The Tea Leaves and Tweed Tea Primer: Level One

(or “I’ve only ever tried supermarket tea bags”)

I want to start this section off by saying that there is not necessarily anything wrong with supermarket tea bags. I will even make myself a cuppa from a standard tea bag every now and then (usually when traveling). If what you’re after is a strong brew that can stand up to plenty of milk and sugar, standard tea bags might be the best thing for you. But they do not contain the best quality tea. And paying more for “fancy” tea bags is often not worth the money.

Generally, tea bags are filled with what are called “fannings.” In order to understand what these are and why they aren’t great, it’s necessary to explain a little about tea grading. In the British system of tea grading, teas are graded by leaf size and whole-ness. So basically, leaves are placed in a series of progressively finer sieves, where the larger full leaves sit at the top and the smaller leaves and broken bits fall to lower levels. At the bottom of this hierarchy are the fannings and dust, which are the lowest size grade of tea. Now, none of this takes into account the initial quality of the leaves being sorted, but in general, larger, whole leaves behave differently in water than more broken leaves, and these fannings are the lowest grade of that.

When tea leaves are broken up, the brewer begins to sacrifice control over the brewing process because more leaf surface is exposed to water, making flavorful compounds come out into the water faster. The problem comes because not all flavorful compounds are full of good flavors, and when you brew fannings, you will extract the less pleasant flavors with the good flavors more quickly. This can lead to an unpleasantly bitter or tannic cup of tea that is best covered with some dairy and sugar. These unpleasant flavors can also overpower the more delicate flavors in the tea.

So I’ve convinced you that tea bags are the worst and you want to stop using them. Well, not so fast. Most commercial tea bags sold in the supermarket are full of fannings and dust and don’t really exhibit much flavor nuance unless they have other flavorings added. But not all of them are so. And I recognize that not everyone wants to jump right into loose-leaf tea.

This is where full-leaf tea bags come in. These are tea bags, yes, but they are filled with higher-quality, whole tea leaves. Sometimes called “sachets” to differentiate them from standard tea bags, they are often made in a pyramid shape, so that the tea leaves have more room to expand as you steep them and they swell in the water, allowing for a better extraction of flavor without sacrificing control over the steep by breaking up the leaves.

One of my favorite brand of full-leaf tea bags is Rishi Tea. I purchased these to serve at my wedding and it’s what I carry with me when I travel. They have a nice variety of teas and herbals available in pyramid-shaped bags, and can give the tea novice a nice introduction to the world of teas, though most of their bagged teas are flavored in some way. That said, they have one type of unflavored black tea and two types of standard, unflavored green tea available in sachets (plus their Matcha Gyokuro, which might be a bit odd for a novice tea-drinker – I’ll talk more about matcha in a future post!).

Another brand that offers tea bags is Harney & Sons. Again, many of their bagged offerings are flavored, but they have a decent selection of pure teas, for those just getting started. I also like Mighty Leaf Tea sachets, which are large but not pyramid-shaped. They offer a hojicha roasted Japanese green tea in a bag that would be great to try, particularly if you’re a fan of roasted flavors. Additionally, Teatulia offers a variety of bagged whole-leaf teas, including unflavored offerings of black, white, green, and oolong teas.

If you’re keen to try pu-erh tea and want to stick with bags, Teavivre offers bagged pu-erh teas. They offer a plain ripe (shu) and raw (sheng) pu-erh, as well as varieties flavored with rose, chrysanthemum, or rice. For more variety of oolong teas, my friend Nazanin of Tea Thoughts found some high-quality bagged oolong tea from Esteemed Tea Co. for her “Steep It Real” tea gift box. One thing to note with these oolong teas is that they are all unflavored and the “honey” oolong refers to the natural honey aroma that occurs in some types of oolong tea.

Of course, you may want to try some of those flavored teas. I would highly recommend you start with more traditional flavorings and leave the blueberry-vanilla-mango tea for a bit later on in your tea explorations. Traditional flavorings are things like Earl Grey, which is a good black tea scented with bergamot, or masala chai, an Indian blend of black tea with spices like cinnamon, cardamom, black pepper, and ginger. For green teas, I like jasmine green tea, though it can be difficult to find a tea that isn’t cloyingly floral-scented. Other classic flavorings for teas are rice (such as in genmaicha green tea, which is often served in sushi restaurants) and chrysanthemum. For my wedding, since they are generally crowd-pleasing, I served Earl Grey and Jasmine Green teas from Rishi Teas. But it is a good idea to get a variety of pure, unflavored teas to get an idea of what the teas themselves taste like.

Now that you have the tea bags, what do you do with them? Well, in order to make tea, you need tea leaves and water. In most cases, people generally prefer to have some way of removing the tea leaves from the water after the tea is brewed. In the case of a tea bag, the removal of leaves is trivial, so all you need is a cup of some sort in which to brew your tea, along with water of the appropriate temperature.

