Republic of Tea’s Caffeine-Supplemented Teas: No Thanks

I’ve recently seen a few promotional items about a new line of “high-caffeine” teas from Republic of Tea.  But be warned, these are not teas that have been chosen to be naturally high in caffeine, they are teas that have been supplemented with isolated, pure caffeine.  These teas have been gathered together under the HiCAF label, a (currently unregistered) trademark of the company.  These teas also contain green tea extract, an ingredient which I am cautious and skeptical of including in any product.

Screenshot of Republic of Tea's website, showing their new line of HiCAF teas
Republic of Tea’s HiCAF Teas

These teas are marketed as having a whopping 110mg of caffeine per serving, which the company compares to 50mg a cup for “premium black tea”.  This is not a hugely excessive amount of caffeine; it’s a lot less than some of the stronger coffee drinks you can order in a typical coffee shop.  But it’s the fact that this tea has been supplemented, rather than being made with whole ingredients, that makes me a bit uneasy, and would keep me from buying or drinking a product like this.

I also think it’s a little misleading that Republic of Tea is marketing these as “High Caffeine Teas” rather than “Caffeine Supplemented Teas”.  There are lots of naturally-occurring teas that are high in caffeine, and when I first saw the headlines being put out by the company, I was not sure whether or not they were referring to naturally high-caffeine teas, or supplemented ones.  I had to read the fine print to find this out.  I think that because supplements are a bit unnatural and have some health concerns, it would be important to very openly market the teas like this.

The Case For Whole Foods and Against Supplementation or Extracts

Over the past few years, I’ve developed a pretty strong conviction that it is much healthier to eat whole foods, rather than processed foods that have been supplemented with refined ingredients.  There is a growing body of scientific evidence supporting this conviction, with a pretty strong consensus now that green tea supplements are harmful.  This article in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives explains how there is evidence that while heavy consumption of tea itself (a whole food), as much as 10 cups a day, shows no evidence of harmful effects, there is significant concern about potential negative health impacts from the consumption of green tea supplements.  Even Vitamin supplementation is now beginning to be considered unnecessary and harmful; this Op-Ed in the NY Times, Don’t Take Your Vitamins, explores these issues.

With supplementation with pure caffeine, there are more concerns.  Caffeine is a drug, but in high doses, it is also a poison.  There is at least one documented death associated with caffeinated mints (in someone with impaired liver function), and there are also some nasty interplays between caffeine and other drugs, like how caffeinated alcoholic drinks can lead people to stay awake past when they would normally pass out, and be more likely to die of alcohol poisoning.  This 2009 journal article in Drug and Alcohol Dependency explores this issue in more depth.

Caffeine pills
Caffeine pills are widely known to be dangerous and warrant caution.  Supplementing food or drink with caffeine seems to me to be moving in the direction of these pills.  Photo by Ragesoss, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

There are no such known risks associated with consumption of tea or coffee, even in large quantities.  The more dire health risks appear only in the case of supplementation.  I think this is in large part because coffee and tea are strong-tasting foods which have many other substances, and are naturally bitter.  I think it would be hard for people, even people with impaired liver function like the man in the study above, to drink a lethal dose of caffeine using tea or coffee.

I’m not saying that these teas, which are supplemented with both caffeine and green tea extract  are necessarily dangerous…just that I think that supplementation is something that can become dangerous, and that I think is best avoided.

What About High-Grade Teas?

There is another reason that I’m not a big fan of this newly-launched line of teas is that they’re unnecessary–and they are a bit distracting from what I think is one of the best ways to experience a high-caffeine kick from tea, which is to drink high-grade tea and brew it very strongly.

High grade tea, which contains a higher portion of tips or leaf buds, is naturally higher in caffeine than lower-grade tea.  It also tastes milder and smoother, which means that you can brew it much more strongly, using more leaf and longer steeping times, if you desire more caffeine.

Loose-leaf, high grade black tea
High grade black tea, like this SFTGFOP1, is naturally higher in caffeine.

If you’re looking for a caffeine kick it’s pretty easy to get it from tea.  I’m actually feeling pretty wired right now, as I write this; I just drank two rather strong cups of the Ceylon Estate from Octavia Tea.  This tea is pretty outstanding and I recommend it highly–it’s a very complex, rich black tea.  And to get back to Republic of Tea, I currently have one of their teas in my cupboard right now, Temi SFTGFOP1 First Flush Black Tea, which is quite high is caffeine, and which is mild and smooth enough to brew very strongly if you want a real caffeine kick.  I also recommend that tea.

Not The Only Example Of Such Teas

Lastly I want to point out that, for better or worse, Republic of Tea is not the first tea company to try supplementing their teas with additional, refined caffeine.  Celestial Seasonings Fast Lane tea is a black tea supplemented with caffeine, also 110mg per serving, and it’s been around for quite some time.

What do you think?

  • What do you think of this new line of HiCAF teas?
  • Have you ever tried any caffeine-supplemented tea?  How did you feel after drinking it?
  • Are you skeptical of supplementing teas or other food or drink with pure, isolated caffeine?  Do you think this may pose any health risks, relative to consuming tea as a whole ingredient in food  or drink?
  • Would you, like me, prefer people to focus on high-grade teas that are naturally high in caffeine, rather than caffeine-supplemented tea?

Harvest, Packing, or Expiration Dates on Boxed and Packaged Teas

One thing that I think is a really great idea, and that I’m surprised is not universal, is the idea of putting expiration dates on teas.  Here is a box of Prince of Peace Organic White Peony tea, clearly showing an expiration date:

Back of a box of tea bags, showing an expiration date, circled in red
Prince of Peace is one brand that puts expiration dates on their teas.

