An Update on the Boys

In a post from February, I noted that I’d become a proud father of two tea plants.  At that time I promised an update sometime in the future.  Well, now that the li’l tykes are 6 months old (and because there’s been some talk on Twitter and various tea-related forums about tea propagation), it’s time for that update!

As a reminder, here’s what they looked like in February 2009:
The Boys, February 2009

And now, in August 2009:
The Boys, August 2009

I’ve decided to call them Laurel and Hardy…for the obvious reasons.  And these guys are a great example of two things in the tea industry.

First, they show why so many cultivated tea plants are taken from cuttings rather than seed.  Since good old L&H here were both from seeds of the same plant, you’d think they’d be more similar.  However, Camellia sinensis is one of those plants that has a lot of variation when there is sexual reproduction, and one that can’t effectively self-pollinate.  Now, I don’t know who the father is (or “fathers are”).  I’ve got another tea plant but I don’t think it bloomed that year; I’ve got a Camellia japonica in the front yard, but I’m not sure if cross-species pollination can occur within the genus Camellia.  If it works like horses and donkeys, my two kids could be mules…and possibly sterile.  But I’m not yet clear on how the genetics works with the tea plant.

With two clearly different plants coming from seed of the same mother plant, you can see why tea farmers would want to plant cuttings rather than seeds if they find a plant that does what they want.  If the farmer plants seeds, who knows what they’ll get?  But if they plant cuttings, they’re making a clone of the parent bush…ensuring a consistent and predictable crop.

The other thing this illustrates is how new cultivars come about.  While cuttings result in the predictability of clones, sexual reproduction produces lots of variation—like Laurel and Hardy.  If one of the freaky, doesn’t-look-like-Mom kids has some new quality that benefits the farmer—like producing a sweeter-tasting tea, or resisting pesky bugs, or more easily surviving bad weather—then the kid may get cloned, or selectively cross-pollinated with other plants.  Eventually, when the genetics settle down, you’ve got a new cultivar (short for “cultivated variety”).

For now, I’ll just let ’em have their childhood until they grow up and get to work producing leaves for me.  But maybe I’ll be able to develop my own Tea Geek cultivar in the next 10 years or so.

New Feature: Try This At Home

If you’ve been following along, you’ve probably noticed something of a theme in my writing–I’m something of a stickler for accuracy when it comes to information about tea.  As a result, I do a lot of head-butting with the received wisdom of nearly five thousand years of product marketing and other forms of not-quite-accurate information.

In the hopes of getting people to engage more fully with their tea, to question their assumptions, and to stimulate conversation, I’m launching a new occasional feature of the Tea Geek blog.  I’m calling it Try This At Home.  While I enjoy getting orders at the Tea Geek store, these experiments will be ones you can do with teas and equipment that you may already have–or can easily find online or at your local specialty tea shop.

Each Try This At Home will be like a mini science experiment–equipment, procedure, and so forth.   I want you to have some fun, play with your tea, and do the experiment.  You’re welcome to send me the results or not as you see fit.  I will collect the information that people send, which may turn into future blog posts.

I’m starting with an experiment I’ve done myself a number of times that came up at a recent tea class I taught.  It takes aim at the idea that you need to brew certain teas at a certain water temperature.  Here’s what I want you to try at home:


  1. Two identical brewing vessels.  These can be anything you want–English teapots, gaiwans, cupping sets, whatever.  Shape isn’t too important, but material and capacity should be the same.
  2. Tea–specifically high-end, unflavored, green or white tea.  Enough to make the same tea in both vessels.
  3. Water and something to boil it in
  4. A timer
  5. A scale, as accurate as you can find


  1. Weigh out two equal quantities of tea, appropriate for the size of vessel you’re brewing in.  If you need a guideline, try about 4.5 grams per US cup (236 ml).
  2. Put a measure of tea into each brewing vessel.
  3. Bring the water to a boil; while you’re waiting, set the timer to 15 seconds
  4. When the water boils, fill the first brewing vessel and start the timer.
  5. Strain the tea as soon as the timer goes off.
  6. Wait two minutes; meanwhile, reset the timer to five minutes
  7. Use the water that has now cooled slightly more than two minutes to fill the second teapot and start the timer.
  8. When the timer goes off, strain the second pot
  9. Compare the two tea liquor samples you’ve made.   Note differences in color, fragrance, mouthfeel, flavor, astringency, and bitterness.

Questions for Discussion

What qualities did the first sample have that were absent or reduced in the second sample?  What qualities did #2 have that #1 didn’t?  Try to describe inherent qualities of  the tea, differentiating them from whether or not you like/dislike them.

