Teacology

Tea, with an Ecological Approach


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Orientalism in Tea Marketing Language

Mariko, one of the newest tea reviewers on RateTea, whom I met through Tumblr, recently shared a tea review which provoked so much thought, that in the middle of writing a reply comment, I decided that I’d rather make it into a post here.  Mariko writes:

I have to admit to being a little biased against this tea based on the name alone. What is this, the East India Trading Company? Are we still living in the Age of Imperialism? Come, now.

As a side note, the East India Company has relaunched, but that’s a whole other topic; an Indian, Sanjiv Mehta, bought the rights to the name in 2005 and relaunched it, describing feeling a “huge sense of redemption” in buying the rights to the name.

The Offending Tea

The tea in question is called Oriental Treasure Green Tea, and is sold by Bentley Tea, a brand of the Boston Tea Company.  In an ironic twist, this company has roots in opposition to British Imperialism and the East India Company.  The Boston Tea Company was founded by people who salvaged crates of tea that had been thrown overboard in the Boston Tea Party.

A can of Oriental Treasure Green Tea from Bentley's Tea

The tea in question.

I had a similar reaction as Mariko to the tea’s name. I tend to react pretty negatively to things labelled with terms like “oriental treasure”.  I have come to associate the term “oriental” with the sort of patronizing attitude that Western society took towards eastern societies (very broadly, anything from the Middle east through east Asia, sometimes even including North Africa) for quite some time, often described nowadays as Orientalism.  A key book in this movement is Edward W. Said’s Orientalism (1979).  This book, which is somewhat controversial, argues that much of the scholarship on the regions described as “the East”, is tied to Western imperialism, and is based on a false view of these cultures and people as inferior.

I think it would be good for marketing language to avoid evoking associations of imperialism, racism, and a condescending attitude towards Eastern cultures.

I don’t think everyone necessarily has these same associations though.  Our world is incredibly vast and diverse, and I am continuously reminding myself that not everyone has come into contact with the same circles as I do, nor will they necessarily be aware of the same sorts of social issues that people in my circles tend to be aware of.  I see the term “Oriental” in business and marketing a lot less now than when I was a kid some 25ish years ago, but I still do see it, including being used by Asian companies and Asian-American owned businesses here in the U.S.  And I hear the term used occasionally by older Americans.

Other Teas Labelled “Oriental”

A number of tea companies still use the term “Oriental”.  The most common reference is in the style of oolong, oriental beauty, although I’ve seen the Chinese name “Bai Hao” used more for this tea in circles of tea connoisseurs and companies catering to a more knowledgeable customer base.  Outside bai hao oolong, the term “oriental” is uncommon in the tea world. A RateTea search turned up only a handful of teas other than that oolong which contained the word “oriental”.  Incidentally, many of them are sold by Asian companies.

A dark loose-leaf oolong tea, with curved leaves

Oriental beauty Oolong tea, from Life in Teacup, also frequently described by the Chinese name “Bai Hao”.

I do think though that the negative associations with the term have been increasing, and I think there are valid reasons behind the concern that there is a certain latent racism, imperialism, or other negative sorts of cultural biases underlying the term.  For this reason, I think it would be a good idea for marketing professionals within tea companies and working with tea companies, to be conscious of these issues, and probably to avoid this term.  Alienating even a small segment of customers through your choice of tea names is not a great marketing strategy, and it’s likely that this segment will only increase over time.  The potential range of choices for a tea name is almost boundless, and I think it’s easy to come up with names that are both more descriptive, and evoke more universally positive connotations.

What do you think?

  • Are you familiar with the concept of Orientalism as described here, or is it a new concept for you?
  • How did you react to the name of the tea in question here?  Do you react negatively to the term “Oriental” in general?
  • Do you find it ironic that a company that grew out of a reaction against British imperialism is now using terminology that has come to be associated with such imperialism?


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Natural Alternatives to Decaf Black Tea: Herbs Tasting Like Black Tea

For a preview, this post will be featuring rooibos, red raspberry leaf, and New Jersey tea.

There is a significant demand for decaffeinated tea.  RateTea currently lists 231 decaf teas, around 3.5% of the 6600+ teas in the database.  (This figure only includes true teas that have been decaffeinated–not herbal teas that are naturally caffeine free.)  And Google Trends shows that the search interest in decaf tea is on the rise, with a spike that coincides with the interest in green tea, which I wrote about on SpontaneiTea recently.

Decaffeinated flavored or spiced teas, like this "chai spice tea" sold by Stash, often come out better than pure decaf teas, because the additional flavorings can be added after the decaffeination process removes much of the flavor from the tea.  Photo by JHoltzman, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Decaffeinated flavored or spiced teas, like this “chai spice tea” sold by Stash, often taste better than pure decaf teas, because the additional flavorings can be added after the decaffeination process removes much of the flavor from the tea. Photo by JHoltzman, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

On a personal level, I understand and relate to the desire for drinking decaf, at least in the abstract.  I love tea, and I frequently drink enough of it that I don’t want any more, not because I tire of the taste or experience of drinking it, but rather, because I can only handle so much caffeine.  Different people have different sensitivities to caffeine, and I find that I tend to be pretty sensitive to it.  Tea festivals and trade shows like World Tea East or the Philadelphia Coffee and Tea Festival often put me in a bind–I want to keep sampling teas, but because I get so caffeinated, I turn down all but those I feel pretty sure I’ll like, and I’ve learned to pace myself with respect to the caffeine.  So I understand how someone could want to drink tea without caffeine.

But decaf tea never satisfies me.  In fact, more often than not, I think it tastes quite terrible, and I’d rather drink nothing or water than drink it.  I’ve poured out many a decaf tea, brewing it only to find that it doesn’t even taste drinkable to me.  Even the best decaf teas, to me, are ones that I dislike less rather than ones I truly love.  Yet there is no shortage of naturally caffeine-free herbal teas that I enjoy.

There are also other reasons to avoid drinking decaf tea.  One is health, and another is resource usage, which is related to sustainability.  In this post, I will explore some of the reasons to drink naturally caffeine-free herbs rather than decaf tea, and I will give examples of the herbs that I think make the best tea substitutes.

Why Avoid Decaffeinated Tea? Health and Sustainability

Health and Safety Issues: Toxicity and Carcinogenicity

Decaffeination processes for coffee and tea have come a long way in terms of health and safety.  Can you believe that benzene used to be used in decaffeination (for coffee, not tea)?  Benzene is a major carcinogen and one of the most dangerous chemicals out there, in large part because it is both highly volatile and odorless.  One of my relatives, a non-smoker, was an artist and used benzene as a paint thinner, and died of lung cancer.  Thankfully, our society woke up to the dangers of this chemical long ago, and it has not been in use in decaffeination for years.

If you want to learn more in-depth about the decaffeination processes, both current and historic, used to remove the caffeine from tea, I recommend reading RateTea’s article on decaffeinated tea.  Although there are a few esoteric processes, most tea nowadays is decaffeinated by one of three processes: CO2 (Carbon Dioxide), ethyl acetate, and methylene chloride.  I seriously doubt that decaf tea is going to kill or seriously harm anyone, but there have been some health and safety concerns associated with methylene chloride.  The other two processes, from my research, are totally safe.  Ethyl acetate sounds like a synthetic chemical, but it is a naturally occurring chemical, one that even occurs in tea leaf itself and may be an important (and pleasant) component of the fruity aroma of both tea and wine.

Methylene chloride or dichloromethane, a probable carcinogen and known liver toxin, is used in some decaffeination processes.

Methylene chloride or dichloromethane, a probable carcinogen and known liver toxin, is used in some decaffeination processes.

Methylene chloride, synonym dichloromethane, on the other hand, is a toxic chemical that shows some evidence of carcinogenicity.  The use of this chemical is still legal in the United States.  The EPA’s fact sheet on the chemical claims that the chemical does not harm the Ozone layer (unlike the fluorocarbons), but it can cause serious health problems, even at concentrations as low as 100 parts-per-million.  Ingesting the chemical in a high enough dosage can cause liver problems, and the compound is classified as a probable carcinogen in humans, on the basis of it being a known carcinogen in animals.

Although the use of methylene chloride in decaffeination is regulated, I’m not convinced that it is always used within safe limits.  I located one study which measured 15.9 parts-per-million of this chemical in a sample of commercially available decaffeinated tea.  This is far higher than the allowable limit, and an amount that is enough to raise concerns about chronic/subchronic toxicity of the liver and possible carcinogenicity, especially in people who drink decaf tea regularly and in volume.

