Some Thoughts on Tea & Caffeine

"How much caffeine is in tea?" It's a question we hear several times a week in the teahouse. But, freighted with assumptions, it may not be the right question, because it fails to account for subtle balances that exist in nature until they're undone by human priorities that exaggerate certain traits at the expense of others. We believe tea's ability to tap into those balances is one of the things that makes it such a complex and satisfying beverage.

When people ask about caffeine, often they really want to know about tea's stimulating effect. But caffeine doesn't exist in isolation in the tea leaf; in tea and many other plants caffeine is only one of several complex botanical compounds that interact with human physiology. It appears that the caffeine molecule is rather robust, since it survives heavy processing involved in making coffee, chocolate, and cola, as well as tea. It's just an opinion based on my experience drinking many kinds of tea, but I think there are other more delicate compounds in tea that can counterbalance tea's stimulating effect, if they aren't altered when the tea is manufactured or brewed. In general, the less processed the tea (such as white and green teas), the more of these delicate compounds survive to potentially affect the overall tea-drinking experience.

To take one example, there's a substance found only in Camellia sinensis called theanine that's been the subject of extensive medical research. Among other things, it's known to promote relaxation. Perhaps theanine is one reason that, far from keeping me awake, heavy tea drinking sometimes makes me yawn and long for a nap.

There are a multitude of effects from drinking tea. Modern medical research shows it can lower blood sugar, aid digestion, improve endurance, and sharpen mental concentration. In China there's a well known effect called "tea drunk," where you can become stimulated and giddy from overindulging in certain teas (usually greener ones). And certainly caffeine's famed ability to prevent sleep can come into play. When I drink top-quality handmade teas they rarely disturb my sleep, but in keeping with Chinese tradition I usually don't drink black tea. The other night, though, I was trying some of our new black tea and thoughtlessly drank it late, since that's usually not a problem. Afterwards, I was wide awake until about 2 AM! Whiling away the long hours, I wondered whether some protective chemical had been processed out of the black tea...or perhaps the higher brewing temperature simply extracted more caffeine.

Studies show that most tea leaves have about the same caffeine content, but the amount of caffeine in the infusion can vary greatly depending on the amount of leaf, steeping time, water temperature, and other factors. These variables equally affect other of tea's beneficial compounds. To a large extent you, the teamaker, can write your own destiny in terms of your tea-drinking experience. Don't think of caffeine as a god-given value printed on a nutrition label; in fact, only the least nutritious foods have nutrition labels! Instead, take the time to learn to brew tea well and adapt your tea selection and brewing technique to the unique situation of the moment. Then you can enjoy tea whenever you please and you're sure to be satisfied with the result.
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Today's Tea Class

We had a great tea class this morning in the Ferry Building. Over two hours Roy shared anecdotes of the 2009 Spring Harvest, brewed six new teas, coached attendees' brewing techniques, and critiqued the outcome of each student's infusion of each tea. The teas we covered included Imperial Dragon Well, Imperial Green, Imperial Silver Needles, Imperial Green Oolong, Bi Luo Chun, and Cui Feng.

If you missed this week's class there's another one at 7:00 PM next Sunday, June 7, in our Berkeley teahouse. We look forward to seeing you there for another fun session brewing tea with Roy! Meanwhile, check out the photos from today's class in the Virtual Teahouse on Facebook.

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More Spring Tea Coming Soon

Roy stopped by the teahouse today to taste a couple more new green teas from the 2009 harvest that will be available for sale in the next few days.

This year's Bi Luo Chun, one of China's great green teas from the Lake Tai area, is an intense dark green and yields a rich brew with a satisfying thick texture, striking sweetness, and powerful fresh taste that stands up to repeated brewing. Bi Luo Chun is such a delicate tea that it's not available every year, so we're excited that we can offer it in the 2009 lineup.

We're pleased to announce the return of Dragon Whiskers, Anhui's famous green tea that we used to carry in the early days of the original Chinatown Imperial Tea Court. This year, Dragon Whiskers is especially sweet and full of fresh spring flavor. If you're not familiar with this uncommon variety we bet it will become one of your favorites.

Stay tuned: photos and more details of the latest spring teas coming soon!

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Don't Miss the Tea Classes with Roy!

Brush up on your brewing technique and taste the finest new teas from the 2009 Spring Harvest the way Roy brews them in one of our upcoming tea classes. Roy is holding two classes this spring: Sunday, May 31, at 9:00 AM in the Ferry Building, and Sunday, June 7, at 7:00 PM in the Berkeley teahouse. Roy will brew tea for you, talk about his experiences in the 2009 harvest, and teach you how to make a great brew yourself!

