Buddhism and Tea – T Ching


I’ve recently broken form and written about a different subject in my tea blog, about my son becoming a samanane, or Thai Buddhist novice monk.  That was for a special two-week program, covered him ordaining (here), and also how it worked out (here). People tend to write about the overlap between Buddhism or Taoism and tea, perhaps due to having an interest in both.  I typically don’t but will make the same exception here.

Conventional forms of connection

Buddhism is often connected with tea in relation to the Japanese tea ceremony.  Participants prepare and serve matcha according to a very precise, structured series of steps, and per my understanding, there is also a brewed-tea ceremony version.  I participated in two such ceremonies while attending Colorado State Universities and the University of Hawaii at Manoa, while studying Buddhism at both. One source I read stood out for claiming the practice was relatively recent (within a century or so), and not really connected to prior rituals, religious or otherwise.  Perhaps it really doesn’t matter either way how old the ceremony form is, or the origins.

Taoism is one of the two predecessors to Zen Buddhism, and predates the Cha-an Chinese form of Buddhism that Zen originated from.  It’s also connected with tea practices and ritual, although I’m not clear on how it all links. I studied Buddhism and Taoism as religion and philosophy but related more to teachings and theory, not religious rituals or forms.

My own connections with the two subjects

I ordained as a Thai Buddhist monk myself just over ten years ago, in Bangkok, where I still live, but only for two months.  There was very little connection there to tea, and I wasn’t really into tea back then. Monks would often have tea there as part of the ceremonies, but just as something to drink, with no emphasis on type or quality, and with no ceremonial role played by it.  If you weren’t thirsty there was no need to drink it. I did a good bit of chanting in Pali back then, but what I knew of that original sutra chanting content was quite limited in comparison with the full-time monks.

I’ve retained close contact with a few of those monks and give them tea sometimes, since it now has become a personal interest.  People can give offerings to monks, with limitations on the form of what can be offered and when, but tea is not a problem. There are a lot of restrictions about food offerings, about what can be given to monks and when, and what they can retain, or choose not to eat, but a beverage is a different thing.   

In a strange twist, one monk shared Da Hong Pao with me a while back.  Monks can give away the little that they possess with others (which typically isn’t much).  The Thai Buddhist monastic tradition isn’t set up for much in the way of personal relationships to factor in, but monks are people too, and they need to maintain contact with lay-persons to perform their basic functions, teaching others Buddhism, maintaining the temples, performing rituals, etc.  

I’ve seen really interesting teaware on public display in the temple we go to most in Bangkok, Wat Pho, the one I was ordained in.  Most were just ornate versions of ceramic pots and cups, very beautiful but functionally basic Western brewing gear. I recently ran across some gaiwans in a more secluded area, a curious stock of teaware given that it was reportedly very old.  It makes you wonder who was brewing what tea in it, related to what rituals, and when. Lots of the more isolated and older parts of the temple are like that; there are surely stories to the artifacts there, some of which are lost from living memory.

I was surprised in visiting a temple in Hawaii with my Thai wife–then a Thai girlfriend, and a fellow UH grad student–that the monks gave us food that grew naturally on the temple grounds.  It seemed backwards that they shouldn’t be giving us anything. I just looked up how that works out related to precepts (monk’s rules) related to food offerings, which I summarized in a Quora answer.  The short version: Monks can’t farm, and even picking an apple and eating it could be counter to one interpretation of those rules. The practices are set up for monks to live entirely off offerings (alms), not even storing food contributed from day to day.

Of course, we didn’t bring my son and those other 87 novice monks tea, since it’s a judgment call giving kids any caffeine at all.  We brought ice cream to their retreat instead, on two separate weekends.

Images provided by author.

 



Blast From the Past: Tea Aversion and Attraction


Experiences in tea can be vast and varied. Some good, some bad, some we’d like to enjoy again, and some we would rather forget. That said, judging whether or not we like a tea while we are drinking it can become a roadblock that bars us from true enjoyment of the beverage. In particular, our aversion and attachment to certain aspects of the tea experience at hand are what blinds us from tasting the entire tea with all its subtleties.

As I mentioned briefly in my article The Mindfulness of Tea, it is important not to immediately let the mind wander into judgements about the tea while we are drinking it. Doing so will often result in the mind missing subtleties that the tea being consumed has to offer, or even missing large changes in the tea that can occur from steep to steep.

