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?

TL;DR —
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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Teas vs. Trains

There is a tension in the tea industry between accessibility and expertise. On the one hand, if the industry is to grow, more people need to be involved in tea in one way or another, so making it easier to get into tea allows for more people to be interested in, for example, starting new tea shops. On the other hand, the tea industry is not served by tea people knowing next to nothing about tea—some level of knowledge is required. To continue the example, you’d hope that your local tea shop owners could answer the question “What’s the difference between green and black tea?” without being completely flummoxed and racing to Wikipedia to look up the answer.

As a tea educator, I hang around the you-need-more-knowledge end of the opinion spectrum, a bias I admit and which is probably not unexpected. It is probably not possible to discover a “correct” level of knowledge or industry accessibility, but I think it is instructive to look at ways to address the tension between the poles.

It seems to me that the approach of the industry in the US, in general, is to try to have it both ways. Anyone can start a tea business, and with that as the only “credential” under their belt, start telling people about tea—sometimes sharing egregiously bad information. To satisfy the other end of the spectrum, there are certifications and awards to encourage and recognize (and ostensibly give a competitive advantage to) those who put more effort into getting it right.

But here’s the issue for me: what do you have to do for these marks of excellence? Do they really give the benefit they claim, and what is required to get them?

The Specialty Tea Institute (education branch of the Tea Association of the United States) is perhaps the most widely known certification, and they specifically claim to support not just tea education in general, but support of businesses in the tea industry, from deciding whether getting into the business is right, to providing accurate information, and finally, to having a tea certification program.

This certification consists of three levels, each requiring the candidate take their paid classes before testing to see if the requirements have been reached. The levels are:
LEVEL 1: An 8 hour class, including testing time (actually only a few minutes over 5 hours of actual instruction, according to their schedule posted here).
LEVEL 2: An 8 hour class, including testing time (5 hours instruction + breaks, review, and test)
LEVEL 3: A series of 5 classes—The “Black Tea” class is a two-day affair, offering about 12.5 hours of class time, while the other four (“Oolong Tea,” “Sensory Evaluation,” “Green Tea,” and the combined “White & Pu’erh Teas” each being 4.75 hours of instruction). This totals to 31.5 hours of instruction for the third level.

Across these classes, you will be exposed to industry brewing and tea evaluation methods, understand some basics of processing that differentiates different kinds of teas and influences flavor, and taste teas from the famous tea areas like China, India, Japan, and Sri Lanka (though not much, if any, from the areas that where the bulk of US-consumed teas come from, such as Kenya and Argentina).

Assuming you complete all 41.5 hours of their classes, and can retain the material until the end of the day on which it’s presented (the certification test is given at the end of each class) you will achieve the highest professional certification the Tea Association of the United States and the Specialty Tea Institute can bestow: the Level 3 Professional Series Graduate title, and potential inclusion on the STI List of Recommended Certified Speakers.

That’s all fine and good, unless you start comparing that to other certifications. I’ll use as an example—because my partner is a dabbler in it—the hobby of model railroading. The hobby has an organization similar to the Tea Association of the United States, called the National Model Railroad Association (NMRA). They also offer a title to people that satisfy their requirements. To earn the “Master Model Railroader” title, one must satisfy at least 7 out of 11 subject areas, at least one in each of 4 categories. For brevity’s sake, I’ll just list an example or two from each area, but you can see the whole list here:

= = = = =

AREA A: Railroad Equipment

  • Motive Power: Build a working, self-propelled model locamotive from scratch (individual components such as gears, lightbulbs, paint, etc. can be purchased and need not be made from scratch)
  • Cars: Build 8 operable, “super detailed” model rail cars based on at least 4 different types of prototypes

AREA B: Railroad Setting

  • Structures: Build 6 types of scale structures, including at least one bridge or trestle
  • Scenery: Construct a layout of at least 32 square feet (for HO scale), including specific requirements for terrain, structures, background, lighting, and realism.
  • Prototype Models: Build a model (animated or static) based on a real-world prototype, with photographs or plans of the real scene used as a prototype required for judging

AREA C: Railroad Construction & Operation

  • Civil Engineer: Provide model railroad track plan, in scale drawing, including scale, size, track elevation, curve radii, and turnout sizes.
  • Electrical Engineer: Wire and demonstrate electrical operation of various model railroad requirements, and prepare schematic drawings of propulsion circuitry.
  • Chief Dispatcher: Participate in the operation of a model railroad for over 50 hours total in the roles as Dispatcher and at least two of: engineer, yardmaster, hostler, and/or towerman.

