The King of Pots

One of the great things about being in a place like Hong Kong, rather than being stuck in Maine, is that there are a lot more tea people out here.  Drinking tea alone is quite common in the US, but here you can always find a drinking mate if you need one.  Since I have returned I have yet to visit a teashop of any kind, and haven’t really taken advantage of my situation here.  Today, while I was out and about, I stopped by a shop when there was an hour between engagements, and ran into someone I’ve met before — someone who is nicknamed the King of Pots.

This guy taught me a few things before when I met him at the Best Tea House some years ago while I was hanging out there.  One of the most important things I learned was that when looking at someone else’s pot, put down the lid or the body and only look at the other.  Don’t hold the lid while you’re examining someone’s pot, or the pot while you’re actually just looking at the lid — that’s rude, and may damage the ware by accident.  I’ve met many people who do this sort of thing since then, and have passed on this rule, which I think is very sensible.  I’m sure the King of Pots himself was scolded for doing it, just like he scolded me when I did it to his pot.

Seeing him again this time is quite lucky, really, because otherwise I have no way to contact him, and I would love to learn more from him as he has hundreds, if not thousands, of pots, and has certainly seen more pots than I have had teas.  Not all of his pots are good — I saw one today that was only so so, but as he explained, you don’t need a vintage or famous pot.  If you use your pot often and it’s made of decent clay, that’s better than a Ming dynasty pot that’s been sitting next to a dead body for the last 300 years.  Of course, it’s much easier to say that when you’ve got as many pots as you do.

Now, not all of what he knows or believes in is going to be correct.  He told me today that he also started by drinking tea and learning from Vesper Chan of Best Tea House, but like many others, he has since grown out of it and rarely goes back there.  I count myself in the same category, although a few generations behind him.  What we have both learned in that regard is that people who you revere as teachers early on often turn out to be, at the very least, not all right, and sometimes downright wrong.  Yet, Mr. Chan continues to attract students and adherents who go and buy his stuff, while many older students fall out of the circle.  He’s doing a service to the tea community in that he’s attracting people to come, but very often, people don’t stay as they start wandering around for other sources of things and find out more for themselves.

People like the King of Pots are the tea people I like the most — they drink with an open mind and who are welcoming of newer ideas, who want to try new things, and who’s not afraid to challenge perceived “authority” figures, who, sadly, are often just big sellers with a strong vested interest in teaching you about certain things.  I respect the King of Pots, but I also know that he’s not likely to be correct on all things, and our exchanges often turn into just that – exchanges of information, when both of us can contribute to each other’s knowledge.  Too often, I see people who are attached to one teacher and who just believe in everything the person says about tea.  It’s more understandable if it happens in places like Maine or Minnesota, but seeing people like that in Hong Kong or Taiwan or China really makes me cringe.  Learning from others with more experiences makes your progress in tea go faster, but equally important is the use of a critical mind.  That’s what I teach my students in the classroom, and that’s what I try to practice, and sometimes, like this post, spills over into the blog.

Packing and shipping

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One of the most painful things about moving is packing up everything.  What you see here, alas, is only a fraction of what I have.  Teaware, as we all know, are fragile, breakable things.  Pots, cups, dishes, kettles, everything is breakable, and everything needs a lot of wrapping.  I find that a lot of it is really difficult to do right, and sometimes people who pack and then ship these things don’t do it properly, resulting in breakage.

One of the biggest mistakes people make is to pack a teapot with the lid on the pot itself and just wrap the whole thing with bubble wrap.  That’s dangerous.  The lid, while it sits on the pot, can easily be rattled in shipment and comes loose or, worse, get damaged, as happened to one of my pots.  One of the pots I bought recently was shipped to me with only a little tape holding the lid onto the body.  Of course, when I opened the box, the lid was loose.  I was really lucky it wasn’t in pieces.

There’s also the issue of cushioning.  Ideally, you want space between all pieces of stuff — some sort of buffer in between each and every piece, so they never touch during shipment and will never come into contact with hard surface.  They also need to be cushioned against impacts along the walls of the box, so there needs to be space there too.  Boxes that are too small are disasters waiting to happen.

