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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.