That white mist

We’ve all seen it before – that white mist on our cup of tea. If you don’t know what I’m talking, it’s this:

 photo Mist.jpg

 

The white stuff on the tea itself.

Some of you may have encountered people who say that this is a sign of good tea, or old tea, or whatever. I’ve always thought that this is probably just a mechanical thing with hot water and surface tension, or something like that. Well, turns out some Japanese scientists decided to investigate further. These are actually mico droplets of water that are levitating above the surface of the water itself and is not sensitive to what’s underneath – coffee, tea, water, detergent, etc. It seems like the density of the droplets are more dependent on temperature than anything else.

Anyway, here’s the press version of the story, and you can find the original paper here. Photo was taken by my friend Su from Malaysia.

Taste calibration

Traveling with tea is important, lest you have to resort to desperate measures like drinking McDonald’s teabags. When I am on the road these days I usually bring one of my early 2000s puerh with me, because 1) puerh is made for traveling and 2) they taste great when drunk grandpa style, which is really the only way that is practical when on the road. I tend to know these teas well, so it’s always fun when you go to a different place, and you brew a cup, and the tea tastes different.

The only difference, other than not having my usual mug or what not, is the water. Specifically, it’s the tap water. I still remember when I first went to college in the great state of Ohio, and tasting the water there at the school, I wondered if I was drinking from some horrible swimming pool. I promptly bought a Brita, which didn’t do a lot other than removing some of that chlorine taste. It was horrid, and remains, to this day, some of the worst tap water I have had access to. These days I normally drink tea using Hong Kong tap water, which is a mixture of local reservoirs and river water from the East river in Guangdong, not exactly known for great water quality. The result is ok, but certainly not great.

So being here in Vancouver BC, where the tap water quality is great, comes as quite a nice change of scenery. The water here is a combination of lakes, creeks, and snow melt. It’s got a typical low mineral content taste, crisp, cold, and somewhat light in body. Drinking my Menghai tuo with this water makes the tea more floral – the “green” notes are far more present here than when I drink them in Hong Kong. My pet theory is that water with higher (but not too high) mineral content actually somehow manages to pull more “stuff” out of the tea than water with very low mineral content. The result is that lower mineral content water actually means more infusions for the same tea, at the cost of thickness/fullness in taste.

It is also a good reality check for a tea that you drink often – recalibrating your expectations with regards to a tea that you think you know well already. This is easily achievable without having to fly 10 hours to a new city – the many kinds of bottled waters out there can do that for you. For a good all-rounder that is available everywhere, Volvic is always a good option for tea. For those seeking lighter water, something from Iceland, with their glacier melt source, tend to provide a nice, crisp experience. Putting your own tap water in that spectrum helps situate where your water source is, and thus helping you figure out the most important ingredient in your teamaking other than the leaves. It’s a useful exercise and something that I recommend everyone to do every so often.

Water temperature

I was just in the US for a few days for a quick conference trip, and had to endure a few days of subpar tea. I did bring my own – some tuo that I found recently that’s rather decent. These days, nice hotels generally have better coffee makers than they did of old. Whereas the old drip coffee machines mean that your water will have to pass through not only the area where the coffee goes, but also into the glass pot where anything going in will start tasting/smelling like coffee, the new ones tend to be done with a construction such that, if you were to remove the coffee element, water will directly pour into your cup. This means, among other things, that there’s no more need to really try to eliminate the coffee smell before you can use them for tea. So thankfully, tea in my room was mercifully ok.

The same, surprisingly, cannot be said for the airport lounge. The coffee machine they have is a fully automatic thing that has a hot water dispensing tap that spits out water with the push of a button. This tap, however, is problematic – the water is too cool. I suspect it comes out at something like 80-85 degrees, and the tea simply doesn’t brew properly in those temperatures. Whereas my tea at the hotel was decent tasting – more or less like the real thing when I brew it at home – the same tea brewed at the lounge in a pre-warmed coffee mug tastes like coloured water. Worse, the tea never really expanded/broke apart. The two chunks of tea stayed quite chunky for a very long time. It was only after maybe the 5th or 6th time I added water to the cup when it finally started to come apart, and it was only then when the tea started tasting a bit stronger. In other words, the water was not hot enough.

