What’s a good tea?

First, an important but unrelated point – as we move our discussions and conversations onto various social media platforms, those discussions are lost to those who are not privy to these conversations. Even if you are a member of those groups, or friends with those people, if the algorithm decides not to show you the conversation, and if nobody told you about it, you’ll never find it, basically. So, although these platforms can be great for connecting people, the memories are all fleeting, with no permanence to speak of. The author of the original post can decide to delete the post, and everything is gone. If you don’t have a direct link, even if you scroll through the timeline of whoever or whichever group it belongs to, you might not be able to find it. Search is useless. So, any sort of wisdom, knowledge, or ideas that were shared are not open to all. That’s a problem.

The reason I’m saying this is because there’s a recent discussion in the facebook group Puerh Tea Club about “how you know what is good“. The question is one that plagues not just tea drinkers, but aficionados of all kinds – how do you know what you have/see/drink/smoke/eat is good or not?

The answers to this question run in a few different directions. One is the simplest, but perhaps least useful – whatever you prefer is the best. To this, our dear friend Su countered that she knows someone who’s been drinking the same type of teabag for 50 years – he likes it, but does it make the teabag good? Objectively, I think most of us will say no. So clearly, the answer has to be more than that.

Then you can get all scientific – some kind of complicated checklist of aroma, mouthfeel, etc etc. – you see this sort of thing for wine tastings a lot. I’ve been to some of these things before, and frankly, it gets very silly. Someone drinks a bit of whatever it is, then rattles off “24/25 for taste, 23/25 for aroma….” it’s meaningless. For one, there’s an unspoken rule, it seems, that no score for anything drinkable should ever be lower than maybe 85. So you’re really working with a 15 point scale, not a 100 point scale. When almost everything is in the upper 80s or lower 90s, what does giving something a 65 actually mean? It just means it’s not drinkable. Why not have a scale that makes more sense? Also, are taste and aroma really equal? These sort of scoring metric often make them out to be so, but in reality, I think a lot of us put more emphasis on how a tea tastes and feels, rather than on how it smells. In the case of tea, it’s further complicated by the person preparing the brew – the same tea, in two different hands, can taste very different. Someone who doesn’t know how to handle a tea can completely botch it. If it scored a 65/100, who’s to say it’s not the brewer’s fault?

Which doesn’t leave us with a lot of options – at the end of the day, there isn’t much you can do if you’re a drinker on your own, without any real life tea friends to turn to. The answer to the question, I think, rests in 1) getting enough experience and 2) understanding what you’re trying to evaluate.

Getting enough experience is probably the more difficult of these two. I’ve said before that one should drink widely – different kinds of teas, from different vendors, at all price points and of different geographical sources. Getting stuck with one or two vendors is a terrible trap to be in, because vendors, especially for something like tea, are usually limited to a small number of suppliers. It’s not like wine where you can just order a few cases here, a few cases there, with provenance clearly traced and knowing you won’t get fake or adulterated goods. For tea, it’s more complicated than that. When you are talking about aged puerh, it gets even more complicated, as you have to factor in the risks of fakes, the quality of the storage, the price that their customers are willing to pay for the tea (not high enough, usually, outside of Asia). After those limiting factors, the vendors then select what they could offer, and will try to sell those. So even if you want to sample widely, due to these reasons and other logistical problems, vendors will have their own preferences and make choices based on those. Therefore, any vendor is really only offering a small slice of what’s possible out there. That’s why patronizing different vendors is important.

Even when you do buy lots of teas from different people, or get them through sample swaps, or whatever…. then what? I think the first thing you could do is to brew them in a way that is easily controllable. Buy a few sets of these cupping sets, for example, and start cupping your own tea. Start by doing some simple tests – use black tea, one from say a cheap teabag, one from a mainstream supermarket loose leaf brand, one from a supposedly higher grade source, and compare directly against each other. How are they different? What are the things that distinguish them? How is their durability and rebrewability? We are talking five minute brews here of 3.5 or 4g each, or some similar parameters. Make it precise. Practice it, and get used to cupping. Smell them, taste them, re-do it a few days later. Drink it hot, then wait for them all to cool and try it again. Then try it with different kinds of teas – oolongs, greens, etc. They’re all going to taste virtually undrinkable the first time you try cupping, but you’ll get used to it and soon you’ll start to figure out ways to understand what you’re dealing with – and why some teas cost more.

