Thursday, December 22, 2016

Going home for the holidays

my little elf

I don't get back to the US so often, but I will this weekend.  This post isn't so much about tea really, and closer to a catching-up email to a friend than a travel blog post.  I suppose I will have something to say about tea in a couple of weeks related to going there but this is just a family visit.  There is more on making Christmas tea blends here and here.  Making arrangements on short notice has been a nightmare but I'll skip all that part.  I think the main lesson learned from that doesn't apply broadly:  don't get married my wife.

I last went home nearly two years ago, to Pennsylvania, during that polar vortex then (a unique version of a cold spell--climate change is real people).  That extreme cold weather made for a great time to drink hot tea.  It was my family's introduction to loose tea, which I was a lot more into then than previously (it had been a number of years).  They sort of got it.  They drank what I brought but didn't stick with it.

crazy how cold!  down to around minus 20 F

Tea culture sort of happened in the US since I've lived back there.  I moved to Thailand nine years ago--the time just flies--and lived in Hawaii for two years prior to that in grad school, where they don't make an effort to embrace "mainland" culture.

I took up drinking tisanes about 26 years ago now (all these time-frames make me sound old), and surely some people were into tea back then, but it somehow never really came up.  I took part in a formal Japanese tea ceremony once in Colorado (12 years back), and another in Hawaii, so the culture was around, I just didn't embrace it.

visiting my Grandma; she is definitely missed

I've written plenty about tea culture here in Thailand, but it's not something I feel like I'm a part of, in the sense of hanging out in a group.  Maybe it's the combination of being interested in tea and being an expat / foreigner.  I know of some other guys in Thailand in the same boat but only because I'm so active online.  I think only one doesn't sell tea or teaware, or maybe he also does now.

About travel plans, since I've brought it up, we'll visit family in Pennsylvania and see a little of Washington DC and New York City.  I don't love New York City; it's a bit much as cities go.  DC is nice enough; good museums for kids to visit, with bad traffic but less of an urban hell effect.

I could seek out tea back there but it doesn't make sense to travel from this side of the world, where tea is from, to find teas there.  We'll do a few days layover in Taiwan on the way back, which is more like it.  But my wife is looking forward to going to Chinatown in NYC for the food so you never know.

the last Christmas at home (my original home); my baby is 8 now

a snowy bridge at my parent's house

I'm most looking forward to the culture shift, to really experiencing Christmas.  It never really did take here, in a Buddhist country, although the malls decorating helps a little.  It's been a struggle to get my kids any impression of the season, piecing together some decorations, playing the music for them, selling the Santa story line (easy enough, related to gifts, but a bit hollow without the culture joining in).  They don't play Christmas specials here, maybe just a mention in a cartoon plot, and the weather is always in the 80s (F, around 30 C).

I do go through some reverse culture shock there, but for my kids it will be new ground.  Our son last visited Hawaii five years ago, so I'm his main contact with American culture, along with cartoons, which are a bit culture neutral.  my daughter hasn't been there yet, although she is an American (officially, a passport holder).  Culture in the US has some strengths and weaknesses, and parts can seem a bit inconsistent and fragmented, but the shared experiences and perspective are really nice.  That's especially true in the rural areas, which retain stronger ties to older traditions.  My kids--Bangkok city kids--are going to love it.

Franklin PA, a nearby town, looks a little like Alexandria VA (credit)

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Qi Lan from Cindy Chen

Hopefully I'm back to doing a plain, simple review, this time of a Qi Lan (a Wuyi Yancha roasted oolong).  It's the last of a set of samples sent by Cindy Chen, a tea farmer who needs no introduction (but I will add a picture of her).  It never works out that way though; there is always some tangent that needs chasing, or follow up tasting.  Right to it then.


The scent of the tea is rich and sweet, and implies a higher level of roast than I've been trying for awhile.  It may even be in the range of that Jip Eu Chinatown shop Wuyi Yancha I reviewed, for a Shi Li Xiang, a tea type that probably also goes by Qian Li Xiang.  The initial brew shows some of that roast, and some other intriguing aspects.  It doesn't seem similar to a Da Hong Pao or Rou Gui, but then I'd have to review the type to see what it's supposed to be like (and do at the end of this).

It's a bit sweet, lighter than it seems it would be, with a trace of nuts, and maybe a bit of liquor-like quality.  Subsequent infusions will help add depth to that first take.  Of course I'm preparing it Gongfu style, so there will be plenty of infusions to work with.

It does remind me of that other Chinatown shop tea, on the second infusion.  One main aspect is a nuttiness, like a well roasted almond, but the commonality isn't that part.  It's an aromatic tea, again a little hard to describe exactly what that means, but it does mean something.  It's a description Chinese vendors tend to use for a way teas come across, and rather fitting into words well after trying a few it's clear enough.  That aromatic aspect relates to a perfume or liquor like quality, give or take.  The actual taste range isn't on the pronounced or complex side, with the aroma part expressing a lot of the tea character instead.  I'll try to get the description in order and then move on to my subjective impression of the tea, how I like it.

On the next infusion I'm getting more of the roast effect, but it doesn't come across as overpowering, it's not "char," just significant enough that it plays a role in the tea.  It seems medium, not medium-high.  It integrates relatively well, and works, it's just a different way that tea can be.  There's still a good bit of nuttiness to the flavor profile, with some of that aroma coming across more or less floral, or really defying easy description.  A mineral context is a sub-theme, and underlying range of the tea, but it's completely different than for the other teas I've been drinking lately, autumn harvest Darjeeling and Jing Mai (Yunnan) black tea and Oriental Beauty version.  It's subdued, a light background tone, and in a lighter range, not flinty or towards limestone but in the middle towards that side from darker granite and rich sandstone.

The next infusion is a bit different but not really evolving much, just with those aspects shifting around in balance a little.  A bit of a wood tone may be entering, adding what comes across as a slight earthy range, with the other flavors still more pronounced.  That is reasonable complexity, and the general flavors character is clean, with no negative aspects.

The tea works, and it's clearly nice tea, the only reservation I have relates to this range of aspects not being my favorite.  I think the main concern is the aromatic range; I like my teas to taste like something more than to express that more subtle effect.  At any rate it's good tea, and I like it but I don't love it.

I liked her Jin Jun Mei better, and among those types I preferred the versions that emphasized flavors over the aromatic quality (she sent multiple types that emphasized both ranges, compared here).  I really loved her Rou Gui, and the wild Lapsang Souchong from this set of samples, both of which were exceptional teas and a really good fit for character types I prefer.  I think some of the same trend played out with the Lin farm Dan Cong versions I tasted, a preference for teas with complex tastes but a more limited appreciation for aromatic aspects versus flavor based aspects.

Add caption

Although this tea doesn't have a strong char effect--one reason for aging a tea, to moderate that aspect--it seems possible it could change character over the course of another year or two, that it could pick up more depth and round out to a different balance of aspects than it lands at now.  This is at the limit of what I've experienced, in trying teas and keeping versions on hand to try later, so I'm raising it more as a comment than as a prediction.  I'm only guessing that it might change.

