Monday, February 25, 2008

Tea and Caffeine

Aside from questions about bubble tea, I would say that people most frequently ask me about tea and caffeine. Everyone wants to know how much caffeine is in tea, which tea has more caffeine, and whether it's true that you can decaffeinate tea by giving it a quick rinse in hot water (unfortunately, it's not true). Rather than answering these questions myself, I'm giving credit to Nigel Melican, one of the world's most renowned and knowledgeable tea experts. He recently posted on another wonderful tea blog, chadao, about tea and caffeine. I invite you to learn from the master.

This is a brilliant post, and the commentary that follows is also pretty interesting. For those who want a quick summary, the bottom line is that you can't rinse the caffeine from tea, chemical decaffeination methods do remove some of the health benefits along with the caffeine, and it is almost impossible to estimate the caffeine content in a cup of tea just by knowing if it's black, green, oolong or white. There are too many variables that impact the caffeine content to provide an accurate assessment. Nigel shares that contrary to what many people believe, black tea does not necessarily have more caffeine than green tea, and white tea may have the most caffeine of all.

Nigel's post doesn't discuss what I find to be the most fascinating tea and caffeine topic; the way l-theanine mediates the affect of caffeine on the body. Here's the quick version - l-theanine is an amino acid that is found in tea (I don't think it's found in high concentrations in anything else). l-theanine offers health benefits as well as relaxation benefits in that it promotes alpha waves in the brain. Alpha waves are associated with meditative and relaxed states. The combination of l-theanine and caffeine in tea result in tea promoting a calm yet alert state of being - really an optimal state of being for health, well-being, and peak performance. The caffeine is released in a slower and steadier manner and the l-theanine mediates the caffeine jolt - so tea doesn't hit people the way coffee and other highly caffeinated energy drinks do. You never hear of people getting wired and then crashing after drinking tea! And although I don't necessarily recommend this, I know of people who believe they are caffeine sensitive (not for medical reasons) who report that they can drink a cup of tea in the evening with no caffeine related problems.

So next time you need to focus on a project, find yourself facing what might be an all-nighter, or have to give an anxiety provoking performance, grab a cup of tea and experience the benefits.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Talking in the Tearoom - Bubble Tea

Each weekend, several people stop in the shop and ask me "What's Bubble Tea?". Each weekend, I also have regulars who travel to the warehouse for their weekly bubble tea, and also new people who find The Good Leaf because they are searching for bubble tea. The bottom line is that there is always lots of talking in the tearoom about bubble tea. Today, I'll do the talking and answer the question, "What is Bubble Tea?". I'll also describe my approach to a healthier, and I believe, tastier bubble tea.

To keep it brief, bubble tea is a frothy, sweetened iced tea drink with chewy tapioca balls or fruit jellys at the bottom of the cup. Many people think that it's called bubble tea because the tapioca pearls are shaped like bubbles, but actually the bubbles refer to the generally "bubbliness" of the shaken drink. I admit, it sounds strange, but it's really delicious. Bubble tea originated in Taiwan in the 1980s, and bubble tea shops began popping up in the USA (at first in Chinatown areas) in the late 1990s. Today, in major cities, especially in California, bubble tea shops are common.

Traditionally, bubble tea is made with tea, fruit juice or other sweetener, sometimes creamer, and of course, texture. Large black tapioca pearls known as boba (I'll tell you the origin of that term if you ask) are most often the textural component of bubble tea, but many shops offer alternatives including lichee or coconut jelly. At The Good Leaf, we use coconut jelly cubes for texture in our bubble teas and they are really tasty.

Aside from a sweet and tasty drink, the fun of bubble tea comes from the "big straw". In order to suck up the chewy treats at the bottom of the cup, you need a wide mouthed straw. When people take their first sip of bubble tea, they often look surprised, then curious. Then they smile.

In my travels, I have noticed that many bubble tea cafes use powdered mixes to make their bubble teas. I have to admit, they do taste pretty good. When I was preparing to open the tea bar, I ordered some of these mixes and was really unhappy to find a long list of chemicals including loads of high fructose corn syrup and trans-fats. We are not supposed to eat that! A bubble tea made with these mixes is awfully bad for you, and very fattening too. What's more, the bubble tea recipes that accompanied the mixes often noted that tea is an optional ingredient in bubble tea.

I couldn't deal with it. I'm went into the tea business to offer health and well-being to my customers and deliver it deliciously. Even if the powdered bubble tea mixes taste good, how could I sell a drink I wouldn't be willing to drink myself. I solved this problem by developing my own bubble tea recipes. I don't use any mixes, and all of my bubble teas actually include TEA! They're much lower calorie, free of trans-fats and high fructose corn syrup, don't taste like chemicals (something I've occasionally noticed in bubble teas from mixes), and they're really good.
I don't offer some of the flavors often available in Chinatown shops like Taro (it's purple and I don't know why that is), but I do offer some traditional flavors such as Almond Milk Bubble Tea, as well as new combinations I'm constantly creating, such as Caramel Cream, Cherry Vanilla and Berry White. I also encourage my customers to design their own bubble tea combos if they want to.

I invite you to stop by and try a bubble tea at The Good Leaf.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Talking in the Tearoom - Box 'o' Chocolates

The Chocolate event At the Warehouse was a huge success and we were glad to feature Red Thread Confections and the volunteer group SCRUFF (Spaying Capital Region's Unknown Feral Felines). I did my part by serving sipping chocolate, triple chocolate scones, and red velvet cupcakes with peppermint frosting along with all my teas, lattes and coconut jelly bubble teas.

Since it was the weekend before Valentine's Day, we clearly had chocolate on our minds. My question this weekend was, "When you get a box of chocolates, do you bite into each piece looking for the good ones like the raspberry creams and the nutty ones, or do you eat them like a civilized human being?"

