It’s not a secret that Naoki Matcha is one of my favorite matcha companies and recently, they contacted me to be part of the tasters for their new blends coming out. They sent me 20g of each blend from three different regions of Japan and while they were content with private feedback, I thought I would share my notes here.
The packaging is a sleek black resealable bag with the Naoki Matcha branding. I love the gold-on-black color scheme. The powder itself is very creamy-textured, almost like a really high-end eyeshadow. There wasn’t a whole lot of variation in the colors among the three of them, but all three are vibrantly green. And they were all a little complicated to sift because that creamy texture tended to stick in the sifter, but a little tap with my scoop freed it.
I tasted all three of these whisked traditionally with a bamboo whisk. I used the same white glazed clay chawan for all three and kept parameters consistent. All three were made with 2g of matcha powder, sifted, and whisked with 60ml of water that was at 85C.
This is the most subtle of the three. The aroma of the dry powder is green and nutty, like cooked chicory. It has a smooth mouthfeel that I described as like velvet and thick cream. The flavor is mellow, with little discernible bitterness initially, but a soft bitterness on the back of the tongue. The froth is thick and dense, like a flat white. The overall flavor experience is like a leafy green vegetable cooked in a peppery olive oil, with a vegetal umami flavor. The body energy of this matcha was very warm and stimulating.
This powder immediately reminded me of the “classic” matcha baked good aroma. When you think of something being green-tea flavored, this is what it smells like. The foam was a slightly brighter green and looked very glossy upon being whisked. The flavor is much brighter, with a tart or fruity astringency on the initial flavor. This has a milder umami flavor and a lighter mouthfeel that dissipates without coating the mouth. There is some bitterness on the aftertaste, but it is tempered by the astringent brightness. I tasted a lingering tartness at the back of my tongue.
This one has a savory aroma and a creamy texture. I taste it almost entirely in the back of my mouth, with flavors of asparagus in butter. The bitterness perfectly matches the bitterness of very fresh asparagus (which I’ve recently had the opportunity to taste, as I grow it myself). It looked gritty in the bowl, like I didn’t whisk it enough but I didn’t detect any feeling of grit in the mouth. The asparagus flavor fills the mouth and lingers in the aftertaste, with a creamy, mouth-coating texture. This one had a chill body energy.
I haven’t tried any of these blends in lattes, but I might experiment with that soon. For now, each of them has their own unique qualities that I turn to for different mornings. Uji Harmony is more inspirational, while Nishio Bloom is a more low-key morning. And all three have made their way into my matcha practice, if not for good (these might be limited edition), at least for as long as they last.
In my post on tea and travel, I mentioned that I didn’t need to pack any gongfucha essentials because if I needed my gongfucha “fix,” I could visit West China Tea House in Austin, run by the tea community great Sohan of the Tea House Ghost YouTube channel. Well, I didn’t just visit once, but twice! It’s a gorgeous space in an unassuming building off of I-35 and I had a blast.
The first visit was on a Wednesday evening, around 6pm, with a friend. We sat at the communal table, where you can have tea served by one of their tea-arts-trained staff for $5 a pot. We had Ben make us tea and he shared some of his favorites with us: the Sticky Rice Sheng Puer, the Haunted Plum 1992 Oolong, and the Ultra Violet Red Tea. The sense of community is palpable and my friend and I were able to both catch up with each other, as well as make new friends at the table. We met Sohan’s wife Lindsay and their baby, Lark, and just generally had a blast. Plus, I got to taste three new-to-me teas that I immediately turned around and ordered for my own collection so I could recreate my tea house session at home, at least in theory.
The communal tea table itself bears mentioning. It is a beautiful piece in dark wood, designed by a well-known tea practitioner in California and perfect for communal gongfucha. Despite practicing gongfucha for over five years, I feel like sitting at this table truly helped me understand the essential community aspect of tea. The semi-circular ledge of the table makes it easy for the host to reach all the guests from the central seat, creating a seamless tea experience that allowed the tea to be a centerpiece or an accompaniment to conversation as the session went on.
