The true taste of tea

My regular tea menu includes basically three kinds of teas these days.  Aged oolongs are the ones I drink the most often, followed by youngish puerh (youngish means nothing from the past two years, generally speaking).  Then I throw in some occasional aged puerh of one type or another.  I drink almost nothing else these days, despite having large amounts of yancha and some less aged oolong sitting around.  A friend recently asked to be served green tea, and I must say I don’t really have any fresh green tea to speak of at all, since I never finish them and it ends up being a waste of money.  I used to drink almost only green tea, but those were the days.

I can say though, that there is something universal about tea, no matter the type, that trascends the differing tastes that one gets from them.  I think it is quite a normal progression for many tea drinkers to first be attracted to the higher aromatics from a green or a light oolong tea, then getting more interested in teas that are of a deeper, darker nature.  Of course, that’s only speaking from the point of view of those who are interested in Chinese teas; black tea drinkers, for example, may have different experiences.  Nevertheless, I find that after all these years of drinking tea, that they all share a common “tea” taste.  Sometimes this “tea taste” is well hidden behind the aromatics, but always discernable.  I often find that the best way to taste them is when the tea gets cold, or at least cooled.  Then, drinking it in larger sips, you can taste that universal “tea” taste that you will find no matter what kind of tea it is, and no matter how old it is.  It has a distinctive feeling on the tongue, and a certain amount of aftertaste.  It tastes leafy, but not entirely so, and is not necessarily bitter or anything like that.  Very often, it is only apparent after a number of infusions — after all the easily soluable compounds are gone, I suppose.

I sometimes wonder if this is what separates good from bad tea, and that after long exposure to teas, we learn how to distinguish the good from the bad with these “deeper” taste.  After all, the fleeting, first-infusion tastes are easily discernable, but also very momentary.  On the other hand, some teas, generally the better ones, tend to go on, and on, and on, without giving up no matter how many infusions you put it through.  This applies to not only puerh, but also oolongs.  Greens are less tenacious, but it probably has as much to do with the fact that they are greener shoots than anything else.  Rare are the teas that are great that don’t last very long.

Classes

Have to prepare for classes that are starting in less than a week, which means not a lot of time to sit down and drink tea.  I did, however, open a new bag of my favourite aged oolong these days…. and my, what a difference it makes compared with the sun drenched and sun baked bag that went through three Western states.  In comparison, this one’s sweeter without the nasty aftertaste.  Proof positive that uncontrolled heat is no good.

Changing tastes

I rarely repeat the same tea two days in a row, and never with the same teaware.  I think one of the joys of drinking tea is to thoroughly explore all the varieties that it offers, be it young, old, roasted, green, black.  Add in the variety that you get with changing teaware, and the combinations are endless.

Weather was nice today after a nasty week of rain, so I decided to drink out on the balcony while my cats decide to soak up some sun.  Rather than using my usual tetsubins, I opted for one of my silver kettles instead

This is something I found on Ebay, of all places, for a rather reasonable price.  It’s Korean in origin, and on one side is inscribed the words “For Mr. and Mrs. Henderson”.  I’m pretty sure originally it was intended for use as a teapot, but it’s very large for a teapot, and I’d rather use it as a kettle, which is exactly what I did.

Water from silver kettles tend to accentuate the high notes in a tea.  With good tea, the aroma will coat your mouth and linger for a long time.  What it won’t do is to add to the body, and if the tea is sour, it may make that show up more prominently as well.  So, whether it is really a good idea to use a silver kettle for the particular type of tea you’re drinking really depends.  I don’t think silver kettles should be used universally for all teas.  Tetsubins are much more versatile, I think.

The first tea I had today was an aged shuixian that I bought in Beijing almost three years ago.

It tasted very different from the last time when I made it a few weeks ago, using my usual tetsubin.  I think I actually prefer this tea with the tetsubin — the water from a tetsubin accentuates the qualitites of this tea.  It’s not the highest grade of shuixian, just some common stuff, and perhaps it only deserves the commoner treatment.

The pot I used still baffles me though.  For those of you familiar with bankoyaki, it might look awfully like one, and I still don’t know if this is actually a Yixing pot or not.  Although the seal says “Yixing County Mengchan Made”, I have my doubts as to its geographical origin.  Maybe the potters out there can tell me if this looks like a thrown pot or a hand built one.

Not quite having enough tea, I had another, this time an aged oolong from Taiwan that I recently acquired.  It’s nice and mellow, but works much better with the silver kettle.  All in all, a pretty good day for tea.