Ah, temperature. The perpetual question and battle of the tea novice vs. the tea master. You may ask, is the temperature of the water really that important? The answer is yes and no. Basically, tea comes with certain brewing instructions that tend to vary by the type of tea (although plenty of brands use the same instructions on the packaging of all of their teas). But these instructions are not rules. I like to say that brewing instructions are like the pirate’s code: they’re really more like guidelines.

So with bagged tea, the things you can control are the tea bags you choose, how much water you put in, the temperature of the water, and how long you leave the tea in the water. All of these will affect your final brew, although it’s not always about better or worse. I think the first rule of tea is to make tea the way you like it. If you follow the instructions to the letter and you don’t like the result, try something a bit different.

One of the main questions I get asked is how I know what temperature at which to brew the tea. The short answer is that it depends on the tea. The longer answer is that more robust, oxidized teas tend to like hotter water, while more delicate, less-oxidized teas like cooler water. But, like all of these guidelines, they’re not set in stone. And you can fine-tune a tea by playing with water temperature alone a lot. Cooler water will extract the flavors more gently, and I’ve actually found that steeping a black tea that tends towards bitterness in a slightly cooler water will yield a smoother brew.

Okay, but what are the starting points? Well, black tea and ripe pu-erhs like full boiling water. Green and white teas will want water that is considerably cooled off from boiling, and oolongs will fall somewhere in the middle. After trying a tea at a given temperature, if the tea feels harsh, I’ll drop the temperature. If I feel I haven’t gotten enough flavor out of it, even after a long steeping, I might try hotter water. In the case of green teas in particular, sometimes too-hot water will yield a tea that tastes quite a bit of bitter, boiled spinach. Dropping the water temperature even more often helps. One thing that can be helpful to remember, if you’re watching your water boil, is this rough correspondence between temperature and bubble size in water.

But what exact temperature do you mean? Well, at this first level, I would say that precision might not be that important. In fact, when I first started out, I didn’t have a temperature-controlled kettle. I would boil my water and let it cool off to get under-boiling water. I would set a timer and let the water cool off for a bit, and if the resulting tea tasted off, I would let it cool off more next time. It’s imprecise, but for the new tea-drinker, just letting the water cool off from boiling, rather than chucking boiling water over your most delicate teas will already be an improvement.

The other part of the equation is how long your tea steeps. This will vary by the steeping method, but for tea bags, I’m assuming brewing will be done “Western-style,” which involves a relatively small amount of leaf brewed in a large-ish (8-12 oz.) vessel for minutes, rather than tens of second (oh, stay tuned for later posts for that). From there, try brewing your black teas for 3-5 minutes, your green and white teas for 2-4 minutes, and your oolongs for 3-4 minutes. Ripe pu-erh can go for five minutes or more because good pu-erh stays silky smooth even with the longest brew time and bad pu-erh will be horrible no matter what you do with it. Again, if something seems off, fiddle with the brewing time. Longer brewing times will yield stronger flavors and shorter brewing times will mellow odd flavors.

One final note about good-quality, full-leaf tea: It can and should be brewed more than once. Remember how I said that whole leaves allow flavors to be released over time? Well, that can mean even longer than a single brew. I always brew my full-leaf tea at least twice, with the second steeping getting 30 seconds to a minute longer than the first, for Western-style brewing. So save your tea bag in a little dish and make a second cup of tea with it when you’ve finished the first. You can even try brewing it again and again, until you feel you’ve gotten all the flavor out! So if you’re the type of person who drinks a few cups of tea per day, you might be able to get away with one tea bag for the whole day, which will help soften the blow of the cost of good-quality tea a bit.

The Brief Takeaway, Level One:

  1. Switch from standard, dust-filled tea bags to full-leaf tea bags. Some places to check out are: Rishi Tea, Teatulia, Esteemed Tea, Teavivre, Mighty Leaf, and Harney & Sons.
  2. Pay attention to the temperature of your water, but remember that “brewing instructions” are just guidelines.
  3. Start with boiling water for black tea, and then less-boiling water for oolong tea, and even less-boiling water for green and white tea. You don’t necessarily need to know the exact temperature, but remember how you heated your water so you can experiment if needed (or so you can reproduce a good brew later!).
  4. If you’re brewing your tea in a mug, start with 3-5 minutes for black tea, 2-4 minutes for green tea, and 3-4 minutes for oolong.
  5. If your tea is too weak, try hotter water or a longer brewing time. If the tea is too strong or tastes off, try cooler water or a shorter brewing time.
  6. You can brew your full-leaf tea more than once! Add on some time for each subsequent brew.
  7. Above all, make tea the way you like it!

Next week: Level Two, or “I’m ready to try loose-leaf tea”

NB: All vendors mentioned in this post are vendors that I have used and liked, or that come recommended by those I trust, and I have received no compensation for recommending them.

