Sun Tea Winner (Plus a Rant About Information Drift)

Okay, the entries are in and I’ve picked a winner!  There were some very informative entries to the contest from my Don’t Make Iced Tea post, both posted as comments and sent to me as email.  So interesting, in fact, that I’m going to do a slight rant about the media and information about tea.

But first, the winner of the $15 shopping spree is Chris Giddings of In addition, for their providing of what appear to be the first two articles of the chain reaction I’ll talk about soon, I’m giving an extra $5 “runner-up” credit each to Jason Witt and Kenneth.

Chris’ entry won because it actually included a copy of an email from a CDC employee, sent from a address.  This email stated that to his knowledge, there was no “official guidance” on sun tea.  It was the only entry that wasn’t someone else reporting on the CDC.

And that’s where it starts sliding into the rant about the media.  Most of the other entries were reports of what was said by the CDC, mixed with information from the Tea Association of the USA.  Combining everything from all of the entries, it seems that the articles are a combination of data summaries from the CDC’s Foodborn Outbreak Surveillance System, unpublished information from the Tea Association of the USA, and a non-sourced story about people getting sick.

The CDC information basically said that they had no reported outbreaks of gastrointestinal illness clearly tied to iced tea; and that some tests had occasionally shown high levels of “indicator organisms.”  In other words, there is theoretical danger, but no evidence that the risk has shown itself in the real world.  They stated that the risk was more likely to come from poor food handling practices than from the tea itself.

The Tea Association basically riffed off of this and it was they who suggested not to make sun tea.  They also provided the most likely food handling errors that would cause problems.

Now, notice how these two different bits of information, from two distinct sources (a government agency and an industry association), were handled.  Hang on for a strange and bumpy ride.

It appears that in February, 1996, Dr. Robert V. Tauxe and Dr. Mitchell L. Cohen, both of the CDC, compiled the information mentioned above in an article for Virginia Epidemiology Bulletin, the earliest place the CDC info and Tea Association info seem to have set foot in the same article.  The March/April 2009 issue of Foods and Nutrition Digest from the Cooperative Extension Service of Kansas State Univeristy picked up the story, slightly condensing and summarizing some of the information.

In June 1996, Pat Kendall wrote an article for the Fort Collins Coloradoan called “Bacteria-filled iced tea can cause illness”.  I haven’t been able to find a copy of the article, so I can tell neither how the author cited sources nor how faithfully the information was portrayed.  However, this article was adapted by the Colorado State University Extension FoodSafe Network in 1999 with a disclaimer.

The Las Vegas Sun runs a story in 2001 referencing both the Coloradoan and the FoodSafe Network.  The FoodSafe article was referenced by the University of Wyoming Cooperative Extension Service in June 2003.  In the May/June 2004 issue of Yale Health Care: News from the Yale health plan also refers to the FoodSafe adaptation of Kendall’s article in the Coloradoan.  The Yale article is referenced by the Hawaii Tea Factory website.

In fact, it seems like everyone started quoting everyone else around this point.   Somewhere along the way, the information got added that one of the microbes that might show up in your sun tea to cause problems is alcaligenes viscolactis.  I have no idea where that information originally came from, since it was not mentioned in either of the two earliest articles.  As far as I can tell it’s accurate insofar as that it’s a common bacteria found in water and can multiply in just the environment found in sun tea.  But the CDC doesn’t appear to have a warning about it, either.

Even the typically reliable decided to weigh in on the topic in 2006.  It claims the health dangers were warned against by the CDC, and mentions our friend alcaligenes viscolactis.  They cite four newspaper articles, none of which I can find online–even searching on the quoted article title and/or author on the individual newspaper websites.  Snopes did not cite the CDC.  But that didn’t stop at least one blogger from claiming that Snopes had indeed contacted the CDC to confirm the warning.  (A side note about the infuriating circular experience about tracking all this information down:  the only places I could find references to the Snopes source articles were other people referencing the Snopes article referencing the newspaper articles.)

And there you have it.  We started with the CDC saying that there are no recorded tea-born illnesses, but that there’s a theoretical risk in cases of poor food handling.  We end with a wildfire of articles all claiming that the CDC is warning that it’s dangerous to make iced tea.

So a word to the wise:  While little tea factoids can be interesting and enlightening, it’s always important to track down the sources of that information.  Sometimes through multiple layers of sources.  You might find that the real story is nothing like what “tea experts” are telling you.

