November 28, 2008

Teas for Digestion

On Saturday November 22 Stuart and I conducted our monthly Many Rivers tea tasting on the topic of “Tea for Digestion.” We had a great crowd, an excellent discussion of a lot of research on the topic, and we tasted what may have been the most diverse flight of teas we’ve ever done in over five years of conducting tea tastings. Here is the list:

Several interesting principles emerged from the research that we did in preparation for this tasting. Following is an outline of the subjects discussed, which can be summarized in two points:

  • Camellia sinenis (tea) is recognized both at a general level as an aid to the digestive processes of the body
  • Specific types of tea have been recognized as having special properties that support and enhance digestion

Although we didn’t structure the actual discussion this way, in preparing for the event I had organized the research on tea and digestion into three more or less distinct perspectives, followed by an outline of the topics covered in the discussion on each perspective:

  •  Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)
  • Alternative Western Medicine
  • Western Scientific Studies

    Traditional Chinese Medicine
    In TCM, food and drink are understood to be medicinal in nature. Proper digestion is key because the body has to be able to absorb the beneficial substances that we ingest. As a widely appreciated remedy in the context of TCM, tea is understood to have the following properties:

    • Tea helps to regulate & promote healthy movement of qi (chi), i.e., life-force energies
    • Tea helps with the digestion of fatty foods 
    • Tea is often taken immediately after meals as a digestive aid
    • Pu-erh tea invigorates the Spleen, disinhibits dampness, reduces stomach heat, moves stomach qi downwards, counteracts & flushes alcohol toxins – in fact, pu-erh is widely used as a remedy after drinking too much alcohol

      Alternative/Holistic Western medicine
      In alternative Western medicine, our research identified three principal assertions related to tea and digestion: Acid/Alkaline balance of body tissues; Diuretic properties of tea; “Adaptogens” in tea. Here are the summarized points:

      • Tea assists digestion by neutralizing excess acidity and preventing fermentation and putrefaction in the stomach; moreover, more acid body tissues are less healthy than more alkaline tissues, so ingesting more alkaline substances is beneficial for the body. Example: Alkalization of mouth, throat and stomach reduces halitosis
      • Tea leaves freshly picked are maximally alkaline. Processing increases acidity, so whites are more alkaline than greens, greens are more alkaline than oolongs, and black teas may well be acidic rather than alkaline.The acidity/alkalinity of tea may be due in large part to the pH of the water used to brew the tea – ideal water for tea should be slightly alkaline
      • Overbrewing tea, whether from too long an infusion, or using water that exceeds the ideal temperature for the kind of leaf (esp. green teas), can make the brew more acid because more tannic compounds are incorporated in overbrewed teas
      • Since blood and tissue acidity promotes calcium loss from bones & teeth, daily consumption of alkaline teas reduces osteoporosisTea is a diuretic that flushes toxins from the body antioxidant and alkaline properties of tea remove toxins from tissues that are then excreted
      • Tea contains “Blood Adaptogens

        • Adaptogens are medicinal compounds alleged to regulate blood pressure, balance blood sugar, and prevent thickening of the blood

        Scientific Studies
        Results of new scientific studies of the benefits of tea for the body are regularly reported in the scientific and popular media. Many of these studies are relevant to the subject of tea and digestion. As Stuart pointed out at the tasting, it is important to recognize that the nature of scientific inquiry and investigation means that studies are generally constructed to answer more narrow questions than those addressed in TCM and alternative, holistically-oriented western medicine. None is “better” than the others; each approach simply has its own different strengths.

        Here are some points that emerge from a cursory look at currently available studies on tea and digestion:

        • Thermogenic (heat-producing) effects of tea on the body:
          • Higher metabolism rate produced by regular tea drinking (which is the basis of claims for tea promoting weight loss)
          • Higher metabolism of fats in particular produced by drinking tea
        • One of the most important antioxidant compounds in tea, EGCG (Epigallocatechin gallate) also has an anti-inflammatory effect within the gastrointestinal tract
        • EGCG blocks absorption of cholesterol by the body, in addition to the action of tea in removal of cholesterol & sticky plaques from walls of blood ; plus it promotes excretion of cholesterol-containing compounds
        • Black tea has been demonstrated to have anti-ulcerative effects in animal studies
        • Black teas have been shown in animal studies to assist in regulation of serum blood sugar levels; although as yet unproven in humans, black tea consumption may thus help prevent diabetes
        • This is just the briefest of outlines of material on the benefits of tea for digestion. We welcome comments on and questions about this posting. Please join the ongoing discussion!

