The science and nomenclature of tea processing. Part 1: Enzymatic browning.

Part of earning “geek status” in the tea world is learning a bit of the specialized jargon that goes along with it. As in any specialized field of industry or study, jargon can be problematic, especially when that jargon takes the form of using words that already exist in everyday English and applying new meaning to them. Perhaps the most frustrating example of this is the word “theory” which in everyday English means “a guess”, but in science means essentially the exact opposite—“a broad explanation of something that we’re really certain about”. The lexicon surrounding tea is no less confusing. In this series, I’m going to explore the jargon behind two different processes important for tea production that are both sometimes called “fermentation.” I’m also going to dive into the biology and chemistry behind steps of tea processing and suggest some new terms that could make the biology and chemistry even clearer.

In part one, I’m going to be tackling the problem of what to call the processing step that makes green tea leaves into black tea. In the tea industry, this is often called “fermentation” which is a direct translation of the Chinese fājiào. This is the process that makes green tea leaves darken in color to produce oolong or black tea.

What’s going on:

Almost all plant parts contain a suite of chemicals called catechins, one group of a larger family of compounds called polyphenols. They all share a similar structure that includes several alcohol (-OH) group sticking off of them. Catechins are colorless and have a variety of functions in plants including acting as antioxidants to snatch up DNA damaging free-radicals. They are generally kept in a compartment called a vacuole inside the plant cell. Plant cells also contain an enzyme called polyphenol oxidase. Like all enzymes, polyphenol oxidase is a large (relative to the catechins), protein machine designed to speed along a specific chemical reaction. Polyphenol oxidase is kept in a separate compartment from catechins, called a plastid, and it can only do its particular job when a plant cell is damaged, like when tea leaves are bruised during the production of oolong or black tea.

Epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), the most abundant catechin in tea

When the leaf is damaged, polyphenol oxidase mixes with the catechins and speeds along a reaction converting catechins into quinones by removing the hydrogen atoms (H) and some electrons from those alcohol groups (-OH) with the help of oxygen from the air (O₂). Quinones are then able to bind with other quinones or other polyphenols forming larger, more complex polyphenols that tend to have a reddish brown color.

However, if you apply heat early on in tea processing, the enzymes (being made of protein) “cook”, which makes them inactive. Thus, if the leaves are heated before they are bruised, this chain of events never happens even though the catechins and oxygen are present. The simple version: when a leaf is bruised, the contents of two compartments mix and a chemical reaction occurs that creates a reddish brown pigment. If you heat the leaf enough, this reaction won’t happen. Or I should say, the reaction won’t happen quickly since catechins can oxidize without polyphenol oxidase present; it just takes a lot longer¹.  

What to call it:

In English, “fermentation” always involves microbes in some way, so when English speaking tea geeks first learn about the lack of microbes in this step, they generally switch to using the term “oxidation” instead as a more correct, scientific alternative.  Unfortunately, this term has some jargon issues as well. In everyday English, “oxidation” is a reaction that happens when things are exposed to oxygen. Rust formation, the Statue of Liberty turning green, and apples browning might all be called “oxidation”. In chemistry though, “oxidation” has a different meaning.

An oxidation reaction is any chemical reaction where something loses some electrons. That’s it! It doesn’t even have to involve oxygen! So for a scientist, calling this step of tea production “oxidation” isn’t terribly helpful since that word can describe so many different chemical reactions going on all the time. A food scientist would probably call this process “enzymatic browning,” a term that I’ve surprisingly never seen come up in any discussion about tea². If you read about browning of fruits and veggies though (which is exactly the same chemical reaction), it becomes clear that “enzymatic browning” is the most precise term for what’s going on here without going into a full on description of the exact enzymes and chemicals involved. It’s unclear to me why tea scientists and tea industry professionals have tried to reinvent the wheel with the terminology for this process, since “enzymatic browning” appears to be already widely used and understood in food science.

When deciding on what to call this process, it’s important to think of who your audience is.  If you’re talking to tea professionals who are already familiar with tea processing, it probably makes sense to call it “oxidation” or maybe even “fermentation” (as long as it’s clear you’re not talking about real fermentation).  However, for neophyte tea geeks, “fermentation” is often a very confusing term, and I would avoid using it entirely (with the exception of warning them that other people might use it).  If your audience is scientifically minded, please at least avoid using “fermentation”, and why not use “enzymatic browning”? It’s clear, concise, and it lets you tap into a large established body of food-science literature.


¹ For this reason, I believe it’s unnecessary to invoke the “partial kill-green” theory of what makes raw puer different from green tea. Catechins oxidize over a period of years just fine with no enzymes present. It is, however, entirely possible that higher temperatures in processing kill the microbes present on fresh tea leaves and slow or prevent the ripening of raw puer tea because of reduced microbial colonization.

² Tea scientists seem to be as confused as everyone else. They sometimes use “fermentation” with an explanation that this step doesn’t actually involve microbes. Other times they use “oxidation”, but explain what specific chemical reactions are going on. Still other times they use these terms without any explanation that they have a different meaning than the scientific one!

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Bug-bitten teas: why are leafhoppers only sometimes a good thing?

Leafhopper responsible for bug bitten teas

For most crops, insect damage is a bad thing—both for yield and quality.  With tea, however, we have this somewhat unique case of the so-called “bug-bitten” teas where attack by an insect actually improves the quality compared to an un-attacked plant by inducing chemical changes that are said to improve the aroma of the finished tea.  Famous examples of this are Oriental Beauty (东方美人, dong fang mei ren), Concubine Wulong (贵妃, gui fei), and Honey-Aroma (蜜香, mi xiang) black teas.  All three of these teas are originally Taiwanese, so is there something special about Taiwan?  Well, when you dive into the scientific literature on leafhoppers on tea plants, most of the studies done in Taiwan are on a species of leafhopper known as Jacobiasca formosana, while most of the studies in mainland China talk about a leafhopper known as Empoasca vitis.  So it seems safe to assume that maybe one of these insects causes “good” chemical changes in the tea leaves that increase the quality and the other species causes “bad” chemical changes that decrease quality, right?  Well, according to a few recent studies, it turns out there is very strong evidence that they’re all the same species (Empoasca onukii), so the leafhopper responsible for Oriental Beauty is actually quite widespread!

