Quickie, Tea Knowledge, Tea Thoughts

DISPELLING TEA MYTHS

Tea is a journey with no end. The more that you learn theoretically or sensorially, the more that you realise how little you know. This is something to be celebrated and not a cause for frustration. It means that tea is a passion that will last a lifetime.

Tea studying

Cup and notebook

Whenever someone is bitten by the tea bug they become voracious to learn, to understand, to know tea. How are they processed? How can I judge quality? How do I brew the perfect cup? The list of questions seems endless and people search for black and white answers. I myself have spent the past 10 years immersed in tea for my business, trying to unlock all of the answers to these questions. I have spent weeks visiting tea farmers around Asia, watching them, questioning them. I have worked alongside universities helping them to do research in tea. I have read the information (often misinformation) in as many tea resources as possible. The overriding common denominator in tea is this – there are no black and white answers.

At first this was infuriating. When I gave tea workshops I used to want to give my guests clear answers to any question. But the more I understood tea, the more I realised that this was impossible. To a farmer or a tea master in China this caused no bother, in fact they used to laugh at my maniacal and perhaps Western method of pinning one version of truth onto every aspect of tea. Over the years though I have begun to appreciate that the contradictions and shades of grey is what makes tea so engaging and personal.

A few months ago I attended the World Tea Expo in LA and was disturbed by a trend which pervaded the workshops and many of the stalls. There was an obsession to create fixed rules about tea. Sometimes it was disguised as quality standardisation, others were using it to sell courses in becoming a tea sommelier, and some simply to try to sell more tea. Of course it is important to understand the general principles of tea before exploring the exceptions to the rules but the message was always the same – ‘this is the singular truth about x’.

So I thought I would take a look at a few of these myopic rules and dispel them for you.

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1. YOU MUST BREW LIKE THIS OTHERWISE YOU ARE AN AMATEUR

If there is anything that should be learnt by looking through tea history, it is this: there are many ways to brew tea. From the origins of powdered tea to the recent advent of cold brewed tea, every culture and age has brewed tea differently.

I encourage all of our clients to learn to brew according to the specifics of the leaf and the culture in which it was produced. The easiest way to do this is to follow the tea farmers who have been brewing that one type of tea for generations. However, this is simply a starting point for experimentation and personalisation.

Let’s take an example of Fujian white tea. If you find yourself with a high quality Bai Mu Dan, traditional knowledge would say that you should use water at about 85-90 degrees (175 to 190 Fahrenheit) to avoid the tea releasing excessive bitterness. I have sat with white tea obsessives in China and watched them pouring rolling boil water over their leaves – an act that would have received universal derision by the tea expo community. But it is not right or wrong – it is simply a matter of taste.

The beautiful thing about becoming an expert in brewing is that you can control the flavour and texture of tea. You can produce different cups of tea from the same leaves by altering the temperature, timing, qty of leaves, material of brewing pot etc. Tea should always be personal. Some days you fancy a more astringent or bitter finish, sometimes you want softness and lightness. If you are open to learn then you can become adept at teasing out different flavours depending on your mood. If you stick to set rules then you miss out on this experience and you will always brew one dimensionally.

When I asked my friend in China what he thought about always brewing Bai Mu Dan with cooler water he simply said ‘Sometimes I feel that the tea tastes lonely without some bitterness‘. I think that says it all really.

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Bai Mu Dan brewed with boiling water

2. THIS TEA HAS TO BE FROM X

Origin of tea is fundamentally important. Aspects of terroirs are probably the most defining factors to tea quality. However, tea should ultimately be judged according to the senses and not by rules of origin.

For example, Imperial Green (Long Jing / Dragonwell) should supposedly be sourced from West Lake area of Zhejiang province as this has traditionally been the perfect terroirs for this tea. However, this area is not the same as it was hundreds of years ago – with demand comes comes over farming and pollution. There are a few fields that are protected enough to maintain their quality but much of West Lake tea has become lower grade commodity tea to satisfy the branding ‘West Lake Tea’. The same is true of Frozen Summit Oolong (Dong Ding) which traditionally should be sourced from Dong Ding mountain but the tea has dramatically dropped in quality.

So tea sellers and customers who blindly follow the rules are paying premium for lower grade tea simply for the status of origin. A brave tea seller will select tea according to their blind tastings no matter where the origin. I select my Dong Ding from Alishan mountain for example. My Imperial Green is from Lions Peak in West Lake (one of the most protected fields with no pollution) but I source wild growing Imperial Green too as part of our limited edition range. The aim is for clients to trust in our sourcing and to be paying for superb tea and NOT for the label of origin.

The way to judge tea is through the senses

The way to judge tea is through the senses

3. THE BEST PU ERH IS AGED

Young PuErh is absolutely delicious. In fact, in Yunnan, fresh PuErh commands a higher price than tea that has been aged a few years. The quality of the tea is very high immediately after processing and quickly drops within the first 6 months before regaining value after at least 5-10 years of ageing.

Those that follow the nonsense rules and blindly look for aged tea are missing out on the delights of young PuErh and most probably will be drinking 1-5 year old tea that is at its worst.

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Freshly picked PuErh being heated

So these are a few tea myths to dispel. There are plenty more so if you have any others then please post them in the comments.

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8 thoughts on “DISPELLING TEA MYTHS

  1. Moonmoon saha says:

    Hello…DonMeii….
    This comment is just for you… You have written about tea so beautifully that it touched my soul …. Keep it up .
    Tea itself is just wonderful.. Beyond any praises… Words fall short for its praises… But you have enhanced it more & done great justice to its existence …. in your writing.
    Iam a tea fan ..& you are more than me as a fan for tea…. Great… Keep it up

    Like

  2. Maria Clelia Cereigido says:

    Don Mei..THANKS!!!..it was a joy to find this blog and Chinalife youtube to have this incredible class about Tea!…l am an Argentine women living in Indonesia,and some years ago and just by casualty and never ending curiosity,l entry in Tixing Xuan tea House in Singapore…l can say without exaggeration that this moment took me to another level in my whole perceptions…and that was a cup of Beauty of the East Oolong that went deep into my soul! this perfume first that catch me,and then the taste…wow,really a new pleasure…and l keep the addiction of course…!
    In addition to the joy l find here to keep learning about tea,l would like to send a picture from some Chinese object that l make,but from here is not possible…sorry l am a Latin person and l have not very “formal” approach with anythings,just suddenly this association come to my mind…some another address to send it??thanks!!Clelia

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  3. Oxana says:

    Hello Don,
    Thanks a lot for your amazing videos! I am Russian, living in France. I have been studying in the Paris Tea School for a while. I’m really passionate about tea and I appreciate your elegant approach to the delicate art of tasting tea. Are you planning to set up some tea trainings programs this summer? I would be most interested to attend.

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    • donmei says:

      Hi Oxana,
      Thank you for watching and for your comments. At present we have no plans to have any formal training programs. We have workshops which are an introduction to tea which we do every month but I think this will be knowledge that you already know so not particularly useful for you. We have more masterclasses planned for YouTube though so keep watching and if you sign up to our newsletter at http://www.chinalifeweb.com/email-updates then you will be emailed if we are planning other training workshops.

      Don

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  4. Boris M says:

    Your blog and videos, and this piece in particular, is such a breath of fresh air. Tea itself is easy to love, but tea culture can be toxic thanks to the snobs and dogmatists that infest most online communities. I hope more newbies find you than fall into their clutches. It’s hard to watch. Bless you for sharing your knowledge, Will be sure to visit the shop when I’m in London.

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