Each two-hour class will include many of this year's finest teas, such as Imperial Dragon Well, Imperial Green, Imperial Green Oolong, Imperial Silver Needles, and Organic Putuo Compassion. $50 tuition includes all tea, plus attendees receive a 10% discount on any tea purchases that day. Space is very limited, so reserve your seat today!

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Beginnings of a Backyard Tea Farm

We turned over the soil by hand and later rototilled in soil amendments, including probiotic fertilizers, and made the rows by hand. We'll let the soil compost for a couple more weeks, then plant some seedlings to see how it goes. If it works here, we'll go to step two: looking for a larger piece of land to start our tea farm. How cool is that?!
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A Teamaster's Holiday

All of us at Imperial Tea Court wish our USA readers a fun and relaxing Memorial Day holiday weekend! If you're wondering how teamasters spend their holidays, Imperial Tea Court Teamaster Roy Fong is preparing the soil in his back yard for a test garden of tea plants! He'll be planting green, oolong, puerh, and black teas, and has promised to blog about the mini-farm's progress over the coming months.

The first step is to nurture the probiotic process that he'll use to organically fertilize the plants. In a few weeks, he'll put in seedlings. We'll keep you posted here on the blog about Roy's progress with the adventure of growing his own tea.
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Our Organic Dim Sum Featured in Today's SF Chronicle

A nice article in today's San Francisco Chronicle by food writer Carolyn Jung about Imperial Tea Court's organic dim sum, Teamaster Roy Fong, and his plan to develop an organic foods marketplace in San Mateo, anchored by the next Imperial Tea Court teahouse.
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More on the Tea Tour to Yunnan

Roy has set the dates for the Tea Tour to Yunnan that he will be leading this fall: September 15-28. Tea highlights include visiting a 1,700-year-old tea tree in Badashan and a tea farm and factory in Nannuoshan. You can read a sample itinerary (subject to change) here. There are still some slots open. Email us if you're interested in joining the group.
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Tasting More 2009 Spring Tea

Roy and I sat down today to try some of the 2009 Spring Harvest green and white teas we didn't get around to last week, when we were sidetracked by the delicious new Imperial Green Oolong. We tried two tasty green teas and a real standout that Roy called one of the best teas of the season.
  • Cui Feng: This classic Zhejiang green tea is distinguished by the tufts of fur that remain on each leaf, providing a beautiful contrast of color and texture, as well as adding the traditional "malty" taste of tea fur. This year's Cui Feng has a pleasant viscosity enhanced by the weight of the fur, and intense flavor of fresh green tea boosted by maltiness. The texture of this tea on the palate is what sets it apart from any other green tea you'll drink this year. Choose between aggressive brewing (hotter water, more time) to bring out the viscosity, or a milder approach that emphasizes sweetness.
  • Snow Water Dragon Tips: This Zhejiang green tea will remind you of Dragon Well, with plenty of fresh green flavor. It's clean and sweet with an intriguing complexity and hints of nuttiness and malt. There's substantial viscosity, but it's silky rather than thick and heavy. In the second steeping we noticed that it lost a bit of sweetness, without becoming bitter.
  • Imperial Silver Needles: Unlike last year's edition, the 2009 Imperial Silver Needles is totally sun-dried in the traditional manner, without any firing whatsoever. That gives the tea an uncanny freshness with subtle floral notes, reminiscent of a springtime stroll through a meadow full of wildflowers and soft new grass warming in the sun. When it comes to brewing, despite its delicacy this da ye (large leaf) Fujian white tea is extraordinarily forgiving. It responds to a wide range of water temperatures and steeping times, remaining sweet and fresh without ever becoming bitter. Roy says that along with Imperial Green Oolong and Imperial Lotus Heart Dragon Well, it's one of the most extraordinary teas of this year's spring harvest.
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Yunnan in September!

Good news, tea lovers: Roy has decided to lead another tea tour to Yunnan this year! Many years ago, Roy fell in love with this remote and exotic region of China where tea was first cultivated. Last year, for the first time, he began taking small groups there to share some of his favorite sights and experiences. Enough folks are interested that he's going back this September. There are still a few slots open. Would you like to join us?

The tour is personally guided by Roy to some of his favorite spots from his many travels in China, a rare chance to taste some of the world's most amazing tea in its native environment, and, after each day's triumphs and hardships, a night in a modern, luxurious, five-star hotel. Everyone who's been to Yunnan with Roy found it a deeply moving, even life-changing, event. Afterwards you'll never experience the world--or tea--the same way.

