A Tea Addict's Journal

Entries from March 2013

Water temperature

March 26, 2013 · 9 Comments

I was just in the US for a few days for a quick conference trip, and had to endure a few days of subpar tea. I did bring my own – some tuo that I found recently that’s rather decent. These days, nice hotels generally have better coffee makers than they did of old. Whereas the old drip coffee machines mean that your water will have to pass through not only the area where the coffee goes, but also into the glass pot where anything going in will start tasting/smelling like coffee, the new ones tend to be done with a construction such that, if you were to remove the coffee element, water will directly pour into your cup. This means, among other things, that there’s no more need to really try to eliminate the coffee smell before you can use them for tea. So thankfully, tea in my room was mercifully ok.

The same, surprisingly, cannot be said for the airport lounge. The coffee machine they have is a fully automatic thing that has a hot water dispensing tap that spits out water with the push of a button. This tap, however, is problematic – the water is too cool. I suspect it comes out at something like 80-85 degrees, and the tea simply doesn’t brew properly in those temperatures. Whereas my tea at the hotel was decent tasting – more or less like the real thing when I brew it at home – the same tea brewed at the lounge in a pre-warmed coffee mug tastes like coloured water. Worse, the tea never really expanded/broke apart. The two chunks of tea stayed quite chunky for a very long time. It was only after maybe the 5th or 6th time I added water to the cup when it finally started to come apart, and it was only then when the tea started tasting a bit stronger. In other words, the water was not hot enough.

This is why when you have a vendor telling you to brew younger puerh at anything under 100 degrees, especially if they tell you to use water much cooler, what you’re getting is a very different experience from what you would get if you go at it with hot water. The effect of cooler water is a lower extraction rate from the tea, and it also opens up the leaves slower. It means that for teas like puerh, you’re not getting everything out of it at once. This does decrease the amount of bitterness and roughness that you might get from the leaves, but it also means you’re not really tasting everything you can.

For teas that you’re trying to evaluate whether or not is age-worthy, this approach can be problematic. If you brew your tea purely for currently enjoyment, then by all means, do whatever you like. If you want it with olive oil and cinnamon, do that. However, I do find that if the roughness or the bitterness is too much, a better way of avoiding/managing them is shorten the infusion time or lower the amount of tea leaves used. Lowering temperatures often diminishes the overall experience – most importantly in the mouthfeel of the tea, making it thinner and lighter. The tea at the airport was definitely a sub-par experience – one that I think makes the tuo come off as weak and boring. I rarely use warm, rather than hot, water to brew tea, so it is good, sometimes, to be reminded of what is possible, and what others may do to a tea. This can also explain the range of experiences that you often see when talking about the same tea – the variables are too many and so comparisons are, oftentimes, at best suggestive.

Categories: Teas
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Alchemy doesn’t work

March 10, 2013 · 21 Comments

Chinese alchemists of the past were trying to create elixirs that will prolong your life, or even grant you eternal life. Western alchemists, generally, were trying to turn other metals into gold. Either way, what they wanted to do was to turn something crappy or mundane into something extraordinary (of value, or use). It doesn’t work.

Likewise, unfortunately, bad teas almost never turn into good ones. I had a tea recently, a supposed “Nannuo Wild Tea” from the factory Six Famous Tea Mountains (liudachashan or 6FTM). Old timers like me will remember in 04-06 in the English online circle of tea drinkers, 6FTM was, for a while, pretty popular – Yunnan Sourcing stocked them, and generally, they were pretty cheap and seem to be a bit different from Menghai factory stuff. Generally, however, they were not exactly high quality stuff – mostly mass produced, large factory fare, and I think in many cases, what’s on the wrapper often had little bearing with what’s actually in the cake. This is still quite common, but already pretty evident back in those days. Nowadays 6FTM is mostly known for commemoration cakes of various sorts – basically, same tea, different wrappers, sold for various odd reasons like “3rd Annual XXX Conference” or “6FTM factory 8th anniversary” or whatever they can think of.

Anyway, this cake in question was gifted to a friend of mine recently and I was lucky enough to try it with her. The tea has been stored in Hong Kong for most of its life. You can see the wrapper here

Stuff like this sold for about 40-50 RMB a cake, retail. Although I can’t find this exact thing on Taobao, similar stuff go for somewhere in the ballpark of 200-250RMB a cake now. It’s gotten more expensive, but mostly just because it’s gotten a few years older. It was probably pretty crappy back then. Is it any good now?

Unfortunately – no. It’s boring, thin, weak… nothing to recommend itself. If you stored this for 7 years and this is what it gives you now, you’ll probably regret having wasted money and time on the tea. The fact is, crappy, weak teas don’t turn out to be great teas down the road just because it’s stored and aged. The idea of “I’ll put this aside and maybe it’ll get better” only applies to teas that are difficult to consume, but not because they’re weak and bad. Rather, “it’ll get better” should really mean “it’ll get easier to drink” because the bitterness, roughness, etc are all changing into something sweet and nice. A tea that starts out with not much substance is not going to develop substance over time. That, unfortunately, is like alchemy. It just doesn’t work.

I’m sure I have some things in my own collection that fall into this category. Most of them I think I purchased out of pure curiosity – one cake here, one cake there of stuff that I thought maybe I can try aging. I hope that things I have bought in more volume won’t fall into this trap. If I have – it really means they should be drunk, or something. Nothing is more disappointing to try something that you think has aged well, only to find out that it has nothing to offer at all.

Categories: Teas
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