Denver, CO tops list as U.S. city most interested in loose tea

I just discovered Google Trends. Maybe everyone else already heard about this as a neat new fast way to track the spread of the flu, but it’s new to me. For those who are more out of it than me, Google Trends tracks when and where people are searching for certain words in Google.

Since my self-imposed purpose in this blog is the write about tea, I naturally typed in “tea” and was fascinated to see seven huge spikes over the last several years on certain days in searches for tea. Then I became quickly unfascinated when I realized they all were people looking for “tea party,” and were generally right before elections. Add to the list of all the other problems the Tea Party Movement has caused: They’ve taken over the word “tea” so it’s more associated with right-wing idiots than with camellia senensis.

I put in “sun tea” and found a spike which apparently corresponded with an episode of 30 Rock which included Al Gore and was titled “Sun Tea.”

Finally, I put in “loose tea” and got some semi-interesting results which were actually about tea. Searches for “loose tea” double right before Christmas every year. Not too surprising, since loose tea is still considered by many to be a cool thing for somebody else to have. I imagine the amount of loose tea that ends up sitting in the kitchen cabinet for three years after being given as a Christmas present is sizeable.

But more interesting, kind of, was who is interested in tea. The answer is people in Denver, Colo. — which makes sense to me because that’s one of those places that consistently tops lists of “healthiest cities.” Second was Portland, Ore. (no idea why) and third is my city, Boston, which I humbly suggest has attained that rank in no small part because of my presence here.

So if you’re a tea fanatic who wants to live somewhere where the greatest percentage of people talk about tea, try Denver. Or else just read this blog. A lot.

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Teavana, the ‘Starbucks of tea,’ set to go public

With 146 stores now in 38 states across the country, the brown-and-orange-themed mall storefront of Teavana will likely be exploding in the next couple of years after the company filed to go public last month. The stores are mostly in shopping malls now, including the Mall at Chestnut Hill, the South Shore Plaza, Copley Place, the Prudential Center and the Burlington Mall in the Boston area. According to the World Tea News blog by Dan Bolton, they’ll be opening 50 new stores by summer, and 60 more in fiscal 2012. The goal is 500 stores by 2015. The company was founded in 1997 by Chairman and CEO Andrew T. Mack and his wife Nancy Mack (who still own about 70 percent equity) and began rapidly expanding in 2004 following an investment from SKM Growth Investors, according to the blog.

Apparently, tea people say this will be good for the business of tea as a whole. Bolton quotes competitor Charles Cain, business development director for Adagio Teas, as saying “Teavana’s IPO is VERY good news for everyone in the tea industry…. While Teavana does a lot of things right, is a formidable competitor, and has a significant lead, they are not and cannot be all things to all people.”

I’ve been in the store at the South Shore Plaza a number of times, but only bought tea there once. It was good, but more expensive than some smaller shops, and I always think it’s a little inconvenient to have to ask to smell every type of tea, since they keep them all behind the counter. I always take a sample of the free tea the company puts out in front of the stores, though.

Whether this ends up being good for tea as a whole is yet to be seen. Tea has become more trendy in recent years due in large part to all the studies that say how good it is for you, but if it follows the same trajectory of Starbucks did for coffee, a $4 cup of tea may become the standard soon. I’ll still choose to buy mine and make it at home.

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The secret to sun tea that doesn’t end up skunked

Everywhere I go, people are always asking me: “Don, how can I ensure that my sun tea doesn’t get skunked?” I know exactly what you mean. That bitter smell, a little moldy almost, when you open up a jar with water and a bunch of tea bags that you’ve left outside all afternoon. Or else, that same jar if you put it in the fridge overnight. “Skunked.” That’s the only way to describe it. If it’s happened to you, you know what I’m talking about.

There have been stories about the hidden dangers of sun tea. So for sake of the Don Seiffert WordPress Legal Department, here’s a warning: If you’re really old, or really young, or really sick or in some other way closer to death than the rest of us, don’t make sun tea. It might kill you.