For this reason, I recommend for tea drinkers to avoid decaf tea where the decaffeination process is not identified as CO2, ethyl acetate, or another safe process.  I also recommend for tea companies to phase out using methylene chloride, and for companies using safer processes to clearly identify which decaffeination process they do use, so that tea drinkers don’t overzealously avoid their products thinking they may be using the old methylene chloride process.  As an example, Upton Tea Imports sells both CO2 and ethyl acetate decaf teas, and clearly identifies the process used on each tea.

Sustainability: Decaffeination is an Inefficient Production Process

From a resource usage standpoint, decaffeinated tea is extremely inefficient.  Tea has been cultivated in large part because of its caffeine content, and many cultivars have been selected, in addition to their flavor, for their moderate-to-high caffeine content.

A lot of effort goes into tea production; decaffeination effectively throws out a large portion of that effort.  Photo by Martin Benjamin, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

A lot of effort goes into tea production; decaffeination effectively throws out a large portion of that effort. Photo by Martin Benjamin, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

When tea is decaffeinated, regardless of which process is used, both flavor and caffeine are extracted, not to mention the polyphenols that function as the antioxidants in tea and are responsible for some of tea’s health benefits.

Although some processes are more selective than others (in terms of extracting more caffeine relative to flavor), all processes remove significant amounts of flavor.  What this means is that in order to produce a flavorful cup of decaffeinated tea, the initial tea leaf needs to be that much more flavorful.  The efficiency of this production process is poor: decaf tea essentially involves putting energy and resources into producing a product, most of which is thrown out before consumption.  (An exception to this, salvaging some of what is removed, is when the extracted caffeine is purified and sold to the pharmaceutical industry or beverage manufacturers; I don’t know if this is currently done with tea, although I’ve read of this being done for coffee.)

Furthermore, the decaffeination process is itself costly and energy-intensive.  The CO2 process, generally considered the most desirable of the three processes mentioned above in terms of both safety and preservation of flavor, is particularly costly as it involves the use of supercritical carbon dioxide (i.e. compressed under great pressure).  This is because, at regular atmospheric pressure, carbon dioxide transitions directly from a solid (dry ice) to a gas, without going through a liquid phase.

Natural Alternatives: Caffeine-Free Herbal Teas Which Resemble Black Tea in Flavor and Aroma

Rooibos: South African “Red Tea”

Rooibos is the herb that I see most frequently presented as being “tea-like”.  It certainly is nowhere near as diverse as black tea, but it does share some characteristics, both of production and flavor and overall character, with black tea.  Rooibos is one of the few herbal teas that is naturally oxidized, in a process analogous to how black tea is oxidized during production.

Rooibos, or South African "Red Tea", is one of the herbal teas said to more closely emulate black tea.

Rooibos, or South African “Red Tea”, is one of the herbal teas said to more closely emulate black tea.

I find that rooibos replicates the body, mouthfeel, and overall sensations on the palate of black tea more so than it emulates tea in aroma.  There are certain earthy characteristics of aroma that rooibos shares in common with some black teas, but overall I find its aroma to be distinct.  I find its aroma sometimes suggests vanilla, and while it has a fruitiness to it, the fruitiness seems more to suggest strawberry, in contrast to the grape, raisin, or stone fruit aromas suggested by some black teas.  Perhaps more importantly to me, rooibos completely lacks the malty and floral tones that I like in a lot of black teas, and I find that its flavor profile tends to be muted–making it similar to some of the more muted black teas, but never like a strong Irish Breakfast or Assam, or even a sharper Darjeeling.

Red Raspberry Leaf

Red raspberry leaf is best-known as a women’s health product.  Yogi Tea sells tea bags of this herb with the caption “Supports the female system“, a blurb I find amusing as I like to drink it as a beverage, and I certainly enjoy a strong female support system in my life.  Medicinally, red raspberry leaf is typically consumed most during pregnancy, on the grounds that it supposedly strengthens or tones the uterus.  However, several of my friends also swear by its effectiveness for PMS and menstrual cramps.  As this is one area where I have no personal experience, and I was unable to find any studies backing up this use, the best I can give you is anecdotal evidence.

Leaves of the red raspberry plant, Rubus idaeus, can be used to make a caffeine-free herbal tea which in some respects resembles black tea.  Public domain photo by Matti Virtala.

Leaves of the red raspberry plant, Rubus idaeus, can be used to make a caffeine-free herbal tea which in some respects resembles black tea. Public domain photo by Matti Virtala.

Unlike some women’s health teas (like lavender or honeybush), red raspberry leaf does not seem to alter hormone levels, and it is thus safe for both men and women to drink as a beverage.  And drinking it as a beverage is something I not only do, but recommend, especially for people who want something that tastes like black tea–as I find this herb tastes a lot like black tea.

For starters, the color of the brewed cup is much more like a typical black tea, a rich brown color, than rooibos.  Where the similarity really shows up, however, is in the aroma.  It certainly doesn’t smell exactly like black tea, but I find that red raspberry leaf tea has an aroma that captures some of the floral tones in high-grade black teas.  The tannins also seem to resemble black tea more than rooibos does.  I would say raspberry leaf is probably most similar to a Ceylon, and possibly even some Darjeeling teas.  The sensation on the palate, and mouthfeel though of this tea, is very different, I would say much less tea-like than rooibos.  I find that it has a thinner body with a clearer feeling…and while there is an astringency that slightly resembles some of the more tannic teas, the astringency hits in a different way, I find coming more in the aftertaste and being a little less up-front than, say, in a strong breakfast tea or Assam.

New Jersey Tea: A Caffeine-Free Tea Substitute Native to Eastern North America

One herb that I’ve read about extensively, and have been itching to try, but have yet to actually get my hands on, is New Jersey Tea.  New Jersey Tea, or Ceanothus americanus, is a plant in the buckthorn (Rhamnaceae) family.  This plant family is distantly related to the rose family, and besides the namesake Buckthorns (small trees and shrubs), contains very few plants familiar to most residents of North America or Western Europe, although residents of the Western U.S. may be familiar with the snowbrush ceanothus, Ceanothus velutinus.  Both the snowbrush ceanothus and New Jersey Tea were used by native Americans in herbal infusions to treat upper respiratory infections like the common cold and influenza.

New Jersey Tea, Ceanothus americanus, in bloom.

New Jersey Tea, Ceanothus americanus, in bloom.  Public domain photo courtesy of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge.

I’ve also read that New Jersey Tea plant shares some aromatic components with wintergreen oil, and wintergreen tones are one of my favorite aromatic characteristics of high-quality black tea–and a quality that is captured in neither rooibos nor raspberry leaf.  I have a feeling that I may really like this one when I finally try it.

And Now For Something Completely Different

Often, when I drink herbal tea, I don’t insist that my beverage resembles tea at all.  Most of my favorite herbal teas taste nothing like black tea or any pure tea for that matter.  Some of my favorite herbs to brew herbal teas with include spearmint, orange mint, tulsi, lemon balm, pineapple sage, and lemon verbena, to name a few.  I also love the Monarda species, some of which resemble the bergamot flavoring in Earl Grey (without resembling the base black tea as much).

I’d take any of these herb teas over a decaf black tea any day.  Sometimes I find that enjoying herbal teas on their own is more satisfying than trying to seek out ones that taste like black tea: although it’s possible to get close, it’ll never be possible to get an exact match, and I feel like herbal teas are easy to enjoy as a phenomenon in their own right.

What do you think?

  • Do you ever feel the desire or need to avoid or limit your use of caffeine?  Does the idea of a decaffeinated or caffeine-free tea-like beverage appeal to you?
  • Have you ever found a decaffeinated pure tea that you really loved?  I’m not talking flavored teas like Earl Grey, as the flavors can be added in after the decaffeination is carried out; I mean a straight tea like pure black tea.
  • Are you concerned about the potential health issues surrounding the use of methylene chloride?  Were you aware that this chemical is still in use in decaffeination processes?
  • Have you tried any of the three examples I gave of naturally caffeine-free beverages that resemble black tea?
  • Can you think of any herbal teas that I’ve missed, that you think would make a good addition to this list?
  • When drinking herbal tea, do you seek out something tea-like, or are you more likely to go for something completely different?


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Tea as a Gateway to Food Culture and Slow Food

This post will take you through two opposing aspects of food culture in the United States, and explain how I think tea fits more into one side that the other.  It also explains my desire and intention to use RateTea as a platform for shaping the tastes of Americans in the direction of one of these types of food culture and away from the other.

