Behind The Leaf: Matcha

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We all love matcha, don’t we? It tastes delicious and is quite energizing. It has a natural sweetness and is balanced out by slightly bitter and vegetal notes. You can make it the authentic way or just shake and go. You can even cook and bake with it. It’s quite the versatile tea! No wonder it’s so popular. But do you know really what matcha is, and why it’s powdered? I’m happy to tell you a little bit more about this elusive tea.

As you probably know, matcha is ground green tea. You may also know it’s used in the Japanese tea ceremony called chanoyu. But Japan wasn’t the first to use powdered tea. It was actually brought to Japan in the 12th century by Buddhist monks. Grinding tea to a powder actually began in China and it was consumed this way before it became popular in Japan. Whisking powdered tea in a bowl eventually went out of fashion in China, but Japan has kept this traditional alive.

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Before you purchase that magical ground green tea powder, much needs to happen. Leaves are picked by machine, then withered and steamed. Steaming the leaves is unique to Japanese tea which gives it that vibrant green hue. The teas are then dried and rolled. After this process the leaves are carefully sorted, and the tough veins are removed. The processed (but not yet ground) leaves are called Tencha. The tencha is ground to create the fine matcha powder.

The highest quality matcha can be found in the Uji region, using leaves that have been shaded before plucking. The shading causes an increase in chlorophyll and creates a more intense, sweet vegetal flavor. Higher quality matcha will have a smooth, sweet taste with just a touch of bitterness. Lower quality tea will be more bitter and won’t have that lovely smooth texture. When you’re buying matcha you should look for a bright dark green vibrant powder, not a light green or pale green powder. The shade grown leaves are darker and vivid green, and will have more sweetness and flavor. But if you are on a tight budget please select the matcha that’s best for you! It’s still a lovely tea experience, no matter what grade you choose.

Behind The Leaf: Chamomile

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Dearies, we’ve learned quite a bit about teas from the camellia sinensis plant. Those are all the lovely pure teas we drink such as white, oolong, green, and black. But we shouldn’t ignore all of those tasty herbal teas out there! They deserve to be highlighted too. This week I decided we should focus on Chamomile, one of Kat’s most favorite herbal teas.

Many people love chamomile. It’s floral, soothing, and has a lovely honey-like sweetness. This aromatic herb is easy to find in just about any grocery store, and is easy to brew. It’s a popular tea since it has no caffeine and has a pleasing light flavor. Really, who doesn’t love a good cup of chamomile?

You’ve probably seen the lovely daisy-like plant before, at least in photographs on the tea box. There are many different species of chamomile but the two most common types are the German and Roman varieties and it grows in various other parts of the world.

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Chamomile is a very nostalgic tea for Kat. Whenever she’d visit dear Char, there was always a cup of chamomile waiting for her at the table. Char even let her add in a huge spoonful of honey. I can still remember how Kat would give the honey a quick stir, and then pop the spoon in her mouth to enjoy the sweet remnants. These days Kat has been enjoying a hot cup of chamomile in the evenings and she often has an icy cool glass on warm summer afternoons. Lately she’s been enamored with her chamomile tea from Newman’s Own Organics. She picked it up at her local Stop & Shop while looking at all of the herbal teas in the aisle. It is so soothing, and simply contains Egyptian organic chamomile. It is floral, sweet, with a hint of earthiness. One sip and she is transported to Char’s table, chatting and remembering all the wonderful times they had together.

As far as preparing chamomile, you can’t really brew it incorrectly. You can use boiling water and brew for as long as you like! It’s very difficult to over-steep. You can ice it down or add to cold water for a cold brew. It’ll work any way you prepare it.

What I’d love to know, is what do you do with your chamomile tea? Do you drink it straight up, or add other flavors to it? Do you bake or cook with it? Let me know in the comments!