And it’s not something specific about geography either, as farmers in mainland China are beginning to adopt this technique to produce bug-bitten teas as well. So why is it that insect damage is a good thing only for these few teas? Why aren’t there any bug-bitten green teas on the market?  I’ve done a bit of thinking about this, and it seems like there are only a handful of ways to explain why leafhoppers are considered pests on green teas, but can improve the quality of some wulongs like Oriental Beauty.

  1. The leafhopper causes the same chemical changes in all tea plants, but those changes are considered “good” in wulongs and “bad” in green teas.  Green teas and wulong teas obviously have different criteria for judging, so maybe what makes an wulong good is actually undesirable in a green tea. This seems unlikely to me since there is a lot of overlap in the list of characteristics that make green tea and wulong tea good, but it is certainly the simplest explanation for this phenomenon. It may also be a simple matter of leaf appearance which is more important for a green tea like Longjing where any blemishes are easy to see compared to an oxidized, twisted leaf tea like Oriental Beauty.
  2. The effect of the leafhopper depends on processing method. In this scenario, the leafhopper still causes exactly the same chemical changes in all tea plants, but those chemicals get modified by different processing methods to create differences in the processed tea. For example, a leafhopper might cause a tea plant to produce some compounds that when left   unoxidized—as they would be in a green tea—produce undesirable flavors, but when they are oxidized in wulong processing they become compounds with desirable characteristics in the finished tea.
  3. Leafhoppers do different things to different cultivars. Maybe different cultivars of tea plant respond differently to leafhoppers.  For example, maybe Longjing #43 defends itself by producing more caffeine (an insecticide), which would lead to a more bitter tea, but Qing Xin defends itself by producing hotrienol, a chemical that smells nice to us and maybe attracts predators of the leaf hoppers.*
  4. Leaves of different ages react differently to leafhopper damage.  Ok, bear with me on this one. Most green teas are produced with only one or two leaves and a bud while most wulongs are produced with even older leaves included in the plucking. Maybe the leafhopper produces undesirable chemical changes in young leaves and desirable changes in older leaves.  Then, if you make a green tea, you’re only getting the bad changes, but if you pluck for an wulong, maybe the good changes outweigh the bad ones.  This one might seem like a stretch, but research shows that it is common for young leaves to respond to damage differently (and more intensely) than older leaves, so I think this is entirely possible.

I’m hoping that you—the knowledgeable tea buyers, farmers, and consumers of the tea world (AKA Tea Geeks)—can rule out some of these possibilities or maybe add some that I’ve missed.  Please let me know what you think in the comments!

*These are just examples! Leaf hopper damage has been shown to increase hotrienol concentrations in wulong cultivars, but as far as I know, no one knows what it does to caffeine or what leaf hoppers do to chemicals in green tea cultivars.

Image credit: By HectonichusOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0

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Journalists Suck At Science, and Tea Won’t Help You Live Longer

To start off, I recognize I’m painting with a broad brush with the title. But I’m going to use a high-profile journalist on a high-profile news show to illustrate that you just can’t take science reporting at face value from news outlets. There are some people who don’t suck at reporting science, like Carl Zimmer or Jennifer Ouellette, but the ones that are really good at it seem to call themselves science writers more often than journalists. I’m not talking about them here. I’m talking about the people who specialize in reporting the news, not in the science.

Reporter taking notes and a older woman drinking tea

Earlier this week, Lesley Stahl of the CBS news show 60 Minutes reported on a University of California, Irvine, study called “The 90+ Study” that looked at a cohort of 14,000 residents of a retirement community who filled out an extensive health questionnaire in 1981. Those people are now over 90 years old and they’ve tracked down as many as they can to learn about longevity and health in the “oldest old.”

All that is fascinating, and they’ve found out some really interesting stuff, particularly about dementia. But I want to focus on two items that stuck out at me between what the interviewed researcher, Claudia Kawas, said and the terminology used in the news story. The first is about alcohol, the second about caffeine.

With alcohol, the study published in 2007 pointed out that those who drank alcohol in moderation lived longer than those who did not, but:

We found no difference in the effects of wine, beer or hard liquor on mortality. Whereas several studies have not observed any differences between wine, beer and spirits in their association to all-cause mortality, others have shown more benefit for wine, and/or beer, and/or spirits. In many cases, the strongest inverse relation has been observed for the beverage type most often consumed in the population under study.

In other words, type didn’t matter in their study, but other studies where there’s a most common type of alcohol, in which case that might show up as being “better” for longevity. But here is where the reporting of the study becomes slightly skewed. Not misleading exactly, but a viewer not paying full attention might go away with a different impression than what the science found.

In the report, Leslie Stahl did indeed say, “And any kind of alcohol seemed to do the trick.” This was followed by Kawas being quoted to say, “A lot of people like to say it’s only red wine. In our hands it didn’t seem to matter.” Replying, Stahl said, “Martinis just as good.” And that was the only time an alcoholic beverage other than wine was mentioned. The word “wine” was used 5 times in the story. “Beer” was not mentioned at all, nor was any representative of hard liquor other than the reference to a martini. So although they actually said the type of alcohol didn’t matter, the story only really talked about wine. This is what might give the casual listener an inaccurate sense of the study’s findings.

(An interesting, but unrelated wrinkle in the research for those of us who don’t drink alcohol: although alcohol seemed to have a protective effect, so does grape juice. This raises two questions: if alcohol is what makes the difference, why does grape juice work? And if it’s something from the grapes, why does beer and spirits come out even with wine? My guess is what I say in most of my tea classes: It’s more complicated than that.)

Now, to bring it back to tea: caffeine.

