Objectively good tea

A friend of mine had a grandma who loved drinking wine. However, she didn’t drink wine the normal way. She had nice red wines with ice. Yes, literal ice cubes inside the glass. That’s how she liked her wine, even if it’s some nice vintage first growth Bordeaux. You can imagine the horror, of course, of those serving the wine, but when an old lady wanted her wine that way and doesn’t give a damn about what you think (and she’s paying)… well, you give it to her that way.

I think in general we can agree that this is probably a sub-optimal way of serving wine. Nobody worth their salt in the wine industry would tell you to serve wines with ice cubes, unless it’s the crappiest box wines that are basically glorified fruit juice with alcohol. You also aren’t likely to go around asking for wines like that – because you know this would sound silly. Most of us, whether you think it or not, care at least somewhat about what other people around you think – and if you ask for wines with ice cubes when it comes to fine wines, it can make you look rather silly.

I am writing about this because a somewhat recent discussion in a facebook tea group talked about brewing oolongs with cooler water. My general stance on this is quite simple – brewing oolongs with water that isn’t very close to boiling is a waste of tea – sort of like having wine with ice cubes that end up diluting the wine. It doesn’t bring out the best in the tea, especially among higher end teas. If you’re paying good money for the leaves, then brewing the leaves with, say, 85C water, you’re basically throwing money away.

The argument I hear sometimes is that brewing at lower temperatures would help alleviate problems – bitterness, sourness, astringency, etc. Yes, that’s true, brewing at lower temperatures does reduce those things, but it also reduces the amount of flavour you’re getting out of the tea. Especially in the case of the more tightly rolled oolongs these days, if you use water that isn’t boiling it takes 2-3 infusions to even get the leaves to open up. Everything is on a reduced extraction schedule. You end up prolonging infusions or you end up with a weaker, flatter, less interesting brew. It’s like putting ice cubes in wine.

This is not to say you can’t have it that way – sure, if you really prefer it that way, go for it. It’s your money and your tea, after all, so drink however you’d like. That isn’t to say there is no absolute best way to brew it, and no objective way to judge a tea. The thing is, if you are skillful in brewing, none of those problems – bitterness, sourness, astringency – are actually problems. You can manage them away with the right ratio of leaves to water, with the right time for infusions, and having an instinct to switch it up as you go along depending on how the last cup went. You, as the person brewing the tea, are in full control. Using cooler water would help avoid you running into problems, but it also handicaps you in the maximum amount you can get out of the leaves – so it cuts both ways.  The real way to avoid them is to “git gud” – improve your skills and do it so you don’t run into problems with bitterness or unpleasant tastes, instead of handicapping the tea with warm water.

This also brings me to another factor that is rarely mentioned in online English language discussion on tea drinking – what you’re looking for is different. To many Chinese anyway, drinking a tea is not just about the flavour in your mouth the moment you swallow. How you judge a tea is as much about the tea’s lasting fragrance, instead of the ephemeral and momentary floral effervescence  that you get in your mouth. When I drink tea at the office, I particularly enjoy the fact that, half an hour after my last cup as I’m driving home from work, I can still taste the cup of tea I just had – its aftertaste glows in my mouth. With poor quality tea or weakly brewed tea, you can’t get that. Yes, the moment you get with a nice floral taste might be somewhat enjoyable, but the real difference marker between a good and a great tea is how long it stays with you. That sort of effect and experience you can only get if you brew your tea somewhat strong. It is only then that  you can relish it.

This is also why competition or commercial grading of tea happen in standard brews with boiling water – because once you’ve had enough teas, you quickly know what’s better, and what’s not. One of the key markers is how much stuff there is for the tea to give up – the more it has and the deeper the taste, the better the tea is. If you try a sip of the competition-brewed tea, they’re all really bitter, kinda nasty, and not very pleasant, but the good ones will show you a kinder, gentler side that will stay with you for a long time, whereas a bad tea is just bitter and thin. Taste matters on an individual level – some people will always prefer X over Y, even if by objective measures Y is better than X (the analogy I gave in the facebook thread was that some people will always like Big Mac over a nicely made gourmet burger with great ingredients). Just because some people are contrary doesn’t exclude the possibility that there’s an objective way to measure something we consume.


