The (not so) bitter end

I remember when I first started out drinking puerh, mostly by way of friends who had much better stuff and who made it for me, I was often told that the best infusions for an older puerh starts with infusion 5.

Yes, it begins with infusion 5 or so. Everything before is full of mixed flavours and merely a build up. In the words of one, you can pretty much toss everything up to that point.

Contrast that view with many bloggers, who generally think that by infusion 5, a tea is ending or close to its end. Anything above and beyond is, in American parlance, gravy. I think at the heart of this difference is a fundamentally different style of making tea, but just as important, a fundamentally different conception of what one should get from a tea.

Of course, when I say something like this I’m probably overgeneralizing a little. Yet, I do think that from what I can gather from many blogs out there, the largest focus is on the initial flavour of a tea, the strong feeling one gets from the first two or three cups and how the tea performs in the mouth in those fleeting moments. Is it apricot or is it peach? Or, maybe straw? Grapes? Mud? The list goes on.

I don’t think we often see a lot of discussion of how a tea reacts in the mouth after the initial impressions. That, I think, is partly because teas are about flavours in the West — what does it taste like? That, in turn, is something that I think a product of drinking a lot of greens, low oxidation oolongs, and that sort of thing. For those things, flavour is indeed often very important. They also tend to die faster.

But even in these teas, what the tea does to you and how long it does the same thing to you are very important, but I rarely see this sort of thing mentioned in reviews online. Discussions of infusions of tea after maybe 4 or 5 is usually an afterthought.

Are my impressions remotely correct? I often feel the best kinds of teas are the ones that keep giving after 10, 15, 20 infusions. But I don’t tihnk I ever really see anybody talk about brewing a tea out that far, aside from a very few individuals. Are these not mentioned because they’re deemed unimportant? Or is this simply not done? I’d like to know.


Comments

The (not so) bitter end — 14 Comments

  1. Marshaln,

    For me personally, it happens. It used to happen more often. I have found, for many reasons, that my tea attention span has become shorter. Two big reasons I find are time and/or company. My brother and I can sit on a tea for 10 – 15 infusions, even if the taste only reminds us of what the tea was 6 infusions ago. But that in itself is something…

    With other, less tea-obsessed company, I find myself moving through teas quicker through some combination of not wanting to bore them mixed with wanting to be a good host and letting them try a lot of good teas. Other times, I just don’t have enough time to sit for 10 – 15 infusions. Or I feel like I don’t have time. It is interesting.

    I did have a ‘one leaf tea’ that was from Vietnam. A long, thin and twisted leaf. Extremely bitter tea. Half of one leaf in my 125cc gaiwan lasted for hours. I must have boiled around 4 kettles of water for it. A very memorable tea session, for sure. Phenomenal qi; different than any other I have ever experienced.

    Good post. I will re-focus on the length of one tea now, and play with making a tea last longer.

    Daniel

  2. “…mostly by way of friends who had much better stuff and who made it for me.”

    I think that may say it right there. I’m on a very tight budget and evwen the ‘better’ teas I drink are still fairly inexpensive by the standatds of the tea/internet blogosphere. Most are exhausted after 4-5 infusions, though I often keep on brewing them for hot lightly flavored water well into the evening when I don’t want a jolt of caffeine but I do want something warm and soothing to drink.

  3. I did have a ‘one leaf tea’ that was from Vietnam. A long, thin and twisted leaf. Extremely bitter tea.

    I’m afraid that wasn’t real tea – it was kudingcha.

  4. Except with green and red teas, I’m usually disappointed if I can’t get at least ten interesting steeps. I’m also interested in the non-taste, non-aroma sensations tea provides, but I mostly find these harder to pin down, probably because the vocabulary for talking about them doesn’t come naturally to me, and it can be hard to remember – or even notice – something you can’t name.

    Having said that, I love it when a tea gives a big, showy performance in flavor and aroma for the first few steeps.

  5. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head, per se, with your observation about the importance of flavor in America. I don’t have any sociological explanation (well, I’d guess because there’s not as much of a connection between food and body as there is between food and taste), but I know it’s true for me.

    Brent

  6. What is it that you get out of brewings after the flavor dies out? The flavor dies out proportionally to any other aspect of the tea in my opinion–be it color, cha qi, etc. Our smell, taste, and sight all key in on these aspects, so what value could there be in insipid soup and brewings from spent leaves?

  7. Excellent post. I know I am guilty of this as I typically enjoy no more than 3 infusions with Pu-erhs and probably only 1 for most othe teas. Part of my problem is that until recently, I never realized the opportunity of multiple infusions and the significant differences that can be found in subsequent infusions. Additionally, I probably brew entirely too large cups of tea, therefore I am phycially unable to drink multiple cups at a time. Finally, I have a great fear of fungus. My readings have led me to believe that tea leaves can easily develop a fungus when stored for re-use. If someone could explain the proper storage technique, I would be willing to give it a go. Not to mention, are there guidelines for which tea types should be enjoyed for “X” amount of infusions? Or is it all trial and error?

  8. The more reason smaller-sized tea wares are important for enjoying fine tea to its fullest potential, I guess. Larger tea pots and cups just fill a drinker up with tea too quickly. A thought-provoking post…great!

  9. Perplexitea: Flavour rarely die out in a steep drop, at least for me. Instead, it dies out gradually — infusion by infusion. There are some teas, such as cooked puerh, that die out in a more “cliff” like fashion, but those are not common and I tend to stay away from teas like those anyway.

    So yes, there’s some selection bias involved, but ultimately, I think a “watered down” tea can be quite as appealing as well, only in different ways.

    Tea Escapade: I think using large cups definitely decreases the number of infusions you get from it. Also, I do not “store” the tea and then reuse them… I merely brew them continuously until they die. What kind of time frame are you talking about when you say “store”? Days? I think starting your tea at, say, 2pm and ending at 8pm isn’t a problem at all.

    Phyllo: Your absence was sorely missed!

  10. Thank you, L, and thank you, D. I’ve been…focusing on work and family matters. But I’m fine. It seems that I owe much apologies to those who I have not corresponded with these past few months. I miss all of you, too, and miss being active in the tea blogoshpere. I hope I can return to “active duty” again, albeit slowly and gradually.

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