The trip will run for about two weeks in mid-late September and will cost about $6,000 per person, including round trip airfare from the west coast of the US. The group will start with a few days in the Shanghai area, then fly to Yunnan, and conclude with a couple of days in Beijing. We'll be posting the full itinerary and more details shortly. Please send us an email if you're interested.

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Tea and Bluegrass?

Hillbilly mountain music probably isn't the first thing that comes to mind when reaching for that gaiwan. But, you'd actually be surprised how well it works! In China, teahouses are not only a place to drink tea, but social and cultural hubs. A place to sit, smoke, chat, read a paper, have a snack, meet with friends, or listen to live music.
Come visit our Berkeley teahouse where you can take part in the tradition. We feature rotating local musicians every Thursday from 5:30pm to 8:30pm and Sunday 2pm-5pm.
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Join Roy for a 2009 Spring Harvest Tea Class

If you're looking to brush up on your tea brewing skills or you're simply eager for a taste of the new spring teas the way Roy brews them, join us for a very special event. Roy has agreed to teach two of his popular tea classes in the coming weeks. One class will be at 9:00 AM Sunday, May 31, in our Ferry Building teahouse, while the other is at 7:00 PM Sunday, June 7, in Berkeley. Space is limited and Roy's classes usually sell out quickly, so don't be tardy: reserve a space soon if you're interested.

Both classes will cover the same information. Roy will brew, and discuss his experiences selecting, some of this year's top teas, including Imperial Dragon Well, Imperial Silver Needles, Imperial Green, Imperial Green Oolong, and Organic Putuo Compassion. Classes will last approximately two hours; each class costs $50 per person. We look forward to seeing you there!
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More 2009 Spring Harvest Teas Arrive

We're continuing to receive shipments of 2009 Spring Harvest tea that Roy sent from China last month. In addition to those previously announced, new arrivals include:
  • Snow Water Dragon Tips, an artful blend of Zhejiang green teas. This year's selection is finer, more uniform, and more tippy than last year, with a satisfying, weighty viscosity. Viscosity is an attribute of the brew that speaks to the quality of the leaf. It can only emerge from leaves that are chock full of nutrients and vital fluids. Therefore an infusion with high viscosity is an unmistakable sign of a good tea.
  • Imperial Green, a classic year in and year out, one of our top sellers. One thing customers value about Imperial Green is its consistency from year to year. The 2009 offering doesn't disappoint, with lots of flavor, a forgiving nature that makes it easy to brew, and the great fresh taste of early harvested spring green tea.
  • Organic Tian Mu Qing Ding. If you love Imperial Green but are on a budget, give our 2009 Organic Tian Mu Qing Ding a try. It's a straightforward tea, easy to brew, satisfying to drink, and a great value.
  • Imperial Silver Needles, the 2009 edition of a beautiful classic white tea.

If you're in the Bay Area, stop by one of the teahouses soon and ask our friendly, knowledgeable servers to prepare you some new tea! Or order online and enjoy the ephemeral taste of spring at home, wherever in the world you may be.

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Tea Flicks: Tea Fight (Dou Cha)

If you're passionate about Asian movies or tea esoterica you won't want to miss Tea Fight (Dou Cha/斗茶), a 2008 Japanese and Taiwanese coproduction where the gong fu involves tea arts, not martial arts. By turns serious, campy, and slapstick, the film features major stars, music by Sean Lennon, lots of Taiwanese teaware, some nice photography of tea fields and teahouses, a bubble tea subplot, and intermittent appearances by Hong Kong cinema veteran Eric Tsang (Zeng Zhiwei/曾志伟) as Tea Sage Lu Yu. It was gratifying to see a film where, for once, the special effects budget was devoted not to extra mayhem, but to brewing tea!

We tracked down a Malaysian copy of Tea Fight with English subtitles on eBay; you can also find it on YouTube (no titles; dialogue in Japanese and Mandarin). After Lu Yu sets the scene with a brief prologue there's a fun introduction told as an animated version of a scroll painting. Then the action moves to contemporary Japan and Taiwan. It's not a film you watch because of the storyline, but the gist is that far back in history there were two rival teamaking groups, one whose "male" tea brought out aggressive qualities, and the other whose "female" tea was sweet and gentle. The rivalry escalated until the "male tea" faction destroyed the "female tea" clan. It's left to modern descendants of the groups to find one another and have the final tea fight to settle the score.