Shipping metal is no less difficult.  While tetsubins are pretty hardy and can take a lot of abuse, things like tin, pewter, copper, or silver are much more fragile and will dent or scratch easily.  With these, you have to be extra sure that the cushioning is enough to support all kinds of blows to the box — especially since some of these are heavy and if they are allowed to shift in the box, the momentum will create a greater force to dent what’s next to it.  I’d suggest shipping them singly, if possible, or if one must ship them together with something else, do so in a way that minimizes the chances of breakage with the way you place different items, etc.

Teas are easier to deal with, especially if they’re of the oolong variety and come in bags.  That’s almost a no brainer, so long as the box itself is relatively air tight and (hopefully) won’t be exposed to high temperature or sunlight.  Puerh cakes are a bit of a pain, but generally speaking when I ship these things I almost expect damage — it’s just part of the cost of shipping them.  Broken edges, roughed up wrappers, and missing teadust are par for the course.  If they’re not flooded I’m happy.

What’s really difficult is deciding to get rid of some pieces.  I have a lot of teaware that I think I should probably cull from my collection, either because I no longer use them at all, or in many cases, never really used them in the first place.  In this picture alone I see three pieces that I never use and I should probably get rid of, but I have a hard time bringing myself to do it.  On one level, I’m a hoarder at heart, so I want to hold onto them.  I also feel, somehow, that selling these things is not quite right.  I sometimes gift items away, but you can only gift so many things, and not a lot of people take tea related gifts, in any case.  Sometimes they’re also pieces that I don’t deem gift-worthy — if I’m not going to use it, why should I inflict it on someone else?  Then there are the tuition pieces.  At some point I’m going to take pictures of all of them and then show them here, so that others can learn from my tuition mistakes, but those pieces I’m sort of stuck with forever, and all I really need to the resolve to throw them in the trash.  All in all, the problem of too much teaware is really a dilemma that has no good resolution.

Buying things on eBay

eBay, the great American fleamarket, is both a source of frustration as well as a source of treasure.  I recently found this

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Which I basically bought for a song.  These things routinely sell for $100 or more in antique shops, and I got it for $35, which I think is quite a deal, especially considering it is quite pristine in condition.  However, most of the time, it’s hard to find things like this.  Over the years I’ve gotten a few good things from eBay, in terms of teaware — a few cups, an old gaiwan, a tetsubin, and other oddities.  That, however, is only possible after many hours of trolling on the site, looking for bargains.  I think in general, when looking for antique teaware on eBay, there are three categories of goods. (I am not talking about new things, like a cheap new gaiwan, or things like teas, which are a different matter)

1) The obviously nice stuff. These are things that are obviously good, old, and nice.  They are also watched by many, and are rarely cheap.  Older Yixing pots, for example, fall into this category.  There is a big group of very (and sometimes less) knowledgeable collectors on eBay who will buy any and all antique Yixing pots.  Those pewter wrapped ones, for example, routinely end at over $1,000, and the same can be said for anything that looks like they are the real deal from the Qing or the Republic.  There are no bargains to be had here.

2) The fake. This is the vast majority of stuff on eBay when it comes to older teaware.  They are fake, and most of the time, obviously so.  Stores like 5000friends, for example, have an endless supply of “Qing” and “Republic” pots that I’m sure are fake, and 5000friends is definitely one of the better fake vendors, when compared with the other, worse fake vendors.  Basically, for Yixing for example, if the stuff is coming directly from China, you can assume it’s fake, because there is no good reason why the person will put it on eBay if it is real — it is far easier and better to sell within China if you have a genuinely old Yixing pot than if you sell it on eBay.  It just doesn’t make any sense.

