Curated Samples #1: Thoughts and comments

So it seems like some folks have received the tea, and a few may even have tried some stuff already. In the interest of keeping all the comments together, please post any pics/links/comments here. I’ll link to this page from a separate page on the blog that will gather all the info so to try to organize this and to make it easier to find once it starts getting buried among older posts.

Curated Samples #1: Tasting suggestions

As the samples are (mostly) on their way, some have asked for suggestions or ideas for what to do with them. I always find giving instructions to be a bit hard, mostly because everyone has their own preferences and their own teaware, so it’s not easy to give instructions that makes sense. I suppose I should, however, say something about what I am thinking of when drinking these, and maybe these will be useful.

I think the first thing I should note is that there’s a reason there’s a double dose of the finished product, labeled 59 for 59 hours. Since that is what the roaster was trying to get to – the finished product – it is probably best to try that one first. That gives you an idea of what the end goal is – what the roaster is trying to achieve. You can also start out with the no roast (0) as well, as a comparison. I think it’s pretty clear, right away, that from 0 to 59 the distance is pretty huge.

Now, for the stuff in between: I think there are two ways to try them, and both should probably be done, circumstances allowing. One way is to set them up in a line with identical teaware and do it cupping style, which may or may not be practical if you don’t have the right stuff. However, a simple way to do it, without those cute little lidded cups, is just to use a bowl and a spoon, like in the picture here. Leave the leaves in the bowl, and just use the spoon to get a little of the liquor to taste, while smelling the back of the spoon. That does a pretty good job, especially if you want low maintenance cupping. Cleanup is a breeze.

The other is simply tasting them regularly, as if you’re drinking the tea normally. For these things, I’d generally recommend using a small pot and filling to pot anywhere from 1/4 to 1/3 full of dry leaves, depending on personal taste, etc. Precise parameters are not that important, as long as it’s done more or less consistently – that way you can sense the differences more clearly. Drink it, and see what you find.

One participant also suggested that, for the sake of making the discussion more uniform and mutually intelligible, maybe everyone should use Volvic as a basis for comparison, because Volvic is generally a pretty good water for this kind of tea, and it’s pretty easy to get anywhere. I’m throwing it out there as a suggestion – it will, indeed, standardize the parameters somewhat, so everyone’s talking about more of the same thing. Some water, for example, may make this tea sour, while others wouldn’t. Just throwing it out as an idea.

One way to compare more properly is to keep going back to the 59 hours version after trying each of the other one, to get a sense of the difference between the two. After all, this is an exercise in trying to learn something from the roasting process. Why, for example, did he need to roast an extra 30 hours, when the one with 30 hours roast is already tasting pretty roasty? In fact, if you look at the raw leaves or the liquor of the tea of the 30, 45, and 59, the differences are not that obvious at first glance. Even when you drink it, when you try only a sip or two, you may find them tasting very similar. The basic notes and structure is the same, the devil is in the details.

When I asked him why all the way to 59 hours, instead of just stopping at 30 or 45, he said simply it’s “not good tasting at all”. When pressed why they don’t taste good, the answer is “rough, bitter.. just not very good”. They are also “not fully done”. So I think asking the question of “why spend the extra 45/30/15 hours in the oven?” is probably a good starting point. After all, if he can cut down his work by half, I’m sure he would’ve done it by now. So, what did that extra time in the oven add or eliminate that makes it worthwhile?

Keep in mind that this tea is in a style that is most popular in Southeast Asia. They sell a lot of this overseas, and their brand is fairly recognizable in places like Malaysia, Thailand, and Singapore. The customers want a certain taste, and they provide it. The 59 hours roast represents that taste, and the ones that have less time are considered not yet ready.

The extra sample, labeled X, is just for reference. It’s the lowest grade roasted TGY they sell, and I thought adding that in will help show the range of possibilities of outcomes for roasting when the raw materials are different. X has undergone a similar level of roast, but was slightly less because, as he put it, “the leaves can only take so much – the quality is not there”. What’s missing in X compared to 59 should be obvious, I think.

Lastly – I did ask if they’ve played with roasting variables before by, for example, lowering temperature and taking longer. His answer is “yeah, we’ve tried, and when the temperature gets lower, the tea doesn’t get cooked through no matter how long you roast it”. So, there you have it.