Of course, I did not get to meet Sohan that evening, as he was teaching a class the whole time. So I had to return. I went back on a Saturday afternoon, when the tea house was quiet and Sohan had just finished an Instagram Live. We immediately sat down and were able to converse like old friends, over copious rounds of teas, from oolongs to heicha. Every session was a revelation of the style of tea, and of course included stories from Sohan about sourcing each tea. I had mentioned that I had never had a truly memorable Dancong and of course was treated to an excellent one. I felt so special, treated to teas picked just for me from Sohan’s collection.
And of course, we talked. We talked about tea and tea houses. We talked about history and tea culture. We talked about our children and about life in general. We talked like it was college and we were staying up drinking until the wee hours of the morning. We spent three hours drinking tea and talking and I only left to make it back to my room before an event I had that evening. I could have easily spent all day at the shop drinking tea and talking with Sohan, Bernabe, and Montsho.
I will definitely be returning to West China Tea House the next time I visit Austin, but until then, I’ll be replenishing my own collection with teas from their site to help capture that thought and care Sohan puts into choosing his teas in my own personal practice.
I’m tasting another tea from my Tea Thoughts Halloween box today! This week, I’m tasting the Fortune Teller Nepalese black tea from Aera Tea Co. This is a pretty classic black tea and I was excited to sit down and taste it, at least for a couple of infusions, since I already knew it as a very cozy cup of black tea to just be with on a chilly morning.
But first, let’s talk about the name. Fortune Teller is an obvious reference to the archetype of the tea-leaf reader, which comes from Romani culture. The Romani people, originally from the Indian subcontinent, traveled throughout Asia, Europe, and parts of Africa, often following some of the same land routes that brought trade between Asia and Europe. They have communities all over the world today, and one of their most well-known cultural practices are those related to divination, such as tarot and tea-leaf reading.
While the practice became very popular in Britain, likely from existing folk practices of reading wax drippings and other nondistinct shapes, tasseography — divination from the leavings in a cup — originated in Romani culture and it is directly from their influence that these divination practices not only spread around the European world, but became wildly popular. It is important to remember these origins, as the archetype of the “fortune teller” often falls into the trap of stereotyping and harmful generalization based on racist tropes used against the Romani (particularly a certain word, beginning with G, that is often used as a synonym for “free spirit,” but in reality is a slur against the Romani). So I thought it was important to acknowledge the Romani contribution to the landscape of divinatory practices in the modern world, as their contributions permeate it, despite rarely being credited.
Anyway, on to the tea. I used 5 grams in my 120-ml fish teapot with boiling water. I warmed the pot and got aromas of black bread and raisins from the dry leaf. The first infusion was for twenty seconds, after which the wet leaf smelled of brown sugar and dark chocolate. The liquor itself had an intensely smooth, creamy texture in the mouth, a faint sweet aroma, and a sweet, bready flavor. The tannin was extremely mild and there was a very subtle bitter aftertaste, but like chocolate or coffee, and not unpleasant.
The second steeping, for thirty seconds, brought out some rose aromas on the leaf and liquor. The texture was still that same amazing creamy smoothness and the flavor was mellow and chocolate-y. After the third steeping, for forty seconds, I noticed that the flavors and aroma were remarkably consistent, so I stopped taking notes and instead chose to simply enjoy this tea as long as it steeped out. The lack of bitterness makes me wonder if it might be a good candidate for winter grandpa-style brewing.
So a short tasting session today, but a thoroughly enjoyable one. I’m excited to have had a chance to taste this tea because it has made me curious about Aera’s other offerings.
NB: Nothing to disclose. If you are interested in collaborating with me, please read my collaboration information for more details.
Hallowe’en might be over, but I’m still in the spooky season mood, so what better tea than to brew than the most intriguing one from the Tea Thoughts Countdown to Halloween box? This was day eight’s gift and was the perfect tea to ring in the Hallowe’en season. Witch’s Broom from the Ohio Tea Co. is a raw puerh tea that is sold as a maocha, or loose leaves, and is so named because the long, large leaves (similar to a Tai Ping Hou Kui) look like besoms or brooms.
I decided to use MyTeaPal to brew because I was curious how it did with a more focused tasting, including notes, which I hadn’t tried yet, plus I seem to have misplaced my tea-tasting notebook. I brewed 5g of dry leaf in my 150-ml porcelain pot from Bitterleaf Teas with 190F water, as recommended by the package.