To better understand how aversion and attachment becomes an obstacle in the tea experience, we need to have a basic understanding of what it actually is. The observation and study of aversion and attachment is a basic and primary subject of mindfulness practice and Buddhist philosophy. Simply put, aversion is the experience of the mind attempting to push away a mental object (such as thoughts, feelings or senses) or tightening around it. When we consume a tea with a quality we don’t like, (such as bitterness or high astringency) what is the mind’s first reaction? Usually, after it recognizes an “unpleasant” experience, it quickly begins to find ways to put an end to the experience or determine what caused it in the first place. While the mind is doing this busywork, it misses qualities of the tea we may find enjoyable or otherwise interesting.

On the other end of the spectrum is the habit of attachment. Attachment is most often described as the mind attempting to grasp onto a mental object and keep it in the present moment as long as possible. In everyday life, we may notice ourselves thinking about a pleasing memory from our past. When this happens, the mind’s response is usually to attempt to keep the memory in the forefront of the mind to further the enjoyment. However, when the memory starts to fade away from our minds as we move about our day, we experience suffering as what we clung onto gradually disappears. The same can be observed in drinking a tea and wishing it had similar notes to the tea sampled last week. When we are attached to a certain aspect of the tea experience, it becomes difficult to notice other aspects because our minds are so busy trying to grasp onto the one we are attached to.

Ridding ourselves of aversion and attachment completely in all life experience is extremely difficult. In Buddhism, it is thought that aversion and attachment are the sources of most of the suffering we experience, and ridding ourselves of it is how we are to be enlightened. Buddhist and secular mindfulness practitioners alike claim the way to rid ourselves of aversion and attachment is to simply notice and acknowledge its presence without acting on it. Fighting it can lead to more aversion, and any aversion and attachment that is present will usually fade away in the light of the mind’s recognition.

To become more acquainted with the idea of aversion and attachment, try this simple mindfulness meditation. Sit in a quiet room with your eyes closed. Bring your focus to your breath and try to hold it there. Notice as your mind starts to drift and gently bring the focus back to the breath. When your mind is settled, bring your focus to any aversion that may be happening. Common sources of aversion in a meditation session include itches, noises, or even the desire not to be meditating at all. Don’t fight the aversion, just become aware of it and it will loosen its grip. In meditation, you may experience a state of serenity or complete calmness. This is where attachment comes in. As soon as you realize the state you are in, your mind will naturally want to hold onto it and attempt to keep the state in the present moment. Attempting to grasp onto pleasant states in meditation only results in the state being dissolved.

Bringing awareness to aversion and attachment in tea drinking is an easy way to enhance your experience and notice subtle flavours, aromas, and even feelings that the tea induces. Try it out for yourself and see how it affects your senses as you sip your favourite tea!

Image Source

This article, written by Connor Adlam, was originally posted in April 2016.



Wacky Uses For Tea Leaves


As the escalating temperatures remind us that summer is around the corner, I’m beginning to prep my house for the dreaded humid season in Japan. And what better way to guard against stink and mildew than tea leaves! Tea is a staple in my life and I have found some pretty wacky and wild uses for the leaves. Some of the ideas below might seem a bit radical, but hear me out – they are tried and true!

Create a mock onsen

Much before tanning salons came along, I heard somewhere that you could achieve a bronzed tan if you soaked in a bathtub of Lipton’s black tea. Well, the only thing that got tanned was my hide after I stained my mother’s marble bathtub! Apart from this little episode, using green tea leaves in the bath isn’t as ridiculous as you might think.

On a visit to Ureshino on the island of Kyushu, I stayed at Warakuen Ryokan, a Japanese hot springs resort famous for their unique tea bath. Imagine slipping outside in early February, butt naked, gliding across a stone path in a Japanese garden and into a steaming natural pool of mineral water that has been infused with local tea leaves. I have to admit that getting over the community nakedness was more challenging than enduring the momentary subzero-like temperatures.

By soaking in this hot bath of green tea, my dull, lifeless skin regained its luster and a few irritating little rough bits simply melted away. Next to the huge teapot water fountain was a basket filled with oversized teabags that you could moisten and pat onto your face or any area that needed extra help.

Believe it or not, you can just about have this same experience at home. Using a cheaper tea like Bancha or Aracha, bag up a nice big handful in a stocking, tie the end and chuck it into your bath. If you close your bathroom door, chances are you can emulate the steam of a Japanese hot spring.

Secrets from a Geisha

Green tea works miracles on acne and on dryness because it balances what your skin needs. I’m convinced this is a trick Geisha have kept up their sleeve for centuries.

There are two ways to benefit. You can pat wet, but not-yet-steeped tea leaves on your face and hold them there for a short time, say a minute or two, and then rinse them off with water. This is similar to the Warakuen tea pack, mentioned above, only without the oversized teabag.

