Wednesday, June 30, 2010

How (environmentally) green is your tea?

Over the years of my affair with tea, I have contemplated the environmental impact of this romance. Here I am demanding a product from the other side of the globe, having it shipped via sea or air, then trucked to my mailbox or market. That's a lot of carbon-spewing transportation. Add in certain processing procedures and packaging, and suddenly tea of any type doesn't seem very green.

Nigel Melican, one of the tea techies at Teacraft, last year studied the carbon footprint of tea, as cited in an article by Jennifer Leigh Sauer (she writes a great ecological-minded tea blog called Bon Teavant). Melican's research actually quantifies the carbon output produced by a cup of several different beverages, and finds that tea isn't so bad, after all:

Sauer sums up, saying that "tea's carbon footprint (measured by the number of grams of carbon dioxide per cup) can vary greatly from over 200g CO2 per cup to -6g CO2 per cup, depending on how the tea is grown, processed, shipped, packaged, brewed, and discarded. On average, a loose tea which you drink at a tea lounge has about 20g CO2 per cup. As a reference point, the carbon footprint of a cup of beer is 374g, a can of Coca Cola is 129g and a cup of cow's milk is about 225g. As such, loose tea is a far better choice environmentally than any of these."

Want to make your tea experience extra-green? Take into account several other factors, she adds:
  • Drink loose-leaf tea instead of bag tea. Packing tea into boxes and bags, adding nylon strings, plastic wrap and printing is fairly carbon-intensive. Loose tea usually comes in less packaging.
  • Recycle your tea. Quality oolongs, especially, can be resteeped several times without significant loss of flavor. When you're done, compost it or fertilize certain plants with it. Find other post-brew uses for the leaves, such as deodorizing your fridge. One of my favorite methods: Throw the leaves in some eggs the next morning.
  • Use gas heat to fire your kettle. I've always preferred gas stoves to electric, simply because it makes for quicker, more even cooking. I'd never thought about this breakdown before: "According to Melican, 'Gas is best as there is only one conversion loss from burning the fossil fuel to produce heat energy to raise the water temperature in the kettle. With electricity, you get five separate losses: 1. turning fossil fuel into steam, 2. steam into electricity, 3. grid losses along the wires (voltage drop), 4. transformer losses as voltage is stepped up and down, and 5. in heating the water in the kettle.'" Plus, hey, the extra heat from a gas burner helps keep your kitchen warm.

This discussion was revived last week when more, similar information cropped up in some articles in the UK press, such as this one claiming: "If you drink four mugs of black tea per day, boiling only as much water as you need, that works out as just 30kg of CO2e each year – the same as a 40-mile drive in an average car. Three large lattes per day, by contrast, and you're looking at almost twenty times as much carbon, equivalent to flying half way across Europe."

The real shock for Britons was the extra bit of information that if you add milk to tea, you're increasing the carbon footprint of your cuppa by about three times. That's not only because of the processing and transportation of the dairy, but because cows belch and otherwise emit a great deal of methane into the atmosphere.

Further study and more detailed figures on tea's energy consumption are here.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Europe: Lomonosov poreclain

Like I wasn't going to buy one. As our ship nestled the dock in St. Petersburg a couple of weeks ago, I succumbed to a lifelong urge to buy a Lomonosov teapot. If it was good for Peter the Great, by czar, it's good enough for tea cabinet.

Among Peter's many projects designed to lift Russia out of the Middle Ages and make it a European country was his desire to create original Russian porcelain. In 1744, his daughter, Queen Yelizaveta, realized that dream by establishing the Imperial Porcelain Factory "to serve the cause of national industry and art." The Russian china produced was — and remains — very high quality.

This cobalt net design with hand-painted gold leaf is their trademark pattern. I'm thrilled to add this pot and some cups to my stash, and I've already christened it with some Kusmi Russian Morning ...

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Europe: Tea shops in Copenhagen

We recently returned from more than two weeks in northern Europe, cruising through the ports of the Baltic Sea: Copenhagen, Stockholm, Helsinki, St. Petersburg, Tallinn (Estonia) and Warnemunde (Germany). The journey started with a few days in Amsterdam, where the Dutch consolidated such trading power in the 1600s and foisted China's favorite herb on us. While there was some fine tea to be had in Amsterdam, it paled in comparison to the inventive shops I visited in Copenhagen, Denmark.