Tea research section

I'm out of the habit these days, but I had used this blog for researching new tea types as I tried them, as a place to keep those notes and link.  Related to that, here's what Teapeadia says about this tea type:

Qi Lan (奇兰) is usually translated as "strange orchid" but "rare orchid" is also common. This oolong is less oxidized and lighter roasted than other Wuyi oolongs such as Da Hong Pao or Shui Jin Gui...  The teas liquor is golden-yellow with a aroma which resemble orchids and fruits. Qi Lan's taste is located somewhere between classsic Wuyi Yan Cha and Tie Guan Yin.

All that makes perfect sense.  It is light, as described, and also floral, but it also tastes like almond (not mentioned here).

Yunnan Sourcing (vendor) tends to have clear and simple write-ups, also worth checking out:

Qi Lan (奇兰) Oolong is originally a varietal of oolong grown in Anxi, but adapted to Wu Yi in the 1930's.  Qi Lan is lightly processed and has a natural almond taste and aroma.  The feeling is thick and sweet with a very natural character to it with almost no roasted taste at all.  If you are a fan of a lightly roasted Da Hong Pao or Shui Xian you will find this vibrant, sweet and thick tea to your liking.

There's the almond reference.  The roasted taste is subdued, but I get the impression that it did affect the character of the tea, that it wasn't really lightly processed in the sense of being lighter roasted, more medium.  It could come across more roasted than it is since the tea itself is a bit subtle.

I'm not sure what to make of my impression versus these inputs.  The tea seemed aromatic, and somewhat like these descriptions (floral, subtle, a bit sweet), and it also seemed that a relatively low oxidation level versus medium roast level might have also have defined the aspects balance.  The first description seems to pin down the tea character range better, with the reference to being between standard Wuyi Yancha and Tie Kuan Yin.

That mix of oxidation and roast aspects reminded me of a heavily roasted TKY I reviewed not so long ago.  It's not crazy to make a tea in such a way, contrasting a light tea style with a medium or even slightly heavier roast effect, it's just not a balance I'm completely familiar with, and not really a personal favorite.  Of course a dark-roasted TKY isn't the same thing, with a different character for a starting point and more normal for that to be taken to an even heavier roast level, so I'm talking about parallels in some aspects, not a close similarity.

well-roasted Tie Kuan Yin

I love the warm, earthy tones in better black teas, so I'm more into Wuyi Yancha range that bridges to that a bit.  Da Hong Pao and Shui Xian have more of a woody / earthiness, or even leather flavor range, although some versions can be quite aromatic too.  Rou Gui tends to express spice or fruit, again in a warm, approachable, flavor-intensive character, versus being light and aromatic.  Or at least all that is my take.

It's typical for a tea blogger to not say that a tea type isn't their favorite (as described in this post on unwritten rules of tea blogging), to sort of remain neutral, and only express an opinion when it's quite positive.  I don't write reviews of teas I don't like, since that's not really interesting, unless they're not good in an interesting way, like the rant posts other bloggers tend to write.  Cindy is my favorite tea maker and I consider her a friend so it's all the more odd.  I liked this tea, I just didn't love it.  In this case the tea seemed interesting, and I really do think those two aspects that didn't completely click with me--aromatic, and lighter, subtle tea with a medium level roast--might work really well for someone more on that page.

If I were buying her tea--and I have--I'd go with the Rou Gui and wild Lapsang Souchong instead, then maybe Shui Xian.  I might pick up some Mi Lan Xiang Dan Cong too (she has family in that region, and the last version of that tea was floral and sweet, and a bit light but tasty, flavor intensive), all of which follow a different pattern of aspects, or maybe two, really.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Farmerleaf Moonlight White from Jing Mai (Yunnan)

This tea looks, smells, and tastes great.  Of course style preferences always come into play related to such judgments; someone else might not like it.  I can appreciate a broad range of teas but it's not as if I'm any more objective than most related to that.  I just experienced not liking one as much as most others of similar quality due to not preferring that style (an aromatic, relatively lightly oxidized and medium roasted oolong).

The tea is buds and leaves mixed (more in the vendor description, including a bit on processing), with those leaves silver with a dark back, a color pattern from a tea I loved earlier in the year, an Indonesian white.  Looking back on that post this tea shares some common ground; sweet and complex with a slight savory edge.

The scent is very sweet, and rich, with lots complexity coming across even in the smell, with just a hint of sundried tomato.  The first light infusion was similar, very bright, great sweetness, good complexity, with a trace of earthiness, even a faint hint of smoke, and a trace of that sundried tomato.  I'm guessing lots more will show up since that was just a light infusion to get the tea started.  Already the tea shows that full feel that rounds out the subtlety of some white teas well.  This tea just isn't faint or overly subtle; it won't be a challenge to pick out aspects.

On the next infusion things really do pick up.  A vegetal trace starts in, and the savory edge also strengthens.  It's not far off sundried tomato but the effect is almost a feel instead, or in the umami range common to Japanese green teas, but without anything like grass or seaweed flavors accompanying that.  The context for those is a lot of sweetness, with a very bright effect, possibly floral, but non-distinct related to that.  I'm not "gettting" a specific flower.

The sunflower seed richness common in Silver Needle style teas is also present, more of the background range.  A very light mineral and earthiness rounds out a lot of complexity in the experience, with the trace of smoke now so faint it may have transitioned to mineral instead.  It all balances together really well, and integrates as a great matching set of aspects.

a very light gold, drinks well brewed even lighter

On the next infusion the bright sweetness diminishes just a little and that earthier range drops back, with vegetal giving way to the sunflower seed range (which could be described as dried hay instead, or as different things, subtle as that aspect is).  Mineral doesn't pick up yet but it would seem normal for that to happen in a couple more infusions.

The tea is a bit light; it's white tea.  I'm not using long infusion times to give it more brewed strength, which would seem more typical for a Western style approach.  Stepping up brewed strength would work for Gongfu style as well, by just adding time.  I'm using 15 or 20 second infusions, not the flash brewing that would work well for lots of other types, Dan Cong, sheng pu'er, Wuyi Yancha, with those first two more or less requiring such an approach.

While I'm on that subject, I just tried two very nice Gopaldhara autumn harvest Darjeelings, black teas, and initially tasted them prepared Western style, then in comparison Gongfu style, and the results weren't so different.  Gongfu brewing shows the transitions better, which there is less of to note in most black teas, but both worked out similarly for those teas.

the tea, brewing

More of the same on the next infusion; still well balanced, a clean and complex tea.  It's so complex that someone could pass on a completely different flavors-list review and it would just be a matter of interpretation.  The sweetness and complexity relates to a soft floral element, and with a little more imagination all sorts of fruit range might be picked out, maybe some lighter type of melon, or in different directions from there.  It's odd for me to go there in description since I don't like most types of melons but I do like this tea.

All those aspects are in the normal range for white teas, and they fall into a great balance in this one.  I went a little heavier on the next infusion, lengthening the time, now out into the range of 45 seconds to a minute, and the fullness picks up.  The mineral undertone picks up strength made that way and the savory aspect gets a good bit stronger.  It is most like sundried tomato, but the effect is unique, the way it fills in also related to feel.

brewed leaves

That "feel" aspect is hard to describe though.  It's a full, soft tea but it includes just a touch of dryness, like one part of what comes across in black teas, without most of the related roughness or bite.  Of course it's paired with a completely different flavors range.  More oxidized white teas tend to lean towards black teas in character but this is really in it's own space.

