A Landscaped Tea Garden In El Paso

A Landscaped Tea Garden In El Paso

I recently traveled to El Paso in Texas where my cousin runs a landscaping business. He does things like lawn care, tree care, installing sprinkler systems, etc. He even installs pools, patios and various other outdoor landscaping type of features, including rock gardens, desert gardens and so on.

landscape in el paso texas
The Landscape in El Paso provides good light for growing

While I was in El Paso, I had a lot of time to kill, so I joined my cousin on a couple of his landscaping gigs. It was quite interesting, especially one of them. It was a giant house with a huge backyard, and in that yard, they had actually installed a landscaped tea garden.

Obviously this was hugely interesting to me as a tea enthusiast. You can probably guess what surprised me the most. How does tea grow in El Paso? Tea needs a humid climate with a lot of rain. El Paso does not have that. It is much too dry for tea, isn’t it?

It is. But these people had installed a great irrigation system that watered the tea plants constantly and kept them wet. El Paso isn’t as humid as a lot of places were tea grows naturally, but it seems to work just fine. The plants all looked quite healthy. Along with the irrigation system that brings the correct amount of water, the other important nutrient for any plant is the right natural light. And you get a ton of sunlight in El Paso.

Actually, tea usually grows well in places that don’t get all that much sunlight. These are places with a lot of cloud cover, like the high mountains in China or Taiwan or Darjeeling, India. It was very interesting to me to see tea do so well in southern Texas.

I’ve written previously about growing indoors under grow lights. That also got me to research a bit whether grow lights could help tea that is growing outdoors. I thought maybe if tea got more light, it would grow better.

Like I said, it grows in areas with less natural sunlight, because those areas have a ton of cloud cover or they get a ton of rain. But what if you could provide more light by supplementing the sunlight with outdoor grow lights? Would that have an effect on the tea? Would it make the tea grow faster?

In a way I got my answer in El Paso. No, they weren’t supplementing the natural sunlight with any type of grow light, but the tea here was getting much more natural sunlight. And it seemed to grow very well. It looked healthy and the bushes were quite large.

That said, it was hard to tell, because they had been landscaped so severely. They had been shaped into interesting shapes and such. They looked really cool and I guess it was functional. I mean if you’ve ever seen a tea garden from Japan, they are also landscaped so that they resemble long mounds, kind of like rivets. It looks really cool. And this garden looked really cool too.

landscaped tea plants growing under light
Tea plants growing in natural sunlight

My cousin said he actually suggested using tea plants in their backyard instead of the standard rock garden features that you see in El Paso. He thought it would make a cool landscaping feature, since the owners are huge tea enthusiasts.

They loved the idea and are apparently very happy with it. He still gets a lot of work for them, as he cares for their lawn and their backyard regularly. In a way he, and they, have me to thank for that. It was my love for tea that got him to think about planting tea plants in these people’s backyard.

I think it’s pretty cool that I, in my small way, contributed to the spread of tea to an area where it has never been grown before. So my landscaping El Paso cousin is the guy actually responsible for it. I’m the one who put the idea in his head, so I’m obviously going to take all the credit. You’re welcome, world!

Jealous Of My Friend’s Indoor Herb Garden

Jealous Of My Friend’s Indoor Herb Garden

Because I travel so much, I have to give up a lot of things. Things that people with permanent homes get to have. Things like televisions and cars and furniture. And also plants. I love to eat healthy just as much as I love drinking tea. But when you travel it’s really hard to find healthy food all the time.

led grow light in an indoor garden
Potato plants growing under an LED grow light

One of the big problems is getting quality vegetables and fruits. You never know what kind of pesticides they’ve been sprayed with, and many times the water is even filthier than that, so you can’t really wash them. You wind up eating all kinds of harmful chemicals. There is nothing you can do about it.

Of course people who don’t travel have the same problem, but they can grow their own vegetables and fruits. That’s something I’ve always envied. I always wanted to have my own organic garden. A place where I can grow my own fruits and my own vegetables and my own herbs, so that I don’t have to eat the crap they sell in supermarkets in most countries.