Behind the Leaf: Chinese Green Teas

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Dearies, do you know where your green tea comes from? I did a post about popular Japanese green teas recently, and now I’m going to discuss some popular Chinese green teas. I remember traveling through China with Char. The big cities are so very interesting, and the rural areas we saw were just beautiful. Travel was a bit tough at times and I constantly worried about chips and scratches, but it helped that we were offered amazing tea everywhere we went. Chinese green teas vary depending on region and processing. Here are some of the more common types you’ll find:

Long Jing- grown in Zhejiang Province. In English it’s referred to as Dragonwell. This is the most well known tea in China, and because of that it’s also the most copied. Be careful and know your source! Why is this called Dragon well? According to legend, a Taoist monk came across a dragon hiding in a well. There was a lack of rain and drought in the area,  so the villagers prayed to the dragon to come to their aid. After the prayer it started to rain!  This tea has a flat shape. You’ll taste marine notes such as seaweed and ocean. It also has a lovely cooked veggie flavor that reminds Kat of steamed green beans. There is even a hint of sweetness in this tea. It is the most popular tea for a good reason!

Anji Bai Cha- also grown in Zhejiang. The word bai actually means white, but this is definitely a green tea. The white refers to the leaves which are so pale, they are practically white!  The leaves here are thin and long. The flavor is grassy, floral, and vegetal. It has a surprising tanginess as well. It’s a lovely, complex tea.

Mao Feng- grown in Anhui province. This pretty tea has lots of fine buds. It has a green bean fresh veggie flavor. But it’s more like raw veggies and not cooked like long jing. The freshness makes it mild and quite sweet.

Liu An Gua Pian- grown in Anhui province. This tea means ‘melon seed’ because of the shape of the leaves. They’re flat and a bit oval. This tea uses the second leaf, not the buds. Using these more mature leaves is very different from most other Chinese green teas that use the buds and young leaves. Since the leaves are a bit more mature, they have a more concentrated flavor. This tea is not delicate or vegetal. It has a toastier flavor due to being fired in the wok multiple times, with a nice floral finish.

Bi Lo chun (spring snail)- grown in Jiangsu province. These trees also produce Dong Shan tea, which is harvested after the bi lo chun season. This tea is called spring snail because it’s rolled into a spiral that looks like a snail and of course harvested in the spring. This tea has a delicate taste and floral aroma.

These are just a few of the many glorious Chinese teas you can find. All of these teas can be brewed in a gaiwan, grandpa style (loose in the cup/bowl), or also in a western style teapot. We like using a gaiwan as much as possible for these teas, as it extracts a large amount of flavor and you can get multiple steeps.

How many types of Chinese green tea have you tried? Dearies, they are all a bit different, so get out there and taste as many as you can.

A Tea Leaf’s Journey from Estate to Cup

As Kat’s morning cup of tea steeps, it puts me in mind of how easy it can be to take our tea for granted. It’s so easily accessible. A quick run to the market and you can grab any number of teas off the shelf! But just think. That tea began somewhere… most often it began thousands of miles away, growing happily on a tea estate. So how did it get from there to here?Estate to cup 3

For many of the teas you enjoy from your local grocery store, the journey begins with a company’s tea buyers working directly with specific estates and also through tea auctions.  The benefits to buying privately is not only managing requirements or specifications before the tea is made but also approving the tea before they are shipped.

When considering which teas to buy, there are a number of factors that may be taken into consideration. For example, flushes (distinct growing periods for bushes in a particular region) or growing regions.

The majority of grocery store tea manufacturers don’t rely on outside parties to approve the quality of teas. The approval process is taken very seriously and sensory analysis is performed on all the teas that are procured.

Once approved, teas are packed very carefully for their long journey.  Most commonly, they are packed in oxygen and moisture barrier, foil-layered paper sacks.  Regardless of origin, teas are shipped from a foreign port to a US dock.  On average, shipments take 45 days from dock to dock.  While the shortest trip is around 4 weeks, the longest is closer to 12 weeks! Quite a big journey for these little leaves!

You’ll notice a variety of tea blends on your grocery store shelves. Each blend is created by a blendmaster who picks the right ingredients and composition to establish the blend formula. The professional blenders work within the framework of the formula to issue batches to the production floor. Samples of each completed production blend are collected and evaluated by the approved tea taster before packaging to ensure the blends meet the blend’s specification. After the blend is approved, it is packaged to follow finished product’s specification. Each finished product is approved by the quality control department prior to releasing it to the warehouse.

Who knew the process was infused with such care and precision!