That's about it for describing the tea, with the next two infusions more of the same.  Minerals keep picking up as infusion time lengthens, but the effect is still relatively full and clean; standard stuff for teas on this level.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Gopaldhara Red Thunder Gold, autumn harvest Darjeeling

Red Thunder Gold, nice looking tea

This is the autumn harvest version of the other "Gold" teas I'd reviewed before, with the first flush review here and second flush here.  Those were Chinese cultivar versions of Darjeeling, AV2 clonal / plant type based teas, as this version is, with vendor information here.  I never did write a research post on cultivars for Darjeeling, in spite of finding a really good reference that spelled out some details (this oneGenetic diversity and relationships among tea (Camellia sinensis) culivars...; per usual for academic papers with some interesting details but not a light read).

The last Red Thunder--a similar tea made from a different plant type--was great tea; soft, fruity, earthy, and balanced, full and bright--one of those teas where it all comes together.  So I'm really looking forward to this one.

the other Red Thunder; some resemblance in the teas


Some initial context:  I'll brew this tea Western style for this review.  It would work just fine Gongfu style, and it might be possible to review transitions (changes across infusions) better that way, but per past experience results would be similar for both.  A lot of teas work better brewed one way or the other, more typically better for Gongfu style, but black teas in general don't vary as much.  I might also mention that I don't use a "straight" Western brewing approach, typically, not a "one teaspoon per cup" formula, shifting that towards the much higher tea proportion used in Gongfu brewing, but still on the "Western" side of that range.

The smell of the dry tea is really nice, full, sweet, and fruity.  It would be possible to spend lots of time sniffing the tea and write a review of just the dry tea smell, but of course I won't.  Fruit scents are rich, towards raisin and grape, and a little citrus, with a touch of molasses rounding out sweetness and adding some earth tone.

The brewed tea is quite nice too, a very soft, rich tea.  I think it will pick up depth and complexity across another infusion--this was light,  a bit fast, just to get it going--but it's interesting seeing (tasting) the previous version "Gold" characteristics already playing out differently in an autumn tea.  It's smooth, "roundish," and a bit towards floral as Darjeeling range tends to go.  The other Red Thunder was soft and well balanced but this is almost so soft it's in the oolong range instead of black tea range, quite smooth.  But it's nothing like an oolong, related to profile, just novel as black teas go.

The tea flavors are bright, clean, and well balanced.  There is so much complexity that one could tease out a good list of distinct aspects.  There is one that stands out, which I'm having trouble pinning down with a description, but it really could be a set of flavors instead.  I'll go a little heavier next infusion and try to spell it out.

The flavors and the way it balances is even nicer the second infusion.  A trace of black tea astringency picks up, still keeping this in a very soft range, just adding body.  It's not as "structured" as the other Red Thunder came across but it has a soft black tea feel to it.   A trace of dryness balances the rest well.

I'm still not "getting" that one characteristic element, still not really able to say exactly what it is.  A decent guess is that it's just a floral tone.  On the richer side rose petals matches a trace it, but there is more to it.  Part is a bright, roundish tone, sort of like chrysanthemum.  It's that part that shifts it a little towards candy-like sweetness.  Or pandan leaf could be a better description, although that might not be familiar to many, a sweet tropical leaf type used for food seasoning, more or less in between fruity and floral, pretty close to Fruit Loops cereal.  There is more conventional cooked yam / sweet potato range as well, perhaps more common to Chinese black tea versions than Darjeelings.

Taken alone those aspects described are complex but wouldn't make for a balanced tea, but there is other range that integrates well and brings across a fuller experience.  Minerals underlie that taste, back to the spring water scent perhaps even more pronounced in the Red Thunder tea.  You might be thinking that spring water never tastes like all that much (except maybe in comparison tasting).  I really mean it's more the scent of the spring itself, that of water rushing out of the ground in a mountain spring, a nice scent, which smells more of minerals due to those collecting there.

black tea, with oxidation backed off just a little

Another infusion shifts towards earthier range, and mineral picks up a little, with floral aspects toning down a bit.  It's even better.  One aspect is that trace of malt that lots of people might describe as "tastes like tea," just not coupled with a bite of astringency as in some black teas, the "briskness."  The feel is interesting, not quite as full and stout as the other Red Thunder, but it balances well.  It's still a little softer and lighter than even a better Dian Hong might be (Yunnan black tea), but not so far off the aspects range.

On the whole it's nice.  It seems to me the kind of tea a dedicated oolong drinker might really connect with, even though it's not that.  The oxidation level may not be so far above the range where the categories switch over.  Later I did get back to a side by side tasting comparison of those two Red Thunder versions, but I'll do an aside related to what the tea is before getting to that second tasting.

Vendor input on the teas

Let's start with the "Gold" version brewing instructions:

Right!  Below boiling point is better, as I'd used, although it wouldn't have hurt to check that advice before the tasting.  It works well to go heavy on the tea proportion too, to double that loose tea amount and brew four infusions instead.  I would go a bit lighter for the first, and the fourth might drop off a little, and would require a longer brewing time.  Or better yet try different approaches and decide for yourself.

I'm all about people brewing and preparing tea however they like but I wouldn't want to even think about someone adding milk to this tea.  It probably would make a great iced tea, mixed with milk and sugar and poured over ice, but that's madness, a complete waste of this level of tea.

More on the Red Thunder Gold version description:

I talked a little with the plantation director about how these two teas could possess that unusual balance of great flavors complexity with astringency being so limited, with no edge or bite, just a nice structure.  He said it had to do with the elevation of the tea (high), the effect of cool fall weather on the plants, and the input related to plant types.  Correct processing surely also played a role.  In other words, all the basic factors came together nicely.

Comparison tasting, Red Thunder versus Red Thunder Gold

Red Thunder left, Gold version right

I tried the Red Thunder with a cold, and didn't feel as though I'd filled in the whole list of aspects for the Red Thunder Gold, so I re-tasted both together.  This time I used a Gongfu approach, not really so different for this tea type versus Western brewing, but it works well for comparison tasting.  The two teas share some common ground for aspects and tastes range, and some differences.

They both share an earthy, mineral intensive range, a taste that makes perfect sense associated with fall, cooler weather.  The Gold version adds a light, sweet note on top of that, one I was saying was close to floral in the last tasting.  It wouldn't be wrong for someone to express it as fruit instead, to say it's like cooked yam, with a bit of raisin, some citrus, maybe even hinting towards nectarine.  But it seems a touch of rich floral tone mixes in, which I focused on describing that in the first tasting since it seemed so novel.  The other Red Thunder has that earthy and mineral base, just extending a bit further, with a bit of extra body and touch of dryness to it.  The flavor extends to be a little deeper rather than brighter, including a touch of sun dried tomato.

On the next infusion--third or fourth; the time flies--the Gold version moves a little into a nice sweet bark spice range.  Cinnamon is the best known bark spice but there are others, and this is not really familiar, maybe exactly like an existing bark spice or maybe not.