Even buying organic doesn’t really solve the problem. Would you trust a Chinese store that tells you they’re selling organic food? That’s a redundant question. Unless you answered “yes, I would.” In that case I have some bad news for you. You can’t trust anything you’re told in China. There are plenty of reports of everything being sold fake. Fake eggs, fake walnuts, fake meat. Nothing labeled organic in that country is actually organic. In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if they just bought the fruits and vegetables at the supermarket, slapped an organic label on them and resold them at three times the cost.

Anyway, the reason for this post (my first in over a year, I know – I’ve just been so busy with other things) is that I recently spent some time at a friends house. This friend is married with two children. Ever since they had kids, they began to really think about the food they buy. They don’t want to poison their kids, obviously.

Now, they live in the city and don’t have space for a garden. At least not a traditional garden. Instead what they’ve done is used one of the smaller rooms in their house and have started growing their own little garden there.

It’s a dark room and doesn’t get enough light for a garden, so they’ve had to supplement the little sunlight that comes through a small window by buying a grow light. This is something I didn’t know much about, but I found it a very interesting subject when talking to my friends.

Apparently there are whole bunch of different technologies and one of the newest are LED grow lights. That’s what they bought. These things are really expensive, but they give a ton of light that’s perfect for plans and they don’t create the kind of heat some of the other lights do. You also don’t have to change the bulbs at all.

It seems like a great thing if you can afford it. And I can tell you what they grow in their garden tastes amazing and look so fresh and clean. I loved eating at their place and if I ever stop traveling and settle in one location, I’m definitely going to get my own grow light just like the one they had and start growing my own vegetables.

Anyway, kind of rambling post today. Just some thoughts I had on recent long train ride. I think maybe I’m starting to reach the point where I want to stop traveling and get my own place. It would have other benefits too, like being able to get tea shipped in, which is something you can’t do when you travel.

It doesn’t much matter when you’re in a country like Japan or China where you can get great tea, but when you’re traveling in a country without tea, it really sucks. I really miss tea at those times. Anyway, enough rambling.

Let me know in the comments if you’ve ever had your own garden, especially if you’ve had an indoor garden like my friends do.

Darjeeling Tea – India’s Most Famous Brew

Darjeeling Tea – India’s Most Famous Brew

If you ask 100 people to name a tea from India, two will say Assam tea. The other 98 will say Darjeeling tea. It is by far the most famous tea from India and it is also the best quality tea from the country (Assam tea is generally a pretty low-quality leaf).

darjeeling tea plantation in India
A tea plantation in the Darjeeling region of India, where the leaves for this famous oolong tea are harvested.

Despite it being the best quality tea, the majority of Darjeeling tea sold on the market is actually pretty bad. Like so many other products from India, much of what is sold is actually fake. If you’ve bought this variety of tea, chances are it was not grown in the Darjeeling region. Instead, it came from somewhere else and was a much lower quality.

Even real Darjeeling tea is generally pretty low-quality. Only a small amount of high quality tea is produced every year. Of course much more than is produced is actually labeled high-quality, real Darjeeling tea. You see, the Indian government established a rating system, including an authentication seal, that should ensure buyers they are getting their money’s worth. This was a great idea in theory, but in practice it didn’t quite work out so well. I’m sure you can imagine why: corruption.

India is one of the world’s most corrupt countries and even tea growers with the worst quality teas can easily get their tea certified as authentic Darjeeling, if they simply pay the correct person enough money. That is a shame, because it means that most people who think they’ve tried Darjeeling tea actually haven’t. In fact, I myself was under the impression that Darjeeling tea was overrated, since every time I tried it, it was not very good. It turns out though, that I just never had an actual Darjeeling leaf before. Once I had a real one in India, I saw what a difference it can make to the flavor of the tea.