AREA D: Serivce to the Hobby

  • Association Official: Serve at least two years as a regional officer or at least one year as an officer at the national level
  • Association Volunteer: Earn at least 60 “time units” as a volunteer (as an example, newsletter editors can earn 1 time unit per issue, as long as the issues are at least 4 pages and the club they are for include at least 10 members. Another example: judging a division-level contest earns 1 time unit)
  • Model Railroad Author: Earn 42 points earned from publishing related to model railroading (e.g., 3 points are awarded for each full page—defined as about 1200 words—of written article/column appearing in a national publication, only 1 point per page appearing in division-level or special interest group publications)

= = = = =

Note that just the “Chief Dispatcher” option, which could be one of the 7 sections you’d need to satisfy, requires more hours of effort than the entire professional certification offered by STI. Another difference is that each of the model railroading sections, the candidate must actually do the work and have it judged by more experienced members of the association. It is a competency- and skills-based certification, not just being able to retain the “right answers” for an 8-hour classroom session.

If the same kind of standards of the model railroading hobby has were applied to tea, certification might have as an option, “Harvest and process tea leaves into your choice of processing style such that the finished product satisfies the minimum acceptable quality for the chosen style.” Or perhaps, “Successfully propagate five cultivars of tea plant (including at least one representative from sinensis, assamica, and hybrid varieties).” Or, if it were made a little easier, “You will be given five tea samples from the same processing family; properly steep each and identify its region of origin.”

Is the STI certification really the best that we can collectively do as tea professionals? Are we as an industry really rewarding excellence, or just some minimal level of effort? Should a certified professional be able to do more than someone who is particularly engaged in their hobby? What would you expect a certified tea professional to know be able to actually do?

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Shaktea in Vancouver, BC

On my recent trip to Vancouver, BC, we found ourselves walking down Main Street in what appeared to be kind of a hip, trendy neighborhood. As evidenced by the “geek” in my business name, you may properly guess that I found myself in a hip, trendy neighborhood completely by accident–it just happened to be between two other places we had planned on going. Anyway, as we walked along, we passed a place called Shaktea on the corner of Main and 21st.

What originally caught my eye was, of course, that it was a tea place. However, there are a lot of tea places that just don’t appeal to me–they’re overpriced, or only carry flavored or scented teas, or have employees who think that “oolong” is the name of a province in China. Wondering if this was one of those places, we looked at the menu and something else caught my eye: they served tea-and-cheese pairings, a topic of a previous Tea Geek class (taught by fellow tea geek Jenna May Cass at the Perennial Tea Room during the Northwest Cheese Festival).

Then I noticed that they offer classes at Shaktea as well. I thought, “This might be a place worth visiting.” Unfortunately, we were on the way somewhere else. I popped in, grabbed a business card, and we were on our way.

Well, the next day we stopped by again and sat down for a proper evaluation. It had a good feel–welcoming in that kind of vaguely Eastern, yoga-or-Buddhist way (rather than the less-appealing-to-me New Age spiritual bookstore way). It seemed a place where you could equally sit down and spend some quiet time with yourself, or bring in friends or business contacts for a low-key conversation over a cup of tea.

The menu had some delicious things, but the daily special was personal sized white chocolate cheesecakes with raspberry so obviously that’s what we both ordered, even though I was still intrigued by the cheese and meat pairings. But what about the tea? Well, their selection was pretty good. Was it the ultimate destination for those seeking the best the world of tea has to offer? Maybe not. However, it had a good mix of flavored teas and herbal infusions for those that go for that sort of thing, as well as more exclusive selections for people like me. Again, it seemed the kind of place you could bring people of whatever level and they’d have something to enjoy.