Immediately upon taking out the leaves, I noticed an earthy aroma, which only became more pronounced when I put them into the warmed pot. I did rinse them, as I tend to do with puerh, and noticed a damp earth and fragrant wood aroma on the wet leaf. I did my first infusion for ten seconds, after which, the liquor was very light in flavor, with hints of licorice and wood smoke.
The second infusion, which was for fifteen seconds, yielded a more pronounced juicy mouthfeel and smooth texture. The woody sweetness persisted, along with a stronger smoke note after the tea had been allowed to cool for a few minutes. The third infusion, for twent seconds, yielded a lighter flavor, though more smoke in the aromas. I was impressed by the utter lack of bitterness in this tea. Interestingly, while the packet says that this tea is aged for five years, the website says that the tea is from 2001, so it’s unclear just how long it has aged. My naive tastebuds suggest that the longer time might be correct.
On the fourth infusion, for thirty seconds, the leaf aroma seemed to be fading, but the texture was still smooth and juicy, with a slight fruity tang on the flavor, along with that subtle, but distinct, smoke flavor note. It’s interesting because this isn’t the kind of smoke note that would be on a smoked tea, but you can tell that there is some kind of smokiness to it, like when you sit near-ish to a campfire and still have some linger smoke aroma on your clothes, even after they’ve been airing overnight. In the puerh class I took with Victoria from MeiMei Fine Teas, she said that the smoke notes in puerhs usually come from the way that the teas are processed at the kill green stage, which is sometimes done in woks over wood fires, causing the leaves to pick up that subtle smokiness.
At the fifth infusion, for forty-five seconds, I noticed the flavor fading, but it still had such a nice mouthfeel that I was still enjoying the tea. That was the same for the sixth infusion, for a minute, so I decided to end the formal tasting there, though I might continue enjoying this tea throughout the day.
I will say, the shape of the leaves, and the little I know about the tea culture in the rural regions where puerhs were historically produced, suggests that this tea might be better enjoyed grandpa-style. Sadly, this does not lend itself well to a formal, note-taking tasting session, but I will likely try it in the future. The fact that this tea showed no bitterness seems promising for brewing it grandpa-style.
NB: Nothing to disclose. If you are interested in collaborating with me, please read my collaboration information for more details.
Recently, I signed up to be a beta tester for a new tea app called MyTeaPal. It’s a timer, steeping guide, stash inventory, and log all in one, and will be available soon for iOS and Android. I mentioned it on Sunday in my literary tea video, but I thought I’d talk a bit about what I like about the app in more depth.
MyTeaPal is an app developed by Vincent, a tea-lover and computer science major. He learned about tea during his time in Chengdu, China, and has a list of tea certifications and community roles that speak to his deep love for tea art and culture. His app is intended to be a personal journal, an educational tool, and will be free with no ads. When I learned about this app, I was intrigued, as I like apps to track a lot of my life, but I’ve never found a truly universal tea app that I like (that was available for iOS). So I contacted Vincent and he agreed to let me beta-test, which I have been for the last couple of weeks.
One caveat to my review: Since I downloaded the beta app, it has been updated to include more tutorial and educational functionality, which I haven’t used. But that’s because I turn to it daily and tend to forget about the new functionality until I’m in the middle of a session and don’t want to interrupt it!
Anyway, when you first open the app, you can choose to select a tea to brew or add a new tea to brew. The app has a place to store a record of all the teas in your stash (I’ve mostly been adding them as I use them for an app-enabled session) and an auto-tracking function to let you know how much of each you have left, based on the original amount you enter and how much you use in each session. Entries for teas give you the option to enter a photo, the tea name, the tea type (green, black, oolong, puerh, dark, etc.), the harvest information, origin, cultivar, vendor, elevation at which it was grown, and steeping instructions (among other things). You can also enter an inventory of your teaware, including teaware type, material, and a photo. Both types of entries also have a “notes” section. The breadth of information it allows you to enter makes me happy. It even gives you the option to select that a tea is a blend and enter the ingredients.