For a lighter application, simply fill your basin with luke-warm water, add fresh non-steeped tea leaves, allow them to unfurl and lightly color the water. Then rinse your cleansed face multiple times with the green tea water. Follow with your normal moisturizing routine for an alkalized, hydrated, ph-balanced, fresh complexion and get ready for Geisha-like admiration.

Kiss my feet!

For a blissful pedicure, soak your feet in a tea bath while reading a good book or meditating. Just fill a dishpan or foot spa with warm water and add some non-steeped green tea leaves. The concentration will be much stronger than for your bathtub soak and that’s good because the bottoms of your feet are very porous so the nutrients in the water are quickly accessed. If you prefer, you can make a teabag out of an old stocking and infuse the water that way. This ritual is particularly effective for stinky feet!

Tea Trees

Speaking of stinky feet, the culprit may be your shoes. Nothing beats a green tea shoe tree! Here’s what you do:

Get a pair of ladies trouser stockings or lightweight socks and inspect them for holes. Then pack a very generous portion of dried leaves in each sock until you have filled it halfway full. Tie a tight knot in the remaining fabric and stuff them into your shoes. When you wear your shoes, just hang the shoe trees in your closet to keep humidity levels in check and odors at bay in there too.

Fridge magnets

Have you ever taken a bite of cheese and it tasted like an onion? Nothing’s worse than a tainted fridge. Your poor cheese can’t tell you what’s going on behind those closed doors! So to prevent a Toy Story ambush in your fridge, it’s best to install an odor prevention system with a dish of dried tea leaves. It can stay in there until you notice your food has started switching shelves. Binchotan white charcoal is also an effective odor eater in the fridge.

Slumber Party!

Nothing beats a good nights sleep. In China, ladies dry their used tea leaves in the sun and sew them into pillows. Jasmine and oolongs work particularly well for this because they are highly fragrant after steeping. You can do the same thing with houjicha. I have had less admirable results with sencha so don’t bother with that.

The operative word here is DRIED THOROUGHLY! Simply spread your steeped leaves on a flat plate, towel or Japanese noodle basket (the best!!) and allow it to dry. Depending on where you live, it might take up to 3 or 4 days in the sun to dry a plate of leaves. It takes a long time to accumulate enough dried leaves to make a large enough pillow. It’s not uncommon to collect leaves for up to a year or two for a big pillow! You can also make a quick eye pillow or a scented sachet by putting a few sun-dried leaves into a stocking or sewing a sachet and placing that inside your pillowcase.

To keep your tea pillow in tip-top shape, make sure you regularly dry it in the sun as moisture accumulates while you sleep.

Turn your home into a teahouse

Popular for centuries in Japan, tea burners (chakouro in Japanese) are coming into mainstream fashion in the West but are disguised as essential oil burners. I’m sure you’ve seen those special ceramic holders with a section for a tealight and a little dish or plate on top. While Westerners put water with a few drops of oil in the dish, Japanese warm to the scent of tea.

Simply fill the plate with some Bancha or other lower-grade green tea leaves, without adding water, and never use Matcha or Funmatsucha. Light the candle and transport yourself to the backstreets of Kyoto.

The Ultimate Fly Swatter!

If pesky flies and biting bugs are bugging you, here’s a radical thing to do: set fire to some tea leaves!  Yes, you heard me right. By setting alight a little more than a tablespoon of dried steeped leaves, either on a plate or on the top of your tea burner, you can bet those bugs will run for cover. It works as well–if not better–than citronella. A word of caution though…it might take a bit more than a few burning tea leaves if you live in a place like the swamplands of Louisiana. And yes, take the right precautions so you don’t burn down the town! Japanese use tea leaves or an incense type coil called katori senko when the mosquitos start to dive bomb!

Visionary Vacuuming

When I was little my mom had me captivated the day she took some used tea leaves from our teapot and tossed them onto the floor. As a 4 year-old I thought this was a great idea for other green things like broccoli, asparagus, and lima beans…

Old steeped leaves are fantastic for cleaning tiny nooks and crannies like tile floors, place mats or if you live in a Japanese house like we did, tatami mats, the tightly woven mats that literally carpet floors all over Japan.

All you do is take lightly damp, almost dry, tea leaves and sprinkle them on the dirty, dusty floor, then just sweep or vacuum them up! The tangled leaves act like a magnet to get hard-to-reach dirt and dust dislodged and discarded just like magic.

