Teacology

Tea, with an Ecological Approach


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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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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?