Thursday, December 31, 2015

Head and Shoulders, Teas and Toes

House of Steep - Tea and Toes
At the House of Steep in the Cherrydale neighborhood of Arlington, Virginia, we sipped our teas as we blissfully soaked our feet in hot water mixed with essential oils, botanicals and salt.  We were sitting on a couch next to an indoor waterfall.  There was soft lighting and soothing music.  I had the herbal foot soak called “serenity” a blend of chamomile, lavender and oatmeal.  My sister had the “purity” soak with juniper and eucalyptus.  The ladies on the couch next to us shared a pot of tea while having their feet massaged by a massage therapist.

Mini Rock Garden
“Tea, Feet, Relaxation” is the motto of the House of Steep which is a Tea House and Foot Sanctuary.   It combines influences from the East and West and describes itself as a modern oasis.  Inside we stepped away from the hustle and bustle of a weekday to steep our toes for 20 minutes. I started to get my “Zen on” by working on a miniature rock garden before having my feet pampered in an herbal foot bath while drinking delicious tea.
I ordered a pot of Ilam, a tea from Nepal.  Ilam is grown in a high altitude. Its taste is similar to that of a Darjeeling tea, which is grown in the foothills of the Himalayas.  My Ilam came with a timer to let me know when it was fully and perfectly steeped.

The loose leaf tea collection at the House of Steep was extensive, including black, oolong, pu’erh, green and white teas along with herbal tisanes.  Separate from the foot spa quarters, customers can have salads, sandwiches, quiche, rice bowls and baked treats.  Just as for its massages, the House of Steep offers special afternoon tea service by appointment only.

I had never heard of a tea house combining its expertise in teas with an expertise in therapeutic foot spa service.  I hope this ingenious combination spreads.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

What! Coffee in a Tea Bag?

Coffee in a tea bag on Southwest Airlines
Don't be surprised on your next flight if your coffee comes in a tea bag.  When I was flying Southwest the other day, I decided to forego my usual tea and have coffee.  It came in a tea bag!
Looks like some coffee companies want to get in on the tea bag business. I do not know much about coffee, but I know a little about tea bags.  Today, tea bags are so common that it is hard to find loose leaf tea in the average U.S. supermarket.  But just over 100 years ago, that was not the case.
That's because of the New York City tea merchant, Thomas Sullivan. The story goes that in 1908 Sullivan designed a silk tea bag as a cost cutting method of providing samples of his teas.  His confused customers mistakenly used the bags to brew their tea and then became enamored with this new convenient style of tea making. [1].
While Sullivan may have popularized the tea bag, he in fact was not the first inventor of the tea bag.  A few years earlier in 1903, Robert C. Lawson and Mary McLaren of Milwaukee, Wisconsin received a U.S. patent for their tea bag design.  [2]They were issued U.S. patent 723287 for a “novel tea-holding pocket constructed of open-mesh woven fabric, inexpensively made of cotton thread.”  [2]
Given the popularity of the tea bag, the question is, why hasn’t the coffee business been in on the act?  I asked a coffee barista at Sauf’s Coffee at North Market in Columbus Ohio about coffee in tea bags.  She had never even heard of coffee in a tea bag and her company doesn’t sell it.
She may be hearing of it soon.  Large coffee companies such as Folgers and Maxwell House now sell coffee in tea bags at grocery stores in the United States.  Maxwell House's bags are called “coffee singles.”  If Maxwell House can do for coffee what Thomas Sullivan did for tea -  don't be surprised to see coffee in tea bags everywhere.
[1]  E.g., “The History of theTea Bag”, UK Tea and Infusions Association, [Last viewed on November 8, 2015].
[2] "Tea-leafholder", USPTO. Retrieved 25 October 2013. US patent 723287 was issued on MAR. 24, 1903 to R. G.LAWSON & M. McLaren

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Tea in Paris - An Elegant Affair at Mariage Frères