3) The hidden treasures.  This is where the bargains are, but it comes at a price.  They are only bargains because they are usually poorly described and has few or no pictures.  This pot above, for example, only had one picture on the site.  In other words, I was gambling that the pot is indeed in pristine condition and that the other side looks ok, which it turned out to be, but there was no guarantee (and I think why it had no bids).  This is getting increasingly rare, but sometimes you see a fuzzy picture and that’s all you’ve got to rely on, or if the title is mistyped, or if the person doesn’t know what they’re selling — for example, describing a Yixing pot as a children’s toy because it’s so small.  Even then, there will be other treasure hunters out there doing the same thing you are, which is scouring through these listings looking for good stuff, but once in a while, you can find cheap things and you’ll get lucky, just like any real life flea market.

How not to brew your tea

Those of you who frequent teachat have probably seen me post this up already, but in case you haven’t…

The guy, shall we say, takes his time.  The thing that really bothers me about this kind of brewing, and more specifically, this kind of video, is that they give people entirely the wrong impression of how tea is done in China.  Other than set performances at tea fairs, where they might hold tea brewing competition and the participants are expected to come up with elaborate (usually over-elaborate) ways of brewing tea that look artistic, you’ll never see people make tea like this guy does.

More importantly, the way he dresses and sits implies a certain sense of historical tradition, which of course is also entirely bogus.  This is what my friend DougH calls “ceremony envy”, stemming largely from the sense that “well, the Japanese have their elaborate and famous tea ceremony, so we should have one too”.  The need to invent a “ceremony” is, I think, the root cause of this kind of video.  Chinese, however, never brewed tea this way — certainly not like this.  For one, tea brewing was mostly done by servants.  Ever seen those paintings of literati men sitting in their courtyard drinking tea?  In the background there are always a few servant girls or young boys fanning the flame, preparing the tea.  You think they did any of this ceremonial stuff?

This is the other thing about calling this, or any type of gongfu brewing, a “ceremony”.  Ceremony implies a certain amount of performance, and at least in the modern usage of the word, a sense that you do them because you should, not because they’re useful.  This guy’s performance definitely fits the bill — he had a lot of useless movements that really didn’t enhance the tea he was brewing.  In fact, I’d hate to be on the receiving end of this tea — it’s probably nasty.

This is the other thing different about the Japanese tea ceremony versus the Chinese way of brewing tea.  The Japanese ceremony is methodical, slow, and elaborate, but making a good bowl of matcha is a primary goal as well.  The things you do in there — adding the cold water, warming the bowl, etc, all serve a purpose.  The way this guy brewed his tea is rather unique – he’s actually boiling the tea.  In most other videos, however, they brew it normally, except in the time it took them to do all their fancy things, the water, or the tea, has cooled.  I cannot imagine any of these people brewing anything resembling good tea.  I’m pretty sure this guy’s boiling his tea because he read it in some old tea text, except that it’s all out of context.

Chinese tea brewing has always been very practical, and has evolved over time to suit the needs of the way Chinese drink tea – which is to say, whole leaf tea, brewed in hot water.  Chaozhou style brewing, from which modern gongfu tea has evolved, works, because it is not concerned with looking good, but rather tasting good.  For those who want a spiritual experience, it doesn’t have to come in the form of elaborate rituals, dictated by some odd, nonsensical rules.  I think spiritual enlightenment can be found as well in the casual brewing on a day to day basis, but done in a way that concentrates the mind.  Refinement of one’s skill through practice does not require a dictated set of rules that one needs to follow.

And don’t even get me started on the narrator in this video.  She (or whoever wrote that script) needs to be shot.

Roasting

Tea wise, I’ve spent more time in old Hong Kong shops this trip than anywhere else. This time I was actively looking at various options for roasted teas — suixian, yancha, tieguanyin, and the like.  It’s always interesting talking to these folks who run these stores, because each of them give you something new that you don’t know, and when you see where they have contradictions, you can then start figuring out what’s market-speak, and what’s truth.