The Tea Leaves and Tweed Tea Primer: Prologue

(or “So you’re interested in tea…”)

I think my ultimate goal with this piece is to end up drawing in readers who google “How to tea?” or “How do I even tea?” or “What to do with this tea?” As someone who has been drinking tea in various forms for at least thirty of my thirty-five years, I’ve had a varied evolution to the gong fu-brewing, matcha-whisking tea enthusiast who graces the pages of this blog. And many people in my life and who read my blog simply aren’t interested in the nuances of sheng vs. shu pu-erh or the terroir of oolong tea. Many of them just want to try something nicer than Lipton’s tea bags, or want to know what to do with this loose-leaf tea their friend gave them, or want to know what they really need to get started trying better-quality teas.

A note about motivation: If you’re here because you want to switch from a different source of caffeine to tea because you think it’s somehow healthier, this is probably not the place for you. I can’t teach you how to enjoy tea, and I can’t speak to any particular health benefit of tea over coffee. I personally made the switch from drinking primarily coffee to drinking almost exclusively tea, but I had been enjoying tea for decades before that. I merely made the cost-benefit analysis for my own personal body. I actually love coffee, but it doesn’t love me back, so I limit it to once a week (unless I am in Europe, in which case, I suffer the consequences with wild abandon). And I feel absolutely no deprivation because I also love tea.

But if you’re here to find out how to dip your toe into the tea, I hope you find this helpful. This primer will be organized into layers of tea enthusiasm, from least to more complex (I don’t claim to be a tea expert and couldn’t possibly write about the most complex layers of tea). I’ll start out talking a little bit about tea and what it is, though this will hardly be an exhaustive education. If you’re interested in more about the processing that goes into making the different types of tea, I highly recommend A Little Tea Book, or else check out Sebastian’s website, In Pursuit of Tea, where he offers a brief description of tea types in his “Tea 101” section.

Okay, so. Tea. The first thing is that, while “tea” can colloquially mean the infusion of pretty much any plant matter in water, what I mean when I say “tea” is an infusion of the leaves, buds, and/or twigs of the Camellia sinensis plant. True “tea” comes from one species of plant, which is why I generally refer to herbal brews as “infusions” or “tisanes.” I love my herbal infusions as well, but they are not tea, to my mind. So with that in mind, what follows is a guide to the levels of enjoyment of Camellia sinensis.

Despite only coming from one species of plant, tea comes in many different types. Most westerners are familiar with “black tea,” which is made with tea leaves that have been completely oxidized before being heated to stop this process. That said, green tea, which is heated to stop the oxidation process before being dried, has also gained popularity in recent years. Additionally, white tea has also appeared on the mainstream tea scene in the US recently. White teas are only dried and are not heated at all after harvesting. Rounding out the main types of tea are oolong tea, which is oxidized to some extent, and pu-erh tea, which are aged or fermented.

Much of a tea’s flavor profile will come from its processing. Black teas are often described as richer, fuller-bodied, with flavors of tannin, malt, and dried fruits. Green teas are generally more delicate, with flavors of green vegetables or grass, while white teas can be intensely floral, belying their light colored brew. Oolongs have a wide variation, because “oolong” can describe a wide variety of processing techniques, and can range from creamy “milk” oolongs to floral-honey bug-bitten oolongs to cannabis-y roasted oolongs. Finally, pu-erh comes in raw or ripe and can range in flavor from similar to white teas to redolent of damp earth and mushrooms.

When choosing starter teas, you’ll want to consider price, convenience, availability, and your own personal tastes. If you like really funky Islay whisky, consider giving ripe or shu pu-erh a try (despite the fact that a colleague of mine refers to it as “shoe” tea because of the aroma of earth and leather). If you’re a green juice fanatic, you might prefer to start with green teas, and if you’re a staunch traditionalist, the world of available black teas is hardly basic. Personally, I came late to the oolong and white tea games, so I tend not to think of them as starter teas, though they absolutely could be. The trick is to find decent examples of them for a reasonable price and without having to look too hard.

Before we begin, I want to say something about how I’m setting this up. I’m calling the various chapters of this primer “levels,” but not as a way of denoting superiority. It’s more like the levels in a dungeon-crawling game. Just because you’ve “passed” one level doesn’t mean you can’t revisit it. And you should feel free to spend as much time on any given level as you’d like. Don’t worry about being a completionist.

From there, the main question is: Now what do I do with these dried leaves? And that, gentle reader, is where we begin.

Next week: Level One, or “I’ve only ever had supermarket tea bags”

An Autumn Recipe: Pumpkin Loaf

I’m not a pumpkin-spice latte kind of person, but one spiced offering I do love is pumpkin bread. When I was in college, my favorite afternoon snack was a thick slice of pumpkin bread with a little pot of cream cheese to spread on it from the cafe in the library. During the years I lived alone, I would often make a trip up to the library for a cup of tea and a slice of pumpkin bread during exams, simply because I would otherwise not interact with another person for days on end.

