A Tea Addict's Journal

Entries from October 2010

Evaluating tea for purchase (2) — tasting

October 21, 2010 · Leave a Comment

So, having stared at the tea for a while, it’s time to drink.  I could talk about smell, but I think that should really go into a separate category as it’s not as useful and informative.  I should note that while this sounds rather systematic, normally when I drink tea I don’t really think about any of these as a process or a series of steps — they just happen more or less naturally.  Too much thinking is, I believe, bad for tea drinking.

Drinking tea is not like drinking wine.  You don’t just open the bottle up, pour, let it air a bit, and then taste.  How the tea comes out depends on what you put in, and the inputs are 1) leaves and 2) water, all through the use of some teaware.  So the variables, in addition to the leaves, are really water, vessel, and method.

I think there is probably no optimal way of testing a certain tea.  My rule of thumb these days is to look at it, evaluate it, and estimate how I would brew it.  I think the best way to make a new tea that you’re not familiar with is to make it like you would normally do for that style of tea.  The reason I say this is much like how audiophiles listen to a few recordings they know well to test a new system — it’s familiar to you, and it’s what works for you.  I also say this because water can be a big contributor to the taste of a tea, and how you manage your brewing is dependent on your normal water source.  If you always use filtered tap water, then there’s no good reason why you should bring out the $10 bottle of spring water for a new tea you’ve never tried.  In fact, you will not be able to tell if the tea is any good, because you are not familiar with the water.  Also, as the water changes, adjustments need to be made for how to brew.  Lastly, if you normally use filtered tap, for example, then you should use that to check to see if the tea will be good using your normal water.  If it won’t, then the tea is not for you, no matter what others say.

The same, I think, can be said of vessels.  I used to subscribe to the theory that when testing new tea, one should use a more neutral teaware, such as a gaiwan.  This is because gaiwan, being made of non-porous porcelain, does not impart any particular taste to the tea, making your evaluation more “true” to the original taste.  But then, applying the same logic I used for water to teaware — if you normally only use pot X for tea Y, then why are you, all of a sudden, using a gaiwan for tea Y?  It’ll change the flavour (and sometimes significantly so) so don’t mess up what you know.

In terms of brewing parameters, this can be a little more tricky, because that can sometimes change dependent on the tea — the roasting level, aged-ness, etc, should all affect how you brew the tea.  This is why looking at the tea is important — it gives you the clues you need to figure out how to brew it.  Adjustments can be made, but once started, it is hard to go back and fix a session with one tea.  It’s better to get it right the first time.

So what do I actually look for, now that we’ve got the more technical stuff out of the way?

I think I can personally break my tasting down to two parts

a) Looking for problems.  I think the first order of things for me is to look for problems in a tea.  This can be any number of things — over roasted, in the case of oolongs, sourness, bitterness without huigan, off flavours, smoke when there shouldn’t be smoke, weird tastes/smells that are not natural, thin body, any feeling of discomfort, etc.  The list is quite long, and can include any number of things.  Some are more of a “sin” than others — smoke in young puerh I can tolerate, for example, up to a point.  Likewise, a bit of sourness in an aged oolong can be ok, depending on other factors.  Negative things, however, are almost always my first impression of a tea when I try it.  This, of course, starts with the smell — you smell the brewed leaves, you smell the liquor, and then you taste it.  Once you’ve had enough teas before, just smelling something can give you a fair idea of what’s coming your way.

b) Tasting for goodness.  I think only after I get the negatives out of the way do I feel the more positive side of things.  They go, more or less, hand in hand.  In some ways, my definition of a good tea these days basically means a tea that doesn’t have any obvious faults.  If it’s got a good body, no odd/off flavours, sourness, unpleasantness, or any of those sort of things, then it’s already not too bad.  After that, it’s really a matter of personal preference.  Do you like the fragrance of one over the other?  Do you prefer stronger or weaker roast?  Do you expect a kind of body over another?  Since these are all variables that are dependent not only on the tea itself, but also on the way it’s brewed, I won’t go into them.

Another thing I do with drinking tea is to push them to the bitter end – these days, this usually means at least two full kettles worth of water.  I think it’s often the latter infusions that tell you the true taste of tea.  Any tea can be great the first two cups.  Will it last for twenty though?  The ones that do are, I think, inevitably better in other respects as well.

