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Tea plantation in Kyoto Japan (source unknown)

Tea plantation in Kyoto Japan (source unknown)

The Way of Tea is naught but this:
first you boil water,
then you make the tea and drink it.
-Sen Rikyu

I have to admit that there aren’t too many big names from tea history that I can name. Some of the best known are probably Sir Thomas Lipton and Thomas Twining, those great captains of tea industry from centuries past. Then there is the ancient tea master Lu Yu, who was probably one of the first people to write about tea whose writings have survived to this day.

I was vaguely aware of the Japanese tea master Sen Rikyu before now, but I have to admit that I didn’t know that much about him. Or the tradition of tea that he was such an influence on. So I set out to remedy that. Sen Rikyu lived in the sixteenth century (1522 – 1591) and is said by some to be one of the most famous Japanese tea masters of them all. So much so that in a book called The True History of Tea, the authors dedicate an entire chapter to his contributions.

Sen Rikyu’s early days were a time of turmoil in Japan, but apparently not so much in Sakai, a city located to the south of Osaka, where he was from. It was there that Sen Rikyu was initiated into chanoyu, sometimes called “the way of tea” or “the Japanese tea ceremony,” at an early age. His demonstrated talent for this sort of thing brought him to the attention of the rich and powerful in Japanese society in the day.

Sen Rikyu performed ceremonies for warlords and emperors and the like but, as is so common when one is entangled in matters of politics and the like, things came to a bad end. Though the details are somewhat unclear, he fell afoul of a powerful leader for some reason and met an untimely end by being sentenced to commit ritual suicide. True to form it’s said that one of his last acts was to conduct an elaborate tea ceremony.

As for his contributions to tea, they are too considerable to detail here but are discussed extensively in the aforementioned volume and elsewhere. Including this overview of Sen Rikyu’s teachings from the Urasenke Foundation, a branch of chanoyu that he’s credited with founding.

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© Online Stores, Inc., and The English Tea Store Blog, 2009-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this article’s author and/or the blog’s owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Online Stores, Inc., and The English Tea Store Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

“You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.”
― C.S. Lewis

The great works of literature are the ones that withstand the test of time. They have probably done so for a reason, but that doesn’t mean that they couldn’t stand some improvement – if I dare say so. Such as adding more tea. While tea is a topic the crops up now and then in great literary works, it’s rarely the focus of the story. If you’ve ever found yourself wishing such works were more tea-centric, here are a few suggestions.

A Christmas Carol
On Christmas Eve, four ghosts teach Scrooge, an elderly miser and tea merchant, who actually doesn’t like tea, that love and friendship are much more important than amassing a fortune. The ghosts reveal to Scrooge scenes from his past, present and future. After witnessing these scenes, Scrooge is a changed man and celebrates with an elaborate Christmas tea for each and every one.

Heart of Darkness
Joseph Conrad’s famous story concerns the journey of the narrator up the Congo River on behalf of a Belgian trading company. Far upriver, he encounters the mysterious Kurtz, a tea trader who exercises an almost godlike sway over the inhabitants of the region. Both repelled and fascinated by the man, Marlow is brought face to face with the corruption and despair that Conrad saw at the heart of human existence. In the end, however, Kurtz turns to be a very nice fellow and the latter part of the book chronicles the fascinating chats the pair have over many excellent cups of tea.

On The Road
A fictional telling of Jack Kerouac’s years traveling the North American continent with his friend Neal Cassady. As Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, the two roam the country in a quest for self-knowledge and experience and most importantly – the perfect cup of tea.

Ulysses
James Joyce’s also fictional chronicle of a day in the life of Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom, as they criss-cross Dublin on June 4, 1904, in search of…what else – the perfect cup of tea.

The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe
Perhaps the most tragic tale in all of literature, Daniel DeFoe’s novel chronicles the adventures of the title character, who is shipwrecked on an island with no tea in sight. Read it if you dare.

Dracula
“I never drink…tea.”

Gone With the Wind
“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn about anything but a good cup of tea.”