So with the turning of the seasons, I felt it was time to bake a pumpkin bread to enjoy with my tea. I like mine with cream cheese. This is a very lightly-sweet bread, so if you prefer a sweeter snack, perhaps pair it with a sweetened cream cheese (beat a few tablespoons of maple syrup or honey into eight ounces of cream cheese for a sweeter spread). But I like it barely sweet, made with hearty whole-grain flours, and studded with pumpkin seeds instead of nuts.

Pumpkin Loaf:

(based on this recipe from Cookie and Kate)

1 cup of sprouted spelt flour (or whole-wheat white flour)
3/4 cup all-purpose einkorn flour (or regular all-purpose flour)
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. ground ginger
1/2 tsp. allspice
1/4-1/2 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
2 eggs
1/2 cup dark maple syrup
1/3 cup ghee, melted
1 cup canned pumpkin puree
1/4 cup water
1/2 cup pumpkin seeds (I use soaked, salted, and dehydrated pumpkin seeds)

  1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees and grease a loaf pan and line with parchment (I used an 8.5″x4.5″ pan).
  2. Whisk together the dry ingredients: flours, spices, baking soda, and salt.
  3. Whisk together the eggs and maple syrup until well-mixed, then add the pumpkin puree and mix well. Drizzle in the melted ghee while whisking to emulsify.
  4. Add the wet mixture to the dry mixture, along with a 1/4 cup of water, and stir together. Fold in the pumpkin seeds.
  5. Spread the mixture in the prepared pan and bake for 60-75 minutes, until a tester comes out with only moist crumbs (or until it reaches 190 degrees internally).
  6. Allow to cool for a half an hour or so in the pan, and then turn out. It slices better when it’s cool because it’s a very tender quick bread. Slice into thick slices and serve with softened cream cheese or butter. I got eight thick slices out of my loaf.
  7. If you don’t eat it immediately, slice it and freeze it with parchment between each slice. Then, you can microwave a frozen slice for about 45-60 seconds to defrost and heat.

Tea and a Story: Stories of Hallowe’en and Samhain

Happy Hallowe’en and blessed Samhain! In honor of the holiday that marks the beginning of the dark quarter of the year, I thought I’d talk a bit about the stories and legends I’ve encountered that deal with this spooky time of year. Hallowe’en falls at a time that is approximately halfway between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice, so it’s about halfway from an equinox to the longest night of the year. And, really, Hallowe’en is around that time of year where you really start noticing that the days are getting shorter. All of a sudden, the sun isn’t coming up until I’m on the train, with my morning commute well under way. In fact, it’s probably not a coincidence that we change our clocks to give us a bit more light in the mornings right around Hallowe’en.

In folklore and legend, Hallowe’en or Samhain is the time at which the boundary between light and dark becomes thinner and, in many traditions, the veil between the mortal world and the spirit world is more easily traversed. In neo-Pagan traditions, Samhain is a time to meditate on your ancestors. It’s also no surprise that this thinning of boundaries would bring spirits and ghosts into the world, hence the Hallowe’en imagery involving ghosts and other supernatural beings. Divination was also said to be more successful at this time, which is a part of a lot of old Hallowe’en traditions, and most of which center around determining when and whom one is to marry [1].

But I’m here for the stories, not the general descriptions of traditions. And one of the stories that has the most explicit link to Samhain is the story of the Kelpie in Celtic mythology [2]. The Kelpie is a water spirit that takes the shape of either a human or a horse, and lives in water. In the Celtic story of the Kelpie, the sons of the chiefs of the tribes of Ireland are lured onto the back of a Kelpie in his horse form and dragged into the water because they stick to the horse once they’ve touched him (similar to the story of the goose that lays golden eggs). One man escapes by cutting off the hand that touched the horse, and goes on a quest to try to free the princes. He encounters a magician who tells him that the princes have been taken to the Otherworld, which is the Celtic spirit world, and the only time they can be brought back is during the feast of Samhuinn, when the veil between worlds is thin. I would definitely suggest reading the original story (or at least listening to the Myth Podcast treatment of it) because I haven’t done the complexities of the plot justice here, but suffice to say, they are successful in rescuing the lost princes.