Cutting boards

Moist tea leaves work like magic to slay the germs that loiter around your kitchen sink! Not only do tea leaves kill germs but they remove odors and refresh as well. Generously scatter moist tea leaves on your cutting boards and allow them to sit for about 5 minutes. Next, gently massage the leaves on top of your board, paying particular attention to the stained areas. This might turn your board green but a quick light scrub removes it.

A Plant’s Paradise

Plants love tea leaves because they give the soil so many vital nutrients but it can go horribly wrong if you aren’t careful. Trust me, or rather, my two dead plants.

Just like you are making a pot of tea, take a couple of scoops of new tea leaves and add them to about 400 ml of filtered water (any temperature is OK) and let them stand for 1 to 5 hours. Then strain out the leaves, put the water in a spritzer bottle and spray your plants all over, especially on the plant leaves. Don’t keep the water hanging around in the spritzer – just make it fresh every time.

The next way to nourish your plants is to dry the tea leaves completely, and I mean totally! Tea leaves are acidic and some plants prefer acidic to alkaline soil so know what your plants prefer. If you are like me, I need Google to figure this part out. You can either put the dried tea leaves around the base of the plant or mix it into the soil. To take it a step further, grind the dried tea leaves in a coffee grinder and place these bits into the soil. Monitor this process very carefully because old damp leaves are prone to growing fungus and attracting bugs. This was the demise of my fungus-strangled plants! RIP.

Feed Mother Earth

Composting is probably the most familiar use of old tea leaves after everything has been eked out of them.  Tea leaves are nitrogen-rich and help kick start your compost. Toss them in and let ‘em RIP!

Image provided by author, all rights reserved.



How To Store Tea – T Ching


Guest contribution by Sufi Mohamed

Loose-leaf teas are sensitive and the best thing you can do for them is to store them in places that are ideal. They are vulnerable to light, air, and moisture, and they tend to absorb (in subtle ways) the flavors and aromas of the places and things they come in contact with. It’s highly recommended to store them in an airtight container or seal, in a cool and dry place.

Tea leaves contain 3 percent of moisture and volatile oils that are essential to its flavor. This unique chemistry is susceptible to the variable environments the tea leaves encounter, and these oils will evaporate if they aren’t stored properly. So what’s the shelf life of tea? Green tea has a shelf life of 6-8 months, oolong tea can last for 1-2 years, and black tea has the longest at over 2 years. Flavored teas can last the shortest and degrade really quickly if not stored correctly.

DO

Buy seasonal harvest
The local tea harvest has the highest potential for making its full shelf life. This may largely be due to the fact that those tea leaves are highly suited to those conditions. Getting the fresh tea from local suppliers will be your best bet!

Seal it up
Be sure that after using tea the tea bag is tightly sealed.

Keep it airtight
Store tea in opaque caddies made of tin, or ceramic, or even stainless steel containers. These usually come with airtight lids. Be sure to keep the teas in these containers and that they are airtight enough that its odors don’t permeate outside!

Buy in small quantities
Too much tea that sits around is probably a bad idea. If you’re unsure what tea to buy, getting those taster packs (small samples) might help you get an idea about what those teas you like actually taste, without having to buy a quantity you don’t need! I don’t recommend buying more tea than you can actually store, or have the containers to use!

Keep it cool
The ideal place to store tea is a cool, dry place. Don’t put it in the fridge, or even near a fridge. A low cupboard will do fine. Keep it away from other spices, herbs, or any sources of heat.

DON’T

Go overboard
Be sure to buy tea that you can actually consume. Buying too many means that you don’t have the opportunity to taste them all in time, and it might be some years before you can actually try all your teas.

Store in the fridge
Through condensation, the tea leaves will absorb the surrounding moisture. This makes the leaves too susceptible to breakage and will significantly affect their flavor.

Store in unlined wooden container
Storing tea in loose-fitting containers that don’t have a protective, air-sealed lining will cause the air to seep in, eventually making the tea leaves stale or even mouldy. If you do store in loose-fitting containers, be sure to put the tea leaves in an airtight seal.

Buy old tea
Find out how old the tea is before you buy it and use that as a reference for its pending shelf life.

Expose to light
Don’t store the loose tea leaves in a see-through container, because the light that comes into the container will alter its chemistry, and perhaps even lighten its color.

Storing above the oven
Don’t store tea leaves near hot surfaces, or objects that produce heat. They weaken the chemistry and affect the leaves. The heat will degrade the leaves.

Store with other teas
Storing with other teas will affect the tea, because they exchange flavors and aroma. They “leach” into one another.

Keep with spices
If you store teas near spices, you will have very unusual tea! The leaves will absorb the aroma and odors that come from the spices. Keep them as separate as possible.