I should remember more about trying unusual tisanes over that long spell of interest, drinking those for 20 years before I even started into tea (along with wine and coffee, in stages--crazy times).  In place of referencing that better here is a nice comprehensive reference on medicinal herb uses, not so much on what they taste like though, but it goes into what's out there for tisanes.  Not that I'm recommending that, use as supplements, but the listings are interesting.  Especially the description there for pine needles, a subject that came up in researching Christmas tea blends, but one I didn't mentioned in a post yet.

Christmas season in Bangkok, a few days ago

The other Red Thunder--not "Gold"--stays the same, with that nice sweetness, full structure, and limited astringency working well with the really complex taste range.  They're so complex that varying lists of flavors could be used to describe both without any necessarily being completely wrong.  On the next infusion it seems the Red Thunder did drift into a little of that same bark spice range.

I seem to be focusing on describing differences but falling short on spelling out the underlying profile for these, what they have in common.  It's complex, balanced for both, with common range in wood tones with underlying mineral, a general fall-flavors theme.  Extending from that the Gold version reminds me of a toasted cinnamon roll with raisin, a version of which we knew as "sticky buns" back at Penn State.  There is an element in common with toasted pastry but it's not yeasty.  Both teas are leveling out a little, 8 or 9 infusions in, but not giving out or going off in any way, more just thinning out.

I do tend to step back from offering my own opinion to some extent, objectively describing aspects and all that (or so it seems to me), but these are definitely some of the best Darjeelings I've ever tried.  These black teas compare well against any I've tried from anywhere.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Farmerleaf Jing Mai (Yunnan) Oriental Beauty version

This is tea made after the style of Oriental Beauty Taiwanese oolong (Bai Hao, Dong Fang Mei Ren--one tea type with many names), but from Yunnan.  Different; we'll see how that works out.  First, lets check some back-story from the Farmerleaf vendor:

The processing is similar to Taiwanese Oriental Beauty but the leaves are rolled like a Bi Luo Chun....  Summer ancient tea garden material was used to make this tea. In the 90's, a group of Taiwanese tea makers opened a tea factory on Jingmai mountain: the 101 tea factory. They would produce Taiwanese style tea and take advantage of the good raw material available on this tea mountain. They employed locals to help them in the factory, business was really good. 

But soon, those who worked in the tea factory would leave their job and imitate the processings they had learn to make Taiwanese-style tea on their own.

Kind of what one would expect, except for more about plant type and a little about the leaf-hoppers.  At least one quite decent version of Oriental Beauty (Bai Hao, Dong Fang Mei Ren--same thing) is produced in Thailand, but then there are lots of other close ties between tea production in Taiwan and Thailand, with plant types and processing styles directly copied over.  One could naturally assume this tea is made from variety Assamica tea instead of variety Sinensis (the main category types).  I didn't check on that, although the tea characteristics would seem to support that it is, and that vendor citing "summer ancient garden material" essentially means that, for those familiar with the rest of the location back-story.

This following table maps out types from Taiwan, with this post going into those more (and others).  But that linked post isn't specifically about Oriental Beauty or Chin Shin, and this table identifies OB as made from different types, the main one perhaps a variation of Chin Shin:

tea cultivars table from Tea DB site (credit)

That's probably enough already about Taiwanese cultivars, since it was already clear that has nothing to do with this tea and post, but at the top of another table we can see more details about those.  They're landraces, more original tea types versus newer hybrids, but then tea has been around for awhile with types mixing, and the chart bottom drifts into completely different subjects:

credit a botanical studies academic paper (great stuff)

Back on the subject of the bugs, the leaf hoppers, they are in China too, according to this academic paper on them.  It doesn't seem to say they are definitely in Yunnan, and of course even if they were it doesn't establish a link to this tea version.  On with reviewing then.

The look is unusual, different.  The scent is nice, just earthier than a typical OB, maybe not as sweet, but it is a bit sweet.  I decided to brew it Gongfu style, even though Western style generally works well for OB variations as well.  It gives more range to mess around with brewing parameters, and shows off transitions.

The first taste wasn't like Oriental Beauty; definitely earthier, closer to a black tea.  Appreciating the tea is going to take going beyond expectations of how close it really is to the original type range.  OB types are typically around 70% oxidized, so pretty far up the scale as oolongs go, but this was pretty much a straight black tea, maybe backed off just a little (85-90%?).  Teas in this range--at the borderline--could be sold as black teas or oolong, per my impression and past experience, but it seems more like a light black tea than a dark oolong.  That range is fine, especially if it could cover some new ground.

It's a bit earthy, clearly seeming to be Assamica variety.  The sweetness is fine, the balance of flavors, the effect is quite clean, and soft.  The next logical question is if it shows any of the unusual fruit range in the original OB type, the muscatel, or other fruit, or spice notes.  The other Jing Mai black tea was on the fruity side as well, just not exactly in the same range, and this isn't too far from that.  Earthiness and mineral undertones join fruit aspects towards cooked yam, along with cocoa, with just a touch of raisin and pastry-like bread aspect.  It's all quite nice, but still typical for a black tea; it works as a Dian Hong.

Another infusion along it may be shifting even more into fruit, not in such a different range, but lightening so I can sort of imagine spice and citrus coming out more.  It's not so much muscatel, but not so far from that.  The citrus is in between a heavier, sweeter type of orange and a little towards a red grapefruit.  It's still not typical OB but it's interesting.  Of course for someone that doesn't like earthier black teas in that type of fruit range it wouldn't be as interesting; for someone really wanting it to cover muscatel, brighter citrus, grape, and spice it could be disappointing.

The astringency level is quite light, a soft tea, but it gives the tea structure.  I'm not attached to particular expressions of feel in teas, as some people are, but it centers in the middle towards the back of your tongue.  That means next to nothing to me, but it's mildly interesting.

On the next infusion the citrus is still there but the other range shifts from those warmer, richer fruits into spice instead; the cocoa moves a little towards cinnamon, or really both show up.  I'm sure this tea would brew just fine Western style but it does have some transition to show off, rewarding someone for bothering to use the Gongfu approach instead.

I tend to say a lot of teas have a clean effect, sort of wearing out that type of expression, but there is that and a brightness to this tea.  It's nice, but not really novel in similar black teas, since lots of better versions couple those in varied ways.  Other earthy black teas can come across as a little muddled instead, and lose that brightness for a drift towards murky versions of peat or wood tones.  A black tea could be in the range of peat, dark wood, and forest floor, but still quite clean, but once wild mushroom and other fungus range comes in that "clean" effect starts to slip away.

Using slightly longer brewing times 8 or 9 infusions in it starts to change character, along with the natural transition already going on.  It's still nice, but the earthy undertone and mineral picks up a bit.  Earth is more a factor in this tea, perhaps something I'm labeling wrong since it's closer to the range of dark wood, so a move towards the boundary of earth and vegetal, just not at all "green."  Many infusions along I'm still not seeing much overlap with Taiwanese Oriental Beauty but the tea is nice, different.

It would be interesting to try this tea prepared Western style and see how it varies.  I'd be surprised if it didn't come across differently, even though the aspects range should have a lot in common.  I think in common with Taiwanese OB versions it might shift a bit related to water temperature used, more than most black teas do, but I'd need to experiment to determine that too.