It’s pretty obvious why an expiration date is important.  At the risk of earning the label “Captain Obvious” as some of my friends have called me, I want to state that tea doesn’t stay fresh forever, and if a company doesn’t put an expiration date on their product, they risk people buying (and drinking) a product that is not fresh, and not liking it.  This can alienate potential customers who might have been impressed with the tea if only it were fresh.  Captain obvious or not, I’m amazed at how many companies don’t print any dates on their tea.

Lot Number

The box here also shows a lot number.  This can be useful if responding to customer inquiries.  Displaying the lot number shows a commitment to a certain level of quality control, because a lot number is often necessary (and at a minimum, very helpful) for troubleshooting a bad or spoiled batch of tea when responding to customer complaints.

Packing Date is Better Than an Expiration Date

Ahmad Tea, one of my favorite brands, does an even better job than what is shown above…they not only list an expiration date but show the packing date as well.  I think this is more important or useful, because I don’t necessarily know how each company decided on an expiration date–it could easily be arbitrary.  Showing both demonstrates freshness and also communicates how long you expect the product to stay fresh.  Given how inexpensive Ahmad Tea is, I think there is no excuse for other companies to not print the packing date on their boxes.  If Ahmad can do it, nearly anyone can.

Lastly, I want to say that I think a gold standard, which I have seen with some companies, is to list both harvest date and packing date.  This is probably only practical for single-origin teas, but it’s something I love seeing and I encourage any company able to list this info to do so.

Date-Stamp Each Tea Bag When Bags are Individually Sealed

As much as I don’t like increasing resource usage in society, I think that stamping individual tea bags is one expenditure that would be worth it.  I also think that, when I look at the showy and involved packaging and print on tea bags, a basic stamp of the date would be a relatively inexpensive addition to the printing and packing process.

The fact is, many people don’t keep teas in their original packaging; they empty the original boxes into another box or basket, and they frequently trade individual tea bags with each other.  Several of my friends who are casual enthusiasts of bagged tea, keep big baskets or cupboards full of tea bags of all different brands.  Very few of the tea bags are stamped with dates; you can look at the wear and tear on the bag to get a rough guess at its age, but that’s about the best you can do.

I actually have a basket myself of tea bags that I’ve been sampling and sharing with other local reviewers on RateTea, and I checked through them and not one of them has an expiration date stamped on the bag.

I have seen an expiration date stamped on a tea bag before; it was actually recently, and it was what inspired the thinking that led to this post, but I’m blanking on the specific brand.  Looking through my tea cupboard, I was able to find, however, a single-serving loose-leaf tea packet, recently given to me by Evan Draper, which has a date stamped on it, presumably the packing date because it is from last year and the tea is very fresh:

Single-serving loose tea packet with chinese characters and a date stamped on it
This single-serving loose tea packet has a date stamped on it, presumably the packing date.

This tea, incidentally, was very yummy…bitter and grassy and very fresh…not the sort usually preferred by mainstream tastes in the U.S., but definitely the sort that I like.

What do you think?

Share your thoughts and feelings about harvest, packing, and expiration dates!

  • Do you think packing date is more important than expiration date?
  • Have you ever brewed tea from a sealed tea bag, and wondered how old it was?
  • Do you think it would be worth it for companies that sell individually-sealed tea bags to stamp packing or expiration dates on each tea bag, or does this seem like overkill?

Tea Habits in Responding to Very Cold Weather

Recently, bitter-cold weather has been gripping much of the U.S.  Below is a screenshot of the weather report for Minneapolis, from Intellicast, a weather website that I’ve come to prefer to others recently.  I recommend checking it out if you haven’t yet–it’s fast and responsive, and doesn’t have as many obnoxious advertisements as Weather.com, which is incidentally owned by the same parent company.

Screenshot of weather forecast for Minneapolis, MN, showing a very cold forecast
Looking at the weather in Minneapolis makes me feel a little better about where I live.

I am a curious person, and I frequently check weather for various cities around the world out of curiosity.  Minneapolis is one of my favorite cities to check, for multiple reasons.  One of them is that I love the Midwest.  Another is that it makes me feel better about where I’m living, at least during the cold months of the year.  “Bitterly cold.  Dangerous wind chills approaching -40F”.  Makes my 10 degree low seem subtropical, which apparently it is, as I explain below.

The Weather and Climate Here in Philadelphia

We’ve had a cold week, but it’s been more inconvenient than truly dangerous or crippling.  There was a relatively heavy snow, but the inconvenience of the snow seemed more due to the city’s inexperience at dealing with snow, rather than the volume of snow itself.  I recall much heavier snows when I was living in Cleveland, in which there was less disruption to the ability to travel.  My impression of Philly’s snow response can be summed up by my experience the other day, when I saw two city garbage trucks from the recycling department driving around plowing snow.  I guess the city just doesn’t own many trucks ideally suited for plowing.  Needless to say, many of the side streets did not get plowed at all.

I want to follow up on my earlier comment about Philadelphia feeling subtropical when I look at the forecast for Minneapolis.

Philadelphia, surprisingly to people who think of it as a cold-winter city, is at the very northern border of the subtropical climate zone, according to the Koppen Climate Classification.  It shows.  While Minneapolis is dealing with lows around -20, Philadelphians are shocked when the temperature dips below 10.  Yesterday and this morning, we had a pleasantly warm rain that washed away nearly all of the snow accumulation, and today while birdwatching, I noted a rhododendron growing in the woods, a broadleaf evergreen plant like the tea plant, and sighted a lone Yellow-rumped warbler, a species that is a member of a family of birds that mostly migrate from the tropics.