Bland or Strong, Fast Food, and Corporate Influence: The Desert of American Food Culture

There is a degree to which the United States is viewed by the international community as a desert of food culture.  When dining at a Vietnamese restaurant with my friend Brent the other day, he remarked that most of what he thinks of as American food is either bland, or hits you in the face with strong flavors, like very sweet or very sour.  I’ve heard a lot of my friends and relatives complain about the food culture in America, but I think it’s more telling how people from other cultures perceive the U.S.

I once attended an event hosted at the International Center at Franklin and Marshall college, in which U.S. students and international students came together to discuss food culture, with a particular focus on how each of them perceived the others’ cultures.  Although there were many interesting aspects of the discussion, the one trend that stuck out to me the most was that, when foreign students were asked what they thought of as American food, the response was always something similar:

Fast food.  Burgers.  French fries.  Soft drinks.  McDonald’s.

A McDonalds storefront in Morocco showing Arabic text on its sign

A McDonald’s in Casablanca, Morocco.  With such a global presence, it is no wonder that McDonalds is what many people around the world think of when they think of food culture in the United States.  Photo by Soman, Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5.

On some level, I’m really saddened by this impression.  I think of this particular type of fast food as one of the worst aspects of American culture–one of the least healthy (with its huge portions of factory-farmed meat and refined carbs), one of the least sustainable, and one of the most devoid of culture.  Rather than being formed from a rich and continually evolving culinary tradition perfected and passed down through generations, American fast food is something that I see as originating in corporations and being motivated primarily by profit rather than holistic health and culinary mastery.  American fast food is a recent phenomenon, less than 100 years old.  The corporate machinery of the fast food restaurants can spin out of control, overpowering the original culinary traditions behind the restaurants.  As an example of this, I read that the famous fast food icon Colonel Sanders, who originally founded KFC, later sued KFC for using his image on products that he did not approve of because he considered them poor quality.

This type of food culture though is unfortunately not limited to fast food, nor is the corporatization of food or the industrialization of the food supply.  There are many subcultures within America where something similar to fast food really is what people see as “food”.  I often encounter such food at church events, like outdoor BBQ’s or other events…white bread buns, hot dogs and hamburgers taken out of packages, iceberg lettuce, and the like.  To me, it’s a food desert.  If it’s bad enough, I sometimes even choose to go hungry and eat before or after such events.  It is bad enough that it has sometimes been a wedge that has divided me from communities that I would otherwise want to participate in, like a church where I enjoyed the community and found meaning in the spiritual message.

A selection of lettuces with whitish iceberg lettuce heads on the left

Iceberg lettuce, pictured on the left, is an example of the impacts of an industrialized food supply. According to the University of Illinois Extension, Iceberg lettuce is the most widely-consumed lettuce in the U.S., but its popularity is due primarily to the fact that it ships well: it is mostly water and is much lower in nutrients than other lettuces, shown on the right.

Where does tea fit into this picture?  It doesn’t have much of a place here.  Tea is a subtle beverage.  It’s primarily aromatic, it doesn’t offer the same caffeine kick that coffee does, and the flavor, even of bold teas, is subdued compared to coffee (or soft drinks).  Culturally, tea is associated with slowing down, taking a reflective break, more than speeding up or ordering food on the run.  And artisan tea, the sort that I love to drink, and am looking to promote through my work on RateTea, has even less of a place in this culture.  In short, I think tea, especially the sort of tea I am most passionate about, is more about slow food than fast food.

The Food Culture in the United States is Actually Very Diverse

If you found the section above a bit depressing, don’t despair: the food and drink culture in the United States is much more diverse than the first impression of the international students above suggests.  The U.S. is a hotspot of ethnic diversity, and with that diversity comes a richness in culinary traditions.  Virtually everywhere I have ever lived in the U.S., even in smaller towns, I’ve found numerous ethnic restaurants.  I once drove across the country myself, and have taken numerous other road trips, and I’ve often been surprised at where I encounter little ethnic enclaves, often accompanied by restaurants that I end up giving 5 stars on Yelp.

A bowl of rice and a bowl of bibimbap, showing mixed vegetables, and an egg, with grated seaweed on top

Bibimbap, a mainstay of Korean cuisine, is now one of my favorite foods; I had never tried this dish, or any Korean food, until I was 25.  This dish is typically served in Korean restaurants with barley tea (mugicha/boricha).

Mexican and Chinese food are available virtually everywhere in the U.S., and while they aren’t always “authentic”, they sometimes can be.  When I’ve lived in larger metro areas, I’ve been surprised at the level of diversity I encountered.  Many of these types of foods were initially a bit alien to me; Korean food, pictured above, is a good example.  The first time I ate it, it was a bit intimidating.  I needed to develop a taste for it, but I have come to really love it, to the point where I often actively crave Korean dishes, and even keep a jar of kimchi in my fridge.

I’ve eaten at Ethiopian and Eritrean restaurants–multiple of each–and Vietnamese, Cambodian, Malaysian, Japanese, and Korean restaurants.  Indian Restaurants.  Afghan, Lebanese, Israeli, Moroccan restaurants.  In Chinese cuisine, I’ve eaten at restaurants specializing in Sichuan, Cantonese, Yunnan, Taiwanese, and Liaoning regional cuisine.  I’ve eaten at restaurants specializing in New Mexican food, Guadalajara-style food, and food from South Mexico, as well as California-style Mexican food, which is its own unique fusion tradition.  I’ve had many forms of Latino food, from Puerto Rican to Columbian, Ecuadorian, and Peruvian.  I’m sure I’m forgetting quite a few ethnic cuisines in this list.

A bowl of Sichuan dry pot, with mixed vegetables and chicken in a metal bowl, and a white bowl of seafood tofu soup

Dry pot, and seafood tofu soup, at a Sichuan restaurant in West Philly. Of course it is served with tea, visible on the left; jasmine tea or oolong are typical types of tea served with this sort of meal.

Note that already I’ve already mentioned some regional cuisines peculiar to and originating in the U.S., in the different variants of Mexican food that occur on the U.S. side of the border.  The U.S. also is the origin of Cajun cooking, and southern cooking or “soul food”, which incorporates elements from West African traditions–as I realized when I first ate proper West African food and tasted many of the same spices, ingredients, and methods of food preparation.

What is the difference between these rich, complex traditions, and the more uniform fast food traditions that the foreign students mentally identified as the food culture of the United States?  I think the distinction here is subtle and hard to pin down, but I think it has to do both with the traditions of preparing the food, and with how fast the people are eating the food, and whether or not they are paying attention to how the food tastes.  I found that many of these foods were initially a little strange to me, and in different ways.  The Sichuan dry pot, pictured above, was so intensely spicy and pain-inducing that I could barely eat it the first time I tried it.  Yet I found myself craving it and now it’s my favorite item on the menu at the restaurant where I first ordered it.  What made it so enjoyable though wasn’t the volume of hot pepper–it was the nuance…a little flavor of anise here, the cilantro leaf on top, and the wonderful aromatic quality of the Sichuan peppercorn (before it numbs your mouth!) are what keep me coming back to that dish.

I don’t expect everyone to like the particular dishes or types of cuisine that I like best, but I notice that if people start paying attention to their food, they naturally gravitate more towards “slow food”.  And with this change in focus, I think comes an increase in health and well-being, as well as a great improvement in the joy and pleasure that comes with both eating and preparing food.  A couple of my friends have recently read the book Health at Every Size, and that book provides a compelling argument that a more mindful approach to eating has compelling benefits to health.  There was also a fascinating study of attitudes towards food in different countries, and their implications for health and dieting; this study examines what it calls the “French paradox”, that Americans think more about the health impacts of their food yet end up eating a less healthy diet, whereas French people think about health less, and focus on enjoying their food, and end up eating a much healthier diet.  These observations have led me to believe that a shift away from generic fast food culture and towards a richer food culture could have sweeping benefits for society.

Tea as a Gateway to Food Culture

I think there is a degree to which tea, especially if you drink it unsweetened, forces you to develop a level of nuance in appreciation of food and drink that naturally nudges people in the direction of slow food and traditional food cultures.

Most tea doesn’t hit you in the face with the strong flavors that my friend Brent referenced.  Some of my other friends have jokingly remarked that tea is little more than “flavored water”.  In some sense, I agree.  In order to really appreciate tea, you need to seek out its flavors a bit, paying attention to what you are sensing as you are drinking it.

