Teacology

Tea, with an Ecological Approach


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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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Tea: Bioactivity and Therapeutic Potential – A Book Review

Back in 2009, while researching the health properties of tea, I came across an interesting book, titled Tea: Bioactivity and Therapeutic Potential.  Here I will share a review of this book, but I also want to highlight a key point about tea and health that I found in this book, that I think others may find interesting.  This review is informed in large part by how what I read in this book fit and did not fit with various things I learned from my later research.

A purple book titled: Tea: Bioactivity and Therapeutic Potential

The Cover of Tea: Bioactivity and Therapeutic Potential

As its name suggests, the book focuses on tea and medicine, therapeutic uses of tea, rather than the more general tea and health, although there is certainly a lot of discussion of broader and long-term impacts of tea, such as through nutrition and public health.

This volume is a collection of research articles by different authors.  Although the ordering of the essays is about as logical as possible for weaving the book into a coherent whole, it is still a collection of disparate articles on different facets of tea and medicine.  This sort of structure lends itself more to looking up and reading one essay in isolation than reading the book straight through.  I skipped around and read the parts I found interesting and then returned it to the library.

This book is also interesting in that it is an English-language text, but it consists mostly of research conducted at Chinese institutions by Chinese researchers.  I find it offers a novel perspective from what is available in other English-language texts.  There is a lot of information that I have found in this book that I have not encountered in any other English-language sources.  It is a pretty dense, scientific text, and I would not recommend it to most casual tea drinkers, but scientific-minded tea lovers may find it more accessible and interesting.  Parts of the book require a working knowledge of basic biochemistry.

A Review of the Book’s First Essay, Titled “Tea and Health: An Overview”

The book’s first article is titled “Tea and Health: An Overview”, and is by Mia-Lan Chen, at the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences and Peking Union Medical College.  As this was an overview, and among the most accessible of the pieces in the book, I read it more deeply and thoroughly than the other articles.

When I initially read this article, it seemed very informative and well-researched, although I have a critique below in which I mention some potential bias.  Although it focuses on tea and health, the article begins by going into the history of tea drinking, and explores this history through the lens of health.  This section of the article has some fascinating observations, among them, observing that tea drinking changes how people consume water in ways that can potentially benefit public health.

Tea Drinking and Public Health: The Importance of Boiling Water

In our modern Western society, we often take clean drinking water for granted, and we may forget that for much of human history, and still in many parts of the world, the water supply was or is a major vector for a variety of diseases, and the spread of diseases through water and the practices needed to maintain sanitation were poorly understood.  This essay asserts that when tea drinking became widespread, it resulted in the boiling of water becoming mainstream, which killed microbes present in the water, making it safer to drink.  This might have provided one of the most compelling “health benefits of tea” not only in ancient times but up until the advent of modern sanitation.

A pot of water boiling on a stove

Boiling water can promote public health by killing microbes in the water. Tea may have helped this practice become mainstream.

The above image is provided by Wikimedia Commons user Gran and licensed under CC BY 3.0.

A Possible Bias?

The rest of this essay goes through the chemical composition of tea, talking a little about how it relates to tea production, and then gives an overview of tea and health, as its name would suggest.

Some time after reading this essay and researching other sources on tea and health, I began to get a compelling feeling that the health benefits of tea had been overstated somewhat in this essay, and the potential health risks downplayed.  Granted, the health risks of tea consumption are mild, even relative to coffee, but the book made a bold claim about tea consumption showing no evidence of harmful effects even when consumed in very large quantities and this did not fit with my own knowledge or research.  The extent and certainty with which the article presented the various benefits of tea drinking also seemed to exceed that which I encountered in other sources.  I have not returned to this book though, so my impression of bias was just that–an impression or gut feeling, and I am not certain whether it would pan out if I subjected this article to more intense scrutiny.

Are you familiar with this book?

If you’ve read this book, I would be curious to hear your opinion or perspective on it.  I’d be particularly interested to hear people’s perspectives on my impression of pro-tea bias.  As a tea lover, I tend to worry that I myself may tend to be biased in favor of tea, so if I see something as being biased in favor of tea, it raises a red flag for me.

