Thursday, October 9, 2014

Tisane or herbal tea; which is it?

Which terminology is correct comes up from time to time in tea discussion groups, and recently a Facebook tea group once again discussed using the term tisane versus herbal tea.  Of course the idea is that tea might only refer to the tea plant and a beverage made from it, and not one from herbs.

One article describes background on a court case between Celestial Seasonings and Lipton over the use of these terms, with credit to Robert McCaleb for this account.  The case is said to have been dismissed, with Merriam Webster's definition referenced as evidence that "tea" might also refer to an infusion of different herbs.

In the Merriam Webster dictionary the term "tea" includes "tisanes", as both are being used in the discussion, cited following in the online form, :

: a drink that is made by soaking the dried leaves of an Asian plant in hot water

: a similar drink that is made by using the dried leaves of another kind of plant

: the dried leaves that are used in making tea

In the same reference source tisane is "an infusion (as of dried herbs) used as a beverage or for medicinal effects" so according to them either herb tea or tisane is a reasonable way to describe something like chamomile "tea."  Put another way, tea and tisane are interchangeable terms, except the other flowers and herbs themselves aren't tea, only the leaves of the tea plant are (Camellia sinensis; the third definition prior).

Oddly an unrelated court case agreed the two companies could merge without violating an anti-trust law (Celestial Seasonings and Lipton).  A separate account reported that the merger failed,  so it's not clear if this related to the dispute over use of terms or not.

LinkedIn discussion:

Two separate discussions of this same issue have occurred on a LinkedIn group over the last year  (Tea Enthusiasts and Entrepreneurs group on LinkedIn):

My own comment in the first of these two discussions follows:

Usually conventional use of English is a lot clearer than it is in this case. The average person in America probably isn't familiar with the word "tisane," but people working in the tea industry or just very interested in tea sometimes tend to reject using "herbal tea." A quick look at dictionary definitions of tea shows they may or may not accept "herbal tea" as valid but that clearly is the common term. 

Since English is a living language that evolves through changes in use it could be argued that's the right expression based mostly on that widespread conventional use, which could change if tisane really did enter common use. More likely there would still be separate formal and informal terms for the same concept used in parallel instead since that's common. 

It's even harder to get to an ideal terminology for barley tea since tisane seems to not fit either, but something like "barley infusion" is awkward and wouldn't be clear to many. In most contexts herb tea and barley tea would be fine, it would just depend.

So I didn't really commit there but it seemed like ordinary language conventions are set by actual use, and people really do seem to say "herb tea."  This is also accepted by at least one dictionary, although of course likely not by all.  It seems possible "tea" could be used as a broader concept in American English than in British English but I'm not claiming that, and it would take a lot of research to gather convincing evidence.

credit and William Shakespeare

Related expressions

This led me to consider if there are other similar naming conventions that might be informative.

A few come to mind:  soy milk, veggie burger, on-line newspaper.  Of course in these cases it's difficult to imagine someone arguing for specific use of the normal concepts and terms of milk, burger, and newspaper.

Then again maybe it's odd Lipton and Celestial Seasonings took it that far too, or it would be odd to most that in conventional tea enthusiast group discussions you just can't say "herb tea," at least without someone else seeming to take offense.

But what does that mean?  Those people feel a connection to the concept and expression used for tea, a personal relation to the product, beverage, concept, and word.  But it also seems to be a marker for association with other people that feel the same way, or at least that have similar interests,  so that a "newbie" might be readily identified by saying the wrong thing.

she could go for a cup of tea
I'm reminded of reading an account of the origin of the concept of "trolling," now used to describe someone that says something antagonistic and most likely untrue to get a reaction in on-line discussion.  But that account was different, of the original meaning, said to have changed over time.  The source said that in early days of internet use, even before the world wide web was invented--can you imagine? text only!--it was used as a way to identify people in groups.

