Tag Archives: Tea

The Art of Preparing Tea for Use

“Tea being an infusion and not a decoction like coffee, it should be brewed not stewed, the chief object being to extract as much of the theine or refreshing principle as possible and as little of the tannin or astringent property as can be at the same time without either boiling or overdrawing it.”

Written by Joseph M. Walsh in 1896, Tea Blending as a Fine Art, provides a number interesting gems which stand out and make us appreciate the history, culture, and even the science behind the beverage. In this case, Walsh is making note that it’s important to revisit the basics now and then to ensure that consumers of tea are preparing it correctly in order to get the most enjoyment. Specifically, brewing or steeping tea is done relatively quickly, with the intention of extracting the various plant compounds which directly impart taste.

Theine (the Refreshing Principle) and Tannin

The theine or refreshing principle referred to by Walsh in 1896 was none other than caffeine and while it was eventually recognized as the same substance as any other caffeine, the extraction of caffeine remains a major objective for many of us who can’t pass a morning without at least one cup. However, tea, like grapes, contain tannin which in significant concentrations will yield a bitter taste. All true tea from the camellia sinensis plant contain both caffeine and tannin though the variety of plant, its growing conditions, and the contents of the soil (or terrior) have an impact on the amount. Additionally, the processing of the tea from a white through to an oolong and black significantly impacts the amount of tannin found in the leaves.

Extracting The Goodness from Tea Leaves

Steeping Tea Leaves Over Time

The Longer You Steep the More Flavor Compounds and Bitter Tannin Emerge – We Seek Balance

Apparently, back in the late 1800’s there were enough people steeping tea incorrectly that Walsh felt it was critical to teach consumers how it was done. First, he notes that “the consumer should purchase only the best tea, it requiring much less of the finer grades to make good tea than of the common kinds, and will prove the most economical in the end.” Walsh goes on to describe misconceptions that the strength of a cup of tea was measured by dark color, leading to practices like adding tea to cold water and bringing to a boil, or stewing tea in boiling water for a prolonged period of time. Both of these provide a dark liquor but also an extremely bitter infusion.

When steeping tea the goal is to use good quality water, at the right temperature, for just the right amount of time to get the best tasting cup of tea possible while minimizing the bitter qualities of tannin. For loose leaf tea this means three important things; using good quality water, keeping the tea in contact with the water for the right amount of time, and using the right temperature water for steeping. Good quality water ideally means soft water, freshly boiled. The water should certainly not be distilled nor should it have been previously boiled water that has been re-boiled.

Forlife Folding Handle Tea Infuser

Folding Handle Infuser

Separating the leaves from the water is also critically important. There are any number of ways to do this of course, using a reusable infuser or strainer or single use paper tea bag. For those more adventurous, a gaiwan, yixing teapot, or kyusu are great ways to steep tea in a more traditional way.

Finally, the right temperature is also very important. While boiling water works well for black tea and many oolongs, its isn’t the best for all types of tea. Using boiling water on green or white teas in particular will extract far too much tannin making your tea very bitter. With many teas, green, white,  and yellow in particular, steeping with cooler water often brings out far more favor.

Steeping Time and Temperature

Below you will find very general steeping times and temperatures when using a single serve tea bag or infuser. These are general guidelines however since, as we noted earlier, the amount of various flavor compounds and tannin can vary significantly from tea to tea based on plant variety, growing conditions, and processing.

  • White Tea – 170° – 185° for 1-3 minutes
  • Green Tea – 170° – 185° for 3-5 minutes
  • Yellow Tea – 160° – 170° for 4-5 minutes
  • Oolong Tea – 185° – 212° for 3-5 minutes
  • Black Tea – 190° – 212° for 3-5 minutes

If you don’t happen to have a thermometer readily available, fear not. Poured into a room temperature mug, boiling water will almost immediately drop the the high 190°’s. If you want to get water for green and white teas just wait 2-5 minutes before adding the infuser. For yellow tea, wait a bit longer, about 5-7 minutes before adding tea. Conversely, since boiling water will almost immediately cool, its best to pre-heat your mug for black and many oolongs by adding boiling water, discarding, and adding fresh water with the infuser already in the cup.