Conclusion:
Knowing the shelf life of your teas and how to maintain them is one of the best things you can do for your teas and for you, to get the flavors and aromas of them. Be sure to avoid the DON’TS and DO what you can!

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Author Biography:

Visantea is thrilled to bring you closer to your tea culture and tea practises by stocking some of the finest products made in Asia. We stock a variety of handmade tea kettles, porcelain kettles, ceramic cups, and tea sets. Learn more at Visantea today: https://www.visantea.com



Brewing Tea With Wild Water


The Columbia River Gorge is a beautiful place.  Spanning some fifty miles between the Deschutes River to the east and the Sandy River to the west, the Oregon side of this deep-walled canyon boasts more than fifty waterfalls, including Multnomah Falls, which drops 620 feet in two drops as Multnomah creek carves its way to the Columbia River.  Almost every creek and river has a trail heading south toward Mt. Hood, a glaciated cascade volcano feeding dozens of those streams. Walking beside an ice-cold fast-falling creek, the tea-drinking hiker is rewarded with stunning vistas of mountains, moss, wildlife, rock formations, old growth timber, and wildflowers in every color of the rainbow.  A hike in these forests is a magical experience.

Last summer, I decided to methodically hike every gorge trail.  Doing so required a certain level of commitment: given the popularity of hiking in general and hiking The Gorge in particular, one has to be at the trailhead by 7:00 AM to get a parking spot and to avoid the crowds of one-time hikers. My pack was loaded with the Ten Essentials for Wilderness Travel as well as a thermos of hot earl grey tea.  Lunch at the summit, or the base of the waterfall, or at an overlook, is always accompanied by a few cups of tea and an almost melancholy desire to linger.  Inspired by a post on this blog a few years back, I decided that one way to extend the hike beyond the few exquisite moments at the destination would be to fill one of my empty water bottles with water from the stream.  At home, I could re-live the beauty of the hike with a cup of tea from the creek.

From early May through the end of August 2017, I drank tea from Pelham, Herman, Gorton, Buck, Multnomah, Oneonta, Cold Springs, and Wahkeena Creeks.  Of course, I filtered and boiled the water before brewing it into tea. These creeks are perfect because they originate from springs rather than glacial run-off, resulting in water that is crystal clear rather than cloudy with rock powder.  The magic of my morning tea ritual was made even more so by the announcement “This tea comes from the pool just above Triple Falls,” or, “This is Doke Black Fusion from Lochan Tea after a short stop at Pelham Creek.”

The decision to hike those trails was prescient.  On September 2, after a long dry spell, teenagers playing with fireworks sparked a fire that burned thousands of acres in the area I methodically hiked.  Drainages in almost every creek burned furiously over the next four weeks, causing freeway closures, evacuations, and millions of dollars in damage. Just one of the trails will be open for the 2018 hiking season; some will not reopen for years.  All will be forever changed.

Next time you hike along a pretty stream, take a liter of the water home with you and hydrate your body and soul with the water in a cup of tea. 

All image rights reserved by author.



An Uncertain Future for Tea: Lesson from the 2018 Global Tea Initiative Symposium


One of the greatest honors of my tea journey has been the invitation to share my experience and learnings about the business and sustainability of tea at the 2018 Global Tea Initiative annual Symposium at UC Davis (YouTube video at bottom of article). The event was a great success and amazing collection of scholars and practitioners of tea. Usually, at tea industry events I feel like an outcast; the only person in the room not afraid to speak about the real threats to the sustainability of the industry. At this event, however, I felt validated as many of the other speakers brought forward unique perspectives that were in agreement with what I have been saying for years: The current tea industry is not sustainable. Everyone left the symposium with an immense amount of information about the tea industry, but there was a dark cloud hovering over everyone’s mind regarding an uncertain future.

It was the keynote speech of Nigel Melican that brought the most bad news. His keynote came in the middle of the first day of presentations which were mostly centered around an optimistic view of growing tea in California with the leadership of UC Davis’ research. Nigel Melican is one of the most experienced technicians and consultants in the global tea industry and is no stranger to helping with the development of the US grown tea industry. Over the recent years, he has seen a rapid shift in the economics and operations of the tea industry which motivated him to lay out a bleak look into what he believes will be the future of the industry. It will be a polarized industry focused on either specialty or commercial production. Commercial tea production will be mechanized and will not be void of chemical use and GMO development. The heart and soul of tea that most readers of this blog have come to love will be eliminated in commercial tea production.