I ended up ordering their “China Keemun Superior” (which, by look and taste, is probably a Qimen Hao Ya). My partner ordered an iced Japanese Cherry (sencha and sour cherry). While deciding, I noticed that they carried a yellow tea, and had a tǒng (筒; “tube” or “cylinder”) of puer cakes on the shelf behind the counter, and other signs of approaching tea seriously and not just a lovely drink to accompany being social, or a vehicle for making money from the masses. The staff seemed reasonably knowledgeable, including one of the people who answered my question having talked about visiting countries of origin for some of their teas.

As it turns out, she is one of the owners and teaches the classes there. We had a nice conversation about the trade-offs of teaching about tea and balancing basic knowledge with the more interesting, advanced stuff.

All told, I think there need to be more tea places like Shaktea. It’s a cool, locally- and women-owned business. It has a little something for everyone, from those that know nothing about tea to tea geeks. They obviously care about the tea in and of itself, and go out of their way to learn more and teach what they know to those who care to listen. Was everything the perfect tea place for me? No, but that’s fine…it’s a place I feel comfortable recommending, which is a fairly rare thing. Obviously, for those who are looking for a specific kind of tea, or a specific experience, or specific knowledge, I might recommend someplace that specializes in that tea, experience, or knowledge. But I recommend Shaktea as a place to go and have a tea (and perhaps a bit of a nosh) if you’re in Vancouver, BC.

Note: I apparently took no photos whatsoever when I was there, so this post isn’t illustrated. But if you go to their website, you’ll see some shots of their space in the Gallery section.

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Puer, Neither Loose Nor Compressed

This last weekend I took a little Canadian “vacation” to Vancouver, BC. I use the quotes because I spent nearly the entire weekend doing tea-related things, and in a sense that’s work as well. One of the many interesting things I saw, did, and learned was related to puer tea.

Puer Leaf BundleOne of my Canadian tea friends there has some contacts (and perhaps influence) in China with the folks who make and sell puer. He has been interested in puer for a long time, and said he likes to have a few new and interesting things for his regular customers (and tea educators like myself, apparently). This time, he had what might be called an historical recreation–a tin of puer tea made in an ancient style before tea leaves were compressed into cakes.  Note: loose leaf tea the way we know it now is a more recent invention, probably only about 600 years old.  Before that time, pretty much all tea was compressed into cakes, not just what we would today call puer.

Puer Leaf BundleHis limited availability product tries to reproduce, as well as the tea-makers knew, how tea was made in Yunnan before the widespread use of compression.  This would go back to when tea was considered a medicine, not a beverage.  It clearly draws on how herbs are collected and dried–the leaves are tied together by their stems in little bundles that were hung up to dry.  To use, just break the leaves off the stem bundle and put them in a bowl (or gaiwan, if you want a little anachronism with your tea) and add water.

Puer Leaf BundleI did this with a bundle to see what it was like, using my matcha bowl as the most historical kind of bowl I have.  As soon as I poured the hot water on the leaves, I could smell the fragrance typical of a young sheng puer, but the liquor got pretty dark rather quickly.  It was also fairly cloudy, something I wasn’t expecting.  Because it smelled like a sheng but was getting a dark color pretty quickly, I poured off the infusion into a gaiwan so as not to over-steep.  The leaves were a pretty wide range of greens, from pretty fresh-looking chartreuse to a fairly dark, almost black-tea color on some others.  The fragrance of the leaves was something slightly different than the typical (if there is such a thing) young puer fragrance–there was something a little woodsy about it, and a touch of…a little barnyard maybe?  Maybe it was the bias of knowing this was a more “primitive” style of tea, but it seemed somehow more primitive to me.  It seemed simple and down-to-earth; unrefined, in its best Daoist meanings.

Puer Leaf BundleTasting the brew told me that I’d over-reacted in pouring off the liquor.  It was fairly mild in taste, only strong in fragrance.  It had just the barest hint of astringency.  My tongue had the sensation of having something powdery in it, rather than the dry roughness of something really astringent, and it encouraged some saliva production.  The woodsy aroma was present in the taste of the liquor, but the barnyard or whatever fragrance in the infusion didn’t translate into the taste of the liquor, though there was something that seemed kind of soapy…an experience I’ve had with other young sheng puers on occasion.  Decent mouthfeel, but I bet if I’d brewed longer it would have been heavier.

