Jun 30, 2010

Hands of tea workers

Photo taken by 大碗.

For a few times, people asked me, why are many tea workers' hands as dark as ink-stained when they work on fresh tea leaves? It's actually a simple chemical phenomenon - oxidation. As we know, tea contains de-oxidants. That's partially why tea is considered healthy. What a de-oxidant does is reacting with any oxidant molecules (which is a major cause of cell aging and cell damage) very fast. Therefore many oxidant molecules are removed from the cells by such reactions, and the cells live healthier and longer.

Oxidation often causes color change, which can be observed in a lot of fruits and vegetables. For example, if you cut open a potato or apple and leave it on the countertop for a few hours, browning happens to it. The browning is because of oxidation of catechol, which is a biomolecule found in potato, apple and many other plant tissues. Catechol, when oxidized, is turned into benzoquinone. The reaction requires oxygen and an enzyme in the plant tissues. In healthy cells, catechol is not exposed to oxygen or the plants' own enzyme, therefore browning doesn't happen until the cells age or are damaged.

In tea leaf tissues, one of the major tea polyphenols is catechin (there are a group of molecules that are called catechin), which is similar to catechol but a even stronger de-oxidant. Catechin can be oxidized into molecules (such as thearubugins, dark color molecules in red/black tea) that cause dark color. Oxidation of catechin requires an enzyme in fresh tea leaves. When the enzyme is "killed" (which happens in the "kill green" step of green tea processing), the oxidation cannot happen and therefore the tea leaves will be maintained green for a long time. However, any strong de-oxidant can be easily oxidized. That's why green tea has a relatively short shelf life. Eventually oxidation can happen, only more slowly, even without the enzyme from the tea leaves. If the enzyme in tea leaves is active, then when the tea leaf cells are damaged (in harvesting and rolling step of red tea processing), then catechin in the tea leaves will be oxidized, which causes the color of red tea and darker oolong. The mechanisms of catechin oxidation is described by Wan et al. in Oxidation Mechanism in Tea Catechins, in Natural Products Research and Development (2006, Vol. 18, pp171-181. But it's not new discovery and was documented earlier in Tea Biochemistry (a university textbook) written by the same first author.

When tea workers handle fresh tea leaves, the leaf "juice", containing both catechin and enzyme from leaf cells, gets all over their hands. Exposed to the air, oxidation of catechin happens very fast. In a harvest season, a tea worker's hands remain black for weeks.

The above photo tells us two things:
1. Tea is indeed a powerful de-oxidant source.
2. It takes a lot of hard work of tea workers to make the tea we drink.
3. If someone says tea workers' hands are "dirty" or "contaminated", you know they are not.

Jun 24, 2010

Tea Longevity (茶壽)

In Chinese culture, there are names for some senior ages. A senior person of 77 years old has "Happy Longevity" (喜壽), because in cursive style of Chinese calligraphy, the character for Happy, 喜, looks like Chinese characters for 77.

A person of 88 years old has "Rice Longevity", because the character for Rice, 米, has two character 八 (Eight) in it, one at the bottom, one on the top, inverted.

A person of 99 years old has "White Longevity", because the character for White, 白, is one stroke short of 百 (One hundred).

A person of 108 years old has "Tea Longevity". In the character for Tea, 茶, the top part means Twenty (廿); below it there is a 八 (Eight); further below there is a 八十 (Eighty); and finally there is another 八 (Eight). All together, the character for Tea has 20+80+8=108 in it!

Tea is one of the healthiest beverages. Of course we have reasons to think there is an actual relation between tea and longevity!

Do you know anybody who has Tea Longevity?

I think the oldest person I've ever known is my grandmother-in-law, who passed away at the age of 106. She was a strong and smart woman throughout her life. In the last a few days of her life, she still walked around fast, without a walk-stick. And she passed away suddenly in sleep. We believe she left without pain. In fact, as a rural woman who was born in 19th century, she never got any exact information about her own age or birth date. She didn't know when she was born. Her birthday was celebrated by her children and grandchildren on a "hypothetic" day every year. And people, including herself, could only guess about her age. So, we never know if she lived for 106 years, 108 years, or even more.

Jun 19, 2010

Uses of unwanted teas

As you know, sometimes some teas are so unwanted or expired that you don't even have a heart to pass them to others. And sometimes a tea is so dear to your heart and you can't bear with throwing the spent leaves away. Here are some extra uses of tea that I've thought of.

