Monday, May 16, 2016

A tea enthusiast quits tea

Originally posted in the TChing blog site as part 1 and part 2.

It might seem like this should have a twist ending, that this tea enthusiast might re-discover a love for tea all over again, but this isn't that type of story.  An online friend, Paul, is the only person I've known here in Bangkok to take up an interest in tea since I did so a number of years back.  He became a bit obsessed with it, trying lots of new types and sorting out tea gear, then he quit it again, all in well under half a year.  Some of the aspects he loved and why he quit are worth considering, with some points that might serve as cautions for people that stick with it.

The main reason he cited for quitting was the negative effect of too much caffeine.  In his words:

When it came to the point I was being negatively affected from the caffeine in tea, and believe me I was, then I knew from past experience that zero tolerance was the only way.

He'd had a related experience with coffee, which he gave up a year before, and knew he was inclined towards extremes.  Still, it seemed unusual that something others experience as generally so positive he experienced so differently.  As he described that cycle:

Trying out all the different sizes, how long do I need to steep 160cc, do I need more than 5 grams?  etc, etc.  It became an obsession, and like many things I then abused it.  When I woke up all I could think of was making some.  My skin and my mind took a toll from the caffeine.

It seems dehydration could have also been a problem.  I also have trouble alternating between tea and water enough to offset the diuretic effect of tea.  There are different references and opinions about the degree of this effect, which seems to vary by person.  Of course there are a few notable extreme cases to this effect, relating to medical problems (like this one; but that person drank a gallon of tea every day, and the problem wasn't caffeine, but is described there as too much oxalate from the black tea).

The proportion of water consumed to tea required is hard to identify, even in my own case, based on lots of practical experience, with the course of every day an opportunity to experiment.  It would seem to vary based on lots of related factors (weather, other diet issues, etc.).  How much tea relates to too much caffeine must also vary.  I've worked it out and I usually drink between one and two liters a day; a good bit of tea.  Not drinking tea in the evenings helps limit that.

Paul describes the amounts of tea he was drinking:

Paul after a two liter session

I was experimenting with timings and temperatures all the time, and before I knew it I was filling up a one liter vacuum carafe several times a day with hot water for tea.

So indeterminate but a lot.  Drinking it brewed gongfu style, as he describes, doesn't necessarily vary the brew strength, which relates more to preference, so he might have been drinking very weak or very strong tea, or a mix of the two.  He said he tried to drink water as well but hard to guess how that went in practice.

The negative effects of caffeine

I've ran across anecdotal accounts about the negative effects of consuming too much caffeine before.  In particular I remember a co-worker who gave up drinking coffee throughout the day for extra energy, who claimed he felt much better after he quit, with more energy overall.  Of course the effect of the caffeine in tea is offset by the effect of theanine, both of which affect a person in different ways.  Tea doesn't give someone the same caffeine jolt but the cumulative effects of too much caffeine still might add up.

How much is too much?  Probably no one given amount, but per a Mayoclinic source 400 milligrams is a good cut-off point:  That's roughly the amount of caffeine in four cups of brewed coffee, 10 cans of cola or two "energy shot" drinks.

The amount in tea would vary, by strength, by the tea type, etc., but per another Mayoclinic page the variance is from 14 to 70 mg. / 8 ounce cup (237 ml) for black tea, with green tea within that range (24 to 45 mg.).  To reach their recommended limit one could still drink ten 8 ounce cups of tea at 40 mg. / cup, or over two liters of tea (possibly relating to too much oxalate consumed, per the other reference), but Paul probably did exceed that, potentially even on average.  It's interesting that the one article cited says that children shouldn't consume caffeine, any of it, and adolescents less than 100 mg. (three Cokes a day; seems like plenty).

Paul's assessment of this caffeine cycle related to coffee, based on having experienced it from that beverage as well:

People can feel a buzz from coffee, and if they don't drink it often it may be beneficial.  But when they have it all the time they don't feel ok without it... They think the coffee is making them feel better, but in actual effect it's because they need the coffee just to feel normal.  The benefits of caffeine are illusory, in my opinion.