Another legend that I’ve come to associate with Hallowe’en is the traditional folk theme of the Wild Hunt. I first encountered the idea of the Wild Hunt in the book Dead Beat by Jim Butcher in his Dresden Files series. In the book, a wizard can summon the Wild Hunt on Hallowe’en because it is the best time for the spirits to come through. After reading the book, I looked up more legends and folktales of the Wild Hunt and found that it has a deeply-rooted tradition in Germanic and Celtic folklore [3]. In Germanic traditions, the Hunt is often led by Odin or Woden, as a god of both battle and the dead. In Celtic tradition, the hunt is led by legendary heroes, including King Arthur in some traditions. There are also varying derivative traditions that have the hunt being led by any of a litany of unpopular figures at the time of the particular story. In general, the stories of the Hunt have evolved to be a party of infernal or evil characters. There is even a story in the American wild west, immortalized in song by Stan Jones, of damned cowboys who hunt the Devil’s cattle across the sky [4]. They warn the cowboy who sees them that he will join them unless he changes his ways (presumably to become a better person, although it’s unclear why the cowboy is particularly in danger of becoming damned). In this version, the unseen “leader” of the Hunt would be the Devil himself, dooming the spirits of damned cowboys to chase his herds forever. While the story doesn’t explicitly take place on Hallowe’en, it seems as likely a “dark and windy day” as any for a visitation of damned spirits.

Finally, no Hallowe’en festivity is complete without a Jack o’Lantern. So I thought I’d talk a little about the folkloric story of “Jack o’ the Lantern.” In Irish folklore, there’s a story of “Stingy Jack,” who borrowed money from the devil and then tricked his way into not giving up his soul when the debt came due [5]. Through a series of annoying deceptions, Jack ended up being barred from hell by an exasperated devil, but because he wasn’t exactly a good person, he wasn’t allowed into heaven. Doomed to walk the earth as a spirit for eternity, Jack found himself possibly worse off than if he’d just gone to hell. The devil ended up taking a bit of pity on him and gave him a perpetually-glowing ember to help him light his way, which Jack put in a carved-out turnip. From then on, he was known as Jack o’ the Lantern and was something of a will o’ the wisp type of spirit. Originally, people on the British isles carved turnips before the tradition was taken to North America, where there were pumpkins.

So there you have three stories of the season. What’s your favorite Hallowe’en or Samhain story?

Sources:

1. http://www.americas-most-haunted.com/2016/09/21/halloween-and-the-lost-art-of-divination/

2. https://www.amazon.com/Mammoth-Book-Celtic-Myths-Legends-ebook/dp/B00OGV0KTU

3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wild_Hunt

4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/(Ghost)_Riders_in_the_Sky:_A_Cowboy_Legend

5. https://www.history.com/topics/halloween/jack-olantern-history

On My Bookshelf: A Little Tea Book

At first glance, A Little Tea Book appears to be a typical decorative book. It’s the kind of brief, heavily-visual book with just enough text that my in-laws might put it in a guest bathroom for a little light reading on the toilet. But such books are generally pretty to look at without a whole lot of substance. Granted, coming from a pre-eminent tea authority, author, and illustrator, it’s likely to be enjoyable, at the very least. But A Little Tea Book went beyond these superficial expectations and surprised even me.

A quick note about the title: I keep thinking the title is The Little Book of Tea, which reminds me the episode of Black Books where Bill swallows The Little Book of Calm. And similarly, I have utterly devoured this book. Though I haven’t gained preternatural skills in meditation or tea from my consumption, I found the entire book thoroughly enjoyable.

The book combines information about the botanics, history, processing, and enjoyment of tea written by a foremost authority with beautiful photographs and illustrations to perfectly offset the text. It begins with the botany of the tea plant, and how processing turns a single species of plant into a diverse array of types of tea, before going into the differences between varieties and cultivars. I found this particularly fascinating because, while I know that only Camellia sinensis can truly be considered tea, and I have a passing familiarity with the two major varieties, I’d never gone into much detail about the cultivation of tea. I also appreciated the personal anecdotes about rarer types of tea.

From there, the book discusses the cultural context of tea, describing the naming of tea and how history has affected global distribution and tastes in tea. I was intrigued by the historical background, particularly how politics and economics drove different tastes around the world.

And finally, the book goes into the enjoyment of tea. I appreciate Sebastian’s informal, forgiving tone on the subjects of flavoring and adding to tea, neither demonizing either practice, while not encouraging it. He suggests tasting teas as they are, but ultimately admits that the best way to drink tea is the one that you enjoy. After all, tea rules, as he says, are less rules, and more “rules of thumb” (or as I like to say: tea rules are like the pirate code; they’re really more like guidelines).

And through the whole book, the visuals are fantastic. Gorgeous photographs of tea growing, processing, and brewing are interspersed with Wendy MacNaughton’s watercolor illustrations, which are both beautiful and informative. My favorite illustration would have to be the “flavor tree” of teas. But of course, I would expect nothing less from the illustrator of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat.

All in all, I would consider A Little Tea Book a delightful gift for both the veteran tea-lover as well as an enthusiastic novice. It is both beautifully designed and illustrated and contains a non-threatening, yet informative, introduction to the culture and enjoyment of tea.

NB: I purchased this book with my own money and have not been given any incentive to review it. All thoughts are my own.