For this one we refer to a study the research team published in 2008 looking at, among other things, caffeine consumption. The 60 Minutes story says, “And there’s good news for coffee drinkers. Caffeine intake equivalent to 1-3 cups of coffee a day was better than more, or none.” Okay, so they don’t mention tea because coffee is more common. I’ll give them that. The study itself said that 90% of the people drank coffee and only 50% drank tea. But then they say that it’s caffeine, and it’s the equivalent to 1-3 cups of coffee a day that makes a difference.

But it isn’t.

Looking at the published study, they found that tea drinking only made a small amount of difference and mostly in those with cardiovascular disease. On the other hand, they found that people who drank decaffeinated coffee had reduced risk. They talk about lots of complexities in the analysis and problems with measuring and so forth—like that answers about “tea” might have included decaffeinated, and I might add herbal, tea—but what comes through clearly is that it’s really coffee that makes the difference. So the most scientific-sounding bit about this issue in the news story turns out to be the least accurate. It’s the common reference to coffee as a caffeine source that’s really the bit that had the most evidence behind it. But the study did specify that “Individuals drinking 100–399 mg/day had the lowest risk.” Of course, if you have talked with me about caffeine, you’ll know it’s very difficult to know how much caffeine you’re getting in a cup of tea.

(By the way, for those of you that are still on the “tea is great for your health” bandwagon, they not only found “Neither milk nor tea had a significant effect on mortality after multivariable adjustment,” but they also found that the antioxidant activity of vitamin E had no significant impact on reduced risk. So if you’re drinking tea because of the antioxidants, the fact that you’re consuming more may not mean you’ll get any benefit).

I wind up, then, coming back to the two assertions in the title (with no disrespect intended for Leslie Stahl or 60 Minutes, despite using them as an example): News journalists suck at science—or at least don’t have the time or an audience who cares enough to actually get accurate with their description of findings. And tea won’t help you live longer—unless maybe you have cardiovascular disease, and it could be that tea’s antioxidants don’t do much for you.

But in the end it boils down to this: Do your research. Don’t believe what the news or salespeople tell you about science. Instead, do a little research yourself because they probably didn’t quite explain it correctly.

Transcript and video of the news story, which really is rather interesting despite the oversimplification of the findings: Living to 90 and Beyond

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Tea Shops Don’t Care About Tea, part 3: tools for proactive tea shops

I’ve heard a good deal from tea businesses, and on behalf of tea businesses, because of the first two posts in this series.  The comments tended to go along the lines of “Give ’em a break, they’re only retail employees!  Don’t expect that they know anything!”  And I’ve got two responses to that before I get to the actual advice for tea shops promised in the above subtitle.

Drinking tea with an open book

First, to those who feel I’m giving the tea employees a hard time, consider that you may be more advanced along the path of tea knowledge than the average customer.  The average person who buys tea from a specialty tea shop does not have that attitude.  Having worked for several companies who retailed tea, I can tell you that the average person who walks into a tea shop to buy tea believes whatever they are told.  They believe that the tea shop employee, simply by virtue of being behind the counter of a specialty shop, knows more or less everything that needs to be known about tea.  The tea shop employee is expected to know the pharmacological effects of every selection in the store, and be able to prescribe the correct one for any malady a customer may have.  Customers also expect tea shop employees to be able to describe relative amounts of antioxidants, caffeine, and amino acids like L-theanine by type and by individual tea.  Tea shop customers expect tea shop employees to know.  And this series of posts has been based on the point of view that a retailer should follow that business truism that you should try to at least meet, if not exceed, your customers’ expectations.

The second thing I’d like to say to those who have questioned my premise: thank you.  Spread that message.  Tell everyone you know that retail employees know nothing about tea.  Because maybe if the retailers won’t train their employees to meet customer expectations, perhaps together we can get the customers to understand that they’re getting terrible information about tea and therefore customers should lower their expectations of the tea industry.  Either way would work.  If you think my position that the tea industry should rise to the occasion is an unrealistic expectation, then we all need to get to work letting the tea-drinking populace know that they’re expecting too much of tea shops.  This approach, too, was part of my purpose in writing this series.

Essentially, I’ve been trying to do two things: get consumers to put less stock in the tea industry by showing how bad the industry is at educating themselves and their customers, and challenging the tea industry to step up their game a little.  And it’s with that second part in mind that I’m writing this final post in the series.

An educationally proactive tea retailer has four primary ways of taking on this challenge to better their learning, and also, subsequently, the information they pass on to customers. They are as follows:

1. Cultivate a culture of learning.  If your company’s culture is one where people try to find out the real answer, instead of having an emphasis on simply saying what needs to be said to make the sale, over time the collective knowledge of your company will grow.  Training can also become easier because although you’ll typically need to do some training on the basics, new hires can learn some of the more specific things from their peers, as well as learning on their own.

2. Vary information sources to prevent bias and repeating errors.  There are tea shops out there, I am sure, who tell new employees to read James Norwood Pratt’s New Tea Lover’s Treasury or Ultimate Tea Lover’s Treasury and call it good for training.  While that’s better than nothing, what if he made an error?  Basing all of your training or educational work on a single source will result in additional repetitions of the same error (or, like a massive industry-wide game of Telephone, new permutations and variants of the error).  Using multiple sources doesn’t guarantee you’ll prevent information errors, but it will certainly increase the chances that you’ll discover them.  One day I’ll write a post about “myrcenal” and/or the white tea and caffeine thing to illustrate this in greater detail.

3. “Flip it” and other critical thinking skills.  In his book, When Can You Trust the Experts: How to Tell Good Science from Bad in Education, Daniel T. Willingham offers a couple of shortcuts to evaluating educational claims.  One of these shortcuts is “Flip it,” which means to look at the reverse of the claim to see how it seems.  His example: a product that claims to be “85% lean” could be flipped to say “15% fat”…and although it’s identical in meaning, one seems healthy and the other doesn’t.  Another way information can be “flipped” is to look for evidence of the opposite.  For example, you could see the claim that Longjing tea is only made in the area around Hangzhou and assume that the Longjing in your shop comes from Hangzhou.  But if you flip that around and look for the reverse (i.e., Longjing made in other places besides Hangzhou), you might learn that Longjing is one of the most frequently “faked” tea on the market, and that much of the Longjing in the US is actually produced outside of Hangzhou…and in most cases, in entirely different provinces.  Other critical thinking skills and techniques can be applied to evaluate which of multiple stories, whether discovered through using different sources or because of flipping a claim, is most likely.  I’ll have more on that in just a moment.

