25 June 2008

Tea isn't fast food

My first exposure to gourmet tea delighted me, and my efforts to duplicate that experience frustrated me. Quickly I realized that not only did I find a myriad of different teas coming from a dozen different locations, but no two teas sharing the same name were entirely alike. Making the same tea twice never produces the same result in the cup, owed to a tangled mess of factors including varying water hardnesses, water temperature, storage conditions, ambient temperature, tea equipment, pouring styles, steep times, and incidental leaf quality, amongst many others. One characteristic makes tea simultaneously exasperating and fascinating: tea is difficult.

"Learning" tea--learning to identify tea, select tea, use teaware, brew tea--takes patience, time, and care. This learning process takes shape mostly through trial and error, which solidify into some tea truths for the individual brewer. For example, early in my tea path I purchased my first oolong, a tie guan yin, and it delighted me. I finished off all I had in a week. Wanting more, I bought another tie guan yin, expecting equally delicious results. While enjoyable, the second tie guan yin was so different from the first, I could hardly believe they shared the same name: their tastes and aromas were different, one flowery and the other vegetal, and though when dry their leaves appeared identical, when brewed one had tender deep green leaves and the other leathery yellow-green leaves. Worse, I soon discovered that just because some tea claims to be something, doesn't mean it's true. In all likelihood, the first tea was tie guan yin, and the second was its poor substitute, ben shan.

When I approached forums and chatrooms with this dilemma, "Why does this tie guan yin taste vegetal?" I received diverse advice and commentary. Some people advised me to adjust my brewing parameters: use less leaf, lower temperature, shorter steeps. Others advised the tea might have staled or was of low quality, and asked where I purchased it and how I had stored it. The answer, obviously, was complicated, prompting me to research online. There were several dozen tie guan yin teas for sale online. Some vendors put tie guan yin with green tea, some said oolong tea was "between green and black tea", others identified it without reference to green or black tea but within its own category. Tie guan yin was heavily roasted, medium roasted, light roasted. It was from Anxi, Zhejiang, Guangdong, and rarely in Taiwan. It could be fresh, slightly stale, or it could be aged. More confusion: China, Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia all had their own fist-shaped oolongs, and within these countries more than one varietal of fist oolong (tie guan yin, ben shan, huang jin gui, fo shou, mao xie, etc.) could be grown.

Each vendor offered different brewing instructions, no two entirely alike. I absorbed what I could from the various sources and tweaked my approach in various ways until I could manipulate the tea into something I enjoyed more. Eventually, I bought better tie guan yin and made the vegetal stuff into iced tea adding a drop of orange blossom water for palatability.

Playing around with oolong parameters is a lot of fun. Learning about oolong's complexity is interesting and rewarding: frustrating, but worth it.

This confusing, often contradictory information, although it didn't fix that mediocre oolong, did bring a diversity of opinion prompting questions that ultimately helped me when identifying and brewing other teas. I changed my approach, and noted the results. Moreover, as more vendors' teas went into my cup, the "truth" of tea fractured further: vendors present a truth about tea with at least some "spin" to raise the consumer value of their teas. They present information to sell their teas as authentic, well crafted, and well stored. And who can blame them? The job of marketing any product is to increase its consumer value, and if they do so with anecdotal information about the tea or general information about the tea genre, they add to the knowledge of tea available to consumers. However, they often use catchphrases like "traditional production" and "proper storage" with a strong sell of assurance that implies consumers should doubt other vendors: you can trust our tea.

The worst example of this came from a vendor whose teas have never impressed me, but who carries teaware I've liked. At the World Tea Expo, one of their high level employees, talking about their pu'er, said it was from a mountain without roads, which ensured that the tea was from the old trees on said mountain. He warned that many villagers on other mountains were trucking in low elevation pu'er and pu'er processed from green and black tea varietals to sell at the same premium price of the real mountain mao cha. When I explained that the cakes I produced came from a minority family on Nannuo who I saw picking the tea they then processed into mao cha before my eyes, he had the (ludicrous) balls to say I had probably been taken advantage of in the manner he warned about. I shrugged it off, thinking to myself that it's just as easy to carry bags of maocha on motorcycles to any village on any mountain, and unless either one of us supervised the production from start to finish, neither of us could claim 100% security in our tea.

I mention this because it illustrates part of the problem in answering the question, "How do you pick pu'er that will age well?" An esoteric tea from an area considered a marginal region by the dynasties and even the PRC itself, we know little about pu'er, and what we know we know without certainty. The significant factor of security stands in addition to other significant unanswered questions surrounding pu'er and aging: the effect of varietal, the effect of new production methods, blended region cakes versus single mountain cakes versus single estate cakes. We don't even know what flavors to look for, nor how we should weight flavor when considering pu'er for purchase.

When someone asked, "what should I look for in an ageable pu'er?" I had a different answer last year than I did the year before, and so on. Today, I explain that there are many theories, that the answer is unclear, and that people should experiment for themselves and read as much as they can. I might have said, "long aftertaste, feeling lingering in the throat, whole leaves, if it's bitter it should be after you swallow, it shouldn't taste like green tea or oolong too much, it should make you feel something (qi), little to no huang pian, not too smoky, and it should preferably be from older trees in Xishuangbanna or Simao counties." But, we have decent old tea from Vietnam, and we know Thai leaf has been used in the past. Traditional minority productions used to occur entirely indoors around wood-fired woks and were usually very smoky, but seemed to age fine. I've had tea "golden age" and "classic era" pu'ers with huang pian that had wonderful flavor and mouthfeel. I've tasted machine-pressed cakes from the 70s that satisfied me despite their broken leaves and machine compression. So, ask again, "What makes a good pu'er to age?" I shrug. We don't know. I won't go into storage conditions and approaches; suffice it to say that the factors are numerous.

But we speculate. We try teas and describe their flavors, mouthfeels, energies, tenacities. We take pictures. It's fun. I relish thinking about my own stock and what it will yield in the future, and I speculate in writing on this blog with nearly every young pu'er I try. But every speculation has a caveat. I don't really know. Neither does anyone else, no matter what they claim. Frustrating that such an important issue remains largely subjectified--but still very fun.

For all these reasons, because "knowledge" of tea often largely is opinion, an open mind and the allowance for growth and change is necessary for tea. Someone once told me--over cups of tea, actually--that learning can't happen unless you allow that there's something beyond your current knowledge. It was humbling to hear, but good for me. I look forward to changing my mind.



Brent said...

Great post; you make a lot of good (and convincing) points, and your message resonates with me.

Sometimes I wonder if people give aging advice just because they want to say *something*, not wanting their "nobody knows" advice to be interpreted as "I don't know." Of course, people have their theories, and these are fine to share, but there's a difference between sharing a theory and teaching them as doctrine.

I appreciated your rant, haha.


~ Phyll said...

Wonderful insights...thanks.

"Someone once told me--over cups of tea, actually--that learning can't happen unless you allow that there's something beyond your current knowledge."

Reminded me of a Chinese / Buddhist cliché that talks about not ever letting your own teacup be full...