1. Marinate hard-boiled eggs in water with tea (unscented black tea only), salt and soy sauce.

2. Put tea leaves (unscented tea) in a pillow or sofa cushion, or small pouch – depending how much you have. (For this purpose, I use spent leaves only. I've seen commercial products made with unused leaves though.)

3. Put tea leaves in small pouches and use them as dehumidifying bags for storage boxes or deodorizer bags in fridge. (Spent leaves do the job well.)

4. Put tea leaves in very warm/hot water for feet spa (I mean, resting your feet in warm/hot water). You can always expand this to the scale of hot tub tea bath. But I’ve found feet spa very convenient and a great enjoyment. Do it before you go to bed. Very helpful for high quality sleep, especially in winter. This is said to be one of the Chinese secrets for longevity. Well, longevity is too big to think about. But feet spa feels great! Before you go to bed, reading a book while having your feet in a big pot of warm water, that's paradise! Having your feet in a big pot of warm TEA water, that's an upgraded paradise.

5. Put tea leaves in small pouches and use them as “sniffing bags” in office. Make sure it’s a flavor that you like. I mostly use spent leaves and apply vodka based essential oil mix on them.

6. Use brewed green tea for facial (with pop-up facial paper, or mix the tea water with other facial product). Even expired green tea is very good de-oxidant and good for facial. In Asia, many women would mix green tea powder in their facial mask formula too.

Any other ideas?

Jun 11, 2010

Wu Wo Tea (Selfless Tea, 無我茶會)

I first read about Wu Wo Tea (Selfless Tea) in Tea Culture, a college textbook of China Southwestern Agricultural University, written by Liu Qinjin. The idea attracted me immediately. Later I learned more about it from the website of Wu Wo Tea.

Wu Wo Tea is a tea activity designed by Cai Rongzhang, the first manager of Lu Yu Tea Center of Taipei. Lu Yu Tea Center is a for-profit company, but since its establishment, it has organized many invaluable education and cultural activities. Wu Wo Tea is one of the most influential activities. It's held periodically throughout the year, and is also adopted by companies and organizations as an activity to promote teamwork spirit.

The basic idea of Wu Wo Tea is, tea drinkers gather to drink tea. Everybody brings his or her own tea, a small teapot or gaiwan, small tea bowls (about 4), thermos and hot water - simple and inexpensive gears, pretty much like the set showed in the picture (the small tea bowls were not taken out in the picture). People sit in a circle, in an order randomly assigned by the host. Then, in silence, people start to make tea. Each participants make, for example, 4 cups of tea. Three cups go to the three people on the left of her, and one cup for herself. Then, for each infusion, everybody gets 4 cups of tea, one from herself, and three from people on her right. When everybody has 4 cups of tea ready, the group start drinking tea. After drinking, people start making the next infusion and share the tea in the same way. Throughout the activity, there is no talking, simply making tea and sharing tea. After several infusions and rounds of sharing, the activity ends.

In Wu Wo Tea, every tea drinker serves others and is served by others. Besides drinking his own tea, the tea drinker also get a few other teas, which may or may not be the same type of tea as his own, and can be higher or lower quality. There is no verbal conversation or commands. Tea drinkers try to follow the group pace in tea making, and try to make the best out of their teas to share with others. The activity can be held indoors or outdoors. Once on a scenic site out of Beijing, I saw some Taiwanese tourists sitting in a circle drinking tea quietly. It was such a beautiful scene. Back then I didn't know about Wu Wo Tea. But now when I am thinking of it, I guess they were probably having their Wu Wo Tea.

Ever since I learned about Wu Wo Tea, I've hoped someday I can participate in one! I like the meditative and action aspects of it. After a lot of positive influence, I am still very bad at meditation. It's hard to learn doing nothing! But this tea party sounds fun, because not only it provides you tranquil moments, it requires you to do something - making tea. Besides its meditative aspect, it satisfy tea drinkers' need of making tea. I know a lot of tea drinkers who enjoy making tea as much as drinking tea. A tea part in which everyone makes tea sounds fun! In addition, I like the feeling of tea drinkers united. I guess many tea drinkers are loners (which is not necessarily bad because basically all scientists and artists have to be loners for at least part of their lives). Sometimes tea drinking is entirely private - which indeed sounds unfortunate. How nice to make tea and share tea with a group of tea drinkers! The communication is not through language, but through tea!