Moby Dick
“Call me Ishmael. If you want. Just don’t forget to call me when the tea is ready.”

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© Online Stores, Inc., and The English Tea Store Blog, 2009-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this article’s author and/or the blog’s owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Online Stores, Inc., and The English Tea Store Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Scotland’s tea culture and consumption might be overshadowed by the likes of their neighbors, England and Ireland, but tea is certainly important there and there’s even a Scottish Breakfast tea blend to keep the likes of Irish Breakfast tea and English Breakfast tea company. There are also famous Scottish tea people from history like James Taylor, Robert Fortune, and Thomas Lipton, and the first of these has even inspired a tea festival there.

The first incarnation of the Scotland’s Tea Festival just took place this August so you missed it. But we’ll hope for another one next year that might include such events as “Tealicious Tearooms to a Teddy Bears Picnic, James Taylor Heritage Exhibition to High Teas, Afternoon Tea to Art workshops, Cutty Sark Knot tying to Cakes, tea tasting and blending, tea cocktails, talks, lectures, afternoon teas, high teas, opening dinner, unveiling of a plaque on James Taylor’s home.”

I wrote about tea dueling a while back, a practice that seems to have gotten started in the Steampunk community. On a somewhat related theme, here’s an article about the Travelling Tea Museum, which is produced by a gent who’s said to be the “UK’s foremost Steampunk artist.” Rather than an actual museum, it’s apparently a travelling exhibit that “consists of three large display cases, complete with skirting board and wallpaper, along with curios and memorabilia telling a history of tea you never knew existed.”

Finally, if you’re looking for a skin moisturizer that you can probably eat – in a pinch – then you’re in luck. Here are instructions for making a (tasty?) skin cream that uses green tea and coconut oil. For more on a tea-based treat that’s actually intended to be eaten, have a look at this Asian Spumoni ice cream that was put together by a Las Vegas creamery. Not only is it much more colorful than the average ice cream, it’s a challenging and unique taste blend. I’m no expert on spumoni but according to the article it’s traditionally made “with three layers of cherry, pistachio, and chocolate ice cream.” However, this alternate version substitutes red beans, green tea powder, toasted black sesame seeds and sesame seed paste, and tops it all off with toasted cinnamon sugar wonton strips.

See more of William I. Lengeman’s articles here.

© Online Stores, Inc., and The English Tea Store Blog, 2009-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this article’s author and/or the blog’s owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Online Stores, Inc., and The English Tea Store Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

If you wanted to make a few cautious generalizations about the future of tea – as I’m about to do – you could start by taking a look at the past. At its most basic, tea is a relatively simple thing, at least in comparison to something like a computer or an iPhone. Which is to say much of it has not changed over the years and will likely not do so in the future.

On the production end of things it’s probably safe to say that tea growing and harvesting is not that much different than it ever was, except for the fact that some of the key steps have been mechanized. But while some aspects of tea harvesting, for example, have been mechanized in certain regions, the delicate nature of tea leaves and the precision required to select just the right ones means that we often still see good old-fashioned non-mechanized humans plucking them. Perhaps we’ll see slightly more sophisticated machines processing and harvesting tea in the future but will it look that much different than it does now? It’s not for me say.

Then there’s that critical portion of the tea equation – making it ready to drink. Which also hasn’t changed that much over the centuries – except when it has. While we see more fancy automated gadgets as the years pass and we’ll undoubtedly see more in the future, for many people the process of heating water and pouring it over tea leaves or a bag is not that much different than it ever was.

But what about the business of conducting the business of tea? Look to the past again. The flurry of tea houses that opened in the United States and elsewhere in the last decade or so would not have seemed all that unfamiliar to Thomas Twining, who went into business in the early days of a coffee/teahouse craze that was sweeping through London in the seventeenth century.

Of course Twining and his contemporaries didn’t have Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook and so on to help them get the good word out, nor could his customers make use of online commerce to order tea and have it shipped to their front door. When it comes to figuring out what types of these technological wonders the future might hold maybe you could try looking toward science fiction.