"Regulars" would mention a subject others were familiar with in earlier discussion as a test of how they would react.   In the source the example mentioned was the mistaken idea that glass is really similar to a liquid in that it can flow over time.  If a person didn't know the actual truth of this case, that this doesn't actually happen, they would be identified as new to the group, as a newbie.  Trolling here relates to the fishing practice of slowly reeling in a lure, analogous to the on-line discussion participant "taking the bait."

My understanding of the actual issue related to glass flowing or not flowing, really a separate thing, is that in earliest times glass wasn't produced at the same consistency level so thickness varied, and it was standard to put wider parts of sections at the bottom.  Later observation and measurement would seem to prove the glass had flowed by an imperceptible but measurable amount, but really it hadn't (one more account of glass as an amorphous solid, in case you really want to get to the bottom of this).


It seems like the concern relates as much to one group, tea enthusiasts, identifying with a certain word use to identify themselves as it does with the confusion that the expression "herbal tea" might cause.

The broad or limited use of the concept of "tea" seems a bit insignificant since it's generally always used to include tisanes  (in the broader sense) when identified with the modifier "herbal," or with the name of the herb itself.  There is as little chance of any real impact as of someone accidentally buying soy milk instead of a dairy product (which I guess could happen).  But then  it seems possible that someone with a close enough personal connection to dairy production might regret that naming convention as well.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Review of Lishan (Taiwan) oolong from May Zest Tea

A very nice tea, this region-specific Lishan (Taiwan) oolong from May Zest tea.

Flavors are very clean, good brightness, natural sweetness, initial buttery / creamy flavor, although the creaminess was most pronounced in the first infusions.  Brewed color is yellow gold.

There is a distinctive flavor profile that reminds me of tea I’ve had from Taiwan, perhaps terroir related, or maybe I’m just making it up.

A floral component is subtle and well integrated, towards a mild chrysanthemum but more fragrant, but then I'm really not good at identifying floral component tastes or cataloging such scents (so maybe orchid?).  Vegetal tones are harder to separate but contribute well to overall profile, a bit towards fresh hay, but that's not it.  The scent reminds me of the smell of trees in the spring when it's cool and wet and the trees are budding.  So tastes like tree buds?  Maybe not.

dry tea; a bit dark, but related to lighting issues

The May Zest tea photo

This was one of those teas that has a unique taste element that’s hard to put your finger on, something you don’t ordinarily taste in tea, a predominant flavor, so clearly there but not easy to define.

Later on I got it:  pear.  After recognizing it the tea just tasted like a very fresh, sweet pear.

In fact I’m reminded of the time my parents bought me some expensive pears in a mail-order gift set that made me feel as if I’d never actually tasted a pear before.  Like that; not just pear, but better.

I’m getting off topic, but I think it might have been these pears, a steal at $3 per pear sold as a set of nine half-pound pears.  Of course my wife would go crazy if I told her I wanted to buy a piece of fruit for 100 baht, but if the street vendors in Bangkok sold those pears I’d eat them every day for sure.

The feel of the tea is also nice, full and round, with a long clean, sweet finish.

A second infusion was consistent.  I brewed the tea in a way that combines standard "teapot" or Western brewing with typical gaiwan brewing elements;  higher ratio of tea to water,  slightly shorter times, around 2 1/2 minutes (using a french press, for what that's worth).

A little of the sweetness was replaced by slightly more earthiness, starting in towards a pleasant subtle flintiness, and a light trace of wood (so maybe that was tree bud), and the same clean and bright overall impression remained.

It sort of goes without saying there was no astringency to speak of, but then I couldn’t imagine it from a lightly oxidized oolong from Taiwan.  It takes the pressure off when brewing because if you leave it too long the flavor is still great (I didn’t this time—that would be disrespectful to this tea), but it's better to keep the infusion time shorter and flavors lighter so they somehow emerge more clearly for being more subtle.

brewed leaves (a bit of stem, maybe a good thing)

Third infusion:  still very nice.  This is a sign of a good quality tea, isn't it,  clean and distinct flavors over multiple infusions.  Fourth infusion:  still very nice.