Here are some questions to think about:

  • Have you ever encountered the idea that tea drinking indirectly promoted or promotes public health through encouraging the boiling of water?
  • If you’ve read this book, do you think it exhibits any sort of bias in favor of tea’s benefits, or do you think it is more objective?
  • Do you think there could be possible cultural biases or economic factors at work influencing researchers in China to view tea in a more positive light?


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Oxidizing Herbs Like Black Tea or Oolong Tea

This is inspired by my original posts Oxidizing Herbs like Black or Oolong Tea and Sage Tea made like Black Tea.

Oxidation is one of the key aspects of tea production.  Usually, oxidation is presented as being the main characteristic that distinguishes black teas (which are oxidized) from green teas (which are unoxidized).  Since writing my original post, I have learned a lot more about tea production, and I have researched and compiled a page on the oxidation of tea on RateTea.  This page goes into more depth, explaining how a lot of the ways in which the topic of oxidation is presented are oversimplifications.  If you want to learn more about this process, I recommend visiting that page.

This page is about something different: using an oxidation process similar to that used to produce black teas to process the leaves of other plants.

Herbal Teas Are Generally Not Deliberately Oxidized: A Few Exceptions

In many respects, herbal teas are often considered analogous to true teas from the Camellia sinensis plant.  Yet there is one key difference: the herbs used to produce most herbal teas are rarely oxidized.  Instead, most herbs are usually just collected and dried.  This process makes them most similar to white teas, which are the least processed of teas on the market.  The modest amount of oxidation that happens to these herbs is an unintended consequence of the drying process, not an intentional and essential part of processing.

Loose chamomile flowers in a spoon

Chamomile, like many herbs used in herbal tea, is gathered and dried without any additional processing to induce oxidation.

There are several notable exceptions to this trend.  Rooibos and honeybush, both referred to as South African red tea, are both produced through a process that involves oxidation, which can be interpreted as making them somewhat distant cousins of black tea.  Incidentally, rooibos is often discussed as being among the most “tea-like” of herbal teas, and this similarity in production may explain why.  The process used to oxidize rooibos and honeybush, however, is quite simple, involving collecting the leaf and letting it sit in heaps outdoors–less of a controlled process than tea goes through, but achieving similar results.

The following image is licensed under the Free Art License, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons:

Red rooibos leaf on a white background

Rooibos is traditionally oxidized during its production, turning it red, much like how black tea turns a dark color.

Yerba mate and Guayusa, the caffeinated herbal teas produced from species of holly plant native to South America, also are processed in a bit of a more involved way, although not necessarily one involving oxidation.  Often, the leaves are dried and aged, and then roasted, however, there are also un-aged and un-roasted versions on the market.  There is, however, a case of people processing Yerba mate more like tea, the Premium Yerba Mate Buds sold by Upton Tea.  But this sort of endeavour is very rare.

Being curious, however, I repeatedly asked myself the question: why don’t more people try to process herbs like black tea?  It may be difficult to get good results from such a project (I wasn’t a huge fan of the Yerba mate buds described above) but I at least wanted to try.

My Experiment: Oxidizing Common Sage, Lemon Balm, and Other Herbs

Some time ago, in the fall of 2009, shortly after launching RateTea, I became fascinated by the idea of applying a similar production process to herbs, to the one usually used to make black tea.  I tried this out on a few herbs, including common sage, Monarda sp. (Bee Balm, Wild Bergamot, Oswego tea), lemon balm, and various mints.

I experimented with a number of different attempts on the different herbs, but they all involved picking the leaf and bruising it shortly after harvest (before it dried out), and then allowing it to sit in a damp area until the leaf turned completely dark (this took a matter of hours).  To do this, I placed the leaves on a plate with a damp cloth over them, and stored them in a cool, dark area.  After the leaf was fully oxidized, I then heated the leaf very slightly using a toaster oven.