This is why when you have a vendor telling you to brew younger puerh at anything under 100 degrees, especially if they tell you to use water much cooler, what you’re getting is a very different experience from what you would get if you go at it with hot water. The effect of cooler water is a lower extraction rate from the tea, and it also opens up the leaves slower. It means that for teas like puerh, you’re not getting everything out of it at once. This does decrease the amount of bitterness and roughness that you might get from the leaves, but it also means you’re not really tasting everything you can.

For teas that you’re trying to evaluate whether or not is age-worthy, this approach can be problematic. If you brew your tea purely for currently enjoyment, then by all means, do whatever you like. If you want it with olive oil and cinnamon, do that. However, I do find that if the roughness or the bitterness is too much, a better way of avoiding/managing them is shorten the infusion time or lower the amount of tea leaves used. Lowering temperatures often diminishes the overall experience – most importantly in the mouthfeel of the tea, making it thinner and lighter. The tea at the airport was definitely a sub-par experience – one that I think makes the tuo come off as weak and boring. I rarely use warm, rather than hot, water to brew tea, so it is good, sometimes, to be reminded of what is possible, and what others may do to a tea. This can also explain the range of experiences that you often see when talking about the same tea – the variables are too many and so comparisons are, oftentimes, at best suggestive.

The importance of water

Water is a subject that I talk about from time to time, but it is very easy to get caught up in all the myriad discussions about this tea and that tea that you forget just how important water is to your tea drinking experience.The past two days I went to a local shop that just opened recently and which makes new pressings of Yiwu cakes. I like their stuff, and the quality is there. They are also a bit more traditional in their processing, so that the taste is not the high and floral stuff that you often find on the market today. In our conversation, we talked about old teas, and I also drank some old teas with them, including the remnants of a Fuyuanchang Hao from early 20th century. So, in the spirit of sharing, I brought with me some of my aged oolongs on the second day for them to try, since the owner is unfamiliar with a lot of them.

Well, trouble started when we began with an aged baozhong of mine that I know very well, and which yields a pleasant, sweet, and alluring cup. The problem is, that wasn’t really evident at all. Instead, we got a thin, barely there taste with a crisp but weak mouthfeel and only some notes of high aroma. This is not the tea I know – which is why it’s useful to get well acquainted with a tea. Granted, he didn’t use much leaves, but clearly, it was the water.

As I’ve mentioned multiple times before, water is the most cost effective way to make your tea better. So, I went downstairs to the local 7-Eleven, picked up a big bottle of Volvic, and mixed it in the current kettle and used that instead. The improvements are instant and immediate. It explains, also, why the old tea I had on the first day was a bit thin and boring. Turns out they’ve been using tap water, filtered with bamboo charcoal and then just boiled in your typical Kamjove boiler. They know it’s no good – but as a newly opened store, they have to make do with the water for now until they can come up with a better solution, since hauling water from local springs is a really hard thing to do, especially if you don’t have a car. As it is, however, the water is destroying the tea.

The really interesting thing is that I also use tap water, except these days I don’t even bother to filter it and simply boil it in my tetsubin. I think the difference in what I tasted between his brewing and my brewing is mainly down to the tetsubin and the filtering – you can get all paranoid about your water source and how it might contain harmful stuff if you don’t filter it, but the fact is, in most cases the water source doesn’t contain these heavy metals that your filter is built for, but they do take out all kinds of other things that make your tea better. I remember visiting a friend’s place here that used a pretty heavy duty filtration system, and the resulting tea is also thin, weak, and boring. If you’re a frequent drinker of lighter greens, it might work. For everything else, it’s probably a bad idea.

Buying good bottled water (not all are created equal) is probably one of the possible answers, but it’s probably not a great answer. Environmental concerns aside, it’s expensive, it comes in plastic that in some cases leech smell and taste, and it’s bulky. It’s useful in a pinch, but not a long term solution.