Flavor – Describing Your Cup of Tea

Popcorn

Flavorful spiced popcorn by Flickr jayneandd – CC BY 2.0

As we talked about last week, the tongue brings a human the taste of a food or beverage, but to get to the flavor we have to focus on the sense of smell.  Smell is what allows humans to describe flavors of what we consume, like floral or grassy. Interestingly, smell is tied directly into the involuntary nervous system as a defense mechanism for us, which explains why some rotting odors induce nausea. It is the brain’s not to subtle way of saying danger, get away from that. Scientists have also linked the ability to smell certain scents, like the fragrance from violets directly to individual genes (Howgego, 2013). If that gene is not turned on, you will not get the same smell as the person who has that gene turned on. This makes smell and flavor a very personal experience, which translates into a challenging dilemma on how to describe a cup of tea to another human.

Flavor and Your Cup of Tea

Smells do not come in nice categories like taste, but that has not stopped scientists from trying to build categories around smell. In 1985 Dr. Andrew Dravniek created an Atlas of Odor Character profiles, which contains a rather long list of descriptors of odor or flavor. Just last year, another team of scientists took that database and, using the results of how volunteers ranked the applicability of those characteristics to certain odors, developed 10 broad categories of smell: fragrant, woody, fruity (non-citrus), lemon (citrus fruit), sweet, minty, popcorn, chemical, pungent, and decayed (Howgego, 2013).  These same scientists are now trying to predict the descriptions of certain chemicals using these categories, something that has not be accomplished successfully before.

For us tea drinkers, these categories help to start to describe what we smell. Inside each of these categories are a whole list of other words that can be used to describe what is coming from your cup. Often these words describe other food items or things found in nature, which is totally fine. It is much easier to describe one thing in comparison to another.

  • Fragrant: Floral – think roses, violets and other flowers. Herbal – think basil, lavender, cilantro, and other herbs. Cut fresh grass as well as spices like nutmeg and anise seed fall into this category.
  • Woody: Hickory, maple, mulch, etc.
  • Fruit (non-citus): Stone fruit like plums, peaches, pear, berries.
  • Lemon (citrus fruit): Lemon, lime, oranges, etc.
  • Sweet: Honey, cocoa butter, almond, vanilla, sweet egg, etc.
  • Minty: Mint and spearmint.
  • Popcorn: Nuts, dried grass, hay, milky, butter, cream, etc.
  • Chemical: Metallic, chalky, sulfur, etc.
  • Pungent: Smoked, leather, tobacco, dung, etc.
  • Decayed: Mold, mossy, damp, dusty attic, etc.
Violets have a floral aroma.

Tea is often noted as having a floral aroma or flavor. Violets by Flickr slgckgc – CC BY 2.0

Be Mindful of Flavor

There are many more words and experiences than I could make room for on this blog and not have it be overwhelming. To help improve your vocabulary in describing your cup of tea, be mindful when you eat and notice the flavors. They may appear in a cup of tea later. Also, drink tea with friends and loved ones and take some time to talk about what you are tasting. There is no wrong answer and it is helpful to know what other people notice about the tea as it will help you better understand what you may be tasting. Lastly, don’t be hard on yourself if you cannot pick up the same flavors as others. There are many logical explanations like genetics, a stuffed up nose, old age (this one is a bummer but true, we lose our sense of smell and taste with age), or prescription medications.

As you sit down with your next cup of tea, enjoy its fragrance and taste and make a mental note of them so in the future you have a comparison point for a new cup of tea. It is much more fun when you can express in words what it is that you are smelling and tasting, not to mention those smells bring back all sorts of wonderful memories.

Works Cited
Howgego, J. (2013, August 1). Sense for scents traced down to genes. Retrieved from Nature, International Weekly Journal of Science: http://www.nature.com/news/sense-for-scents-traced-down-to-genes-1.13493

History of Tea in Taiwan

Map of Taiwan relative to China

Taiwan is home to many of the best world’s best oolong teas.

Being an island 90 miles off of the Chinese southern coast, Taiwan was destined to grow tea and be a strategic trading and military port for several different countries. The tea trade in this country reflects centuries of constant change in rulers and customs. It is believed that there were Camilla sinensis plants growing natively on Taiwan, but they produced very thin leaves that were brittle and bitter (Kevin Gascoyne, 2011). Tea plants where brought onto the island in the mid-1600s from the Fujian province of China when Taiwan was controlled by the Chinese Qing Dynasty. As more Chinese immigrants came to Taiwan, the plants where moved to several locations throughout the island. It wasn’t until the end of the 1800’s, with European intervention, that a commercial tea trade was developed.