The dominant flavor sensation when drinking tea is usually bitterness, a flavor that has little role in the generic “American palate” referenced at the beginning of this post, the one that demands strong sweet, sour, or salty flavors.  Even in the sweetest or sourest teas, or the teas with the greatest savory or umami flavor, these other flavors are subdued, and easy to overlook if you are used to drinking something like soft drinks or even black coffee.

Loose-leaf green tea with very curly leaves

Loose-leaf Bi Luo Chun from TeaVivre; when describing this tea as “sweet” or “tangy”, I am describing very subtle flavors that, compared with something like fruit juice, could easily be overlooked.

Another key aspect of tea is that its aroma is more interesting than its flavor.  Flavor is itself pretty limited–the human taste buds are only able to identify sweet, bitter, sour, salty, and savory (umami) flavors.  It is the aroma that makes food and drink truly come alive, and develop into complex culinary traditions.  I think that tea has the potential to nudge people in the direction of a more nuanced slow food culture in part by getting people to focus on aroma.  When people focus on aroma, it opens up the door to using herbs and spices, as well as the many vegetables that have subtle flavors but interesting aromas.

One of my goals and hopes with RateTea is to encourage people to start paying attention to how their tea tastes and smells.  My goal is that by writing about the flavor and aromas of tea, and by reading what others write, it will change how people think about and experience food and drink in general, and that this will push them more in the direction of slow food.

My Story of Discovery: Beer, Not Tea

As much as I wish I could tell a personal story about how tea opened me up to experiencing food and drink in a more nuanced way, I think it was actually beer, more than tea, that did this for me, although tea certainly played an important role alongside beer.

An attractive young man and young woman sitting in a brewpub in front of a sampler of six beers of different colors ranging from dark to light

My girlfriend Kelsey, and one of our friends, sampling beer at Dock Street Brewery in Philadelphia.  Incidentally, these people are both reviewers on RateTea, and, like me, both enjoy sampling beer as well as tea.

I remember sampling beer as a kid; my parents would pour me a tiny little glass, or let me sip it, telling me: “This is beer.  It tastes bitter, so you probably won’t like it at first, but if you keep trying it, you’ll develop a taste for it.”  And develop a taste I did.  By the time I graduated college, I loved beer, and began seeking out craft-brews.  I fell in love with Great Lakes Brewing Company in Cleveland, Ohio.  I began rating beers on RateBeer, to keep track of which ones I liked.

I think beer is actually very similar to tea in its potential to nudge people in the direction of nuance.  As with tea, the dominant flavor in most beer is bitterness, and the other flavors are more subdued.  And, just with tea, the aroma plays a key role in distinguishing between the finer nuances of different beers.  Just like pure teas are able to produce an astonishing variety of aromas, qualities suggesting cocoa, or wintergreen, citrus, mint, malt, orchid, apricot, and all sorts of other aromas, pure beers, brewed with only barley, yeast, water, and hops, are able to produce all sorts of fascinating aromas, resembling various fruits, grassy or herbaceous characteristics, nutty and caramel tones, and many other qualities.

I think that it was the process of rating and reviewing beers, actually writing things about what I was drinking, that took me to the next level in terms of perception of food and drink.

The Potential of Beer vs Tea to Catalyze Change: How These Beverages Differ

I think in the long-run, tea may have an even greater potential than beer to catalyze the sort of cultural transformation in perception of food and drink that I outlined above, for several reasons.  One is that tea tends to be consumed more often throughout the day, and in different contexts, than beer.  I.e. people generally only consume beer in the evening, whereas they often consume tea several times throughout the day.  The alcohol in beer makes it less appropriate as a beverage for a broad range of situations.  Another issue is that there is a degree to which the alcohol in beer seems to have an effect that is at odds with the finer nuances of appreciating food and drink: while one can easily appreciate the first or second beer in a more nuanced way, after that it begins to go downhill.  I’ve heard serious beer connoisseurs remark on this phenomenon–and how they often like to sample the most nuanced beers first in an evening for this reason.

Yet another reason is that people see much more likely to drink tea than beer when in a reflective mood, such as when taking notes in a journal, or taking a break from work, as well as sipping tea while at a desk or computer, and both of these situations lend themselves more to the sort of exploration of nuances than the contexts (sitting at a bar with friends, or in a more party type atmosphere) in which people most often enjoy beer.  The caffeine and other psychoactive chemicals in tea, like theanine, also seem to lend themselves to a state of mind which favor focus, reflection, and awareness.  And the culture of tea also is tied to mindfulness and reflection.

What do you think?

  • Do you think my analysis of the two opposing facets of American food culture is accurate?
  • Is the idea of “slow food” something you think about much?
  • Do you think RateTea will be able to nudge casual tea drinkers in the direction of paying more attention to their food and drink, much in the same way I experienced such a shift in my perception as I started using RateBeer?
  • Do you think that, in the long-run, tea has greater potential than beer to catalyze a cultural shift in the direction of paying more attention to the finer nuances of food and drink?


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Why Is Sustainability Important? Stories from Childhood of Building Blocks and Cemeteries

This post is loosely inspired by my original post: Sustainability: Why Is It Important For Tea?

Sustainability is a key driving value in my life, and I included sustainability in the purpose statement of RateTea.  It’s an idea that guides choices in virtually all parts of my life.  What exactly is sustainability?  It’s not the same as environmentalism, a distinction I’ll explain later.  Wikipedia has a long page on sustainability, but it starts with a very simple sentence:

Sustainability is the capacity to endure.

Sustainability is an idea that captures whether something can be continued indefinitely, without adverse consequences or depleted resource forcing you to stop what you’re doing.  Using up a non-renewable resource is obviously unsustainable, but there are many other reasons that can cause something to be unsustainable–basically, any practical constraint that forces you to stop.  Sustainability is a working concept–it’s about what you can keep doing.  Something is unsustainable if you can’t keep doing it.

Sustainability is a simple idea, easy for children to understand.

I remember thinking about sustainability as a kid, long before I had a name to attach to the concept.  As a very young kid, I naturally encountered limits.  I would regularly play with wooden blocks, and I learned that there’s only so high you can stack individual blocks before they become unstable and fall over.  Stacking blocks on top of each other is unsustainable.  The higher you want to stack them, the broader a base of supporting blocks you need.  Because there’s a limited supply of blocks, there’s a limit on how high you can build.

It’s such a simple idea, but it’s at the heart of deep ecological concepts, like how a food web is structured, or the idea of the carrying capacity of an ecosystem.

Wooden blocks a lot like the ones I played with as a child.  Photo by Belinda Hankins Miller, Licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Wooden blocks a lot like the ones I played with as a child. Photo by Belinda Hankins Miller, Licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Another idea I remember thinking about as a kid, that got me thinking about sustainability, was the idea of cemeteries.  I saw a lot of cemeteries as a kid, and I noticed that people seemed to view them with reverence, leaving them as-is and protecting them from development even as everything around them changed.  Somewhere along the line, I asked the question: since people keep dying, wouldn’t cemeteries eventually fill up and wouldn’t we run out of space to bury people in?  My parents explained to me that they do, and that cremation represents an alternative to being buried and taking up space in a cemetery.  The cultural practice of burial in cemeteries is unsustainable.

There was a Guardian article about how the UK is already running out of space in cemeteries, in which the head of the Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management acknowledges: “Cemeteries are unsustainable.”

Woodland Cemetery in Philadelphia

One of my photos of Woodland Cemetery in Philadelphia.  Cemeteries have gotten me thinking about sustainability in multiple ways: first as a kid, and later, as I conducted a bird survey of this cemetery, for eBird.

To show you how complex sustainability can get, even though the idea of a cemetery with burial of people is inherently unsustainable, the cemetery pictured above is promoting a different sort of sustainability–as an island of greenspace in a highly developed urban area, it provides valuable habitat for birds.  As a volunteer surveyer for eBird, I gathered a year’s worth of data on this site, surveying it weekly (gathering several data points for most weeks), allowing eBird to produce graphs of what species can be found at this site year-round.  The results are exciting; I and a few other birders have currently recorded 109 species of birds found in this cemetery.  View the data for yourself.

The lesson that I take from this is that the world is complex, and even if something is unsustainable for one reason, it might provide some other benefit which might promote a different sort of sustainability.  In this case, the space used up for a cemetery created a protected greenspace, effectively immune from urban development, that ended up providing greater ecological value for birds than the surrounding urban area.

The Difference Between Sustainability And Environmentalism

As I explained above, sustainability is a very simple concept, one that I think even young children can grasp with ease.  But it can be very complex to implement.  Part of the reason for this is the fact that humans depend on their environment for food, clean air and water, and other products and ecosystem services.