On Being a “Beauty Blogger” but Also Being Kind of Lucky

This is another of my random, slightly-rambly posts where I work through my thoughts on something that has been on my mind for a while. You see, I consider myself at least partially a “beauty blogger” because I do post about beauty products (mostly skincare). And since I review beauty products, there is an underlying assumption that I think of myself as some sort of authority, no matter how minor.

This train of thought started when I posted a selfie on Facebook and someone commented on my “lovely glow.” Now, I believe this was a pregnancy reference, and I played it off with a joke about being excited about food, but a small part of me wanted to point out that I do spend more time than the average person thinking about my skin and caring for my skin. I definitely have honed my personal routine to have the best effect on my skin that I can get.

But the fact is that I am also somewhat a lucky person. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I’ve had struggles and skin issues, but nothing major. And while I credit some of my current success in good skin to proper care, I’ve never had a major skin issue. In fact, if I tried to see a dermatologist in the US, even at my skin’s worst, they’d probably consider me silly. Don’t even get me started on my hair. No, I’m not model-gorgeous, but I have a perfectly acceptable face and figure, and I do have rather nice hair.

And my hair is a good place to start. You see, one of the reasons I have rather nice hair is that my hair is incredibly resilient. I have thick, straight, strong hair and quite a lot of it. It’s graying, but it a somewhat chic way, with a streak that comes through at my part in a kind of Lily Munster sort of way. I’ve even been asked if I dye it in. So when I talk about my hair care routine, yes, I use best practices, avoid heat, wash as little as I can get away with, and make sure to use gentle tools. But I also know that my hair didn’t become any more brittle that one time in high school when I dyed it with boxed dye twice in the space of 48 hours (I didn’t like the color the first time). My hair is a good example because I could probably heat-style almost every day and dye it every month and still have pretty nice hair. At the very least, I have so darn much of it, it would take a long time for the wear and tear to show. So if you have thin, dry, curly, delicate, damaged, easily-damage-able hair, your mileage is certainly going to vary. That’s not to say that I don’t want you reading my blog, but I’m not necessarily going to be as helpful to you as someone with more trouble with their hair.

The same is true for skin. I was blessed with trouble-free skin as a teenager, and had some hormonal issues pop up later in life. I managed to wreck my skin barrier with high-pH cleansers and a lack of proper moisturization, but even when I was “breaking out,” I generally got maybe 4 or 5 spots at a time. It wasn’t even on the same level as some of the truly amazing skin transformations I’ve seen among bloggers I follow. And it’s never been to the point where I would consider much in the way of strong prescription treatment really worth it (I did Curology for all of three months, I think). I will admit that my skin is pretty calm. And since my hormones stopped fluctuating on a monthly basis, it’s been even better (we’ll see how that goes in a few months…). Again, I’m not saying you shouldn’t read this blog if you don’t have generally good skin, just that most of my beauty reviews aren’t going to feature drastic before-and-after results, but more a sense of how I like the feel of a product and whether I notice its subtle effects.

And I think that’s so important to admit as a person who reviews beauty. It seems like it’s going to damage your credibility to point out that you might not actually need some of the products you tout. But I would rather see a blogger be honest about the fact that their a bit genetically gifted than constantly compare myself to people who are always going to have better skin than I do. And I think it’s even more important to realize that the people who have the “bad” skin might actually be more informative in the long run if you’re actually looking for products that might make a difference in your skin. I’d rather see someone with a chin full of hormonal acne tell me what took them from cystic eruptions every month to just a few lingering clogged pores and residual pigmentation marks than listen to Regina George tell me what she uses on her nonexistent pimples.

It’s why I like to follow bloggers who are over 40 and bloggers who have made their struggles with acne public. No, I do not want to watch anyone squeeze anything on their face. But if I want to try a wrinkle cream, I’d rather see it reviewed by someone with actual wrinkles. And if you’re going to use Botox, yes, I’m thrilled that you’re going to tell me about it, rather than pretending that your flawlessness is entirely the work of your 12-step over-the-counter routine.

So that’s where I am with this right now. I hope my readers continue to enjoy the posts I post, but know that you’re probably never going to get a before and after photo from me because, frankly, the benefits I get from any given product don’t tend to be dramatic enough to show up on a photograph. But hopefully there is some merit to my opinion anyway.

It’s Supposed To Be Autumn

It’s 75 degrees (24 C) and humid today. I’m still wearing sleeveless chiffon blouses and a skirt with no stockings to work, and I still arrive after my walk in drenched in sweat. It’s muggy and the bugs are still out in full force.

It’s October. It’s not even very early October — we’re in the double-digits now. It’s supposed to be autumn. It’s supposed to be cool, maybe a little rainy, but it’s supposed to be sweater weather. Boot weather. Sipping-hot-cider weather.

Instead, I’m still in my summer holding pattern of sweating outside and then freezing when I walk into air-conditioned buildings. I even caught a cold, which felt more like a summer cold, since I was attempting to drink hot lemon tea while it was hot outside, which is nearly as uncomfortable as having a cold in the first place.