For example, I only found one shop that insists that they only do charcoal roast.  In fact, the owner told me that “some charcoal just arrived — we’re going to start up the fires in a few days”.  The others have all pretty much moved on to electric roasting, both because of space and cost, as well as, I suspect, the erosion of skill and the lack of people willing to spend two weeks in sweltering heat in a closed warehouse with lots of smouldering charcoal.  I think it is indeed possible to taste the electric vs charcoal firing, having now tried a whole bunch of teas from different places, and I think it’s hard to say one’s definitely superior to the other.  It is clear though that there is a lot more to roasting than just putting your tea over heat and hope for the best.  Different people have mentioned the variations in temperature during the roasting of each tea needing to be refined so that you start and finish the right way.  If you’re using charcoal, you also need to figure out when your tea is going in and coming out — apparently, different days of the charcoal have different characteristics, and the roaster needs to pay attention to that.

All these are probably best left to the pros.  They have decades of experience and know how to do it.  One mentioned to me how, when he was transitioning from charcoal to electric, the first few electric roasts he did were terrible — the timing was all wrong, and the tea was burnt.  The same happened when teas got tighter in their rolling – it became more difficult.  Those people with lots of experience can quickly adapt.  DIY roasting is, I think, best avoided.

Principles of Chinese tea making

Every cup of tea has two ingredients – the tea leaves and the water.  To fuse these two into a cup of tea, it goes through the process of brewing, and as every tea drinker who’s ever tried an overbrewed cup of tea knows, even the best leaves and water can make a terrible cup if the brewing method is flawed, whether by design or accident.  In fact, among all the major beverages of the world, tea is perhaps the most demanding on the drinker in terms of what it asks for — to make a nice cup of tea, the drinker must be able to brew the tea, and hopefully, brew it well.  It is not an accident that we call the Chinese style of tea making these days “gongfu cha”.  Gongfu roughly translates into skill and ability, and the tea that results is really determined not by the ingredients that went into it, but by the hands of the person brewing it.

What exactly does this skill consist of?  One way of thinking about it is to start with the end goal — a pleasant, presumably fragrant, and enjoyable cup of tea.  This means that the cup should possess as few undesirable traits as possible, such as an overabundance of roughness, bitterness, or odd flavours, and also be flavourful, has depth, and a good body.  An insipid cup does not have any bad traits, but the absence of any distinctive features at all is itself undesirable.

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Now, the question is really how to get from leaves and water to an enjoyable cup of tea. If we leave out the issue of the leaves and water (you can read the rest of this blog for my thoughts on those issues) the only variables that we can actively influence as the tea brewer are the teaware, the leaves/water ratio, the temperature, and the time.  Let’s talk about them in turn.

For most of us, teaware is often an automatic choice based on the type of tea in question and the number of people drinking.  The most versatile, of course, is the gaiwan, and it is also perhaps the most neutral. For those of us who, by and large, use yixing or other kinds of teapots for brewing, there are a few things worth thinking about when assigning pots to teas.  For example, is this an aged tea with a strong flavour, or a fragrant one with a delicate aroma? For the former, a more porous pot may be more useful, while the latter might suit a high density pot like a zhuni better.  The shape of the pot may also come into play, as I generally find flatter pots with large openings more suitable for Wuyi yancha, while rounder shapes work better for rolled oolongs.  How the pot pours is of paramount importance — not in terms of whether the flow stops if you stop the air hole (which I believe is of zero relevance) but rather how fast the water drains from the pot.  If it takes too long, you should take that into consideration for the next question, which is the water/leaf ratio.

The question of how much leaves to use in a particular pot/gaiwan is really one of the biggest decision a tea brewer can make, and has implications for all kinds of issues like how fast to pour and what to expect from the cup.  Examining the dry leaves and knowing what type/nature it is will help determine the amount of leaves to use.  Lighter teas generally require less leaves, while heavier ones can take more, even though that may sound odd.  When I say light, I mean lightly processed — greens, whites, qingxiang (little to no roast) oolongs, very young puerhs.  When I say heavy, I have in mind nongxiang (heavily roasted) oolongs, aged teas of all kinds, heavily oxidized teas, etc.  The amount of leaves, in grams, is really not a very useful unit to measure, because what really matters in terms of brewing is how much leaves there are versus how much water there will be in the vessel.  7g of tea is a lot in a 50ml gaiwan, but is not a lot in a 150ml pot.  I always measure the amount of tea I use by how much of the vessel I’m filling up with the dry leaves.  This can range from 1/8 to 3/4 of the vessel, depending on the tea and the nature of the leaves.  Rolled leaves, for example, will expand greatly, so you need to leave room for it to do so, whereas flat leaves, such as certain Wuyis and dancongs, unfurl pretty much in place, and you sometimes need to pack more in to achieve certain tastes.  There are also the special cases of brewing using Chaozhou style techniques (that’s another subject entirely) which needs different types of preparations.