Within this rating system, there are also numerous different grades. Again, in theory, they should help you select the quality of tea you want. In practice, though, corruption once again ruins a good idea. One thing you can be sure of, is that a tea labeled a low-grade will not be a higher grade. Naturally, tea labeled higher grade will usually be a lower quality than the label would indicate.

One important fact about Darjeeling tea is that it is not actually a black tea. It is labeled as a black tea and is generally considered a black tea, but it’s actually an oolong tea. The main characteristic of oolong tea is that the leaves have not been allowed to fully oxidize. They’ve oxidized longer than a green tea but not long enough to be considered a black tea. That leaves a wide range, and oolongs come in many different flavors. When it comes to Darjeeling tea, different varieties have oxidized for different lengths, so they will all inhabit different places on the oolong scale. None of them are actually black teas though.

This might be disappointing to you, but it shouldn’t be. Oolong tea is much richer and much more complex and flavorful than black tea. Perhaps this is why Darjeeling tea is considered such a high-quality black tea: it is not actually a black tea. While there are black tea varieties in China that have rich, complex flavors, black teas from regions other than the Darjeeling area in India, are not generally that special. Thus, it makes sense why Darjeeling tea is so highly regarded.

If you ever find yourself in the Darjeeling region of India, definitely try some tea, but try to stay away from the tourist shops which will sell you overpriced tea that, in all likelihood, is not as good as they claim. If you can go to an actual plantation, not a touristy one, you may get a chance to have a high-quality cup of tea. It will definitely take more effort than just sitting down in the touristy cafe, but the effort is worth it. A great cup of Darjeeling tea really is a good thing. It might not be the world’s best tea, but it is India’s best.

Trying Some Mint Green Tea in Morocco

Trying Some Mint Green Tea in Morocco

I love traveling the world. I love seeing new places, meeting new people and eating delicious new foods. I love experiencing new things. Maybe most of all, I love trying tea from around the world. Of course, the more tea I try from different countries, the more I realize that I don’t actually like the way most countries have their tea. Mainly this is because of the sugar. I’ve learned that most countries put a lot of sugar in their tea and I simply don’t like that.

Moroccan mint tea
Mint tea being poured in Tangier, Morocco

In fact, the only countries I’ve been to where they don’t put sugar in their tea are Japan and China. Everywhere else, no matter how much they claim they like tea, they always mask the flavor of the tea with sugar. I guess what they really like is sugar.

Even countries like Turkey and India, which are famous for tea, don’t actually drink real tea. They drink sugar with a tea flavor. In many cases, like India, they also put a lot of milk in the tea. That all said, I suppose I do understand that, in a case like India. The tea leaves they use for their tea are of such a low-quality that it makes sense to mask the flavor much is possible.

Anyway, let’s get to the point. A few years ago I had the chance to travel to Morocco. I spent a few hours in Tangiers and then several days in Marrakesh. I didn’t have more time to explore the rest of the country. That was a shame. I really like what I saw and would have loved to see more.

The food in Morocco is amazing and I loved every meal I had. Unfortunately, I can’t really say the same for the tea. That’s not to say it was bad. I ordered a number of mint teas and they tasted quite good. I love the flavor of mint and it was mixed with green tea which I love too. The problem, as is so often the case, was that they put a ton of sugar in it. To me, this ruins the flavor. It leaves your mouth with a sticky aftertaste and it doesn’t quench your thirst.

Moroccan man pouring mint tea
A man pouring Moroccan mint tea at a local tea ceremony

This is a shame, because the whole ritual that goes along with their tea is actually quite interesting. You may have seen the way they pour the tea—how they raise the kettle so high above the glass as they are pouring and then lower it again. This really infuses the tea with a lot of air. If only they could leave out the sugar, I think they would really be onto something.

Of course, there would still be one more problem and that is the quality of their tea leaves. Perhaps you can get good leaves in Morocco, I don’t know. The ones we were drinking were pretty cheap, though. Since they were masked with mint and sugar, you couldn’t really notice, so it was okay.