A yellow-rumped warbler on a bare winter branch of a tree
A Yellow-rumped warbler, on bare winter branches, much like I saw today. Photo by Ken Thomas.

Broadleaf evergreens and overwintering warblers are both characteristic of subtropical climates–and generally absent from colder continental climates like the upper Midwest.  Last winter, I even located an overwintering Palm Warbler and an Orange-crowned Warbler, two of the next-most-cold-hardy species of this bird family.  Just as Rhododendrons are among the more cold-hardy of broadleaf evergreen shrubs, and Yellow-rumped warblers are the most cold-hardy of the New World Warblers, Philadelphia is on the coldest end of the subtropical climate zone.

Cold and My Tea Routine

Unfortunately, the heating setup in my apartment is not ideal.  My apartment has electric heat, something that I think is just stupid in a lot of ways, but as a result, heating my place is very expensive.  Thus, when it gets brutally cold out, I let it get a little colder in my apartment so I’m not faced with an astronomical heating bill at the end of the month.  I still feel grateful; I learned that a couple of my friends had their heat break during this past week–and that sounded pretty awful.  When I’ve turned the heat off in my living room (heating only my bedroom while sleeping) the temperature on the windowsill in the living room reached 49 degrees on the coldest day…pretty cold for an indoor temperature.

When it’s colder in my apartment, I want to keep warm, so I drink more tea.  Often this means resteeping my tea one more time than I normally would, and drinking a rather bland cup just to keep warm.  At other times it means brewing up a batch of caffeine-free herbal tea in between caffeinated teas, so I can keep drinking the hot liquids (and having a warm mug to hold in my hands) without getting overly caffeinated.

How About You?

Share with us your feelings and preferences on tea and cold!

  • Are you affected by the recent cold spell?  How cold is it outdoors where you are?
  • With your heating setup, does your place stay cozy, or does it get a bit colder indoors when it’s this cold outside?
  • Do you drink more tea when it’s cold inside?  How about when it’s cold out but cozy and warm inside–do you still want to drink more tea then?
  • Did it surprise you to learn that Philadelphia’s climate is classified as subtropical?
  • Have you ever seen a warbler overwintering in a cold-winter part of the U.S.?  Would you be surprised to see one?

TJ Maxx’s Tea Selection

I sometimes find good tea in unusual places.  One of these is TJ Maxx, a chain of discount stores that primarily sells clothing.  TJ Maxx is not the sort of place I normally think of buying any sort of food products, let alone tea, but the store sells a small but rather variable and diverse array of teas back in the food and kitchen section of the store.

It was actually through this chain of stores that I discovered several brands of tea, including Hampstead Tea.  I also picked up about 100 grams of loose-leaf, single-estate Darjeeling tea from my favorite garden, Makaibari estate, at one of these stores, under the Hampstead Tea brand.  In other years I’ve seen a variety of loose-leaf teas there, not quite as high-end, but solid brands of British-style black teas like The London Cuppa.

This year the selection wasn’t anywhere near as good.  While the photo below looks impressive, all those tins are actually tins of tea bags, not loose-leaf:

TJ Maxx's tea selection in December of 2013.
TJ Maxx’s tea selection in December of 2013.

The selection is highly variable from year to year, but tends to be pretty similar from store to store.  The photo above is from a store in Abington, PA; I had checked a store in Maine about a week before, when up there for Thanksgiving, and their selection was nearly identical.

What is in this year’s selection?

The theme of this year seems to be pyramid sachets.  The shelf above has boxes of pyramid sachets of numerous different brands, often as low as $4 or lower for 15 sachets.  This price is half or even less than half that of what pyramid sachets of tea typically retail for, but to me, it doesn’t seem like much of a deal because I am comparing it with loose-leaf, which is a much better deal.  A lot of these boxes though come in reusable metal tins, so you get a little bit more value for your money.

If you’re going to buy pyramid sachets, it might be better to buy them here and get a metal tin, rather than at full price (and in a cardboard box) at a typical store.

What does the selection above say about the tea marketplace in the US?

I find it interesting to think about why the products we see here are available.  TJ Maxx functions a lot like a “mixed brand” outlet store…stores like this sell rejected or overstock lots of products at marked down prices, things that didn’t sell at their full retail price in fancier stores.  As such, it plays the role of recouping losses for wholesalers (and thus producers and suppliers in the long-run), while filling a lower-end retail niche.

How I read the products here is that it seems like this year, a lot of new brands experimented with pyramid sachets, and didn’t do so well with them.  Pyramid sachets seem to be the “hot new thing” these days.  Over the past few years there has been a growth of brands selling them, and some of them, like Two Leaves Tea (formerly Two Leaves and a Bud), seem to be doing quite well.  But just because other companies have been successful with something doesn’t mean it’s good for every business…and it makes sense that a lot of companies trying out this new approach might either fail or over-produce or over-stock their products.  I suspect that this may be what happened here.

I’m curious to see what next year’s selection looks like.  This year, I didn’t buy anything.  I was really looking for loose-leaf!

What do you think?

  • Have you ever visited TJ Maxx and checked out their tea selection?
  • Does my speculative explanation about new brands experimenting unsuccessfully with pyramid sachets seem to explain the prevalence of these at this store this year?  Or do you think there’s another explanation?

Q&A With Alex Zorach About Tea Blogging, Dreams and Hopes

I rarely respond to chain posts like this, but I found this one interesting and thought-provoking.  Here is my response to being tagged by @Jackie in her post The joys of tagging or how global warming melts my tea blog.  Apologies for taking so long to answer this–I wanted to write thorough answers, and it’s taken me quite some time to get to this.