Trial and error taught me that, with tougher leaves like sage, extensive bruising is needed to ensure full oxidation.  The first few batches I attempted came out with splotchy oxidation.  With the tougher herbs, like common sage, I ended up using a rolling pin on a hard surface to crush the leaves.

Here is a photo from one batch of common sage, Salvia officinalis, where I had tightly twisted and rolled the leaf:

A teacup with dry rolled up leaves in it

Leaves of common sage (Salvia officinalis) which have been bruised and allowed to oxidize similarly to black tea.

It was fun to see how the leaf can be formed into different shapes.  These leaves looked similar to a Ceylon Oolong tea, unfortunately discontinued, Shanti Tea’s Thousand Arrows.

The result of this process, flavor-wise, was also promising.  The oxidation seemed to improve the flavor and aroma of the sage, for drinking, as sage can be a bit dominating and harsh.  The other herbs also worked well, although some were better than others.  The best result in terms of flavor was lemon balm.  As I noted in my original post, lemon balm yielded the batch that came out most like black tea, and it had some floral tones that are absent in the straight dried herb, and was also more vegetal, but was less lemony.  Apple mint and the Monarda also yielded good results.

What do you think?

I would love to try this again some time soon.  I am still curious to know if anyone else has ever tried this sort of project.  I did not get any comments on my original post, as it was from before I had developed much of a following for my blog.  I would be especially interested to learn of attempts by people who have had some experience in or first-hand exposure to tea production.

Some questions for you:

  • Do you find this idea as intriguing as I do?
  • Have you ever tried processing any herbs in this manner, so as to encourage oxidation, or do you know anyone who has?
  • Whether or not you have ever tried this, do you have any advice or suggestions about processing, perhaps from knowing a bit more about tea production than I do?
  • Do you have any suggestions of herbs to try?


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Adding Citric Acid to Teas or Herbal Blends

This post is inspired by an old post adding citric acid to teas, but it is much more than a rewrite of that post.

Most of us are familiar with the practice of adding lemon or lemon juice to tea.  The effect of adding lemon juice is most evident in black tea, producing an immediate chemical change in the tea, usually resulting in a noticeably lighter color, and a cup that is somewhat less bitter and astringent, but more sour.  A practice that is less familiar is one that some mainstream tea manufacturers do, particularly those dealing in herbal blends, which is adding citric acid to teas.

The following photo is by André Karwath and is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5.

A whole lemon and a sliced lemon, white background

Citric acid is responsible for the characteristic sour flavor of lemons and lemon juice.

I was genuinely surprised when I first saw citric acid on the ingredient list of a packaged box of herbal teas.  This would not so much surprise me for a bottled or “ready-to-drink” tea, but for a tea bag, it was quite unexpected.  I think of herbal teas as being something that is made strictly from dried plant ingredients, so I do not expect to find an added pure chemical ingredient.  Some of the mainstream teas that include added citric acid are Celestial Seasonings’ Country Peach Passion and Lemon Zinger, and Tazo’s Passion and Calm.

On Citric Acid – The Chemical and its Production

Citric acid is a common organic acid that is named (and best-known) for being the main acid that imparts the characteristic sour flavor to citrus fruits like lemon and lime.  It is a common and safe food additive, used to impart a sour flavor to food and drink.  It can be isolated from citrus fruits, but is also commercially produced on a larger scale by using mold, such as Asperillus niger, to ferment sugar.

Citric acid is a pretty basic chemical in biochemistry.  It plays an essential role in all aerobic (oxygen-respiring) organisms through the citric acid cycle, also known as the Krebs cycle.  Here is a molecular diagram, for the chemistry-minded among us:

Graphical representation of the citric acid molecule

A graphical representation of the citric acid molecule

As someone who is highly skeptical of highly refined food additives, especially ones that consist of a single chemical, a natural question for me is: is added citric acid safe?

There’s not much to worry about with respect to citric acid, beyond its sourness.  Everything I’ve ever learned about it has taught me that it’s safe as a food additive.  However, the acidity itself though can sometimes be a concern.  For example, acidic drinks can soften tooth enamel, so it’s not a great idea to brush your teeth directly after drinking a cup of sour-tasting herbal tea.  Acidic drinks can also sting or irritate the mouth, especially if there is already a sensitive area like a burn.