Aged oolong of unknown vintage

One of the problems with drinking aged oolong is that you never know how old the thing is.  Whereas with puerh the progression is fairly predictable, and taste can be a reflection of time passed at least down to blocks of five years, aged oolong does not afford the drinker such luxury, and can be wildly varied in taste and feel.  The culprit here is really the roasting, which changes all sorts of characteristics for the tea and can greatly affect how one perceives it.

I have been talking to some Taiwanese tea farmer who entered some aged oolong in a competition this year that were eventually rejected.  I just tried the tea yesterday, and it was somewhat light, sweet, aged, certainly, but not that aged.  The problem, he said, was that it wasn’t roasted enough, so the leaves still seem green and the judges felt it wasn’t really an “aged” taste, even though it has some years behind it (not that you would know if you didn’t know what you were looking for).  I tried another tea he sent me today,

And it’s very different.  The tea is more roasted, less fragrant, but also sweeter in a way.  The thing is, much of this is really just due to roasting, I think, and not a lot to do with the tea itself.  Instead of coming out yellow, the tea comes out a little more brown

For the uninitiated, a roasted oolong and an aged oolong might not seem all that different.  In fact, very heaviliy roasted oolong tend to taste quite similar to certain types of aged oolong.  I tend to like the lighter types — where roasting is not heavy and reroasting was not done (or done very sparingly).  I do wonder about the possibility of eventually holding on to some of these things for long term storage, but the risk of failure in this case is high.  Unlike puerh, oolongs can go bad in the form of sourness or simply dissipation of taste.  Until I find a good way to solve this problem (which entails, of course, experimenting with storage) I will just have to keep getting it from the farmers.

1987 Hualien aged oolong

I don’t know if it has anything to do with my obsessive blogging about aged oolong in the last two years, but it seems as though there have been many more teas of this type available than even just a year or two ago. I’ve tried very few of these, and I only remember the Red Blossom aged baozhong relatively fondly. Recently I got a sample of Camellia Sinensis’ 1987 Hualien aged oolong from two different sources, so I figured I’d try it.

This is an odd tea, and I’ve had it twice now. The first time I tried it I felt it a little strange, and didn’t think it tasted like it aged much at all. I added more leaves today, and figured I’d try it again

What’s strange about this tea is that there is a very odd bitterness to it, especially right away, but it persists. There’s a slight sourness in the tea, which is fairly normal for an aged oolong, especially one that is of lower roast like this. Bitterness, however, is not usual, and certainly should not be expected in an oolong that is over 20 years old. While I wouldn’t say it’s a definite sign that bitterness must be gone, I’ve yet to try a good aged oolong that is as bitter as this.

That’s what prompted me to say that this is not really aged the first time, only roasted. Today, however, as I brewed it with more leaves, the colour of the tea approaches something more familiar

There’s that aged taste to it this time, in the back, while the bitter and sour mix still persists. In fact, the bitterness remained for quite a while, for ten or maybe more infusions. It’s an odd thing, because I couldn’t quite pinpoint where it was coming from. The bitterness did seem to fade though, and when I got to maybe the 20th infusion or so, it was mostly gone, while the sweetness that I am familiar with still remains. When my wife tried this tea, a good three or four hours after I first started (on and off) the tea is mostly just sweet.

I came up with a theory that seems to fit the facts — upon inspection of the spent leaves, there seems to be a combination of two kinds of teas or even more that were in this tea

Some of the leaves, the ones on the right, are full leaves, big, and easy to open. The rest, on the left, are much more mushy and not easy to unfold — they fall apart instead of being opened. Those seem to be more like an aged oolong, whereas the leaves on the right are not — rather, they are just like any random oolong you can find from Taiwan. This is some sort of a mixture. It could very well have happened by accident — lots of bags of oolong float around these farms or stores, and it was possible that they simply mixed it up.

It’s much harder to tell whether this is a mix or not from the dry leaves, but there’s definitely a bit of a mix of colours going on

Maybe I should try to pick out the weird looking leaves next time I try this, and see if I can get a purer taste.

Making a dent in my stash

I literally haven’t had tea the “proper” way for almost a month now. It’s rather frightening, actually. I finally have cleaned out a few of the tasks I have to do, and hopefully starting tomorrow, will have at least a few days when I feel better about sitting down and enjoying some tea.

In the past month though I’ve managed to drink up most of the Menghai cooked brick I have (150g), as well as some loose raw wet stored puerh (50g). I also finished a big bag of aged baozhong (200g) and another half bag of an aged tieguanyin (75g). I don’t think I drank quite half a kilo of tea… since I might be overestimating the amount of tea, but it’s definitely in the range of 10g a day or potentially more.