Puer Leaf BundleI haven’t tried re-steeping yet.  I wanted to get this post up.  If future infusions lead to something surprising, I’ll include them in the comments below.

Also, Tea Geek members will have the opportunity to purchase the remaining bundles on a first-come, first-served basis as a members-only selection while supplies last.

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What 40 Christmases Taught Me About Tea

As my cousins and brother have gotten older and moved into the “parents” generation (none of us have to sit at the kids’ table any more), our traditions are shifting. As a kid, it was all about the presents and the almost-peeing-my-jammies excitement of discovering I got the rocket set or the Stretch Monster or whatever was the Best Thing Ever that year.

Christmas 2010, however, was a far cry from that, and it taught me something about brewing tea. This last Christmas (celebrated with my partner on the typical weekend, and with my extended family over New Year’s weekend), things were different. Under our small tree at home, I had two gifts. One I had helped pick out. The other was the expected size and shape of something I’d specifically said would make a good gift if anyone was looking for ideas. I’d given a list of such ideas to my mother, and I’d had various conversations with her discussing how they related to her gift budget, how interested I was in each item, their prices, and how flexible gift certificates at Amazon.com were.

When Christmas (both of them) rolled around, I had virtually no surprise whatsoever. That was fine, though, because everyone stayed within their budget, I received gifts that suited me, and therefore I didn’t need to return anything. No fuss, satisfying, useful. Which, compared to the hugely stressful times I know happen in other families, is a huge win. I spent time with my partner and with my family having good chats, eating good food, and generally being festive. So what does that have to do with tea?

Well, it turns out that I kind of missed worrying about whether I’d wet my jammies. Not exactly that, of course, but what was missing was the sense of anticipation leading up to the big event. It was noticing the lack of tension from impending excitement that got me thinking about tea. Some people complain that brewing tea, especially loose tea, takes too long…and Baby-Jesus forbid that one would brew gongfu style tea, with all its steps of heating the implements and waking up the tea and smelling the gaiwan lid and examining the leaves.

But the borderline commonplace Christmas-present experience (not a complaint, just in comparison to a kid’s experience of it) showed me that the time it takes to brew tea makes tea better. Quickly made tea, instant tea, teabag tea, all have no sense of anticipation. Brewing loose tea, especially gongfu style, actually heightens anticipation. While I don’t have any evidence to support this, I bet that if you did an experiment where you prepared tea with some kind of ritual element to it, like gongfu or chanoyu, and did the same tea that was simply served in its finished state, the one that took the time to make would be perceived as being better by the taster, even if the same procedure was used to make both types.

If you’re in the habit of making tea as expediently as you can, when you have a little extra time try teasing yourself. Use a longer preparation of tea to enhance your experience by building anticipation of the big event. It might not turn a pair-of-socks experience into a model-rocket experience, but I bet you enjoy the tea more.

What do you think?

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I wish I’d written that…

Every so often, I read something that sets off the “I wish I had written that” feeling because someone else expressed my opinion, feeling, philosophy, or whatever, in more good articulatedly way. (And yes, I said it that way on purpose.) I’ve made reference to three such posts over the last few weeks, and thought I’d put up links them here for your reading pleasure.

The earliest of the three items was posted this summer on the Chadao blog. It’s a review of the book, The Story of Tea. I pretty much agree with every strength and every criticism of the post. You do have to read past the part that says, “If the above is all you require from a tea book, stop here. Go out and buy it now, and you will probably be very happy. However, if you want more from a tea book, especially one with the aspirations this one so evidently has, you may want to read on.” Reader’s Corner: DougH on The Story of Tea: A Cultural History and Drinking Guide by Mary Lou Heiss and Robert J. Heiss

Following fast on the heels of that post was Jessica Pezak’s on sevencups.com about the role of tea reviews, blogging, and the American tea industry. 2 Years, Too Much: Perspectives on the US Tea Industry

Finally, one posted earlier today on the T Ching blog by Dianna Harbin, who I am happy to say I know and had some good conversation with at the World Tea Expo this year and last. She covers how tearooms are shortchanging their own customers, and what that might mean for the neighborhood tea shop in the future. tea enthusiasts need access to pure teas in tearooms and tea shops

To all three authors, I say “Amen!” (and secretly think, “I wish I’d written that…”)

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Is the Duchess of Bedford a Fraud?