European Influence on Taiwan Tea Trade

The Europeans were looking for other ports to trade tea given the Opium Wars with mainland China in the mid-1800’s. The need to diversify tea ports away from mainland China, led John Dodd to start offering financing to Taiwanese peasants. This enabled local Taiwanese start tea plantations as well as build factories in Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, to process the tea. Prior to those factories, all the tea leaves in Taiwan where sent to Anxi or Fuzhou China for the final processing. By bringing the final processing to the island, Mr. Dodd put Taiwan on the US and European tea maps with Taiwan producing mostly black teas for those markets. The name “Formosa” was put on most of these teas, as Portugal was the first European country to stumble across Taiwan and that is the name they gave the island. It means beautiful, so it worked well for a marketing name at the time (Kevin Gascoyne, 2011).

Taiwan Tea Industry From 1895 to Present

Close up of Fanciest Formosa Oolong

Fanciest Formosa Oolong from Taiwan

Japan took control of Taiwan in 1895 and proceeded to invest heavily in tea production in the country, introducing new tea cultivars, fertilizer and mechanization of the processing of the tea. Very skillfully, the Japanese kept the focus on black tea so the island would not compete with the Japanese green teas. The Chinese took back control from Japan at the end of the Second World War. This shifted tea production from black to green as trade with Europe and the US was dramatically cut. Competition with Japan and China forced Taiwan to shift again in the 1970’s to the oolong production they are well known for now. Even today, most of the tea in Taiwan is consumed locally even though they are considered among the finest of available teas worldwide (Richardson, 2008). The tea industry in Taiwan is still dominated by small family owned farmers giving them control over both the growth and the manufacturing of the tea. This is a unique arrangement and is credited with creating the proper atmosphere for the creation of their diverse and superior oolongs. Below is a quick chart describing some of the better known oolongs which are exported from Taiwan. If you get your hands on one of these, drink them over multiple infusions to enjoy the full complexity of these wonderful teas.

Dong Ding (Tong Ting) Produced in the Dong Ding region (while most people refer to Dong Ding Mountain, most of the tea is not grown on the mountain side). This is a tightly balled oolong that should be brewed with boiling water. It produces a greenish golden liquor with heavy floral notes with a buttery cream finish.

Bao Zhong (Jade Pouchong) This 18-20% oxidized green tea – almost an oolong  but mostly a green tea (called Pouchong) is a full twisted leaf green that produces an amber green liquid that is delicate floral and sweet.

Oriental Beauty This open twist oolong is famous for the green-leaf hoppers that munch on the leaves just before harvesting. Their biting causes the plants to release L-Theanine producing a complex flavor in this tea. It makes an orange-brown liquor with woody, floral notes followed by a creamy finish. This oolong is traditionally enjoyed with a Gong Fu set that allows for multiple small steepings of this tea to enjoy all the different flavors.

Fanciest Formosa This higher oxidized oolong is produced in the traditional Chinese method with twisted leaves instead of balled. It produces an amber to dark brown liquor with honey and peach flavors. It is the typical “first” oolong for someone wanting to experience oolong for the first time.

Ali Shan This high altitude oolong  is a tightly balled oolong that produces a yellow liquor with a sweet intense creamy flavor with some toasted nut notes. It is less oxidized oolong, so brew more like a green than black tea (not at boiling).

Your Caffeine Assumptions About Tea Are Wrong! (Sorry)

Two leaves and a bud of camellia sinensis (tea) plant contain the most caffeine of any part of the plant.

Bud and Two Leaf – Desired Pluck and Highest in Caffeine – By Mandeep Singh, CC-BY-SA-3.0

We recently wrote about the caffeine in tea, specifically looking into claims that caffeine in tea was somehow different than caffeine found in coffee, soda, or other products. We found that the jury was still out on the topic, with some studies showing that the combination of L-theanine and caffeine was less jolting. However, these studies used much greater quantities of L-theanine than is normally found in tea. This brings us to the next topic around how much caffeine is in tea. A search of web pages reveals a wide variety of information with many charts showing black tea as having the most caffeine followed by oolong, green, and white in descending order. We went searching to learn more about what things impact the amount of caffeine in tea and what ends up in your cup.

The Role of Caffeine in Tea

First lets set the stage a bit. Caffeine is found in true tea from the camellia sinensis plant. It is not found in herbals and tisanes like products featuring rooibos, honeybush, or other herbs. Many plants including both coffee and tea naturally produce caffeine as a way to protect themselves. Caffeine, like other compounds including nicotine and morphine, is a bitter tasting alkeloid, a feature which helps ward off many insects that would otherwise feast on plant leaves. It also tends to inhibit the growth of fungus thereby further protecting the plant. (Freeman and Beattie)

Recent research also suggests that there may also be another reason for caffeine in plants; to attract honeybees. Specifically, researchers have suggested that in low doses, having caffeine in pollen helps honeybees better identify the scent of a given flower providing a bit of reproductive advantage. (Wright, Baker, et all).

