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Manufacturing Your Own Single-Origin Tea

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It’s nice to take a break from hacking together the newest bleeding-edge technology, relax, and enjoy a beverage. It’s no surprise that hacks devoted to beer and coffee roasting are popular. We’ve also seen a few projects helping brew the perfect cup of tea, but none involving the actual production of tea. Today we’re going to take a short recess from modernity and explore this ancient tradition.

Consumption of tea is about equal to all other manufactured beverages, such as coffee and alcohol, combined. It is hands-down the most popular manufactured beverage in the world, and we thought it would be interesting to make some ourselves. Also the local tea is so bitter that it’s used to clean things, and it works alarmingly well. To each their own!

I started by driving into Vietnam’s Central Highlands, down what Google simply refers to as ‘unnamed road’, to about 11°52’59.3″N 108°33’49.5″E. I asked around until I found a street vendor that knew a farmer at the nearby tea plantation, and would sell us five kilograms of fresh tea. I carried it 330 kilometers back to the city, because I’m a sane person that does normal things.

Tea plantation near 11°52’59.3″N 108°33’49.5″E, in Vietnam’s Central Highlands

If you do not live anywhere near a tea plantation, the easiest way to obtain fresh tea is probably just to grow it yourself. It’s a suitable indoor plant. You can buy tea seeds online, or just pick them up off the ground at a tea plantation.

Tea bush seeds in casing (left) and removed from casing (right)

The basic process of making most tea is fairly straightforward. The leaves are cleaned, wilted in heat, bruised, and oxidized. The type of leaf and the exact method with which you perform the latter three steps determines the type of tea produced. Finally, you cook and then dry the tea out to preserve it.

Not disease or rot — this is normal oxidation after bruising a leaf

If you do manage to buy fresh tea, you’ll now have one of two things: hand-picked light green tea leaves, or a bundle of branches that look like someone took a hedge cutter to a tea bush. While the former is more convenient and associated with a higher quality product, the latter is more interesting as you can separate the different parts of the plant into different types of tea.

There are basically three parts of the plant you are interested in: the old tea leaves, the young tea leaves, and the silvery tea buds. The soft, light green freshly sprouted leaves are the most useful part, and are used for making good quality tea, especially oolong. Oolong tea is bruised, then partially oxidized. We’ll call these leaves ‘Grade A’. The large, dark, and brittle older leaves are less desirable. They can still be used to make tea, but are harder to work with and have less flavor. These are better to use to make black tea, which is crushed, then more heavily oxidized. We’ll call these leaves ‘Grade B’. The small, silvery buds are dried with barely any processing to make white tea.

The first step is to pluck the leaves from the stems, being sure to leave behind any woody parts. Also discard any obviously diseased or dry leaves. Leaves that have been browned by oxidation are perfectly fine though. If you get industrially produced raw tea at the third bloom of the year, you’ll end up with the amounts in these three grades shown below (as well as a whole load of waste like sticks and such).

Next, wash all the leaves and buds carefully in water. It helps to soak them for a few hours, although be aware the leaves will rehydrate due to this, which can make the next step longer.

After the leaves are clean, take any tea buds you’ve collected and put them in a small tray. Bake them in your oven at a low temperature, just to dry them out (I had luck at about 150 °C). The white tea in now finished.

Leave the other grades of tea out (preferably in the heat) for a while until the leaves wilt. This makes the leaves easier to bruise without breaking. The Grade B tea might not wilt much because the leaves are tough and leathery.

The roof of a shed under the sun works well for wilting the leaves. So do searing hot motorbike seats.

Now take the Grade B leaves and put them in a clean plastic bag. Take a rolling-pin, mortar, or baseball bat and hit them until they are thoroughly bruised. Not too much force is required, take your time. You can see what the older, tougher leaves look like after being beaten with a rolling-pin.

Leave this tea in the bag, and hang it somewhere in the shade outside if it is 25-35 °C. Otherwise bring it inside. As the leaves oxidize they will drip a little, so don’t put it over a carpet or anything. I left them there for about two days.

After two days, they were quite oxidized and looked more or less like unappetizing mulch. This is normal!