Everyone in the English-speaking tea industry has no doubt heard that Anna Russell, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, invented the ritual of afternoon tea. However, recent events have led me to question what I’m calling the Bedford Orthodoxy. What did the good duchess actually contribute to tea culture? Let’s take a closer look.

First, some biography of Anna Maria Russell. She was born in 1783, and was 25 years old in 1808 when she married Francis Russell. Her husband became the seventh Duke of Bedford in 1839—she was 56 years old when she became duchess. Anna was a friend of Queen Victoria, serving as her Lady of the Bedchamber for some time. Anna’s husband was related to the Prime Minister. All very high up in society.

The key fact here, though, is her birth in 1783. It’s unlikely that she did much shifting of social custom before, say, 1800 when she’d have been 17 years old. Possible, but unlikely. So we’ll consider the 19th century and later to be a time where she had influence, and the 18th century and earlier to be, in a sense, pre-Anna.

According to volume 2 of Ukers’ famous All About Tea (Tea and Coffee Trade Journal, 1935):

A possible seventeenth century origin for the custom of afternoon tea is suggested by some lines in Southerne’s The Wive’s Excuse (1692), as well as a reference in one of Mme. dé Sévigné’s (1626-1696) letters to “thé de cinq heures.”

In 1763, Dr. Alexander Carlyle, also referenced in Ukers, wrote “The ladies gave afternoon tea and coffee in their turn.” And, in our final look at pre-Anna traditions in England from Ukers, after saying that the term “tea” referring to “a light repast” dates to the eighteenth century:

In 1780, John Wesley, the religious reformer, wrote that he met all of the Society “at breakfast and at tea,” implying that tea had become a definitely recognized meal by his time.

But there are known inaccuracies in Ukers, so let’s look at other sources. For example, The Historical Journal published a paper entitled “Elite Women, Social Politics, And The Political World Of Late Eighteenth Century England” by Elaine Chalus. In it, she describes how Lady Rockingham attempted to forge a political alliance with William Pitt in 1765 by inviting supporters to take tea with her (which she thought “would seem less premeditated than the form of a dinner”).

Finally, a review of “The Essence of Commodification: Caffeine Dependencies in the Early Modern World” by Ross W. Jamieson, it states:

By the 1740s, Jamieson reports, “afternoon tea was an important meal in England, the Netherlands, and English America.” Women monopolized the drink and presided over the tea ritual, which brought families together and provided opportunities to teach children good manners and to demonstrate the decorum and respectability that were essential to status in the new social order.

So just with these brief references, we have some evidence that before the famous Duchess of Bedford was even born, taking tea was known in social and political circles. It was recognized as a ritual women did in the home. Tea was a distinct meal, so we know the tea was served with food, and was done around 5:00 in the afternoon, at least in France (thé de cinq heures).

So what is it that the Duchess of Bedford is supposed to have “invented”? Certainly not that she had her tea at 5:00. Not that she invited other members of society to join her for tea. Not that she served food with her tea. Potentially, it could be what kind of food she offered—maybe she marked a shift to sweeter offerings compared to what was being served elsewhere. Or, maybe it was that she had it on a daily basis, whereas others were less diligent in their tea service. But it certainly seems a stretch to say that the ritual was invented by Anna Russell, seventh Duchess of Bedford.

If you have documents that would clarify exactly what it is that can be accurately attributed to the Duchess, other references to show what was being done before her era, or questions/ideas, please leave them in the comments!

Special thanks go to Verity Fisher, who asked for references on the Bedford Orthodoxy while going through the Tea Geek Certification Program. That question got me started, and now I have to go clean up the resulting mess in the Tea Geek wiki and any of my classes that mention the Duchess. Also, thanks to Michael Sullivan who fed me some JSTOR sources because my local library is closed this entire week due to budget cuts. Support your local library system (and your friendly neighborhood Classics grad student)!