This way, you at least eliminate the biggest variable in changing how a tea taste – your brewing. By controlling for everything through the same process, it’s tea against tea (using the same water) and not influenced by anything else. Better yet, have someone else set it up for you so you don’t know what you’re dealing with, to avoid any preconceived notion. This is probably more work than most people are willing to put in, but I think it’s the way to go if one were to really try to gain experience. Then apply whatever it is you’ve learned from cupping to your daily drinking. How are these things reflected in the tea when brewed normally?

What to look for then? Well, the answer is pretty simple – stronger is better than weaker, more aromatic is better than less, smoother is better than rougher, longer lasting is better than not. However, there’s a balance issue here. Some teas are really aromatic, but rather thin and don’t rebrew well – a lot of green teas are like that. Among green teas, that’s fine. However, for a puerh, that’s no good, because a thin but aromatic tea will age poorly – aromatics go away over time.

So, depending on the tea, what you might want out of the tea maybe a bit different. This is really the answer to the second question – what are you looking for? For most teas, immediately consumption is the answer, so the tea that really has the best mouthfeel, taste, and aroma is going to be the winner. What’s best? Judge by cupping. Two teas that have similar levels of strength but different types of aroma – that’s a matter of taste. However, usually one is going to be better than another. There’s just no way around it.

For teas that you intend to keep for aging, however, the situation becomes a little more complicated. In this case, I’d prioritize strength and rebrewability over other factors. Aroma, as I mentioned many times before, changes and fades. If you like a newly made puerh because it’s really fragrant – drink it up fast, because if you store it it’s not going to keep that aroma for that long. Also, if a tea is really one note, aging might not be the best for its future – it can get very boring after aging. I know it’s not fashionable these days, but try some proper Dayi 7542 when they’re young. It gives you a good idea of what an ageable tea tastes like. Even those are changing a bit, but more or less they have stayed the same over the years. It’s at least a good benchmark to compare against in terms of strength. A tea that is weaker than a 7542…. I’d be careful buying those for aging.

Notice I haven’t said anything about cost here. Let’s just say this here: good tea is rarely cheap, but expensive tea doesn’t mean it’s good. Also, western-facing vendors are not offering the full range of what’s out there, because there’s not enough of a market for the real top flight stuff, despite what is sometimes marketed as such. At the same time, coming to Asia to buy directly is a recipe for disaster if you don’t really know what you’re dealing with.


What’s a good tea? — 4 Comments

  1. Spot on. Constant head nodding from me, and encouraged me to better continue my serious building of drinking skill.

    I think, what many people don’t seem to realize, and especially what say, the wine drinkers mentioned here miss, is that drinking is a skill, and building any skill takes mindful involvement and critical thought and an actual pursuit of getting better. Many people seem to think if they drink a lot, eat a lot, do anything a lot, they know what they are doing and understand it better. It’s just not necessarily true.

    I know you’ve linked, and actually introduced me to Ralfy, in the past, and well, I love what he had to semi-rant here about people at whisky events: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P_EiSOzH7uQ&feature=youtu.be&t=327

    Lovely, and all too common in such endeavors.

    • Ah… Just a side note about some silly wine drinkers… I had an experience with an acquaintance recently, always on about her love of wine and constant goal of “building her palate”. Curious, when she was mentioning wines she liked over others I asked her what she liked or didn’t like about them, or to detail them a bit for me, I got an answer that was something like, “Uh… The one I liked was really good. The others were just… Okay? Fine? I don’t know.”

      But hey who am I to judge.

  2. Hi Marshaln,

    I’ve been meaning to ask you something for sometime regarding tea scene in China. In the west we tend to get our information from blogs like yours, perhaps some tea forums, 2 guys doing some crazy youtube videos 😉 and maybe some facebook tea groups.

    What about in China? How to people get informed about new teas, for instance? Is it similar?

    All the best,

    • The most common way is just to drink with other people – there are lots. You can of course also hang out in online forums, etc, but face to face is by far the fastest way to learn. You go to your favourite tea shop and there’s usually people who hang out there.

Leave a Reply