4. Record questions and refer to specialists.  Despite your best efforts, someone may ask a question of someone in the shop that the employee (or owner!) can’t answer.  Don’t make something up.  Instead, make sure everyone knows the following phrase: “I’m not sure, but if I could get your contact information I’ll see what I can find out.”  Then, do that.  Collect the questions of your customers.  Remember: if they asked the question, they expect you might know…so if you want to meet your customer’s expectations, you should find out.  Once you have the question and their contact information, refer to specialists.  You could do this in a number of ways, and it’s up to you to figure out the best way for your business, but one way would be to find out the answer from specialists and contact the customer yourself to deliver what you found out (citing your source, of course).  This way your shop looks connected, helpful, dedicated to accuracy, and responsive to customer needs, and your tea colleagues will want to check the “plays well with others” box on your report card for the referrals.

Taken individually, each of these four ways of addressing information gaps can move your shop in the right direction.  But the more you implement, the faster and more direct your journey to good data becomes.  Now, this blog post only touches on the main ideas and doesn’t give much detail on how to implement these techniques in a typical tea shop.  Both to keep this article as short as it is (I know, it’s not that short) and to keep from boring readers who don’t have a tea shop, I held aside much of the how-to ideas.

Now, to help you improve your shop’s tea education program, I have compiled these tips and techniques into a guide called “Be the Smartest Tea Shop In Town: Build Expertise with Every Interaction,” detailing what my ideal training and educational program would look like for a small tea shop.  It’s flexible and customizable, so it can be used in many different types of shop.  I want to give it absolutely free to any tea shops reading this because of how strongly I feel about the need to improve education in the tea industry.  Here’s what you need to do: click the link below, enter your email address, and I’ll send you the guide at no cost.

“Be the Smartest Tea Shop In Town” will not only show you how to implement the suggestions I’ve mentioned above, but will include not only a list of techniques and methods, but an area to write your own unique educational plan in minutes that you can implement right away.

So if you own a tea shop, or work in one, go ahead, click the button below, and I’ll send you the link to the guide.

Click Here to Get the Guide

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Tea Shops Don’t Care About Tea, part 2: consumer options

In the previous part of this series, I ranted about the kinds of terrible information told under the guise of false expertise (whether because of ignorance or outright lies) by tea shops. In this part, I’ll talk about two things. The first topic will be some points about education in general. The second will be things that you can do as a consumer to tease out some clues as to the quality of the tea information you might get from a particular shop or a particular employee.

I was fully intending to have a third section in this post with some tips for tea businesses about both behaviors and mindsets that could keep you moving in the direction of greater accuracy in what they tell to your customers, but this post is already too long. So I’ll have to put the industry information in a Part 3 of this post in about a week. Stay tuned!

Questioning man

EDUCATION:  Bloom’s Taxonomy
Before we get into how to tell if your tea shop sales representative knows something about tea, we should probably look a little bit at what “know about” might mean. There is a classification system of learning objectives that is widely used in the field of education, known as “Bloom’s taxonomy.” There are several variations on this (and not some little controversy), but it will do for our purposes. It basically says that there are different levels of learning in the cognitive realm, and the lower levels build up to the higher levels. The first 3 levels are:

  • Knowledge: being able to remember specifics and facts.
  • Comprehension: being able to understand facts enough to interpret or extrapolate, to compare and contrast
  • Application: To be able to use knowledge in novel ways or to solve problems not yet encountered

At this point, things get a little broader–some say the rest still build in a linear way, others that once the first three are covered, the others can progress independently. But they are:

  • Analysis: Being able to break an idea/theory/facts into constituent parts, or infer new facts, or connect evidence to different ideas
  • Synthesis: Being able to take constituent parts and recombining to create something new, or derive abstractions from the specifics
  • Evaluation: Being able to judge validity, quality of a position or idea, or apply criteria as a way of judging possibilities

Essentially, you have to have at least the first three to do any of the last three. It’s hard to analyze something when you can’t comprehend it.

Let’s then bring this back to tea. In general, the more of these “objectives” that someone can do with tea, the more likely they have actual expertise rather than just a semi-mindless retail job. The typical retail employee (in the tea industry or elsewhere) doesn’t get much further than knowledge. The better ones get to comprehension. But it’s rare to get anyone that achieves a level of understanding of their product that includes application, analysis, synthesis, or evaluation.

Which is why, as a person interested in tea, you shouldn’t put much stock in what the typical tea shop employee says to you about tea. But there are tea shops that are the exception, and individual employees that rise above the mediocrity of their brethren. The next section will give you some ways to tell if you’re talking to one of the exceptions, or someone that’s merely an employee. Finally, there will be a section for tea shops who want to evaluate themselves and/or improve the level of the tea information they provide.

If you really want to be able to trust that you’re getting good information from the shops you visit, you will need to do a little research. In some ways, this is a little bit of a catch-22 because to know for sure you’re getting bad information you need to already know the right answer. However, the following techniques should help you get hints as to the quality of information without already knowing it.

First, go in with Bloom’s taxonomy in mind. Ask some questions at the knowledge level about some of their teas: is this tea a blend or from a single farm? where was it made? As my previous post made clear, this are often answered incorrectly but stated with confidence, so if you know a few things about tea, try to focus on those. For example, if you know that Dragonwell is a green tea from China, maybe choose that one to ask about. Or if you know that Earl Grey is always flavored with oil of bergamot (or an artificial bergamot flavor), ask about their Earl Grey. If you find someone that has difficulty coming up with an answer, you’re probably not talking to an expert.