There were a few speakers that gave a perspective on the current sustainability of specialty tea. There wasn’t a whole lot of good news or reports of future growth outlooks for small-scale tea growers. In fact, Paul Berry, a Chayonu expert, explained that the cultural appreciation of specialty Japanese tea has declined significantly. My good friend, Kunikazu Mochitani, explained from a first-person perspective that the business of growing and making tea in Japan has become dire as he has had to introduce innovative ways to encourage farmers to put in the effort to produce high quality, ceremonial matcha. One of these innovations is the use of solar panels for matcha shading and the development of a high-quality matcha demand in the US to save the heritage of Chayonu in Japan.

How do we support a future of specialty tea? We need to learn, as a mass market, to appreciate and value specialty tea. We are in an interesting time for this future in the USA where the term “specialty tea” has not been properly defined. This has allowed for commercial tea to be masked as specialty tea, further cementing the future success of commercial tea in the future. You can read my further definitions of specialty tea and commercial tea. Consumers can learn to appreciate and value specialty tea to support sustainability. Tea businesses can start talking about these issues and discontinue the co-opting of specialty tea with the use of low-priced, low-quality tea masked with fancy brandings, flavoring, and blending.

Attendees of the symposium left inspired and wanting to make a change. This is going to take time for all to realize their role in the future sustainability of tea. This includes the scholars, consumers, and companies that are supporting the Global Tea Initiative (soon to be Global Tea Institute). True specialty tea is made with great care and is appreciated on its own without the aid of blended-in flavors and ingredients. Drink good tea and support a sustainable future.

All videos of presentations at the symposium can be viewed online here.

All images provided by author.



Blast From the Past: Hello, Chajin!


Chajin is the Japanese word for “tea people,” in other words, most of you reading this blog. Chajin are supposed to have especially acute sensibilities to their surroundings, which is akin to saying they have special powers. According to Chado, the Way of Tea by Sasaki Sanmi, “April is the month for this flower and that. The peak time, however, is short-lived, which is exactly one of the beauties of nature chajin appreciate. The theme for tea in the beginning of this month is predominantly cherry blossoms. Tea gatherings are held in the open air with quilted silk outer garments hanging over branches of cherry trees as screens. The chajin must be sensitive to nature, to the feeling of the season.”

The Japanese Tea Ceremony is an embodiment of this philosophy of being in harmony with nature. Every detail of the ceremony, including the setting, the utensils, and the manner of the preparation of the tea, is considered, so as to best reflect “one time, one meeting, one season.” The theme of the season, the taste of the tea, and the mindset we bring to appreciating the tea are never the same twice.

In the Washington, DC area, the cherry blossom trees bloom in late March and early April, putting a smile on the chajin. Blue skies appear more frequently and light winds are refreshing and fragrant with spring flowers and grasses. The heavier teas of winter – malty, roasted, and smoky – seem weary from carrying the burden of winter and are ready to give way to lighter more enchanting teas. Simultaneously, although thousands of miles away, chajin in the West sense the awakening of the tea plants in the East as the first small bud growths appear. For tea people, it is not enough that spring has arrived, equally important is the promise of a new tea harvest soon to follow.

Maybe it is as simple as the ancient Japanese proverb that someone without tea in them is incapable of understanding truth and beauty. To chajin, this is the way (and the why) of tea.

Originally posted in April 2012, written by Guy Munsch.



Natural and Artificial Flavors – Part Two


What about artificial flavors in tea?

Then there are artificial flavors, and it is a tendency to look at them negatively. However, not all artificial flavors are the same.  I’m sure most people think of some giant vat of toxic chemicals that dissolve metal as the basis for anything labeled ‘artificial’. However, in loose tea, most blenders will use an artificial flavor categorized as ‘nature identical’. Here is where things get real interesting. In Europe, products with nature identical flavors are not labeled as artificial, but cannot use the term natural flavor.  A nature identical flavor means it’s the same molecule as what is found in nature, except it is isolated or synthesized to produce the equivalent compound. In the US, nature identical is considered artificial. The term ‘nature identical’ is also no longer used in Europe, probably because some companies took the liberty of putting NATURAL all over the box, confusing customers. 

Artificial flavors and those that need to be labeled as such in EU standards are compounds that do not exist in nature. There are regulations regarding which chemicals can be used, but FDA labeling requirements don’t differentiate between these types or nature equivalents.

But it’s important to note the following – many modern medicines are highly refined extracts from botanical sources, and if they were considered food nearly all would be artificial. Pond water is ‘natural’ and there is even someone selling ‘raw’ water (i.e. unfiltered) which is natural, but combining hydrogen and oxygen in a lab would be considered artificial.

Why would tea blenders use artificial flavors?