There is, of course, A.C. Perch's, the oldest operating tea shop on the continent. (If you include England, the oldest tea seller is London's Fortnum & Mason.) Still crammed into its original tiny space in central Copenhagen, the warm little nook has a thriving business with locals and tourists alike. With room for about a half dozen customers at a time, the tea sellers are whisking canisters under noses and measuring tea with deft, speedy movements.

I wound up chatting with a fellow at Perch's about their new Bolivian tea, grown in former coca fields (cocaine and tea both like their altitude, er, high), which I sampled and then promptly bought a few hundred grams of. It's a mix of two different green teas, one of which is steamed, and it is, as the ladies used to sing, fine and mellow.

On the west side of the city center is a somewhat new place called The a la Menthe — a cozy Moroccan-themed spot with sunny windows, colorful tables and a variety of mint tea preparations. I hit this place first but wish I'd saved it till later in the day. It's a bright take on tea, and the food holds equal footing — north African fruits, chicken salads and curries, plus samosa and falafel. To complement the chow is a small but focused menu of teas, from the house mint specialty (a handful of mint leaves with green tea, and surprisingly not too sweet) and a curious orange tea to basic green and Earl Grey. The staff I encountered was pretty rude, but I was asking a lot of questions in the middle of what seemed like a lunch rush. Can't help it.

The most exciting discovery, however, was Sing Tehus, a Japanese tea house not far off the main pedestrian mall running through Copenhagen's center. Run by a woman who clearly knows her chado, Sing Tehus specializes in Japanese green and white teas, plus a few extras (I bought a vivacious Vietnamese oolong). A kind woman named Marie filled me in while pouring me a taste of new shincha — so fresh and plucky, it was as if the calendar rewound a couple of months to the dawn of spring. The corner shop is a half story above the street (unlike the other ground- and below-level shops) with big windows wrapping around, letting the rare patches of sun illuminate the racks of fine teaware — from basic porcelain and iron pots to a serious, massive old kettle and brazier. It's the kind of place I wish I lived nearby, and with any real luck someday I will.

Alas, I never had a Danish in Denmark to go with my tea. I wouldn't have anyway, I guess, since the Danish refer to danishes as Viennese.

Iced tea with lemon — or limoncello

Sam at Chicago's Tea Gschwendner was right. He suggested this during a tasting last summer, but I'm only now taking him up on it. With lilies and perspiration beads blooming around here, I have turned my tea consumption from the stove and more toward the icebox. And I remembered his tip: TG's North Indian Manjhee Valley makes an excellent iced tea. Ain't no lie. Brew a concentration of it, add to a pitcher was ice and an equal volume or two of water, chill. Top with a slightly muddled lemon slice, and that's good summer tea drinkin', folks.

If you really want to get your iced tea 'n' lemon on, make it an adult beverage. Top a tumbler of iced tea not just with fresh lemon but a jigger or two of limoncello (which is easy to make at home). It's an idea from the Stellina Cafe in St. Louis.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

One moment, please

I've been on another European tea excursion, gallivanting through the ports of the Baltic Sea. (The previous few posts have been a cleverly pre-scheduled ruse.) By the time you read this, I'll be making more room in the tea cubby for whatever I've picked up in Amsterdam, Copenhagen, St. Petersburg and more. Some strong stuff, no doubt. Details to come shortly ...

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Afternoon tea break

Just sharing my tea break with you,
with a cup of Argo green by the Chicago River.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

How do you hold a moonbeam in your cup?

When I was a house dweller, as opposed to my current condo life, I gardened more extensively. At some point I noticed the lunar planting tables in the Farmer's Almanac. Hokum, surely — but I tried it. I didn't keep detailed records (I'm more a scatter-and-cocktail kind of planter), but the year I planted and harvested according to the moon cycles was noticeably more bountiful than the year before.

I mention this only because I've begun seeing this kind of discussion revived in the world of wine. The UK Guardian, for instance, recently had this story about whether the phases of the moon affect not just how a vine will grow but how the wine itself will taste on certain days. According to a lunar calendar devised by Maria Thun, there are so-called "fruit" days and "root" days – those days in the lunar calendar when water and saps rise or fall.

"I was sceptical at first, but then had a eureka moment," says Jo Aherne, winemaker at Marks & Spencer. "Our wines showed beautifully at a press tasting one day and far less well the next. We couldn't understand it. The wines were all favourites of ours and the bottles were all from the same case. Someone checked the calendar and we found that the first day had been a fruit day, when the wines were expressive, exuberant and aromatic, and the second a root day, when they were closed, tannic and earthy. Further rather unscientific tests have confirmed our view."