Emails sent

Last posting about the curated samples #1 in a while – I just sent out emails to everyone. You should’ve gotten an email either for 1) getting a sample, 2) not getting a sample, or 3) being on the wait list. If you didn’t hear from me at all and the email didn’t get spammed, then I probably mistyped your email address and you should contact me at mail@marshaln.com

I’ll probably post my own notes about the teas in a few weeks, but I don’t want my voice to colour what others might think of them, so I’ll wait until at least most people have gotten a chance to try them. In the meantime, the blog will be back to the regularly scheduled programming starting tomorrow.

Curated Samples #1: Roasted tieguanyin

This post is about the first set of Curated Samples. For details of my rationale and thinking behind this project, please go read the original post. For clarity, I’ll divide this post under smaller headings.

The teas

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As I mentioned before, the inaugural Curated Samples will be a set of five teas. They are leaves from the exact same batch of tieguanyin, with the only variable between them being the time spent in the roasting oven. The tea was roasted by a shop that has been in operation for over fifty years, and whose owners have always done their own roasting. They switched to electric roasting about 30 years ago during the 80s, when regulations and escalating costs meant that owning a large, charcoal roast warehouse was no longer an option given their location in the city.

The bottom left you see above is the original tea, with no roasting at all done by the roaster. The one at the bottom right is the final product, after spending 59 hours in the roaster. The three above, from left to right, are the intermediate ones, at 15, 30, and 45 hours each. You can see slight variations in the colour of the dry leaves in the intermediate ones, although they are not immediately obvious. The difference between roasted and unroasted, of course, is night and day.

The only tea that is sold by this shop is the final product, the bottom right one. The rest are not sold, and in fact, the owner pretty much flat out said the intermediate ones are not very good at all. I asked him to do this for me because I wanted an example where we can completely isolate the roasting time as the only factor that differs between the teas, and by taking a bit of tea out of the oven every 15 hours, we are ensuring that they have been through as little variation in their processing as possible. This is not the same as trying different teas with different roasting levels, because in those cases they may have been roasted in different ways to achieve different tastes. Here, they have gone through the exact same thing, but only with different times. This is why the intermediate teas are not considered finished products – in fact, they’re basically half baked, literally.

For some of you, this might be some of the highest roasted teas you’ve ever tried, since teas like this is not routinely sold in the West outside of a few outlets. Most tieguanyin you encounter these days tend to be closer to the raw tea you see here, and even roasted ones are quite a bit lighter than even the 15 hours version here. Such teas are quite popular in Southeast Asia and is the traditional teas used for the Chaozhou gongfucha.

What I hope this will show is the difference that time spent in roaster will do to a tea, and what, exactly, roasting does to a tea to begin with. While the dry leaves don’t seem to differ that much, you can see that the liquor is somewhat different.

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Also, as a bit of an added bonus and something that Brandon reminded me of just now, the final roasted tea is actually almost exactly the same in style and taste as many fake aged oolongs that are being sold on the market. Very often, you may encounter aged oolongs that are very highly roasted and claims to be quite old – 20 or more years, with the additional claim that it has been reroasted frequently. In fact, they are often just newly roasted tea pretending to be old. This tea is not sold as aged oolong at all, but some would do that, so knowing what this tastes like will help you distinguish fake, heavily roasted oolong from aged ones.

For this set, I will include 25g each of the 0, 15, 30, and 45 hours of roasting, and 50g of the final product for the purpose of comparison. So, this will be a total of 150g of tea.

The cost

The entire set will be priced at $60 USD, inclusive of everything. This includes costs for the tea, packaging, shipping, as well as my legwork and time, as I have mentioned in the last post. It will be shipped via registered mail worldwide at the same price. If you can show me that you’re a current full time student at some institution, I’ll take 20% off. I think Paypal is the only logical form of payment here. There are a total of 30 spaces for this.

Signup

Many of you have expressed interest in the project, but not necessarily for this specific set. I also hadn’t announced the price for the packet at that time. If you have already expressed interest and I don’t hear from you again, I’d assume you’re still interested, in order to save you the trouble of having to sign up again. Some of you, however, look like you might have used an email address that isn’t real. If that’s the case, please post a response here with your real email address, so I can contact you. Those who haven’t expressed their interest, please do so within the next 72 hours. If you expressed interest but only generally, but not actually interested in this particular round (some liked my aged oolong idea better, for example) please let me know as well so I’ll take your name out. After that, I will put everyone’s name in a lottery and allocate the samples to the 30 names that popped out. Of course, if interest level is lower than that, then there’s no worry.