Using a big pot to brew changes the kind of things you look for, and the traits you want in a tea. A tea that is great in a small pot with a small drinking cup is not necessarily good in a big pot with a big mug. My current aged tieguanyin is actually better in a small pot, but in a big cup, it also displays some things that I don’t find in the small pot version — for example, today when drinking the tea, I am reminded of “lemon tea” that I used to drink in Hong Kong during school recesses — really really nasty tea infused with some nasty unnatural lemon flavour, plus lots of sugar. It’s a very tart version of Snapple’s. Somehow this tea smells like that today. It’s very interesting.

One thing about these teas though — you need to have enough leaves in the pot to make it work. If you brew it too lightly, then they just become very bland and very boring…. a total waste of tea.

Mixing genres

When you age something, you want it to develop that aged taste. Something happens to organic compounds that eventually they change in character, somehow, and us humans can taste those differences.

How that change happens we seem to know very little. I wonder — is there a way for anybody to test what’s in the tea/wine/cigar? Compare it with something that hasn’t been changed? Or is that simply impossible to do? I do want to know, for example, what it is that causes puerh to taste different when it gets old, and preferably, to know exactly what changes took place that made it taste the way it does after 10 or 20 years in storage.

I had a sample a few days ago (the first real tea session I’ve had in…. 3 weeks?) of an aged shuixian. It is an interesting tea — a bit weak, like all shuixians are, but if you close your eyes and don’t know what it is, you’d think this is a dry stored puerh of about 5-10 years of age. It has that distinctive sourness and fruity character that mark a lot of dry stored puerhs that I’ve had. It also has little bitterness, much faded in the distant background. The most obviously “shuixian” bit was actually the smell of the dry leaves — I smelled the bag and knew this was an aged shuixian, but that’s because I sniffed a lot of these things when I was in Taiwan. In an unmarked bag with relatively broken leaves, it’s not an easy thing to tell.

Even the color is a bit deceptive, lighting or no lighting.

This is what got me thinking — what is it that causes this shuixian to taste more like a dry stored puerh than a typical aged shuixian? Lack of reroasting? I don’t think that’s it, because I’ve had others that don’t have that puerh-esque taste. What else goes into the aging of a tea that makes it so?

Maybe one day I’ll get funding for a lab and find out for good. Until then… back to my aged baozhongs.

Progression through a cup

I’ve been largely confined to drinking grandpa style these days, and almost always it’s my aged baozhong that’s the tea of choice. The key to doing this right is to keep at least a little tea left (and not empty out the cup) and refill — otherwise the cup gets too weak, and it’s game over.

Interesting notes that comes out are — raisins. A lot of it. It smells the strongest when I am just starting out — the tea smells like a box of raisins that just got opened. After a while, it descends into a more generic “tea” taste and will remain that way for the rest of the day — endless refills, and the tea still delivers a nice cup. You just have to wait a little longer.

Great for when you are too preoccupied to do a proper round of tea.

Black tea headache

I had some keemun yesterday in a mug. Nothing harmful, I thought, but at the end of that, I could start to feel a little of that same headache creeping in. It was not yet a major concern, nor the rather annoying headache that I’ve had recently after drinking blacks, but nonetheless… it’s there.

It’s a strange thing. I’ve never had a problem like this before, where drinking one type of tea leads to a headache. I deliberately used less leaves than usual and maybe that’s what allowed me to avoid a full on headache, but the mere presence of it is disturbing, to say the least.

Then I drank some of my aged baozhong, which always serve me well in a pinch….and no problems.

What could black tea have that causes this? Pesticide?

Three years old tieguanyin

This is a tea that I bought on the very first trip I made to Maliandao, three years ago

Time flies. I still remember it being rather exciting, seeing so much tea for the first time. Although many of the stores sell pretty much exactly the same things, the first time you visit you don’t know that. Before that, all I’ve seen are stores that exist on their own — that’s how it works in Hong Kong. The concept of a tea mall was rather foreign to me, and it was fascinating to see literally hundreds of stores that sell tea that are together. While Beijing is far from the ideal tea shopping area, it was good enough.

I remember I stopped by this store that sold mostly Fujian oolongs, and there was this rather friendly and very young looking girl who was the salesgirl there. My then girlfriend (now wife) was with me, and we sat down to drink a number of teas. I settled on this particular tieguanyin, along with a few others. I took it back, and it stayed in a jar while getting the occasional visit from me. Then I was off for two years.

It’s nice when I actually label my tea, which I don’t always do. It’s like a little piece of my personal tea history.

So how was the tea?

It was light, airy, a little thin, perhaps, and less bitter than it probably was a few years ago. It’s probably also slightly blander, but I honestly no longer remember what it used to taste like. Pleasant enough, and still worth the money I paid for it (which was not that much). I don’t really buy teas like this anymore, so it’s hard to say if I will buy something like this again, but I’d imagine if I have to give somebody a recommendation, this can still make the list.