November 08, 2008

The Magic of L-theanine

There comes a time whenever we do tea tastings at Many Rivers, usually after the third of fourth cup of tea, when the mood discernably shifts. Everyone seems to relax and pool their energy. We go from being a collection of individual tasters to being a coherent group of adventurers sharing a common experience. About that time, I usually joke that the L-theanine has just kicked in.

L-theanine is a major amino acid primarily found in green tea that has been shown to have some interesting psychoactive properties in part because it is able to cross the blood-brain barrier. Animal neurochemistry studies have shown that L-theanine increases brain serotonin, dopamine, and GABA levels. Other studies have shown that L-theanine reduces the body's reaction to mental stress by lowering the heart rate and salivary immunoglobulin A (s-IgA) via a reduction of sympathetic nervous activation. L-theanine has been shown to enhance cognitive abilities, enhance alpha wave production, and improve the body's immune reaction. One recent double blind study (2004) compared the effects of 200mg of L-theanine to 1 mg of alprazolam (Xanax) in reducing anxiety in volunteers. The results showed that L-theanine outperformed alprazolam in showing enhanced relaxing effects for volunteers who were already relatively relaxed, while neither seemed to show much effect for volunteers starting out in an agitated state.

An L-Theanine extract is available through Suntheanine, a Japanese company that holds numerous patents on processes for extracting L-theanine from gyokuro tea leaves. Japanese green teas (e.g. gyokuro, sencha) appear to have the highest concentrations of L-theanine of all common teas. Japanese matcha has by far the greatest concentration of L-theanine of any tea by virtue of the fact that it consists of actual ground tea leaves rather leaves used for infusion. Our own experience of a wide variety of teas, however, is that the relaxing effects of L-theanine can be found in any good cup of tea.

The presence of L-theanine in tea accounts for the vastly different experiences we have of the effects of caffeine when drinking a cup of tea and drinking a cup of coffee. Whereas the oils and alkaloids in coffee tend to promote a stress response in the body that heightens a sense of panic when combined with the effects of caffeine, L-theanine tends to combine with caffeine in tea to produce a calm, relaxed sense of alertness. It is no surprise that tea has long been an ally of Buddhist and Taoist (Daoist) monks in supporting their meditation. In fact the history of the spread of tea and the history of the spread of Buddhism run parallel as monks and traders brought tea and the Dharma along with them on their journeys along the Silk Road.

When you drink your next cup of tea and enjoy that soothing relaxation as the troubles of the world drift away like steam floating over your hot brew, take a moment to appreciate the magic of L-theanine, just one of the many wonderful aspects of this amazing beverage.


October 24, 2008

Oolongs on my mind: The art of the leaf

This Saturday October 25 Stuart and I will conduct our first oolong-only tea-tasting at Many Rivers in quite a while. I’m looking forward to the occasion for many reasons, but principally because oolongs are my favorite class of teas. This personal enthusiasm comes through, I think, in the write-up that I did to advertise the tea-tasting in our October newsletter:

There are so many reasons to fall in love with tea: the diverse palate experiences, the remarkable health benefits, the alert yet meditative calm to be had. And then there are the semi-oxidized teas known as oolongs, which for many of us constitute the best reason to give your heart to a leaf. Oolong lovers—you know who you are—need no convincing. We look forward to seeing you here! But if you haven't yet found your affection enticed by the extraordinary qualities of oolong teas, join us for a fun tea-tasting experience where we will sample, compare, and explain why oolong teas are the object of such passion!

In preparation for the tea-tasting, last night I re-acquainted myself with an oolong that I haven’t tasted in quite a while: our dark-roast Tieguanyin. It was quite delicious, and in an unexpected way, because my impressions of this tea start with my introduction to it about four years ago, when we first decided to carry it. That tea provided a delicious brew, quite highly roasted, while nevertheless retaining a distinctive oolong complexity carried beneath the layers of roasty flavor.

This year’s tea is excellent in its own, quite distinctive way. The difference is most noticeable in the lesser degree of roasting to which these leaves had been subjected compared with the previous year’s tea, which brings more to the foreground the non-roasty flavor elements.

Which style of dark-roast Tiekuanyin is better? That is entirely dependent upon one’s personal palate and preferences. What I can say for myself is that I enjoy and appreciate both styles. Which brings me to the real subject of this posting: the extraordinary way in which the contributions of nature and artisanal skill create unique flavor experiences in fine oolong teas. This “conversation” between the products of the tea tree and artisanship occurs with all fine whole-leaf teas, of course, but oolongs are the class of teas where the products of this give-and-take are most evident.

