A Tea Addict's Journal

Tea learning

July 4, 2012 · 20 Comments


One of the things I often advocate for newcomers to tea drinking is to sample widely. Learning about tea is, on some level, not very difficult at all. It requires experience and an active mind to reflect upon and learn from the experiences gained. To gather this experience though, the only way to really do it is to drink a lot of tea. Reading about it or hearing about it really doesn’t do much good, for it is only theory that lacks backing from practical experiences.

The practical problem with active sampling are twofold. The first is simple – samples are not very cheap, usually, and so it can actually be quite expensive when you buy a lot of them from different vendors. At a site like Yunnan Sourcing, you can easily drop a hundred dollars or more on a dozen samples, and that’s before you have to factor in shipping cost. If you’re not getting your samples for free, this can be quite a major expense on its own.

Then there is the more nuanced problem of what to do with the samples. It’s quite easy to say that sampling widely will give you experience in tea drinking. In practice, however, that’s not so simple. Of course, trying all kinds of teas will most certainly give you experience. However, it is experience on a relatively shallow level. Certain kinds of teas, such as really bad or really good teas, will probably manifest themselves quite readily. Others, however, are not so obvious. It is actually easier to try teas if you, say, cup them, but then it becomes work and the process is not very enjoyable. This is, ultimately, a hobby, and not a job (for me anyway) so taking the fun away like that is basically missing the point.

What instead happens is that some teas require multiple tastings to reveal themselves one way or another. Sometimes the first time you brew a tea it doesn’t come out quite right not because it’s bad, but because you are still adjusting to it. It helps when you’re using the same teawares all the time, so that the only variable is the tea. In some ways, by doing so you’re basically cupping the tea without cupping it – you’re testing whether or not the tea is good for your style of brewing. Even then, however, a good tea drinker should be adjusting to the tea and trying to brew it as best s/he can, which means that the first try can come out horribly wrong. Cupping also has its own limitations, as it can tell you whether or not a tea is good, but the skill in bringing out the goodness still requires your active intervention – unless you’re planning on drinking the tea grandpa style, the input of the brewer is an integral part of what makes a cup of tea. This is why I almost never write reviews anymore based on one impression (when I do write them anyway, which is getting rare too), as there are too many variables and is just not very reliable. Forming an opinion based on a few cups of tea is only reliable if it’s really obviously bad or good.

Now, having had a lot of experience in tea does speed up the process of identifying issues and problems in an unknown tea. Right away, for example, it is possible to tell what kind of condition a puerh has been stored in, or whether an aged oolong has been reroasted, so on and so forth. It also helps compartmentalizing teas faster – you can basically draw on an ever expanding library of tastes and sensations and know what tea this is most similar to, and therefore what you can expect from it. Teas are never the same, however, and different people brewing the tea also yield different results. So, there’s only so far you can go with the “scientific” approach. Trying to analyze teas based solely on aroma, appearance, etc, is only possible if you’re dealing with industrial level generalities. Samples, therefore, are first impressions.

There is also knowledge that you can gain from drinking the same tea over and over again that you cannot from sampling. This may involve the tea changing on you – a traditionally stored puerh gradually losing its storage taste, for example. Or, it can just be that you start noticing nuances that were there, but were not necessarily obvious the first few times you try it. Or perhaps you experiment with different parameters, water, ware, etc. and notice that it performs differently under different circumstances. This type of knowledge is not possible if you only have 25g of a tea. It can really only come with drinking 200, 300, or even 1000g of the same tea. After a while, you get a sense of what to expect, and when the results don’t meet expectations, then it becomes a learning moment. You just can’t do that without a lot of the same tea. When I say “same tea” I also don’t just mean the same kind of tea, such as a tieguanyin, but rather the exact same tea – from the same place, harvested around the same date, etc. Each batch of tea from a farmer is going to be slightly different, no matter the circumstances, once again complicating the issue.

The important thing of all this tea drinking and learning is not so much the drinking itself, but the critical reflection and evaluation that takes place simultaneously. Forget about what others tell you – what do you feel and think when you’re drinking this tea? How does it compare with what you have tried? How does it challenge what you already think you know? No teacher can tell you any of this – they can point you in the right direction, but they can also lead you astray. My experience with tea teachers that I have encountered is that by and large they’re interested in selling you tea, and as such they will tell you what will suit their current inventory of tea the best. Tea learning is, at the end of the day, a solitary experience. No one knows what you’re tasting, so no one but you can teach yourself.

