Monday, August 13, 2007

There are no bad teas, just bad ways to prepare them!

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.)

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

Bonjour Stéphane

Comme promis je te fais part de ma dégustation du second thé de ton 1er envoi.
Après le fleur de lys d’automne 2006 :

Le Baozong de Wen Shan 1976

5 gr – Théière 16 cl zhuni, eau de source sans nitrate st amand à 95°. Les 3 premières infusions 30 secondes, les 3 autres 1mn et jusqu’à 8mn pour la dernière.

Les feuilles sèches sont noires, bronzes, longue et tortillées, elles ont un parfum de raisin sec
Et de fruit confit.

L’infusion a un nez de raisin sec, fruits secs peut être de la noisette, un peu de fumé, très léger, pâtisserie à la confiture et de la réglisse. Elle a une couleur marron-bronze.

Le goût est légèrement sucré et astringent discret, un peu de boisé en fin de bouche avec du fumé. Petite impression de sec

La tasse vide sent le fruit sec confit toujours.

La 3ème infusion me rappelle la noix fraîche plutôt que les fruits secs.

La 8ème il y a du raisin et du fumé très atténués et est plus végétale, mais c’est encore très bon.

Thé magnifique qui me comble quand il fait froid ou humide comme c’est le cas
dans le Toulousains cet été. Le parfum des feuilles sèches dans la Yixing brûlante avant
de verser l’eau est ce qu’il y a de plus incroyable dans les Baozong , je pense que c’est là
où un thé de haute qualité se démarque d’un thé de masse. C’est un parfum appétissant, on dirait que ce n’est pas un thé que l’on va déguster mais des gâteaux, des cookies moelleux aux raisins sec et aux noix, dingue !! ……………… on grossit par le nez, merci Stéphane.

Comme tu peux le voir mon approche du thé est gourmande et me prépare à la table, « Un bon thé, une bonne table, un beau paysage, des bons copains, cela suffit à l’homme, plus ce n’est que vanité » On peut mettre ce qu’on veux dans ce proverbe Malais selon sont goût et son humeur.

A bientôt

Bernard

Julian said...

Hey Stephane

Another great post from you - thank you so much for taking the efforts to educate us.

:)

I have been sampling Anxi TGY recently and would like to clarify on your "standard" tasting parameters.

Professional sampling set tends to use a 5 ounce cup of about 140 millimeters.

With your 3 grams leaves, it will have a tea to water ratio of about 50.

The usual recommendation for oolong tea is about 30.

But 5 minutes boiling seems to be on the long side for the first infusion - so the two factors should offset somewhat.

Albeit an average tea will perhaps come out more bitter or astringent than usual using the 'standard' brewing, but a higher end tea will have some chances to shine?

Would your comment also apply to a delicate Chinese green tea?

pierre-antoine said...

je suis entierement d'accord avec toi, Stéfane en ce qui concerne la façon de "juger" les thés...
un des parametres les plus important reste la subjectivité du testeur, et il me semble qu'elle intervient (interfère?) d'autant plus lors d'un gung fu cha que lors d'un test standart...c'est même en partie ce que l'on recherche lors d'un gung fu, non?...

Stephane said...

Merci Bernard pour ton commentaire.

Julian,
3 gr for 5 minutes is a standard I use for puerh. For Oolong and Baozhong, my standard is 4 grams for 5 minutes. My tasting cup fills approx. 12 cl. Puerh is more concentrated in flavors than Oolong. That's why I use fewer grams.
For greens I use also 4 grams, like for Oolong. But I don't taste them often. So, most important is that you stick to one standard that you feel comfortable with.

Pierre-Antoine,
Oui. Entièrement d'accord. Il y avait un bon article sur Chadao sur l'impact de ce qu'on attend. Rien que le fait de penser que le thé est bon va améliorer notre perception de ce thé. C'est pourquoi, dans un gongfu cha, le mieux est de se dire qu'il n'y a pas de mauvais thé, que même le thé le plus simple a quelque chose de beau à nous donner. A nous de savoir le trouver.
Comment trouver la patience et la concentration si on pense a priori que le thé qu'on va préparer est mauvais?