Follow-up tasting, Western style

All that was written as notes for a complete review, but later I made the tea Western style with a quick breakfast.  That's not ideal conditions since I certainly wasn't making notes, but it did work out well prepared this way.  I didn't make much in the way of mental notes either, but I did notice how the tea was really on the sweet side, with good complexity, and a nice balance.  I tried to pin down that sweetness effect, which flavor aspect it seemed to pair with, since sometimes it seems like parts of the flavor elements can sort of go together (does that make sense?).  With a more typical Oriental Beauty the muscatel, citrus or spice would seem somehow linked to the sweetness in those teas, although I guess it's possible all of this is just me walking off the map.  I did a traditional Christmas blend not so long ago and adding a touch of sugar really changed the effect of the orange-peel citrus (literally that taste and aspect input; it was a blend), so that somehow those aspects seemed coupled.

In this tea the sweetness seemed somehow related to maple syrup instead, that warm, earthy, clean flavor range, I suppose a little woody, but not in any normal sense of that.  I don't really mean the taste range in syrup versions from a Denny's or IHOP though; that sort of is maple syrup, technically just flavored corn syrup instead.  The real thing is something else, the condensed sap of trees.  It was subtle in the tea, not something that stands out, while in the actual syrup (that my Grandfather made, and my Dad still does) it hits your palate pretty hard, just in a good way.  It's like drinking fresh squeezed orange juice; there's nothing subtle about how tasting that goes.

For me the tea gains points for originality, for being novel, pushing it over the boundary of pretty good tea to something more.  It's not that far from normal Dian Hong range, that Chinese black tea style, perhaps just picking up a little more complexity.

It occurs to me that this is a meta-level preference in tea types, preferring something novel, or at least types that I've not yet tried, apart from the other concerns.  There is nothing wrong with someone tasting more broadly and then zeroing in on a half-dozen types they'd like to keep experiencing, or perhaps even skipping that first part.  There would always be higher quality levels within types to experience, or other aspects variations.

In tea discussion circles all that can turn into a contest, which could be seen as positive, if one likes contests, but I'd think for many hearing any variations of "my tea is better than your tea" would get old fast.  In case it wasn't already clear, I never intend that here, only to share experiences.  I'm sure I must get swept up in judgments to some extent myself, an occupational hazard in reviewing, but I try to stay open for appreciating different teas for different reasons, even more ordinary types and versions.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Standard Christmas tea blend revisited

I've left some scope unfinished related to Christmas tea blends, getting a standard version to work out without adjusting it with milk and sugar.  Note that reading a Taste the Tea post reviewing lots of types of teas helped trigger this, although I did make a version last year, and was already planning another go.  By standard version I mean a variation of black tea, cinnamon, orange (peel, most likely), and clove (although it could include others).  Since that's the basic set, and since I varied that by including more fruit last year (black cherry and nectarine), I went with just those for a second attempt this year (after the more chocolate covered cherry version--a bit atypical).

two small oranges worth of peel

Related to the orange part, essentially any oranges would do.  There would be strengths and weaknesses related to how essential oils taste in different versions, different breeds and preparations, but not being aware of that I was more likely to go with the first oranges I ran across.  A street vendor truck driving by the house was selling Chinese / Mandarin oranges this past weekend, so that was it.

Prepping those turned out to be a bit tricky because the skins were too thin for stripping off an outer layer, and I was working with two of them my daughter had already peeled and eaten.  It worked better to strip off the white pith instead (which would add a bitterness the blend doesn't need), shaving it away with a peeler.  The easiest fix would be to grate the zest off a whole fresh orange, never using a drying step, but the cooking related work is a fun part for me.  It took a bit over half an hour to dry those in a 90 degree toaster oven.

the dried version

I also added a bit of ground cinnamon and ground clove, spice-jar versions.  In the past I've fresh-ground cinnamon from a stick but I took the easy path this time.  For black tea I used only Hatvala Wild Boar black tea from Vietnam, which I'm getting low on.  It's perfect for the blend, in terms of profile, a soft tea compared to CTC Ceylon and such, with some natural fruit flavor and a bit of earthiness.  If anything it's too good a tea to be using in this way, but it's not like I was committing 50 grams to a blend, I just made enough for one infusion cycle, this time.  I usually mix whatever CTC commercial loose tea I have around with another type but I wanted to see how it would work without that astringency input.

a commercial version (photo credit Taste the Tea site)

Tasting notes / review:

Straight to it then.  The blend worked!  One trick is getting clove to be there but not overpower the other elements, and that's how it balanced out.  The orange element was nice, strong enough to definitely show up, but also balanced.  It tasted nothing like bergamot (the orange oil used in Earl Grey), not even like more typical "Western" orange types, a good bit like the Mandarin orange fruit does.  I went light on the cinnamon and it could've improved by ramping that up, but at the same time it was nice that stayed well in the background.  It was subtle enough to drink plain after a three minute infusion time (or so; I didn't put it on a timer).

The downside:  the taste balance wasn't quite right related to the limited sweetness.  The beautiful part of normal plain teas is that it all really does automatically balance, and absolutely doesn't need sugar or milk (a matter of taste preference, of course).  The clove wasn't spicy, that wasn't a problem, but the different inputs didn't mesh and balance as they should.  I added a bit of sugar--not much, a small teaspoon--and it absolutely did work.

post-infusion; a bit of a mess

Somehow the orange element made a lot more sense with that extra sweetness as a part of the profile.  I'm reminded of reading of how salt is added to some teas to make them come across differently, not a common thing, maybe related to something atypical like a Tibetan or Mongolian butter tea (come to think of it I've not gone there yet; so much ground to cover...).

With just that little bit more sweetness the orange really jumped to the front, and went from a background citrus mixed in to tasting a lot like those oranges actually do, sweet and rich.  They are the same as the ones people buy in cans sold as "Mandarin oranges" in the US, here going by the name Chinese oranges, and neither is probably an accurate formal name.  But what's in a name.

next to longkong for scale

Clove integrated well with that, better for being a secondary aspect, almost linking up somehow.  The level of tea was nice, again continuous, a good match.  Cinnamon was more or less getting lost, layered under at the base.  Prepared this way it almost seemed like a Mandarin orange tea as much as a Christmas themed tea.  The second infusion was similar, and a third, longer infusion didn't need sweetener since the orange was picking up, probably not even close to spent, while the tea and clove were fading a bit.

I want to emphasize how easy this was to make.  At the easiest someone could grate the zest off an orange, straight into the mix, and shake in a couple of dashes of those spices straight off the spice rack.  It might only take a minute.  It's my impression that drying the rind changes the flavor a little, but then everything changes the flavor a little.  The temperature and humidity level in the room probably shifts your sense of taste a little.

Or the opposite approach could work, ramping up the level of effort a little.  This would work better using fresh ground cloves and cinnamon, and including a bit more fruit would work well, as in that version last year, it would just add lots to prep time.  I can't really see adding jam to this, as I had in the recent chocolate covered cherry blend version, but it's conceivable the same blend could be made from orange marmalade.  A friend just mentioned in an online discussion his family would do that; add a bit of marmalade to their tea when they felt like it.  I don't think the same interesting orange oil aspect would carry over, though.  Adding some of those cacao nibs used in that other blend might have worked; I'd have to check.