The amount of leaves used determines, again, how fast the infusions should be, and also to a slightly lesser extent, the temperature of the water used.  The teas I drink tend to be on the “heavy” side of the scale, so boiling water is generally required.  When making lighter teas though, starting from qingxiang oolongs, it is often important to pay attention to how hot the water is and adjust accordingly.  Lighter generally means cooler, as most of you already know.  Cooler, however, also means longer steeps, and this is where it gets tricky, often involving active adjustments on the brewer’s part to get it right.  Whereas using boiling hot water often means pouring the tea out quickly, often immediately, using cooler, longer steeps will result in different kinds of tastes.  A heavy tea that is steeped quickly with hot water should be full bodied with the fragrance that is desired, but not the bitterness and roughness that will surely follow if steeped even slightly too long.  With lighter teas, water that’s too hot will scald the leaves and can make the tea less fragrant or even bitter and nasty almost immediately, with no remedy possible once done.  Cooler water with longer steeps will bring out the fragrant and sweet elements of the leaves without the tea suffering from damage.

It is, however, in the adjustment process where I think gongfu tea really gets its name.  How to manage all these moving parts in a satisfactory way is the key to making a good cup of tea, Chinese style, and to be able to do that, it involves a certain amount of practice and experience, which then translates the act of brewing into an intuitive process that flows naturally, rather than something that resembles a science experiment, with measurements and timers and thermometers.  Part of this is very much a practical problem — I’ve observed people who learned tea making a certain way who then follow the directions given to the letter (heck, I’ve done it myself early on — we all have) and it just doesn’t work.  5/10/15/30/30/60/60 is not how you make a good cup of puerh, or oolong, or anything.  Being able to mix and match and adjust on the fly depending on what’s coming out from the pot is.  If the last cup is too weak?  Brew a little longer, or if the water hasn’t been reboiled in a few minutes (depending on the way you handle water in the brewing process) maybe it needs to be heated again.  Or, if you’re not achieving a certain taste, perhaps you can push the tea a little further.  Likewise, don’t be afraid to actually take leaves out of the pot — sometimes there’s just too much leaves in the pot, and as non-intuitive as this is, pull some leaves out.  The resulting cup may actually be better.

Most importantly though, the adjustment process allows the tea to be brewed according to individual taste.  I know that I like the tea certain people make more than others.  They are just better tea brewers, at least in my eyes, regardless of what tea is given to them.  There are those whose tea I had the misfortune of drinking, and by mangling it thoroughly, what should have been a great cup is destroyed.  Sourness that should have been subdued became pronounced, Wuyi that should have that strong rock aftertaste turns into insipid brown tea, and young puerh brewed in such a way as to make me wonder if I should be drinking some white tea instead.  When making tea for ourselves and ourselves alone, the adjustment process is easy — you have perfect feedback from yourself, and can tune the tea making a certain way.  When making for a group of people, asking them how the tea is coming out is equally important.  It is easy to fall into the routine of our own tea habits without thinking about the fact that now someone else has to drink that cup of tea.  Maybe they don’t actually like (or can handle) 10g of Lao Banzhang in a 60ml pot.  Maybe lightening up on the leaves will be a good idea.  Drinking tea by yourself or with others is always a learning experience.  The end goal, I think, is elusive, but every day we think about what we’re drinking, we’re getting closer to a better cup of tea.

Evaluating tea for purchase (4) — the leftover

Now…… there are loose ends to this too.  These are things that, I think, are useful, but your mileage may vary.