Large-leaf oolong tea leaves after brewing, on a ceramic plate
Whole-leaf oolong tea leaves after brewing. I’d like to nudge the global tea culture more in the direction of loose teas, especially artisan teas like this oolong from TeaVivre

1) First, let’s start with how you were introduced & fell in love with the wonderful beverage of tea.

My parents are huge tea drinkers, making a pot of strong black tea every morning, and always using loose-leaf.  When I was growing up though, I only drank caffeine-free herbal teas…and I got very interested in them, in part through getting interested in growing mint-family herbs in the garden.  In college, I began trying different  tea bags, and a key moment was trying a high-quality oolong in a tea bag from Ten Ren.  Years later, the discovery of Upton Tea Imports with their huge catalogue, focus on tea regions, and affordable samples was another key moment.  And of course, RateTea has gotten me more into tea than I ever was before.

You can read more about this whole journey in my old blog post how I became interested in tea, on my old tea blog.

2) What was the very first tea blend that you ever tried?

I don’t think I remember this, but the stuff at home that my parents drank when I was growing up was mostly from Murchie’s.  My parents drank a lot of Russian Caravan, and other strong black teas.  The first teas I remember being conscious of sampling on my own, drinking regularly, and forming an opinion on were the Bigelow flavored teas.  I think I became fond of their Earl Grey before the others, although to be honest it was their herbals that first drew me in, and I was most fond of the Sweet Dreams blend.

3) When did you start your tea blog & what was your hope for creating it?

I started RateTea in September of 2009 and my old blogspot blog shortly thereafter.  But I first wrote online about teas on Cazort.net, earlier in 2002.  The high amount of views and interest on those tea reviews were one of the things that inspired me to create RateTea.  More recently, I started this blog earlier this year, February of 2013, and I started Teacology in November of 2012.  Oh, and my newest tea blog is the RateTea Tumblr, started May of 2013.

My hope / purpose for each of these was somewhat different..  On Cazort.net, I hoped to see how much people online were interested in reading tea reviews.  I was surprised to find that there was a ton of interest…and this inspired me to create RateTea.  With RateTea, my hopes and dreams were (and continue to be) ambitious.

I ideally would like RateTea to grow into a large business with multiple full-time staff (it’s well on its way there) but more importantly, I want RateTea to be a unique resource that can transform the tea industry, and play a small but important role in the transformation of food and drink culture in the US and the world.  In particular, I want RateTea to inspire people to pay more attention to their tea, and to food and drink in general–how it tastes as well as where it comes from and how it is produced.

My main hope in creating my first tea blog was to engage with the community of tea bloggers–and it was very successful in doing this.  My hope in moving away from Blogger/Blogspot and shifting to Tea Trade and WordPress as blogging platforms, was to reach a broader audience and avoid the problems of spam and stagnation that had plagued Blogger.  And this has been largely succesful.

Lastly, my hope in the RateTea Tumblr has been to engage with the audience on Tumblr, which is uniquely young and internet-saavy.  The RateTea Tumblr has been very successful, getting a lot more engagement than I had expected or anticipated, and I am hoping to keep it up!

4) List one thing most rewarding about your blog & one thing most discouraging.

This question would be very different applying it to different sites and blogs.  I think the most rewarding thing is knowing that people are reading, appreciating, and being influenced by my ideas.  I think that I’m someone who cares, more than anything else, about influencing the world.  I have ideas that I feel passionate about and I feel like they’re a lot more important than my own money, fame, or recognition.  I just want to get the ideas out there.

Some of these ideas include things about food culture, like how we eat and drink and think about food.  Others of them include how we think about the internet, about information, or about money or business.  Still other ideas, possibly the most important of all, pertain to how we communicate, and to what sorts of communication and ideas I see as respectful and/or truthful.  I feel like all of these different issues come up in my tea blogging and my work on RateTea.

I think the thing that I find most discouraging is when I feel like I’m not getting much attention for my work.  I sometimes get especially frustrated when I create or share multiple posts or works, and the ones that I feel most passionately about attract the least attention, when I see posts that either I or others have created, that I see as more superficial or less important to me, attracting more attention.

5) What type of tea are you most likely to be caught sipping on?

It’s funny because, in writing this post, I had copied-and-pasted the text from Jackie’s post, and I see her reply below this as I’m typing, and this is the one point where her first sentence could just as well have been mine:

“8.9 times out of 10 it’s black loose leaf tea.”

Okay, maybe not quite 8.9 times out of 10, but I definitely drink loose-leaf black tea more than any other kind of tea.  But in my case, it’s nearly always a pure tea (unflavored) and it’s nearly always without any milk or sugar.

If there’s any one brand that I drink most frequently, it would be Ahmad Tea, and the type of tea of theirs that I drink most often is their Ceylon Tea.  Ahmad’s Ceylon is really hard to beat…and of all the teas out there of similar quality, it’s the least likely to break the bank.

6) Favorite tea latte to indulge in?

I’m going to again quote Jackie on this one:

Ugh. Shudder. I’m not even going to find out what that may be.

7) Favorite treat to pair with your tea?

Nuts or fruit.  I love munching on nuts…I often make a trail mix which I call “Anna’s Parents’ house mix”, which consists of about equal parts (by weight, not by volume) of almonds, walnuts, cashews, and raisins.  I eat that a lot.

I also love eating fruit.  As I like to say, “I’m a fruit person.”  One of my favorites is baby bananas, but, especially in season, I also love strawberries, juneberries (serviceberries), plums, or my favorite fruit, black raspberries, or second-favorite-fruit, blood oranges.  There are some fruits, like pineapple, kiwi, and grapefruit, which I love, and eat frequently, but which I avoid pairing with tea.  I even wrote about what grapefruit does to my taste buds; pineapple and kiwi aren’t quite as bad but have similar effects, ruinous if I want to write a serious review.