Of course I'm mostly talking to people that like to cook, for whom that range of demand is a positive thing, but the one-minute version really is worth a try.  Plain tea purists probably shouldn't even be reading this; it could be considered tea-enthusiast blasphemy.  If I was in some sort of club I might get black-listed, or blocked from a pu'er group just for mentioning this there.

I really don't drink blends much, or ever get around to adding sugar to a tea, outside of something like masala chai, but it's nice to mix things up.  I'm just getting over a cold, not ideal for tea tasting, and somehow this works really well for that, a good match for the most subtle level of perception of my palate not working out.  Drying peels from two small oranges looks like plenty for three batches of tea so I will get back to experimenting more with what I made.  Maybe I'll ramp up the spice in the next version, adding a little nutmeg and cardamom to see how that works out.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Gopaldhara Red Thunder, autumn flush black Darjeeling

Following up on reviewing some nice first and second flush teas from Gopaldhara earlier, they passed on a few more samples of their Darjeeling autumn flush.

I read a mainstream article on that general type not so long ago that peaked my interest, NPR's Autumn Flush: The Best Darjeeling Tea You'll (Likely Never) Taste.  The idea was that less of this harvest category is produced, so it's harder to find.  For readers outside the US, that's National Public Radio, a resource for news and talk radio, perhaps better known for making airwave broadcast classical music available throughout the US.  Here's what they said:

Autumn flush — the last of the year — begins by the end of October, once the monsoon has withdrawn from the misty hills, the rains tapered off, and the temperatures begun to drop. The tea bushes reduce their output as they move toward hibernation. It is the shortest of the harvests, and lasts just 30 or so days.

"The liquor has a delicate yet sparkling character with a delightful flavor, distinct from both first flush and second flush with a round cup," says B.N. Mudgal, who managed for last few decades Jungpana, one of Darjeeling's most storied gardens...

Less floral and delicate than the opening flushes, autumn flavors tend to be more deeply fruity, with notes of ripe grapes and berries...   Or, as Rishi Saria, of the high-elevation Gopaldhara Tea Estate, says, "a robust cup and solid cup."

Sounds great.  Of course I've tried versions but it's easy to lose track over time, and a really good example of a tea type can make for a much different experience than one that's just roughly typical.  The Gopaldhara site describes this version as follows:

The tea is made from clonal bushes and looks blackish-red with abundant tips. It brews into a bright orange cup with excellent muscatel flavour with rich dense notes of ripe fruits. The tea gives a sweet flavour but without any astringency. The aftertaste is well-defined and long lasting and exquisite.

it smells as nice as it looks

Review section:

The dry tea scent reminds me of first discovering nicer Darjeelings some years ago, that initial amazement that a tea could have such a fruity and rich smell and taste.

The flavor profile includes plenty of fruit, in warm, soft, earthy and mineral context, very approachable and well balanced.  I'm at the tail end of having a cold and I can notice that I'm not picking up the same level of all of the aspects even as I'm tasting them.

It will be nice to give this a second tasting with follow-up notes and see how much I missed.  At least I can appreciate all the more that this tea is pleasantness and comfort distilled into a hot beverage.  It's great that the astringency is so limited there isn't that factor to brew around.  I prepared it a little stronger than I may have without a cold to help it "get through" to my muted palate, and it would still work well across a range different infusion strengths.

Flavors are interesting, difficult to completely unpack; there's a lot of complexity integrated into a continuous, balanced range.  Muscatel is one aspect, just not as pronounced as it would typically be for a second flush tea (the harvest prior to this one).  Earthiness is the next most prominent flavor range, at this stage in the brewing, a very interesting presentation of it.  It really seems to be in between a mineral-oriented earthiness and mineral, between dark wood, red sandstone, and a mild and sweet form of mineral tone.  The empty cup smells of a rich, dark honey sweetness.

On the next infusion the mineral and fruit pick up just a little, still so nice.  The mineral tone seems related to an aspect of the feel of the tea, as a mild astringency centered on your tongue that moves to the back and sides as an aftertaste.  It's not a roughness or bite, instead a pleasant level of body or structure, a fullness.

The sweetness and general feel are great, well balanced, soft as many black teas go but with a nice texture to it.  There is enough flavor complexity that someone with a good imagination could describe a long list of what is really there, expressing more about fruit, and pinning down that mineral and earth further.  The fruit aspect is warm and rich, in the range of roasted sweet potatoes.

Thai pumpkin on the left (no Japanese shown; this is in rural Thailand)

A word on pairing for this tasting, which I typically don't address:  I'm having the tea with breakfast, with a nice pumpkin pie I cooked from scratch.  Thai pumpkin is more like varieties of squash sold in the US (although pumpkin technically is a squash, per my understanding).  Japanese pumpkin--what this pie is made from--is sweeter and more orange, with a softer, smoother skin that works well for cooking.  The skin is very nice broiled in a toaster oven seasoned with a yellow curry.

her verdict:  yummy!

This tea is perfect for pairing with warm, complex fall and winter foods.  It would work well served only with bit of gingerbread, but it would stand alongside an American holiday meal just fine.  It's light and bright enough to wash your palate clean between one rich or sweet side dish and another, and it contributes it's own complexity and a different kind of flavors depth.

On the next infusion I'm noticing a nice drift into spice aspects, picking up both cinnamon and nutmeg, really a broad range.  The flavors are still clean, the general effect still bright, the feel mostly unchanged.  I might mention I'm not really brewing the tea Gongfu style, more adjusting Western brewing back a bit towards a higher proportion with slightly shorter times.  That's kind of a general preference of mine for teas that works well with, best for black teas.  It can still work well for white and green types, with some oolongs typically turning out better using a traditional Gongfu approach (Dan Cong in particular is touchy about that).

Even on the next infusion, brewing the tea out a bit, it's still nice, a good sign.  The tea thins a little, and the background astringency and feel changes due to longer brewing times.  The flavor moves from fruit and spice to more mineral, a normal transition, but it's still great as it brews through all the transitions, a nice characteristic of better teas.


I think that review did capture the essence of this tea, but I have more of the sample left to compare it to another version when I get to those.  Comparing closely related teas makes it easier to sort out minor variations in aspects, and I'll probably add a description or two to the flavors list of this one trying it once completely over that cold.  I suspect I failed to note an underlying layer, perhaps cocoa or the like, and probably at least one trace of fruit.

this smelled like snow, that day, but different in summer

It reminded me of a subject I'd recently mentioned, about growing up in rural Pennsylvania (a US state), and being exposed to a range of fascinating smells in those woods.  Oil well equipment in particular has a nice scent.  An old, broken oil barrel may still retain a rich, earthy scent, combining oil and slowly fermenting wood.  Old pipelines smell of iron-based metals, aging over decades to return to the earth that they were once a part of.

This tea isn't a close match for either of those but it definitely shares some range.  The mineral nature does remind me of an old open water well, drawing up an interesting range of minerals from deep in the ground, slowly flowing due to natural pressure.  Those minerals serve as natural multi-vitamins for deer, who stop by for sips.