Caffeine and Types of Tea

Understanding that the presence of caffeine in tea is a self defense mechanism and that new growth is most vulnerable to insect attack, it should come as no surprise that the most desired part of the tea plant also has the highest caffeine. Specifically the bud and newest leaves, which are highly regarded for many types of tea, provide more caffeine than older growth. However, this isn’t the end of the story. The tea plant, c. Sinensis has evolved naturally over time into many varieties to suit the area in which they are grown. The sinensis and assamica varieties are the most notable but not the only varieties. Additionally, many countries including Japan, China, India, and Kenya actively work on producing specialized clones more suited to specific growing conditions, desired tastes, and leaf appearance. Each variety of plant differs in the amount of caffeine it produces and even the specific season of growth and available nutrients all impact caffeine production.

All types of tea, including green, black, white, and oolong, come from the same plant. The drying, rolling, and oxidization to achieve finished product does vary from type to type but the varieties still come from the same basic plant. Nothing in the standard production process extracts or otherwise removes caffeine from the leaves.

So what does this mean? Unless producers and retailers are sampling large volumes of leaf, for each and every product they offer, its really impossible to make specific claims about the amount of caffeine in any type of tea. It will fluctuate wildly within a very wide range; white, black, green, or otherwise. One might be able to avoid high amounts of caffeine by avoiding teas that are all tips but even this is no guarantee.

Decaffeinated Tea

An alternative for many is to look for decaffeinated tea which theoretically allows enjoyment of tea without the caffeine. There are two general methods used in the decaffeination process of tea today; ethyl acetate (also known as “naturally decaffeinated”) and CO2. In the first case, ethyl acetate, which occurs naturally in the tea plant, is used to wash the tea leaves removing caffeine (as well as many other beneficial substances and flavor compounds) from the product. The washed tea leaves are then dried and repackaged. In the case of CO2, the leaves are also washed. This is done under more than 60 lbs of pressure per square inch (psi) at which point CO2 becomes a liquid. After washing the tea in liquid CO2 the leaves return to normal pressure at which point the remaining liquid CO2 simply evaporates. Both decaffeination processes are expensive, time consuming, and remove more than just the caffeine resulting in some compromise in taste and other compunds found in tea.

Aside from the impact on taste and other compounds, the process of decaffeination does remove most of the caffeine found in tea. If you live in the European Union and you buy decaf tea then you are in great shape. To meet EU standards a decaf product must have 99.9% of the caffeine removed. In the United States we aren’t quite as exacting, requiring only 97% removal. So if we assume that the amount of caffeine in any given tea sample may vary widely then so too might the amount of caffeine in your decaf tea.

Rooibos, Honeybush, and Tisanes naturally are caffeine free.

Adirondack Berries – A Rooibos Based Tisane

Its worth noting that there is a myth floating about that you can eliminate most of the caffeine in tea by doing a quick initial steep, tossing the liquor, and re-steeping. Unfortunately the data under controlled conditions doesn’t support this myth at all. To eliminate the caffeine you would need to steep for 10-15 minutes, toss the liquor, and then steep again but who would want to drink that? For a much more in-depth look at caffeine and tea have a look at Caffeine and Tea:  Myth and Reality by Nigel Melican which is one of the best reviews we have seen to date on the subject.

In summary, while the amount of caffeine in any given sample can be measured by a lab, as far as we can tell its really impossible to make sweeping claims about the amount of caffeine in any specific type of tea, much less one specific tea product. When we want to skip the caffeine we’ll have a a tisane or herbal tea.

Sources Cited

Freeman, B.C. and G.A. Beattie. 2008. An Overview of Plant Defenses against Pathogens and Herbivores. The Plant Health Instructor. DOI: 10.1094/PHI-I-2008-0226-01, http://www.apsnet.org/edcenter/intropp/topics/Pages/OverviewOfPlantDiseases.aspx

G.A. Wright, D.D. Baker, M.J.Palmer, J.A. Mustard, E. F. Power, A. M Borland, P.C. Stevenson. Caffeine in floral nectar enhances a pollinator’s memory of reward. Science. Doi 10.1126. Science., http://www.ncl.ac.uk/press.office/press.release/item/bees-get-a-buzz-from-caffeine

Is caffeine from tea less jolting?