Categories: Information · Old Xanga posts · Teas

Evaluating tea for purchase (1) — the looks

October 13, 2010 · 6 Comments

I think I’m not alone here in being asked, more often than warranted, the question of “how do you know what’s a good tea?”  It’s a question that teaheads get asked by their friends often, as we seem to have some nominal expertise on the subject.  I find this question to be particularly difficult to answer though, because it is actually quite complicated in a very nerdy way, and which requires a great deal of experience to at least make sense of.  Otherwise, it’s just talk and means very little.  Most of the time when I evaluate a tea that I have not encountered before, I look at it as an aggregate whole without really breaking it down into pieces.  That, of course, doesn’t help anybody, so I will try to do it here.  Price is a separate matter, and I will talk about that in another post.

Just looking at a tea, I think I look at a tea in the following way:

1) Shape.  I think this is obvious, but looking at a tea’s shape can tell you a lot, if you know what you’re looking for.  For longjing, for example, you can usually tell the grade of the longjing just by looking at it — fat, thick, light coloured ones with lots of fur are usually high grade, whereas dark, thin, papery ones are normally low grade stuff.  That, at the very least, establishes a baseline.  There are also signs, such as the way the tea is made and the way it’s shaped, such as the tightness of the rolling and the level of oxidation, for certain oolongs, for example.  This can come in handy in evaluating some vendor claims.  For example, someone who’s telling you a tea is really a 1980s TGY from Fujian, and you see the tea is tightly rolled — something’s not quite adding up there.  Lastly, and this is the most obvious — the shape of the leaves tell you what type of tea it is.  Learning to recognize all these things are important.  Some, of course, are harder than others.  Different kinds of black tea can be very difficult to tell apart form shape alone.  Likewise, yancha of various sorts are nearly impossible to tell apart without additional clues.  Oolongs and greens, and to a lesser extent puerh, can be at least broadly distinguished using shape alone.

2) Colour.  Something I already alluded to above — the colour of longjing leaves is a big clue as to its quality level.  The best way to learn such things is to, unfortunately, go to a tea store that has a variety of grades of the same tea, and just look at them, together.  I remember doing this at various places at various times, the first was probably at Great Wall (now defunct) in NYC’s Chinatown, where they put all the teas in glass jars and where I first had a taste of a really expensive longjing (of which I paid for, therefore being acutely aware of its price).  The gradations then become very clear.  It’s more difficult to achieve this by purchasing the “same” tea from different places, because then the grades can be very mixed and you won’t get the same effect.  The same can be said of tieguanyin, although these days many light or no-roast tieguanyin are basically nuclear green.  The various colours of an oolong, however, are clues as to their level of oxidation, and very useful in determining how to steep a tea.  Obviously, the colour of puerh leaves can instantly tell you if a tea is raw or cooked (combined with other physical attributes), and roughly, its storage condition.

3) Size.  Size matters, although in different ways for different teas.  For some teas, size does not, in any way, denote quality.  Puerh, for example, largely falls into this category, where the size of the leaves have very little to do with how good or bad a tea is.  A cake with large leaves can be terrible, while one with small leaves can also be terrible.  It does not tell you what season the tea is picked, nor does it tell you where it’s from.  At most, it can tell you what it’s NOT — broad, large, and long leaves means it’s not tea from certain regions that only have small leaf varietals, for example.  That’s really the extent of it.

Then you have things like oolongs, where size, again, tells you relatively little.  It’s very difficult to evaluate ball shaped oolongs and the size of the leaves, and since we’re sticking to the pre-brewed tea at this point, I’d refrain from commenting on that.  For oolongs the size often has to do with the roasting level, which is also betrayed by the tea’s colour.  The roasting process, when done properly, would normally result in some breakage of the leaves.  Also, size, for some teas, does denote quality, or perceived quality, at any rate.  For example, for lapsang souchong.

I think in terms of purely looking at a tea physically, that’s about it.  More later.

Categories: Information · Old Xanga posts · Teas

Growing culture

October 3, 2010 · 6 Comments

I didn’t realize that it’s possible to grow mold in heavily chlorinated water, which is what I get from the tap.  I added some water to two glasses and put them in my storage closet for my puerh.  I left them there for a few weeks, figuring there’s no reason to bother them since they had not evaporated.  I went back a few days ago to check on my tea, and I saw a thin film of white and black mold on the water.  Yum.

The tea, however, is fine — no evidence of mold outbreak.  Not sure what to make of it, really, but this is a first.

Categories: Misc · Old Xanga posts