And that I think epitomizes my main praise of this app: it is not an app for tea snobs. Yes, it is invaluable for a gongfu session or a Western-style steeping of a flavored tea. The session itself is entirely customizable, giving you the option to enter your own water temperature and type (tap, filtered, bottled, etc.), as well as steeping time for each steeping. You can vary the temperature and time by hand for each infusion, but also add a set time to add to each infusion, if you just want to go with it. This time added to each infusion is also customizable, so if you start with 5 seconds added to each steeping and decide to try adding more to later infusions, you can do that.
I also find it really useful for teas like the ones from Mountain Stream Teas (such as the Missed Opportunity, pictured above), because Matt gives such precise instructions on how he recommends brewing his teas and I can enter in the exact steeping parameters easily without having to remember what steeping I’m on or reset a timer. I enter in 30 seconds for the first steeping, add 10 seconds for the second, add 20 seconds for the third, and then add 15 seconds for each steeping after that. I like how having the timing off my mental plate leaves me more open to appreciate the experience of the tea.
And as far as the experience goes, the app gives you an easy way to record aroma and flavor notes. If I had one suggestion, it would be to have aroma and flavor separated. And, while I appreciate that I can add my own aroma and flavor characteristics, I wish they would save for future sessions and give me the option to nest them under one of the overarching flavor/aroma categories (e.g., I would like to be able to permanently add “sandalwood” under “woody”).
On to the timing itself. The timer gives you the option to play or not play timer noises. The timer noise is a simple flowing water sound while the timer is counting down, and a single bell/singing bowl tone at the end. I appreciate that I don’t need to turn off an alarm, and I like that I can look at the water visualization and know how much of my timer remains from across the kitchen because I’m often watching my toddler while making tea. I also like that I can edit and continue saved tea sessions for those times when the aforementioned toddler decides to run off with my phone and close all my apps in the middle of a session.
All-in-all, this is a very well-thought-out app that actually enhances my tea experience, rather than being a fun novelty. And perhaps it will eventually lead me to actually keep track of my tea stash.
NB: I was given early access to this app as a blogger, but with no explicit expectation of a review. If you are interested in collaborating with me, please read my collaboration information for more details.
It’s a good old-fashioned tea tasting! Recently, I found the company Leafberri, which sells purple tea from Kenya, and since purple is my favorite color, I had to try it. So today I’m sharing my (limited) tasting notes from the Purple au Naturalé from Leafberri, which is a pure purple tea with no other flavorings. They also sell blends and some black teas.
Now the history of tea cultivation in African countries is interesting and rich in and of itself, and I certainly plan to delve into it, particularly the connections to British colonization, in a future post. But purple tea is not a product of the British-driven mass-production of commodity tea (except in as much as it is made from the Assamica cultivar that was introduced to Africa by colonizers) on the continent. Instead, it is an artisan product from a newly-developed cultivar of the tea plant that concentrates anthocyanin pigments in the leaves, leading to the purple color. Yes, those are the same antioxidants found in blueberries. The tea represents 25 years of research, and is produced on small farms adhering to sustainable practices, providing a livelihood to the artisans who create the tea, rather than feeding into the commodity tea machine that I’ve mentioned before. Leafberri is also a Black-owned company with family ties to Kenya, where the tea is grown and processed.
The most fascinating thing to me is that, while the leaves look most similar to a black or oxidized oolong tea, the leaves do not undergo oxidation. Instead, they are put through something similar to a kill green process, which halts oxidation, before being rolled and dried. So they look like black tea leaves, but they have a unique flavor that reminds me of many things. The first time I tried this tea, I was reminded, oddly, of yancha, likely because of the woody notes in the flavor, but later sessions reminded me of a young sheng puerh, probably because I experimented with hotter water. So I decided to sit down with my cupping set and take careful notes.
I used 3 grams of leaf in my 120-ml cupping set with boiling water. I did not pre-warm my tea ware, but still was able to detect a faint herbal aroma from the dry leaf. I brewed it for three minutes. The wet leaf smells very much like a green tea, particularly a green tea from Yunnan, which is unsurprising, given the cultivar. On my first sip, I detected a strong, clean bitter note. I couldn’t even really place the quality of the bitterness because there were no accompanying flavors muddying it. It had no astringency or stridency. Just a clean bitterness that was rather pleasant. It was similar to a young sheng, as I mentioned before.
