A Tea Addict's Journal

What’s a bad tea?

January 3, 2011 · 1 Comment

We talk about looking for good tea often enough, but what about bad tea?  After all, there’s arguably far more bad tea out there than good tea, so it’s useful to be able to spot bad tea, no?

I think we can divide bad tea into various categories.  What I can think of off the top of my head are the following.

1) Extremely low quality stuff
2) Adulterated tea – including fake tea trying to be something it isn’t, anything flavoured from Teavana, anything with a lot of added stuff, etc
3) Tea that is odd in some way – not necessarily bad, but has problems, usually one that is so significant that it makes it impossible to drink in an enjoyable way
4) Tea that is overpriced significantly

I think (1) is easy enough — everyone’s tried something like that before.  If you don’t know what I’m talking about, visit your local McDonald’s and ask for a tea, and then take out the leaves from the bag and make it the way you normally make tea — yeah, that’s bad tea.  No, I suggest you not actually try it.  Insipid teas go here.

Category (2) is more difficult — I think what I am aiming for here is tea that has been tampered with in some fashion, to the point where the tea is no longer recognizable as tea.  Anything overly fruity/sweet/artificial will fall into this category, as will, say, a cooked puerh trying to pretend to be a 1950s tea with added colour/chemicals/whatever.  There are some genres of tea, such as Earl Grey or Lapsang, that is supposed to have this added element, but then, you sometimes have Earl Grey that is nothing but Bergamot oil or a smoke-only Lapsang — that however would fall into category (1) for me, rather than (2).

Category (3) is I think what puerh drinkers, and to a lesser extent oolong drinkers, encounter the most.  The tea itself may be ok, but something is wrong, and you know it when you drink it.  These flaws are often not obvious when you just look at the dry leaves — the tea can look perfectly fine, normal, even good.  Once you pour hot water over it, the smell usually signals trouble, but it’s usually when you actually try it when the problems become apparent — odd flavours, weird texture, strange reactions (from you) are common.  I bought some cheap, cheap loose puerh recently that falls straight into this category — odd smell, odd taste, don’t know what it is.  I think it’s some Vietnamese border tea type thing, and with enough traditional storage and aging, it’ll gain that border tea spicy flavour.  As it is, when it’s still pretty green, it’s disgusting.

Then there are the more subtle ones — for example, a puerh that won’t age, or an oolong that’s been over-roasted.  Some people might like those things, so it’s not a universal “bad”, which is why I generally would put such teas into the “I don’t like” bin rather than simply “bad”.  There’s a small distinction, but I think it’s an important one.

Category (4) is, of course, everyone’s favourite — overpriced tea.  Overpriced tea, of course, is a relative term — a tea is only overpriced if you can get another similar or better one for less money, and everyone’s idea of a tea that is overpriced is different.  I would generally consider a tea overpriced if I can find something subtantially cheaper with the same quality, while factoring into things such as distance from source (a US vendor is going to cost more, no matter what) and type of establishment (online vendor should be cheaper than a real world one).  Aside from that though — it’s really dependent on your ability to find cheaper AND better teas.

What I think is most important though is for the drinker to be able to tell when something is wrong — when a tea is off, when a tea has oddities, or intractable problems.  Initial impressions are not always right.  I recently tasted a tea with a friend that was heavily traditional stored and has some pretty strange flavours in the first few infusions, only to see those odd tastes go away and turn to something fairly ok.  Problems, if they are real, will never go away even after many infusions.  Knowing what a good tea SHOULD taste like is half the battle in weeding out the bad ones.

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1 response so far ↓

  • Anonymous // January 4, 2011 at 2:17 am | Reply

    1) Some of that extremely low quality stuff still gets really tasty when they are old, like baoyan jincha, or that pressed black tea brick from 1973 which mama found at a garage sale…

    2) Sometimes that is really tricky, especially when it comes border or almost border tea. Lots of roasted teas, lots of “Qi Cha” relatively highly oxidised tea/nonstandard varietal, your standard huangpin and crabsclaw teas, and hey, is that camphor really from the tea leaves or is the manufacturer just trying to poison you with *real* camphor leaves?