It only became a problem when I decided to buy a bag of loose tea in the market. I could immediately see that the leaves were very low-quality and nowhere near the quality of a good Japanese tea or a good Chinese tea. Actually they weren’t even near the quality of the worst teas you get in those countries. To put it bluntly, the leaves were absolute crap quality.

When I brewed this tea at home it tasted horrible. If I had masked it with sugar like the Moroccans do, I suppose it would have tasted better. Well, not better, since the sugar isn’t really a great flavor with the tea, but it would have hidden how bad the tea was. You know what I mean.

During my time in Morocco I also tried their ginger tea. This was much more enjoyable, since they didn’t put any sugar in it. Of course, ginger tea is not real tea. It is simply hot water with ginger in it. It is quite strong, but it is very enjoyable, especially on a cold evening. I liked this tea a lot, but obviously, it is not really tea.

If you ever make it to Morocco, don’t let anything I wrote here dissuade you from trying their tea. It might not come anywhere near Japanese tea or Chinese tea, but a Moroccan mint tea is still enjoyable on some level. If you actually like sweet drinks, then you will probably love this tea. Because really, the main problem with it is the sugar. Of course, if you remove the sugar then the main problem becomes the low quality tea leaves, so I guess you need to add sugar. Anyway, the point is, give it a try if you get a chance. Let me know what you think about it.

How to do a Japanese Tea Ceremony

How to do a Japanese Tea Ceremony

In Japanese culture, being invited to a tea ceremony is a mark of respect and a great honour. Although tea ceremonies have been around in the East for hundreds of years, the Japanese take this ritual very seriously. Want to know how it’s done? Read on…

There are strict rules to a Japanese tea ceremony and they include just about all of the main art forms from calligraphy to flower arranging, it’s that special. The main type of ceremony is called Chanoyu and the rituals begin once you arrive at the teahouse (called a Chashitsu).

Firstly, you’ll be asked to spend some tine in the garden, observing the plants. These gardens can be very different to a traditional Japanese garden, often featuring no flowering plants, just greenery, rock gardens and usually some form of water feature. The path leading from the entrance will wind its way through the garden so that by the time you arrive at the teahouse, you already feel a little more relaxed
and mentally present.

It is only then will you be invited inside by the tea master. The entrance to the teahouse is usually lowered, so regardless of your social status, it’s necessary to bow your head as you enter. You’ll be given a drink of water and invited to wash your hands.

Guests sit – or often kneel – at low tables of around four people. The host will prepare the tea using green tea leaves or powdered tea and traditional equipment such as bamboo whisks. It is common for the guest of honour to ask where the tea came from, who made the utensils. This isn’t considered rude, in fact it shows great respect for the tea and your host. The host will wash and prepare all the utensils in front of theguests, artfully arranging them according to the fengshui of the room.

Before you drink your tea, you may be offered sweets. Not in the common, western candy style, but usually from thin layers of rice paper, bean curd and other natural ingredients. The guest of honour will signal when it is acceptable to take a sweet and you should do so only after they have. This time is used by the host to warm both the tea pot and the tea. In some, more formal settings, the tea ceremony may include a seven course meal, sake and resting breaks – this can take up to four hours.

Japanese tea ceremony room

The tea for all guests is all made in the one bowl. Initially it is given, with a bow, to the guest of honour who takes a sips, rotates the bowl around as he passes it to another guest. Guests should take the tea with their left hand and carefully take notice of the positioning of hands, utensils and the other guests. The bowl is placed next to you and turned so you never drink from the side that was facing you. It’s picked up and drunk with the right hand. Once all the guests have drank from the bowl, they are invited to look and inspect the equipment used to make the tea. An additional bowl of tea is then made in the same way.

Sometimes guests have their own individual bowls, in this case it’s important to drink all of the contents. Again, you should place the bowl to the left of you and turn it 180 degrees. This shows great respect to your host – the side they presented to you was the best, but you are inferior and not worthy and so you drink from the opposite side.