Environmentalism, on the other hand, is a little trickier to grasp; look at how there’s a lack of a clear definition in Wikipedia’s article on environmentalism.  What exactly is “the environment” anyway?  And how do you preserve and protect it?  I think that in order to grasp what environmentalism is in a meaningful way, one needs a certain degree of scientific and/or cultural knowledge…central concepts in environmentalism are ecosystems, biodiversity, and cycles of water, air, and energy.  Each of these concepts takes a certain degree of knowledge and intellectual sophistication to even partially understand.

There are a lot of examples of humans misunderstanding how to protect natural ecosystems; for example, for many years we suppressed forest fires in much of North America, thinking it was protecting the forests; now we know that fires are a natural part of the cycle of life for many wild ecosystems, and that fire suppression can cause great damage in the long-run, sometimes culminating in catastrophic wildfires of unprecedented scale.

Knowing how to protect the environment can be subtle; here, an introduced species, Chickory, is supporting a native insect pollinator.

Knowing how to protect the environment can be subtle; here, an introduced species, Chickory, is supporting a native insect pollinator of the Agapostemon genus.  I took this photo inside Woodland Cemetery, not far from the other picture above.

Sustainability encompasses environmental issues, because humans depend on the environment, so if a practice damages or destroys aspects of the environment that we depend on, it’s not sustainable.  But this is only one part of sustainability.  Practices can be unsustainable for human reasons, such as if a particular policy or practice causes political unrest or social upheaval.  So the two concepts, while they are closely related, are definitely distinct and to some degree independent of each other.

Does this have anything to do with tea?

I think the answer to this question is: “Yes and No.”  So far, I haven’t talked about tea at all.  This is because my reasons for believing in and living by the idea of sustainability have nothing to do with tea.  If tea did not exist, I would be just as committed to sustainability as I am now.

But at the same time, sustainability has everything to do with tea; the way I see it, sustainability has everything to do with anything that involves human choices…it’s a fundamental, common sense idea that informs every aspect of my life, so of course I want to apply it to tea.

How does sustainability manifest in my thinking about tea?

This is a potentially boundless question, but some of the ideas I think of most often are:

  • Using (and promoting) loose-leaf tea as a way of minimizing packaging; choosing loose-leaf as often as practically possible
  • Being aware of, and raising awareness of, issues of biodegradability and compostability of tea packaging; seeking out companies that use packaging with less environmental impact
  • Looking at how tea is produced, and looking at its impacts on the environment; buying and highlighting teas that are produced in the most environmentally-sustainable ways
  • Looking at the economics of tea production, and how it affects the communities in which tea is produced; buying teas that promote sustainable economics in the communities of production
  • Thinking about how we enjoy tea, and its impacts on mind, body, and culture; enjoying tea with others, relaxing and clearing my mind as I enjoy tea alone, so as to keep a healthy mind and promote a sustainable culture
  • Thinking about what incentives the structure and design of RateTea sets up, so that it can have as positive an influence on sustainability in the tea industry as possible

What do you think?

  • Is sustainability also a driving value in your life?
  • How do you think about sustainability as it pertains to the world of tea?  Are there any major ideas that you think I missed in my list above?
  • How did you come to embrace the idea of sustainability?  Was it common-sense to you, and was sustainability merely a word that you assigned to a concept you already understood and were committed to?  What life experiences or ideas led you to understand the importance of this concept?
  • Do you make a distinction between environmentalism and sustainability?  Can you think of examples of aspects of sustainability that have less to do with environmentalism?  Can you think of any aspects of environmentalist movements that are perhaps unsustainable or divorced from the idea of sustainability?


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Brewing Iced Tea to Minimize Energy Usage

This post is an expanded, follow-up post to my original post Energy Saving Tips for Making Iced Tea.  I also expounded these same ideas in RateTea’s article on iced tea.

The hottest part of summer is approaching, and I’ve already brewed up my several first batches of iced tea.  As subscribers to my old blog and readers of the articles on RateTea will likely know, I’m a die-hard advocate of brewing your own iced tea, ideally from loose-leaf, rather than purchasing pre-brewed bottled or “ready to drink” teas.  But here I’m going to take for granted that people are interested in making their own iced tea at home, and I’m going to focus on how to do so in a way that uses the least energy.  I brew a lot of iced tea: two batches a day of four cups each in the hottest part of the summer, so I’ve had an opportunity to experiment and develop a method that results in superior flavor but is fast, easy, and energy efficient.

At the end of the article, you’ll also find an explanation of how drinking iced tea, regardless of how you brew it, can help you further reduce your energy usage!

Why is minimizing energy usage important?

Energy efficiency is one issue that I care about a lot.  Most electricity in the U.S. in generated in ways that have numerous negative impacts on the environment: the burning of coal and natural gas releases both carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, and various pollutants into the atmosphere.  Coal burning for electricity generation is a major source of mercury, which contaminates seafood like tuna, making it unsafe for consumption.  I use EDF’s Seafood Selector and it concerns me how many types of seafood are contaminated with unsafe levels of mercury.  Even cleaner forms of energy like hydro, wind, and solar still have some negative impacts on the environment.

A coal fired plant, with big smokestacks, and a lake and beach in the foreground

Although renewable energy production in the U.S. has been increasing, about half [source] of the electricity here still comes from coal-fired plants like this one in Calumet Park.  Public Domain Photo by the US EPA, taken from Wikimedia Commons.

Global climate change, which is directly related to energy usage, poses a direct threat to numerous countries, through many different mechanisms.  Sea level rise threatens low-lying areas as diverse as Florida, New Jersey, and Bangladesh, and the changing climate threatens both ecosystems and agricultural development.  Climate change is already negatively impacting the industry that produces tea and herbs.  For example, tea production in more arid regions of the world like Kenya is threatened by periods of prolonged drought, and rooibos production in South Africa has also faced threats from climate change.  The Ethical Tea Partnership has a page on the negative impacts of climate change on the tea industry.

In addition to the long-term benefits of reducing your energy usage, you will see an immediate benefit as well: saving money on your electric bill.  I think people with a broad range of views on political and environmental issues can agree that reducing energy usage is a good thing.

How does brewing iced tea use energy?  How can we reduce these uses?

Making your own fresh-brewed iced tea uses energy in two ways: heating and cooling.  In order to minimize your energy usage when making up a batch of iced tea, you need to minimize both of these processes.  People who have central air or an air-conditioned kitchen will benefit doubly from reducing heating, because any waste heat generated by your heating method will need to be pumped out of your living space by the air conditioner, at additional cost.

Here is my method:

  1. Brew a very small amount of concentrated tea with hot water.  This minimizes the energy used for heating.  You can try cold brewing (steeping the tea directly in cold water), but this doesn’t work well with all types of tea.
  2. Let the brewed tea cool to room temperature.  I do this quickly by placing the tea in a closed jar, and setting it in a pot which I fill with cold water from the tap.  This chills the water to the temperature of the cold water in your home, without using any energy for cooling, thus minimizing your cooling costs.
  3. Dilute the tea to taste with cold or room temperature water.
  4. Chill the tea or, for quick results, pour over ice.

For the fastest results, you can skip step 2 and condense steps 3 and 4 by filling a glass, jar, or pitcher with ice and pouring the hot tea on top of the ice, adding any cold water if necessary for additional volume.

Below is an illustration of this process.  Here I steeped Ahmad Tea’s Ceylon, one of my favorite teas for use as iced tea.  Note the dark, concentrated color in the lower-left.  Here, I steeped this tea at quadruple strength (four teaspoons of leaf in one cup of water), because I planned to make four cups.  The upper right panel shows the tea once it had been diluted to the proper strength.  I put this jar in the fridge to chill, but only after I poured myself one cup, pouring over ice (lower left) to produce the cup pictured in the lower right.  I used a kimchi jar, which I have found to be quite heat-resistant (and which I always have available, as I eat a lot of kimchi).  It’s important to take care with your choice of a glass vessel, as pouring hot liquids into generic glass can sometimes cause it to shatter.

Four photos showing concentrated iced tea, diluted iced tea, a glass of ice, and a glass of iced tea

An illustration of my process for making iced tea

There are a few other supplemental tips that you can use to further minimize your energy usage.