As opposed to the siftings that go into mass-market tea bags, the quality of fine whole-leaf teas depend upon the quality of leaves harvested, and the treatment of those leaves post-harvest. For those unfamiliar with the details, there are now many books available that describe these processes in greater detail than I can offer here, such as The Story of Tea, The Tea Companion, and The New Tea Lover’s Treasury.

The point is that there are two principal axes of variability that influence what you can brew in your cup. One axis of variability is the effects of climate on the tea trees/shrubs themselves, as mediated by the treatment (or lack thereof) by tea farmers. The other axis of variability is what the tea-master does with the leaves after harvest. The degree of roasting noted above is just one decision that a tea-master makes when choosing what to do with tea leaves. This is in turn influenced both by the tea-master’s goal with a particular lot and his/her experience, as well as the character of the particular leaves on hand.

American consumers tend to expect uniformity of product. That’s what most tea-makers strive for with the majority of teas: reliability and uniformity of character. This is appropriate for most products, and most teas. But good quality oolongs, those that have the benefit of a skilled and attentive farmer, and a sensitive and experienced tea-maker, partake of, and aspire to something more than just uniformity.

Great oolongs are artistic creations, and we should no more expect uniformity from artistic output with tea leaves than with painting, poetry, or to use an even more appropriate example, than with high-end wine-making. That is the glory of fine oolongs. One cannot capture the evanescent qualities of the greatest efforts because those qualities depend upon factors that can never be nailed down as we expect production variables to be handled with mass-market products.

And that’s what I love and appreciate about oolongs. That’s why oolongs inspire such passion. In the western world, the closest comparison to oolong lovers I can think of are with those who seek in the finest red burgundies similar evanescent complexities on the palate. The best oolongs are art on the tongue. Enjoy!

October 16, 2008

Tea in the Spiritual Tool Box

Spiritual practice is the application of attention to every aspect of every moment of experience. Spiritual tools are those practices which assist in the application of attention to life.

The best-known spiritual tools include practices such as prayer, chanting, devotional ritual, and meditation. These practices entail the direction of attention toward aspects of experience that, in the midst of daily life, the usually distractible mind rarely rests upon for long. In our online store and in our bricks and mortar store in Sebastopol, Many Rivers offers a range of tools to support these practices, including books and compact discs about prayer, meditation and chanting, sacred art images, ritual objects for home altar creation and use such as incense and candles, meditation cushions, etc. These tools help focus awareness in ways consistent with the goal of putting unwavering witness attention upon every aspect of experience.

Tea can be another instrument in the spiritual tool box. Of course, like any other tool, it can be misused or not used to its full potential. Most people treat tea as mechanically as they do any other aspect of daily life.

The inspiration for using tea as a spiritual tool comes from the east. In many Asian cultural contexts, the preparation and drinking of tea has long been valued as a special opportunity to place attention upon that which we often ignore. An example of the translation of this attitude towards tea from east to west can be found in Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village community. The sharing of tea in community with fellow meditation practitioners is framed as an explicit spiritual tool – an opportunity to exercise awareness – along with chanting, formal meditation practices, etc. Tea has been used in similar ways for millennia by Buddhist, Daoist and Confucian spiritual practitioners.

The raison d'être for Many Rivers – the reason why Tayu Meditation Center created the store in first place – was to provide a place where genuine spiritual practice of every kind, from every tradition, could find tangible support.  Tea ceremony in several east Asian traditions (China, Japan, Korea among others) historically has been used as a spiritual tool as defined above. And as appreciation for fine, whole-leaf tea has grown in the United States, more and more Americans have come to realize that tea can be treated as more than just a commodity, or just another beverage. Like other practices, brewing tea can be consciously employed as a way to enhance attention and cultivate the unblemished presence of witness awareness.

Brewing fine whole-leaf tea is an opportunity to encourage attention to coalesce upon one object, or more properly, upon one process with many facets. To make the best-quality tea of any type, and especially when one is using highly sensitive green or oolong leaves, it is vital to focus awareness upon the interaction of a variety of factors: water temperature (and water quality), leaf appearance, aroma, brewing vessel, timing, and drinking vessel, not to mention the physical context where the tea is made and enjoyed. To these objects of awareness, circumstances may also add other factors, including the consciousness of the people with whom one may be sharing tea.