They do serve as a useful benchmark though. I like Volvic and Vittel, and for lighter teas, Iceland Spring, which also happens to be a really tasty water just for drinking purposes. Do water taste tests – pour four or five glasses of different waters, including your normal tea water post boil, and taste them as if your life depended on it. You will find that they’re different, and in some cases, your water may contain some really unsavoury tastes and smells. The body of the water will also be different, if you get water with varying levels of total dissolved solids. Use them then to brew the same tea – a tea you know very well. Try it, and you will find the tea you usually drink will taste different in some way. Include a distilled water in the sampling, so you can see how terrible it really is. Your tea with distilled water will be thin and sour.

It makes me think that perhaps more conscientious vendors can make water suggestions, but that might also get too complicated and drive people away. The fact is, water makes a huge difference, and not enough people pay attention to it. Every so often, you’re reminded that it’s important, but then it fades from memory and the cycle repeats itself.

Variety is the spice of life

Many of us drink different teas every day, or even within each day, to keep it interesting.  Drinking the same tea, day in, day out, can get tedious, no matter how great the tea is.  I also find that tastebuds can sometimes go dull if drinking the same tea too many times.  Instead of just varying the leaves being brewed, however, there are many other things that you can do to change the way a tea tastes and how it appears to you.  Obviously, brewing method is a big one – a little leaf in a big bowl is going to taste very different from a lot of leaves in a little pot, but one that I think people tend to ignore is water.

I’ve talked about water many times before, and I think one of the key points I have tried to make over the years is that different water suit different teas, adjusted for different styles of brewing.  There are, I think, some general rules of what water is better for what kind of tea than others, but when it comes down to it, you have to find the right water for what you want from the tea.

Having said that, it is always interesting to change water sometimes just to give yourself a sense of what different water will do to a tea that you’re really familiar with, or for me yesterday, what the different water did to a tea that I was drinking earlier in the day.

My usual water here in Maine is from municipal sources, and from what I understand, water around here is pumped from underground.  The mineral content is high – the highest I’ve seen from municipal sources that I personally have experience with.  It’s the first water that leaves obvious, visible mineral deposits on everything I use from kettle to pots.  It is also heavy in taste, and when unfiltered, has a nasty sharpness to it that precludes enjoyable drinking.  There’s also a slight amount of saltiness in the water.

My tap water actually works rather well with most of the teas I drink – heavier teas, such as puerh and roasted or aged oolongs.  It’s really quite terrible for greens and light oolongs, but I rarely drink those anyway, so it’s not a real problem.  Yesterday, though, when I was shopping at our local organic food store, I saw that they had Iceland Spring on sale.  This is a water that I love – crisp, clean, refreshing, very tasty, and not too expensive.  So I got two bottles and intend to drink some tea with it.  It has low total dissolved solids, and you can taste the difference (note: I am not saying low total dissolved solids is good, but it’s different and it does what it does).

The tea I was having yesterday was a taobao purchase of a Yiwu cake from about 05 or 06.  It was one of many taobao lottery I purchased a while back.  I tried this cake once before, but wasn’t too impressed.  As I drank it yesterday first with the tap water, it seemed to have improved.  I came home with the Iceland Spring, and boiled the second kettle of water to use as a continuation of the initial brewing.  The tea changed – not just because it was weaker after a full kettle worth of tea, but also because the water changed.  You can think of a tea’s progression through infusions as being on a curve of sorts, and in this case, changing the water led to a break in that curve.  The tone of the tea lightened up, both in terms of the physical colour, and also the body, which is pretty consistent with my findings from previous experiments.  What’s gained though is a depth in fragrance that was rather muted with my tap water.  That took more of a center stage when I brewed it with the Iceland Spring, which gave it a nice, crispness that enhanced or at least brought attention to the fragrance of the tea.