A Lovely Matcha Green Tea From Japan

A Lovely Matcha Green Tea From Japan

powdered matcha green tea from Japan

I got the opportunity to try a wonderful new tea today. It was called Kama Matcha and it is a ceremonial grade green tea powder that I bought online. I ordered it on a Monday and it arrived on Wednesday. Quick delivery; a good sign. When I opened the box, I found a nicely decorated little tin. It held 100 g of matcha powder. The color was a bright green, which is what you would expect given the quality.

I actually thought about sprinkling some on my lunch, but that would be a waste with a tea of this quality. Instead I got out my utensils—my bowl, my whisk, my spoon—and I got set to prepare my tea. I poured a little green tea powder in the bowl and poured some 80° water over it. I took my whisk and with quick motions, I beat the tea to a nice froth.

I couldn’t drink it right away because my mouth is very sensitive to heat, so I had to wait a few minutes. The suspense was killing me. When I was finally able to bring the frothy green liquid to my lips, the aroma hit me first. It entered my nostrils and went straight to my brain, signaling the deliciousness that was to come. The first sip of tea that touched my lips and flowed down my throat was amazing. It tasted bitter and grassy; it was everything a good matcha should be. I definitely recommend this tea to anyone.

For those who don’t know, matcha is a green tea powder made from the highest quality leaves. Produced only in Japan, it is one of the best teas money can buy. In fact, it is the tea used in the Japanese tea ceremony. It is one of the most difficult teas to brew, but when done correctly nothing can compare.

This tea comes from several different regions in Japan, but the most famous is the Uji region near Kyoto. I had the good fortune to live in Japan for three years and to travel around Japan for many months. I spent three of those months in Kyoto and while I was there I tried a lot of teas. But the best I ever had was on a trip to Uji, where I had the good fortune to take part in a tea ceremony.

The cup of matcha they prepared for me on that day was one of the best things I’ve ever tasted. Ever since then, I’ve been trying to replicate the taste on my own and I think I’ve done a good job but I’ve never come close their tea. If you’re ever in the area, don’t do what most people do and only see Kyoto and Osaka. Make sure you leave time to go to Uji or at least one of the other famous tea growing regions in Japan. Not only are the rural areas outside the city beautiful, but they are much more authentic, too. There is no better place to try a cup of real Japanese green tea.

Chinese Dragon Well Tea from Longjing

Chinese Dragon Well Tea from Longjing

Dragon Well tea is probably the best known tea from China. It comes from the Longjing region in the mountains near Hangzhou in Zhenjiang province. The word ‘Longjing’ means Dragon Well and this is where the tea gets its English name. The region itself has always been famous in China, but it is starting to see more international visitors as well.

longjing tea leaves steeping in glassThe Longjing region is characterized by steep mountainsides and very high humidity. Summers are sweltering and rains fall nearly everyday. This combination makes for tea leaves with a high chlorophyll content in the leaves, which means they also have more nutrients than usual, including a high number of catechins.

Dragon Well tea is pan-fried to stop the oxidation process early on, leaving it virtually unfermented. It is mostly produced by hand. The high quality is the reason it has been bestowed with the ‘China Famous Tea‘ title. The leaves steep to a yellow-green color.

In China, Longjing Tea is often brewed in a simple tall glass, but a gaiwan is also often used. The advantage of the glass is that you can watch the long leaves unfurl and slowly sink to the bottom as they release their essence into the water. The water used to prepare Dragon Well should be around 75 degrees Celcius. Traditionally, this tea was brewed in a purple clay teapot known as an yixing. This is still the best way to get the most amount of flavor from your tea leaves.

The highest quality varieties can be quite expensive, but you can find lower quality leaves that are much cheaper, too. Longjing tea is divided into six grades. The highest quality is called superior and the others are graded 1 through 5. The higher qualities are recognizable by tender leaves that are all of a uniform size after they have been infused. Before infusion, they are light green and have a tight, flat shape.

