Saturday, February 06, 2010

"Body" -> What Do You Have Brewing?

One of life's simple pleasures is tea. There I've wrote it, and I'll write it again: Tea.

Now, tea by itself might be an acquired tasted. You might say it has a bit of funny taste at first, but once your body starts to like just a little bit of caffeine, your body will start to look forward to tea every morning.

I think that one of the best things about tea is the wonderful look of the leaves when you compare it to coffee.

Here is a picture that I stole from another website showing a nice little pile of tea.

Doesn't think look appealing?

Coffee is burnt and black. Coffee is left over crust. Coffee is death.

Tea is green. Tea is wonderful. Tea is life.

Now, you might say to me, "What about black tea?  Is this a little bit of death?  Is it different?"

All tea come from the same plant: camellia sinensis.  The key to the color is that tea is processed in many different ways. If you ferment the leaves, you get black tea.  I would argue that black tea is misnamed as it is more of lovely tan color. If the leaves are steamed and dried, you get green tea.  If you add some incredibly bad tasting bergamot to it, you get Earl Grey tea.  (There has been an explosion of Earl Grey fanatics because Captain Picard on the new Star Trek always made this particular blend his order.  I believe that this explains why Picard was bald, and could never get any women.  Captian Kirk, I am convinced, was a green tea man, with a bit of coffee thrown in when he needed a manly jolt.)

In my life, I choose green, and I drink a lot of this stuff. Around 16-20 cups per day. While this may sound like a lot, in reality, there are a lot of people that will drink the same amount of liquid per day as soda. There is a bunch of research showing that tea is very good for you and lowers both body weight and reduces cancer. Just substitute tea for your soda.

However, if you think about it, at this level of tea, you cannot use tea bags. This would be 10-12 tea bags per day. Even buying the tea bags at bulk, you would be spending a lot on green tea. At $.50 per bag, we would be spending $6 per day. However, we have options. You can buy tea in bulk. If you have Ranch 99 market near you, your in luck. If not, get the phone book open and find a local Chinese, Japanese, or Indian food store. Generally, these places will have a green tea, and it you are drinking a lot, they will have some very serviceable teas for dirt cheap.

The one that is the leader of the value pack is "Hime Ban Cha." Bancha is the just the Japanese name for a common green tea. This brand is sold by Japan Food Company out of the Bay Area, and I've been drinking it for at least ten years. The thing about this tea is that it brews a decent cup of tea, and it is dirt cheap. Generally, you can buy this for around $4 for 227g (8 oz) at most local stores. If you can't find it locally, even Amazon has it.

While you can buy Hime Ban Cha at Amazon, if you take a stop on the internet tea tour, I would suggest an immediate look at the Upton Tea Shop.  On the home page look for the sampler section.  The teas are pricey, when compared to the $4 Hime special, but they have a lot of information about the various types of tea.  Their quality is normally very, very good, and the samplers are always a good pick.  They have been around forever.

While the Upton site cane give a lot of information, you might want to know that green teas are divide into several categories, and the two dominate descriptions that you will find in the USA will use either the Chinese names or the Japanese names.  This post isn't about the teas per se, and I won't get into this much.  However, generally for the Chinese teas, you'll want a "green" tea and not a Oolong or a Jasmine tea.  Just look for "Chinese Green," but make sure that you don't accidentally get a Chinese Gunpowder tea, which is often labeled as Green Tea.  Gunpowered tea is great once you get used to it, but it does taste like smoke, which turns some people off.

When you determine that you want to brew some tea, the first question is "how" and this has been an ongoing quest of mine.  I started as most neophytes do by putting the bulk tea into one pot (in my case this is a glass coffee pot re-purposed for tea)  and pour the tea into a cup or another pot through a strainer.  If you do this, you'll probably start with a normal strainer, and then you might find another fine tea specific strainer.  For many people this will be their preferred method for the rest of their life.  Yet this has drawbacks, starting with the fact that these strainers never get clean  On top of the cleaning problem, I find that I really like a very fine strain of the tea for the final product, and this is where I steal from the coffee world.

This is a picture of my default brewing set at home. It is nothing more than a box of coffee filters from Costco, which cost all of .005 a piece and a drip coffee cone. The key on this is to find the Melita #4 manual manual coffee cone. I've had mine for 10 years, and while the edges chip off, I've used them thousands of times. While they don't label them as Melita, you can find these red #4 here. Just search on "cone" and pick the #4 one. At $3-4, there is no better bargain.

Now, you'll need to remember that you are making tea and you are not making coffee.  In coffee, you pour a ton of coffee into the cone and then you fill up the cone with hot water.  You are not going to do that for the tea.  All you want the filter for is to filter.  So, you need to find a separate container for brewing the green tea in.  A number of years ago, an American company called "Gemco" use to make a perfect pot for the brewing section.  This was call "The Whistler" and the pot looked like the pot that you see for commercial coffee brewers, but without the plastic top that just look unclean.  It had a handle attached by a stainless steel band.  They stopped making these, but you can search on eBay and find them for $25-30, which is very expensive compared to the original selling price.  If I remember right, they stop making them after a few of them broke, and they were getting sued.  I've used mine for year, and while they break, they are no worse than a broken glass.