Spent leaves — this is really quite interesting, as I think spent leaves often tell you a lot more about the tea than one would initially realize.  I think spent leaves tell you a lot about the processing and (in the case of aged teas) storage conditions of the tea in question.  For example, look at this

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Two different teas, clearly.  I don’t remember much about these, as they were taken quite a few years ago, but if I’m not mistaken, the top tea is probably younger than the bottom one, and is of the “smaller factory” variety.  There’s not a whole lot that one can reliably tell from spent leaves alone, especially without the accompanying smells and tastes, but there are things that one can do to, for example, verify what was in the cup during the tasting.  It can, in other words, help confirm or deny theories about the tea.

Lengxiang — literally “cold aroma”, this is what’s left in the cup long after the tea has been consumed.  It is not so useful, again, especially since lengxiang is rarely nasty (although it is possible).  Nevertheless, another piece of the puzzle.

Cold tasting — the later cups, for example, can also be drunk cold, or at least, cooled.  I think sometimes when tasting tea that is too hot it is actually difficult to get much out of it — the aromas or the tastes can be obscured by the temperature.  Cooling the tea down by waiting or other, more artificial means, can actually help enhance the sensory sensitivity.

Now……. the last problem is of course price, but that, really, is a separate topic that I have talked about many times before.  On that, no more.

Evaluating tea for purchase (3) — the less obvious things

I only talked about tasting last time, and Walt rightly pointed out that you can’t divorce that from smell and other sensations.  The reason I didn’t mention those was because I wanted to talk about them separately.

Let’s start with smell.  Smell, I think, is one of the most elusive and difficult to discuss traits of a tea.  One problem with smell is that they are extremely fickle, and everyone has a different idea of what something smells like.  Generally speaking, I find smell to be very unreliable in evaluating teas, especially things that are non-puerh.  They are also harder to tell apart — so a cheap tieguanyin may not smell so different from an expensive one, so on, so forth.

There are a few things that you can use smell for though.  The first, I think, is storage condition for older teas, and not just puerh.  Obviously, if a puerh has been traditionally stored, there’s often a traditional storage smell (which will manifest itself clearly in taste as well and appearance).  Also, for newer, drier stored things, the smell can often give you some clue as to how the tea was made and what it’s like.  Smelling dry leaves can be deceiving, however, whereas smelling wet leaves or brewed tea can give you a lot more info.  I’ve been drinking some randomly purchased ~5 years old puerh recently, and some share a distinct “stale green tea” smell — teas that, I think, will not age well in the long run.  Good puerh will have a solid change by 5 or so years, accompanied with a thickness and depth that is lacking in some of these “stale green tea” types.  I can’t quite describe how they are like, but I know one when I see one.

Aged oolongs can also be evaluated using smell, in this case partly thanks to how the tea has been stored — has it been roasted?  Stored well?  Does it smell sour?  Aged?  New pretending to be old?  All those things, with experience, are at least somewhat discernable using smell.  I think the same principles can be applied to every tea, to a greater or lesser extent, and smell acts as a confirmation signal — it can help you figure out things, but on its own, can be somewhat misleading.

Now, the other aspects of tasting a tea is more ephemeral.  I’m talking about what I normally call “depth,” which really means how a tea feels when drunk.  There are two parts to this.  One is a physical reaction on a sensory front — how a tea feels in the mouth, and how it feels down the throat.  Good teas often will trigger a reaction in the throat area, as well as feeling very full and thick in the mouth itself.  It coats the mouth with sensory stimulation that weaker teas do not provide, and this is often the difference between an ok tea and a great tea.

The other is something even more difficult to describe, and which some will call “qi,” meaning energy/substance/stuff in Chinese cosmology.  It is difficult to explain what it is, but I think the best way I can describe it is that it is a physical reaction to a tea that goes beyond the mouth, throat, and stomach.  For me, it manifests as a sensation that creeps up my back.  For others, it’s a different reaction.  Great tea will usually be accompanied by this — an obvious sense of qi rushing up.  It is something special, and a lot of teas do not have such a thing.  This is not to be confused with a caffeine high, however.  They are most definitely not the same.