This brings me back to my original point, which is that the water you should use depends on the tea you want.  A water that works for you is the best water for the tea.  It doesn’t really matter if it’s tap, spring, well, river, or rain – if it works for you, it works.  Now, on balance, I think some water types work better with some tea types, and I think there are generally broad agreements as to what water is better than others (distilled bad, spring good).  I also think that the only way of finding out, given all the variables there are in tea brewing, is to try it out yourself.  Using different sources, buying different kinds of bottled water, and comparing the results is really the only way you can find out if what you normally use is good or not for what you drink.  After all, water is the cheapest way to improve your tea.

Another thing that is very underrated but I think very important is to just try the water itself, in comparison with each other.  This is very easy and cheap to do.  Go find four or five different water sources, pour them into identical glasses, and drink.  Don’t just gulp, but drink like you’re drinking tea – taste it, feel it, and pay attention to it.  Water is actually quite interesting to drink on its own, and can taste great.  You don’t need abominations like this to make drinking water fun.

Silver revelation

Today I drank a sample that I got recently, without any real labels or anything.  All I can remember (and discern) is that it’s some sort of an aged oolong — not really aged, just a few years under its belt, with a little sourness in the smell and that characteristic aged smell.  I brewed it up normally, did not think much of it — seems a little hollow, and one note, but not particularly interesting.  I brewed two kettle worth of water with it, and decided to basically call it a day.

Then, late night, I thought I wanted some more tea, but adhering to my one-tea-a-day rule, I had to just boil more water for my tea, instead of using new leaves.  For some reason, I picked up my silver kettle instead of my usual tetsubin for the water.  In the water goes, out comes the tea…. and the tea seems to have gained new life.  All of a sudden, the taste is richer, with a fuller body and a deeper penetration into the back of the mouth and the throat area.  The high note, which was already present in the original brewing, is now really obvious, but has undertones to support it so that the tea is not bland and hollow anymore.  All in all, the tea is now good, and I want more.

This of course confirms what I already know, but sometimes forget – silver tends to be better for the teas with lighter notes.  Sometimes, when faced with teas like aged oolongs, it’s not always easy to tell what’s going to happen, and experimentation is necessary.  Now I wonder if I should go back and test some other recent teas with the silver kettle, which, until today, has been neglected in the back of my teaware cabinets.  I think it’s time to work on water again.

Chlorine in water

The water here is heavily chlorinated.  Apparently, my town gets its water supply from wells, and in addition to being heavy on minerals, the processing of the water happens pretty close to where I live, and when I go to a restaurant  that serves unfiltered tap water, it comes out as bitter and nasty.  There is a very unpleasant taste to it, in addition to the chlorine that you can feel in the water that gives it a heavy, metallic taste.

Once filtered, the water comes out much better, at the very least it loses some of that nasty edge to the water.  The difference is not obvious to me, day in, day out, since I never drink the water unfiltered (so the only time I notice it is when I have to go somewhere and drink the tap water).  The thing is, when I tried to make tea for my class last semester, the students were able to pick up on the bitterness in one of the tea.  Knowing that tea, it has nothing to do with the tea itself — it’s the water that’s making the tea taste sharp and bitter.

BBB recently talked about assumptions about new tea drinkers.  The thing that we tend to assume is that younger drinkers like the more floral, lighter stuff.  In fact, I’ve been treated that way before by many tea sellers who assume that of me as well.  The fact of the matter is very often a newcomer to tea can have a better handle on what stands out as the dominant taste/characteristics of a tea.  If it’s bitter, they’ll tell you it’s bitter.

I always think it’s important to show newer drinkers of tea the difference in taste that different water can have.  Considering there are only two ingredients in making tea, there are few things more important than that.  As I’ve said before, changing your water is often the best, fastest, and cheapest way to improve your tea.

Chlorine

I made some tea for class the other day, a Shuixian and an aged oolong.  I was trying to explain how Chinese have basically “invented” this new style of tea making that really has little historical basis, but is now widely viewed as “traditional Chinese tea ceremony” when nothing can be further from the truth.  What struck me though during the brewing is how different the tea tastes.  The Shuixian was subdued, without much of its natural aroma, while the aged oolong came out a bit bitter, rough, and not sweet at all like I know it to be.  I used all my regular equipment.  What’s wrong?

