Teacology

Tea, with an Ecological Approach


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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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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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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.


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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!