I've hunted for information about other beverages, including tea, and come up short. Is there a tide in the cup?

Monday, June 14, 2010

Tea before Glastonbury?

Given all the twists on afternoon tea I recently explored in London, it figures I was too early for a new one — although this sounds a bit cutesy for even my rock ’n’ roll tastes.

The Metropolitan there has a new themed tea: Fes-Tea-Val De-Light. The dreadful PR copy promises a way "to experience the famous summer festivals in London without getting stuck in the bloody English rain (and mud)" ... by having tea at their hotel. What makes it so rockin', I hear you cry? "Glastonbury mud pies," "healthy cookies shaped like Wellies and umbrellas" and "cupcakes adorned with guitars and tents." Not to be outdone by the gin tea or the whiskey tea, the Metro throws in a little tequila here, too.

British summer music festival season starts soon: Glastonbury is June 23-27.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Waking up with you in my cup

Holy cow, I just read this poem and was knocked over ...

"Green Tea" by Dale Ritterbusch

There is this tea
I have sometimes,
Pan Long Ying Hao,
so tightly curled
it looks like tiny roots
gnarled, a greenish-gray.
When it steeps, it opens
the way you woke this morning,
stretching, your hands behind
your head, back arched,
toes pointing, a smile steeped
in ceremony, a celebration,
the reaching of your arms.

Now that's what some tea masters mean when they rinse the first steep and call it "waking up the tea"!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Doilies for dudes

One word in tea culture strikes fear in the hearts of many: doilies.

But here's an artist who's trying to butch them up a bit. Dig Nathan Vincent's manly doilies ...

... and see more here.

Monday, June 7, 2010

I want a little cayenne in my bowl

Just finished reading a biography of the late singer Nina Simone, Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone, which was tumultuous indeed. No one could crawl inside a song the way Nina could and stretch it out into something new and arresting. The book chronicles her rise, coast and slow crumbling, with her barking at the audience all along. Good read.

Near the end, this anecdote about a curious preparation of tea:

Michael ... worried that a difficult moment was getting worse. "Then I started gushing about how much I loved her music over the years and what a great honor it would be to make music with her." Michael knew he had rescued himself when Nina offered him some of her tea. He graciously took it and immediately choked. Nina had a special concoction that called for lemon and cayenne pepper. "Oh, please, cayenne that could kill us — enough cayenne that if you took a sip you really couldn't breathe for a few minutes. I was sweating, my head was on fire, and I thought I'm going to die from drinking tea."

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Big Jones is kind of a big deal

Photo from Grub St.

I had a wonderful photo of my own to go here, of a gorgeous cup of Iron Goddess of Mercy tea next to a plate of beautiful beignets. Alas, my iPhone-to-iPhoto transfers sometimes freeze up and eat my photos. Macs never crash, but the software does. Grrrr.

The purpose of the photo was to entice you, fellow Chicagoans or summer tourists, to visit the Big Jones restaurant in Andersonville. The coastal Southern cooking is scrumptious — their Tuesday night fried chicken special earned it high praise in Bon Appetit — and the red velvet cake made with beets and cocoa is absolutely stunning. We visited for brunch last weekend, and I was once again bowled over by the chow. Catfish for breakfast? Hey, I tried it, on a bed of cheese grits with eggs to order. In a word: momma!

But why I mention them here is because they have a great tea menu (actually, that link is old, the selection we just saw at the restaurant is better). Their sign and advertising includes "tea time" next to "brunch," "dinner" and "cocktails" (hit those four bases and it's a home run, eh?), and there are a dozen excellent teas, from the previously mentioned Iron Goddess to a surprising pu-erh, supplied by Numi. Really, how many basic, genre restaurants have pu-erh on the menu?! Originally, one of the managers said during our brunch, the place hoped to use tea as a late-afternoon attraction — not as an official afternoon tea, but just something to join a late-day, pre-cocktail nosh. It's a Southern place, so the teas can be made iced, of course.

(Also, given the oil spill catastrophe in the Gulf, according to this story even Big Jones' seafood supply has been affected.)

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Tuesday tea tunes: Press 'pause'

As I will be (a) a wee bit busy in the next couple of weeks and (b) looking for a decent new embeddable music service, if they still exist, the weekly Tuesday Tea Tunes feature will press the pause button for the month of June. Have no fear, it'll be back, in one form or another.