    3) Those can be really vexing. I have a strong tendency to prefer small-leaf arbor because they do more interesting things in the mouth, but they are prone to strong surges of high tannins. Many of the teas we really want to drink because of an outstanding quality have a corresponding drawback. Drinking this stuff makes you really understand what you want out of a tea. If I have *anyone* but myself to blame for spending far too much money on premium puerh, it’s on Imen Shan, because I bought a sample of some Bada yesheng from 2005. It is extremely sour, enough to put me off (I think it a big mistake to do *anything* like wetstore super-meaty leaves, at least for short-term consumption, because they turn sour so easily compared to plantation). Anyways, I struggled to brew it to avoid the sour, and in striving to see what’s good about a flawed bing, I got profoundly addicted to what a super-expensive sheng can get me. It’s a certain liveliness quality that’s quite too ephemeral to describe to other people, I think. I felt that way about those weird Jinzhu pearls dancong that practically can’t be gongfu’ed, but makes a mindblowing-to-me western brew.

    4) Overpricing discussions, I think, is mostly about snobbery in some way. I seriously started into tea in Jan/Feb ’07. There was just not very many teas that I would have been interested in available for, say $30-$40. Puerh is cheap because the young stuff is undrinkable. When the young stuff isn’t undrinkable, it’s just not going to be cheap anymore. I think only the ’05 expo bing from Changtai and the XZH Natural Habitat would have met my quateria per price, and I don’t think the latter was all that drinkable in early ’07.

    I *do* think that there are a number of tasty bings in the $30 range, and I think there will always be a number of tasty bings in the $30-$40 range. I think there is simply no urgency about aquiring teas like those, and I have *higher* standards of value judgements for these teas than I do for premium bings because they compete with cheaper black teas. What I’ve culled from reading all those blogs, and all those email-lists, and all those articles (puerh apparently only made it onto the internet around 2002 in the US, with sporadic posts until 2005~have you ever thought about doing some kind of ethnographic study on the growth of puer in the West? It seems to be really comprehensive, in terms of history, online), is that if you didn’t buy Menghai or Xiaguan, you were almost certain to have some degree of disappointment with your choice of bings that cost $30-$40. With premium bings, so long as there is actual quality, tea inflation will almost certainly erode away eau-de-bad-deal regardless of how slowly it ages to “perfection”. Hard limits on $30-~$70 bing purchases seems pretty important. Cheaper than that, and it’s usually a direct relationship between factory/leaf quality and your tea experience. More than that, there usually has to be some kind of premium brand consciousness. Stuff that expensive that doesn’t perform gets noted and passed around to all the pu-heads.

    My chief fustration with the puerh market is that it is so completely disordered away from the big factories, and mildly disordered when it comes to big factory (There’s always some fad Menghai/Xiaguan crap floating around, rising in price). A primary reason I buy XiZiHao is that it is *very* difficult and mildly expensive (getting samples) to acquire value buys to my preference. I’ve always snort the thing about “Well Douji does better for less!” in my head…Take the Jingmai. XZH Jingmai is $92. That’s really stiff! However, right now at DTH, the Douji is $50, and Jas-eteas have a few at $41. Okay, one could get 80% quality for 50% price, right? I didn’t find that to be the case when I tried a sample. My impression was that the XZH was almost 100% top stuff if not all, but the Douji was mostly quality plantation with a handful of top stuff sprinkled in. Drinking those brews was like having a crappy reception on a radio, where music comes in and crackles and stops sometimes. That wasn’t acceptable. So when Nada started selling his cakes and I got my initial buy in, my impression of the bangwai was that it was kind of weird and hard to taste, but it got lots of quality markers. What I really liked about it was that the quality was even throughout my cakes. Don’t care how much “qiaomu” is in it necessarily. And I bought more of Nada’s cakes because I think it’s hard to get good buys in that price range. Overpriced isn’t a simple squiggly line, and you should never leave out opportunity costs, information costs, location costs, etc, etc (as well as diligently measure hedonism/dollars).

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