I have written before the similarities between wine and tea, but it is surprising how many words that we use to describe tea are borrowed from wine tasting, such as “softness” – low tannins in the case of wine, and no unwanted bitterness in tea.
Although this can be pretentious, this kind of terminology makes it easier to learn about indicators of quality and to learn to develop the palate to recognise different characteristics of wine and tea respectively and enjoy them more.
Tea tastings are quite similar to wine tastings, in that the aim is to observe the appearance, taste, aroma and finish.
The “finish” is the sensation that comes after swallowing. A good tea will make you salivate, returning a sweet flavour to the mouth, and will feel smooth on swallowing. I prefer teas that do not leave a sense of dryness when you drink them, although some people are not averse to that. “Complexity”, or exhibiting many different flavours is also desirable in both wines and teas. “Viscous” teas are often pleasant to drink and some teas have greater viscosity than others. This quality differs from tea to tea however, so a tea lacking viscosity is not necessarily bad.
In ageing tea as in wine, people will talk about particular years that produced good teas, and the characteristics of particular harvests, caused by the weather conditions of that season. Again, in a similar way to wine, you will hear people talking about how tea’s flavour and colour is affected by ageing. Tea gains complexity but also becomes more mellow.
A lot of individual flavour descriptors can also be the same such as “vegetal”: having flavours that resemble vegetables. “Floral” and “fruity” are terms that can be used in contrast.
Similarly, flavour wheels can be used with both wines and teas to try to describe flavours more precisely, from saying that a tea tastes floral, to saying that it tastes like jasmine.
This detailed way of describing teas derived from wine tasting does not seem to be so prevalent in East Asia, although our tea farmers will also describe teas as being too “rough”.
These terms can be fun to use, and useful in identifying flavours, if a little bit pompous. Ultimately, taste is quite subjective at the same time, so I would suggest not holding too tightly to flavour descriptors as being definitive.
The photo shows the same tea brewed with different waters. The cup on the left was brewed with tap water, and on the right with bottled water. Although I shall probably do a similar experiment in future to make sure, in this instance the bottled water performed slightly better than the tap water. The buttery and nutty aroma and taste of the tea was more pronounced whereas the tap water actually presented a subtle but unpleasant aftertaste. However, this did show that the water that you choose to brew tea with makes a difference.
The area where water comes from changes its taste. There are people who claim that all water tastes the same, or that all water is tasteless, but I find that when I go to different places, my tea tastes different, and as I brew it in the same way, the difference must come from the water. Some areas have harder and others softer water, and this affects the taste of tea. Surprisingly, soft water is actually not as preferable when it comes to tea. When I was in Vienna, I noticed that the water is very soft, which actually didn’t bring out the flavour of tea as well as water with a higher mineral content. However drinking the water on its own does taste very nice.
Some people recommend filtered water for tea. Filtered water tends to produce sharp tasting tea. I’ve come across the recommendation to blend together mineral water and filtered water, that while mineral water will give good flavour, the additional filtered water will keep the mineral sediment from affecting the kettle too much.
In Lu Yu’s Tea Classic, the oldest and most famous work on tea, written in the 1st century, it says that the best water for tea comes from a spring, and ideally flowing over stone, while the worst comes from a well, though a more frequently used well is better. River water meanwhile should come from the less used part of the river.
I recommend that while travelling, you take with you some tea that you know well, and see whether it tastes different, or alternatively, you could do a bit of an experiment with bottled waters as I did above.
Taiwan has a number of different tea competitions, that take place throughout the year,
90% of competitions in Taiwan are for oolong teas, but there are also competitions for black tea, such as the one in Yuchi, and for special Taiwanese teas such as Oriental Beauty and Muzha Tieguanyin. Competitions can have hundreds or even thousands of entrants.
The incentive for farmers to enter their teas for competitions is that their teas are more marketable for quality, and if they score highly, will allow them to sell their teas for several times the original price.
Competition winning teas are assured to be of high quality, as they have been tasted by experts who have verified that they are better than many other competitors. In addition, they preserve regional teas, tea culture, and traditional techniques.
The first major one of which was the Lugu Farmers’ Association Dong Ding Oolong Tea Competition, in 1976. It has since served as a template for other tea competitions around Taiwan.
How do they work?
Judges carefully evaluate and taste the tea entrants, for criteria such as dried leaf shape, brewed colour, brewed aroma, brewed flavour when hot and when cooled down, and brewed leaf shape.
Naturally, all teas have to be brewed using the same parameters: 3g of tea for 6 minutes in a 50ml cup, with the water at near boiling point. They are also given a code before judging so that the entries are anonymous and they are repackaged so that it is clear when resold that the tea was entered for competition.