But the mouthfeel was juicy, and reminded me of blackberries. If you’ve ever had blackberries that are ever so slightly underripe, that is exactly what I detected in the mouthfeel and aftertaste. I was curious, so I tried another steeping for three minutes, after which the bitterness started to soften and allowed this fruitiness to come forward. I would characterize it as a true fruity note, not exactly a sweetness.
Sadly, after the second steeping, my toddler decided to pull the entire tea set onto the floor, and I did not fancy seeing what cat hair added to the flavor profile, but this is definitely a tea I will be revisiting many times. Plus, y’know, purple.
NB: This post has been sponsored by Hojicha Co. All thoughts are my own.
Recently, Francois from Hojicha Co contacted me to see if I would like to taste and write about their newest release, Hojicha Classic, which releases today. Now, I’ve written about my love for their hojicha in the past, as well as shared a video about how their dark roast is my quintessential autumn tea. So when Francois mentioned that this release was a medium roast that was inspired by the classic methods of roasting hojicha in cafes in Kyoto, I was intrigued. I know how roast level affects my enjoyment of coffees, so I was curious how it would affect hojicha.
But the thing that hooked me in properly was his description of how this hojicha was intended to remind you of sitting in a cafe in Kyoto, having a cup of tea. Because I recently had to cancel my planned trip to Japan, the idea of experiencing a small part of that trip through tea sounded lovely. And the experiential side of tea tasting is something about which I’ve been thinking for a while. Eventually, I want to create a flavor and aroma wheel that takes into account how different flavors and aromas can evoke memory and emotion. So I thought I would share a bit about the experience of trying this tea, along with the actual concrete tasting notes themselves.
First of all, the hojicha from Hojicha Co is excellent, but their branding is also spot-on. Upon seeing the box on my front stoop, I cut into it and emptied the box onto a clean surface so I could discard the box and wash my hands. The contents of the box are already gorgeous. The simplicity of brown paper wrapping with a coarse twine tying it up, with just the simple Hojicha Co business card tucked into the twine not only sticks to their color scheme of brown to match the color of hojicha leaves, but also evokes the rustic simplicity of a product that until recently was a tea primarily enjoyed within Japan, and not a fancy export tea.
From there, I opened the bag and was greeted with an intense aroma of freshly roasted nuts. It definitely smelled less roasted than their dark roast, but was still a pronounced warm aroma. The leaves are a uniform dark brown color, and are uneven in size, which makes sense given hojicha’s typically-humble origins.
I measured out eight grams of tea leaves while enjoying the cozy aromas of the dry leaf, and set my kettle to 90C. I used an open-top porcelain kyusu that holds about 300 ml, so I also weighed my water to ensure I was only adding 250 grams of hot water. I steeped the hojicha three times, for thirty, forty-five, and sixty seconds respectively.
Immediately upon pouring out the first pot, I noticed that the wet leaf aroma reminded me strongly of a yancha, though the liquor aroma was very roast-forward without any of the fruity or sweet notes in the nose that I often get from yanchas. But upon sipping the cup, I realized that not only was this a very smooth tea with a balanced roast flavor, but that fruitiness and juiciness came through. There was a slight tannin in the back of my throat as an aftertaste. On the second steeping, the roast flavor and aroma moved to the background, while the umami notes came forward and the tannic aftertaste faded completely. By the third steeping I was feeling hungry, so I decided to try the third steeping alongside a piece of homemade sourdough with chocolate hazelnut spread, which complemented it very well. The umami and the roast both accentuated the nuttiness and cut through the sweetness of the chocolate spread. The third steeping was lighter in flavor, but still bold enough to stand against a snack.
As I sipped the tea, I felt a deep, comforting warmth rise up in my body. It is still hot here, though the mornings are cooler, so the body warmth was not unwelcome. I will definitely make sure to save at least a little of this try to in the middle of autumn when I start to miss spring and summer warmth. The whole experience is one of comfort. I’ve talked before of how the dark roast evoked memories of fireplace fires and crisp evenings in autumn. This feels somehow more urban than suburban. I can definitely see how tea sellers could have used the aroma of roasting hojicha to lure in customers, and the simple act of sitting at my table with a cup of hojicha and a piece of sweet toast made me feel for a fleeting instant as if I were having a quiet break at an off-the beaten-path cafe in Kyoto.
