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What’s so special about green tea?

Everyone talks about green tea. It’s good for you, it’s accessible.  But do you know what makes a tea green? Of course you know that all tea comes from the same type of plant. That’s like saying that all wine comes from grape vines. What happens to the grapes determines the wine. It’s the same with tea. In China, green tea is plucked and then  withered to reduce the moisture content and to make the leaf pliable for shaping.  The leaves are then spread out in bamboo trays. (When plucked, a tea leaf has a moisture content of around 85%; after withering, it’s reduced to 25-50%.) . As the leaf loses moisture, the pressure on the cell wall diminishes. This pressure on the cell wall is called turgor and accounts for the rigidity of the plant. When turgor is lost, the plant wilts and is pliable. Think of a limp celery stalk verses a crisp one.

What distinguishes Chinese green tea is the chaoqing, which means “roasting out of the green.” This is a  de-enzyming chemical process that improves flavor, takes any bitterness out and gives a clear infusion. Tossing the leaves in hot pans prevents any further oxidation and keeps the leaves green. Think of tossing string beans in hot oil.

Next comes shaping.  Some teas are fired again and then shaped again. Shaping further breaks down the cell wall, freeing more enzymes. Certain teas are then shaped again, preventing further oxidation and taking out more moisture.

The final firing reduces moisture so that the leaves can be stored without threat of spoiling. Firing may be from charcoal or forced air or electric heaters. Finally, the tea is sorted.

Next time you sip green tea, think about the process. Later: different types of green tea from difference provinces of China. (Special thanks to the Specialty Tea Institute for this wealth of information.)

Tea as Respite

After a brief diversion into adventures in surreal estate, LTR is back.  As anyone who has delved into the mysteries of home ownership knows, value in real estate — unlike tea — has no logic. It’ s as if an aged pu-erh is outlet cheap in one area and designer-pricey in another. Same tea, different area.  The Age of Depression/Recession lives…And so does the Age of Excess…somewhere.

Tea Lover’s Treasury: James Norwood Pratt

Which brings  LTR back to tea. What tea has is ritual, calm, order, manners, and value, qualities that even a committed devotee of the way we live now must admit is lacking. Now, LTR is no fan of the “you should have seen it in my day” school, but the essence of tea  is more than something to drink: it is a distillation of cultures of the past blended with a way to live in the present. To explain: You really can’t gulp down a complex, floral oolong from Taiwan. One, you would be cheating yourself out of the sensory sensation of inhaling the aroma and then tasting the slowly energizing infusion. Second, you can’t physically because only on the second or more infusion will the leaves open, or express, as they say, “the agony of the leaf.” What you can do is inhale the essence, slow down, and then let the magic of aroma, flavor and energy take over.

 That is not to say that tea is only for the esthete looking for a pinkie bending experience.  You can always grab a quick Earl Grey or black blend or simple green, where what’s in the cup is not intended to be center stage. Not when you have to get your day going. But unlike, say, coffee, tea’s caffeine doesn’t give you a jolt, but rather a gently shove into getting on with your life.

Simply, tea is that rare combination of artistry meet sustenance.


Next: Cupping.

When the US had a Tea Czar: Meet Chief Tea Inspector Robert Dick

“To tea experts in this country, mustiness is something which they all agree. They would throw it out,” said chief tea inspector Robert Dick in a 1984 interview on the history of the FDA. “The Chinese like it and that is where I have a lot of my troubles when they attempt to bring it in.” The “musty” tea in question was most likely pu-erh, a tea processed unlike any other tea; a tea from Yunnan province with a fabled history, legendary health properties and prized, like fine wine,  for its age. Pu-erh, as noted, is in a category by itself and therein lies the tale of teas banned by the US under the Tea Importation Act of 1897.

As detailed in previous post, the Tea Act established standards and protected consumers against adulterated tea. And the man at the forefront for nearly half a century was Robert Dick (above), Chief Tea Inspector. A graduate in chemistry from Duke University,  Dick initially was a seafood inspector, then scrutinized jams and jellies before training to become a tea inspector. In an era when Lipton’s was the lingua franca, Dick was busy tasting black, green and oolongs at the official FDA tea tasting office in Brooklyn in its pre-foodie/hipster incarnation.

In addition to pu-erhs, Dick also rejected teas with “foreign flavors,” famously saying that “we had one case where the tea was shipped with some oranges and it picked up the flavor and was rejected.” Hello Earl Grey! That lasted until the early 1970s.  “We had a letter from the legal people in Washington that we couldn’t reject (flavored teas) because people in this country were flavoring the teas the same way and selling them here on this market,” explained Dick. “They said we were discriminating against the foreign suppliers.”  The response was to allow blended tea, dividing them into “scented” and “spiced” (think chai with cinnamon, cardamon, etc.) But pu-erh tea continued to be rejected, although that didn’t stop determined merchants. “I go down to Chinatown,” said Dick, “and I’ll still see these teas displayed in the store window.”

By 1995, the tea tasting staff was winnowed down to 3-9 employees in Boston, San Francisco and Brooklyn. The routine for Dick and others was the same: Measure tea, put in cups, boil water, add to cups, steep, swish in mouth, taste, and spit. The budget was minuscule (around $200,000) and the rejection rate was less than 1%. While Republican administrations since Nixon had tried to get rid of of the Tea Board, it took  Democrat President Clinton to finally turn the spigot off by repealing the act. And Robert Dick, 81, became the last official tea taster of the US. Dick died in 1997, the same year the Act was repealed.