Evaluating tea for purchase (2) — tasting

So, having stared at the tea for a while, it’s time to drink.  I could talk about smell, but I think that should really go into a separate category as it’s not as useful and informative.  I should note that while this sounds rather systematic, normally when I drink tea I don’t really think about any of these as a process or a series of steps — they just happen more or less naturally.  Too much thinking is, I believe, bad for tea drinking.

Drinking tea is not like drinking wine.  You don’t just open the bottle up, pour, let it air a bit, and then taste.  How the tea comes out depends on what you put in, and the inputs are 1) leaves and 2) water, all through the use of some teaware.  So the variables, in addition to the leaves, are really water, vessel, and method.

I think there is probably no optimal way of testing a certain tea.  My rule of thumb these days is to look at it, evaluate it, and estimate how I would brew it.  I think the best way to make a new tea that you’re not familiar with is to make it like you would normally do for that style of tea.  The reason I say this is much like how audiophiles listen to a few recordings they know well to test a new system — it’s familiar to you, and it’s what works for you.  I also say this because water can be a big contributor to the taste of a tea, and how you manage your brewing is dependent on your normal water source.  If you always use filtered tap water, then there’s no good reason why you should bring out the $10 bottle of spring water for a new tea you’ve never tried.  In fact, you will not be able to tell if the tea is any good, because you are not familiar with the water.  Also, as the water changes, adjustments need to be made for how to brew.  Lastly, if you normally use filtered tap, for example, then you should use that to check to see if the tea will be good using your normal water.  If it won’t, then the tea is not for you, no matter what others say.

The same, I think, can be said of vessels.  I used to subscribe to the theory that when testing new tea, one should use a more neutral teaware, such as a gaiwan.  This is because gaiwan, being made of non-porous porcelain, does not impart any particular taste to the tea, making your evaluation more “true” to the original taste.  But then, applying the same logic I used for water to teaware — if you normally only use pot X for tea Y, then why are you, all of a sudden, using a gaiwan for tea Y?  It’ll change the flavour (and sometimes significantly so) so don’t mess up what you know.

In terms of brewing parameters, this can be a little more tricky, because that can sometimes change dependent on the tea — the roasting level, aged-ness, etc, should all affect how you brew the tea.  This is why looking at the tea is important — it gives you the clues you need to figure out how to brew it.  Adjustments can be made, but once started, it is hard to go back and fix a session with one tea.  It’s better to get it right the first time.

So what do I actually look for, now that we’ve got the more technical stuff out of the way?

I think I can personally break my tasting down to two parts

a) Looking for problems.  I think the first order of things for me is to look for problems in a tea.  This can be any number of things — over roasted, in the case of oolongs, sourness, bitterness without huigan, off flavours, smoke when there shouldn’t be smoke, weird tastes/smells that are not natural, thin body, any feeling of discomfort, etc.  The list is quite long, and can include any number of things.  Some are more of a “sin” than others — smoke in young puerh I can tolerate, for example, up to a point.  Likewise, a bit of sourness in an aged oolong can be ok, depending on other factors.  Negative things, however, are almost always my first impression of a tea when I try it.  This, of course, starts with the smell — you smell the brewed leaves, you smell the liquor, and then you taste it.  Once you’ve had enough teas before, just smelling something can give you a fair idea of what’s coming your way.

b) Tasting for goodness.  I think only after I get the negatives out of the way do I feel the more positive side of things.  They go, more or less, hand in hand.  In some ways, my definition of a good tea these days basically means a tea that doesn’t have any obvious faults.  If it’s got a good body, no odd/off flavours, sourness, unpleasantness, or any of those sort of things, then it’s already not too bad.  After that, it’s really a matter of personal preference.  Do you like the fragrance of one over the other?  Do you prefer stronger or weaker roast?  Do you expect a kind of body over another?  Since these are all variables that are dependent not only on the tea itself, but also on the way it’s brewed, I won’t go into them.