And I sometimes eat chocolate with tea…sometimes Trader Joe’s 70% dark chocolate…other times Aldi’s dark chocolate with Hazelnuts…or possibly their Marzipan bars coated in dark chocolate.

And lastly, sometimes the south-central Pennsylvanian in me comes out and I’m caught eating pretzels with my tea.  My mainstream brand of pretzels is Snyder’s of Hanover, preferably the sourdough nuggets, but “en mi corazon” I’ll always have a special place for the truly exquisite hard pretzel, Hammond Pretzel, rarely available far from my hometown of Lancaster, PA.

8) If there was one place in the World that you could explore the tea culture at, where would it be & why?

I’d love to explore the culture of tea production anywhere and everywhere.  Most of my exposure to tea culture has been the culture of tea consumption.  I honestly am more interested in production than consumption when it comes to tea, I think in part because the way I usually like to enjoy tea is pretty minimal–just by myself with a mug.

But tea production is pretty far removed…and I read about it and research it so much and so deeply.  I have created this huge encyclopedia of info on RateTea, and I frequently browse the region pages on the site and wish I could go to these places…but it’s very expensive.  Maybe some day!

If I had to pick a single place to visit, it would probably be a more remote part of China, probably Yunnan province.  I’m really drawn by the permaculture with ancient tea trees, the fact that the tea plant is probably indigenous to that region, and to the ancient cultures and traditions of tea production there, as well as the amazing diversity (and weirdness) of the teas produced there.

9) Any teatime rituals you have that you’d like to share?

For how into tea I am, I think my tea rituals are pretty boring.  I usually brew a cup of tea with my breakfast, usually not a tea I want to review (more often than not it’s a black tea from Ahmad Tea).  I usually brew it really strong, and I let it sit and cool when I’m eating my breakfast, which usually includes a bowl of unsweetened shredded wheat cereal with milk, and some fruit.  And then I drink it once I’m done eating.  I often like to look out the window when I’m drinking it, although sometimes I drink it at the computer and start doing a little work before I head out for a morning walk or bird survey.

10) Time of day you enjoy drinking tea the most: Morning, Noon, Night or Anytime?

Definitely morning; I’m relatively sensitive to caffeine and I tend to drink little tea after the mid-afternoon.

11) What’s one thing you wish for tea in the future?

I hope RateTea continues to grow and thrive, but more importantly, whether or not RateTea is successful, I would like to see the goals and purpose of the site to be achieved…the goals of sustainability in the tea industry through a greater appreciation for tea.  What do I think this would look like?

  • People shift away from tea bags and become more focused on loose tea; the industry as a whole shifts to loose tea from tea bags.
  • The focus of the tea industry shifts away from low-quality, bulk teas, blending, and flavored teas, over to high-quality, pure teas, and artisan teas.
  • The tea industry becomes more transparent, with companies providing more information about where their tea comes from, and how it is produced
  • The infrastructure and support aspects of the tea industry become more sustainable–in terms of everything from the packaging of consumer products, to the behind-the-scenes shipping and packing, and the tea production itself
  • Tea culture stays diverse and becomes more diverse…and the marketplace is dominated by small companies and small producers, rather than large brands and multinational corporations with standardized products

What do you think?

I’m not going to tag specific people because I think a lot of people have already been tagged in this post and Tea Trade isn’t a big enough community for us to continue tagging the same number of people, but I’d encourage anyone who wants to answer this post!

Did the questions, or my replies, bring up anything for you?  Let me know in the comments or with a follow-up post!

I’m especially interested in knowing what people think of my goals and hopes and dreams for the tea industry and global tea culture!

Lipton Improving the Visual Design of Their Packaging for Pyramid Sachets

It is common for brands to change their packaging.  As I run RateTea and work to keep the site up-to-date, I frequently notice changes in packaging.  Most of them are changes I see as improvements, some are ones I see as neutral, and sometimes I see changes that I actually dislike.

I want to highlight an aesthetic change that I particularly like.  Unfortunately I just have the thumbnails of the old image, so I’ll show it together with an equal-sized thumbnail of the new packaging.  Click through to Lipton’s site to see a full resolution image.  The tea I am focusing on as an example is Lipton’s Mandarin Orange Green Tea, part of Lipton’s line of pyramid sachets.  Lipton changed the packaging on both their flat tea bags and pyramid sachets, but it’s the pyramid sachets that I think exhibit the most noticeable improvement.

The old packaging:

A green box of Lipton pyramid tea sachets
Old Packaging

The new packaging:

New Packaging
New Packaging

I think the new packaging looks a lot better.  I think it looks warmer, and I also think that it looks more professional.  At a glance, I think the new packaging really strikes me as having the look-and-feel of a high-end brand, whereas the old packaging looked more like a typical supermarket brand.

Notice that instead of the small, scattered Mandarin oranges in the top graphic, there is instead a closeup of a lucious, juicy-looking mandarin orange.  I find this much more enticing.  I especially like the beige color at the top of the new packaging.  I think that this, combined with the closeup of the orange, creates a warmer color-scheme.  I also like the change of green-on-white lettering to white-on-green lettering for the tea’s name.

Also, note that the pyramid bag in the bottom picture now shows the leaf floating upwards, almost as if the tea is in the process of being steeped.  I think this is subtle but smart–it is an illustration of the primary benefit of the pyramid sachet, the fact that it gives the leaf room to expand.  Also note how the bottom package, which shows the pyramid sachet overlapping two layers of distinct color, illustrates the transparency of the sachet more powerfully than the old packaging.