Fun sip: Because blended teas were rejected until the 1970s, a lot of European teas were unable to reach the US market. Could this be why teas such as  those from the great Georges Cannon of France, whose blended teas are a marvel of balance, subtly, and haunting taste never crossed the pond?


A Little History Infusion: Before the FDA, there was a Board of Tea Experts

Who knew that for almost a hundred years, the tea in your cup had to pass federal inspection? But that’s exactly what happened, thanks to the Tea Importation Act of 1897, which also had the unintended consequence of excluding entire categories of tea.

The Act was intended to set standards for “purity, quality and fitness for consumption” and was modeled after laws in Great Britain. You might think the Brits, whose passion for tea sparked the opium wars, would only settle for the best.  But tea was also a source of tax revenue and sold by weight. So the stage was set for tea to be cut with clay or even iron filings by unscrupulous merchants while at the source,  green  tea was often spiked with Prussian blue  (to make it look greener) and black tea spiked with gypsum.( Prussian blue, as you might already know, contain arsenic.)  But since the fillers were not taxed as much as the pure tea, tax revenue went down and stiff fines were given to dealers in adulterated tea.

While tea drinking in the US was never as part of the culture as it was in Great Britain, it became an increasingly popular drink by the 1880s. Problem was that the US was often a dumping ground for cheap, inferior tea. The aim of the 1897 Tea Importation was to ensure quality — and prevent practices such as mixing tea with other plants, bulking up tea with sawdust and pawning off used tea leaves as new. Tea, according to a 2004 paper by then-Harvard law student Patricia deWitt, was the first federal food to be regulated.

The goal was noble — to establish standards and to protect the public from shady tea importers who dyed tea to look green or added bulk by cutting tea with stuff only limited by the crook’s imagination. A Board of Tea Experts made up of seven taste testers was set up, standards were set, tea was examined. Initially, samples were provided by the importer; by 1910, the government picked samples. And since was initially under the US Treasury, the emphasis was on the importer.

Specific tests were detailed in the Code of Federal Regulations to check for impurities. Here’s the test for paraffin: “If the examiner suspects the presence of paraffin or any similar substance, he should make the following test: Spread the tea between two sheets of unglazed white paper. Place there on a hot iron. The greasy substance, if any, will appear on the paper…” Other tests using black paper were used to check for “the presence of talc, gypsum, clay, barium sulfate and kaolin…” The regulations go into minute detail for other tests and what to do with rejected tea.

So what happened?  By the 1920s, the Tea Act came under the Bureau of Chemistry; forerunner of the FDA, which came into being in the 1940s. Tea purity wasn’t exactly high priority during the war years. And with the FDA testing foods, it seemed to many that having a separate tea section was redundant at best, wasteful at worst. Yet the tea testing program carried on. When funding dried up, tea industry official stepped in. Yet the Act lasted until 1996. One of the most vociferous  opponents was none other than Senator Harry Reid who according to the New York Times, called for a  “a congressional tea party” to ‘dump tea experts overboard” in a speech on the floor in 1993.

Next: The demise of the Tea Act and the odd legacy of chief Tea Taster Robert Dick.

New Tea Products: Easy, portable ways to brew tea


Want to use your water bottle to brew cold tea? Or want a perfectly brewed  cup of loose leaf or teabag  with the push of a button?  Here are two award-winning designs.  (More products on future posts.)

Cold brewed tea in your own water bottle (right) is the concept behind Steep & Go, by The Tea Spot, a Colorado-based environmentally and socially conscious company.  You put loose leaf tea in any water bottle, attach the reverse infuser, wait 10 minutes, and amazing but true–

cold brew tea infuser

Your own tea without preservatives, calorie-loaded sugars, and added cost. It won Best New Product in the innovation category at 2012 World Tea Expo.   Available in late June from their online tea shop. web site: $6.95.  
note: the website is somewhat confusing to navigate.  Steep & Go  wasn’t available online as of this posting. Keep trying –it’s a very good concept. Other products look interesting, but LTR hasn’t tried them.


.Perfect cup of tea with a touch of a button:  When Suzan Sculatti of Tea Time Trading Company in the bucolic Napa Valley saw the little, clear teapot that her friend brought back from a trip, she knew it was a winner– and knew she could do better. The result:

One Touch Teapot,” voted best new product by Expo in 2011. You put loose-leaf — or a teabag — in the basket, add water, snap shut, brew to desired strength,  press the red button, and hold it down until the water is gone.

The result: Instant tea of your choice to the strength you want. And because the water level is below the tea once you press the button, the leaves don’t sit in the water.  It’s fun to watch the tea brew and you can infuse again, depending on the tea. There are two styles: One with spout, one without. Both are made of shock resistant borosilicate glass with BPA-free plastic infuser and stainless steel filter. New models come in spring green or basic black. Dishwasher safe. Available from www.teatimetradingco.c om/ and from Amazon, Bed Bath and Beyond or other sites: $29.00 – $ touch teapots

One Touch Teapot: two styles