I won't give away the ending, but if you're wondering how it all turns out, think "what would Buddha say?" in terms of determining the ultimate champion (with a little help from a wise tea master).

Tea Fight was directed by Wang Yemin (王也民) and stars Vic Zhou (Zhou Yumin/周渝民), Zhang Juning (张钧宁), Erika Toda (户田惠梨香), and Teruyuki Kagawa (香川照之).

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Question from a Reader: Hong Kong Milk Tea

Today a customer asked, "I was wondering which tea would you recommend in making Hong Kong style cold milk tea? And how do you prepare it?"

"PS: My favorite Imperial tea is the Hibiscus iced tea. I’ll definitely be ordering some more of that soon!"

Our Asian Paradise blend is perfect for HK style milk tea! If you are a real HK milk tea lover, try this:

First, bring 1 gallon of water to boil with three cleaned out egg shells (the egg shells add calcium to the water and make a smooth, thick mouth feel, the way a good HK milk tea should taste).

Second, remove the egg shells and add 1-1.5 ounces of Asian Paradise blend black tea. Cover and infuse for at least 5-6 minutes (or a bit more if you like your tea strong). Strain and remove tea leaves.

Third, add equal amounts of condensed milk and evaporated milk to a glass, pour in the brewed tea, stir until the milk has completely dissolved (add a bit more condensed milk if you like your milk tea sweet), and enjoy! For iced milk tea, simply add condensed and evaporated milk to a pitcher, pour in brewed tea, and stir until the milk has totally dissolved. Cover the pitcher and ice until cold. When ready to serve, put a few cubes of ice into a blender and blend into ice shavings, put shaved ice into a glass, pour in the cold milk tea, and serve. To add a bit of color and flavor, drizzle some evaporated milk on the iced tea.

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First Taste: 2009 Imperial Green Oolong

Today Roy and I tasted the new Imperial Green Oolong. This tea has long been a customer favorite so the bar is high in terms of not disappointing fans of previous vintages. Actually we were going to taste several new green teas afterwards, but this delicious Taiwanese tea was so robust and flavorful that we brewed it eight times and decided to try the green tea another day.

This year's selection is from Shan Lin Xi (杉林溪), at an elevation around 1,800 meters. This type of spring-harvested high-grown green oolong typically has a fresh, green, leafy flavor with more muted florals than lower altitude varieties. We sprinkled the bottom of a six-ounce gaiwan with tightly rolled leaves and were surprised, upon weighing them, to see that they came to almost 10 grams. It doesn't look like a lot of tea at first, but after a couple of infusions, when the leaves fully opened, they were almost bursting out of the gaiwan! The extremely tight roll slows down the process of extracting all the flavor the leaves have to offer; that's one reason this tea can hold up for eight or more infusions.

At home, you might want to try a little less tea (6-7 grams) infused a bit longer, because it's easy to overbrew with such a large leaf volume. Better yet, experiment to learn the best method to suit your taste. In any case, Roy set the programmable digital kettle for 200 degrees and brewed 9.5 grams for 45 seconds, intermittently paddling the infusion with the gaiwan lid to release heat and stir the large leaves around, so as to fully expose them to the hot water. Decant into a pitcher, then pour into serving cups but let the liquor cool a minute or two before drinking. Consuming a slightly cooler brew allows a better experience of this tea's extraordinary viscosity and multidimensional flavor.

The things that struck us in the first brew were the thick, mouth-coating viscosity combined with a delicious fresh, green leafy flavor that are distinctive to Shan Lin Xi oolongs. We didn't taste a lot of florals in the first brew, but they began to come out in the aftertaste. In the second brew the leaves unfurled further and gave a different character. The water had cooled a bit, to around 195 degrees, so Roy steeped a little longer; perhaps a minute. By now the florals were beginning to emerge--a flavor Roy said reminded him of lilacs--while the viscosity remained as rich as in the first round; in fact, it might have been even thicker.

We were brewing in a gaiwan, but Roy commented that a tea this complex and multifaceted is ideal for gong fu preparation because it allows the brewer to show off his skill by tweaking different characteristics of the tea for different effects. A tea like this one gives a gong fu expert something to work with.