Added Citric Acid is Not Necessary to Make Herbal Blends Sour

When I first discovered that some herbal teas contained added citric acid, I was curious to see which blends contained it and which did not.  One thing that surprised me was that the blends that were most sour did not necessarily correspond to the ones with added citric acid.

As examples, Celestial Seasonings Country Peach Passion and Tazo Calm are not among the most sour of herbal teas out there, but the famously sour Red Zinger does not (although some of the Zinger series blends do).  This is because Red Zinger uses Hibiscus as the main ingredient.  Hibiscus on its own, when brewed as an herbal tea, is intensely sour.

This photo was contributed by Popperipopp and is licensed under CC BY 3.0.

Dried hibiscus sepals, pink and dark purple in color

Sepals of the Hibiscus sabdariffa plant are a whole ingredient that can be added to tea or herbal blends to impart a sour flavor.

Why do tea companies not always use hibiscus?  It may be due to its color, and its peculiar flavor and aroma.  Even small amounts of hibiscus impart an intense purple-red color that may not be desirable in all blends.  But hibiscus also has a characteristic aroma, which I describe as being somewhat like berries but also a lot like cooked fruit or jam.  I sometimes find this aroma a bit overpowering, so it makes sense that companies would want to look for other ways to make their blends sour.

What do you think?  How do you feel about added citric acid in tea or herbal blends?

Here are some questions that you can answer in the comments, or in a follow-up blog post of your own.

  • Did you know that some tea companies add citric acid to their herbal blends, or is this a new realization for you?
  • Are you bothered by the practice of adding citric acid rather than relying on whole ingredients like herbs or spices, or is it fine with you?
  • How do you feel about sour-tasting blends in general?  Do you tend to like or dislike them?  How sour is too sour to you?
  • Do you ever add lemon to your tea?

My personal opinion?  I don’t have a big problem with added citric acid, but I think I would prefer blends made from whole ingredients.  Either way, I don’t like sour tastes much in my tea or herb tea.  I avoid both added citric acid, and blends that have too much hibiscus or other naturally-sour whole ingredients.


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Locally Grown Tea and Herbal Tea – Sustainability, Ecology, Economics

This is an update and rewrite of an original article, Locally Grown Tea, which was published Nov. 23, 2009, on my tea blog.

There are a wide variety of issues relating the topic of sustainability and tea.  RateTea’s page on sustainability and tea summarizes most of these issues. Topics like fair trade, organic certification, and composting are ones that most people in the tea world are familiar with, and that a fair amount has already been written about. This post is about a different issue, one that people in Western countries don’t think about much, which is the topic of locally grown tea.

People don’t talk much about locally grown tea in the U.S. and Western Europe. It’s generally assumed that tea grows in warm, tropical climates and needs to be imported in these countries. But this is not strictly true; as I will show below, the reasons tea is imported are a complex combination of economic, historical, and ecological factors. The tea plant, Camellia sinensis, is a relatively hardy plant, and while it generally likes a humid subtropical climate and can also be grown in humid tropical regions, it can be grown farther north than many people realize.  Many of the famous tea-growing regions, such as the Darjeeling district of India, or nearby Nepal, are located at a high altitude where the temperature can actually get fairly cold and sometimes drop below freezing in the winter.

The zones where tea cultivation is commercial feasible are also restricted by the humidity and rainfall; tea likes a wet climate, especially during the growing season.  Most of the regions important in tea production have a strongly seasonal rainfall pattern, such as the Asian monsoon in India and China, and the bimodal seasonal rainfall pattern characteristic of Kenya.

The following map shows the world’s humid subtropical zones, where most of the historical tea-growing regions are located.  Tea can also be grown in a few other climate zones too, including humid tropical climates, tropical wet-dry areas, and moderate maritime climates:

A map of the world's humid subtropical regions

A map of the world’s humid subtropical climate zones.