Another thing I do with drinking tea is to push them to the bitter end – these days, this usually means at least two full kettles worth of water.  I think it’s often the latter infusions that tell you the true taste of tea.  Any tea can be great the first two cups.  Will it last for twenty though?  The ones that do are, I think, inevitably better in other respects as well.

Evaluating tea for purchase (1) — the looks

I think I’m not alone here in being asked, more often than warranted, the question of “how do you know what’s a good tea?”  It’s a question that teaheads get asked by their friends often, as we seem to have some nominal expertise on the subject.  I find this question to be particularly difficult to answer though, because it is actually quite complicated in a very nerdy way, and which requires a great deal of experience to at least make sense of.  Otherwise, it’s just talk and means very little.  Most of the time when I evaluate a tea that I have not encountered before, I look at it as an aggregate whole without really breaking it down into pieces.  That, of course, doesn’t help anybody, so I will try to do it here.  Price is a separate matter, and I will talk about that in another post.

Just looking at a tea, I think I look at a tea in the following way:

1) Shape.  I think this is obvious, but looking at a tea’s shape can tell you a lot, if you know what you’re looking for.  For longjing, for example, you can usually tell the grade of the longjing just by looking at it — fat, thick, light coloured ones with lots of fur are usually high grade, whereas dark, thin, papery ones are normally low grade stuff.  That, at the very least, establishes a baseline.  There are also signs, such as the way the tea is made and the way it’s shaped, such as the tightness of the rolling and the level of oxidation, for certain oolongs, for example.  This can come in handy in evaluating some vendor claims.  For example, someone who’s telling you a tea is really a 1980s TGY from Fujian, and you see the tea is tightly rolled — something’s not quite adding up there.  Lastly, and this is the most obvious — the shape of the leaves tell you what type of tea it is.  Learning to recognize all these things are important.  Some, of course, are harder than others.  Different kinds of black tea can be very difficult to tell apart form shape alone.  Likewise, yancha of various sorts are nearly impossible to tell apart without additional clues.  Oolongs and greens, and to a lesser extent puerh, can be at least broadly distinguished using shape alone.

2) Colour.  Something I already alluded to above — the colour of longjing leaves is a big clue as to its quality level.  The best way to learn such things is to, unfortunately, go to a tea store that has a variety of grades of the same tea, and just look at them, together.  I remember doing this at various places at various times, the first was probably at Great Wall (now defunct) in NYC’s Chinatown, where they put all the teas in glass jars and where I first had a taste of a really expensive longjing (of which I paid for, therefore being acutely aware of its price).  The gradations then become very clear.  It’s more difficult to achieve this by purchasing the “same” tea from different places, because then the grades can be very mixed and you won’t get the same effect.  The same can be said of tieguanyin, although these days many light or no-roast tieguanyin are basically nuclear green.  The various colours of an oolong, however, are clues as to their level of oxidation, and very useful in determining how to steep a tea.  Obviously, the colour of puerh leaves can instantly tell you if a tea is raw or cooked (combined with other physical attributes), and roughly, its storage condition.

3) Size.  Size matters, although in different ways for different teas.  For some teas, size does not, in any way, denote quality.  Puerh, for example, largely falls into this category, where the size of the leaves have very little to do with how good or bad a tea is.  A cake with large leaves can be terrible, while one with small leaves can also be terrible.  It does not tell you what season the tea is picked, nor does it tell you where it’s from.  At most, it can tell you what it’s NOT — broad, large, and long leaves means it’s not tea from certain regions that only have small leaf varietals, for example.  That’s really the extent of it.

Then you have things like oolongs, where size, again, tells you relatively little.  It’s very difficult to evaluate ball shaped oolongs and the size of the leaves, and since we’re sticking to the pre-brewed tea at this point, I’d refrain from commenting on that.  For oolongs the size often has to do with the roasting level, which is also betrayed by the tea’s colour.  The roasting process, when done properly, would normally result in some breakage of the leaves.  Also, size, for some teas, does denote quality, or perceived quality, at any rate.  For example, for lapsang souchong.

I think in terms of purely looking at a tea physically, that’s about it.  More later.