However, Medelco jumped into the business with Gemco out, and they produced a dead ringer for my old favorite.  I found some at a local store for $8 a piece and I bought 8 of them.  My wife, who generously ends up cleaning up the tea brewing after I am done, breaks one of these around once every 2-3 years.  So, I am set for 25 or 30 years.  These can be bought here online.  The reason why I like this design goes just beyond the clear functionality of the pot, but also how you brew with the pot.  Because the opening is small and the water pot is wide, you can quickly learn how to flick your wrist so that you get the water and tea leaves swirling in a great circle.  This allow a lovely blend of the tea and water and shortens the brew time.  So can see a close up picture of this pot at the end of this post.

Now, I have a pot of tea in the morning, but I also have one after lunch.  I am often in a meeting, and I will bring my tea pot into the meeting and drink and converse.  My workmates think that I'm odd, but many are intrigued at the same time.  Yet, I do not the hands to bring in two tea pots and filters to make my tea.  What I need to do was have an easier system.  In this case, the "standard" Japanese solution came to bear.

If you go to your local market Japanese market, you will be able to find a bag of these. They can also be ordered online. Generally, they come in two sizes, and this is actually the smaller size. They run somewhere around $.03-.04 if you buy carefully online. They are less at the markets it you find a good size Japanese food store. This is nothing more than a thing polester bag that you can put your tea inside of. The bag is constructed so that it has a little top that you can flop over and seal the top of the bag.

The operation is pretty obvious, but to describe it: you take your bag of Bancha (as described above) and you put in a couple of heaping teaspoons of tea into the bag. You flip the top of the tea bag over, and you throw the bag into the pot. I started to drink green tea in earnest after spending a 4 week trip in Asia Pacific many years ago while I was working for IBM. This was before web browsers and the internet, if you can believe that. I remember seeing the Japanese throw these bags into their tea pots.  (The world was a lot bigger back then, and things like anime came on video tape, and people simply did not have the same cultural cross over.  This went both ways.  I quickly learned, during this trip of the mid 1990s that you needed to learn to eat well with chopsticks because you would find places that simply did not have knives and forks.  I got to be pretty good because I had no other choice.  Expect for the Korean chopsticks, which are more like thin metal rods rather than chopsticks.  But this is another story.)

Now the biggest problem with these tea bags is that the top that is designed to hold in the tea doesn't do a great job as the tea gets smaller and small. If you are using whole tea leaves, it would work well. However, to get the maximum out of the minimum amount of tea, you'll want to actually crush the tea leaves. So, you'll get leakage out of the tea bag and into your tea. Some people simply don't mind, but I like a little better filter. So, I ended up buying this little hand sewing machine from Dealextreme (see here).

It is almost comical in that this little hand held sewing machine would be absolutely useless for any real usage. The problem is that it does a simple slipknot type of sewing, since there is only one bobbin for the the little hand held machine. If you miss just one stitch in sewing, and if you don't sew to the end of the fabric, the whole stitch can pull apart with just a little tugging. So, it is useless for clothes.

However, for the tea bag is absolutely perfect. While it is fickle to learn how to use, once you understand how to work it, you run a line down the top of the tea bag and seal it. Once you have it sealed, you can throw the whole tea bag into the pot and just let it brew. Even if you miss a stitch with the little sewing machine, generally it will hold it well enough to hold in all the tea. It is like a tea bag on steroids. It is the perfect solution for work.

Now, final method for brewing is used in Germany all the time by commercial tea makers, but we don't see it in the states at all. However, the Germans are very concerned about health, and tea is widely available because of the health benefits. As you might expect, the Germans engineered a better solution.  The reason why one would like a tea bag is that it is very clean and fast.  You simply throw the bag in, and you have a string to pull it out.  The clean up is very fast.  The problem with the previous methods is they require multiple pots or sewing machines.  You could use tea bags, but they are very expensive, and there are too many of them if you drink a big pot of tea.  "Ach du lieber," the Germans cried.  "Vee must fix this!"

This particular tea bag can be bought directly from Adagio (see here).  They are made in Germany, as you might expect from my description, and if you buy directly from Adagio they are $.03 a piece.  They are simplicity in itself.  Want they do is create a very long tube with one end opened.  The other end is closed and you can pour the tea into the bottom of the tube.  You then throw the sealed end into your pot, and the other end you clip to the top of your pot.  Now, the tea will wick itself up the bag, but I've never had drips out of it.  In the picture above, you can see my glass brewing pot and the tea for my morning pot of tea.  The white thing on the top of the tube is a "Chip Clip" that I picked up from Walmart.  You could grab the top of the tube with a clothespin or any other clip.  The tea hangs in the water, and the clean up is just a snap.  These will spoil you quick.  The only draw back is that they aren't available everywhere, and the brewing can take a little longer than the loose leaf method with two tea pots.  However, leave it to the Germans to come up with the best method.

Regardless of the method of brewing, as started in the first part of this post, green tea looks to have a variety of good effects on your health.  Most of the health studies in this area were started by the Japanese, and since green tea is the variety used in Japan, most of the medical studies are on the green variety.

However, the most interesting thing to me of late in green tea is the presence of Theanine (pronounced pretty much like "tea lin"), which is an amino acid found only in tea.  It appears that this amino acid crosses the blook brain barrier and helps mood, mental cognition and could offer neurological protection to the brain.  The stereotypical scene in Japanese and Chinese literature and cinema is the hero thinking about his actions over a cup of green tea.  Maybe this is more than a stereotype.  Maybe it is a chemical reaction.

Maybe there is truth in the image.

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