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Whose Tea Is That?

When I am looking around the ‘net for tea information, I often see people reviewing teas. They’ll say they like or dislike various flavors or qualities of a particular tea. However, I find it curious how so many reviewers refer to the retailer as if they somehow produced the tea. It’s like most people think the place they buy tea is where it originates.

Tippy Golden Yunnan

For example, if you were to say “I just love Tea Geek’s Tippy Golden Yunnan,” that would seem a little odd to me, because it isn’t my Yunnan. I know at least one other retailer selling the same tea, and neither of us buy it direct from the farmer. That doesn’t stop it from being one of the top sellers at the Tea Geek Store, of course. And I wouldn’t blame you for loving it–I sure do. It’s just that Tea Geek didn’t have anything to do with making that tea the wonderful product it is.

There’s a problem with the retailer-origin approach. I’ve seen someone do a comparison of the same tea from different retailers, as if they were different teas. Even though both retailers bought the tea from the same farmer (at the same time), neither credits the farmer and both independently sell the tea as their own. So what, then, can the reviewer compare? Perhaps storage quality for the brief time portions of the same batch were held at two different companies. It’s more likely, of course, that the reviewer assumes they are actually different teas and contrasts what’s different about the quality, flavor, etc. where there really is no difference. This discredits the reviewer and misinforms the people who read the review.

The Starry NightI view teamaking as an art. Imagine a painting. Let’s say the Museum of Modern Art is selling Van Gogh’s 1889 painting, “The Starry Night.” Let’s also say I’ve won the lottery and have the cash to buy it. Wouldn’t it sound strange if I said of my new painting to my fancy dinner guests, “Oh, I just love MOMA’s Starry Night that I picked up last week.” Or to later buy another Van Gogh from a collector and to treat them like they’d been painted by two different people because I’d bought them from two different people.

Every batch of tea is unique. It’s the result of thousands of decisions made by the farmer (and processor(s), in cases where the farmer doesn’t see the process beginning to end)–soil preparation, cultivar selection, plant propagation, fertilizing, pest control, timing of the harvest, harvesting technique, plucking standard, machinery used (or not), speed of transportation to the processing facility, control of temperature and/or humidity, choice of processing technique and style, timing of the various steps of whatever process is chosen, skill of the labor required, and so forth.

Some teas come from a tea artisan that uses a somewhat standardized set of choices (think Thomas Kincaid), and others are more experimental and use different styles (Picasso, as an example). But all of them are unique. I have a tea sample next to me from Darjeeling. The information on the sample, though, is quite detailed–Glenburn Tea Estate, FTGFOP1 Special Grade, plucked on 30 March 2010, Invoice (aka “batch”) number DJ20. That tells me exactly where and when it was made, gives some information about the plucking and processing, and specifies a particular batch number. If I were to get another FTGFOP1 Special from the Glenburn Tea Estate, but it had a different invoice number, it would not be the same tea. If I got a tea of the same grade and same date from a different Darjeeling farm, it would not be the same tea.

Now, I’ll concede that many teas on the market are blends, and therefore can’t be attributed to the original craftspeople who grew, plucked, and processed the leaves. Great. But here it seems to me that tea works like literature or music. Derivative works are made all the time. Think of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Jane Austin wrote Pride and Prejudice, and Seth Grahame-Smith added the “Ultraviolent Zombie Mayhem” bits. Or Jane Eyre was written by Charlotte Brontë, and Jasper Fforde wrote The Eyre Affair in which the villain uses a device that allows him to kidnap the character Jane from the original manuscript, causing all copies of Jane Eyre to go blank. In cases like this, it’s the creator of the newer, combined, derivative work that gets the credit.

This is how I think tea should work, too. If a retailer makes their own blend, they should rightly be able to call it theirs because they actually did something to produce the thing the customer buys other than put somebody else’s product in a tin and slap a label on it or whatever.