It makes you wonder how quitting tea cold-turkey like that might go, from the amounts he was consuming, in particular how long it would take to readjust, which he explained:

After three days the withdrawl headaches stop.  But it takes a good week to really experience the normal mind state that comes back.  To be honest I continued to experience a rise in benefits way over seven days.  I feel exponentially better, and the clarity I experience from not using caffeine is really nice.

So that quitting cycle sounds just like the opposite of the experience tea enthusiasts ascribe to drinking tea, a mild lift that brings added clarity and calm.  But then dosage did seem the likely main issue in his case.

Cost of a tea habit

Another different type of negative concern relates to the cost.  Of course he was prone to excess, and ramping up a tea habit and setting up a gear infrastructure is one of the more expensive parts, but he admitted to spending something like $700 or $800 on tea and gear over the course of three or four months.  In a sense it's not that much, compared to how an enthusiasm for wine or other alcohol might go, or other types of habits, but that is a significant expense related to what tea generally costs.  Given that he was visiting cafes in addition to tea shops, and had been experimenting with different forms of gear, including yixing teapots, maybe that's still on the low side, or maybe it was only part of it.

There are few references out there about what typical enthusiasts spend on tea, or atypical ones, but this Steepster discussion thread is all about that.  It's impossible to narrow it to a normal range, and self-selection for that kind of input complicates things.  In that thread some people admit to spending $500 to $1000 per year on tea, so his expenditure does seem on the higher side related to that.

It's really up to the individual on what is desirable or reasonable, of course, a function of preference and expendable income.  On the broader level better tea making the trip from Eastern Asia (typically) to the rest of the world depends on economic factors, so specialty tea availability depends on people making those sorts of purchase choices.  Based on my own limited knowledge of economics it's better all around for tea drinkers as well as vendors if a demand base is there; the range available and pricing moderation depend on there being more demand and spending.  Of course there are some assumptions mixed in with that assessment, and my own judgment, and I'm only drawing on a few college Econ courses as background theory.

It's interesting to consider that better teas aren't necessarily inexpensive in places like China, where they originate, where they are also sought after.  There the highest income levels afford some people substantial expendable income, and a tradition related to tea makes it a potential priority.  A vendor I bought tea from in the Bangkok Chinatown once claimed that the tea I was buying--a Bei Dou I mentioned here--would sell for more in China.  Even before he'd commented that I was considering the same idea, that based on my experience it might well.  This would at least be true in shops in cities like Beijing and Shanghai, where I had bought teas, and a friend living in Beijing had confirmed that range of pricing based on his own experience.

The positive aspects, entry to tea

I was also curious about what drew Paul to tea, and what he had appreciated most.  People new to tea might focus first on any number of different aspects.  For some it's about trying new tea types, or from different locations, or for others about gear and brewing process.  There are other potential tangents; cafe experiences, or researching relatively abstract aspects of tea, history, rituals, and so on.  In Paul's case the focus was on trying different teas, mostly oolongs and pu'ers, experimenting with brewing process, and on brewing gear, straight to yixing pots.  He describes his favorite aspect:

The surprise when you make one that blows your mind.  I think there is a skill to it.  Some people say however you prepare it is just right, but there is something to the rewards of exercising a skill and reaping the benefits.  There's something about the surprise when you adjust a water temperature and get much better results from the same tea.

What's next for Paul related to tea

He's finished with the conventional forms of tea enthusiasm, selling off his gear, giving away teas, done with the whole cycle.  He does retain some interest in trying decaffeinated tea, and dabbling in tisanes a little, trying out some rooibos.  I'm not sure where it will lead for him since he's just made the transition.

In my own case the tea interest fills a gap for such an interest, which is a pattern that seems clear in his own exposure, that preferring coffee, then tea, and then onto tisanes represents an interest in the general range of interests.  Before tea I was into tisanes, and wine, and coffee, all at different times, with a more complicated prior history with alcohol.  Other interests took different forms, like reading, or snow sports and mountaineering.  For these activities an obsessive attention to details and learning might even be required just to participate safely.

Some of Paul's story seems to relate more to a personality type inclined towards exploring interests aggressively, in this case over a relatively short duration.  But really what would the difference be if he had taken up and lost interest in tea over a period of three of four years instead of three or four months; he's only shortened that curve.  The concerns about caffeine consumption and hydration anyone consuming a lot of tea probably should consider, but these would seem easy enough to address through moderation.

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