant has a lifespan of more than 100 years!
Tea History (2737 B.C. - present)

Legend has it that Chinese emperor Shen Nung (which means "divine healer") was boiling his water to drink, and the breeze blew some leaves from a nearby bush right into his imperial cup. Being that he was a great teacher of agriculture and herbology, he decided to taste the color-infused water. Noticing the relaxing yet uplifting effects, and increased sense of well-being, he insisted that the others try it. And so tea was born.

In China, they originally called tea "cha." This is the most commonly used name across all of China. But when tea first reached Europe it came from the Fujian province of China, where the local Fukienese dialect calls it "tey." Countries such as India, Russia, and Turkey use the word "cha" since they were introduced to tea by traders traveling overland from China along the Silk Road.

Tea Biochemistry

The graphic to the right shows an approximate breakdown of what biochemicals compose the tea leaf. This was compiled from information in a very good article on the biochemistry of tea. The slices of this tea-pie that most tea-drinkers will pay attention to are the polyphenols (in lavender), which are potent anti-oxidants, and caffeine (in orange), a potent pick-me-up. Caffeine imparts a strong cup of tea with its ability to energize, increase alertness, and elevate your mood. Anti-oxidants have shown to be very beneficial for ones health, including the ability to reduce the risk of cancer! While it is good to analyze the individual constituents of tea and the properties they tout, it is important to remember that the act of focusing on one aspect of the plant can make us lose sight of its complexity in a greater context. These individual constituents of tea are what they are because of their interaction with a multitude of other factors during the plant's evolutionary history. This includes the complex network of chemical reactions that take place in the leaves as they absorb the sun's radiant light, breathe carbon dioxide and aspire oxygen, the complex nutrient exchange that takes place at the roots, and the ecosystem or network that the plant is ecologically embedded in, depending on and providing for a multitude of organisms--both of the micro and large type. A large organism of key importance here is man, since the plant has been subject to artificial selection, meaning humans have selected for the qualities in tea that are most desirable during thousands of years of practicing its cultivation. It is also important to gain insight as to how these ecological networks, their components and interactions have changed over time and continue to do so as evolution unfolds. This holistic perspective on tea is something that reaches beyond the scope of words, and can only be tapped into by experiencing tea itself, a one-on-one conversation between you and the plant's brewed essence--a dialog that many great sages and philosophers have no doubt had during epiphanous moments of inspiration. Lao Tzu drank tea as he wrote the Tao Te Ching in the 6th century BC, calling it the "elixir of immortality."

A Tea Prism

Just like light through a prism, we can obtain an entire spectrum of teas from the one plant--from white tea to black tea and everything in between. First about the varieties of Camellia sinensis. There are two main varieties, the Assamese variety (Camellia sinensis var. assamica) and the Chinese variety (Camellia sinensis var. sinensis). The Assamese variety is a tree that grows quite tall, about 6-20 meters, and has large leaves. The Chinese variety is a small bush that reaches about 3 meters in height, and has smaller leaves that are more resistant to cold temperatures. Since the tea exportation industry has had a long time to develop on a worldwide scale, both of these main varieties are found in all of the top tea producing nations. In the internationally known tea plantations of Darjeeling, Assamese varieties are grown at lower altitudes, and Chinese varieties at the cold, higher altitudes. As you might imagine, the two main varieties of tea branch off into hundreds of classified varieties. Interestingly however, there appears to be more genetic variation among the Chinese varieties than the Assamese varieties, perhaps because China was the first country to value tea as a beverage and have been cultivating it longer and into more diverse geographical regions.
Besides genetics, many factors determine the quality of the harvested tea leaf. Altitude influences the amount of chlorophyll or green pigmentation in the leaf. There are two primary pickings of the leaves, once harvested in early spring and again in early summer. The first flush is generally considered superior, although this is not true for some varieties and climate conditions. Some plants are even harvested during the cold and dry months of winter such as in the case of plantations of southern India.
While the actual plant which the tea leaves are picked from definitely has a lot to do with your resulting brew, there are many ways to process the leaves which can produce a whole gamut of flavors. This is how a tea leaf becomes either white, yellow, green, oolong, red, or black tea! The primary steps in processing include: picking, wilting, bruising, oxidizing, shaping, drying, and curing. Whether or not or to what degree the leaf undergoes each of these steps will ultimately determine the resulting type of tea.