Next, go for comprehension: How is that different from this one? or I’m not sure I understand–can you explain it another way? (If they don’t fully comprehend the information, they typically will not be able to take a new approach to explaining something.)

Many times, just a few questions can reveal if someone knows their stuff or not. But if you feel comfortable, continue to ask more complex questions to see if they can apply the knowledge, analyze, synthesize, or evaluate the knowledge. Try to see where they stand on the scale of learning.  An “I don’t know” is not bad because it’s honest.  But an “I don’t know, but let me find out” is better.

If that’s not your cup of tea, a second approach is the “trust-but-verify” technique: just ask the first level questions. But think of the answers as provisional. Then see if you can verify the information. It’s pretty easy to find out if “Oolong” is really the name of a province in China or not. Search on the name of the tea and find out if the tea name is indeed associated with the place you were told.

Also keep in mind that the scientific method works in reverse, in a sense. If you’re to be scientific about this, rather than trying to confirm what you were told, it’s better to try and disprove what you were told. Look for conflicting information. And if you find conflicts, ask which source is more likely to have first-hand experience or laboratory data or whatever to back up their claim. Heck, if you really want to be careful, specifically ask them to back up their claim. They should be able to supply citations, references, etc. (Is it really organic? Can you show me the certification papers? If not, how do you know it’s organic?)

Example:  This is the approach I took with the “mao feng” answer mentioned in the previous post.  I initially thought the guy was crazy, but I don’t know the name of every town and region in China, and there are many Chinese characters that could be pronounced “mao” and many others pronounced “feng”.  So I did searches on both the term “mao feng tea” (and “maofeng tea”) and looked for results that would indicate a place, and I also did geographical searches for Chinese place names.  I was open to the idea that I might know less than the person in the store, but verified that there was a huge amount of information that confirmed what I thought was true, and absolutely no information that confirmed what he told me.

A third—and final, for purposes of this already rather long article—technique is to ask about their training program. The most likely answer you’ll get is a description of something informal–regular tea tastings and learning what the wholesaler says about the tea. But really, that’s not training, that’s just sampling the product and reading the package. A shop with that as their “training” produces experts in the same way that you’re an expert in breakfast cereals. You are as much of an expert as they are except perhaps that you’re not allowed to see some of the packaging that retailers receive. Which, really, is yet another problem–if they’re only more expert by withholding information.

The worst case scenario is a place where training ends–that is, it’s not ongoing. An answer like, “Oh, we all go through a 2-day training to learn about all our products” or something means they probably don’t know much. Think how much you learned in your last 2-day training. I’d bet it was insignificant next to what you’ve learned outside that training. Why should you settle for that from a tea shop?

A decent answer would generally have two parts:
1) A regular schedule, because this increases both the chances that they’ve regularly come into contact with new tea information (versus just repetition of the same stories), and the chances that they’ve developed a habit of continual learning

2) The training material should regularly include sources that aren’t connected with a product they carry. In other words, they’re not just parroting the sales pitch of their suppliers. Multiple independent sources are better than one source that has a vested interest in a particular story being told.

A fantastic answer might look something like–they do their own research, regularly travel to visit countries of origin to learn from the growers, or even that they have someone on staff whose job it is to verify and update the information the whole team shares. Essentially, one that shows initiative in seeking out answers to questions, as opposed to simply defending answers that someone has told them.

In short, the best way to tell if you’re in a tea shop that actually knows what they’re doing is to ask lots of questions, try to verify their answers (or find conflicting information), and to try to determine if they are also asking lots of questions about tea on a regular basis.

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Tea Shops Don’t Care About Tea, part 1: the rant

I don’t know where you get your tea. But unless you’ve got lots of options and have thoroughly explored them, I bet I can tell you something about the place where you shop: they don’t care about tea.

Let me explain. I mean that your local tea seller doesn’t care about tea because if they did, they’d actually know something about what they sell.

Frustrated man

Not only do they probably not know much about what they’re selling, they recognize that shoppers expect them to be experts, so they make something up. That’s right—if they don’t know the answer, they won’t say they don’t know. They won’t look it up. They won’t take a class to be ready next time. I would say that 80-90% of the tea shops I go into answer my warm-up questions wrong.

I’ve gone into tea shops and been told that the tea is called Oolong because it was grown in Oolong Province, China. It wasn’t—that’s a processing style, or maybe a cultivar, but certainly NOT a province. Anywhere.

In another shop, I overheard untruths as the guy behind the counter told a customer, “Oh, if you’re worried about caffeine, you should totally drink white tea because it’s got the least.” No, no, no! It’s got the MOST caffeine on average. Are you trying to kill her?

Yet another shop saw an employee telling me their Qilan wulong was from the “maofeng” region of China. It wasn’t. There is no such place. This time they’re chosing a leaf style—most often associated with green or black tea, not wulong—and pretending it’s a place (or ignorant enough to not realize it’s a leaf style, even though it’s one of the more well-known tea terms out of China…the motherland of tea).

If you go into a shop that sells French wines, you would expect that they may not speak fluent French or Italian, but might be able to tell France from Italy, and recognize the difference between places in France and terms used to describe how the wine is made, right?

I had a Tea Geek member recently ask me about tannic acid because they’re frequently hearing people have been told by local shops that tea has tannic acid in it. No! By international definition of “tannic acid” it cannot come from tea because that definition specifies which plants it can come from and be called tannic acid and Camellia sinensis isn’t on the list! For crying out loud, Wikipedia even says:

“Commercial tannic acid is usually extracted from any of the following plant part: Tara pods (Caesalpinia spinosa), gallnuts from Rhus semialata or Quercus infectoria or Sicilian Sumac leaves (Rhus coriaria). According to the definitions provided in external references such as international pharmacopoeia, Food Chemical Codex and FAO-WHO tannic acid monograph only tannins sourced from the above mentioned plants can be considered as tannic acid.”

So there’s a tea shop who didn’t even bother to look it up on Wikipedia. Wouldn’t you hope that a specialty tea shop gave better answers about tea than Wikipedia?