At $16 for 80 grams of tea, this is certainly cheaper than a flight to Japan, and quite a bit more flexible in a time when many of us are canceling travel for the foreseeable future. It won’t bring back my trip, but it is an enjoyable little piece of Japan I can enjoy at home.
NB: Product provided free of charge for this sponsored post. If you are interested in collaborating with me, please see my collaboration information.
Today on Tea Together Tuesday, a delightful community tea prompt hosted by Tea with Jann and Tea is a Wish, the prompt is to share a food and tea pairing. Now, food and beverage pairing is something that can seem daunting to a lot of people. It evokes images of snooty sommeliers and people tasting wines and declaring that they have notes of mineral and cat’s piss. It evokes fancy restaurants where you get a quarter-sized piece of steak and a single pea for your main course, paired, bien sur, with something that was made in a chateau that crumbled sometime around the 18th century.
So I decided to go a different way. At it’s essence, food pairing is about balancing flavors. Have you ever had something really sweet and felt like you needed something bitter or sour or fresh to “cut through” the sweetness? That is food pairing, in a nutshell. Samin Nosrat really wrote the book on this one (and made the Netflix special), but balancing flavors is the foundation of all enjoyment of good food and drink. I used to get a lot of surprise when I said I made all my own salad dressing, but once you understand how to balance flavors, it’s not much more difficult than putting your ingredients into a jar with a tightly-fitting lid and shaking until it’s dressing.
And in the same way, pairing any beverage with food is about balancing flavors. And do you want to know the best part about balancing flavors? It’s uniquely personal. Do you think that the richness of a really good cut of roasted salmon goes beautifully with a full-bodied red wine? Well, guess what? That’s great! No amount of pairing advice will change the fact of what you enjoy eating and drinking. Like “steeping instructions,” pairing suggestions are like the pirate code — they’re really more like guidelines. If you’re completely lost, start there. But don’t be afraid to break the rules because there is no such thing as the pairing police. And even if there were, well…
So tea and food pairing. I’ve talked about cheese and tea pairing when I discussed my love of Ken Cohen’s Talking Tea podcast. But I really wanted to go for something a little more mundane today, even than cheese I can buy at my grocery store. So I’m sharing my breakfast, which is, at its core, a food and tea pairing. I don’t drink tea with most of my meals, but breakfast is usually some combination of food and tea. So this morning’s (first) breakfast was a slice of toast with some chocolate-hazelnut spread. And because it is very sweet, I paired it with a cup of Black Dragon Pearls from The Steeped Leaf Shop.
I find this Black Dragon Pearl tea fascinating because it has the full body and rich, almost chocolate-y notes of a Chinese black tea, but it doesn’t have the malty sweetness I associate with a Dian Hong or a Qimen tea. This lack of inherent sweet notes makes it perfect (to my tastes) alongside a very sweet breakfast, and the cocoa notes tie in with the chocolate in the spread. It’s like when Claire uses milk and dark chocolate when she recreates a gourmet version of a candy treat because they balance each other.
So that is my humble pairing and a little musing about the concept of food pairings. I am unlikely to pair my breakfast with wine very often, but choosing your tea to complement your breakfast food is one way to start thinking about the balance of flavors that go into all kinds of food experimentation. Carry on and pair delicious things!
Do you like my attempt at a clickbait title? Today on Tea Together Tuesday, a delightful community tea prompt hosted by Tea with Jann and Tea is a Wish, the prompt is to share your top three tips for new tea drinkers or people who are just discovering tea. Now, I’ve actually written a multi-part series on approaching tea from various points in your journey, but I like the idea of distilling my tea philosophy down into three top tips, particularly since my own philosophy and attitudes have changed in the nearly two years since I published my Tea Primer.