It is hard sorting through all this knowledge gained from tea drinking, and even harder to retain all of it. I found my early blogging efforts, basically writing down my impressions of the tea I drank every day, to be a worthwhile exercise – it helps me process what I’ve had and what I thought, and once in a while I go back to my own ideas back then and realize how I have developed as a drinker, as well as how a tea may have changed over time. Many of my earlier perceptions are flawed, if not outright wrong, or at least have been modified over time by my experiences since then. Writing about it constantly here helps me work through those thoughts. Of course, this can also turn into work, and when blogging, just like drinking, turns into work, it’s no longer fun and you should stop. However, as Confucius said, learning without thinking is useless, and thinking without learning is dangerous. If you want to improve as a tea drinker, there’s always work involved.

Categories: Teas
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20 responses so far ↓

  • shah8 // July 4, 2012 at 1:34 pm | Reply

    Just chiming in to add…

    Drink with friends!

    • MarshalN // July 4, 2012 at 10:48 pm | Reply

      Well, friends can’t think for you, and I’ve observed groupings of friends leading each other on, causing “groupthink”, which isn’t too healthy either.

      • shah8 // July 5, 2012 at 11:35 am | Reply

        Understood, and I’ve seen many a report on some tea skewed by groupthink. Keep the head in the game, though, and stupidity filters UP, and you’ve got a way to keep samples cheaper. You have multiple traditions of brewing that makes your tea taste different than you are used to. You can discuss these things on an equal footing with more benefit than any master-student relationship on the qualities of tea selection. The most important thing, however, is that one tea sample is leveraged onto multiple teabuds. Given how much good puerh is becoming ever more a drink of the rich rather than us nerds, I think this is important, indeed. 25g is not really enough to say very much, unless you use very small amounts at a sitting. The best evaluation is a cake, as you’ve said. If all you’ve got is 10g, why not drink among friends?

  • Nick H // July 4, 2012 at 2:16 pm | Reply

    In total agreement. I just want to add, that for those of us in the USA, Yunnan Sourcing has a US website with a warehouse based in Oregon carrying a decent portion of their China-based wares, and there are numerous other good suppliers (Life in Teacup springs to mind), carrying lots of good samples at good prices, with low shipping costs. Personally, I’ve been relishing the opportunity to spend just a small amount of cash on an ounce or so of tea since coming back to the US, since in Taiwan I was used to not usually being able to buy in increments of less than 100 g! Over time, I got used to that and found it very sensible on multiple levels, sort of what you’re saying: “And why would you ever want less than 100 g if you’re truly interested in a tea?” I still think that’s true–but a sample is a good way of finding out if you can’t be there in the store drinking with the purveyors for an hour the way they do in Taiwan (something that is not often done or frowned upon in the states, sadly 😛 I was rebuffed at Red Blossom in SF the other day because I was buying a new gaiwan and was interested in trying a Lishan Tieguanyin they had but didn’t want to buy the min. 2 ounces at $20/ounce–a girl working there just said, “is this a good price point for you? If so, I’ll brew it for you if you buy some.” Like, WTF, why do I need you to brew it for me if I’m already buying it, that defeats the purpose..ehh..)

    I think 3 is the minimum amount of times you need to drink a tea to begin to get an accurate idea of it. Once in a totally neutral environment like a gaiwan, once in a more specialized one, like a pot (if it applies), once again in the one you prefer.

    • MarshalN // July 4, 2012 at 10:50 pm | Reply

      In Taiwan once you get to know the store owner, you can just ask for samples or buy one ounce (liang). They’re usually ok with that, if they know you’ll come back eventually or have bought tea from them before. Red Blossom’s practice I’ve seen before – like you said, why do I need them to brew if I’m buying the tea already? It’s silly.

  • Brett // July 4, 2012 at 5:00 pm | Reply

    This post has a lot of great information for any tea sellers who, like myself, spend most of our time drinking tea with people who are both our potential customers and may know very little about tea. We need to be humble and readily provide all the information our clients seek even if it doesn’t serve to make a sale. We must also be quick to admit when we don’t have the answers to specific questions and freely provide our clients with any references we regarding anything we teach.

    When my customers purchase a new tea from me, I always arm them with my brewing suggestions, but then qualify further by adding something like “of course these are only suggestions and I invite you to try other parameters.” Sometimes, in these cases, the customers will return to give me new insights into a tea based on their experiences. Or their love of a certain tea will inspire them to research further and they can teach me something next time they come to the tea table.

