Blind Tasting – Balancing Expectation with Reality

Let’s play a game. What are your first thoughts when I mention the following terms?

  • Lincang
  • Wet storage
  • Xiaguan
  • Mini tuocha
  • Lao Banzhang

What did you think? Did you have some initial expectation of what the imaginary tea might taste like? You might have said “bitter” for Lincang or “forest floor” for wet storage. Regardless of your specific thoughts, most people have some sort of expectation when the label of a tea makes a certain claim.

What’s the Problem?

Humans, to a fault, develop expectations for all of our senses. We are conditioned to expect things, and this is even true with word association. If a label says “Yiwu,” you might have a certain expectation. That is independent of the fact that Yiwu is a huge area comprised of different elevations, soil conditions, water sources, weather, etc. that all affect the potential of the leaves. Then, on top of that, there is the processing, compression, and age of the tea.

The point here is this:

  1. When I hear “Yiwu,” I think of the flavor notes of wood, floral, and mineral; and
  2. Yiwu is much more than just a flavor profile and can be many other tastes.

This is the problem inherent in our tea drinking experience. The more we taste, the more expectations we create.

So, what do we do?

It’s good to judge a tea based on its label; however, the flip side is that it’s also unfair to judge a tea based on its label. There’s the difference between accurately portraying the tea (i.e., something is marked gushu when it’s really not), and accurately portraying the taste of the tea.

I love white wrapper cakes. I love unmarked samples. These items force you to think about the tea. Maybe you make some parallels to other teas that you have tried or a region with a similar profile, but the point is that you still don’t know one way or another.

Make your tasting fair. Give your tea a chance. If you want to enjoy the experience, stop worrying about what kind of tea it is. Sure, we all want to know what that 2000 Xigui sheng tastes like, but we also don’t want to pigeonhole ourselves into having a specific expectation for the tea.

Mix up your samples. Taste things blindly. Put samples into umarked bags. Put the sample into your gaiwan without looking at the label. Taste it first, then look at the label to be pleasantly surprised by the answer.

There’s nothing wrong with labels – just don’t let those labels influence your experience. Oh, and don’t let other people’s opinions shape your brewing experience either, but I’ll save that topic for another day.

 

Until the next cup.

Appreciating Tea

How do we appreciate tea? Is there something inherently different between having a mug of tea, preparing gongfu style, and having a formal tea ceremony?

Think about the time involved for each. The rush. You might make a mug of tea at work or on the go – something to get caffeine or because you just love the taste. You don’t have much time to appreciate it beyond the initial taste.

Gongfu style – some of us are lucky enough to brew this way at all! – can take more time to get the full experience. We can drink for multiple reasons: taste, caffeine, or experience.

Tea ceremonies are formal. Patience is a necessity. Obviously, you have much more time to appreciate each drop in every cup.

Appreciating anything comes in two experiences: Appreciating in solitude and appreciating in groups.

Appreciation in Solitude

Solitude is a reflective time. Tea, for me, is a way to practice awareness. Smell the lid of the gaiwan, the leaves, the cup, the liquor. Feel the leaves, look at the colors.

Appreciation of tea is immersion. Immersion is losing yourself in the moment – awareness is feeling everything at a heightened level. Strive for both. Strive for heightened immersion. Cut off your senses one at a time. Smell the tea with your eyes closed. Have minimal noise or distractions. Put your phone away. Enjoy each sensation from the tea – how each sip feels on the tongue and the throat. Understand how your body feels in response.

There are no right or wrong feelings, scents, tastes. There is only the importance of being aware in the moment and fully immersed in the experience.

Appreciation in Groups

Drinking socially is just as important. Share your tea experiences either as you have them or after the fact. Let people know how you feel in an open way, remembering there are no correct answers. If your experience triggers a memory, share it. If you think it tastes like popcorn, tell people. Don’t judge the tea as a whole, but understand your feelings about it, whether you thought the experience was worth the price.

We, as humans, are social creatures and we crave interaction. Abraham Maslow, in 1943, developed his Hierarchy of Needs. After the base physiological needs of food, water, and air, we need security. After that, we need a sense of belonging. This sense of belonging is your contribution to and gift from the community. We need this belonging before we can have self esteem or be self actualized.