In the end though, packaging isn’t very important to me.  I notice it, and I may use it to make an initial guess about a new brand with which I’m unfamiliar, but in the end I care most about how the tea tastes, its price, and its sustainability.  I suspect packaging makes less of a difference in whether or not I buy a tea, than it does for the typical person.  I definitely notice and pay attention to the packaging, but I also go out of my way to sample a wide range of teas, and choose what to drink on the basis of the tea itself.

What do you think?

  • Do you like the new packaging on this Lipton tea more than the old one?
  • Have you noticed any other brands of tea changing their packaging recently?  Did you have an opinion on the change?
  • How important is packaging to you?  Do you think it makes a big difference?

Cafes Mixing Tea Brands or Suppliers – Velvet Sky Bakery And Other Examples

Today I’m writing from Velvet Sky Bakery and Cafe in Jenkintown, PA. Velvet Sky has been open as a bakery (specializing in cakes and cupcakes) for some time, but it only opened up its cafe this summer. I absolutely love the cafe, which is located in the heart of downtown Jenkintown.

They seem to have just about everything pinned down.  It’s cute, comfy, has delightful baked goods, and, unlike most cafes, they serve fantastic loose-leaf tea.  There is also free and reliable Wi-Fi.  And the employees and owners are super nice.

The counter at Velvet Sky's Cafe
The counter at Velvet Sky’s Cafe

I’m super excited to see any cafe serving high-quality loose-leaf tea.  One thing that particularly stands out to me is that this company has decided to mix up their suppliers.  For one, the tea and coffee are totally separate–they serve Counter Culture Coffee, a company that doesn’t deal in tea at all.  Most of their teas are supplied by Octavia Tea, but they also currently have a decaf tea from Republic of Tea, and they use Adagio Tea’s Ingenuitea infuser to brew their teas.  They also recently placed an order with Rishi Tea at my recommendation.

The way tea is served here allows customers to control the steeping time if they want, and it also allows you to make multiple infusions of your tea leaf.

Adagio's IngenuiTEA infuser, in use at Velvet Sky
Adagio’s IngenuiTEA infuser, in use at Velvet Sky

Mixing and Matching Brands of Tea and Suppliers

I have noticed that a majority of restaurants and cafes stick with a single brand or supplier of tea, but I don’t think this necessary makes sense as a business decision.  It makes sense in terms of simplifying things, to a degree, but I also think that it limits your choices.

Having sampled hundreds of teas now, I can say with great confidence that different tea companies have different strengths.  If you find a tea company that excels at one particular type of tea, it’s likely that there are other teas your customers might enjoy that that company does not excel at.  I especially think this is true of companies that specialize in coffee–a lot of coffee shops use the same supplier for tea and coffee, and this is rarely a good idea, as the companies that are best at tea are usually not the companies best at coffee.

If you want to be the best you can be, as a restaurant or cafe serving tea, and you want to have more than a small, specialized selection, you may wish to consider buying from different companies or brands–especially separating your coffee and tea, but perhaps even using more than one source of tea.

Some suppliers may provide a mild pressure for you to buy everything from them.  I recommend resisting this sort of pressure; just because a company does an outstanding job in one area doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best choice to supply all your needs.  If a company offers tea, you can always ask to sample it and then sample a bunch of other options too, and then make your choice.

Another Example of More Than One Tea Brand: Cafe Clave in West Philadelpia

Velvet Sky is hardly the only example of a cafe using more than one tea supplier; one of my old favorite cafes in West Philly, Cafe Clave, which unfortunately closed due to reasons unrelated to the businesses’ success, also combined brands.  Cafe Clave primarily sold Novus Tea in tea bags, but for their chai, they made a house blend which was a secret proprietary blend of loose-leaf Ahmad Tea and Caykur-brand Turkish Tea.  You can read about their masala chai in this post on my old tea blog; it was a delightful blend that went heavy on the anise and cardamom, giving it a unique signature that, unfortunately, I may never be able to replicate again.

A Customer’s Perspective

I’m hardly a typical customer, due to my connections to the tea industry through my work on RateTea, but I do fill the role of customer in a cafe more than an insider.  I can’t speak for everyone, but I will say that when I see a company that shows evidence of an intelligent mixing-and-matching of brands.

For example, the now-closed Phoenix Coffee shop in Lakewood, Ohio, used to use two separate suppliers for their true teas and for their herbal teas.  The true teas were sold by a company that did coffee and tea, but the herbal teas were provided by a local woman who mixed her own herbal blends, many of which contained locally-grown ingredients.  The herbal teas were fantastic!

Phoenix Coffee in Cleveland; I miss these folks and this cafe, which sold loose-leaf teas and herbal teas from two different suppliers.
Phoenix Coffee in Cleveland; I miss these folks and this cafe, which sold loose-leaf teas and herbal teas from two different suppliers.

A company can take it too far though; there’s one cafe in center city Philadelphia that has so many different brands of boxed tea bags that I can’t even count them, and they don’t seem to be selected for quality.  I’d rather a coffee shop or cafe stick with a single, high-quality brand of tea, rather than including variety for its own sake.

What do you think?

  • What do you think of the idea of mixing and matching brands or suppliers of tea for a cafe or other business?  How far would you take it?  At what point do the costs or inconveniences start outweighing the benefits?
  • Do you know of any brands or suppliers of tea and coffee that truly do an outstanding job of both?
  • If you live anywhere near Jenkintown, do you know of Velvet Sky?  Have you ever been there?
  • How do you perceive the mixing and matching of brands of tea when you are a customer in a cafe?  Where do you draw the line between an unprofessional-looking mishmash, and a carefully-chosen combination?

Interest in Green Tea: Search Traffic and the Health Hype Factor

In this post I want to show a peculiar pattern that is strongly evident in the statistics of Google searches related to green tea, which I think demonstrates a cultural association between green tea and health.  This association is one that I am not a fan of–which is why I refer to it here as the “health hype factor”.