For the rest of us, who are willing to risk life and health for the enormous ease sun tea offers for making huge amounts of tea, it’s not too hard to do it right. I struggled for years, adding sugar, lemon or mint before, and then after, putting the jar out in the sun. No doubt, waiting until after it’s brewed to add sugar or lemon cuts down on the frequency of skunked tea. But then there were times when I used just plain Lipton tea bags and cold water, nothing else, and still it happened. That horrible, deadly smell.

Finally, after years of trial and error, I hit on it. Wash the jar with soap and water in between. A lot of times when I was feeling lazy, I used to figure that tea is basically water, so there’s no need to wash the jar. I’d rinse it out and start the next batch, or sometimes, I wouldn’t even do that. If there’s an inch of tea left on the bottom, why not just fill the rest up with cold water, throw in the tea bags, and give yourself a head start on the brewing process?

Here’s why: The warm water and moist air in the sun tea jar is fertile breeding ground for bacteria. You can’t get rid of all of it, but too much of it causes the skunky smell and taste (and, for those who or old/young/sick, ups the likelihood you’ll die if you drink it). By getting rid of as much bacteria as possible before making sun tea (and filling it up as close to the top of the jar as possible to leave little room for bacteria-laden air), you can cut way down on the skunk factor. Also, when you’re ready to take it in, put it right in the fridge, or better yet, pour it into something else (i.e., a pitcher) and then put it in the fridge.

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Fascination with Mormons spreads to fashion world

Members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints walk towards members of the media on the Yearning for Zion ranch in Eldorado, Texas in April, 2008.

I’ve been obsessed with Mormons ever since I read “Under the Banner of Heaven” by Jon Krakauer last year, and recently I’ve been relieved to find I’m not the only one. Besides the TV shows like “Big Love,” a fictional show about a polygamous Mormon family, and “Sister Wives,” a reality show about Kody Brown and Mrs. and Mrs. and Mrs. and Mrs. Brown, there is a new documentary called “Sons of Perdition” which aired last weekend at the Independent Film Festival Boston. It follows the lives of several young men who left Colorado City, Ariz. (aka, “The Creek”) in order to get away from a community which is for all intents and purposes ruled by the Prophet Warren Jeffs of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The documentary was moving and weird, and will hopefully draw more attention to a community known to endorse bigamy, incest and statutory rape of teenage girls.

Now, the weirdest twist on this fascination with the Church of the Latter Day Saints (which renounced polygamy a century ago, but has engendered so many splinter sects due to their belief that God can and does communicate His will directly through human prophets) is apparently in the fashion world. A friend and fellow observer of all things Mormon sent me an article about Funky Frum, a company which is specializing in the Mormon look, like the “full-skirted, leg-o-mutton-sleeved dresses, with their strangely swooped-up-and-sprayed-down braided hair.”

Apparently this isn’t the first fashion company targeting woman of various religions. According to the article, “among the dozens that market to religious women (are) SunnahStyle.com and IslamicOutfitters.com are aimed at Muslims; DressingForHisGlory.com and LiliesoftheField.com target Christians; Tznius.com and ModestClothing.com target Orthodox Jews.”

I haven’t seen this fashion trend in the Boston area yet, but I’ll be watching from now on.

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500 grams in 53 days

It’s been less than two months since I got a shipment of two half-kilo bags of jasmine green tea. Yesterday I kicked one of the two bags. That’s about 10 grams a day, which doesn’t sound like an exorbitant amount, but when I look at how much it was when I got the shipment from Amazon on March 10, I can’t believe I consume that much tea. And that’s not the only tea I’ve drank in the last 53 days, although it’s the one I most frequently used to make a pot before I go to bed so I’d have it in the morning. I thought this amount would last for more than half a year, but at this rate, I’ll be finished with the other bag by mid-July. Time to start looking into getting a wholesaler’s license.