And I wasn’t using gaiwan-style 30 second infusions; these were full cups at full strength, so this tea really kept on making tea.  The fifth infusion was still much better than most of the tea I’ve been drinking recently, and the sixth infusion still nice, although the flavor was definitely fading (I was at work; so why not just keep drinking the tea).

Evaluating tea grade

I'd mentioned that the tea seemed to be a high quality tea based on a few related indicators:  clean flavors (distinct and pleasant individual taste elements), generally nice taste, natural sweetness, distinctive character, consistent brewing results across a high number of infusions, with no unpleasant flavor elements developing throughout.

But just how superior is this tea related to other typical teas of this type?  Is it simply a good tea, or as exceptional as higher forms of marketing content praise sometimes indicates (see following section)?
Maybe I'm really not the right person to say based on previous experience.  I've tried a lot of different lightly oxidized oolongs in similar styles from Taiwan, China, and Thailand and this was one of the better versions, certainly a quality tea, surely with a distinctive character.  But then there is always the tea-expert myth of tasters that have tried countless versions of everything, along with years of serving under a recognized tea Master--which isn't me.

I would compare this in quality to the better tiekuanyin versions I've tried, although the character was a bit different.  Maybe I've not tried enough different Thai oolongs to get the whole picture (only a couple dozen, and those likely only mid-grade) but none would compare to this tea, period.

Related Lishan tea references

Tea is really about how it tastes, so research is a bit irrelevant, but given the interesting distinctiveness I did some reading.  To me it was interesting to catch bits of information but these really aren't even supposed to be standard reviews, descriptions of the taste of similar teas, instead just marketing overviews.

Of course I have no idea if the tea I reviewed is the same, better, or worse than these teas, but just from the reviews it sounds quite similar (except in general they don't mention flavor elements, so who knows about that).  My understanding is that ever-escalating grades of higher and higher quality rare teas really isn't a myth, it's like that, and you don't need to have a degree in tea to taste it, so there really could be a lot of range within "very good tea."

The following are their words, and I've only tried the first tea, so who knows.  Either way they all make some interesting points, not necessarily any less true because they are selling.

It seems fair to mention that May Zest is typically selling tea in higher quantity, perhaps not even generally focusing on retail level sales, so the typical purchase quantity would be a good bit higher and pricing level a lot lower.  But that's normal.

May Zest tea description on their site (this tea):

Lishan Oolong tea is high-mountain oolong tea, harvested from the tea plantations of Lishan, located in altitude of 1,600 to 2,600 meters.  Lishan is in the county of Nantou between Hualien and Taichung counties.

Li Shan translates to "Pear Mountain". Our Li Shan tea farm is located at an altitude of 8,600 ft (2,600 m). At such a high altitude, our tea farm is constantly emerged in low clouds and fog. This provides considerable moisture to the tea plants. The temperature difference between day time and night time can be as much as 35 degrees F (20 degrees C), which provides warm and cool air to the tea plants. This causes the tea to grow slowly and produces plants with leaves that are robust, thick, and soft.

Our Li Shan Oolong tea is fragrant because the tea leaves are harvested when the essential oils of the tea are the strongest. Its taste is mellower than green tea due to its oxidation. Its flavor is refreshing and rich. It provides a strong taste in the beginning with a lingering hint of sweet finish in your mouth and throat in the end.

Tea liquid looks transparent in golden yellow color. It tastes full and mellow, with long-lasting sweetness and fresh fragrance in the mouth. The floral aroma and smooth flavor still stays after ten or more steeps. As it cooled, its fragrance and sweetness retains in your cup. This is a special characteristic which only can be found on high grade teas.

Another characteristic of Li Shan High-Mountain Oolong Tea is the natural fruity scent. It is a result of the high mountain and low temperature condition. Unique climate and fertile soil bear the tea trees that are grown with the natural fragrance.