This map is taken from Wikimedia Commons; the original was by Peel, M. C., Finlayson, B. L., and McMahon, T. A. (University of Melbourne).  The map is Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

The continental U.S. and western Europe have a number of areas suitable for growing tea.  In the U.S., there are two commercial tea plantations whose tea can be easily purchased:

In addition to these two tea gardens, I have also heard of a small commercial tea operation in Alabama, although I haven’t been able to find its tea for sale anywhere and I do not know if it is still in operation.

Individual gardeners and Botanic gardens have cultivated specimens of the tea plant in much colder regions, on the east coast north to Delaware and perhaps even farther north, and in slightly drier regions as well, like wetter parts of California.  These regions are not necessarily suitable for commercial tea production, however.  The Southeastern U.S. and the Gulf Coast, together with a small moderate region of the Pacific Northwest are probably the only regions in the continental U.S. whose climate would work well for tea cultivation.

Why Locally Grown Tea (or Locally Produced Anything) is Beneficial

Locally grown produce, and locally produced goods,, including tea, promotes sustainability in a number of ways.

  • Reducing transportation costs –  In the case of tea, which is lightweight relative to its price, these costs are not huge, but anyone who has bought tea online and paid the shipping costs knows that they are not negligible.
  • Promoting self-sufficiency – Local production helps make each region less dependent on the outside world.  While complete self-sufficiency is not a goal that everyone wants, some degree of self-sufficiency can be important for stabilizing the world’s economy, by protecting each region from economic fluctuations in other regions.
  • Diversity – Diversity is especially noticeable in tea production, as with any type of food product based on freshly harvested plants.  Because the conditions in which tea (or any plant) is grown, impact its flavor, and because the climate and soil conditions vary from one region to the next, each area will produce tea (and other types of produce or food products) with its own unique characteristics of flavor and aroma.
  • Education and awareness – There is something illuminating and highly educational about being able to physically visit the place where an agricultural product is produced, and see how the plants are grown.  When food plants are grown locally, people can visit the farms and gardens where the plants are grown, and see them for themselves, getting a sort of awareness and knowledge that cannot be obtained from books or the internet alone.

Locally grown tea is not widely available in the U.S. and western Europe, so these benefits are typically not available with respect to tea drinking and purchasing.

Why So Few Locally Grown Teas in Western Countries?

Above I demonstrated that climate alone cannot fully explain why only a negligible amount of tea is grown in the United States.

One tempting answer to this question is in the economics of labor costs, and differences in wealth between different countries.  Most tea is picked by hand, which creates prohibitive labor costs in countries with high wages.  The United States and the countries in Western Europe are very wealthy.  To give you an idea of how wealthy, you can check out the PPP (Purchasing Power Parity) per capita, a measure of the average spending power per person, for various countries.  According to the World Bank’s figures, the United States is about $48K (measured in international dollars), the UK about $35K, and Germany about $39K.  The major tea-growing regions, on the other hand, are much poorer.  India’s PPP is about $3.6K, China’s about $8.5K, and Kenya only $1.7K.

Chart of Purchasing Power Parity

PPP (Purchasing Power Parity) is a relatively good coarse indicator of wealth.

Japan, however, proves that economics cannot explain everything.  Japan’s PPP is on par with most of the countries in Western Europe, yet it is a major tea producer.

I suspect that the other main explanation is historical.  Once an industry gets established in a country and becomes culturally important, the country will find ways to keep that industry thriving  Japan is known for high-quality teas which often fetch a higher price on the market than the bulk black tea that constitutes most of the output of many of the major tea-producing countries.

Locally Grown Herbal Teas – A Closely Related Subject

For some reason, there is often a disconnect, or at least a weaker connection than I would expect, between connoisseurs of true tea, and enthusiasts of herbal teas (or, more technically, herbal infusions or tisanes, a word I don’t use much).  But I am interested in both, and in fact I became interested in tea primarily through herbal teas brewed from plants that I would grow myself in my parent’s garden while I was growing up.  Here is a picture of two of my favorite plants, Apple mint (or Wooly mint, the plant with fuzzy, rounded leaves), and peppermint, the plant with darker, narrower leaves.