This was definitely a well balanced, complex, pleasant tea.  The first and second flush teas are nice in their own way but this version really did work well according to my preferences, one of the nicest Darjeelings I've tried.  That article was right; it would be a shame to miss the experience.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Effects of long term caffeine consumption, and withdrawal

This is a tough topic to get good input on.  For most subjects an ordinary Google search turns up lots of information, most just isn't as well-grounded as it might be.  For most topics digging deeper through search resources like Research Gate and Google Scholar identifies a few great references, usually too specific to paint out the broad picture but enough for a good start on some details.  Not so much for the long term effects of caffeine consumption.

I'll be able to go into dependency and withdrawal--that's well documented--but there just isn't much about long term use issues.  One potential problem is identified here, but my intuition tells me that this post might miss a lot of real concerns.

Research does try to identify patterns in heart disease or cancer correspondence with caffeine use, with some interesting results.  I'm more concerned about psychological effects, or changes in how I might feel, so I won't do anything with all that here.  I drink a lot of tea, and take in a good bit of caffeine, and I'd like to know what the effect might be.  Hopefully I'm not increasing my chances of getting a serious illness but I would expect the best guess about that to vary over time as different studies come out.

I don't measure how much tea I drink or how much caffeine I take in but I'm guessing it's typically right around the 400 mg that might be considered a normal upper threshold.  A related Mayo Clinic reference talks about what happens if someone goes beyond that, perhaps even from taking in 500-600 mg:

Heavy daily caffeine use — more than 500 to 600 mg a day — may cause side effects such as:

Insomnia, Nervousness, Restlessness, Irritability, Stomach upset, Fast heartbeat, Muscle tremors

That doesn't sound good.  According to that reference below that level there is typically no problem, unless someone is especially sensitive to caffeine, or has a related medical condition:

Up to 400 milligrams (mg) of caffeine a day appears to be safe for most healthy adults. That's roughly the amount of caffeine in four cups of brewed coffee, 10 cans of cola or two "energy shot" drinks.

photo credit

I might also mention that both my mother and brother have such a pre-existing medical condition as I'd mentioned.  If they ingest even moderate amounts of caffeine they experience heart valve related problems, which isn't as dangerous as it sounds (I think it's this condition, mitral valve prolapse).

This journal reference fills in more details of caffeine effects, essentially matching that other WebMD reference, and citing an interesting extreme case where over 1000 mg can lead to psychological problems.  It also covers one other case related to pre-existing anxiety disorders (from Neuropsychiatric Effects of Caffeine):

The resemblance between the symptoms of excessive caffeine ingestion and those of anxiety is obvious and they may both have a basis in overactivity of the sympathetic nervous system. It has been argued that the symptoms of caffeinism are indistinguishable from those of anxiety (Greden, 1974). However, caffeinism is normally associated with a daily intake of 1000–1500 mg...  

Clinically, caffeine may be involved in the precipitation, exacerbation or maintenance of anxiety disorders (Kruger, 1996).

Interesting!  From what I've covered so far it seems unlikely that many people would exceed 1000 mg. of caffeine intake anyway, the threshold for triggering what they identify as disruptive caffeine intake described as "caffeinism."  It does seem possible to drink four energy drinks in a day, though; that might come up.

This relates to roughly 10 cups of coffee or 25 cups of tea (only roughly; actual amounts vary based on lots of variables).  It's worth considering that larger, stronger beverages can vary in contents, related to these Starbucks quantities from the "Caffeine Informer" site:

one coffee might be plenty for the day, or several, depending

Those drink volumes vary from 8 ounces to 20 (with some values seeming to indicate not all beverages are available in every size option).

energy drink caffeine amounts (credit Consumer Reports)

Drinking three drinks or 60 ounces of the highest caffeine content beverages would put one at high risk for those more extreme side-effects, the "caffeinism" case, or less for some higher content specialty drink versions.  Some of those--not included on this list citation--register over 400 mg. for the largest size.  But for most standard Starbucks coffee beverages that seems like a lot of coffee, roughly two quarts.  Espresso shots--75 mg., listed further down that chart than cited--would also add up, but not quickly, since a dozen would only approach that 1000 mg limit.

Before going further with a deeper dive into possible side-effects lets go back to what started me considering this, a blog post about that author quitting caffeine.

A starting point for this concern

I read a blog post once--Bear's blog, a tea blog--in which the author linked problems with energy level and focus to extended caffeine dependency, which I'll cite here:

...during my post-hospital five-day recovery I drank some coffee. But once I started feeling physically better, my head was still cloudy, and I was tired all day long... No amount of coffee or tea helped. I brewed my tea stronger and stronger...

I couldn't determine the problem. I had rested, and I felt better otherwise. No symptoms of any other sickness. I kept hydrated, I ate healthy. I ran down the list of potential issues until I settled on a likely culprit: caffeine dependency. So I quit.

Quitting gave me a 24/7 headache for three consecutive days, a horrible headache... But I didn't get better, my fatigue became worse and my head more densely clouded.

After another four days of sporadic headaches, my fatigue lifted. ...I slept more easily and deeply than I had in many months...   I don't blame tea for my dependency; in fact, I suspect a period of using workout supplements very high in caffeine played a big role...

That really covered two issues, an anecdotal case of someone associating caffeine use with fatigue related side effects, and the withdrawal symptoms and process.  I'll go into the latter more related to a study findings, but it's really off the central point here.  There is a reference in that journal article already cited about caffeine effects that may tie to this:

It is well-known that caffeine produces insomnia.  It reduces slow-wave sleep in the early part of the sleep cycle and can reduce rapid eye movement (REM) sleep later in the cycle (Nicholson & Stone, 1980). Caffeine increases episodes of wakefulness (Brezinova et al, 1975), and high doses in the late evening can increase the time taken to fall asleep (Smith, 2002).

If this really is the link caffeine isn't directly causing fatigue; it's disrupting sleep cycle patterns and that is.  This doesn't carry the same weight as well-researched journal article, but a response to a Quora question about how caffeine affects dreams seems directly related:

Any stimulant or depressant, like caffine, will disrupt your sleep architecture from its normal patterns, even if you feel you have a pretty solid tollerance for caffine. Over time, the caffeine causes your mind to linger much longer in Stage 2 sleep (or even Stage 1, very light sleep) rather than deeper sleep because the stimulant effects have not completely worn off from the day. This causes a reduction of time you spend in REM, because the mind needs Delta/Stage 3 (deep) sleep before moving on to a REM sleep session.

So, when you stop using caffeine, your mind will then not have a stimulant blocking it from the natural sleep architecture that allows REM to occur.

I didn't turn up research related to this, nothing to confirm or reject this, although the journal article citation mentioned just prior in this post does support a similar point, and cites two other studies backing up two related claims.  A Forbes article covers the same ground, also tying in how caffeine removal by your body relates to this issue:

For you to wake up feeling rested, your brain needs to move through an elaborate series of cycles. You can help this process along and improve the quality of your sleep by reducing your caffeine intake.

Here’s why you’ll want to: caffeine has a six-hour half-life, which means it takes a full twenty-four hours to work its way out of your system. Have a cup of joe at eight a.m., and you’ll still have 25% of the caffeine in your body at eight p.m. Anything you drink after noon will still be at 50% strength at bedtime. Any caffeine in your bloodstream—with the negative effects increasing with the dose—makes it harder to fall asleep.

