Wednesday February 8, 2006

Another day of take-out tea, great. Today’s tea is from Toscanini, which gets its tea supply from this company called Mem Tea. They are basically a wholesaler/supplier and doesn’t have their own storefront. Instead, they supply a wide array of teas to local cafes and also sell some packaged teas to other stores, like Cardullo’s. It’s nice in that they offer a wide variety of teas, and enables a lot of local shops that will otherwise sell you teabags from Twinnings or Stash much better, loose leaf teas. For that, I have to say that they do a good job.

I had the Puerh from Mem tea today, and their Puerh is very typical of ones you get in the States — earthy, mellow, slightly sweet, and virtually tasteless despite its very strong colour. There’s only the very slightest hint of Puerh taste. In general, these are “cooked” teas that have had their fermentation process accelerated through storage in “wet warehouses” or, basically, very damp environments.

In the old days, Puerh are all made “raw” and left to ferment (yes, like wine in this sense) for years before they are ready for consumption. In order to speed up the process, however, instead of waiting for 30 years before selling the tea, they have generally tried to mix in “cooked” tea with “raw” tea. It does make the thing more drinkable, but “cooked” tea loses all the potential changes that you get from the fermentation process.

Are they the same kind of fermentation? No, not really. Coooked tea have fermentation that comes out mellow, sweet, and relatively tasteless. It’s not a complex flavour, just an acceptable, mellow tea. Raw tea, on the other hand, when properly aged, has a strong bite (that will mellow out over time) but also very, very, very complex. You have all sorts of varieties, with teas ranging from tasting very spicy, to very fragrant, to… well, just about everything. That’s why people pay the big bucks for quality raw tea, and that’s why people prefer it. I know some who will never ever drink cooked tea.

How do you tell the difference? I am by no means able to tell it with 100% accuracy, but generally speaking, proper raw tea, when brewed, should have brown leaves. The colours vary considerably depending on how long the tea’s been in storage, but it should be some shade of brown. Cooked tea, on the other hand, comes out pitch black, basically. The colour of the liquor brewed is the same — usually some shade of brown for raw tea, and black for cooked tea. The taste is as I already described. Sometimes poorly stored raw tea will taste like cooked tea, for obvious reasons, and sometimes a really “good” cooked tea can also taste quite nice. That’s, however, hard to distinguish. For the most part, these are just useful rule-of-thumbs and certainly not a strict guide.

The most important thing is to be able to taste the tea. A tea can look and smell great, but it can taste like shit. It’s very difficult to tell, for example, what grade a Dragonwell is just by looking at it, but as soon as you brew it and taste it, everything comes out and you can tell right away (if you know what to look for). That’s why I never buy tea from a place that refuses to let me try it out, and if I really want to and they wouldn’t let me taste test, I buy the smallest possible portion. Sometimes they come out awful (as it turned out with a Tieguanyin I got in NYC) but sometimes they can be great. Taste, in Chinese tea drinking anyway, is everything.


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