Sharing your thoughts, pictures, and tasting notes are all ways to gain belonging in the community. Sharing your experiences socially also helps you to be more cognizant and aware of your thoughts when having tea to begin with.

Tea tastes better when you take the time to appreciate the nuance. We learn more, we grow, we educate others. When we grow in our appreciation, we give it to others.

The tea ceremony is the formal way to experience tea and appreciate everything about it, but we can have that same appreciation every day through every cup. Turn your passion into community.

Until the next cup.

Sharing Tea

Tea is more than just ancient tradition. Tea is more than the leaves on the tree, the processing, or the liquid in the cup. Tea doesn’t care if you buy from a farmer, a vendor, a big chain store, or Lipton tea bags.

Okay, maybe tea cares about the last one.

Tea is an experience. Experiences are meant to be shared, just as I’m sharing this writing with you. I haven’t been in the tea world as long as a lot of people, but I’ve shared tea with so many people around the world in all sorts of situations. Mailing tea around the world… traveling to meet tea friends… video chatting with vendors in China… it’s all a part of the tea experience.

But why?

No matter your belief, tea, in ancient cultures, has always had a “spiritual” connection. Drinking tea alone has calming abilities. It gives you the chance to center yourself, to focus on something other than life, to feel the energy of the tea. But what is so special about sharing tea? Sharing tea connects people and provides a sense of community. Not only do we feel the connection to the tea, we feel connection to the other people in the room, regardless of conversation. Tea is a bonding experience, meant both to be shared and enjoyed alone.

I’ve shared tea with quite a few vendors including Crimson Lotus Tea, White2Tea, Bitterleaf Teas, and Meimei Fine Teas. Tea with vendors is fun for someone like me. I’m trying to learn tea-related Chinese terms, processing techniques, arbor vs. taidi, different mountains, leaf size, etc. But you don’t need to be an aficionado to have tea with a vendor. Just sit back and listen. Enjoy the time. Enjoy the tea. Learn more about the drink you love. Listen to the stories of the people who have been there. Live vicariously through them. Dream.

Did you just..?

Yup. Sure did. I’m passionate about tea. I dream about the future endeavors that I can have – open a curated tea store, sell teaware, hold classes locally and online. I’ve had a lot of hobbies that involve learning about subject matter, attending conferences and shows, buying… a lot. Tea is a community experience. You can’t just have it alone and feel satisfied.

So, what does this mean?

Sharing tea is less about what you’re drinking and more about how you’re drinking. Tea transcends differences, unites, comforts, and delivers an experience unlike any other. Turn off the television. Turn off the cell phone. Turn off the computer (unless you’re skyping someone for tea!). Drink in the experience and, better yet, experience it with someone else. Find someone who doesn’t know about tea and explore it together. Start with a simple green and work your way to complex puerhs. You don’t have to bond over expensive tea, you just have to enjoy the time.

Oh, and if you want to have tea with me, just let me know.

Until the next cup.

Compression and Storage – Why It Matters

As I’ve previously mentioned, heicha (黑茶 – heicha; literally “black/dark tea”) is any type of fermented or post-fermented tea. The most famous type of heicha is puerh (普洱), made in Yunnan Province. For storage, puerh is pressed into various forms (see my “What is Puerh Tea?” post for more about this).

How do these different forms and compression affect the overall aging of the tea? I’ve mentioned in a few of my reviews about a tea’s compression being tight or not. Compression, more than shape, is a higher contributing factor to the aging process. The shape of puerh tea mainly affects the ability to store it nice and neatly in a pumidor or other storage place.

Heicha ages due to fermentation, which is carried out by types of molds. Now, I’m not a scientist, but if you want to read more on this, this might be a good place to start. Exposure to humidity and oxygen is the catalyst for microbial growth, which fuels the endo- and exo-oxidation of the tea (the aging process). Without the humidity and oxygen, the microbes are dormant and, could possibly, lessen over time.

Why does this matter?

For the average puerh drinker, it might not matter at all, but it gives us a glimpse into why the types of compression affect our teas in the long term. Maocha (毛茶 – maocha; literally “rough tea”) ages much more quickly than compressed puerh due to the increased surface area exposed to oxygen and humidity; however, this increased exposure can actually lessen the flavor and scent of the maocha over time.