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Japan to world: Our gyokuro is not radioactive

Almost two months after the earthquake in Japan caused nuclear reactors in Fukushima to leak radioactive particles, tea importers who sell Japanese tea are trying to figure out how to tell everyone that, they say, no tea has been contamintaed. According to an April 25 article on worldteanews.com, European bans on imports from the country, which will continue until the end of June, have already caused delays, and may result in higher prices for tea from the country. Power outages in Japan related to the accident may also slow tea production.

A tea importer from San Francisco is said to have recently returned from a trip to the country and says “no contaminated tea has been reported,” according to World Tea News Editor Dan Bolton. The tea businessman also reported that the World Green Tea Association was being “very cautious about saying anything good or bad about the tea crop in any region” — essentially, it’s saying nothing at all.

The most interesting part of the article, to me anyway, was at the bottom of the article a section titled, “What to Say to Clients and Customers.” The official party lines include the observations that “No tea either freshly picked or packaged has been discovered to be contaminated by radioactive particles” and “Virtually all of Japan’s tea is grown at least 200 to 300 kilometers south of the radiation source.”

The most popular Japanese teas in the U.S. include green teas gyokuro, sencha and bancha, and the roasted hojicha.

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Mark Sandman biopic leaves major question unanswered

Just got back from seeing the premiere showing of “Cure for the Pain: The Mark Sandman Story,” about the frontman for the great, eclectic rock band, Morphine. Great music, and cool footage. Some good interviews — especially the funny, bizarre ones with Sandman himself, such as why he plays a two-string bass (“I started out with one string. Then I graduated to two.”)

But the documentary leaves a serious hole by never addressing the question of drug use. Specifically, why did so many of his lyrics have to do with addiction? And why did he die, onstage in Italy, at the age of 46? The name of the band, is, of course, the most obvious sign. By way of explanation, Sandman himself, in the documentary, says it comes from the name “Morpheus,” the Greek god of dreams. OK. That could settle it — except that references to drugs and addiction are not simply scattered throughout his lyrics, but are the very basis of many of them. In the title song of the band’s most famous album, which is also the name of the movie, Sandman sings:

I propose a toast to my self control
You see it crawling helpless on the floor
Someday there’ll be a cure for pain
That’s the day I throw my drugs away

Then there’s “Lucky Day,” which is not about drugs, but gambling, where the speaker is at a blackjack table in Atlantic City:

Now I’m down a little in fact I’m down a lot
I’m on a roller coaster ride that I can’t stop
Yeah my luck has changed but she’ll come back
That’s the beauty of a game of chance
I can’t lose forever but I’m doomed to try.

There are dozens of other examples, those are just two. And then there’s Sandman’s mother, who, in an interview in the film, mentions the time he spent in Central America doing “something with marijuana and mushrooms.” So it seems hard to believe that he didn’t have some history with drugs, despite the arguments of some, like blogger Marc Campbell, who says, “Mark and I came to know each other back in the eighties and while I shared an occasional drink with him I never saw or knew of Mark doing drugs.”

So it’s a natural question which I think the audience is entitled to ask, and receive an answer, in any story that purports to be about Sandman’s life: Did he use drugs?

I asked the question tonight after the showing in Somerville Theater, when the producer, two directors, and Sandman’s girlfriend, Sabine Hrechdakian, were all onstage. After I asked why it was never addressed in the movie, producer Jeff Broadway turned to Hrechdakian to address it. She cited, again, Sandman’s explanation in the movie about the origin of the name, then added, “It’s not really something I feel comfortable addressing.”

In a blog written a few months ago, Michael Azerrad, who says she is a friend of Hrechdakian, argues that the family did not want an autopsy after Sandman’s death in 1999, and that because of that (and, of course, the name of the band), there has been a lot of speculation that his death was somehow linked to drugs. She ends saying, “People can speculate all they want, but both Sabine Hrechdakian and (bandmate) Dana Colley confirm it wasn’t drugs that killed Mark Sandman.  Now everyone knows the story.  Maybe that will put the whole thing to rest.”

To me, that’s simply not good enough. And Hrechdakian’s answer tonight didn’t exactly put the rumors to rest. It’s an important point, not because it would change the fact the Sandman wrote and performed some great music. But if Sandman didn’t do drugs, and all of the references in his lyrics were simply an act he put on onstage, why bother? Why glorify drugs if he privately hated them?