Older, tougher leaves after oxidation

 

For the Grade A leaves, place a few between your hands and rub your hands together until the leaves are throughly bruised. Then set these aside and repeat for the rest of the leaves. They will look roughly like this:

Cover them, for example by placing them in a pot with a cover, and set aside indoors at around 20-30 °C. How long you oxidize them is up to you – less makes the oolong tea more like green tea, more makes it closer to black tea. We decided to make an oolong tea closer to black tea, so left it for two days. When finished, you can see the oxidized leaves have browned compared to the bruised leaves.

Once a batch of tea is done oxidizing, take a wok or frying pan and stir fry it around a little. Don’t add oil or anything – just drop the tea onto a hot pan and cook it briefly. This stops the oxidation process. Once the leaves are uniformly hot to the touch and steam is rising from the pan, they’re done. You might have a few pans full.

A cookie tray is an excellent way to dry tea in an oven.

When you’re done cooking the leaves, put them on a baking tray and bake them until dry. The time and temperature are up to you, but we found about 150 °C worked well. Some people like to roast the leaves just a little on top of drying them. Once dry, your tea is done and can be stored.

Finished black tea (sometimes also called red tea)

Now it’s time for a taste. Get your preferred tea set. A gaiwan works well but there’s no reason you can’t use a teapot.

 

It may not look or smell like the loose leaf tea you’re used to, but the taste was excellent and sweet when we tried it. The color was also more or less on spot with what I wanted. It pairs perfectly with mid-autumn festival mooncakes, and late nights writing firmware.

A concluding tip: tea is very susceptible to taking on odors. This is why it’s so easy to make differently scented teas, but also means you should keep the tea away from anything with a strong smell throughout the process.

Whether you grow it yourself, or find a source for freshly harvested leaves, making tea is fun and a nice break from your ordinary slate of endeavors. Give it a try!


Filed under: cooking hacks, Featured, home hacks, Skills



























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BioLite FirePit

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BioLite FirePit

Price: $199+  | Pledge | Link

The BioLite FirePit lets you enjoy a campfire or grill with barely any smoke. It uses a rechargeable fan to more efficiently burn wood or charcoal and drastically cut down on smoke. The electronic module can be detached and used as a power bank.

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VCF East: Enigma Machines In The Flesh

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At the end of World War II, the Germans ordered all Enigma cipher machines destroyed. Around the same time, Churchill ordered all Enigma cipher machines destroyed. Add a few decades, neglect the efforts of Polish codebreakers, and make a movie about Alan Turing and an offensively historically incorrect love interest, and you have a mystique around these rare, innovative cipher machine.

At the Vintage Computer Festival East, I was privy to what is probably the largest collection of Enigma machines on the planet. The exhibit comes from [Tom] and [Dan Perera] of Enigma Museum. Right now, they’re they only place where you can go out and simply buy a real, wartime Enigma machine. The price? Well, there is a pair of million-dollar Apple I boards at VCF. The Enigmas go for about a fifth of an Apple I.

Most Enigma machines were destroyed at the end of the war by the most expedient possible means. This could mean throwing the machines into a lake, into a fire, or simply shooting them. Still, there are a few survivors, but most look something like this:

Fortunately, [Tom] and [Dan] restore Enigma machines. Their bread and butter comes from repairing battlefield finds, bringing them back to operational condition, and selling them. Yes, it’s a lot of work, but with the price these things fetch it is worth it.

Somewhat surprisingly, rotor-based code wheel technology didn’t stop advancing in 1945, and the Enigma Museum has the machine to prove it. There were two post-war Enigma-ish machines also on display, one from the Swiss, and one from the Soviets.

The Swiss NEMA cipher machine was first produced in 1947 and used through the cold war. This machine used four rotors and improved the Enigma design by irregular stepping of these rotors. This machine could also be connected to a teletype machine.

The Soviet efforts to reverse engineer the Enigma machine resulted in the M-125 Fialka cipher machine. This machine used ten rotors, with adjacent rotors turning in opposite directions. The Fialka was used by all Warsaw Pact countries until the collapse of the Soviet Union.


Filed under: classic hacks, cons



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The Case for Preserving the 20th Century Tollbooth

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Massachusetts is destroying its toll plazas. By the end of this year, every single one on the Massachusetts Turnpike will have been demolished. Drivers will still pay to use the road—they will zoom through the metal arches of electronic tolling infrastructure—but the routine of slowing down, stopping to grab a ticket, and waiting for the barrier to rise will be gone.