Caffeine Chemical Makeup

Chemical Makeup of Caffeine

We love tea as much as the next person (okay perhaps a bit more). We are also a bit geeky by nature so we are fascinated to learn more about tannins, polyphenols, terrior, and other science related topics in the world of tea. We have also learned to be a bit skeptical as well. There are loads of claims attributed to tea being able to cure all kinds of health problems. There seems to be no end to the claims made around tea and tisanes. Most of these claims, however, utterly lack quality sources and rigorous scientific inquiry.

So it is with one of the more fascinating claims we have come across; that the caffeine in tea is somehow different or better than that found in coffee. Specifically, there are quite a number of websites claiming that the caffeine in tea is either “slow release” or is absorbed into the bloodstream more slowly. As the theory goes, this property makes tea a better choice because it doesn’t have the significant quick jolt found in coffee. What’s more the theory suggests that the caffeine stays with you longer, providing an enhanced sense of alertness and clarity.

How Caffeine is Generally Accepted to Impact the Body

It turns out that caffeine causes quite a number of reactions inside the body stemming largely from the brain. Specifically, as the body gets tired it is believed that adenosine molecules builds up in the brain where they attache to aptly named adenosine receptors. This in-turn causes you to feel drowsy and triggers sleep. It turns out that caffeine fits nicely into those adenosine receptors where the brain happily doesn’t get the message that it should be tired. In a cascading effect, it is believed that neurons in the brain begin firing because of the blocked adenosine receptors, the body begins to think its under attack, and the pituitary gland starts releasing adrenaline and the body goes into fight or flight mode, ready for anything.

Caffeine in Tea is Somehow Different

Tea Leaves in Gaiwan

Steeping Tea Leaves by Wikimol, CC BY-SA-3.0

All this leads us back to the earlier theory about how the caffeine in tea is somehow different from caffeine found in coffee, soda, or myriad other products. Realistically, caffeine is caffeine is caffeine.  It’s all the same molecule, whether it’s coming from tea, coffee, chocolate, medicine, or so-called energy drinks. What is fascinating, however, is how the body behaves when caffeine is ingested with other substances. While tea has long been believed to deliver a less jolting caffeine effect science hadn’t been able to explain it (and really still hasn’t).

There have recently been a few studies which look at caffeine in combination with compounds present in tea that appear to shed light on the subject. In particular, research has been looking at L-theanine, an amino acid found primarily in plants and fungus materials in combination with caffeine. Tea, as should be obvious at this point, contains L-theanine. Researchers in two different studies (referenced below) have found some linkages in the combination of the two compounds to favorable alertness, cognitive performance, blood pressure, and heart rate. The kicker, however, is that the study participants were given 40-50 mg of caffeine and 90-100 mg of L-theanine.

According to research by Dr. Emma Keenan at the University of Bristol (UK), a standard cup of black tea, quoted as 200 ml or a bit over 6 oz, has 24.2 +/- 5.7 mg of L-theanine. This is one quarter the amount given to study participants when looking at the combination of both caffeine and L-theanine.  For green tea this was even lower at 7.9 +/- 3.8 mg of L-theanine. Even if you double the amount of tea consumed to a (perhaps) more reasonable 400 ml or 12-13 oz, the amount of L-theanine is still about half the amount used in study.

For its part caffeine varies wildly in a cup of tea ranging loosely between 30 and 120 mg of caffeine (we will be doing another blog soon which may further challenge assumptions about caffeine in tea).

So is Caffeine in Tea Different?

From our vantage the caffeine in tea isn’t different at all.  Its still caffeine.  What may be different is how the body responds to the combination of tea, L-theanine, and other compounds present in tea. There is promising research to suggest that L-theanine in combination with caffeine may boost alertness and cognitive response but we wouldn’t feel comfortable making that claim without more research and realistic dosages that mimic real-world consumption of tea.

Sources Cited

The combination of L-theanine and caffeine improves cognitive performance and increases subjective alertness, by Giesbrecht T, Rycroft JA, Rowson MJ, De Bruin EA, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21040626

The combined effects of L-theanine and caffeine on cognitive performance and mood, by Owen GN, Parnell H, De Bruin EA, Rycroft JA, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18681988

How much theanine in a cup of tea? Effects of tea type and method of preparation’, by Keenan, E, Finnie, M, Jones, P, Rogers, P & Priestley, C 2011, Food Chemistry, vol 125., pp. 588 – 594, http://www.bristol.ac.uk/expsych/people/emma-k-keenan/pub/2957550