Researching Online Search Trends

I periodically do research on trends on search traffic.  One of the tools I use is Google Trends, which allows you to graph seasonal and long-term changes in search traffic.  For the searches below, I have limited the searches to the United States, in part because I want to focus on a phenomenon that I think is more evident in the US, and in part because I want to exclude Tropical and Southern Hemisphere countries that have different seasonal patterns of tea drinking.

Here is a screenshot of a graph generated by Google Trends for the search term green tea in the US:

google-trends-green-tea

This graph has a peculiar shape.  Rather than a gradual seasonality, this graph shows a sharp jump followed by a general decline.  Every year, the graph is at its lowest in November and December, and then jumps up to its highest in January; the decline is often steep but continues even through the fall as the weather is getting colder.  Contrast the shape of the graph above with the graph of the general US search tea:

google-trends-teaThis graph, besides showing an upward trajectory (good news for people in the tea industry, probably reflecting growing interest in tea) shows a mild seasonality.  The peak isn’t always exactly the same, but it tends to peak in December.  Furthermore, the increase consistently starts about when the weather starts getting cold, with the graph tending to increase from September through December or January.

What is going on here? My theory, and how I reached it

When I first saw this graph, it was completely unintuitive to me.  Why would green tea peak in January, not December, and why would it be lowest in December, a time when general interest in tea is peaking?  The answer actually came to me in part through talking to my girlfriend’s cousin Amanda, who works at a gym.  Amanda was talking with us about how at the beginning of each new year, in January, their gym is always flooded with new memberships–people who have pledged to “get in shape” as part of their new year’s resolutions.  She also said that these people don’t tend to stick around at the gym very long–after a few months their membership levels are back to normal.

Then the lightbulb went off in my head–the green tea peak is probably associated with new years resolutions to “be more healthy”, and possibly lose weight.  Just like these people don’t stick around at the gym, they don’t seem to stick to green tea either (at least to searching about it online), as the graph shows a really steep decline in February, well before the weather has begun to warm up in most of the US.

Google Trends’ info about “related searches” also echoes this explanation; here are the top 5 terms:

  • green tea benefits
  • green tea caffeine
  • caffeine
  • green tea diet
  • green tea extract

The association between green tea and health

On some level, I feel a little sad making the connection between the search trends about green tea and new year’s resolutions–I really want people to be interested in green tea for its own sake, as a beverage, but it seems that the data suggests the interpretation that most people in the U.S. are primarily interested in it due to its health effects (and primarily in response to New Year’s resolutions), at least most people who search for info about green tea online.

I also think that there’s a large degree to which the association between green tea and health is a cultural myth, promoted in large part by marketing hype. This is not to say that green tea isn’t healthy: there’s a lot of evidence that tea is healthy, but not much evidence that green tea (or any other type) is universally much healthier than black tea (or any other type).  There is also not much solid evidence that tea alone (whether green or otherwise) provides an effective tool to lose weight, although there is some preliminary evidence that it might have some positive effect.  I trust what the Linus Pauling Institute’s page on tea says on this matter.  They conclude:

It is currently unclear whether tea or tea extracts promote weight loss

The NIH’s Medline Plus pages on green tea and black tea both report Insufficient evidence to rate effectiveness for weight loss.

It may seem like an uphill battle to challenge the association between green tea and health or weight loss, but it’s an ongoing cause that I’m interested in working with.  In part I want to do it by actively challenging the scientific reasoning of this association, but I also want to do it by promoting the idea of approaching green tea as a beverage, getting people to focus on how it tastes, and on the different types, and getting people to seek out high-quality green teas and enjoy them for their own sake.  I think that problems like this are most effectively tackled from multiple angles, and I think it’s important to build something up (the idea of green tea as an enjoyable drink) rather than just breaking something down.

What do you think?

  • Do you think the explanation of new year’s resolutions explains the shape of the green tea graph shown above?
  • Do you think this association is obvious?  Do you think you would have realized it a little sooner than I did?
  • What do you think about the widespread cultural association in the U.S. between green tea, health, and weight loss?  Do you think it’s backed by much scientific fact or truth?  Or do you think it’s mostly hype?  Is it an association that you like, tolerate, or actively want/try to change?

Pure Teas with Chocolate / Cocoa-like Aromas and Flavors

I love chocolate.  As I write this, I’m just finishing a dark chocolate hazelnut chocolate bar that I bought at ALDI.  ALDI is a veritable desert for tea, but if you live near one, they have fantastic imported German chocolate (and sustainable seafood too).  Among chocolates, I tend to like ones that are stronger and less sweet.  The dark chocolate sold at ALDI is about as sweet as I get…I love the stronger stuff, the stuff that makes some milk chocolate lovers cringe and make funny faces.  I like stuff that is more bitter than sweet and has a very high cocoa content.

Licensed
Dark chocolate, the sort that I’m more a fan of; Photo by Lablascovegmenu, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

 

I also like preparing unsweetened hot chocolate or cocoa and not adding any sugar or sweetener.  Sometimes I add milk but often I just drink it straight.  Frequently I add spices, usually nutmeg and mace, rarely cinnamon, and often cayenne pepper (for a kick).

Interestingly, I have found that there are numerous pure black teas that have aromas and flavors strongly resembling the qualities of the types of chocolate I like, including those that resemble a cup of unsweetened cocoa.  These are not sweet, “dessert-like” teas the way some chocolate-flavored teas are…they’re bitter, strong, and have a dry flavor and sometimes leaving a moderate astringency on the palate, almost reminiscent of a very dry red wine.

