I made this discovery during my first tea classes with Teaparker. When we, the then unexperienced students, brewed an Oolong tea, it would either taste weak, bitter, astringent... But when Teaparker brewed the same tea, it would always taste great, sweet and smooth. No matter how expensive or cheap the tea was. One day, he even showed us how to brew a Lipton tea bag: Pre-heat the cup, fill it with hot water, then carefully let the tea bag in the water and swing it in the water with the string. After a while, the tea is released in the cup (easy to see with a white cup). Take the bag out. Let it drop a little, but don't squeeze it. The result was much better than when you forget your teabag in the cup.
Tea brewing skills matter a lot when preparing tea. There are so many parameters that influence tea. And most teas are so sensitive that any variation will have an impact on the brew. Oolong is a particulary good, sensitive tea to learn how to brew tea by experiencing the effect of changing parameters. And since you don't have to flake it (like puerh), it's easier to brew repeatedly with the same tea and have a good basis of comparison.
A good way to know how much your gongfu cha skills add to your tea is to compare the tea you brew with the same tea brewed in a standard way. Professionals in tea competitions use always one standard way to brew all their teas: a white tasting set, just boiled water, 3 grams of tea and 5 minutes brewing time. (Some people have slightly different parameters, but what is important is that they don't change them). Tea buyers and judges use this standard way not just to give all teas a level playing ground, but also to see how they perform under the stress of a prolonged brewing time. One of the ideas is that if a tea is good after such a long brew, it is likely to be good under most circumstances, provided the person brewing tea has a minimum of tea skills. The other idea is to brew a cup where (almost) all the flavors of the leaves are released. So, the evaluator can quickly smell and taste everything the tea contains, the good and the bad.
What comes out in your cup of tea depends on your brewing skills. Did you understand how the tea is brewed best? What water to use? Which teapot? Which temperature? How many grams? How long? How quick to pour the water in the pot? How quick to pour the tea out?... Each tea is different and will be best in when brewed in a particular way. And remember, gongfu cha doesn't mean brewing tea for just a few seconds and then increasing the infusion time with each brew. Some of the best teas will actually perform better when brewed long.
In this blog, I try to give you as many tricks as possible to help you improve your skills. I don't have all the answers and don't always make a perfect cup either. But I have seen the 'magic of gongfu cha'. Skills matter. Even how steady one pours the boiling water in the teapot matters.
For this reason, I think it would be best if we separate our tea tasting experience in 2:
1. Testing the tea. Find out how good it is by using standard brewing parameters. Be critical with the tea, find all its faults.
2. Enjoying the tea. Get the most out the tea by adapting the parameters to each tea. Be critical with yourself and learn from your mistakes.
In most tea tasting notes on the web, I see that tea bloggers tend to mix both. They give an assessment of the tea, but actually, they have used their own gongfu cha technique to brew the leaves... I think that you understand now why this kind of tasting note is somehow 'skewed', even though the taster is completely independent and unbiased. I hope I'm not upsetting any of my tea blogging friends with this statement. I just wanted to help you make better, unbiased tasting notes and also improve your tea brewing skills.
(NB: In most of my tasting notes that I write about the teas in my selection, I describe my teas after a standard, 5 minutes brew. Exceptions are for older posts.)