    Nick – You have something there. An early mentor of mine told me to give a new tea at least “three strikes” before I dismissed it as “not for me.”

    • MarshalN // July 4, 2012 at 10:56 pm | Reply

      “We must also be quick to admit when we don’t have the answers to specific questions and freely provide our clients with any references we regarding anything we teach.”

      I think the first part of this is the key – acknowledge that there are things you don’t know. Every learning process is the same – the more you know, the more you know you don’t know. It’s usually the young ones who think they have the answer to everything.

      • Derek C. // July 15, 2012 at 7:04 pm | Reply

        ‘Every learning process is the same – the more you know, the more you know you don’t know. It’s usually the young ones who think they have the answer to everything.’

        Couldn’t agree with you more, when I first started my foray into Chinese tea, I realized I knew very little.
        Years later, after spending much time with people in the trade, in China, reading and most importantly drinking tea, I realize I overestimated myself for I know nothing.

  • mark // July 4, 2012 at 10:07 pm | Reply

    i find as i get older my life changes from day to day , like brewing tea, temp; water amount; amount of leaf; and many more things that change daily. same for learning,if you know it all there is no room for more. i just try to learn 1 more thing than yesterday, especially with tea. finding one that you like to drink is a fleeting moment in time , because each years tea changes with weather.( just try the last three seasons teas) you see what i mean. this is why i will buy a minimum of 200 gr. and try it different ways till i like what i made. i have a life-time of tea stored and still i buy more.

  • darwin // July 5, 2012 at 1:00 am | Reply

    nice post again LZ!

    on a slightly different note… i notice a red box of tea from ngan kie heung (if im not mistaken) may i ask what tea is it? and how was it?


  • Laurent C. // July 5, 2012 at 5:27 am | Reply

    Thanks for this very interesting post, filled with experience. From a beginner point of view, it is all the more difficult to evaluate samples since my olfactory memory is still draft. That is why I think that a good way to make the most of samples is to compare them to a tea that I am accustomed to. That reference tea can be chosen from a similar year/region/factory in order to highlight differences and similarities. However this process do not allow comparative brews in highly priced teapots. Bad news as some teas might be interesting only on some specific teaware.

    • MarshalN // July 5, 2012 at 5:31 am | Reply

      If the tea is only interesting in highly priced teapots, then the tea isn’t very good.

      Highly priced teaware rarely improves the tea significantly. It’s the last place I would spend money if the goal is improving the tea.

      • Laurent C. // July 5, 2012 at 5:51 am | Reply

        “Highly priced teaware rarely improves the tea significantly”: I will have to think about that. As you said in the first paragraph of your post, there is a lot to be read on internet about teaware influence of tea. Only experience can tell if it is worthy for one’s way and if there is no more useful thing to have in mind when learning tea.

        • MarshalN // July 5, 2012 at 7:24 am | Reply

          Well, the only difference between highly priced and lowly priced teaware is the price. It may be the case that high priced teaware is of higher quality, but that’s not necessarily true. I can sell my cheapest gaiwan tomorrow for $1000. It’ll be a high priced teaware, but I can also guarantee you it won’t necessarily make tea any better.

  • Jess // July 7, 2012 at 10:01 am | Reply

    Outstanding post, Marshal, as always. If you don’t mind, I would like to forward this page to a couple of my friends. They are brand new to tea, and are feeling a little overwhelmed. My only suggestion to them was, try a little of everything!

    In my own experience, I’ve gotten to a point where I usually don’t mention what tea I’m trying, as it has led to “oh, that’s crap tea, etc.. etc..” comments. I want to have as little bias as possible. For the spring, I delved heavily into the new harvests of greens, and when the weather turns again, it will be time to start breaking into the pu-erh samplers I’ve somehow managed to accumulate like candy… LOL

    Anyway, yeah.. very informative, and I think a lot of people stand to benefit from this posting. Thankyou.

  • Denny // July 9, 2012 at 1:10 am | Reply

    +1, Marshaln for this post ! Special master bloggers who write opinion about some tea from 20g sample please reading this post twice or more times! Is many many teas which not show you all so easy and many situations when you think the tea is nothing special. But…!… Thank you again, Marshal.

  • The sample conundrum | A Tea Addict's Journal // September 6, 2012 at 12:20 am | Reply

    […] a fan of sampling, and I think it’s a good way to learn about teas. Whether it be greens, oolongs, puerhs, or […]

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