For the third steeping we cranked the digital kettle up to 205 degrees and returned to a 45-second infusion. The tea tasted more floral, while the viscosity was undiminished. At this stage the viscosity and floral elements combined into a notable and pleasant floral aftertaste. Roy commented on how different each brew tasted, and how you can just keep brewing this tea for an afternoon, enjoying the way it evolves. We eventually steeped it eight times and there was still plenty of flavor and viscosity. To ensure this longevity when you brew at home, Roy advises using plenty of leaves and carefully monitoring steeping time as well both the brewing and drinking temperatures.

Green oolongs are famed for their cha qi, and one manifestation of this elusive force is to stimulate conversation. As we worked through the eight infusions and chatted about the tea, Roy became enthusiastic about giving tea classes where he can share this and some of the other terrific 2009 harvest selections with customers. We tentatively agreed on the morning of May 31 at the Ferry Building and the evening of June 7 in Berkeley. If you're interested drop us a line at or stay tuned to the blog. We'll be announcing details in the next few days.
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Grace & Roy Cook on TV (Recipe Included)

Yesterday Grace and Roy appeared with host Spencer Christian on KGO-TV's "View from the Bay" cooking show here in San Francisco. Grace made green onion pancakes, while Roy brewed Jasmine Pearl tea to accompany the tasty snack that's a favorite in our Berkeley teahouse.

Have a look at the video, then try it yourself at home! Here's Grace's recipe:


  • 2 ¼ cups organic unbleached flour
  • 3/4 cup water
  • Salt to taste (sea salt preferred)
  • Oil, such as tea seed oil or peanut oil (for both flavoring and cooking)
  • 3 to 5 green onions, coarsely cut (use the whole onion, both white and green parts)


  • Mix flour and water well. Form into a ball, then cover and let rest for about 20 minutes. You will have about a pound of dough.
  • Divide dough into three parts and roll out thin, like pizza dough. Sprinkle with salt to taste. Brush lightly with oil. Spread the chopped onions on top. Fold over one edge and roll up like a small jellyroll, closing the ends. Hold both ends and twist by hand until each roll feels tight, then flatten the roll. Cover and let rest 10 minutes. Roll out flat to form pancakes that are 6 - 7 inches in diameter.
  • Heat a small amount of oil in a heavy skillet. Place one pancake in skillet and cook over medium heat for about 4-5 minutes, until pancake bottom is golden brown, then flip over and cook the other side.

    Yields about three pancakes. Cut into pizza-like slices and serve hot. Spicy food lovers may want to serve slices with our Chili Sauce. For a truly Beijing-style snack, pair with jasmine tea!

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    New Ideas, Old Friends & Some Sticker Shock at World Tea Expo

    I woke up at 6:30 Sunday to catch an early flight to Las Vegas to attend the World Tea Expo. I have never attended since the beginning of this show a few years ago; this is my first time! I am making a point to attend more of these shows to remind myself that you're never too comfortable with your place in the pecking order. The only way to feel a bit more secure is to keep learning, and what better way to learn than to hook up with old friends and meet new ones, to look at established tea companies' products as well as learn about new ideas from newcomers?

    Unfortunately, I find this show rather disappointing. I was told that it lost about 20% of its exhibitors and attendance is down compared to last year, however, looking at the number of vendors it seems that they may have lost more than that!

    Although I didn't feel great energy from most of the displays I did find a bunch of folks that I haven't seen for a long time. We got together to chit chat and talk shop: my friend Norwood Pratt (author of The Tea Lovers Treasury), John Harney of Harney and Sons, Margaret Martin from Texas, and Devan Shah from L.A. all caught up with me and we had a great time talking tea. I ran into some folks who went on one of my previous tea tours. They found out about last year's Yunnan Tour and are now anxiously waiting for the next one! I told them I need to recover from my recent trip first, but not too many took this as a no!

    I also met up with some Chinese tea exhibitors. We caught up a bit and talked much about possibly working together. As always, I am coming home with a big bagful of samples and literature. Although the small-sized show is easy on the feet, I still feel that I am too old for this now!

    This morning, I have a breakfast meeting with a vendor from Guangdong, China. Later I will go to the show for one more look before going home. You know, the days when you come to the casino and eat practically for free are over. I had a bowl of noodles at the Mandalay Bay and it cost sixteen bucks! I would be the first to argue when someone complains about Chinese food being expensive. I always say, why is it that because you eat in a Chinese restaurant you expect the food to be cheap? Well I may have to change that; this food is very close to nasty and it ain't cheap. Makes me long for the comfortable confines of a friendly San Francisco Chinatown noodle shop!

    Devan Shah of Indian Tea Importers

    Margaret Martin and James Norwood Pratt

    John Harney of Harney and Sons
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