Apple mint and peppermint against a wooden fence

Apple mint (Mentha suaveolens) and Peppermint (Mentha × piperita) in the garden at my parents’ house

Herbal teas, encompassing virtually any plant used in tea other than the tea plant, grow virtually everywhere that plants grow, from the tropics to the arctic. Different arrays of plants can be grown in different regions. North America and Western Europe, in particular, are the origins of a countless variety of delicious herbal teas which are familiar in Western traditions, and which are ingredients in the mainstream brands of herbal teas found in a typical supermarket.

Many of these can be easily grown in your own garden or backyard. Many plants used for tea, such as mint, are aggressive in certain climate zones, and can be grown in massive quantities with minimal effort. In addition to growing tea yourself, many herb teas are available locally–not just through small retailers but also from friends and neighbors who might have more gardening space (or expertise) than you do.  And for caffeine lovers, there is even a caffeinated plant, Yaupon, a close relative of the plants used to make Yerba mate and Guayusa, which is native to the Southeastern U.S. and is a good bit more cold-hardy than the tea plant.

If you are a tea enthusiast, but want to support the idea of locally-produced teas for reasons of sustainability, economics, or becoming more connected to and aware of what you are drinking, you would do well to explore the world of herbal infusions.

What do you think?  Please share your feedback with me!

Here are some questions for you; please answer either here, or on a follow-up blog post of your own:

  • For tea drinkers in Western countries: do you ever think about locally-grown tea?  Have you ever tried one of the few teas grown in your own country, or in a Western country?
  • For gardeners: have you ever tried, or would you ever try to grow the tea plant?
  • For tea drinkers: are you also interested in herbal teas?  Would the promise of promoting sustainability and becoming more connected to what you are drinking make you more interested in or more likely to buy, grow, or drink herbal teas?
  • For gardeners: do you grow any herbs that you use to make herbal teas?  What are your favorites?
  • And for anyone: have you ever tried the caffeinated drink made from Yaupon?  I’ve tried Yerba Mate and Guayusa, but not yet Yaupon.


2 Comments

Teacology – A New and Old Tea Blog

Hello!  I’m Alex Zorach.  You may know me from my Blog of World Changing Ideas.  I’m no newcomer to the world of tea, nor to tea blogging.  I run RateTea, and I also have had a long-standing blog hosted on blogger, with the uncreative but descriptive name Alex Zorach’s Tea Blog.

Why a new tea blog?

I decided to start this blog because I was frustrated with Blogger’s lack of spam control in recent months.  I receive tons of spam comments on that blog, and blogger’s built-in filter is terrible, missing most of the spam and wrongly sending a lot of legitimate comments to the spam folder.  But this is only the smallest problem with spam.  I am more distressed by Blogger’s failure to crack down on spam blogs.

 My experience blogging on WordPress.com has shown me that the WordPress team is really on top of blog spam.  When I’ve reported a spam blog, it’s been taken down within a few hours, accompanied by a personalized thank-you note from WordPress staff.  This treatment is professional and really makes my day whenever I receive these emails.

With Blogger, I report the spam blog and often check in weeks or months later, only to find that it’s still up.  I’m concerned that the poor control of spam on the blogspot domain is negatively effecting the reputation and search visibility of my tea blog.  I also am attracted by the greater community features WordPress has to offer.  My experience with my other WordPress blog has shown me that it’s easier to connect a new blog with new readers, and that new posts have more visibility.

So I’m going to try publishing here.  I’m going to start by sprucing up some of my old posts with new commentary, new ideas, and/or new images, and publishing them here.  I hope people enjoy it!

This blog:

What is this blog going to be about?  Tea, and Ecology.  Tea, with an ecological approach.  Ecology, with examples related to tea world.  And, everything, with sometimes direct and at other times tangential connections to tea.  And it will always be written from an angle of sustainability, as sustainability is something I am committed to in all aspects of my life.

Can you say heck yeah?  Heck yeah!