29 September 2010

Miraculous Tea Cures All!

“It lowers blood pressure, regulates energy and appetite, eliminates bad cholesterol, prevents and/or cures cancer, helps prevent tooth decay….”  The claims about the health benefits of tea often cross into non-approved and unproven uses.  The US FDA took action against many websites that popped up over the past few years claiming that miraculous Wulong tea guarantees weight loss, cures heart disease and lowers cholesterol.

Tea has been said to have a lot of health effects and I believe this is true.  I think that chief among these benefits it that tea’s pleasant nature can bring calm and contentment into our lives (which in turn can bring a whole slew of other positive mental and physical effects).

I hear a lot, for example, about how dried tea leaves can be made into pillows that help eliminate problems with high blood pressure.  I am curious as to what mode of transmission would cause dry, previously-infused tea leaves that are stuffed into a cloth case to release special properties that, when slept upon, would lead to a statistically significant reduction in blood pressure.  If a person with normal blood pressure or even slightly low blood pressure were to, for some reason, sleep on such a pillow, would their BP drop down to an unhealthy or dangerously low level?  Early on in my tea studies, I helped a friend collect used tea leaves to make pillows with.  We dried pounds of it in the California sun and stuffed them into pillow cases that we sewed shut.  I slept on one on-and-off for a few weeks and found it to be very uncomfortable.  I envisioned that it would be cooling and supportive like the buckwheat hull pillows that were all the rage back then, but no, these tea pillows were jagged and the crunchy noises frequently woke me.  After a few weeks, the moisture (humidity? sweat? drool?) that had found its way back into the tea leaves did not create a pleasant aroma of wonderful oolongs, but a stale odor.  The darkness, heat and moisture also created issues with mold.  Tea pillows for sleeping on?  Can’t say I recommend it, but your mileage may vary.

Tea has helped me to reduce my high blood pressure in a different way during stressful times in my career.  However, I cannot say that it was the beverage itself that led directly to the reduction.  The process of having to slow down and relax as I prepared and consumed tea, the “therapy” of being able to share my troubling thoughts with tea friends, and a general change in my dietary habits were key factors.  To say that the tea alone cured my ailment would be misleading. 

Benefits aside, I have read several studies regarding a link between tea consumption and esophageal cancer (source link).  The root problem, however, shouldn’t be the tea itself, but the high temperature of the tea that was consumed by the study subjects.  Repeated overly-hot beverage or overly-hot food consumption has been shown in several studies to highly correlate with gastro-intestinal tract damage.

I also continue to read and hear a lot about tea and caffeine.  #1:  “White tea has the least caffeine and black tea has the most.  Pu’er tea is fermented, so it has no caffeine.”  #2:  “Dumping the first infusion of tea will eliminate the majority of the caffeine in its leaves.”

Both statements are incorrect, and the scientists who study this kind of stuff have proven the wrongness.  White tea is minimally processed and has quite a bit of caffeine.  A green/sheng/raw pu’er cake can also have a lot of caffeine; even an aged one may have quite a bit.  If you take a white tea or a green pu’er cake and brew it in a big pot with boiling water, then proceed to dump the first pot but drink the next 4, you will certainly feel the effects of the caffeine (unless you are a cool mutant who is immune – which does happen).

If many online sources are to be believed, dumping the first brew will eliminate 80%+ of the caffeine; that is simply not true (unless, as the studies show, the tea is brewed for over 5 minutes).  Nigel Melican is a respected tea consultant and a defender of tea facts.  He does a great job disseminating scientific sources to show that some of the conventional wisdom surrounding tea is quite wrong.  This Cha Dao blog article from 2008 is well written and helps dispel some of the myths that continue to circulate.  Read through the comments to see just how much debate was generated (and it continues on/off on Twitter!).  Certainly it can reasonably be said that more research is necessary, but at this time, I can find no credible study of tea using scientific methods that has determined that white tea consistently has the lowest level of caffeine, or that a normal 30-60 second infusion will eliminate the majority of caffeine in the leaves.

I once believed, for years, that white tea had no caffeine and I brewed it for my grandma weekly.  Every time I did so, I’d think she was bonkers the next morning when she swore that the tea kept her awake for at least a part of the night.  Nonsense, it’s white tea, it has no caffeine!  Alas, I was very wrong.  There is no shame in being corrected, but there is when one continues to advocate nonsense (my poor granny!). 

At the end of the day, whether we have our facts right or wrong, it’s really what’s in the cup that should matter most.  If it tastes good, drink it and enrich your life.  But maybe not before bedtime.  And you might want to let it cool down a bit, too. 

16 September 2010

Truly Great Minds…

Read this blog!  The writer, though…eh, fairly hit or miss :P

Joking aside, after my last post on moldy tea, several folks wrote comments with more info/ideas on the tea.  They were spot on about several points after reading just the little info that I had written and by looking at my pics.  Impressive!