A little disclaimer first; I understand that this questions suggests that a civilized human will eat up an entire box of chocolates whether they like them or not. Although I composed the question because it amused me, I don't really think that eating an entire box of chocolates is a measure of civilization, or even a good idea.

The question did inpsire some serious (or maybe not so serious) discussion about what it means to be civilized and even the nature of civilization. Bubble tea brings that kind of stuff out in people.

Philosophical musings aside, I quickly found out that not everyone likes raspberry creams, or even nuts. And not a single person who responded was willing to commit to a chocolate without a sneak preview. Most people openly admitted to biting and and throwing away the "losers" - coconut was cited repeatedly. A few visitors shared my semi-civilized approach of tearing rather than biting.

We had a couple of very considerate visitors; one with my favorite approach and another with a strategy that I frankly find gross. My favorite box o' chocolate strategy all weekend was poking each piece with a toothpick to try to dig out a bit of filling before biting. That way, the chocolate is not defaced in any measurable way when it is returned to the box if it turns out to be a reject. That is very a considerate, civilized and economical, if not sanitary, approach. The other "considerate" approach I heard was to bite into each piece and return the undesirable ones to the box "in case someone else wants them". I wonder how many times someone actually selected one of the half eaten chocs?

I also learned that if you have gone through enough boxes of chocolates in your life, you don't have to bite or tear or poke, you can just tell by looking at the chocolate.

In between the silliness and to infuse some health into a day of rich decadence, it was a great opportunity for me to showcase some of my chocolate teas. When I first got into tea, I couldn't even imagine the combination of chocolate and tea, but I have learned that given the right combination, it can work out beautifully. I was featuring a chocolate raspberry flavored tea that offers a subtle richness and fruitiness and also had a chance to share my chocolate chai and mint chocolate chip teas, both of which have real chocolate chunks in them!

If you're around on Valentine's Day, I'll be at Larry Schepici's Le Marche Vert in Troy offering a tasting of some of my chocolate and floral teas from 11-2 or so. Happy Valentine's Day!

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Love & Chocolate At the Warehouse

This Saturday, At the Warehouse will be all about Love & Chocolate. It's the perfect opportunity to shop for unique Valentine's Day gifts. I'm grateful to Laura from Bluebird Books for taking the lead on this event; it promises to be very special. Many of the merchants will be offering Valentine's gift packages, and we'll be having special guests too. At The Good Leaf, I'll be serving wonderful hot chocolates as well as featuring a variety of chocolate infused and floral teas including Chocolate Raspberry and our very popular Sweetheart Red Rooibos. Our Valentine's gift packages are the perfect choice for those looking for healthier induldgences this Valentine's Day.

Hope to see you there!

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Talking in the Tearoom - Best Pizza in Town

This week in the tearoom we were talking about where to find good pizza in the Capital Region. When I say good pizza, I mean something quite specific. I would love to find some good Brooklyn/Bronx style pizza. I'm going to call it "neighborhood pizza" because that's what we had in my neighborhood when I was growing up. Neighborhood pizza has a thin crust, not too thin like a cracker, but thin enough to fold easily. It has cornmeal or semolina generously dusted over the bottom of the crust. What's most important is that the sauce and cheese blend together to create a gooey orange delicious mess. If the slice is red and white it means the flavors haven't combined and it's not from my neighborhood. You might put some mushrooms or pepperoni on a neighborhood slice but it's not about extra cheese or toppings. And the ultimate sign that you're about to bite into a slice of good neighborhood pizza is a drip of orange oil that slips off the back of the crust where the slice is folded. Never blot that oil; it's like manna from Brooklyn heaven. In my old neighborhood, the best pizza places (that's what we called them - pizza places) also carried Italian Ice in a paper cup (lemon was my favorite) and these purple and orange drinks that I haven't seen in about 25 years.

This week, visitors to The Good Leaf Tea Bar told me where they find the best pizza in the Capital Region.

Kevin said that I Love NY Pizza on Hoosick St in Troy is the best pizza in the area. He liked the variety of pizzas available, and commented on the Chicken Marsala pizza. That doesn't sound like my kind of pizza, but Kevin wasn't the only fan of the Troy spot. Jamie also chose I Love NY in Troy. She told me that even though they have a lot of specialty pizzas, they have the best cheese pizza she has ever tried in Upstate NY. I Love NY in Menands also received a vote.

EJ said the best pizza in the Capital Region can be found in his mom's kitchen. "It's delish. Even my friends like it" he said. (I have the best son!)

Several people loved Andrianos in Delmar. Carol told me it's right near the four corners.

And some were loyal to home cooked pizza. Michelle said, "You can't come to my mother's house to try it, but she makes the best pizza around."

Suzanne put in a plug for Lou-Beas on Delaware Avenue, and told me that she liked it because it's not too thick, folds easily and has a nice orange sauce/cheese blend. Sounds like my kind of slice.

We also received an accolade for Jonathans on Pearl Street. Jacque told me she likes it because it's the most like what she remembers from Brooklyn, thin crusted with the perfect "modeling" of sauce and cheese.

A few of our friends from out West (I mean Guilderland, Voorheesville and Altamont) liked Smitty's. Las told me the owner is a good guy. Thanks, Las.

Mike, who is originally from Long Island also knew about authentic NY pizza, and actually had a card from his fave pizza joint in his wallet. He enthusiastically recommended La Bella Pizza in Clifton Park and told me it bears close resemblance to NY pizza. He told me La Bella is off Exit 8A and across the street from the side of Salty's.

So, that's what we were talking about in the tearoom this week when we weren't talking about tea and football. Thanks, everyone. I have found true NY pizza to be quite elusive in the Capital Region but you've inspired me to try again.