Note:  That includes me, too.  I used links where I could so you could verify that what I’m saying is so.  If you ever find I’ve said something that’s factually incorrect, I want you to call me on it.  Tea Geek was founded on the desire to combat the rampant misinformation about tea, regardless of how (or by whom) it is disseminated.  Don’t trust me.  Don’t trust your local tea shop owner.  Don’t trust the lovely tea book with the pretty tea pictures.  Verify!

Why We Shouldn’t Describe Tea

When you read descriptions of teas that you’re thinking of buying, or are told in a tea-tasting class that you should record your impressions in a tea journal, or read those blogs that are little more than a public tea journal in the guise of tea reviews, something vital is being lost: the experience of having tea.

In one study, researchers showed volunteers a color swatch of the sort one might pick up in the paint aisle of the local hardware store and allowed them to study it for five seconds.  Some volunteers then spent thirty seconds describing the color (describers), while other volunteers did not describe it (nondescribers).  All volunteers were then shown a lineup of six color swatches, one of which was the color they had seen thirty seconds earlier, and were asked to pick out the original swatch.  The first interesting finding was that only 73 percent of the nondescribers were able to identify it accurately.  In other words, fewer than three quarters of these folks could tell if this experience of yellow was the same as the experience of yellow they had had just a half-minute before.  The second interesting finding was that describing the color impaired rather than improved performance on the identification task.  Only 33 percent of the describers were able to accurately identify the original color.  Apparently, the describers’ verbal descriptions of their experiences “overwrote” their memories of the experiences themselves, and they ended up remembering not what they had experienced but what they had said about what they had experienced.  And what they had said was not clear and precise enough to help them recognize it when they saw it again thirty seconds later.

Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert

Let’s apply this to tea tasting for a moment.  First, a color is pretty simple–it’s a particular wavelength of light.  From a scientific standpoint, the color watches could be described with a single number ranging from roughly 380 nm to 750 nm (the spectrum of wavelengths in light that humans can perceive).  Granted, there may be a few exceptions–like if the color swatch had some color variations, etc.

However, compare that to how complex an experience tea is.  There are tactile senses, olfactory sensations, gustatory sensations…and each of those is more complex than seeing color.  Let’s simplify things and ignore everything but taste.  You taste with your taste buds.  But there are five types of taste buds which sense through both protein receptors and ion receptors.   So let’s further simplify and say we’re only talking about the ion receptors.  We’ve still got choices, because the ion channels can sense sodium ions (“saltiness”) or hydrogen ions (“sourness”).  So let’s simplify further.  We’ll only look at acids activating the ion channels of a single taste bud.  Different concentrations of acidity will cause different levels of charge in the underlying nerves that take the sensation to the brain.

Oh, but it’s even more complicated than that because some “sour” flavors are caused by potassium ions, not hydrogen ones, and potassium ions follow a different channel.

In short, the taste of a tea is WAY more complex than a color.  And if humans can’t even remember a color accurately for 30 seconds, and their ability drops by more than half if they try to describe that color because the description falls so far short of the experience as to render it useless, we shouldn’t bother with something so complex as a flavor or a scent.  After all, the people who didn’t describe the color did more than twice as well at identifying the same experience 30 seconds later.

Will that do away with tea reviews, descriptions on cannisters and websites, or discussions at tea tastings?  No.  Clearly, we need to communicate some information about flavor when choosing a new tea or evaluating a sample.  But we should keep in mind that any description is about as accurate as if I tried to point to New York from here in Seattle: it’s more useful than no directions at all, but it’s doubtful that you’d get there with only that information.

What I recommend, though, is that when you’re tasting your tea, or cupping samples, or engaged in some other tea experience, SHUT UP.  Instead of trying to put it into words, or discovering exactly which fruit that particular flavor note reminds you of, stop and taste the tea.  Savor the experience without language (aloud or in the mind) if possible.  You’ll develop a more accurate taste memory than the people who spend their time trying to put words to their experience.

To Flavor or Not To Flavor?

When I founded Tea Geek, one of the main ideas (beyond providing accurate, well-researched information with citations) was that I’d never carry a flavored/scented tea, and I’d never carry blended teas.  From what I’ve tasted, flavored teas typically scrape the bottom of the barrel when it comes to the tea base used, since the flavoring covers the taste of the tea.  And besides, if I’m going to drink tea, I want to taste tea.  If I want to taste Berry-Guava-Colada-Explosion or whatever, I’ll go get some fruit juice or soda or something.