When you do finally fall asleep, the worst is yet to come. Caffeine disrupts the quality of your sleep by reducing rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, the deep sleep when your body recuperates and processes emotions. 

Another interesting and largely unrelated tangent in that same article covers why some of the measured positive aspects of caffeine use may not be valid:

Many studies suggest that caffeine actually improves cognitive task performance (memory, attention span, etc.) in the short-term. Unfortunately, these studies fail to consider the participants’ caffeine habits. New research from Johns Hopkins Medical School shows that performance increases due to caffeine intake are the result of caffeine drinkers experiencing a short-term reversal of caffeine withdrawal. 

By controlling for caffeine use in study participants, John Hopkins researchers found that caffeine-related performance improvement is nonexistent without caffeine withdrawal. In essence, coming off caffeine reduces your cognitive performance and has a negative impact on your mood. The only way to get back to normal is to drink caffeine, and when you do drink it, you feel like it’s taking you to new heights. In reality, the caffeine is just taking your performance back to normal for a short period.

Crazy!  It's possible to measure a performance boost in study participants from taking caffeine because they normally are "on it," and the withdrawal causes a drop in performance in the first place in the studies.  The performance-inhibiting lack of caffeine, which they are dependent on to begin with as a matter of daily habit, is removed by restoring the normal level of caffeine in the participants' systems.

A Time article cites an interesting related celebrity sports star case, when Serena Williams missed her morning coffee and later performed better in a match after having an espresso between rounds.

Man Not Himself Until He Has So Much Coffee He Feels Like He’s Going To Die (the Onion)

Withdrawal case:  a research study

My main concern is identifying what the long term impact is in my own case, not necessarily related to stopping caffeine use but to continuing it.  All the same considering the case of caffeine withdrawal is informative, since a lot of the content sets a baseline for the effect of different levels of caffeine use.

The Caffeine Informer website includes a detailed summary of withdrawal symptoms, along with other guidance on how to best quit caffeine use, along with this chilling insight:

Even after the withdrawal period is over, many still never feel quite as good as they do when they’re drinking caffeine all of the time. Some believe that caffeine permanently alters one’s brain chemistry.  This is most likely due to the changes that occur with dopamine levels in the brain because of the daily caffeine.

Doesn't sound good.

A research study paper identifies just how easy it is to develop a caffeine dependency, in Caffeine Withdrawal: A Parametric Analysis of Caffeine Dosing Conditions.   The results are easiest to summarize as a series of findings.  

The methodology, controls and related background is described extensively in this paper, but none will be cited here.  The basic findings described familiar withdrawal symptoms:

The present study confirms and extends previous findings regarding the symptoms associated with the cessation of caffeine consumption. The major symptom clusters that were affected significantly in each of the four experiments (cf. Table 2) were increases in Headache, Headache/Poor Mood... Tiredness... Fatigue.. and Total Mood Disturbance (POMS) and decreases in Activity/Alertness... and Vigor (POMS). 

one related study graphic (more details in the paper)

Again there is a lot more detail related to those findings in that reference, but it's what one would expect, withdrawal symptoms include headache and fatigue, with much greater detail of those outlined in the study.  Two initial findings are of interest:

The magnitude of withdrawal effect was greater at 600 mg/day caffeine than 100 mg/day caffeine on several measures...  

Experiment 2 also documented that significant caffeine withdrawal symptoms can occur after maintenance on as little as 100 mg/day caffeine.... individuals who consume as little as a single 6-oz. cup of brewed coffee (which is known to deliver about 100 mg of caffeine; Barone and Roberts, 1996) each morning are at risk for experiencing headache and other withdrawal symptoms should they omit their daily single cup of coffee.

A third experiment findings related to levels of symptoms related to lowering dosages, not eliminating intake:

The results of experiment 3 (suppression of caffeine withdrawal) indicate that when individuals are maintained on 300 mg/day caffeine, a substantial reduction in caffeine consumption, or complete elimination, is necessary for the manifestation of the full, classic withdrawal syndrome. Only when the dose was reduced to 100 mg/day (one-third the maintenance dose) was there any evidence of caffeine withdrawal. In fact, the withdrawal observed tended to be relatively mild and variable even when a mere 25 mg of caffeine was substituted

One last experiment related to how long it took to develop this caffeine dependence:

Experiment 4 (duration of caffeine exposure) showed that relatively short-term exposure (as few as 3 consecutive days) to intermediate doses of caffeine (300 mg/day) is sufficient to produce withdrawal symptoms when caffeine dosing is terminated. As shown in Table 2 and Fig. 4, the withdrawal tended to be somewhat greater after 7 days of caffeine exposure, with no further increases after 14 days of caffeine exposure.

The short version:  someone can become addicted to caffeine in a week, and as dependent as they're going to be--related to withdrawal experienced--after just 14 days.

Of course that doesn't reject that the negative impact of dependency and use couldn't vary over longer time periods, only that the withdrawal process itself seems to not change, per these findings.  Based only on intuition I suspect that the other negative aspects of caffeine use would vary over a period of weeks or months.  Of course the earlier section references indicated that most people wouldn't experience negative reactions, as long as they remained under the "normal" limit level of 400 mg. use per day.

caffeine, the chemical compound (photo credit)


The withdrawal study findings were quite interesting, just not closely tied to the other ideas.  They seemed to imply that reactions to use of caffeine wouldn't vary much after two weeks, based on the scope and content of those findings, related to withdrawal concerns.

If caffeine really is disrupting sleep patterns that would seem a completely separate concern, much more likely to exhibit a cumulative effect over time.  It was particularly interesting that trouble falling asleep was just one factor mentioned, and not the main one, with two reliable sources and a Quora answer responder all citing REM sleep cycle disruption as a more significant factor.  The effects cited in that blog post, sleepiness, haziness, lack of vigor, would all be exactly what one might expect related to sleep pattern disruption.  Again it's not about insomnia, which could possibly be related, but instead to dream-state cycles.

these guys help with my insomnia

It's a bit late to be introducing it but I've been experiencing similar symptoms myself, a general haziness and lack of energy, for a period of weeks to months (or maybe years, in a lesser form).  I'd always written that off to my kids waking me up at night.  They do so at random times roughly every other night, sometimes twice in a night.

It would be nearly impossible to separate the two, sleep disruption related to caffeine disrupting REM cycle and sleep disruption related to being woke up at random times.  It all started about eight years ago, when my son was a newborn, and never really subsided since.  It varies a lot based on lots of factors, like thunderstorms, which I can sleep through but they can't.

So should I quit tea?  Taking a couple weeks off would seem in order.  I already intentionally limit how much tea I drink to likely stay under the standard caffeine level limit, and don't drink any tea past mid-afternoon.  I took a day off earlier in the week, related to having a cold, with that related withdrawal prompting me to revisit this subject (it really does give you a headache, something I've noticed before).

Based on this research stepping back caffeine use might be a lot more pleasant an experience, moving to a cup or two of tea a day first instead (60-80 mg of caffeine, maybe, although that really does depend on lots of factors).  I'll post an update if I try it.