Water

Specifically, the chlorine in the water.  Bringing a water filter to class and then waiting for it to filter through is really not an option, so tap water, instead, has to be used.  Maine tap water, for some reason, is really, really chlorinated.  When I turn on the tap here I can smell the chlorine.  When I boil it unfiltered, I can also smell the chlorine.  In fact, when I opened my tetsubin after that class, I could smell it in my tetsubin.  Disgusting.

School’s only two minutes away from where I live, so I am pretty certain we get the same water supply.  There’s no other vairable involved.  It has to be the chlorine (and whatever else is in the water, but most likely just that).  If you ever need proof that filtered water is necessary for a good cup of tea, this is probably it.  Bottled water, on the other hand, is a completely separate discussion.

The result

The experiment, I must say, was not conclusive. Of course, that’s probably predictable right from the get go — almost no tea experiment is conclusive. However…. having tried pouring my water quite hard and fast today, I must say that it seems as though the tea came out a little more sour, and a little more bitter, without as much aroma…

Could it be that different?

Well, I think there are a few things that a high, slow pour will do, some of which have been mentioned by comments in yesterday’s post. The first is, of course, temperature — a higher pour means the water is ever so slightly colder. Also, the water is in touch with tea a little longer — of course you can time yourself so that your fast pour stays in the pot just as long, but the combination of slightly lower temperatures and longer time… might be interesting.

There’s something else too. If you pour harder, it distrubs the leaves and potentially change the way the tea brews. When I prepare a pot for tea, I always shake the pot a little so that it settles down — the leaves will be more tightly packed. When I do the slow pour, the leaves move very, very little. If you move the leaves around, it changes the tea — I think anybody knows that. So, the movement might also have something to do with it.

Of course, all this might be placebo and I’m just kidding myself. Blind test might be better, but that’s quite hard to achieve….

How to pour water

Another topic that came up during my conversations with Sherab is pouring water into the pot. Think it doesn’t matter?

Well… the story he told me is like this

A certain famous tea master, who shall remain nameless, was brewing tea for a few people somewhere in China. Sherab has a friend who went. Two teas were made. The first was a wet stored cooked puerh, and it tasted like crap. The tea supposedly gave off the “locking the throat” feeling, where one feels as though the throat is closing up and is often attributed by mainland Chinese as a sign of wet storage — a bad side effect, so to speak. The second tea, which, while not specified (to me) I assume is also of a similar genre, had no such effect. Second tea is better, no?

Well… not quite. Apparently, when the master made the first tea, he poured water from up high and in a rather violent fashion, so the water hit the pot hard. The second tea he didn’t do that. Afterwards, as Sherab’s friend knows said master, he went and asked. Master said, “when you do that (high and fast pouring) with wet stored cooked puerh, you will always produce the “locked throat” effect”. Pray, tell, why would a venerable tea master do such a thing so that a tea will come out tasting worse? Well, I’m sure you all, my intelligent readers, must know the answer, and it involves profit, if you need a hint.

The fact that most tea masters out there have a profit motive is not something you need me to tell you. However, the significant part of this story is the pouring – how do you pour water into the pot affects the way the tea tastes. I remember, very early on in my own tea career, I was told that when making oolongs, one should pour from high up, in a small stream, gently, and slowly. Puerh, on the other hand, should be treated with a stronger stream, but NOT high up — pour low. When pouring from pot/fairness cup into the cups, ALWAYS pour low — don’t splash around like some bad youtube videos do.

Over time, I must say I’ve gotten sloppy with my water pouring technique. It’s easy to get lazy, but I decided to try that out again today. I pulled out my aged baozhong, a tea I know pretty well, and one of my pots, and made sure that whenever I made that tea, I poured in a small stream from up high. The result? My tea seems to be a little less sour, and a little smoother. I’m going to try tomorrow, with the exact same wares, but with a different water pouring style. Let’s see what happens, and of course, I’ll report back.