However, I’m beginning to question part of that decision.

I still like the idea of no flavored/scented teas and want to stick to that for the most part.  However, two teas stick out as possible exceptions–both for economic and historic reasons.  These teas are jasmine green and Earl Grey.

Jasmine green tea is probably the oldest and most popular scented tea in the world.  It’s been made using different techniques over the years, but the combination of jasmine flowers and green tea is certainly old enough to call “traditional” (unlike some of the awful concoctions that pass for “tea” on grocery store shelves and tea shop jars).

Earl Grey, though not nearly as old as jasmine green, is certainly the oldest flavored tea of the European tradition.  And it’s still the most popular.  For Heaven’s sake, Jean Luc Picard of Star Trek fame drinks it–it can’t be that bad, right?

Well, in short, yes it can.  However, I’ve found an Earl Grey that balances the bergamot flavor with the tea itself.  Yes, you can actually taste the tea in it.  I have a couple of candidates (though no clear winner) on the jasmine green front.

What do you think?  Should I carry a jasmine and an Earl Grey?  They are certainly more popular than, say, a single-estate first flush Darjeeling or a winter harvest Alishan wulong.  But not nearly as geeky.  Would carrying these two mean Tea Geek was making a shrewd business move, or just selling out?  Give me some feedback–I’d like to hear what my readers and customers think!

Cyclone Aila and Weird Priorities

The eye of Cyclone Aila before making landfall near Kolkata
The eye of Cyclone Aila before making landfall near Kolkata

On the 25th of May, 2009, a cyclone (or tropical storm, depending on where/when you’re talking about) made landfall more or less over Kolkata (formerly Calcutta).  From there it headed north, pounding Myanmar, Bangladesh, and India’s West Bengal state.   Various world news outlets report confirmed deaths from as few as 100 up to 231 or 300.  Thousands of people were missing.  Injuries, both directly from the storm and its damage, and amongst rescuers, is 6,000 or higher.  It’s estimated that over 5 million people are affected by the storm.  “Nijhum Dwip, a low-lying coastal island with 25,000 residents, was reportedly submerged.” (New York Times)

In addition to the human cost, the Sundarbans were hit hard as well.  The Sundarbans are the largest mangrove forest in the world, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and habitat to hundreds of threatened Bengal tigers–perhaps as much as 25% of all Bengal tigers in existence.  It is feared that the storm surge may have polluted with salt water many of the sources of tigers’ fresh drinking water.

Cyclone Aila came very early before the monsoons, the first May storm of its size since 1989.  Aila was the 5th wettest tropical cyclone on record in India.  It saturated soil that is expected to receive another 118 inches of rain when the monsoons hit.  Aila alone caused as many as 40 landslides (with one source claiming nearly 100) in and around the town of Darjeeling, one of the most famous tea growing regions in the world.

Looking at maps from May and June ’09 posts on this India-local blog show several Darjeeling tea estates that were extremely close to or directly affected by these landslides.  Estates mentioned in the slide maps include Happy Valley Tea Estate, Singell Tea Estate, and Long View Tea Estate.  I haven’t yet found any information on whether any of the 26 deaths in Darjeeling are owners or employees of these (or other) tea estates.  According to Wikipedia’s article on the storm, at least 50,000 hectares (over 120,000 acres) of agricultural land was lost during the storm.

But here’s where the weird priorities come in.  The New York Times article linked above is the only mention I found in American media.  In the tea industry, it wasn’t until this last week that I heard anything about the storm.  And then, it was in the form of various people trying to raise money to help the Makaibari Tea Estate recover. Then I started looking and found an article by the World Tea News about the cyclone–again asking for aid, talking about the damage sustained by the Makaibari Tea Estate, and how they’re getting aid for recovery.

Makaibari?  Don’t get me wrong, it’s dreadful that they’ve lost workers’ homes, have a damaged factory, and lost 12 of their 1,509 acres of land.  I am especially fond of their second flush teas.  I hope that they heal the traumas of the event and have a speedy recovery of property and livelihoods.