Processing a tea for a competition is challenging, as the teas to either side of yours can influence the evaluation as the teas are judged against each other as well as according to criteria. In addition, the conditions of the day of competition will affect the nature of the tea, and have to be taken into account.
In stages, the tea is tasted by different judges and given different gradings, whose prices change accordingly.
Not trying to be cheeky, but if you would like to try a tea that was awarded a high grading in a competition, try our Honey Black Tea.
In a previous post, I described a technique for tea brewing that uses bowls and spoons.
This technique is used in Taiwan for tea evaluation and has many advantages:
the tea can be left for a long time while still drinking to see how bitterness comes in, and how the tea develops
several people can drink together at their own pace
one can observe the leaves very easily in an open and wide container
it is very convenient. There are other methods for evaluation such as competition brewing, but this is one way in which brewing can be roughly standardised to drink teas side by side.
brewing in bowls also cools the tea down very quickly. This could be a disadvantage as well depending.
I use gong fu drinking cups, as this is effectively a continuous gong fu session, as the tea is constantly brewing as it is drunk.
You can refill the bowls with more water as you wish.
To brew tea in bowls is excellent to compare and contrast flavours, aromas etc. The only drawback is that if one tea is drunk directly after another, the flavour that you already taste affects how the next is perceived. Perhaps a palate cleanser could help.
I do highly recommend this technique however for its ease and because it does help when comparing teas and is an easy way to test for bitterness and observe the leaves for their colour, shape and texture.
In tasting tea, every aspect of how the tea affects you is important, not only the aroma and flavour but also the texture of the tea, and how it affects you after drinking.
In order to effectively taste tea, it is important to brew it carefully. Although I enjoy drinking tea without brewing parameters, there are advantages to using them, including getting the best out of the tea, and being able to compare different teas. Brewing tea at different “strengths” can help to emphasise different aspects, and bring out good and bad points. As you become more experienced, you will become more sensitive to what makes good tea. This method is based heavily on Mei Leaf’s 10 step tea tasting.
This tells you about the processing, whether the leaves were machine picked or hand-picked. If they are in fragments, it can indicate that they were machine-picked. It also shows how heavily oxidised the tea is: the darker, the more heavily oxidised. A darker tea can also be a fermented tea or a roasted tea.
These leaves are black in colour as this is a fully oxidised and roasted black tea. The leaves are twisted and there are some smaller and some larger leaves. There appear not to be any buds. The leaves appear whole and you can see the odd stalk.
Warm the teapot and put in the leaves, and smell them.
I recommend using porcelain for this, as it’s neutral. Use hot water to warm the teapot, pour out the water and add the leaves. You can give them a little shake, which also helps to even out the leaves so that you can the quantity. Cold leaves will not usually leave an aroma.
Do a rinse and smell the lid of the pot, and the wet leaves.
The leaves are quite steamy for a few seconds after the rinse, but all the aromas should now change and bring out other aspects of the tea. In the case of Nantou Honey Black tea, a rinse is not really necessary.
The rinsed leaves (or the leaves on the first infusion after the tea is poured) have a honeyish aroma and the smell of baking spices is fresher and brighter.
Brew a cup of tea and look at the colour of the tea soup or liquour.
The colour can tell you about the nature of the tea as well, for example a roasted oolong can have a deep yellow colour, a green tea should often be green. It can also tell you about the brewing. If it’s a green tea, and it’s yellow, this can mean that the temperature of the water is too hot. If this black tea comes out yellow instead of red, then that means it is being brewed with less tea leaves compared to water, or that the water is not hot enough.
Taste the tea
You can choose whether to slurp the tea or not. Slurping the tea puts air into it which can help to taste more flavours. Tea should not be rough or overly bitter, but should be strong and smooth. Good tea will be complex. Hold the tea in the mouth and breathe out through the nose.
This tea is very floral, has notes of a honey-ish sweetness and a there is a hint of cinnamon.
Observe the texture
Is the tea thick or thin?
Nantou Honey Black Tea is slightly viscous, but very smooth in texture.
Smell the empty cup
Tea which leaves a good aroma in the early steepings in the empty cup is of good quality. This can show that the tea was grown slowly on a high altitude or a low temperature; or picked in spring after absorbing nutrients during the winter. It may also mean that the tea trees are older or grown in better mineral rich soil.
The tea leaves a mild aroma on the inside of the cup.
What are the effects after drinking the tea?
How does the tea affect your body? Do you feel a warming or cooling effect? Does the tea dry the mouth and throat or moisten them? Sometimes there can be a drying followed by a moistening effect. I like teas that have a hui gan or returning sweetness after you swallow them. Does the tea make you feel more energised? Do the flavours linger? If so, this shows that the tea is of good quality.