I've got my gears ready but don't have a party to join yet. My tea friends, I hope someday we can have some Wu Wo Tea together! And be sure to let us know if you are going to have a Wu Wo Tea party someday!

Jun 7, 2010

What is puerh? (2) Debates

There are many debates about puerh definition. Here are some biggest ones. Most of these debates not only exist among ordinary tea drinkers, but also among tea experts and senior tea professionals. It seems that puerh is so complex that it's almost impossible to clarify it with one definition, one interpretation or one straight-forward view. For each of the following debates, there are many protagonists and antagonists. I believe it's important to be aware of them, because sometimes people have to agree to disagree. When we see exactly opposite opinions on puerh, probably neither is ridiculous.

Debate 1 - Is Modern Shu a puerh?
According to 2008 National Standards (which was carefully made and supported by many people), Modern Shu is one type of puerh. But there are also many people who strongly against counting Modern Shu as puerh, because it didn't exist before 1970s, and by inner character, it is much closer to various other type of Hei Cha (Black Tea, which, as a Chinese tea term, is post-fermentation tea. Not the same as black tea in Western tea terminology.) than to Young and Old Sheng. (my notes: I like Sheng a lot more than Shu. So I sympathize with this view.)

Debate 2 - Is young Sheng a puerh?
This may not be as big a debate as Debate 1, because no matter how much you argue about a young Sheng, some day it can possibly become an old Sheng. But there are people who strongly object that young Sheng should be called a puerh. Their major reason is, before a young Sheng gets aged enough, it's not puerh yet. It doesn't have the inner characters of old Sheng, and young Sheng doesn't have the same health benefits of both old Sheng and modern fast-fermented puerh Shu.

(my notes: I have less sympathy for this view, because there can hardly be a well-defined standard about how old a Sheng must get in order to be called an "old Sheng". But I do have some sympathy for it, because obviously, puerh factories benefit from blurring the boundary of young Sheng and old Sheng. This makes people, including me, suspect how much the 2006 and 2008 puerh Standards were influenced by the "puerh industry".)

Debate 3 - Does Shu mean modern fast-fermented puerh product, or does it include both the modern fast-fermented puerh and old Sheng?
This debate is reflected by Definition 5 in "What is puerh? (1)" - Da Yi's definition. Some people believe the modern Shu can never be similar to an old Sheng. Some other people, including Da Yi people, believe old Sheng will share similar characters with modern Shu. (my notes: this view needs to be tested by time and research. It may or may not be true. But obviously Da Yi's current interpretation is helpful for them to sell both young Sheng and modern Shu.)

To summarize Debate 1, 2, and 3, there are three different views:
1. Both puerh Sheng (of any age) and modern fast-fermented Shu are puerh. This view is consistent with 2008 National Standards.

2. Puerh Sheng (of any age) is puerh, but modern fast-fermented Shu is not.

3. Old Sheng and modern fast-fermented Shu are both puerh, but young Sheng is not puerh, YET. Within this group, some people believe that young Sheng should be called "Yunnan Sun-dried Green Tea" instead. Some other people believe young Sheng is an unfinished product, and is not ready for drinking/sale at all. (my notes: Even if it's not a final product, probably we can still buy them and store them at home. I believe these people's point is, price of Young Sheng should be that of an unfinished products, but nowadays there are too many expensive, upscale Young Sheng. Meantime, I can understand that these people's another point is, once factories sell you young Sheng, they are not responsible for the future of it. So if the young Sheng doesn't have inner quality to be well-aged, it's factories' gain and consumers' loss.) Supporters of this view say, "Although chicken is from egg, you can't call an egg chicken." Ultimately, name is not the most important. People's concern is, if the "puerh industry" attempts to sell an egg for a chicken's price, it's too much value inflation.