  • Consider how you are heating the water:
    • Microwaves are one of the worst options, being considerably less efficient than a typical electric stove.  If you’re not convinced, read this comparison in Home Energy Magazine.  Home Energy Magazine, by the way, is a great place for finding more energy-saving tips.
    • If you have a gas stove, unless your electricity comes from a clean, sustainable source, using a gas stove is better than anything with an electric element, because a gas stove converts 100% of stored energy to heat, whereas when using electricity, only a small portion of the stored energy in the fuel used to generate the electricity is converted to electricity–most is released as waste heat at the point of generation, and more is lost through wires in transmission.
    • If you live in a state with electric choice (like Pennsylvania or Texas), choose a sustainable electricity generator like Green Mountain Energy, to minimize the environmental impact of your electricity usage.
  • Choose a cool day or time of day (early morning is typically the coolest time of day) to make large batches of ice or chill large batches of water or iced tea.  Refridgerators and freezers need to work harder on hot days.  It doesn’t matter if you have central air or if the refridgerator is in a room directly affected by outdoor temperature–any of the heat your fridge pumps out into your home will need to be pumped out again by the air conditioner, which has to work harder when it’s hot outdoors.
  • Follow general best practices for refrigeration.  Try to keep your fridge reasonably full; if you don’t have stuff to put in it, you can keep it full of jugs of water and put bags of ice in the freezer.  Make sure the coils on the back of your fridge are clean, and that the refrigerator has enough space behind it to allow good air circulation.  Check the seal on the door to make sure it is holding the air in.

Energy usage is a surprisingly deep topic, in that there is virtually always more you can do to reduce your energy usage.  Some energy-saving tips are easier to implement or more practical than others, but I hope that you have at least found some tips above which will help you to prepare iced tea in an environmentally-sound manner that also results in a superior-tasting batch of tea to drink.

One of the reasons I have gone so deep into this topic here is that I think the ideas presented here have broad applicability.  In the global scheme of things, the amount of energy used in making iced tea is tiny compared to the amount of energy consumed by numerous other things.  But the knowledge and ways of thinking that can be used to conserve energy are universal.  Processes that generate heat and cooling are at the heart of energy usage in homes, businesses, and industry, and  the ideas communicated here are universal and can be applied to far more than just the making of a cup or pitcher of iced tea.

Weighing Conservation of Water vs. Electricity

There are some parts of the U.S. and parts of the world, where water scarcity is a more pressing issue than energy usage.  Where I live, there is little need for water conservation, and the negative impacts of electricity use far outweigh the extra water used.  The same is true of costs: typical electricity usage tends to be much more costly in financial terms than typical water usage, at the rates charged by most municipal governments in the U.S.  But there are a few places where these rules do not completely hold.  In the southwestern U.S., water use has major negative environmental impacts, such as destroying the ecosystem in the Colorado river delta.  And in rural areas, people who drink well water often need to use electricity to pump their water, so conserving water is important for conserving electricity.

Lake mead, with dry hillsides and dark blue water

Lake mead, used as a reservoir for cities in the Southwest.  This water would have naturally flowed into the Colorado river delta, supporting a rich delta ecosystem, and an estuarine ecosystem in the Gulf of California. Photo by Rick Pecoraro, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

The method I described above uses additional water at one step, using a bath of cold water from the tap to cool down the jar of hot tea.  If you live in an area where water is scarce, or where you need to use electricity to pump your water, you can skip this step and opt for a slower cool-down to room temperature.

One Final Note: Cold Drinks Can Reduce the Need for Air Conditioning

There is an additional way that iced tea and other cold beverages, regardless of how you prepare them, can reduce your home energy usage.  If you keep your home air conditioned, continually drinking iced tea during the hottest hours can help your body to stay cool, enabling you to feel comfortable in a warmer environment.  This can allow you to set your thermostat higher in the hot weather, while still being comfortable.

What do you think?

  • How do you brew iced tea?  Do you already use any of these tips here?  Did you find any new pointers that you want to try out?
  • Have you had much success with cold-brewing?  Do you have any advice for people who wish to attempt cold-brewing?
  • How much do you think about energy saving in general?  Have you found some of the ideas and concepts in this post helpful in other aspects of your life, in terms of providing things you can do that can reduce your energy usage?


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Writing Good Catalog Descriptions of Tea – Insights Into Communication From Why This Way

This post is inspired by my April 2010 post, Good Catalog Descriptions of Tea.  I also considered my post Truthfulness: Tea Companies: Be Cautious With Claims of Uniqueness, while writing it.

The catalog descriptions of a tea are a key element of tea marketing, and they are also a key point of focus for shoppers looking to buy tea.  Since writing my original post in 2010, I have learned a lot more not only about tea, but also about writing and communication.  I want to share some of my deeper insights that I have gained from juxtaposing my continued exposure to tea catalogs and sampling of teas with my experience in Why This Way, a consensus-based belief system that focuses on clear communication.

I hope that this post can be useful both to tea drinkers and to people who buy tea, as well as to companies looking to market their tea more effectively.

Screenshot of RateTea showing commercial description of a tea

RateTea includes a snippet of a tea’s commercial description (complete for brief descriptions) for the purpose of commentary.

The description above, from Rishi Tea, of a masala chai blend that is top-ranking on RateTea, is an interesting example of a commercial description that I object to now more than I did a couple years ago.  The commercial description shown above is out-of-date and has been changed by Rishi (and updated on RateTea), and I like the way in which they changed it, but I still have one small quibble with it.  You’ll find my full analysis of the change and my continued objection below.

My Early Experiences With Catalog Descriptions of Tea

Pretty early on in my forays into the tea world, well before I wrote that original post, I had a sense that I liked some companies’ descriptions of their teas better than others.  On the one hand were companies, like Upton Tea Imports, which had brief descriptions of their teas that I found described the teas quite accurately, fitting with my experience of drinking the teas, and on the other hand were other companies whose descriptions I felt either did not mesh with my perception, or in some cases, contained little to no useful information at all.

I also noticed that, with the exception of foreign companies which had clear language barriers, the tea companies with the worst descriptions were ones whose teas I tended to like least.

The characteristics of the sorts of descriptions I like most have changed little since my original post.  In my opinion, the best descriptions:

  • are concise, avoiding excessive words that communicate little information.
  • nearly always contain information about what flavors, aromas, and other qualities to expect in the tea.
  • may contain or reference brewing instructions.
  • usually describe the tea’s origins, and often mention how it is produced, such as distinguishing pan-fired from steamed green teas, mentioning the cultivar used, or discussing any peculiarities or distinguishing features of production.
  • may make analogies to other teas, especially more common ones.
  • avoid weasel words, highly subjective language, or overreaching claims, especially universal claims of quality, or claims about how the reader of the description will perceive the tea.

I want to explore this last point in depth because it is the point on which my thinking and viewpoints have evolved most since writing my original posts.  Since writing the original post, I also created an article on RateTea about Weasel Words in Tea Descriptions and Marketing, which I recommend reading if you want to understand this topic thoroughly.  But there is something from outside the tea world that has also influenced how I think about these descriptions.

Why This Way and Insights Into Communication

In 2012, a group of my friends and I founded a group that become Why This Way, a consensus-based belief system and organization which I (but not all in the group) consider to be a religion.  The cornerstone of this group is a system of rules of communication and a process for following the rules, both of which are continually evolving.  The rules are designed to facilitate respectful and truthful conversations between people from widely disparate belief systems, and so far, they seem to be working pretty well.  People from widely different faith backgrounds, including Christians, Atheists, Agnostics, Jews, and one Muslim and one Hindu have joined our discussions and contributed to the development of our system of beliefs and practices.  We have been able to have fruitful and positive discussions of issues that normally evoke strong feelings, and embrace the fact that we have different viewpoints without the differences causing any problem for the functioning of our group or our ability to reach consensus on points we care about.

Why This Way symbols like stars on a midnight sky

This graphic, showing the symbol for Why This Way repeated like stars in the night sky, was created by Sylvia Odhner, who also does the graphic design for RateTea and maintains the webcomic Think Before You Think.

One of the key aspects of the rules of communication is that they require people to speak in such a way that more clearly identifies the line between what is agreed by all present to be objective, vs. the speaker’s subjective opinions or perspectives.  For example, I believe in God, but because not everyone present in the group does, I could not make statements about God or implying the existence of God, without using an I statement.  So, I could say: “I believe in God.” or “I believe God loves us.” but I could not say “God exists.” or “God loves us.”  Another prohibition in the rules is against making statements about another person’s thoughts, intentions, or motivations.  Instead, we can only talk about a person’s words or actions.  So I cannot say: “He wants us to change this rule.” but I can say: “He told me that he wants us to change this rule.”  One of the intentions of this rule is to curb the phenomenon of thinking we know what another person is thinking, which often leads to misunderstandings in discussion, and instead keep the discussion focused on things that we actually have direct experience with.