Massachusetts is being more aggressive than most places about sweeping away its old tolling infrastructure, but all across the country, from New York to Florida, Texas to California, road authorities are switching to all-electronic tolling. While it’s too soon to declare the tollbooth dead, it’s easy to imagine a future in which roads are unencumbered by boxy plazas and simple gates.

If toll plazas are an endangered species of infrastructure, though, no one seems worried. Most of the time, when familiar landscapes are altered, people who have become accustomed to them kick up a fuss. But in this case there’s little love lost. When toll plazas are gone, will anyone miss them? Will future generations think ours shortsighted for letting this piece of history be demolished? Is there anything about tollbooths worth preserving?

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It’s not that Americans are entirely lacking in nostalgia for toll-collection infrastructure. Along the historic roads of the United States, it’s possible to find toll houses dating back to the 1830s. “Especially when you go to the 19th century, there’s more interest in the toll houses than the road itself,” says Paul Daniel Marriott, who specializes in preservation planning for historic roads. The original toll houses of the National Road, for instance, were built by the federal government before it handed over operation of the country’s first major artery—from Cumberland, Maryland, to Vandalia, Illinois—to the states. Each had a hexagonal second floor with windows on all six sides, so the toll keeper could look up and down the road for travelers.

But it’s rare for preservationists to pay attention to more modern toll structures. A representative of the Society for Commercial Archaeology, which is devoted to preserving motels, neon signs, and other aspects of the 20th century’s “commercial landscape,” asked around but could find no member who’d done any work on tollbooths. In fact, there may have been only one major preservation effort to save a 20th century toll plaza—a 1988 campaign to save the tollbooths of Connecticut’s Merritt Parkway.

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As high-speed roads go, the Merritt is extraordinary pleasant, a leafy, tree-heavy drive that meanders under dozens of bridges, each with a unique design. The parkway, which was completed in 1940, was meant to be more than “another highway catering to the burgeoning commuter population,” writes Bruce Radde in The Merritt Parkway. “It was lauded by design professionals and critics for its excellent engineering, it respect for the natural environment, and its inherent beauty.”

The tollbooths were added to the parkway before its second half was finished, and were designed by George Dunkelberger, who was also responsible for the road’s iconic bridges. The booths looked like log cabins that might not be out of place in a National Park. Like most newly imposed tolls, this one was celebrated by public officials and met with some public skepticism: A contemporary news story describes how one Matthew E. Scully sped through a new toll booth at 30 miles per hour and tossed his 10-cent fare at the attendant. (He was arrested immediately by a police officer waiting on the other side.)

Almost 50 years later, though, after highways had become bigger and faster, those tollbooths began to evoke a certain nostalgia. “I had fond childhood memories of Sunday drives on the Merritt, slowing down and dropping the dime into the little log cabin,” says David Carris, who was working at the time as a preservationist in New Haven, Connecticut.

By 1988, parts of the original Merritt Parkway had been converted into more modern interstate, and the rest was under threat. “You could see it was already being chipped away,” Carris says. When the Merritt tollbooths were slated for removal, he and a coalition of other preservationists decided to fight for them. They began trying to convince the government to keep demolition crews at bay and looking for museums or parks that might agree to adopt one of the old toll plazas.

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They didn’t encounter opposition, exactly. “If somebody wants to preserve [the tollbooths], I have no problem with that … Just get them off the darn highway,” the president of a commuters’ group told the Hartford Courant. The government was also happy to let preservationists have the tollbooths. Carris, along with the Committee to Save the Merritt Parkway and other preservation organizations, found a home for part of the Merritt’s first toll plaza at the Henry Ford Museum, in Dearborn, Michigan. Another tollbooth went to Connecticut’s Boothe Memorial Park, an eclectic collection on the site of the Boothe family estate. The campaign was, overall, a success.

Often, in cases like this, the leader of a successful preservation project will hear from other people waging similar campaigns. But as far as Carris knows, this is the only preservation effort of its kind. “I’ve never heard of anyone else trying to save tollbooth,” says Carris. “They disappear, and you don’t even really notice it.”

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The effort to save the Merritt tollbooths wasn’t only about the actual toll infrastructure. Carris and the rest of the coalition saw their campaign as part of a longer fight to save the historic landscape of the Merritt from being folded into a modern highway. To the extent that tollbooths catch preservationists’ interest at all, it’s often because they’re part of larger projects.