Then what?

I am thinking of withholding from posting about these teas until almost everyone has had a chance to try them. I will probably create a separate page on this blog and those who have the tea can post their own thoughts, if they so wish, there. I hope this may facilitate some discussion about what they get from the roasting levels, and anything else that pops out. Ultimately, I hope this will be an interesting, and somewhat nerdy, exercise in communal tea exploration.

MarshalN’s Curated Samples

Every so often, I get people asking me if I would get into the tea business. After all, I’m well located for it, I spend a lot of time hunting for teas anyway, and I always talk about things that people can’t buy easily in the West, so if I don’t provide it, who would? I’ve always refused, because I don’t want to become a vendor, which would compromise my ability to speak freely on my blog here, and it also simply isn’t what I want to do.

At the same time, I do want to send people tea to share, especially if it’s something they can’t find easily. I send samples to friends often, but usually only in a limited capacity. My last attempt at a big tea distribution, which took place in 2007, taught me to not do it again. It’s a real drag – spending a lot of time, effort, and money. I did get feedback on both samples, but I felt the experience underwhelming and ultimately rather superficial, so I never did it again. Buying things for people can often end badly, so I don’t usually do that either.

Recently I’ve been thinking about what’s useful in terms of learning about tea. And then, at a recent tasting I hosted for two friends in Portland, it hit me that comparative drinking is really at the core of what we do when we try to learn more about teas. You can’t know what is good without knowing what is bad, just like you can’t be aware of the range of possible tastes among shuixian if all you’ve had are light roasted ones. Sampling is about broadening horizons, and it is a low risk way to stretch into areas that you might not be familiar with.

So with that in mind, I think there’s something that I can do here that’s both intellectually interesting and not devolve into just merely selling tea. Working off the idea of having flights of tea, I am going to try and organize what I call Curated Samples. These are teas that I have found that I believe, together, will hold some educational/learning value. In other words, I think the samples, together as a group, will have more value than merely sum of the parts. They are going to be limited in quantity – perhaps 20-30 sets at a time. They are also going to happen pretty infrequently – currently I am thinking perhaps 2-3 times a year, depending on whether inspiration strikes or not and whether it is practical or not. Some will take a considerable amount of time to gather – for example I want to do one with age Taiwan oolongs, showing what I think are the four or five standard “types” that exist out there, but finding the right teas in sufficient quantity will take a good amount of time, so that will be ready when it’s ready.

These samples will have to be sold, to pay for the tea, the material, and the time and effort to acquire them. What will not happen is that the samples will not be sold separately – it’s either all or nothing. Also, there will be no more of the teas, even if you love them. If they are acquirable (sometimes they are) I am happy to show you around if you come to Hong Kong, but as currently conceived, at least some of these are not going to be found anywhere. If you liked them, well, I’m glad, and I hope you took good notes so next time you run into a tea like it, you’ll know. Of course, because of the nature of the Curated Samples, I am not going to say you’ll love them all. Some will be placed in these sets precisely because they make a point, rather than because they’re enjoyable, although I’d imagine at least a few teas each time should be pleasant. Pricing of the samples will differ depending on the teas we’re dealing with. Since this is an educationally minded project, if you can prove to me you’re a current student somewhere, I will give you a discount.

Having said all that, the first set of samples I want to provide is going to be around roasting. Specifically, it will be the same tea, a tieguanyin, repeated five times, but with 0, 15, 30, 45, and 60 hours of roasting by the seller. Only the 60 hours version is what the shop sells – the rest I requested with a special order for him to do for me, and are teas that he doesn’t think taste very good but will do anyway, because I asked for a favour. I just got a call two days ago that he’s about to start roasting them, so they’re being roasted as I type this, and I should get them by the end of the week. There should be a total of about 25-30 spaces.

I’ll write more on the teas when I have them in hand. In the meantime, if you are interested in this, please let me know via the comments. This way I can gauge if people actually want this sort of thing, and, should there be greater interest than I have space for, I have to devise a way to make sure distribution is fair.