One thing is fairly certain, no matter how far into the future you go. People will still drink tea in their homes and workplaces (which may look a bit more Jetsonish), and they will probably still gather in public places devoted to the fine arts of tea selling and consuming.

See more of William I. Lengeman’s articles here.

© Online Stores, Inc., and The English Tea Store Blog, 2009-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this article’s author and/or the blog’s owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Online Stores, Inc., and The English Tea Store Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Keemun Panda (ETS image)

Keemun Panda (ETS image)

Sometimes a tea will surprise you. Not that this is necessarily a good thing. For me, at least, there have been good tea surprises and there have been bad ones. Obviously, I’d prefer the former but sometimes in this life we have to take the hand (or tea) we’re dealt.

I’ve learned to like Keemun over the years, a type of tea I didn’t care that much for at first. It’s a black tea from China that often has a hint of smokiness, something that I don’t normally like much in tea. But over time I’ve learned to like the more subtly smoky examples of this tea.

So I was mildly interested when a bunch of samples I was sent recently contained something that was described as a “superfine” Keemun. I was even more interested – in fact, quite intrigued – when I opened the package and was assaulted by the overwhelming aroma. And I mean that in a good way. I hastened to move this tea to the head of the stack of samples I’d been sent and steeped some right away.

And what a surprise it was. I wouldn’t say that it didn’t have any taste at all, but I’d venture to say that it came very close. I was less than impressed. I intend to give it another try just to make sure that I didn’t make a mistake while I was preparing it. But for now I’ll check this up to the “not very good surprise” category.

But there are also some good surprises when it comes to tea. As I’ve already suggested, one of my first steps in judging a tea is to simply open the package and evaluate the aroma of the dry leaves. There is generally a correlation between the smell of the leaves and the taste of the tea, except in such cases as noted above. The flip side of this are those rare good surprises when a bland smelling tea turns out to be a winner. It doesn’t happen often but that only serves to make it more surprising.

See more of William I. Lengeman’s articles here.

© Online Stores, Inc., and The English Tea Store Blog, 2009-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this article’s author and/or the blog’s owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Online Stores, Inc., and The English Tea Store Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Tea Bag Squeezer (ETS image)

Tea Bag Squeezer (ETS image)

To dunk or not to dunk? To squeeze or not to squeeze?

I suspect that for many people who use a teabag to prepare tea it’s probably quite common to dunk the bag repeatedly and to squeeze it when you’re finished. There are even specially constructed tongs that are designed to assist with the latter action. But should you be inflicting all of this on your teabag? What exactly is the proper way to handle your teabag? Our very own esteemed editor tackled that topic a little while back and came down on the side of not squeezing, but I thought I’d look around to see if any research had been done on the topic.

Lo and behold. It turns out that there has been some research. With regard to the dunking question, here’s an article that recently appeared in the Irish press that weighed in on the matter, courtesy of a chap identified as a tea chemist. Read it all, if you’re so inclined, but here’s the conclusion, “I cannot find a difference between dunking and not dunking under controlled circumstances – so do it how you want.” Here’s a more detailed version of the same article that even includes some math that supposedly helps explain it all.

But what about squeezing? There’s no research cited, but some of the great names of British tea selling have weighed in on this very matter. At the Twinings web site they offer a primer called “How To Taste Tea” which suggests that squeezing your tea bag is not necessarily a bad thing, but “Its best not to overly squeeze your tea bag because this could release deep rooted tannins and they taste very bitter.”

At the web site for yet another British tea maker, Yorkshire Tea (part of Taylors of Harrogate), they offer some tips on how to make a proper brew and also suggest that squeezing in moderation is probably the best course of action, “Remove the teabag with a spoon giving it just one gentle squeeze.”

See more of William I. Lengeman’s articles here.