“Many toll facilities were associated with significant engineering undertakings,” says Marriott, the historic road specialist. “It’s there where you find the higher level of investment and tollbooths that are part of the overall design and aesthetic.” One toll plaza that caught his eye, for instance, is the one on the Golden Gate Bridge, where not just the bridge but the lighting, the booths, and other details were carefully considered. When people like him try to capture a breath of the past, these details help complete the picture, he says.

Tollbooths, though, are so overlooked that they’re usually badly maintained. Both Carris and Marriott mentioned the New York State Thruway toll plaza—a “piece of international modernist infrastructure strung out over I-95,” in Carris’ words—as striking and worthy of more attention. “They’re not taking care of it,” says Marriott. “It’s really shabby. There’s missing letters. It’s not been cleaned or cared for, for a long time.”

The Thruway toll plaza represents a recent-enough past that few people probably think of it as in need of preservation. Further, when infrastructure is badly cared for, it becomes less noticeable and attractive—and therefore less likely to receive the outpouring of affection that preservation campaigns often depend on.

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Even unloved tollbooths, though, may one day be missed if they disappear. “Why care about tollbooths? I can make the case,” says Carris. “They make you stop. We have a 12,000-year history of city-making and one of the unique experiences of entering and leaving a gated city was going through the city gates. In a way, there was a ritual associated with tollbooths of entering and leaving the city, and it’s an important human experience that we’re losing in this age of E-ZPass.” Tollbooths help mark the boundaries of place, and they can be monuments to human achievement.

“When the interstate system was so magnificent and futuristic—the Thruway tollbooth captures that,” says Marriott. Today, our highways are more likely to be worn and in need of repair. Maybe it would be worthwhile to remember the moment when we cared enough about them to make even the toll plazas a little bit magnificent.

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Swan: Better Linux on Windows

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If you are a Linux user that has to use Windows — or even a Windows user that needs some Linux support — Cygwin has long been a great tool for getting things done. It provides a nearly complete Linux toolset. It also provides almost the entire Linux API, so that anything it doesn’t supply can probably be built from source. You can even write code on Windows, compile and test it and (usually) port it over to Linux painlessly.

However, Cygwin’s package management is a little clunky and setting up the GUI environment has always been tricky, especially for new users. A project called Swan aims to make a full-featured X11 Linux environment easy to install on Windows.

The project uses Cygwin along with Xfce for its desktop. Cygwin provides pretty good Windows integration, but Swan also includes extra features. For example, you can make your default browser the Windows browser with a single click. It also includes spm — a package manager for Cygwin that is somewhat easier to use, although it still launches the default package manager to do the work (this isn’t a new idea, by the way).

Here’s a screenshot of Windows 10 (you can see Word running native in the background) with top running in a Bash shell and Thunar (the default file manager for Swan). Notice the panel at the top with the swan icon. You can add things there and there are numerous settings you can access from the swan icon.

Swan is fairly new, so it still has some rough edges, but we like where it is going. The install process is in two parts which doesn’t make sense for something trying to be easier. Admittedly, it is already easier than doing an X11 install with normal Cygwin. However, on at least one test install, the virus scanner erroneously tripped on the wget executable and that caused the install to fail.

The project is hosted on GitHub if you want to examine the source or contribute. Of course, Windows has its own support for Linux now (sort of). Swan isn’t quite a finished product and, like Cygwin, it isn’t a total replacement for Linux. But it is still worth a look on any machine that you use that boots Windows.


Filed under: linux hacks



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Team Chat

8 Comments and 28 Shares
2078: He announces that he's finally making the jump from screen+irssi to tmux+weechat.
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7 public comments
stsquad
316 days ago
reply
Truth
Cambridge, UK
hooges
320 days ago
reply
IRC, never die!
Topeka, KS
encolpe
320 days ago
reply
Si true
Lyon, France
emdeesee
320 days ago
reply
OK, fine. When the galactic singularity becomes an option, I'll consider switching from IRC.
Lincoln, NE
beowuff
320 days ago
Don't worry. It'll still run irc as it's back end, so you can still connect.
Fidtz
320 days ago
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2051, solid 1960's style future prediction there!
Covarr
320 days ago
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What if I'm only still on IRC because the rest of my groups are?
Moses Lake, WA
alt_text_bot
320 days ago
reply
2078: He announces that he's finally making the jump from screen+irssi to tmux+weechat.
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