“Yeah, but you’re a Tea Geek. Us regular tea retailers/wholesalers/customers don’t have the time to do all that kind of research to figure that all out. It’s too confusing and we’re not tea scholars!” Well, maybe that’s true to some extent. But there are some very simple steps that you can take to make it easier to give credit to the artist that created the teas you drink.

If you’re a retailer:

  • buy as close to the source as you can: ask your suppliers if they buy direct from the farm/factory
  • at the very least, ask where the tea you buy comes from
  • at best, require production information as a condition of placing an order
  • share as much of this information, through labeling or website or whatever, with your customers as you can
  • remember that if you specify a particular batch/invoice number, it’s unlikely anyone else can source the exact same tea–don’t fall into the trap of thinking all sourcing information must be kept secret from competitors
  • check out how other places do it. I happen to like what Seven Cups is doing, for example.

If you’re a customer:

  • Ask for farmer’s names, production dates, processing information
  • If it’s a blended tea (e.g., “Breakfast” teas) or flavored/scented (e.g., Earl Grey or jasmine greens), ask if the blending or scenting was done in-house.
  • Be clear that you’d rather buy tea from places that supply this kind of information. Don’t buy from a place that seems unable or unwilling to answer your questions
  • Be flexible–sometimes a new tea shop might not have all the answers up front and might have to do some research on their own. A good faith effort that doesn’t produce a good answer is much better than no effort at all.

Do you have any good (or bad) examples of giving credit where credit is due? Post them in the comments!

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Sugimoto Temomi Shincha

Tasting Temomi Shincha

About a month ago, I was given a wonderful gift.  Kyohei Sugimoto, head of Sugimoto USA, the American branch of Sugimoto Seicha Co., Ltd., was kind enough to give me a taste of Temomi Shincha that had been made by his mother, Kazue Sugimoto, and a group of temomi artists in Shizuoka, Japan.

Temomi Shincha leafIt came in a small, ornately decorated, foil bag with 10 grams of tea leaf–enough for a single brewing.  According to the package, it was made on 26 April 2010, and that the group spent about 8 hours to make 2.2 pounds (1 kg) of finished tea.  Unless I confused a decimal place somewhere, that means only 100 packages could be made.

The term temomi means hand-kneeded, or as one Japanese scientific paper described it, “massaged by hand”.  Shincha, of course, is the first picking of the season.  So this Temomi Shincha is a hand-made tea made from the first leaves picked in 2010 from those plants.  But that doesn’t really tell the whole story of this tea; in the highly mechanized world of Japanese green teas, this Temomi-cha was made entirely without machinery–just as the tea would have been made a couple of centuries ago.  In that sense, the opportunity to taste this tea was an opportunity to go back in time.

Temomi Shincha liquor of three steepsI followed the instructions that came with the tea package.  I used a 5-ounce clay teapot as suggested (though it was a Chinese-style pot, but my Japanese teapot is both too large and has no filter; I’ve had some brewing disasters using it).  The first brewing was for 3 minutes at 100F (40C).  Much of the water was absorbed by the leaves, but the liquor produced was strong and brothy-sweet.

For those not used to really fantastic Japanese green tea, the strong flavor was there without any bitterness or astringency.  This is due mainly to the use of cooler water, which pulls out more amino acids than it does the bitter catechins and caffeine.  The flavor was dense, thick, and intense, but without an edge.  It lingered after swallowing, too.  Not as long as some great wulongs do, but more than almost any green I can think of.

Temomi Shincha infusionAt another tea event with Kyohei Sugimoto, he had brewed some teas with cool water then switched to hotter water “so we can enjoy the bitterness.”  The idea being that you brew cold for sweet, then hot for bitter, and that both are to be enjoyed as aspects of the tea leaf.  The second and third brews were done with 130F (54C) water for a minute each, as per the instructions, and I did indeed enjoy the bitter.  It wasn’t knock-your-socks-off bitter, but not out of line with other bitter foods.  (I don’t drink alcohol, but my tasting partner described the bitterness of these steepings as somewhere between beer and bitters.)  The photo above shows a sample from each steeping–I’m surprised by how little the color changes from the cold to hot brewing.