© Online Stores, Inc., and The English Tea Store Blog, 2009-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this article’s author and/or the blog’s owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Online Stores, Inc., and The English Tea Store Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Ceylon Tea (ETS image)

Ceylon Tea (ETS image)

Once upon a time the country off the southeastern coast of India that we now know as Sri Lanka had another name. It was called Ceylon and though the name would eventually change the tea that is grown there still bears the old one. Ceylon tea is a relatively new development, coming to the island only about a century and a half ago after the coffee crops there were severely damaged by disease.

It was in 1907, just a few decades after tea growing got underway there, that a publication called The Tropical Agriculturist and Magazine of the Ceylon Agricultural Society featured an article called “The Leading Teas of the World – Ceylon.” It was written by a gentleman identified as “the late Herbert Compton” and it’s perhaps just a bit on the dry side, with plenty of facts and figures, but it’s interesting nonetheless.

Compton opens with a reference to the island’s “nine (commercial) lives,” which also included such commodities as spices, pepper, and cocoa, but stresses that tea “still holds current pride of place as the staple crop of the Colony.” He summarizes the fall of coffee and the rise of tea and notes that about 160 million pounds of the latter was being produced annually at the time.

The majority of this ended up in the United Kingdom, not surprisingly, but substantial quantities ended up in Australasia, North America, and Russia. Next up is a description of Ceylon teas, which he likens to “a blend of Indian and China leaf,” and remarks that it is “silky and smooth to the palate.” From there it’s on to intricacies of pricing and whatnot that are more geared to professional tea buyers followed by a summary of some of the notable tea growing regions there.

Compton closes things by noting that Ceylon growers were beginning to turn their efforts from producing mostly black teas and including more green tea, the latter of which was designed to appeal to the American markets.

See more of William I. Lengeman’s articles here.

© Online Stores, Inc., and The English Tea Store Blog, 2009-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this article’s author and/or the blog’s owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Online Stores, Inc., and The English Tea Store Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

In an article I recently wrote on tea drinking in the American colonies and the early United States I mentioned that a significant quantity of Japanese green tea was exported here during the latter part of the nineteenth century. Which led me to think that it might be interesting to look at Japanese tea history as it relates to interactions with the Western world.

Tea Growing Regions of Japan

Tea Growing Regions of Japan

While this is hardly an exhaustive study of the topic, one early reference that I found to tea and Japan comes from a book by Russian naval officer Vasily Mikhailovich Golovnin, that was quite popular in its day. Captivity in Japan During the Years 1811, 1812, 1813 came out in the early part of that century with the title serving a good summary of its contents. Golovnin makes numerous references to tea throughout, at one point remarking that it was served in “the Japanese fashion,” with cups half filled, no saucers and on trays of varnished wood.

A few decades later The Asiatic Journal and Monthly Miscellany remarked in an article about the East-India Company that at the time tea was being grown in most provinces of China, as well as Japan and a few other places. The article later notes that some of the tea grown in China at the time was making its way to various places, including Japan. Which is thought by most to be how tea got to Japan in the first place.

In 1873, in Harper’s magazine, an article called “Report on Tea Culture in Japan” took about a half of a page to discuss the topic. As of 1872, as mentioned above, most of the tea exported from Japan wound up in the US – about 15 million pounds for the year ending May 31. That tea was usually “refired” after processing to give it the “toasty flavor” and “greenish color” that were desirable here. The best tea in Japan was said to be grown by priests and, as is the case to this day, the first tea of the spring harvest was the most eagerly awaited.

If that’s not enough tea culture in Japan, consider that an article with a similar title – “Tea Culture in Japan” – appeared in 1907 in The Tropical Agriculturist and Magazine of the Ceylon Agricultural Society. It goes into much more depth – about six pages in all – than the aforementioned. Among the topics covered, a look at some of the teas grown in Japan and the growing regions, as well as detailed descriptions of each stage of processing for each type of tea.

See more of William I. Lengeman’s articles here.