I want to highlight two teas; one is what I’d consider an “everyday tea”, and the other isn’t.

Ahmad Tea’s Ceylon OPA

The award for my favorite “everyday” black tea with cocoa tones goes to Ahmad Tea‘s Ceylon OPA.  I talk about this brand of tea a lot, and that’s because I think it’s top-notch and I want people to know how it offers such outstanding value.  This particular tea has consistently high reviews on RateTea; it is ranked 91st percentile among all teas on the site and is currently the 2nd ranked Ceylon black tea on the site.  I can also testify that numerous people who neither review teas on RateTea nor blog about tea on the internet also love this tea.  My friend Anna’s dad is a fan of this tea, as are both of my parents.

This tea is a robust, strong black tea with tones of both cocoa and spice.  It’s not a “hit-you-in-the-face tastes-like-chocolate” sort of thing, but it’s more subtle.  I recommend it for

Harney and Sons Panyang Golden Tips

The other tea that I’d like to highlight was one I sampled last year at World Tea East: Harney and Sons’ Panyang Golden Tips.  For this tea, I don’t have a big audience of reviewers–you’ll have to trust my word (you can read my review if you’d like).  But this tea is intensely cocoa-y.  Unlike Ahmad’s Ceylon OPA, for which the chocolate resemblance is subtle, the resemblance here is of the “hit you in the face” variety: brewing this tea yields a cup which, to me, tastes very similar to a cup of unsweetened, brewed cocoa.

Interestingly, not all Panyang/Panyong Gold teas have such a strong cocoa-like character.  I tried one recently from Tea Horse which was outstanding, but had only hints of chocolately characteristics.

Other Teas

These are not the only teas I’ve tried that had suggestions of chocolate or cocoa in their aroma, just two that stood out to me.  I’ve found that traditional Lapsang Souchong, not the overwhelming campfire-smoke stuff that the British drink, but the more subtle stuff, can also have these qualities.  Life in Teacup (which is closed till Oct. 18) is one source of such traditional Lapsang Souchong that I’d recommend: look on their page on red tea.  I’ve also found some of these characteristics in Yunnan teas.  Interestingly though, all the teas that have exhibited these characteristics have been black tea: not green, white, oolong, nor Pu-erh or other aged teas.

What do you think?

  • Do you like chocolate?  Do you like the sweet stuff, or do you, like me, prefer the bitter sort?
  • Have you tried either of these teas?
  • Are there any other particular teas that stand out to you as having that unsweetened cocoa / bitter chocolate quality to them?
  • Have you ever had any type of tea other than a black tea exhibit these qualities?

Trader Joe’s Tea Selection – Still Not There Yet

About a year and a half ago, I wrote about Trader Joe’s tea on my old tea blog.

I shop regularly, but infrequently at Trader Joe’s, mainly picking up items like canned clams, bulk bags of raw nuts, and cheese.  There are some things I absolutely love about Trader Joe’s: many of the products I like most (and buy most) are ones that I think offer exceptional value, combining low price with consistently high quality.

Some of the cheeses cost almost half what I’d expect to pay for a cheese of similar quality: there’s a New Zealand grass-fed cheddar for around $5 a pound, and for closer to $4 you can get domestic cheddars that far surpass the quality I have been able to find in a typical supermarket.  And there are other little details that keep me coming back…the 500 gram bar of 70% dark chocolate for under $5, jars of Kalamata olives that taste great and are really cheap, $1 CLIF bars.  I even like some of their packaged bread.

A decent company, treating their employees well

In addition to this, I have a decent feeling about Trader Joe’s as a corporation: I’ve known many people who have worked there and they have all told me that the company treats their employees well.

Weaknesses of Trader Joe’s

In other areas though, Trader Joe’s really falls short.  Their seafood selection is not the most sustainable, as assessed by my looking up of their offerings on the Seafood Watch website.  And I’m not a huge fan of their produce, although they sometimes have things I think are worth buying.  And tea is yet another part of the store where their selection just doesn’t do it for me:

The tea selection at my local Trader Joe's
The tea selection at my local Trader Joe’s

The selection changes somewhat over time, but the gist of it has stayed the same since I discovered this chain back around 2006.  The tea is all cheap, for what it is, $2 for a box of teabags that would probably cost closer to $3 in a typical supermarket, but the problem is what it is: low-quality tea in tea bags.  There is no loose-leaf tea, and there isn’t any tea that I would consider high-quality artisan tea.  As much as I prefer loose tea, there are some very good brands of high-quality, whole-leaf or at least larger-broken-leaf tea in sachets, including Two Leaves Tea, Novus Tea, or even predominately loose-leaf brands like Rishi or Adagio.

Brands I’d prefer to the selection offered

Even if Trader Joe’s were going to stick with basic tea bags, I think they could do better.  In my old post, I recommended Ten Ren, Foojoy, Harney and Sons, and Jacksons of Piccadilly as companies that offer much higher-quality tea bags than anything I’ve ever tried from Trader Joe’s.  Ten Ren and Foojoy really stand out as their prices are competitive with Trader Joe’s teas, suggesting Trader Joe’s could stock them as-is.

And can’t they sell at least one loose tea?  Even most supermarkets have something, maybe Lipton’s loose black tea or Twinings Earl Grey.

What do you think?

  • Do you ever shop at Trader Joe’s?  How do you feel about the chain as a whole?
  • If you’ve tried it, do you like the tea in Trader Joe’s?
  • Would you like Trader Joe’s to stock loose tea?
  • What do you think of my recommendations of the brands that I think are superior (both in terms of quality and value) to what Trader Joe’s offers?  Do you agree?  Or would you have a different perspective on what brands might be a better choice?