Debate 4. Can Hei Cha products from provinces such as Guangxi, Sichuan and Hunan be counted as puerh? Or,  can puerh be categorized as Hei Cha?
Actually this is more of an ambiguity and not as much a debate. Most people agree that puerh is very much different from Hei Cha from other provinces. In tea market, most Chinese sellers wouldn't call Hei Cha from other provinces "puerh". But some Chinese tea books and articles (most of them don't focus on puerh, though) put Puerh under the category of either Hei Cha or Post-fermented Tea. In contrast, an interesting phenomenon is, some western tea articles and sellers would put Hei Cha (such as Liu Bao Cha, Sichuan Brick Tea, Hunan Brick Tea, etc.) under the category "puerh". I guess, listing Puerh (instead of Hei Cha, or Black Tea) as one of the six general categories of tea has something to do with a historical terminology dilemma. In Western tea terminology, the term Black Tea is already adopted for the tea genre which is called Red Tea in Asia, and so far in the West this tea genre is the most popular, best-known and most widely enjoyed one among all tea genres. Therefore it's barely possible for tea sellers to give consumers a strange name to their familiar tea, and use the familiar name "Black Tea" to a tea category that is still strange to them. Sometimes, what a seller wants the least is confusing buyers.

Debate 5. How proper is the geographic patent for puerh? Should the name puerh be restricted to products from Yunnan province only?
The Geographic Patent for puerh started from the 2006 Yunnan Province Standards for Puerh. But as a province document, it doesn't have regulation power on products of other provinces. But once the National Standards for Puerh came out in 2008, it has become illegal for products from other provinces to be called "Puerh". Although puerh originates from Yunnan, Guangdong province has more than 100 years of history of producing and exporting puerh products. Some people argue that the Modern Shu technique is largely from Guangdong. Therefore many people believe it's unfair to forbid Guangdong products of the similar technique to be called "puerh".

Jun 3, 2010

Have a great summer!

Dear friends, I will spend the next two months in China. During the time, I am not sure if I will be able to reach this blog over the Great Wall, but I will try :-D I've scheduled some blog entries during the next two months. If I can't talk with you over the two months, I expect to catch up in August!

Jun 1, 2010

Blog Carnival on Daily Life Tea Drinking - Teabags and Loose Leaf Tea

This is part of the 2nd Blog Carnival of ATB (Association of Tea Bloggers)! A full index of contents for this blog carnival can be found at The Sip Tip.

I've had probably fewer than 30 teabags in my entire life, with at least half of them made at home in the past months. I started doing this first because I am very frugal and don't want to throw away tea debris at the bottom of each tea container. Secondly, there are days that I am too tired to even lift my fingers. Although I never think brewing loose leaf tea very energy consuming (to me, so much easier than brewing coffee!), there are days that I just want to do as little as possible. That's how I made my first teabag. And I logged it on Steepster. Before that, I was gifted some homemade teabags by tea farmers and tea merchants. (For example, this one.) They are all great. No commercial product can compare with them. There are higher end, even whole-leaf teabag products in the market nowadays. Although they are good, in my eyes they can't compare with homemade ones because only the homemade ones, made by the tea drinkers (or their friends), are tuned to each tea drinker's particular taste. And, of course, homemade teabags are the most economic ones, while many good, especially whole-leaf teabags in the market have very high per-unit prices.

To make your own teabags, you will need heat-sealable teabags and a heat sealer. I got my teabags from a seller in Thailand by searching "tea bag heat seal" on eaby :D If you don't have a heat sealer, then probably foldable teabags are the most convenient. The foldable teabag was invented in Taiwan. It's very convenient to use. The way to fold it is pretty much like how you can fold a pair of socks when putting them away. It looks like this:
But I don't know yet where to get more of them. The website indicated in the photo doesn't exist!

The other day, I was SHOCKED by someone's response when I walked into an office holding a glass of tea. The secretary of the office stared at my glass in disbelief and asked what it was. (Did she think it was weed?) When I told her it was green tea, she said "eww..." and frowned. And she had this facial expression which I would interpret as being scared or even disgusted. Maybe as a tea drinker I am too sensitive. But I was convinced by her expression that she was thinking that I was drinking something lousy. I know tea is not new to this office. They serve coffee and assorted teabags all the time in their kitchen, and they are quite familiar with teabags. I've seen all kinds of responses to loose leaf tea. People may think it's novel, mysterious, strange, impossible to deal with, hard to drink, so on and so forth. But, this was probably the first time I've seen somebody subtly indicating loose leaf tea as inferior to teabags. Maybe this lady has a thing about loose leaves and it's not about the tea at all. But, I can't help thinking, is it possible that some people deal with teabags all the time and never see naked tea leaves? When something is "never heard of" and strange, people may just intuitively think it's awful. After this small incident, I've decided to carry my loose leaf tea drink as much as possible to public places, and, in a transparent vessel (including this, this, this and this) when possible. I guess if people are more exposed to it, loose leaf tea won't look like some shocking scene.