“But surely those are special cases, right?” No. Before I founded Tea Geek almost eight years ago, I was already teaching the specialty tea shops where I bought my tea about the very products I was buying from them. The average tea shop worker just doesn’t know much about tea. They just memorize the pitch, the one interesting story, the health claim, or whatever they’re told about each tea to sell it, and that’s where training ends. Sometimes not even that much. Often times, they’re just regurgitating what the supplier told them or printed on the package. Or repeating what they heard another worker and/or customer say.

Now, there are exceptions to the rule. Sometimes it’s just one employee who knows what they’re talking about and everyone else is just trying to get your money (or trying to make it until quitting time). Sometimes—very rarely—there’s a company where everyone who works there actually participates in a training program, and/or somewhat rigorous self-study.

But if you are someone who likes tea and curious about your choices, the sad truth is: you will be told things that simply are not true by someone posing as an “expert.” It’s just going to happen, and it makes me furious that the tea industry as a whole is so careless about the facts.

But there is hope.

Ignorance is a curable condition. In part 2 of this series, I’ll rant a little less and give some pointers on how to separate the wheat from the chaff. I’ll throw some education in there so that if you’re a tea drinker, you can start to figure out the relative quality of different purveyors’ answers so that you don’t get taken for a ride by someone that’s woefully uninformed or outright dishonest.

(Caveat: I always try to go with Hanlon’s Razor: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity. I’m far more likely to assume someone is woefully uninformed than dishonest unless I have evidence of the latter.)

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Tag, I’m “It”? Confessions of a Tea Blogger

I was recently tagged by the Lazy Literatus on his blog, Steep Stories, in what is apparently a game of tea-blog tag started by The Cup of Life. Here then are my “confessions” as a tea blogger:

1) First, let’s start with how you were introduced & fell in love with the wonderful beverage of tea.
I was already drinking tea fairly regularly in the mid-1980s. I was as much an Anglophile in high school as I am a Sinophile now. I didn’t know much about tea at the time, but I was a ‘hardened and shameless tea drinker’ even before I was old enough to vote. My “falling in love” with tea is probably best dated to 1994, when I was given a gongfu set by a Taiwanese friend and started researching how one used all the pieces (since she assured me it wasn’t a toy tea set). I took my first tea class that year at the Taoist Studies Institute, and started getting samples of wulong teas, mostly from the Perennial Tea Room because they advertised on NPR and were, at the time, one of the few tea shops in Seattle. (Of the three I’m aware of back then, they are still the only one under their original ownership—the other two have been sold and resold, or closed). The first teas that really struck me as being both delicious and unique from all the others were Bai Hao Wulong (aka Oriental Beauty), Tie Guanyin, and Baozhong.

2) What was the very first tea blend that you ever tried?
First? Who knows? That was probably more than 30 years ago. It might have been a Lipton teabag, or some Earl Grey or English Breakfast that had been stuck in the back of the cabinet for years. I remember I discovered several old teas in nooks and crannies of the kitchen and thinking, “We’ve had tea all along and nobody’s been drinking it?” I also know I was a little disturbed that the English Breakfast Tea that I had at home was never anything like the tea I was served for breakfast in England, which is one of the things that got me thinking about tea.

3) When did you start your tea blog & what was your hope for creating it?
My debut blog post was on 25 May, 2007, and was about how a brewing experiment showed temperature and time had a huge impact on the flavor of a tea. I don’t recall what my hope was in creating the blog—I think it was mainly because I was already answering lots of the same questions over and over again and perhaps I wanted to just collect the answers and stories I kept repeating as a reference.

4) List one thing most rewarding about your blog & one thing most discouraging.
This is kind of an odd question to me. I don’t really think of anything in my blog as either rewarding or discouraging. It’s simply part of my work. I add to it, and the body of what I’ve written about grows, making it easier to answer future questions. The positive term I’d use might be “useful” or “helpful” and maybe the negative term would be “throwaway” or “fluff.” I suppose if I went back and looked at an article I wrote years ago and I can still stand by the information—that is, I haven’t learned anything that might call the original into question—that might be rewarding. It would mean I’d done my job correctly. And likewise, it might be a little discouraging if I’d seen that I’d posted some inaccurate things along the way. But I don’t spend a whole lot of time reading my old posts, so I don’t really have that experience.

5) What type of tea are you most likely to be caught sipping on?
Excellent. By that, I mean it’s nearly always going to be some high-end, hand-crafted, unique, single-origin something. I’m partial to teas from Chinese-speaking areas, but it could also be a smallholder production from Kenya, or an exquisite first-flush Darjeeling. Today, for example, I had a green tea made by the Buddhist monks of Putuo Shan, a strip-style Ali Shan Taiwan wulong (not ball-style, so rather uncommon in that respect), and an aged Da Ye wulong from Nantou (1991). Tomorrow will probably be a Ruby 18 (with amazing naturally-occurring wintergreen flavors), a single-estate Assam, and a Yunnan hong bing. But I’m just guessing. Maybe I’ll feel like a cup of the Azores-grown tea or something.

6) Favourite tea latte to indulge in?
Uh, what? I think I once had a tea latte to experience what that meant. Or maybe I was too horrified to try it. I don’t remember. I block that out of my mind. Not sure how “favourite” fits into that picture.

7) Favourite treat to pair with your tea?
More tea! Seriously, though…tea doesn’t need anything paired with it. And the right thing to have with tea depends on the tea. Ginger-y things seem to go well with many teas that have undergone post-fermentation processes. I tend to like things in their historical and cultural context, though. I might have pumpkin seeds with a Taiwan wulong, or mochi with a Japanese green. Oh, and Keemun and chocolate are usually good together, even though that’s not within the cultural/historical thing.

8) If there was one place in the world that you could explore the tea culture at, where would it be & why?
Well, I’ve already explored some of Taiwan and some of mainland China. There’s still enough to explore that it could take my entire life. I suppose anywhere that there actually is a tea culture would be a candidate. I’m interested to experience some of the tea culture of Morocco, Turkey, Georgia (the country), and a number of other places, and maybe returning to the UK and Ireland with more tea experience under my belt. But there’s not really one place that stands out from all the others, particularly if you eliminate ones I’ve already visited.