Kat is enjoying the most heavenly smelling tea this morning: Simply Balanced Organic White Tea Peach Honey. That peach fragrance infuses the warmth of spring and summer into my very being! She loves the how white tea is complemented (not overwhelmed) by the peach, with just the lighted finish of honey sweetness.

It’s quite the journey this tea has had: from the distant estate to Kat’s lovely tea cup. I must say, I’m glad it made the trip!

The Basics of Green Tea

A New Year. A fresh start. I always love this time of year.

I overheard Kat and her friends chatting just the other day about New Year’s resolutions. (I wouldn’t call it eavesdropping, per se. She had set me on the counter just steps away from their conversation.)  The friend announced she would be drinking more green tea this year, and Kat congratulated her. The friend promptly admitted she didn’t know where to start.

I find this to be a common theme among Americans. There’s an understanding of sorts that green tea is a good thing, but many don’t know what it is or how it’s different from black tea. If you remember, we had a lovely discussion about black tea the other day and how the black color and darker liquid come from the oxidation of the leaves. With green tea, it does not undergo oxidation, thus retaining its ‘green-ness’ and there are a significant number of factors that can influence flavor and quality. How the leaves are dried (sun drying, oven drying, pan firing are just a few examples!), can influence flavor and quality as well as whether or not the tea leaves were grown in the full sun or spend some days growing in the shade.

In some countries, such as Japan and China, green tea is the more common type of tea consumed. And even in the U.S., prior to World War II, it is said that Americans consumed approximately 40% black tea, 40% green tea and 20% oolong tea. That war effectively cut off the primary suppliers of green tea to the U.S. and by the end of the war, tea consumption was estimated to be 99% black tea.

Thankfully, over the decades, and especially in this last several years, interest and enthusiasm for green tea has made quite a comeback.There are smooth, earthy greens from China, bright grassy greens from Japan, and a seemingly endless spectrum of nuances in between. What’s more, there are the green tea blends to marry floral or fruity notes with the green teas, creating an even greater array of choices. Green tea most often is served with no milk, but one might enjoy a sweetener or lemon if desired.

I was so proud watching Kat open her tea cupboard to her friend and pull out no less than half a dozen green tea options for her to try. I was more than happy to be on hand to introduce her to Kat’s current favorite.

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I’ve already resolved to steep more tea in this New Year. But I think I’ll add one more detail. I’ll be steeping more green tea!

On the Subject of Sugar

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been subjected to it. And these days, Kat tells me it happens more and more often.

One goes to afternoon tea, is asked if one would care for milk and sugar, and when the sugar is requested, it arrives in the form of granules, or (horror of horrors) individual packets!

I know that times do and must change, and I realize that the “kids these days” like to forego the formal and embrace the casual. But there are some things that are institutions and must be preserved. Just as Theodore Roosevelt saw the importance of setting aside large tracts of nature and established the National Park System, I see the importance of elegance, culture, and basic weights and measures that the sugar cube embodies!

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The phrase is, “one lump or two,” not “one shovel-full or two,” or (heaven forbid,) “one packet or two!” It spins my saucer when such a basic ingredient of afternoon tea is so lightly dismissed.

Now, let me be clear. If a lovely soul hosted an afternoon tea for some loved ones, and all that was on hand was the canister of the kitchen staple known as granulated sugar, I wouldn’t criticize, I wouldn’t care. It’s the people who gather together who are important here. Char was insistent on that point.

What I can’t abide is an establishment that claims afternoon tea as a specialty, and sells it as a service and then has the gall to forego the bowl of sugar cubes (with dainty little tongs, mind you) for a rainbow assortment of sweetener packets! The mind reels.

How I adore the French obsession with their individually wrapped sugar cubes. The cube has been so elevated, so revered, that each one is lovingly placed in its own paper parcel.

Tea is meant to be enjoyed, savored. Don’t treat it as casually as a child dumping mounds of sugar on his morning puffed rice whilst watching Saturday morning cartoons (if they still exist!). Dress your tea as you dress yourself for a noteworthy occasion. If sugar is the adornment of choice, pick up the dainty, silver tongs, lift the porcelain lid from the sugar bowl, select the lump of sugar that will complete your tea to perfection.

Make it count. Choose the cube.