I would love to put on a pair of leggings and an oversized sweater and curl up with a soft blanket on the couch, sipping something hot, and thinking about what kind of warmly-spiced baked good I’d like to have in the oven. Maybe pumpkin bread. Or an apple pie. If it were proper autumn, I would put on a flannel shirt, jeans, and a pair of tall boots and walk around the lake until my cheeks were flushed with the chill in the air. Maybe I’d even need a hat (okay, it’s not usually that chilly by now, but still).

And it’s time for dark teas. We had some cooler, rainy weather last week and it reminded me how much I’d been missing black tea, deeply-roasted oolongs, and dark, rich, ripe pu-erhs since the spring and summer sent me into a whirl of white and green teas. Oh, I know I can drink any tea I like at any time of the year, but there’s something so fitting about pairing a rich tea with a crisp autumn day.

Have you gotten proper autumn weather yet? If not, what would you be doing if it were cool and lovely instead of still clinging to summer?

Getting Started with Tea and Amazon Prime, part two: Tasting Teas from Teavivre

So last week, I shared some of my favorite teaware purchases on Amazon Prime as a way of helping someone get started with loose-leaf tea more easily and accessibly. In that post, I mentioned that I’ve also bought some quality loose-leaf teas off Amazon recently from Teavivre. Teavivre is a company that sells teas from China and is pretty consistently ranked in the top 10 among the User’s Choice Vendor List on Reddit’s Tea subreddit, r/tea. Since they have an Amazon storefront, with options available through Prime, they’re also really, really convenient, especially if you’re impatient like me.

Now, a note about shipping: Most of the vendors I use charge shipping, and shipping can add up, especially when you’re sourcing teas directly from the country of origin. If you have a hard time getting over paying almost as much for your tea again for shipping, it would help to read this post. One thing to note about buying items through Prime with “free shipping” is that they will probably be priced higher than the same item on Teavivre’s own site because companies work shipping prices into their item prices when they decide to offer free shipping. In fact, I’ve bought matcha from one site that had low prices and charged a lot for shipping, only to find that, ultimately, if I bought a couple of things, it was much more economical to buy from them than from a site with free shipping. And the matcha was excellent. But I do like free Prime shipping when I just want to try one thing and don’t feel like putting together a large order. It’s about your shopping and drinking habits. Anyway, on to the tea. I’ve chosen to try one each of black, green, oolong, and white teas to review here, so you can get a sense of what they offer. I didn’t get a puerh because I’m still working through the samples I got from white2tea a while ago!

Organic Bai Mu Dan White Peony white tea: This was the first tea I tried, and I actually showcased it in a sunrise tea session video a while ago. I’d never tried a white peony before, but it had a pretty standard non-silver-needle white tea profile, if a little straw-y for my tastes. It brews up nicely in gongfu and lasts for at least five infusions. This is a very fluffy tea and will probably seem like a lot of leaf if you measure your tea by weight.

Tieguanyin oolong tea: I’ve spoken at length about my love of oolongs, and Tieguanyin is one of my favorites. This is a great example of this style of oolong, still quite green and light, but with a satisfying slight creaminess and honey-floral character that I adore. I got 100g of this and it’s my go-to, can’t-decide-what-kind-of-tea-to-make, I-need-a-nice-cuppa-to-perk-me-up tea.

Premium Tai Ping Hou Kui green tea: I got this tea simply because I keep seeing “the green tea with the big leaves” on Instagram and I wanted to try it for the novelty. But it’s quickly become one of my favorite teas for a lazy, warm morning. I don’t know how much I’ll drink once the weather (finally) cools off, but it’s pretty much what you’ll find me drinking on work-from-home days and weekends. I just put 2.5g in my double-walled tumbler and drink it farmer-style, and it’s a delightful classic Chinese green tea. It’s a bit light in flavor, but it has distinct notes of grass, green leafy vegetables, and just a tiny touch of the sea.

Yunnan Dian Hong Golden Tip black tea: Wow, I saved the best for last here. With the aforementioned weather cooldown, I’m finding myself more drawn to black teas, and I was curious to try a Dian Hong. This Dian Hong is absolutely wonderful, with notes of dried fruit and syrup. It doesn’t get too tannic or bitey, and I just find it a lovely mellow tea to sip on a rainy or cool morning.

So that’s my round-up of some teas I’ve tried at Teavivre, all purchased through Amazon. Do note that I wasn’t given any incentive to write this post, nor are any links affiliate. I hope you’ll consider them a way to get started with some great teas without needing to navigate all the different tea vendors out there. Of course, once you find teas you like, definitely branch out and see how different vendors’ offerings differ, but the beginning shouldn’t be daunting. I hope this helps at least one person feel a bit less intimidated by loose-leaf tea!