9) Any tea time rituals you have that you’d like to share?
I’m mostly likely to serve tea gongfu-style, if that’s what’s meant by “rituals.” If it’s personal rituals, the closest thing is that making tea is the first thing I do as part of making breakfast, and after logging into the computer at work.

10) Time of day you enjoy drinking tea the most: Morning, Noon, Night or Anytime?
Always. Some tea is better than no tea; more tea is better than less tea.

11) What’s one thing you wish for tea in the future?
A higher level of tea culture and education in the general population and particularly in the United States. Prior to World War II, you can find newspaper ads for specific varieties or estates. People actually knew this stuff on a regular basis. I’d love to re-achieve that level of awareness again, and see people ask substantive questions of tea merchants, and see that the tea shops who can answer those questions thrive.

— Whom do you tag?


Tony from World of Tea
MarshalN from A Tea Addict’s Journal
Cinnabar from Gongfu Girl

…and although I can think of lots of other blogging tea geeks, I want to get this post out before too much more time passes. If you think I should add you to this list, teach me something I didn’t know or offer me a tea I haven’t tasted and you’ll earn your way onto it.

*Side Note: When you create your own tag post, please start by letting your readers know who you were initially tagged by.

**If you end up participating in this TAG, tweet @theteacupoflife OR @teaaholic your post so Lu Ann (Cup of Life) can get to know you more too. You can tweet me, too: @michaeljcoffey

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NWTF: The Tea Making Game

Next month (October 6th, 2013, to be exact), I’ll be debuting my new educational game at the Northwest Tea Festival. I recently playtested it with a group of tea professionals on the weekly Tea Salon that I run on the Tea Geek page on Google+. There are still some adjustments to make, but I think it should be pretty interesting for all the players. I got some great ideas for future expansions of the game, too!

As of this writing, you can’t yet register for the game, but it should be coming soon.

And finally (as a test of the new embedded posts feature) here’s a post from Google+ back when I was working on the game mechanics:

(If I’ve done everything correctly, you should be able to leave a comment on the G+ post directly from my blog above–give it a shot! Or, comment on the blog post as a whole below.)

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Weight Loss Tea

If you’re into tea, you’ve heard the claims a thousand times. Drink tea to lose weight. Amazing weight-loss wulong tea. Best tea for weight loss!

And you know what? Those claims are true. Tea (or to be more specific, EGCG which is found in the highest concentration in green tea) does, as demonstrated by experiment against placebo and caffeine-only supplement, increase energy expenditure and fat oxidation.

So there you go. Science for the win.

Shirtless male model drinking tea because clearly he lost weight doing so Oh wait…this is the Tea Geek blog. You know, Tea Geek—where every class starts with the disclaimer about the right answer always being “it’s more complicated than that.”

Yeah, so that experiment I mentioned? Well, they dosed the subjects using green tea extract with an EGCG concentration of approximately 1-2 cups of miscellaneous green tea brewed roughly the way most people brew green tea. (It’s hard to tell for sure because the concentration of EGCG depends on cultivar, processing, leaf age at plucking and how long since it was processed, brewing temperature, leaf-to-water ratio and all that good stuff. So if you really want to be sure you’re getting the right amount you shouldn’t drink tea but take an extract pill.  But we’ll say a cup or two.) They dosed the subjects 3 times during a day. So now we’re talking the amount of EGCG in 3-6 cups of green tea per day.

And their energy expenditure shot through the roof! Well, if by “shot through the roof” you mean “increased by approximately 4%.”

Which, for the subjects’ assigned diet during the exercise, amounted to an increase of about 78 calories in a day.

Which is the caloric equivalent of about 20 pistachios or a single stick of string cheese.

Which means that if you really want the tea to help you lose weight, you’d better be so close to losing weight already that you’re only gaining weight by the caloric equivalent of one boiled egg or a single orange per day, and you’d better drink two cups of tea with every meal every day.  Then, hoo boy!  Watch out.  You’ll start shedding the pounds…er…a few calories every day.

Actually, how many pounds would that be?  Doing a little math, if you were maintaining your weight in perfect equilibrium without tea, and you started to drink your 3-6 cups per day, you’d end up dropping one pound every 6 weeks for a grand total of 8 pounds per year!

So yes, tea helps you lose weight.  Or, you could just drink a cup of tea instead of a can of coke and that would do you twice as much good.

Bonus:  Curious what else you could be burning off with your daily 1.5 quarts of tea?  Here are 20 snacks under 100 calories.  Keep in mind that your weight-loss tea intake will be completely overwhelmed by some of those snacks.  You’d better keep to the ones under 80 calories just to be safe.

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Varieties, Cultivars, Clones–oh, my!

Botanical illustration: Camellia sinensis
Botanical illustration: Camellia sinensis

I was recently asked by several people (Naomi Rosen, Gary Robson, Geoffrey Norman, Jen Piccotti, with accuracy review from Nigel Melican and of course some small amount of mocking from Robert Godden about my speed of posting new well-researched content) to do a blog post about the difference between words that describe different types or kinds of tea plant. Because I can’t disappoint my fans—and because it’s been so long since my last blog post—here is that article.

Before we get into the details, let’s get warmed up with what we mean by “the tea plant.” That would be Camellia sinensis. As you may remember from your first biology class in school, the Latin name of plants and animals are made of two (bi-) names (nomen) in a system known as binomial nomenclature. The first name is the larger category: the genus. The second is a subdivision of the genus: the species. Therefore, the tea plant is in the genus Camellia, and is more specifically the Chinese species (since “sinensis” refers to things Chinese).

As you may also remember from biology class, there are larger categories like “phyllum” and “family” and so forth, but we can ignore those for the purposes of this article. We’re interested in the smaller ones. The next smaller category is the variety. In botany, varieties are all members of a species that have some physical characteristics that distinguish them from one another, but that aren’t so different that they’d be considered a different species. In dogs, we might call this a “breed” and in humans we might call it “race” but the basic concept is the same with plants—still the same species, but with differentiating physical characteristics, and ones that typically developed in different geographic regions.