Comments

Objectively good tea — 18 Comments

  1. hah ice cubes in wine. Kill me! Loved the post though. I’ve never understood people who brew oolong at low temps. I commonly see that on various western facing vendors – the recommendation to brew oolong (and even some pu-erh) at 195 F

  2. Yes, this is the reason why I keep drinking my grand pa tea I don’t know about that must not be a high commercial value tea beside its name 古 勞 銀 針 departing from Hong Kong from Hung Chong Tai tea cie. It’s definitively not a white tea and it has sort of flowers stamens. I guess it’s my “madeleine de Proust”. Is anybody knows more about it ?

  3. Living in Shanghai, I’ve met Chinese tea vendors who like to brew their Oolong with cooler water too, so it’s not solely a Western thing. This might have something to do with it traditionally being green tea country; many people here seem to like their High Mountain Oolong or young Puer floral and light, a bit like green tea. But I’ve never been able to really enjoy this brewing method. Unpleasant tastes shouldn’t be a problem with high quality Oolong anyway, so I agree that it will just make you miss some of the good punch a tea can have.

    • That may very well have something to do with Shanghainese preference for smoother, less bitter teas. But what works for greens doesn’t work that well for modern tightly rolled oolongs

  4. I agree 100%. Also I think if you want to really appreciate high end oolong teas, especially Wuyi and Fenghuang varieties, you have to train yourself to enjoy bitterness. It is exactly this bitter attack which then dissolves into slippery sweetness which is a characteristic feature of Oolong teas.

  5. I have often wondered as to the mechanism of “delayed release” flavor. Best theory so far: diffusion into the gumline and between teeth, and slow leaching back into the mouth.

    Even though the amounts would be very small, it seems plausible for a couple of reasons: most of us can taste much less than a drop of brewed tea (especially those intense oolongs), and normal gongfu technique makes an infusion far more than strong enough to induce “flavor fatigue” in the tastebuds, with sensitivity restored during the minutes post-sipping.

    Other explanations?

    • I think that this is at least partially due to the amount of minerals in the infusion. The more minerals, the higher the viscocity which binds the aroma compounds and makes them stick in your mouth and throat. High level of minerals is one of the main benefits of good terroir. I live close to Wuyishan and drink loads of rock tea. The really good stuff tends to be grown in soil which has absorbed loads of minerals from nearby eroding rocks, making the liquor very viscous.

    • I think it’s probably chemistry happening to compounds in the tea, turning from something relatively tasteless to something fruity, sweet, etc. in reaction to something in the saliva, or lining of the mouth.

  6. This is a nice post 🙂 There are so different theories about the steeping method of oolong tea that it really gets confusing. Anyway, I always wondered that how could people possibly make tea in such low temperature. I get my oolong from Halmari tea which is very fine quality tea with a wonderful flavour and I never want to ruin the taste by brewing it in low temperature. You post just told me that I do the right thing. Thanks 🙂

  7. I think it’s really noteworthy how much English-speakers (the ones who are interested in something other than “English-style” tea anyway) obsess about temperature. Shopping for an electric kettle? Demand that it have programmable temperature presets for +/- 1°C! Don’t brew that Longjing hotter than 80°, it’ll get burned! Etc. etc.

    I have this notion that there are Japanese teas that really do come with a tradition of brewing with cooler water, that Americans found out about green tea through these, and then uncritically applied the lesson to Chinese tea, with various ad-hoc additional ignorant guesses as they encountered things that don’t fit neatly into a “black tea/green tea” distinction.

    • I think with longjing and the like there’s a good reason to brew them with slightly cooler water – slightly being the operative word here. Nobody in China brews with 60C water unless they’re one of these newfangled “tea masters” trying to stand out. What you might normally see with greens in China is that they pour some water in first, then throw the leaves in, then pour some more water. That effectively cools the water by a few degrees.

  8. Absolutely spot on. I am so tired of the post-modern idea that everything is personal experience. There IS an objective reality out there. Some people might not like Hemingway or Fitzgerald but they are great writers whatever your personal taste (or lack of literacy) will tell you.

  9. I like to try a new tea at various temperatures, but never below 80. I try to find out not just what the 1st cup tastes like but the 2nd and 3rd as well. What works best for one Oolong does not necessarily hold true for the next. Quite often the 2nd brew is superior to the 1st so wetting the leaves often gives a better brew than adding all the water up front. Using only boiling water and brewing quickly can sometimes mean that the full flavour profile of the tea is never developed. Just a few things to think about.

Leave a Reply