After drinking the tea, we ate the leaves–or at least the ones we didn’t pull out to examine and admire.  The texture was something like lightly steamed spinach.  The leaves still had a little bitterness left, but it wasn’t more than you’d find in the greens of a fancy salad.

Meeting the Maker

Michael J. Coffey with the SugimotosIt was my pleasure, then, a couple of weeks later to meet both Tea Maestro Hiroyuki Sugimoto and Temomi Master Kazue Sugimoto at the World Tea Expo.  I expressed my thanks and honor at being able to try the Temomi Shincha that she had made.  She asked (via an interpreter who, I’m embarrased to admit, I don’t recall the name of) if I’d like to try any of the teas they had on display.  I chose the tea with the least well-known Japanese tea name, konacha, which is essentially the tea of Japanese sushi restaurants.  She gave me a look that said, “Hmm, interesting choice.”  Apparently, even though the expo was half over, nobody had yet asked to taste their konacha.

Also, having had some heated discussions with American tea people about how Japanese green tea is “supposed” to be brewed, I asked Hiroyuki Sugimoto (with Kyohei serving as interpreter) how he brewed his tea.  He said he always brewed his teas with boiling water.  He explained that with boiling water, it is easier to tell if there are flaws in the tea making.  I asked what he looked for as a sign of quality, he answered that it was a balance of factors.  Essentially, he tasted a tea specifically looking for flaws.  If he couldn’t find any, it was a good tea.  He would be unable to distinguish a well-made tea from a poorly-made tea, then, unless he brewed it with boiling water.

I was thrilled to have been able to meet these wonderful people, and happy to share tea with them!

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Restaurant Tea Service: Carmelita

I think most tea lovers (at least the geeky ones) will agree with me that restaurants, as a whole, are a terrible place to have tea.  The standard seems to be a thick mug with a teabag in it, too-cool water, and no idea how long it’s been steeping when it comes to the table or where the teabag came from.

For the last several months, my partner and I have been “eating down the street”–that is, each Friday we go out to dinner at the next neighborhood, locally-owned restaurant down the street.  Not only is it a nice break from having to do the dishes but it also started as a way to help the local economy by spending money at places owned by our neighbors.  Last night, though, it struck me that I should talk about the tea service at these places–or, as my partner put it, “a very highly specialized subset of restaurant reviews.”

So I start with last night’s experience at Carmelita, a trendy, high-end vegetarian restaurant.  The first thing I noticed (about the tea, at least) was the menu.  It was better than most in that it gave both the brand/vendor name–Barnes & Watson Fine Teas–and specifically which teas/flavors they carried as well as a brief description of each tea.  Full disclosure: I have a business relationship with Barnes & Watson, though I’m not receiving anything for this mention of them, nor anything special from Carmelita.

I ordered the Genmaicha (“Japanese Sencha green tea and toasted rice”) and my partner ordered the Tahitian Blend Iced Tea (“black tea blend, tropical fruit flavor and citrus”).  The hot tea came as loose tea leaf in a French press and our server informed me that it had been steeping for about one minute so that I could gauge how long to continue steeping.  (I got distracted with a discussion of the menu, though, so I let it steep too long anyway and didn’t really notice the water temperature…but the fact that I was given the time it had been in the water already without having to ask earns lots of points.)

The iced tea came as you might expect, in a tall glass with ice and a straw, a slice of lemon on the side.  In addition, in another nice touch, there was a small creamer-style pitcher of simple syrup rather than the usual box of sugar packets.  As my partner pointed out, it made it much easier to sweeten the iced tea without constant stirring to dissolve solid sugar.

As I said, I let my Genmaicha brew too long (my own fault) so that wasn’t an ideal experience.  The refill on the iced tea must have been from the bottom of the batch or something because after the glass was topped off it was a little too…something slightly unpleasant.  Metallic-tasting, maybe?  However, on the whole, Carmelita seemed to be getting it right in ways that most restaurants don’t–loose tea, important brewing information, simple syrup instead of dry sugar for an iced tea, and actually listing where the tea came from and the various flavors rather than just “Tea” on the menu.  Oh, and the tea, both hot and iced, was $2 each.

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