In reality, some types of natural flavors can get very expensive. And there have been instances where supply crunches cause the natural flavor to become unavailable.  The other issue is that some natural flavors can dissipate quicker than some purer, manufactured versions. There is a quite large segment of the population that are casual or new tea drinkers. When a tea is labeled with a particular flavor, let’s say strawberry – then they are going to expect that tea to taste like strawberries. In other cases, a particular natural flavor may simply not be available that has the taste a blender is looking for, such as graham crackers. Sometimes, an artificial ‘nature equivalent’ flavor is used to complement a natural flavor – so a blender will use a combination of both, just like a beer brewer will use different types of hops for flavor and aroma.

What to do?

Chemicals exist all around us, both man-made and natural, and both can be toxic. So while the knee-jerk reaction is to shun ANYTHING with artificial flavors when it comes to tea, look at it this way – you can get a pure, nature identical flavor added to a tea or eat a conventionally grown strawberry which can theoretically have more contaminants. Some blenders (mainly mass market) may use artificial flavors to cover up poor quality tea, some of which can have more chemical residue from pollution or herbicide. Therefore, it’s worth scrutinizing the source if you plan on drinking a lot of a particular tea.

There are those that will lump in both natural flavors and artificial flavors as bad for you. For a new tea drinker, flavored tea is often an alluring reason to drink tea, especially if you are coming off coffee or a sugary soft drink. Virgin tea drinkers will often think plain tea tastes like water. But most tea, regardless if it’s flavored is a better option than more harmful drinks such as energy and soft drinks.

Dosing is always the main issue. The term natural doesn’t imply healthy. It is a balance between the health benefits and any potential side effects. There are some that shun flavoring in any way because ‘the doses are much higher than what is found in nature’. However, there is not a lot in the way of clinical evidence that avoiding these flavors helps you live longer. After all, the overall diet needs to be considered in totality. And one could argue there are a lot of toxins in nature that aren’t good for you – think poison mushrooms as one example.

In general, the loose tea market is very selective, and most blenders care a lot about what goes into the tea. The use of artificial flavors in general is very minimal and used only when there are no natural alternatives. Most blenders (in fact all that we spoke to) all use natural equivalents in any instance where a natural flavor is not used.

Additional resources:
http://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2015/the-flavor-rundown-natural-vs-artificial-flavors/



Natural and Artificial Flavors – Part One


Flavoring tea has been around a long time, and originally flowers and other fragrant botanicals were layered in the tea which readily absorbed their aromas. Jasmine is a classic example. While botanicals, fruits, and spices are still used, some blenders use additional flavors to achieve the desired taste.

What is a natural flavor?

A point of controversy is the term ‘natural flavors’ which have been derided as intentionally misleading by some. Natural flavors is indeed a regulated name by the FDA and is as follows:

‘The term natural flavor or natural flavoring means the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional.’

Anything not following the above guidelines would require an artificial flavor label. But the EU has a different set of standards. This excerpt provides an example to make it more clear:

“To make the regulatory complexities more tangible, let us apply the US and EU regulatory variations to vanillin, the molecule that gives vanilla its flavor. This flavor ingredient can be produced in a number of different ways, and the method used to produce it determines whether a natural claim will or will not be allowed.

When vanillin is extracted directly from vanilla beans, both the US and EU regulatory authorities allow a natural claim. When vanilla extract is subjected to fractional distillation to isolate the vanillin component, the labeling on the consumer product may be indicated as ‘natural vanilla flavor’ in the US and Europe.

Vanillin can also be made through different fermentation processes. Fermentation from a starting material such as ferulic acid, allows for the extraction of the vanillin from a variety of natural sources including coffee beans, apple and orange pips, and wheat bran. If vanillin is made using the ferulic acid fermentation process, a ‘natural flavor’ claim can still be made in both the US and Europe. If the vanillin is produced through fermentation from another source, for example guaiacol, the labeling of the products begin to differ. In the US, if the process is not approved the material is labeled as both ‘artificial’ or ‘synthetic,’ whereas in the EU the material may still be labeled as ‘natural’.

Other starting materials can also be converted to vanillin by chemical processes – for example, lignin can be heated with an alkali and an oxidation agent to create a synthetic (or artificial) version of vanillin. In this case, the product would be labeled in both the US and Europe as ‘artificial’ or ‘synthetic’ vanillin.

Finally, there is the molecule ethyl vanillin that is not found in nature and is typically produced using synthetic chemistry. The US label claim would be ‘artificial vanilla flavor’ but in Europe, the label claim is ‘vanilla flavoring’. The absence of the word natural in Europe implies that it is an artificial flavor.”