There are many comments from people in the film about Sandman’s privacy, how he hid much of his life, as though that should explain why the question is never asked in the movie. But it’s the elephant in the room throughout the documentary, and why the documentary ultimately comes off as surface.

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Anti-royal wedding quest for the working mans’ tea

I just watched a video about dos and don’ts when you’re drinking tea with royalty. Please. It’s an interview with Cindi Bigelow of Bigelow Tea in New York City, in which she says things like don’t wring your teabag out using the string and don’t wave your cup around. Which immediately made me want to urge everyone to wring teabags and wave teacups wildly on Friday for the royal wedding of Kate Middleton and Prince William.

Instead, I started thinking about what the quintessential proletariat tea brand might be — for those of us, for instance, who aim to spend less on our typical weddings than the estimated $70 million that will be spent on Friday’s extravaganza.

The three brands that came to mind were Red Rose, Lipton and Salada — the ones in any supermarket. Doing a little cursory research revealed that both Salada and Red Rose are in fact owned by the same Connecticut-based company, Redco Foods. While this does not disqualify either brand in my mind for the Working Man’s Tea Designation, companies that own two competing brands seem to lack the total downhome, straightforward honesty such a designation requires.

I’d take Red Rose out of the running, because even though it has the grandma market locked up — I drank Red Rose for years because I figured my grandma knows tea — it has slightly elevated airs, despite the fact that it’s exactly the same as the other two. And then there’s those weird little figurines of animals that come in the boxes. It’s like a senior citizen’s Happy Meal.

So then I compared the history of both Salada and Lipton. Salada was said to be founded in 1892 by Montreal businessman Peter C. Larkin, whose big idea was to package it in foil packaging; while Lipton was apparently created by a grocer, Thomas Lipton, from Glasgow, Scotland, who, in 1893, established the Thomas J. Lipton Co., based in Hoboken, New Jersey.

That clinched it for me. You really can’t get much more proletariat than a grocer in Hoboken. Lipton’s the winner.

So if you’re looking to celebrate you non-royal status on Friday, raise a cup of regular old Lipton tea in the air, wave it around a lot, and make sure to wring out the bag when you’re done.

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Oak Hill School bus crash in Newton, Mass., 10 years later

This is one of those posts that has nothing to do with tea. Ten years ago today, around 5 a.m., a bus flipped over on a cloverleaf off a highway in New Brunswick, Canada, killing four kids from Newton. I was the editor of the Newton TAB at the time, and wrote a column about it for today’s paper. Take a moment today to be thankful for all you have in life. And if you’re reading this, you are alive and therefore have a lot.

Also check out the rest of the coverage on the Newton TAB web site.

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Best springtime iced tea in the world

Rooibos tea on ice = spring.

I’ve talked about rooibos as being one of the few herbal teas that’s worth the cost of the water used to make it. As Easter heralds the beginning (we hope) of nice weather and getting outdoors, this is the time of the year when I start making iced rooibos. It’s non-caffeinated, so you can drink it all day and not get dehydrated or just plain wiggy. And if you’re as into exercise as I hope to be one day, it’s got all the stuff that’s in Gatorade (potassium, magnesium, zinc) without the sugar nor the advertising campaign that makes you feel like you’re being targeted like a middle-school football team.

Today I’m making a fruity little number by Selby Select in Sarasota, Fla. picked up my my mom when she was down there. It’s reviewed well by Teaviews (losing points only for claiming to be more local than it really is, I guess), and smells like flowers and oranges. Since this is not a “real” tea (ie, it’s not camellia sinensis, the plant used for black and green tea), I boil it in a saucepan for five or 10 minutes without having to worry about it getting too bitter. Then I strain it with a tea strainer (you need one with really fine mesh because the rooibos leaves are tiny) and pour it over ice.

Nice. Easy. Healthy. A rebirth of spring. Insert your own Easter metaphor here.

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