  1. Wilting is a primary drying stage during which the leaf loses water weight and suffers very light oxidation.
  2. Bruising releases some of the leaf's juices to change the taste profile of the tea as well as promote faster oxidation.
  3. Oxidation, also known as fermentation (incorrectly, since no microorganisms are involved), is the most influential step in determining the tea's ultimate biochemical contents and thus flavor. The green leaves are left in a dark room and turn a darker color as they absorb oxygen, undergoing enzymatic reactions that break down the chlorophyll and in turn produce tannins. Green teas are not at all oxidized, oolongs are only partially oxidized, and black teas are fully oxidized.
  4. Shaping can include hand or machine-rolling the leaves--lengthwise into strips, into spirals or pellets, or tying them together into balls or other elaborate display-tea shapes.
  5. Drying is the last step for most teas, and can be accomplished by panning, air-drying, sun-drying, or baking.
  6. Curing is a secondary-fermentation and aging process used to produce "pu-erh" teas.
Here is a graphic that shows six types of teas and how they are differently processed:

White tea is the least processed type of tea. New growth leaves are used, and therefore don't have very much green pigmentation. It is baked to deactivate oxidative enzymes and thus halt oxidation. The leaves are then shaped and dried. Fine white tea is so unprocessed that it still has the small hairs on the leaves. White tea is a specialty of the Fujian province of China. White tea differs from green tea in their proportions of antioxidant compounds, and white tea has more caffeine, as well as more anti-viral and anti-bacterial properties than green tea.
Yellow tea is similar to white and green teas, but undergoes a slower drying phase to give it a unique flavor. It is not very popular and may be difficult to obtain.
Green tea is widely popular in China, Japan, Taiwan, and Morocco. It is becoming increasingly popular in the Western world, as it has relatively recently been discovered to have wide-ranging health benefits. The mature tea leaves are heated quickly after harvesting by either steaming (following Japanese tradition) or dry heating in pans (as the Chinese do) to halt oxidation. There are thousands of green tea varieties to be appreciated for their unique intricacies.
Oolong tea is labor intensive and often very delicately produced. The leaves are first wilted, then bruised on the edges to enhance oxidation. Next the leaves are 30-70% oxidized during 2-3 days before they are heated to halt the oxidation, and finally dried. Oolong literally means "black dragon" in Chinese.
Black tea is the most commonly drunk tea in the Western world, including the U.S. and Europe. It is a fully oxidized tea. Fully oxidized tea is known as red tea in China, although the Chinese processing techniques don't use the CTC method of bagged black teas. CTC stands for "Crushing, Tearing, and Curling" the tea leaves, a method discovered to allow bulk processing since it is done by machine. The leaves are passed through cylindrical rollers with lots of little teeth on them, precisely to crush, tear, and curl the leaves, yielding small leaf pieces that are quicker brewing and able to be more efficiently packed than loose leaf tea. While this method makes massive tea production more cost-effective and dominates the tea export market, it compromises the flavor that is obtained by traditional processing methods.