Different botanical classification systems deal with the tea plant differently. Most often in the tea industry, though, we see two varieties mentioned: sinensis and assamica. But it’s not really that simple. As mentioned in Tea: Cultivation to consumption (K.C. Willson & M.N. Clifford, 1992), “Tea is a heterogenous plant with many overlapping morphological, biochemical and physiological attributes.” In other words, there is some discussion about whether there are more or fewer botanical varieties than this and how that variation should be classified. Some suggest that Camellia sinensis var. sinensis and Camellia sinensis var. assamica were always, or have become, so interbred that they simply represent extremes of the natural variation in Camellia sinensis and therefore have no distinct varieties. Others suggest different breakdowns based on different features. In these other proposed classifications, you might see at the variety level: “lasiocalyx,” “irrawadiensis,” “Cambodiensis,” “sasanqua,” “bohea,” “parviflora” or “macrophylla.” Some even take the variety name and use it as the species, as in Camellia assamica.

All that said, the most common scientific or botanical way of classifying the tea plant is
Genus: Camellia
Species: sinensis
Variety: sinensis or assamica

Now we come to the word “varietal,” which Tony Gebely addressed recently on his blog. It basically boils down to simple grammar. “Variety” is a noun, and “varietal” is an adjective. Therefore, if someone says that a certain tea is “made from a varietal developed in…” they’re making the same grammatical error as if you said, “This is my book of grammatical” rather than “book of grammar.” Note that the ending -al is the same in both cases, as that’s a common adjectival (there it is again!) ending. Correct usage of these terms would be something like, “This tea was made from a variety developed in…” and “Its varietal characteristics include…”

Another quick summary then:
Variety (n.) a particular type of plant
Varietal (adj.) of or about a variety

Now there’s two last things to cover: cultivar and clone/clonal (yes, it’s the same grammar—noun and adjective). For this, we need to talk about sex a little. As you probably know, sexual reproduction results in offspring that often take on characteristics of both parents. For the tea plant, sex consists of pollinators taking pollen from one plant and applying it to the flowers of another plant. In nature, that’s often done by insects, but with plants used in human agriculture, it can be humans that, well, perform this crucial sexual act for the plants. When tea plants have sex, their offspring are the plants that grow from the seeds that get produced. Tea plants, though, have a really wide range of variability when they make seeds. The same pair of plants could produce seeds that seem like they were maybe the milkman’s kids—extremely different from the parents.

Tea Cultivar Comparisons
Tea Cultivar Comparisons

This variability makes it difficult for farmers to produce a consistent agricultural product. If things like yield, drought tolerance, pest susceptibility, quality, and so forth are hugely different from plant to plant throughout the field, it makes the farmer’s life much harder. With this type of plant, when used in agriculture, asexual reproduction methods are often used. Techniques such as cuttings, grafts, and division are common ways of making more plants without the use of seeds. They also all produce “children” that are genetically identical to the “parent.” I put those terms in quotes because although the tea industry likes to talk about the “mother plant” and so forth, they are in a very real sense simply multiple copies of the same plant. The technical term for this is a clone. It’s basically making identical twins, reliably, over and over again. A clonal variety, then, isn’t the same as the “variety” above—it’s simply referring to the whole group of genetically identical plants kept pure by vegetative propagation. If you really want to get deep into tea agriculture, you get to start learning the secret code numbers for distinct clones such as BB35, TRI/68, and TV17, for example, each known for a specific set of characteristics that a farmer could chose based on his or her needs.

And this brings us to the word “cultivar.” The word is usually described as being a portmanteau of “cultivated variety” although if you want to go deeper down that rabbit-hole, the first part might also come from “cultigen” which I won’t talk more about for sanity’s sake. Cultivars are essentially the plants that have been selected by humans to cultivate. Although there’s a registry for plant cultivars, it’s not really tied to particular biological/botanical nomenclature. It’s tied to how humans use it.

When new cultivars are developed, it’s usually through sexual reproduction. Botanists take plants with some qualities they like, breed them, and see what qualities the genetic lottery gives the kids. When they find an offspring plant that’s different and useful enough, they make cuttings for several “generations” to make sure no weird variations that they don’t want will pop up. Once that has been determined, they usually then only propagate the plant asexually so as to maintain the new clonal features. However, if a particular group of plants seem to be able to maintain the desired characteristics through seed, a sexually propagated cultivar can exist, too. It’s just less common with the tea plant in particular because of that tendency of producing lots of very different plants when seed is used.

Not so difficult…except that always more complicated than you think. There’s a slight wrinkle in that not everyone in the full breadth of the tea industry use the words in the same way. While “variety” the way I described it above is true from a scientific/botanical standpoint, that’s not how the word is typically used in the industry, since most of the people in the industry aren’t scientists. If you take out both the scientists and the farmers, most of the rest of the people use the word “variety” to refer to the cultivar (as described above). So you hear tea “experts” and tea shop owners talk about the variety (or, if they make the grammatical error, the varietal) that a particular tea is made from.

Then comes the farmers. The group of human-selected-for-agriculture plants which the scientists are calling a cultivar and industry folks are calling variety has yet another word that’s used by English-speaking tea growers: Jat. This is a term that comes from India (where the first English-speaking tea growers did their thing) and means, as far as I can discern, something akin to “tribe.” So we might give that a summary as cultivar (botany) = jat (producers) = variety (general industry).

So there you go. Aren’t you glad you asked?

Variety is a sub-category of species; varietal is the adjective form of variety. A tea clone is a type of plant that has been propagated through cuttings. A cultivar is a ‘cultivated variety’ and in theory could be either a clone, or a plants produced through seed, but is a term used from a human-use standpoint, not a biological one. Though they are properly called cultivars, many tea producers use the word jat, and the general industry calls them varieties (a different meaning from the species sub-category that started this paragraph).

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