A Tea Addict's Journal

Different locales, different tastes

December 22, 2006 · 5 Comments

One of the things that became really apparent on my trip back here this time is how differently people taste teas here. Let’s start with the brewing.

In Beijing the brewing is usually done with relatively little effort and concentration. In the gaiwan the leaves go. In pours the water. Out comes the tea. There’s some variation in how the tea is done at each store. Some storekeepers will do flash infusions with no regard to how much tea is in the gaiwan or the temperature of the water. Others will let the water sit a bit. However, usually the first method is dominant. This has to do with local tastes, where they prefer lighter, cleaner tasting teas. Anything too heavy is deemed to be either too bitter or no good. Ditto for anything remotely wet stored. Some will go as far as to say that anything that has been stored in Fujian or Guangdong is bad.

Then, in Hong Kong, the tea brewing is very different. This is most apparent with Tiffany at the Best Tea House, who takes a lot of care in both the temperature of the water, the amount of tea, and the way the water is poured. She lowers temperature for brewing after 3-4 infusions for almost all teas, but especially the older ones. However, the same can be said of some of the other places I’ve been to (though not all). Jabbok brews teas also in a fairly careful manner. Sunsing a little less so. The people at the Yue Wah National Products store are more like mainland brewing…. a little less attention than I like.

The tasting requirements are also different. Everybody talk about mouthfeel, but what exactly do you want from the mouthfeel is not quite the same. In Beijing, it’s about how thick the tea is, huigan, where the bitterness is, etc. Flavour is also important, to a certain extent. In Hong Kong, the overwhelming first factor that people seem to talk about is whether or not a tea is smooth. Smoothness, it seems, matters a lot to them. Some teas will be considered smooth by most people, but some of the tea drinkers at the Best Tea House still go “oh, this is quite rough”. Requirement in that side is high. The other thing they look for is “throat feel”, also something that is rarely discussed in Beijing (I seem to be one of the only person who talks about it, no doubt a HK influence). Where bitterness is, etc, is rarely mentioned. The thinness and thickness of teas is talked about in conjunction with these other factors, but not really the first thing they mention.

This leads to very different ideas about what makes a good tea. This is most evident in puerh, but also in other teas as well. I am still trying to figure out exactly what it is that makes a good puerh, and having conflicting concepts doesn’t really help. At the end of the day, it will take experimentation and careful observation. I’d tend to think that the Hong Kong way is right — because they’ve had more experience dealing with it. But then, maybe it just comes down to personal taste.

What do you look for?

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5 responses so far ↓

  • lewperin // December 22, 2006 at 1:50 pm | Reply

    Thanks for exploring issues that basically don’t get talked about at all in English!

    Obviously, as an English-mostly (some would say English-only) person, I’m easily confused about these questions of what you might call texture. In fact, here’s something I really need clarified, if you don’t mind: the concept of smoothness:

    – is there one word/phrase in Chinese that is mainly used for this in a tea context?

    – does this really refer to how the tongue feels? I often notice my togue feeling rough or smooth after drinking one tea or another.

  • MarshalN // December 23, 2006 at 10:09 am | Reply

    The “smoothness” is called 滑 in Cantonese (or its negative). I’ve also seen it called 水路, where if it’s 細 (fine) then it’s smooth, and when it’s 粗 (coarse) then it’s not.

    Yeah, it’s basically whether or not your tongue and the mouth in general feels coarse or not.

  • lewperin // December 23, 2006 at 4:50 pm | Reply

    Thanks a lot.

    I think I can enjoy smoothness, but there are times when having tea roughen my tongue feels, well, exciting. I hope that doesn’t make me a barbarian!

  • lewperin // December 23, 2006 at 4:55 pm | Reply

    So Tiffany of Best “lowers temperature for brewing after 3-4 infusions for almost all teas, but especially the older ones”? That’s the opposite of what I usually do, and I’m puzzled. My rationale has been that after a few steeps you don’t need to worry so much about astringency and bitterness, so feel free to try to get as much out of the leaves as possible. I’m willing to be argued out of this position, of course…

  • MarshalN // December 25, 2006 at 1:56 am | Reply

    I think the rationale is that temperature that’s too high at later infusions will push out the more bitter/astringent elements in a tea, when you are steeping for much longer periods.

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