Brewing that perfect cup

From "high tea" to "kung fu" tea, there are many ways to make and enjoy the beverage after the leaves have been obtained. Bagged tea is convenient, quick, and easy, and more commonly found in the Western world. For a quick caffeine boost, with milk and sugar, and off to work, or so that everyone can choose how they like their cup of tea, since bags can go directly in the cup. Loose leaf tea is what has traditionally been used in China, and is slowly becoming more popular in the West as more people are discovering the wonders of tea and all of its subtleties. Due to the large leaf size, it is difficult to brew loose leaves in the cramped space of a bag, so many techniques are used to brew and then filter the leaves so they don't end up in your cup. Of the most interesting is "gong fu" or "kung fu" tea. Yes, the Chinese characters are the same as the butt-kicking "kung fu" that seems so different from a relaxing cup of tea. But the concept applies to both art forms--the martial type and the tea making type--and denotes "skill from practice." Every step in preparation is carefully and artfully executed with a series of utensils that are also artfully crafted. Temperature is a very important consideration here. The perfect temperature water is used not only to brew the tea, but to clean the cups before and between brewings, and to warm the teapot inside and out. The tea is multiply brewed, the second brewing often considered the best of all. It is also important to consider the flavor change based on brew time, brew round, and where the water sits in the pot, and for this reason the tea is poured into the cups in a circular fashion. The last drops of tea from the pot are so valued to even have a special name, and should be shared among each cup. Careful attention to the necessary overflowing and spilling of water is also key to an artful presentation. "Gong fu cha" is a beautiful, almost ritualistic ceremony for which there are even regional and national competitions in China.
Brewing that perfect cup definitely starts with a clean source of water, and important to consider is tea quantity, water temperature, and brewing times. Black, bagged tea is generally brewed with boiling water (230° Fahrenheit/100° Celsius) for 3-5 minutes. Loose leaf oolong and green teas are brewed with steaming-hot water (~180-190° Fahrenheit/82-88° Celsius) for 20 seconds-2 minutes, extending the time a bit with each brew. White teas are brewed at this less than boiling temperature for a longer period of about 3-5 minutes, since it doesn't get bitter. There is a lot of varying opinion on how to brew tea, and the best way to learn is by experimenting for yourself.

The best way to learn, and to truly enjoy your tea, is to forget everything you may have learned here, since tea can only be poured into an empty cup.

"Empty yourself of everything.
Let the mind become still.
The ten thousand things rise and fall while the Self watches their
They grow and flourish and then return to the source.
Returning to the source is stillness,
Which is the way of nature."
-Lao Tzu
Tao Te Ching

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Tea quotes

A couple of my favorites...
"If you are cold, tea will warm you. If you are heated, it will cool you. If you are depressed, it will cheer you. If you are excited, it will calm you."
~ William Gladstone

"The first bowl sleekly moistened throat and lips,
The second banished all my loneliness
The third expelled the dullness from my mind,
Sharpening inspiration gained
from all the books I've read.
The fourth brought forth light perspiration,
Dispersing a lifetime's troubles through my pores.
The fifth bowl cleansed ev'ry atom of my being.
The sixth has made me kin to the Immortals.
This seventh...
I can take no more."
~ Lu Tung, Chinese Poet

Milk bags benefits of tea?

According to a group of cardiologists and scientists in Berlin, adding milk to your tea eliminates at least some of the healthful properties of tea. For a complete article, go here.
Black tea improves the body's ability to relax its arteries, but not when milk is added! They tested both humans and rats.

"Their study showed that the culprit in milk is a group of proteins called caseins, which they found interacted with the tea to decrease the concentration of catechins in the beverage."

There are a couple of suspicions I have about the study. First of all is their insistence on the word 'catechins' as in the above quote. While green tea has a large concentration of catechin type polyphenols, black tea only has about 1/4 the amount. Catechins are converted during the tea oxidation/fermentation process to theaflavins--an entirely different class of flavonoids which are practically non-existent in green tea (unoxidized) but abundant in black tea (fully oxidized). Theaflavins are responsible for the antioxidant activity that give black tea its benefits, and would presumably cause arterial dilation.
Whether their chemical nomenclature is actually faulted or not does not however call into question the empirical results of the study. But I wonder about these results as well. Sure, black tea on an empty stomach is going to be absorbed by the body quickly and all at once compared to black tea and milk. But those newly formed "catechin-casein" compounds will ultimately be broken down by digestion. Won't they then be absorbed by the body just the same? It doesn't seem the caseins would be able to somehow block the effects of the tea, but rather simply slow their onset until all the compounds in the beverage are broken back down by the body. The study only measured the test groups' arterial pressure twice, once before beverage ingestion, and once two hours after ingestion. It could easily be imagined that an hour later the effects of pure black tea have worn off and those of the milky tea are now more noticeable. In any case, the study is not too convincing.
Now what about the health of tea-drinkers that routinely put milk in their morning cup? It would be interesting to compare the health of nations with this reputation, such as England, compared to that of non-dairy purists such as China. I tried looking online for hypertension rates of these nations, but there was no one study that compared both in the same way. Depending on the study that analyzes hypertension rates in adults for either country, they are reported as anywhere from 10-40%, and aren't consistent enough to trust. A deeper look into this might be coming soon...