This tea has a warming effect, and is slightly tannic, so it slightly dries the throat. After drinking a lot of the tea, I started to feel the caffeine. The finish is very smooth.
Observe the wet leaves
Some buds are now visible as well as whole leaves. The picking style was a bud and two leaves. The colours are olive green and brown. The leaves are fairly small, which is a testament to the farmer’s rallying call “Pick higher! Pick higher!” on the tea bush.
I thoroughly recommend drinking tea outside, it’s very liberating. All the used leaves and the rinse can just be poured away.
I used the bowl brewing technique to push two of my oolongs and appreciate the differences between a slightly roasty, almost barley-like oolong that is around 50% oxidised or so, and a green, creamy and vegetal oolong.
For people new to oolongs, or tea in general, you can see immediately that the more heavily oxidised oolong is darker in colour, a dark orange that is almost brown, while the lightly oxidised oolong is yellow. These colours will obviously deepen as the tea brews for longer.
These teas are quite tenacious, the flavours stay in the mouth. The lightly oxidised oolong also brings a sweetness back to the mouth after drinking it (hui gan).
I hope you try this relaxed and informal technique yourselves.
This is another kind of bowl brewing technique that works well to drink and evaluate teas against each other, and can be adapted for several people drinking together.
As it is easy and effective, I recommend this technique for people who may want a simpler “tea ceremony” that requires no special equipment. I highly recommend this method.
This is all you need – a spoon, a drinking cup and a bowl for eachtea that you are drinking. If you have more people, increase the number of drinking cups to ideally one cup per person per tea (so two people drinking three teas would have six cups in total).
Here I have measured out 5g of the Honey Black Tea, and roughly 5.5g of the High Mountain Oolong.
I filled up the bowls to roughly the same level with hot water.
If serving more people, you can use larger bowls and more tea. The amount of tea is just a guide, please adjust to personal preference, and you can also add more water if it gets bitter.
Use the spoons to pour the tea into the cups, and you can smell both sides of the spoon to appreciate the aroma. This worked exceptionally well with both of these teas.
All that is left is to enjoy the tea, refill the bowls with more water, and drink as much as you want with the same tea leaves. I found this method very easy and also very effective. The flavours of both the teas come out in all their complexity and richness, in aroma and taste.
For a more advanced technique, have a look at my post on gong fu cha.
Tea Art Houses, unlike their predecessors, old men rooms and tea houses, stress the importance of the art of tea making.
Here is a bit more of the context that led to their success.
In light of the Chinese civil war, and cultural revolution Taiwan considered itself responsible for preserving traditional Chinese culture, and as part of this, traditional tea arts.
In the 1970s, Taiwan’s economy improved a lot, leading to people having more disposable income. The tea industry was directed towards Taiwanese as opposed to foreign buyers. With wealthy buyers nearby, prices rose, competition was encouraged, and quality and creativity improved. Farmers also started to focus on high end teas, as opposed to low and medium quality, as they could not compete with the existing market in these areas.
Tea drinking became more refined. The Taiwanese brought the tea ceremony indoors to their houses and tea art houses. They also changed the tea ceremony and invented variations, and new ways of drinking tea.
I will go into some of the changes that Taiwan brought to ways of drinking tea, in later posts.
When visiting Taiwan, a nice way to experience tea culture is to visit a tea art house. In these places, customers are treated to drinking tea gongfu style in a peaceful setting, and can learn more about tea and how to brew it. To create a “pop up tea art house” is basically our objective in events.
Tea art houses give an appearance of having always been part of Taiwanese culture, providing a glimpse into the past.
The surprising truth is that tea art houses have only been in Taiwan since the 1970s.
Before this, there were two types of tea houses. The first was ‘Old men rooms’, places for old men to socialise. These men were the Mainland Chinese who came to Taiwan with Chiang Kai Shek’s army. They were public officers and former soldiers, separated from their families.
There were also tea houses which employed hostesses and were associated prostitution. Consequently, tea houses were associated with the elderly or prostitution. Many Taiwanese were therefore not interested in them. Simultaneously, coke and coffee were seen as drinks for the elite, as they were symbols of ties to the US.
In this context, tea art houses were started by a small group of tea practitioners in Taipei. They emphasised high quality tea, and the art of making tea. Manuals explaining how to prepare tea gongfu style were published. Through efforts, tea art houses were accepted by the Taiwanese, and gained government recognition, in the forming of the Republic of China Tea Art Association.
Tea art houses are now established as good destinations to visit, and are even promoted to tourists. They are an opportunity to escape busy city life, spend time with friends drinking tea and probably also enjoy a meal.
Please join us at our events in the future for a similar break from a hectic lifestyle to experience the culture, tastes and aromas of Taiwanese tea.