When I became more experienced with the rules of communication in Why This Way, I began to notice numerous ways in which the written and spoken communications around me in my daily life broke the various rules of our group.  One of the places I’d frequently see the rules broken was in advertising and marketing, including in the commercial descriptions of teas by tea companies.  Interesting, even though I wrote my first post about tea descriptions almost two years before the founding of Why This Way, I have noticed that the descriptions that fit more closely within the rules were ones that I have always tended to like, whereas the ones that more egregiously broke the rules were ones that I have always tended to dislike.  There is a great deal of overlap between the use of Weasel Words too, and the breaking of the rules of communication.

Here are two of the most egregious examples:

  • “You’ll love this tea” – This statement breaks the spirit of Why This Way’s rule against making a statement about another person’s thoughts, because it’s telling another person how much they will like a certain tea, without any information about the person.  It also breaks the rule about stating something as fact that is uncertain.  The person writing the commercial description has no way of knowing how the person will respond.  I personally find these sorts of statements a bit abrasive or even invasive, like they are telling me what my tastes are.  My reaction when I read this is a defensive one: “You don’t know me, you don’t know what my tastes are, don’t tell me what I will or will not like!”  This sort of reaction often makes me feel less favorably towards the company writing it.
  • “Best” – Personal tastes are hugely variable, and I think it is really problematic to make a universal claim that a tea is the “best” in any category, without referring to some more objective measure.  For example, I have no problem with companies saying that a tea is a “best seller” in their catalog, or that it won a certain award, or that it is best rated on their website (or on a third party website like RateTea or Steepster), or even that it is a personal favorite of the company’s tasters.  The use of a label like “best” without clarification would break Why This Way’s prohibition against stating something as fact that is uncertain, and it would also break the prohibition against exaggerating.

I think that the way of communicating described in the rules of communication has many compelling advantages, not only for speaking and writing but for reading and listening.  I’ve found that by learning to communicate within the confines of these rules, and use these rules as a reference when reading or listening to others, I’ve noticed numerous benefits, including:

  • A greater ability to discuss controversial issues without offending people with different viewpionts.
  • A greater ability to discern the truthfulness in various statements, even when I know little or nothing about the topic itself.  (This ability is of particular interest when reading marketing material from an unfamiliar company.)  This is in large part due to an increased ability to identify when people are speaking from experience, vs. speculating or repeating something they were told, by how they chose to word statements.

I think these same lessons could be immensely useful in applying both to writing and reading commercial descriptions of tea.  People shopping for tea, especially when considering buying from a company that they are not sure whether or not they trust, can look for certain patterns of speech in the commercial description of the teas, and can spot companies that are “talking up” their product, vs. the ones that are simply providing more objective factual information, or clearly identifying their own subjective opinion (there’s nothing wrong with subjective opinion, but I think it’s important to identify it as such rather than present it as global fact).  And companies writing commercial descriptions could use these insights to shape how they write about their tea, making it less likely that people would have the sort of knee-jerk reaction that I get when I read things like “You’ll love this.”

Picking Apart a Description: Rishi’s Masala Chai

Just like I picked apart a description of a tea by Upton Tea Imports in my original post, this time I want to pick on Rishi Tea.  I chose them in part because they are one of my favorite tea companies, and I think their tea descriptions tend to be excellent, and I want to keep the tone of this post positive.  But there are still a few quibbles I have with the description featured in the screenshot at the top of this post:

A robust and full-flavored black tea blended with our traditional Indian Masala spices. The bold flavor of our select shade-grown black tea presents full notes of cardamom, ginger and clove that is zesty and stimulating. Masala Chai should be brewed strong and served sweet with steamed milk and sugar.

What’s the problem here?  I highlighted two words that jump out to me.  Let’s look at one at a time:

Select is a word that I dislike in this context because it has a strong positive connotation in terms of quality of the tea, and yet is generic enough that it doesn’t say anything about the qualities of the tea itself.  This word seems to be claiming “this tea is really high-quality” without describing its attributes.  I like the words robust, bold, and full-flavored, because they communicate a quality that high-quality teas do not necessarily have.  Other teas with a different character might be described as smooth, delicate, or mellow, which would also communicate useful information.

I found it interesting that Rishi has since updated their description (presumably long before I took the screenshot above–I was slow at updating the commercial description on RateTea’s site).  The new description reads:

A robust and full-flavored black tea blended with our traditional Indian Masala spices with full notes of cardamom, ginger, and clove that are zesty and stimulating. Masala Chai should be brewed strong and served sweet with steamed milk and sugar.

I like the change.  It removes the one word that I objected to.  So what about the objection to the word “should”?  I wrote about my own personal battle with the word “should” in my post There is No Should.  But in the context of tea descriptions:

  • “Should” in this case makes a universal claim about the right or proper way to prepare Masala Chai.  Because personal tastes differ, this claim may not be truly universal.  This could evoke a small defensive reaction in a person who has a strong preference of preparing Masala Chai in a different way from the way described.  In my case, I tend not to like sweetening tea, so I objected on these grounds.
  • “Should” does not identify the nature of the claim.  Is Rishi saying: “We developed this blend to taste best when brewed…” or are they saying: “Masala Chai is traditionally brewed…”  These are two different statements.  The first would give me information that Rishi has specifically intended the brew for use with a particular brewing method.  The second case merely provides some historically background.  Neither of them evoke the slightly jarring reaction that I feel when I read the “should”.

I have no problems with brewing recommendations; quite to the contrary, I strongly prefer when tea companies provide recommendations for brewing their teas.  However, I think it comes across as slightly abrasive when companies present their recommendations as global fact, and I think the word “should” can sometimes come across in this manner, although whether or not it does depends greatly on context.

How About You?  What do you think?

I’m particularly interested to hear from others on this post.  I have several questions for my audience:

  • Do you agree with my overall recommendations for writing commercial descriptions, or do you have any points of disagreement?
  • Do you also react defensively or skeptically in the circumstances I described above, such as when a description makes a claim about what you will like, or a global statement about how things should be brewed?
  • Do you agree that Rishi’s new description of this tea constitutes an improvement over the old one?
  • What are your favorite companies with respect to their catalog descriptions of their teas?


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Tea Tangent – Wooden Tea Accessories Made From Sustainable Hardwood

In this post I will review a company, semi-local to the Philadelphia area, which provides unique and beautiful tea accessories: Tea Tangent.  In particular, I will focus on their tea infuser, called the Tea Nest.  I will also talk a little bit about issues of sustainability in forestry, which provides a compelling reason for buying this company’s products.

I will also share a personal story of how Tea Tangent provides an example of uncanny social connections, a “full circle” so to speak, in which I ended up meeting someone by surprise, whom I had met not just in a completely different social setting, but in two completely different social settings.  If you read on, you’ll find a story that starts with my own personal adventures in online dating.  But first, I want to start by focusing on Tea Tangent and their products.

Wooden Tea Accessories

The idea of wooden tea accessories may seem a little unusual or impractical.  Most tea accessories, teapots, tea cups, and tea infusers, are made of either metal or ceramic, and sometimes less often, heat-resistant plastic.  The only exception I usually encounter are tea tables and other base materials used in the setup of traditional brewing practices of some East Asian countries.

This photo shows an assortment of tea nests alongside a few other wooden accessories:

A display of tea infusers with wooden holders and a metal mesh

A display of Tea Tangent’s Tea Nest infusers and a few other accessories

The artistry in these carved works is immediately evident.  I think they are really beautiful, and there is a broad range of designs to fit a wide range of styles and aesthetics.  There’s the sleek, modern-looking leaf that would look at home in a modern tea bar, the slightly-irregular flower that has an almost-hippy look to it, which I can picture in a colorful independent cafe, and a few more complex and slightly formal-looking ones which I think would look better in more formal, Western-style tea rooms.  My favorite of the designs is the one I have, pictured below.

When I first encountered the tea nest, I was a little skeptical.  Would this wooden device hold up to having near-boiling water poured over it repeatedly?  The answer is a resounding yes.  I’ve had a tea nest for quite some time, and I’ve at times been a little sloppy pouring my water over it (remember, I don’t own a tea kettle).  The infuser looks quite similar to the first day I used it.  In fact, the wood has held up much better than the metal:

A stainless steel tea infuser in an ornate carved wooden holder

My Tea Nest after about a year and a half of use

The wood has darkened slightly, and other than that the wood shows no signs of wear.  The metal basket shows the most wear, with a little bit of distortion in shape, and a darkening of color from the tea.  Finum infusers show a similar amount of discoloration after a similar amount of use, with less distortion in shape, but I find that Finum infusers are more likely to get clogged by fine particulate matter.