Given these differences, what conclusions can you draw about brewing the type of tea you used?

It is often said that green or white tea should never be brewed with boiling water because it will ruin the tea.  Given the differences you’ve noted, what do you think of that advice?

And if you decide to report your findings to me, please include the name and source of the tea you chose to use.  Thanks!

TG Interview: Sherri Miller

There are always lots of exciting things going on in the world of tea.  One of the developing areas is the increasing production of tea in Hawaii.  I had the good fortune to meet several Hawaiian tea farmers a couple of months ago at the World Tea Expo in Las Vegas.  Among those I met was Sherri Miller of Moonrise Tea Garden, who is experimenting with cultivars from Japan, Taiwan, and India (Darjeeling) to see what grows best in the soils and climate of the 50th state.

TG:  What’s your favorite tea?

Sherri Miller of Moonrise Tea GardenSM: Currently, and this is subject to change, is the white tea I have been producing.  A close second would be Onomea Tea’s orthodox black tea. (And yet I need to reserve a spot for an oolong too, but which one? and if I had to include a green it would be a gyokuro, which we learned how to make from a Japanese master.)

TG:  How did you start on the path to tea geekdom?  Briefly describe your history of tea exploration.

SM:  As a child, my grandmother would always make me tea whenever I did not feel well, so I have always associated tea with comfort and health.  Fast forward many years.

I was living on agricultural land, and had been researching for several years which crop(s) would best fit the land and my life.  I saw a meeting at the ag complex about tea.  The University of Hawaii had done research on specialty tea as a new crop for Hawaii.  I went to the meeting and realized that tea was the perfect fit.  I like to tell people I didn’t find tea; tea found me.  Now I live with comfort and health.

TG:  What aspect of tea do you find most fascinating?

SM:  The processing.  It’s amazing that the leaves make such widely varying tea.  It is affected by weather, temperature, by wind and humidity, by the containers and elements it comes in contact with, by human hands.  It starts out as the same basic leaf, but can become a subtle, honeyed white tea, a robust black, a fragrant oolong, or a pungent green tea….all from the same leaf.  And little variations during processing can make a big difference in the result.  Simply amazing. [Editor’s note: keep an eye out for Tea Geek classes about some of these variations, both online at the Tea Geek Store, and also at the upcoming Northwest Tea Festival in Seattle, in a class-in-development called “The Teamaker’s Art”]

TG:  Who have you learned the most from?

SM:  I have learned the most from the tea itself.  It is a wise and patient teacher.

TG:  What tea resource (book, website, person, etc.) would you recommend for a tea novice?

SM:  James Norwood Pratt’s New Tea Lover’s Treasury for the basics of tea, or, The Ultimate Tea Diet by Mark Ukra, not for dieting, but how to incorporate tea into your life for health and enjoyment.  A great resource for explanations of the chemical components of tea and how they benefit health.

I would also recommend just plain experimentation.  Try different teas, different brewing methods, vessels, temperatures, time, etc.  Learn what you like and what you don’t like.  And realize that not all teas with the same name taste the same.  Keep trying and experimenting.  Others can give recommendations, but no one can tell you what you like.  That is personal.

TG:  And what’s your own favorite tea resource, potentially for more advanced tea geeks?

SM:  The books I would recommend would be for growers.  For the average, potentially more advanced tea geek, I would recommend STI.  The classes, the resources, and the people involved cover a wealth of knowledge.

TG:  What does tea mean to you?

SM:  Tea is a way of life.

TG:  Name your biggest pet peeve in the realm of tea and tea drinking.

SM:  Misinformation about the healthiest type of tea, the levels of caffeine etc. and how the myths are perpetuated by so-called experts.  [Editor’s note:  Amen and Hallelujah!]

TG:  If you could let everyone in the world know or understand one thing about tea, what would it be?

SM:  Really good tea is not as expensive as it seems.  Look at the price per cup and not the price per pound (like coffee).  Yes you can afford good whole leaf tea, even on a budget.  You do not have to drink old dust in a musty tea bag.  (And brewing whole leaf tea isn’t complicated either)

TG:  What’s the craziest/weirdest/most obsessive thing you’ve ever done in pursuit of your love of tea?

SM:  I hosted a party just to name a tea drink, and worked with the guests and others, some thousands of miles away–for days–just for a name.   Might not sound that crazy, but for days I was absolutely obsessed and thought of nothing else.  Just ask my kids!  I wouldn’t even cook.

TG:  Thank you!