© Online Stores, Inc., and The English Tea Store Blog, 2009-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this article’s author and/or the blog’s owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Online Stores, Inc., and The English Tea Store Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Gyokuro Japanese Green Tea (ETS image)

Gyokuro Japanese Green Tea (ETS image)

There many ways to prepare tea. You can do it the old school way with a tea kettle and a teapot. You can do it in a more newfangled way (guilty) with water heated in a microwave and a gravity type infuser. Or the even more newfangled method of using a fancy gadget that does much of the work for you.

But when you boil it down, preparing tea is about applying hot water to tea leaves. The details of it are up to the individual, but that’s how it’s done – except when it’s not. I’m no scientist and this is a layperson’s description of the process, but what’s important about preparing tea is to transfer the essence of the tea leaves to the water. Hot water will accelerate the process, but if you have a little more time on your hands cold brewing might work just as well.

Some of the benefits of doing things this way are fairly obvious. If you’re preparing tea in warm weather, it’s a plus not to have to use the stove to heat the teakettle – and the surrounding environment. One of the other main benefits of this method is simplicity. All that’s needed is a container and something to hold or strain the leaves. You can spend money for a fancy “cold infusion set” and whatnot, if that’s what grabs you. But a simple glass container should work just fine. Finally, there are those who claim that tea prepared this way has a better flavor.

As for that question of when steeping is complete, it’s kind of up for grabs. Overnight is a term that gets tossed around a lot when discussing this sort of thing, but it can vary according to the type of tea and whom you’re asking. The consensus seems to be that lighter teas such as green should be steeped for a shorter time, perhaps as little as four hours. One primer I read recommended steeping the Japanese green tea known as Gyokuro in ice and serving it when the ice had fully melted. More robust teas such as black are likely to call for a longer steep times, though I might question the wisdom of the four-day steep recommended in one how-to article.

Like so many other things that have to do with tea, the best course of action when it comes to cold infusing is to experiment and see what works best for you.

See more of William I. Lengeman’s articles here.

© Online Stores, Inc., and The English Tea Store Blog, 2009-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this article’s author and/or the blog’s owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Online Stores, Inc., and The English Tea Store Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

IngenuiTEA (ETS image)

IngenuiTEA (ETS image)

There are many resources nowadays that claim to tell you the secret of preparing perfect tea. I remain skeptical that such a thing exists. But if you’re willing to settle for a great cup of tea, I’d suggest that you focus on a few key factors – the quality of the tea, the time spent steeping it, and the temperature at which it’s steeped.

But let’s talk steeping. In addition to the time you spend steeping tea, the method you use is important. There are any number of methods you can use to steep tea nowadays, including automated gadgets that take care of most preparation steps and which will do your windows in their down time. But to simplify this discussion, we’ll focus on a few steeping methods, such as teabags and some of the assorted and sundry infusers on the market.

First, the teabag – the old tried and true. It’s a fairly well-known fact these days that the “two dollars for a 100″ type teabags that you buy in a grocery store might not necessarily contain the highest quality of tea. Even if they did, they did the construction of the teabag is not such that it would allow the tea to steep properly. One of the primary concerns when steeping tea is that the water should be able to circulate freely among the tea leaves to be able to make maximum contact with those leaves and release the greatest amount of flavor. When the tea is scrunched tightly into a tea bag this is not the optimum situation.

Which can also be the case with many tea infusers. The first one that comes to mind is that small metal strainer type tea ball that still seems to be quite popular these days. But the same advice can be applied any type of infuser that’s so small that it constrains the tea leaves and doesn’t allow the water to circulate properly.

A better choice – though one of many – might be the infusers that are shaped like a cup and have a lip around the top that allows them to rest inside your tea cup. Or simply a teapot that allows the water and tea to circulate and contains some mechanism for separating one from the other. My own preference is for a gravity type infuser that I pour the water into. When steeping is complete, place it on top of your tea cup and the tea is released.

See more of William I. Lengeman’s articles here.

© Online Stores, Inc., and The English Tea Store Blog, 2009-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this article’s author and/or the blog’s owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Online Stores, Inc., and The English Tea Store Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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© Online Stores, Inc., and The English Tea Store Blog, 2009-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Online Stores, Inc., and The English Tea Store Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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