Getting Started With Tea Using Amazon Prime

I know that Amazon as a company is controversial, and you’re probably going to find better quality tea and teaware going through one of the smaller vendors I’ve talked about before on this blog and my YouTube channel. But I’ve noticed that a lot of people find it daunting to get into loose-leaf and gongfu-brewed tea, and I thought I might share some of the tea and teawares I’ve gotten off Amazon Prime that have been helpful in informing my journey.

My most recent tea video features my first gaiwan, which was an Amazon purchase, but that I found out after filming the video isn’t available on Amazon any more, sadly. So, to make up for that, I’ve put together an Amazon idea list of all the various tea things I’ve gotten off Amazon and liked, that still look like they’re available. Note that this doesn’t have affiliate links, since I’m not an Amazon affiliate. I thought I’d call out a couple specific items that have served me well through my tea journey.

FORLIFE Curve Infuser Mug: This was one of my first go-to brewing vessels when I made the conscious choice to stop drinking coffee most days and switch to tea, almost exclusively. I knew I would use loose-leaf tea, which I generally got from my grocery store, but I needed a simple, non-fussy way to brew it. This is definitely a vessel for brewing Western-style, with a few teaspoons of tea leaves to a large mug. I still get multiple steepings out of a single batch of leaves with this mug. I don’t use it as much anymore, as I actually do steep gongfu-style at work, but for years, this was my constant desk companion, and it’s a great starter infuser for anyone looking to make the switch from tea bags to loose leaf.

Hario Glass Kyusu: This was my only teapot for small-leaf Japanese green teas for a long time. It has a nice fine mesh, and the shape is such that I can fill it halfway with hot water and brew a little less tea. And you get to see the color of the infusion, which is nice.

The Fish Teapot: This is a perennial favorite on my Instagram, so I thought I’d share its origin. This was actually on my Amazon wish list for ages, and my husband bought it for my for my birthday one year. This is a great way to brew gongfu-style at work because the pot holds only slightly more liquid than the cup, so as long as I don’t fill the teapot completely to the brim, I don’t need a sharing pitcher. And it’s just so darn cute.

Of course, there’s more than these three things on the list, but these are some of my most-loved and longest-used items that originally came from Amazon. If you’re looking to get started with loose-leaf tea or gongfu, you can get started with the basics quickly and then take your time looking for more interesting pieces to expand your collection. Unfortunately, the gaiwan that I originally got off Amazon is no longer available, but this gaiwan is from a company that I’ve purchased from before and liked their teaware, and it is reasonably priced for the gongfu beginner.

As far as the tea itself goes, I’ve recently started buying some teas from Teavivre, which has an Amazon storefront, with Prime options. Because I am impatient, I like the convenience of Amazon Prime sometimes. So far, I’ve tried one white, one green, one black, and one oolong tea from the store and have been pleasantly surprised with the quality. I’ve already reviewed their Bai Mu Dan white tea on my YouTube channel, but I’ll share my thoughts on the rest sometime soon.

Summer’s Last Hurrah

Many act like Labor Day weekend is the end of the summer, and in a lot of ways it is. But the weather has reminded me that we still have a few weeks yet of summer. We’re in those last weeks, the sultry, steamy days of late summer, when the air hangs heavily, even in the morning before the sun has risen.

Waking before dawn, I can feel the air of my bedroom hanging expectantly, waiting for the air conditioner to cycle on. It’s dark, but already I can see the haziness outside. Stepping out of the house, into the darkness, already the air hits me, a wall of heat and humidity, beckoning me out into the sweaty commute that lies ahead, and urging me back into the house, back into the artificially-cooled oasis I’ve made.

Walking to work, I saw a magnolia tree laden with new buds, getting ready to bloom again, as if reminding me that summer has not truly passed this year. While it might not be the scorching one hundred degree days, the air still feels heavy and hot, weighting down clothes, hair, and spirits. My blouse clings to my chest and belly where the sweat has already started to glisten, coalesce, and bead on my skin, rolling down in streaks as I make my way through the morning heat. Eventually, I feel saturated with humidity, and it no longer matters how long I’m out.

As the walk goes on, I can feel my body grow used to the heat, letting the sweat cool it off as I go. I feel the stark boundaries between the extra heat from the cars and the cool blasts of air from the briefly-opened doors of businesses as I make my way through a city on the verge of autumn, but not quite there. Eventually, I will smell wood smoke, cooler air, and dry leaves, but this morning, I smell the smells of the city, hanging in the humid air, unable to rise under the weight of the heat and haze. But it’s warm and familiar, and ready to dissipate, I hope.

Arriving at my office, I brace myself for the blast of icy air, feeling the sweat on my body chill, a shiver escaping for a moment, before I adjust to this, too. And when I get to my office and feel my body cool and the sweat dry, I put on a sweater against the chill of the air conditioning, looking forward to the promise of cool mornings and temperate days.