Authentic Dragon Well tea comes only from the West Lake area of Hangzhou. These days, this type of tea is produced in a number of provinces around China, but none of the copies come close to the complex flavor and aroma of the original. Sometimes the copies are labeled as such, but often they are falsely labeled as coming from Xihu (West Lake). You’ll also find teas labeled as high quality that have a few top quality leaves mixed in with a bunch of lower quality ones. It can be difficult to find a credible seller, making it hard to know if you are getting an authentic tea.

If you do get a top quality Longjing tea from the West Lake are of Zhejiang province, you’ll most likely fall in love with the delicate taste and aroma. Good quality Dragon Well is one of my favorite teas and one I love drinking all day long. To ensure you get the real thing, I recommend buying your tea from an online tea shop. If you have one you trust, they will almost certainly carry this variety of tea, as it is very popular.

Why You Should Buy Japanese Sencha Online

Why You Should Buy Japanese Sencha Online

My mom came to visit me recently. While she was here we did some sightseeing, did some shopping, and did a lot of eating. Since she knows that I drink tea every day and that I really like sencha, she tried to do me a favor and buy me some.

sencha tea leavesShe was at one of the many outdoor markets here in the area, when she came upon a tea vendor. The woman had a lot of teas on display, mostly loose leaf, in the appropriate containers. The prices were all apparently very low and my mother thought she was getting a good deal and bought me some of the sencha. Let’s just say this tea reminded me why I always buy tea online. This page can help you make sense of all the different online tea stores.

When I first opened the little baggie I immediately saw all the stems. That’s never a good sign. Good quality sencha is mostly leaves. The second thing I noticed was the made in China sticker. This variety of tea comes from Japan and you don’t want to buy it from anywhere else. You definitely don’t want any from China. They have a lot of great teas there and if you want Chinese tea you should buy one of theirs, not one of their copies.

When I tried the tea, it tasted about as good as you could expect. I’m going to use it as my everyday tea, meaning I put the leaves in the bottom of a large plastic walk-around cup and keep brewing new tea on top of the old all day long. It’s a simple way to get my tea fix, but not something I would ever do with a good quality tea. Usually I use the generic brand you can find in most supermarkets, but this tea my mom bought would do just fine. Brewing good sencha is a bit more complicated.

As I mentioned, I always buy tea from online stores, mainly because it’s so difficult to find good quality varieties outside of Asia. Unless you know a tea shop you can trust, one that supplies excellent teas for a good price, I would suggest you do the same. Many of the online tea vendors have great suppliers in China and in Japan and the teas you get from them are excellent.

For the differences between the above-mentioned matcha and sencha, go here.

My first Pu Er Tea

My first Pu Er Tea

I recently went to the Asian store here in my area and came away with a decently priced Pu Erh tea. I had heard about this variety a lot but had never tried it before, so I was really curious. I was a little worried I was buying the cheap variety and I wouldn’t get a good idea of what this tea should be like. That was a valid concern and I have since learned to buy my pu-erh teas online.

brick of pu erh teaWhen I got home and unpacked the tea, I noticed a rotten smell immediately. Not really rotten but just a little musky I guess; either way it wasn’t the most pleasant thing I’ve ever smelled. When I brewed the tea and tried the first sip, it didn’t taste good at all. It tasted kind of like dirt. It was even a little gritty.

So I did some reading online to see if that’s what it should taste like or if I simply got a bad batch. Turns out that’s pretty much what it should taste like. What I did wrong was I didn’t dump out the first infusion or two. You see, you want to let the tea steep for about 10 seconds then pour that out. I’ve actually started doing that twice in a row. Then I let the third infusion steep for the normal amount of time, about 2 minutes, and that’s the one I drink.

This method really works and I end up with a decent tasting cup every time. I recommend you do the same. And after the third infusion you can actually prepare two, three or even four more and they still taste pretty good. Following this method, I actually enjoy drinking the Pu Er. Although to be honest, I still prefer pretty much any other variety of tea. This one, from Yunnan province in China, just isn’t to my liking. I know many people love it more than any other variety of tea though, so it’s really just a matter of personal taste. You should get yourself some and try it. Preferably get yourself a better quality one than I did. Don’t be cheap like me.