I brewed the tea last week and enjoyed it with a few tea friends.  We used a small yixing pot that has been used only for dark teas (pu’er, Liu An…that type) for several years.

yixing pot

With old teas, I nearly always drink the rinse-brew also.  With this particularly moldy one (and with a mold of unknown type or origin), we decided to rinse with boiling water, steep for about 20 seconds, toss the infusion, then brew.  Immediately after pouring out the first drinkable infusion, we noticed that the color was very light, which is not typical of an old pu’er (especially for a supposed label cake).

tea color

The color of the brew was quite light, appearing more like a green pu’er cake’s brew or a light-moderately oxidized Dong Ding brewed in a gaiwan.  There was also very little familiar fragrance.  I’ve observed that old pu’ers tend to have an aroma that falls into one of 3 categories:  camphor/woodsy; plum/apricot, and ginseng/herbal.  Wait, there’s one more – crap (but like someone said, don’t knock the poo poo pu’er, it doesn’t always suck). 

This brew smelled grassy.  The taste was light and fleeting – it didn’t have the smooth and refined mouth-feel that I was expecting (ie. “silk water”) nor did it feel substantive.  The taste reminded me a bit of the mixed, unidentifiable taste one would have by pouring hot water into an old, empty teapot that had been used to brew a certain type of tea for years.  The pot retains traces of flavor and fragrance, but the brew itself would feel and taste confused and mixed.  The energy of this tea also felt unstable.  The taste and mouth-feel were more harsh than I was expecting.  There was also an odd taste to the tea that reminded me of old teas that have been damaged by wet-storage.  I’ve mentioned before that I’m not against wet-storing, in fact, I sometimes like the flavor and scent profile of wet-stored teas.  However, the non-ideal storage conditions of this old tea have caused the flavors and aromas to feel as if they’ve been sealed away.  I think that proper storage in a small, good-quality clay jar might help this tea release characteristics that are closer to its true flavor.  There’s potential, but probably not for a mind-blowingly awesome brew.

I contacted my friend last weekend to figure out what tea he had given me.  He was surprised that we could taste so many different kinds of flavors.  He said I was right to guess that the tea was between 40-50 years old (he says it’s closer to 50) – which puts it out of range to compete in age with the fancy blue and red label pu’ers from the 40s and 50s (which corresponds to a comment that the tea just didn’t look quite as old as the famous label cakes).  Another very astute reader pointed out that this tea, with its Golden Flowers, looked like Fu Zhuan tea – and she is absolutely right.  The great article that she found on the Hojo Tea Site talks a lot more about Fu Tea.  It is grown and processed differently than Pu’er and has different flavor and scent characteristics.  Fu tea is also made in the Hunan area, whereas most Pu’er is made further south.  My friend said that although yellow mold does grow on a variety of tea, it is especially prized for the development of Fu Zhuan tea.  In fact, he said that this tea that he had given me needs to develop even more Gold Flower mold if it’s to improve in taste.  Interesting indeed, and quite a pleasure to try something different and special.

Now back to oolongs.  Drink good tea and enrich your life.

02 September 2010

It’s Old. And Moldy. Would YOU Drink It?

You bet I would!

I received a present from a tea friend recently.  He was given a big piece of an old, color-labeled pu’er tea.  The tea is old enough that it’s started to decompose, the leaves and stems blending into itself like organic matter that’s being composted (no worms or their byproducts!).  The tea has taken on a grayish hue as it continues to age.  What is most unique about this tea is not its age, though, but the “Golden Flowers” that have grown on it.

golden flowers 2

I wouldn’t give up the chance to try something new.  New, in this case, is a tea that is very old with yellow mold.  My friend would not tell me what year this tea is, or what kind of label tea it is.  He wanted me to try the tea first and give him my feedback.

Mold is not a bad thing.  It exists everywhere, whether or not we can see it.  It exists in our homes and on many of the items we wear and use.  Mold is oftentimes our friend, aiding in the creation of delicious treats (cheese, salami, etc.) as well as helpful medicines.  The rule of thumb that I’ve heard is that unless it’s black, mold is pretty harmless.  This is, I believe, only partly true, as not all black molds are particularly harmful, either (and even those that are toxic may only affect certain persons with allergies or compromised immune systems).  But what to do when one finds it on tea, and what does it mean?

My friend says that with old pu’er tea, golden flower mold is a sign of age and is a good thing.  Why this is, neither of us knows, and whether or not the golden flowers affect the taste of the tea (or grow on the tea due to some exceptional conditions of storage and/or special compounds found within the tea) I don’t know, either.  All I know is that this gift from my friend is of a rare tea.  He said it’s delicious and he’s never been wrong about delicious teas.  I have eaten all manner of moldy things and have extensively toured properties that have had toxic black mold as well, and I’m still alive.  I’ve seen white mold grow on stored teas and I’ve seen pictures of black mold on teas, but this is the first time that I’ve seen yellow mold in person.

up close

I went online using the search term 金花菌 (golden flower germ/bacteria/fungus) and found a Taiwanese pu’er lover’s site:

Art-Q’s Site 

He has magnified pictures of a pu’er brick tea with golden flowers that resemble the ones on my tea.  The real name of the golden flower mold is, per the site, 冠突散囊菌 or Eurotium Cristatum. 

I’ve already decided that I will be drinking this tea, although I will try not to snort too much of the loose mold spores into my nose.  Tasting notes to come.

extreme close up