Harmoniously blending all these factors into a seamless spiritual exercise may be considered an art, but to do this consciously and consistently is an “art” that depends upon the experience of training attention with persistence and dedication. The product of such self-training can be a spontaneously elegant dance without agenda, where one seems to be “doing” nothing at all except paying attention. The tea makes itself; or the Universe collaborates to make this magical brew in this unique moment. Such a result can only be consistently achieved, however, by employing the contents of the spiritual tool box to create habits of awareness with a clarity beyond the habits of distraction that typically guide attention.

So it was a deliberate choice to call the store Many Rivers Books & Tea. Our motto “Tools for Spiritual Practice” encompasses all forms of spiritual tools, including tea, because tea can has much to offer those who would use it to deepen awareness and train attention.


October 02, 2008

A Tale of Four Waters

This posting describes an unusual tea-tasting event that we held in the store on Saturday September 13, 2008. We wanted to test the proposition that differently sourced waters can produce vastly different palate experiences in the resulting brews. In the tea world, and in extant literature on tea, the crucial importance of the quality of water  has been accepted wisdom at least since the first great tea sage Lu Yu wrote, some 1250 years ago, a treatise on the twenty best sources of water for tea in China. This was a companion volume to his still highly regarded book The Classic of Tea.

Our own experience prior to this tasting event tended to confirm this point. Nevertheless, we wanted to conduct a rigorous contemporary test, and it occurred to us that one of our monthly tea-tasting events would be a great occasion to do so.What we found, as described below, both confirmed this principle but also produced several surprises. Following is the description of that event that we posted on the “Upcoming Events – Special Events” section of our website:

Tea is Mostly Water: How the Qualities of Water Influence Brewing Tea
We know that water from one source tastes better than water from another source. But few of us actually test how using water from differing sources influences how tea leaves brew tea. In this unusual comparative tea tasting, we will brew several teas using waters from distinctly different sources. Given conditions as identical as we can make them (particularly water temperature, brewing vessel and amount of leaf) except for the differing water sources, we may be amazed to discover that not just taste can be affected by which water we're using; even the color and intensity of the tea liquor may be visibly different. Join us for some fun, comparative science in service of the spiritual art of brewing tea that provides health and tastes sublime.

We decided that it would be best to create a blind testing where our customers would serve as unbiased testers. Tasters were provided with a form to record notes. In the actual event, roughly one dozen people participated. While the tasting was blind to everyone but myself (blind to other Many Rivers staff as well), I did tell tasters beforehand which water sources we were using:

  1. Distilled bottled water from the supermarket
  2. Sebastopol city tap water
  3. Alhambra bottled mountain spring water
  4. Untreated local well water from a shallow 30 ft well in my backyard, about 100 ft from an artesian spring on a neighbor’s property

We began by tasting the four waters without making tea – but that morning I boiled a quantity of each of the four samples, and allowed them to cool to room temperature, because I wanted the tasters to try the water just as it would be when used to make tea. This had the benefit of removing the chlorine from the city water sample (boiling removes the chlorine gas added to water to kill disease organisms).Tasters were mixed, but there was agreement that the water that was eventually revealed to be distilled water was very drinkable. Several tasters preferred the distilled water over the other three. Preferences were fairly evenly mixed among all four waters.

Then in the order of waters listed above, we first brewed a green tea (Lu Shan Clouds & Mist), then an oolong (Phoenix Mtn. Single Grove Almond Fragrance), and finally a black (Selimhill Estate 2nd Flush Darjeeling) from each of the four water sources. We took great care to use the same amount of leaf in each case, and used the same temperature water, in identical brewing vessels.

The most notable clear-cut reaction of tasters was their “anti-preference” for the distilled water source for all three teas. This pronounced distaste for tea brewed with distilled water strongly supports the view that dissolved mineral content is crucial for producing tasty teas. We expected this result, and our tasters confirmed it.

The biggest surprise of the tasting was that more tasters preferred the green tea brewed in Sebastopol city water to the other two non-distilled choices! (Although there were preferences expressed for each of these other non-distilled water sources.) I did NOT expect that result at all! As I understand it, this water comes from wells deep under the nearby Russian River, so that it consists of river water naturally filtered by 100 ft of sediments. In any event, with chlorine removed, it was the top vote-getter for green tea in our blind tasting.For the oolong and black teas, preferences were more or less evenly distributed among the three non-distilled water sources.So there you have it! I would summarize the noteworthy conclusions to our blind tasting as follows:

  1. Water that tastes good to drink may or may not be good for brewing tea
  2. Distilled water does NOT work for brewing tea. Tasters reported a flatness of taste for water brewed with this water
  3. Surprisingly, Sebastopol city water makes very acceptable tea

Perhaps in 2009 we’ll conduct another tasting comparing a variety of other waters.