But the tea industry (at least in English, as far as I can tell) is only talking about one farm?  Didn’t it occur to anyone that the cyclone may have damaged nearby farms?  Was it just that Makaibari’s CEO Rajah Banerjee sent out a dramatic press release about their plight that caused everyone to forget the other 86 Darjeeling tea plantations?  I would think that the folks at the World Tea News would have contacts at other Darjeeling estates and might contact them as sources for their story.  I’d think people would be raising money for the whole region, not just one farm.

I’ll try to see what else I can find about non-Makaibari tea estates and how they are doing and if I find something I’ll update this article.  In the mean time, check out this satellite image of Cyclone Aila to get a sense of how big the storm was.

Thanks go out to meteorologist Chris Warren of Seattle’s KING5 News for helping me figure out some weather data about the cyclone.

Don’t Make Sun Tea (plus a reward for a skilled reader!)

Here’s why:  Sun tea gets warm but not hot.  When you brew tea with hot water, any microorganisms in the water or on the leaves are pretty much killed.  But with sun tea, you give them a nice warm bath in which they could reproduce.  Usually, no big colonies form, and if they do it’s typically of benign organisms like Alcaligenes viscolactis and nobody gets hurt.  Well, except for the li’l buggers once you drink ’em.  (Update:  While it’s not about sun tea specifically, Griffin Kelton tells a tea horror story that’s basically the same issue.)

Another reason not to make sun tea is because lots of the flavor that comes out of a tea leaf requires higher temperatures to make it into solution.  Making sun tea, then, is to leave behind many of the flavors of the tea you’ve chosen.

Cold vs. Hot brewing of Dong Fang Mei RenSome like the flavor of sun tea for exactly that reason–it’s more mild than tea made the usual way.  If that’s the case, make your tea using a cold-brewing process.  Put the leaves in water and put it in the fridge overnight.  Too cold for most microbes to flourish, but the added time allows for a similar milder tea flavor even at the lower temperature.  Update:  The image I’ve added shows the same tea, Dong Fang Mei Ren (aka Bai Hao Wulong, or Oriental Beauty).  The cup on the left was brewed overnight in the fridge, while the cup on the right was brewed hot to ISO standards.

Now, I’ve heard that the US Centers for Disease Control have made some statement to this effect–that it’s best not to make sun tea because of the bacteria issue.  However, I’ve never been able to find anything directly from the CDC about it.  It’s been reported in several small-town newspapers, which gives some credence to the idea that the CDC frowns on iced tea, but I want to hear it from the horse’s mouth, so to speak.

So, if you can get me the official CDC statement/position on sun tea, I’ll give you a $15 credit in the Tea Geek store.

Rules:  I have to be able to verify that what I get is really from the CDC.  If I get several “correct” ones, the winner is the one I received first.  Pretty much any format I can see is acceptable: link to official press release on the CDC website, scanned image of an official statement, video of a CDC official making an announcement at a press conference, whatever.

Back in the Saddle

I didn’t realize how long it had been since my last blog post. It’s not like I haven’t been working. Since then Tea Geek has launched Tea Geek Memberships and done updates on the wiki (which, by the way, is now mostly members-only).  Updated articles over the last 30 days include:

  • Bai Mudan
  • Yunnan (black tea)
  • Caffeine in Tea
  • Bailin Gongfu
  • Jin Hou
  • Yu Quansun
  • Opium and Tea
  • Glenburn Tea Estate
  • Darjeeling
  • Buddha Hand
  • Dragonwell
  • Pirates and Tea
  • Tea Timeline
  • Minbei
  • Tie Guan Yin
  • Buddhism and Tea
  • Daoism and Tea
  • East India Company
  • Tea Quotations
  • Yan Cha
  • Varietals and Cultivars
  • Shen Nong
  • List of wulong teas
  • Buddhist Tea
  • Assam
  • Sencha

Quite  a few photos of tea exemplars have been uploaded, including a gallery of photos of different grades of pre-Qingming Dragonwell from this spring (gotta use the new camera for something, after all).

New technical books have been procured, with more on the way.  There’s been a trip to Vancouver, BC, Canada where I did some tea and teaware research (though the trip was mostly for pleasure).

I also have a list of blog posts to write…it’s just a matter of sitting down and writing them.

By the way, if you want shorter-but-more-frequent tea related updates, you can follow me on Twitter (@michaeljcoffey).  Oor become a fan at the Tea Geek group on Facebook for less frequent updates.