An In-Depth Look at the Tea Nest in Depth as an Infuser: When Is It Most Appropriate?

The Tea Nest is a tea infuser which involves a stainless steel mesh that sits inside a beautifully-carved wooden holder.  It’s my second-favorite tea infuser.  The title of first goes to the Finum Brewing Basket (Medium), which I usually buy from Upton Tea Imports.  But there are some circumstances in which the Tea Nest really excels–and in which the Finum brewing basket is awkward or unusable.  For many tea drinkers, these circumstances will be the majority of brewings that do not involve a tea pot.

For a quick summary of my thoughts on the Tea Nest:

  • It is most suitable for single-serving brewings.
  • It works best (brilliantly) for brewing in a smallish Western-style teacup like those in the display pictured above.  It is still usable in mugs, but does not work well with most tea pots.
  • The mesh is fine-enough to brew broken leaf teas, but it does not work well with very fine fannings or dust, as extremely fine particles can slip through the mesh.  Occasionally I will get a tea or herb that I enjoy drinking that is a bit too fine for the stainless steel filter, but there are only a few examples of teas or herbs this fine that I want to brew regularly.  The mesh is also perfect for brewing matcha-infused green teas, as it allows the matcha to pass through while filtering out the whole leaves.
  • The basket is small enough that it is not ideal for teas that you want to give more room to expand, like some oolongs.  However, in cases that you want to confine the leaves to a smaller space (as they would be in a gaiwan or Yixing teapot) this can become an asset.  I found it easier to simulate the effect of Gong Fu-style brewing by using the Tea Nest in a small cup than it was to achieve similar results using the Finum basket in a larger mug.
  • I find the mesh much easier to clean than the Finum basket, which tends to get clogged by small particulate matter.

The Tea Nest is a shallow infuser in that it doesn’t reach particularly deep into a cup.  This makes it perfect for most Western-style tea cups, which are considerably shallower than a typical mug.  Finum does not make a smaller-sized brewing basket, and I haven’t seen many other products which have this shape either.  The tea nest is usable for brewing in a mug, and in a few smaller teapots, but you need to take care to get the water level high enough…there’s not a whole lot of leeway.  For this reason, I do not recommend this infuser for teapots.  It simply doesn’t work with most teapots.

Back when I was a regular at Cafe Clave in West Philly (which has, sadly, now closed, although a new cafe has opened up in its place), I used to use the Tea Nest frequently while brewing up samples of loose-leaf tea, which I’d swap out for the Novus Tea bags that I’d give away to my friends as samples.  The infuser was a perfect match to the cups in this cafe.

Like the Finum infuser (and unlike some brewing baskets), Tea Nest has a lid:

A tea infuser in a teacup, with a wooden lid

The Tea Nest comes with a wooden lid to cover the cup while steeping tea.

The lid is most important for brewing some of the more aromatic teas which have fleeting aromas, or if you want to try to use this nest to simulate Gong Fu-style brewing in a Western tea cup.

Wood Influencing the Aroma of the Tea

One last comment I have is that the wood does have an aroma of its own, one that is, for lack of a better descriptor, woody and perhaps slightly smoky.  The wood does not come into contact with the water directly, unless you overfill the cup (or, like me, spill the water a bit), and for the most part, the aroma is gone after steeping the tea and setting the infuser aside, but, especially if I overfilled the water, I did notice a hint of the wood’s aroma in the finished cup.  In some respects, I found the effect of this to be similar to brewing in a seasoned Yixing teapot–the dominant aroma is the tea, but there’s a hint of something else in there.

The influence of the wood on the tea’s aroma was of a very different sort from a seasoned clay pot.  I found that the wood’s aroma went well with Chinese black teas that have a hint of smokiness, like some Keemun, and also with darker-roast oolongs.  It did not seem to mesh as well with more delicate green or white teas.

Sustainable Hardwood from Sustainable Forestry Operations

I love forests.  I spend some time in a forest every week.  My computer’s desktop picture has been a forest for years.  I care deeply about forests, and it’s really important to me to protect them for future generations.  Sustainable forest management is hard to sum up concisely, but I think it boils down to harvesting wood and other products from forests in ways that can be practiced indefinitely, without destroying or “using up” the forests.  It seems common sense that sustainable use of forests is a high priority for me, and I would like it to be a high priority for anyone who uses wood or paper products, which includes nearly everyone on this planet.

Tea Tangent uses wood from Pennsylvania forests that are certified by the Hardwood Forestry Fund, a non-profit organization that oversees sustainable forestry operations.  Tea Tangent is based in Kempton, a tiny town in central PA which I have had the pleasure of visiting, one which is surrounded by scenery of beautiful forests:

Forested hills against a cloudy sky

Forests near Kempton, Pennsylvania.

For those of you familiar with birds and birding, Kempton is located very near Hawk Mountain, one of the best and most famous hawk-watching sites in the U.S.

A Story of Social Circles and Unlikely Connections: Kempton, Bryn Athyn, and the New Church Community

Kempton, whose surroundings are pictured above, is an interesting town in that it highlights an unusual connection that I have to Tea Tangent, which extends outside the tea world.  The story goes back quite far.  Some years ago, I met a girl named Becky on a dating website.  I have had a number of iffy and awkward experiences with online dating, but the one experience of meeting Becky seemed to make the whole thing completely worthwhile–in spite of the fact that the two of us never dated.

We seemed to have a lot in common, but she lived in Kempton, and I lived in Delaware, and we never ended up meeting…that is, until she moved a little closer to me, in Bryn Athyn, PA.  Becky had a boyfriend at the time, but insisted that she wanted to meet anyway, noting that “she had a lot of single friends”, which I found amusing.  I decided to meet her, and I’m very glad I did.

A cute young woman with binoculars, with a winter forested landscape in the background.

Becky, through whom I was introduced to the New Church community.  In this pic, taken in winter, we were out birdwatching on the grounds of the Bryn Athyn Cathedral.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence with the other elements of this story that Bryn Athyn and Kempton are both surrounded by beautiful forests.

On the day I met Becky, something really unusual happened.  I felt instantly comfortable not only with her, but with nearly everyone I met through her that day.  This occurrence was particularly significant because it happened at a time in my life when I was struggling to feel comfortable with people and form strong friendships.  On this day, I met a lot of people, including Sylvia Odhner, who now does the graphic design work on RateTea, and others who have become close friends and important people in my life.  The people I met were all part of a community centering around the New Church, which I like to describe as a non-mainstream branch of Christianity, one based around the writings of the theologian Emanuel Swedenborg.  Many of the ideas in this group’s belief system have been influential in Why This Way, which I founded together with four people from the New Church, and which has since grown to include people with a wide range of different religious backgrounds and belief systems.

Tea Tangent and the related Jonathan’s Spoons are run by a family of artisans who are part of the New Church community.  But my connection to these companies doesn’t end here.  It also connected in an unusual way to another hobby of mine: swing dancing, pictured here:

People dancing lindy hop outdoors

Lindy hop dancing at Rittenhop, an outdoor dance run by the Lindy and Blues organization

Later, in Philadelphia, I met Hannah Simons through the Lindy and Blues dance, a weekly dance hosted in the Ethical Society on Rittenhouse Square.  It turns out that Hannah’s family runs Tea Tangent and Jonathan’s Spoons, and Hannah has her own business Ideas in Wood.  I was surprised to find my social circles intersect when I realized Hannah was tied into the New Church communities in Bryn Athyn and Kempton, but I became even more surprised when I ran into her at World Tea East, and learned of Tea Tangent.

This story may seem a little off-topic or random, but I wanted to share it because I feel a particularly strong connection to people and businesses when they connect to multiple aspects of my life.  Tea Tangent is one of these businesses, which makes me more passionate about recommending them.  Not only do I like the company’s products, craftsmanship, and their commitment to sustainability, but I also feel a connection to the community that they come from and are a part of.

Are You Familiar with Tea Tangent?

Here are some questions for you:

  • Have you ever used the Tea Nest infuser or any of the other tea accessories sold by Tea Tangent?  Do you have any comments or feedback on them?
  • Is sustainable forest management something you are aware of or think of?
  • Are you at all familiar with the New Church based on the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg?
  • Have you ever tried Lindy Hop or swing dancing?
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