The Parisian taste for fine foods applies to teas as well -- during my 2 week visit to Paris, I was in tea heaven.  Tea is available everywhere.  While even the smallest bars and bistros display signage declaring themselves "Salon de Thé," I mostly checked out the specialty shops.  My favorite is Mariage Frères, a sophisticated tea company with an unparalleled history in the French world of tea. 
Mariage Frères is the oldest tea company in France.  It was established in 1854 by descendants of the Mariage family who imported tea in the 17th century for King Louis XIV as part of the French East India Company.(1) 

Mariage Frères has a tea museum with prized artifacts that are not for sale.  There are tea samples from centuries ago, written records of tea trades, historic maps and historic posters advertising tea.  The museum displays its antique tea shipping containers, chests, cups and kettles from around the world.

When I was done perusing the museum, I took a break and had a very refined tea service at the Mariage Frères tea salon. It was the most elegant tea service I've had to date while traveling in Europe. The décor is reminiscent of the colonial age; the waiters in their crisp uniforms were polite and deferential; there was operatic background music and formal place settings.  The tea was prepared to perfection and my order came with gourmet pastries.  Mariage Frères has mastered every detail of the art of tea service!  They even have a signature tea pot with insulated polished steel globe as a cozy.

In the retail store, Mariage Frères has an unbelievable variety of high quality loose leaf teas with a seemingly endless list of special blends.  They also have unique products...Have you ever had a gingerbread loaf with tea as an ingredient?  Or, how about an incense made from the oil of the tea?  Have you tried tea jellies? I bought some and can hardly wait to try them at home.

(1) Cosmopolis,“Mariage Frères:The French Tea Company in Paris";

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Passionflower Tea

By Wikijasha via Wikimedia Commons

Click image for Nighty Night on (affil.)
Way past her bed time, she stumbles into the kitchen and requests her sleep time tea. Sitting at the kitchen counter in her footy pajamas with the cheetah pattern, my daughter stalls for more awake time rather than going to bed. Soothing herbal blends are popular in my house just before bed.  Herbal teas are technically tisanes and are not strictly speaking teas – which are brews from the tea plant a/k/a/ Camellia senensis plant.  This night, I choose Nighty Night tea by Traditional Medicinals.  The largest ingredient in Nighty Night tea is passionflower.

In 1569, Spanish explorers discovered passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) in Peru. [1]  Native people of America used this plant for rest and relaxation. [1]  Although Passionflower was formerly approved as an over-the-counter sedative and sleep aid in the U.S., few scientific studies have tested passionflower for these purposes and it was taken off the over the counter market in 1978 because its safety and effectiveness had not been proven. [1]  However, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center, scientists believe passionflower works by increasing levels of a chemical called gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain. GABA lowers the activity of some brain cells, making you feel more relaxed. [2]
Passionflower remains on the herbal market mixed in teas and other herbal blends.  A warm cup of passionflower tea with a  bit of sugar is how my little one likes it and it may be just the thing to lull her to sleep.

[1] United States Health and Human Services, National Institute of Health, U.S. National Library of Medicine.  "Passionflower."  Last reviewed - 02/16/2015.

 [2] University of Maryland Medical Center, Medical Reference Guide, Complementary and Alternative Medicine Guide.  "Herb, Passionflower." Last updated:  May 7, 2013.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Tea - Organic, Fair

We admire those supporting traditional tea farmers by selling organic and fair trade product. Find affiliate friends we admire at our new page Tea - Organic, Fair

Friday, May 8, 2015

Fresh Ideas at the 2015 World Tea Expo

It's the week of the 2015 World Tea Expo.  Me and thousands of other tea enthusiasts from all over the world have flocked to the annual World Tea Expo, held this year in Long Beach, CA.  I've had a great time perusing the tea product displayed by the tea vendors. It can be challenging for a tea company to come up with new ideas for this centuries old beverage.  It was nice to see, nestled amongst the traditional standards, some unique and interesting ideas exhibited.  Here are a few I noticed.

One was Owl’s Brew (affil.), which sells tea cocktail mixers.  Their tea and natural spices are mixed, brewed and bottled in their factory in Vermont.  Just add the right liquor, as suggested in their recipes, and voila! you have a tastey cocktail.