To top it off, another vanilla flavor substitute is Castoreum, which is a secretion of the anal glands and castor sacs of beavers. Even though usage of the flavoring is rare, it is technically considered a natural flavor. 

There you have it. A simple flavor like Vanilla has a lot of variations, so simply relying on a label and the word natural gives you only half the story.

Natural Flavors in Tea

Of course, tea is an ideal complement for natural flavors. The amount of flavoring needed is minimal-about a teaspoon per pound. A large portion of that is ethyl alcohol, which is used as a carrying agent (as it evaporates, the flavor is carried through the tea via the evaporating alcohol). The flavor and the alcohol are water-soluble, so water is used to combine the two. In all, once the alcohol and water evaporate, you are looking at minuscule amounts of flavor.

While natural flavors in tea are typically botanical, it doesn’t always mean that 100% of a particular botanical is used in a tea. So as an example, a pineapple tea may include pineapple flavors, but it might also include carrot, strawberry, or whatever other ‘natural’ flavors a blender decides to use.

Images provided by author.



How to Throw the Perfect Outdoor Tea Party


Guest article by: Derek Lotts

Tea parties, especially outdoor ones, are something we all simply love. There is nothing nicer than gathering with a bunch of dear friends and reminiscing about all your memories together while sipping this magical beverage.

However, just like any party, even a tea party needs preparations. Here is how to throw the perfect outdoor tea party you and your friends will remember forever.

Ideally, you should schedule your tea party at least one week in advance so that people you invite have enough time to incorporate the event into their calendars. When it comes to time in particular, probably the best choice is the weekend afternoon, since most people are usually off from work and want to have a good time. Also, an afternoon tea party is a great midday refreshment.

Another great idea is to schedule the party around big events or holidays, so more guests will be totally free to attend.

Firstly, of course, you should make a list of people you want to invite and address invitations to each one of them individually. And rather than sending a plain white card with the time and date in Times New Roman, set your creativity free and get a couple of those colorful cardstocks and cut them in teapot shape, for example, or you can even mail your invitations in envelopes containing bags of your favorite tea.

Make sure you don’t forget to specify on the invitation if there will be refreshments included – you want your guests to bring their appetite as well.

A tea party is definitely a special occasion, so setting the mood is also an important part. Since this is an outdoor party, there are some things that need to be taken care of. Firstly, even though we all love to relish in the summer sun, none of us likes sunburns. Plus, there is also that summer rain factor that shouldn’t be neglected. This is why your first job is to provide your guests with proper sun- as well as rain protection. And there is nothing that can solve this issue like a marquee can – check out those cool instant marquees at Sydney Shade that will protect you and your guests from all the weather surprises. They are also offering things like multi-mast cantilever umbrellas, wall mounted umbrellas, commercial shade umbrellas etc. – so you can pick whatever fits your needs best.

The second part is the seating area – you have to make sure everyone has a place to sit and put their teacup.

Finally, there are the decorations. And we all know that the outdoor tea party is not complete without flowers. Make a couple of colorful spring nests to decorate the tables, or make cute little floral place cards. Everything should be floral, colorful, and happy.

Since, as said, a tea party is a special occasion, you should dress appropriately for it. In other words, try looking kind of fancy, but not too much. You should put some effort in it, but shouldn’t make a huge deal out of it.

In other words, put on that favorite floral dress of yours, or throw on those suspenders and whip out the aftershave. Maybe you will want to wear your hot pink stilettos, or maybe you are already ironing your button down and searching for your fedora. It is up to you and your vision of fancy.

While everything about this part is up to you, there is one rule you should follow: Offer the widest possible variety of teas you can. Tea bags, loose tea, plain or flavored; green, white, or black; expensive or cheap… you just cannot go wrong because serving tea at tea parties is the main purpose of tea parties, right? You can also tell your guests to bring their favorite tea with them so that everyone has at least one tea they certainly love AND you will also be able to try something new.

Is there anyone who doesn’t like finger sandwiches? Probably not. You can use cookie cutters and make cute shapes or you can simply spread some margarine and put a couple of pickles on a slice of bread and call it a day. As long as you are eating a sandwich-y thing with your fingers – it is a finger sandwich.

Also, those tiny snacks that you can pop into your mouth in just one bite are also a must, whether they are savory or sweet. Biscuits, cookies, petit fours, cheese plates, tiny cupcakes – whatever you can think of is definitely a perfect option. You can even make a cake!

So there you have it, the tea party basics. The rest is really up to you and your preferences. Cheers!

Images provided by author. All are creative commons.