Compressed puerh, determinant by the level of compression, ages more slowly because of the decreased exposure to humidity and oxygen. The tighter the compression, the less air flow.

An iron cake will have very little air flow to the center
An iron cake will have very little air flow to the center
A standard puerh cake is not as tight and allows for air flow
A standard puerh cake is not as tight and allows for air flow

Conclusion

There are many more factors to puerh aging (I’ll cover these later), but compression is a huge factor. No matter how ideal your climate is, certain styles of puerh compression will still age poorly. Tightly compressed mushrooms (紧茶 – jincha; literally “tight tea”) or bricks (砖茶 – zhuancha; literally “tea brick”) will age slowly and unevenly. The center of a tightly compressed brick could still be relatively green while the outer parts are much more aged.

Experiment for yourself, but keep in mind that compression is a huge factor in aging your tea.

Unitl the next cup.

What is Puerh Tea?

For the first “educational” post, I’ve decided to go back to the very basics for those who might not know what puerh tea is. Puerh (普洱 – puerh, 茶 – cha; literally “tea”) is a fermented or “dark tea.” Fermented tea undergoes a microbial process due to exposure to humidity. The tea is also oxidized, both internally and externally, from this process.

Puerh is one kind of fermented tea. Another type of fermented tea, for instance, is liu bao(六堡). Each type of fermented tea comes from a certain area of China (sometimes from other countries, as well). Puerh comes from a southern province named Yunnan and is named after Pu’er Prefecture within Yunnan.

How is puerh tea made?

Puerh comes from a large leaf varietal of Camillia sinensis native to Yunnan. Once the leaves are picked, the harvest is transformed into maocha (毛茶 – maocha; literally “rough tea”) through a process of sha qing (殺青 – sha qing; literally “kill green”). The kill green process is a dry roasting of the leaves to prevent full oxidation (also done with other non-oxidized and semi-oxidized teas). The leaves are then rolled, lightly bruised, and sun-dried. Maocha, once complete, can be enjoyed as-is, pressed into various shapes, or processed into shou.

Sheng puerh

Sheng puerh (生 – sheng; literally “raw”, 普洱 – puerh) is the result of the sha qing process. Sheng can be pressed into many forms to store or left as loose maocha. The form, shape, compression, and storage are all contributing factors to the overall aging process of the sheng.

Shou puerh

Shou puerh (熟 – shou, 普洱 – puerh) is the result of the wo dui process (渥堆 – wo dui; literally “wet pile”) which was developed by the Kunming Tea Factory in 1973 as a way to imitate the aging of sheng puerh. Because this method of artificially aging the tea is based on moisture and high temperature, shou puerh is also referred to as “cooked” puerh.

Aged puerh

While all puerh can be aged, traditionally, sheng puerh is stored over many years in warm, humid environments to age the raw tea. Puerh undergoes a very slow oxidation and microbial process through the influence of bacteria. The flavor and color of puerh greatly changes over the course of storage.

Pressing

The raw sheng maocha or ripe shou maocha is typically pressed into various shapes. The most common shapes are:

  • Disc – 饼茶 – bingcha; literally “tea cake”
  • Bowl/Nest – 沱茶 – tuocha; literally “bird’s nest tea”
  • Brick – 砖茶 – zhuancha; literally “tea brick”
  • Dragon Pearl – 龙珠 – longzhu; literally “dragon ball” (Z?)
  • Melon – 金瓜 – jingua; literally “golden melon”
  • Mushroom – 紧茶 – jincha; literally “tight tea”
  • Square – 方茶 – fangcha; literally “tea square”

There are other shapes, such as gourds, etc., that are less common. Again, the shape and level of compression are factors in aging, but I’ll be covering the massive topic of storage another time.

I think that covers a lot of the “basics” around puerh tea, but there’s so much more to learn and experience. These educational-style posts will be occasionally posted and focus in on specific topics for quick reference.

Do you have a puerh topic that you’d like to see covered? Click the “Contact” link at the top of the page, or just.. click this link to contact me. Much easier.

Until the next cup.