Julian said...

Stephane

Thanks for your response. So you too uses a ratio of 1 to 30 - that is really useful to know.

That seems really tough. The best oolong tea I have tasted will come out slightly bitter after a first infusion of 5 minutes, but better afterwards.

I would like to ask you a question about tea drinking and its effect on stomach. I know of a lot of people who would avoid drinking tea because they can't stand the acid.

Different teas have different impact, here are some of the heresays, which often contradicts each other.

* More concentrated tea is bad (i.e. oolong tea)

* More roasted tea is good (i.e. heavily oxidised oolong such as the Wuyi)

* Pu-erh is good

What is your view?

Julian

Hobbes said...

Salut, Stephane,

It's tempting to consider using standardised parameters, and I can see why the motivation is there to do so, but I cannot honestly see myself adopting them - tea is quite an organic activity for me, and my drinking is as much for personal pleasure and satisfaction as it is for tea evaluation. I know that this is, of course, the case for you too, but I suspect that if I start adopting standardised techniques, I won't get the same breadth or depth in the tea-tasting, simply because I have to switch into "tasting" mode, rather than my everyday "enjoyment" mode.

That said, I hope that the variance in our brewing parameters is not so significant that no value can be gleaned from reading someone else's tasting notes. In fact, I have learned a great deal from observing our various tea-writers' brewing parameters, often giving me something to consider when choosing my own.

So, a good idea - but probably not something I will jump into, in the short-term, anyway.


Best wishes, and toodlepip,

Hobbes

Stephane said...

Julian,

Again, let me emphasize that the standard gram and time I indicated is for my tea testing, when I brew my tea to understand its potential and limitations. But when I want to fully enjoy tea, there are no standards.

As for the impact on the stomach, more concentration means the tea is less like water (which is neutral to the stomach -if the pH is neutral). So yes, more concentration (more grams or longer brewing time) has a more potential to upset your stomach.

Roasting tea is like cooking food: the heat breaks down some molecules and make the food/tea easier to digest than something raw.

Puerh is a very concentrated tea. From that point of view, if we go to our first argument about concentration, it should have more 'upsetting potential'.

However, I would say it's difficult to generalize, because the intrinsic quality of the tea also plays a big role. Good teas are those raised, processed so that they have a benefic impact on your whole body.

Stephane said...

Hobbes,

Thanks for your comment.

H: 'tea is quite an organic activity for me, and my drinking is as much for personal pleasure and satisfaction as it is for tea evaluation.'

Completely agree with you. Pleasure and satisfaction are the goal. Evaluation is just a tool to select which tea is best so that I purchase the one that maximizes my pleasure.

H: 'I suspect that if I start adopting standardised techniques, I won't get the same breadth or depth in the tea-tasting, simply because I have to switch into "tasting" mode, rather than my everyday "enjoyment" mode.'

Agree. From the standardized technique you get prosaic information from the tea that can't match the mutli dimensional beauty of gongfu cha. But the idea is that the information you obtain from the standardized technique will help you better understand how best to brew the tea in a gongfu way.

Ideally, during the "enjoyment mode", we should enjoy each cup we brew. But since it doesn't always seem to be the case (according to what I read on your wonderful blog), I think it may also benefit you.

H: "That said, I hope that the variance in our brewing parameters is not so significant that no value can be gleaned from reading someone else's tasting notes."

Your tasting notes are actually quite useful, because the parameters you use are pretty much the same. I'm thinking of the Xizihao samples you tasted recently. Same pot, same weight, same brewer and roughly same infusion times. That's why the differences you get between the teas are quite reliable.

Best wishes and auf wiedersehen,

Stéphane

Julian said...

Stephane

Thanks for taking the time to reply :)

Julian