Another was Summus Tea, with a new product designed for slow brewed ice tea.  The loose oolong tea leaves are sold in individually vacuum sealed capsules inside a lovely re-useable glass bottle.  Empty one capsule into the bottle, fill it with water, and let sit for 24 hours to get the perfect brew. Serve chilled on ice.

Then there’s bkon (they don’t capitalize their name). This company champions the cause of serving perfectly brewed tea with no messy strainers or tea bags.  Their product is an automated brewing machine with programmable menu.  Just input water and tea leaves and press the button for the recipe that matches the tea type.  The bkon brewer brews it up at the proper temperature, extracts flavors using patented reverse atmospheric technology, and gives you the final product perfectly brewed to the exact specifications each time.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Green in the Land of the Rising Sun

What is it about Japanese tea that gives it such a special place in my heart?  Like most other tea producing regions of the world, tea came to Japan by way of China.  As early as the 8th century, Buddhist monks returning to Japan from studying in China are known to have brought tea back with them.  It wasn’t until the 12th century, however, that Japan began cultivating its own tea and tea culture thanks to the Buddhist monk known as Eisai who first established tea farming in Japan when he brought back tea plant seeds from China.(1)

Japan is known for green tea, in fact, most of the tea produced and consumed in Japan is green tea. It differs from Chinese green tea because of different processing techniques. One especially unique Japanese technique is the steaming of harvested leaves to halt the oxidation.

Rona Tison, green tea expert and Vice President of Ito En tea company, discussed the five main Japanese teas to an audience of tea lovers at the San Francisco International Tea Festival 2014.  Here’s what I learned about them at her presentation:

Photo by Hattie Hagedorn
Matcha is a powdered green tea used for the Cha-no-yu, which is the traditional Japanese tea ceremony.   It is prepared for drinking by adding hot water and using a fine toothed bamboo whisk to whip the tea liquor into a froth.  This style of tea was first created in China during the Song period (960-1279 AD), but lost popularity in China in subsequent years.  Nowadays, it is considered quintessentially Japanese.

Photo by Masa Sinreih in Valentina Vivod
Sencha is green tea brewed from whole leaves.  The leaves are carefully chosen from tea plants fully exposed to the sun as they grow, not shaded.  About 80% of the tea produced in Japan is Sencha.(2)

Hojicha green tea is made by roasting bancha tea at a high heat instead of steaming.  Bancha are leaves and stems harvested in the later part of the year.

Photo by Chahltd
Genmaicha tea is bancha or sencha with roasted rice kernels mixed in.  During roasting some of the kernels pop open like popcorn.


Photo by A Girl With Tea
Considered the caviar of teas, Gyokuro is the highest grade of Japanese tea.  The leaves for this tea are harvested once a year during the late spring.  About two weeks before harvest, the entire tea plant is covered to shade it from sunlight until picking time.  This treatment is believed to bring out exceptionally rich flavors in the leaves.

So, what is it about Japanese teas that I like?  Perhaps the flavor of the steamed leaves, or the thick liquor of a whipped brew of powdered matcha, or the savory notes when roasted rice is mixed in, or perhaps just the beautifully refined cha-no-yu culture.  For me it’s all good.

Tison's presentation was a good start for my forays into Japanese teas.  Explore for yourself, if you haven’t already.  Here’s a link to a video where Christine Savage, tea expert at the Samovar Tea Lounge, introduces several types of Japanese green teas.  She gives a great overview on how the teas are processed and what their particular characteristics are.
Click the image for link to video.

  1. Tea: History, Terroirs, Varieties, by The Camelia Sinensis Tea House (Kevin Gascoyne, Francois Marchand, Jasmin Desharnais, Hugo Americi. Firefly Books Ltd, 2014, p.90
  2. Tea: History, Terroirs, Varieties, by The Camelia Sinensis Tea House (Kevin Gascoyne, Francois Marchand, Jasmin Desharnais, Hugo Americi. Firefly Books Ltd, 2014, p.116
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