Step One: Be Very, Very Wary of Anyone Claiming to Be Teaching the “One True Way”
Like with anything, there will always be evangelists who want to convince you that the tea they sell or the way they brew tea is the best way or even the only way to brew tea to truly enjoy it. Or they will claim some ancient, unbroken lineage for their methods or traditions. No, we do not brew tea the way that Lu Yu, the “Sage of Tea,” author of the earliest known written work exclusively devoted to tea, did. Maybe some people do, and of course more people might try it once as a curiosity or an historical exercise, but for the most part, the Tang Dynasty method of tea is not the same as modern gongfucha or even very similar to the way most of us drink our daily tea, even without the salt.
One thing that studying the history of tea culture around the world has taught me is that tea is not monolithic, even within China, its birthplace (although that is up for debate, as there is evidence that tea plants evolved independently in other parts of south and southeast Asia). Tea was originally used as a medicinal plant; that’s why the most common story of its origins as a beverage involve the legendary founder of traditional Chinese medicine and its mention is traced to medical texts. While it eventually developed into a pleasure beverage and aesthetic pursuit, tea has always been considered for its health benefits, and it has always been drunk blended and flavored by many of those who use it. Flavoring teas is not a new phenomenon. Drinking tea for the benefits is not a new phenomenon. And what is now popularized as gongfucha is not an ancient secret, nor is it the only way tea is drunk by those who really appreciate it.
Step 2: Drink What You Like, How You Like It
Do you prefer your tea unsweetened and un-lightened so you can really taste the intricate flavor notes of the particular cultivar or processing style you’re enjoying? Great! Do you like a brew so strong you can stand the spoon up in it, sweetened within an inch of its life, and with enough milk to keep your mouth from turning inside out at the tannin? Also great!
Again, historically, the British did not invent putting milk in tea. Even the supposed tale of the British learning it from the French is likely not true. The truth is that the Qing Emperor who reigned during the early heyday of Western tea trade was a Manchurian who drank milk tea (much to the supposed dismay of the Han Chinese, who preferred their delicate green teas). Was this emperor a literal barbarian? Well, that term has all sorts of uncomfortable racial connotations, so perhaps it’s best to just let him have his milk tea, and let the rest of us add milk or not as we like.
Sugar is also a common ingredient in traditional Chinese medicinal concoctions, with different sorts of sugars having different supposedly benefits for the body. Traditionally-prepared brown or unrefined sugar is supposed to have all sorts of lovely benefits for women, at least according to one of my favorite Chinese YouTubers. So, again, it is entirely possible that it was the Chinese who taught Westerners that sugar was a good thing to add to tea. So there is no historical basis for the tea purism that sometimes permeates modern tea communities and discourages new people from coming in and trying the tea, since they sometimes need a spoonful of sugar, at least at first.
(Please note, I am not going to get into it about anything to do with the healthfulness or unhealthfulness of sugar. Carbohydrates are a necessary macronutrient and that’s where this post ends on the matter. Ableist or fatphobic comments will not be entertained or approved.)
And I’ve already talked about how tea was originally blended. In my video on the earliest archaeological evidence of tea, I talked about how it seems likely from the chemical signatures found that the tea was blended with barley and other botanicals, possibly even the citrus peel, ginger, and scallions mentioned by Lu Yu (who was actually a bit of a tea snob, it seems). I’ve actually found that the combination of green tea, ginger, and orange peel (pictured above) has quickly become one of my favorite blends personally. Does it obscure some of the flavor notes in the tea that might come forward without the additions? Yes. But does it “ruin” it? Absolutely not. And, no, just because I don’t personally prefer most added artificial flavors doesn’t mean you should feel anything but enjoyment at your own favorite mocha-blueberry-s’mores-rooibos-puerh blend.
Step Three: Experiment and Explore
Now, that said, while you’re drinking what you like, you should never feel afraid to experiment. Yes, it can be scary to think about “ruining” a cup of tea by steeping it too hot or too long or with the wrong teaware, especially when you start getting into the realm of 20-year-old oolongs or puerhs from the year you were born that you can only afford 10g of at a time. But ultimately, it’s just tea. It’s an ephemeral pleasure, no matter how long you want to store and age it, it is ultimately meant to be consumed. Try to pay attention more to what you do enjoy and merely make a note of what you don’t like to try to avoid it in the future.
Once again returning to the blend in my photo, did I added citrus peel and ginger to the very last of my 2020 fresh all-bud expensive green tea from white2tea? Yes. Was it awesome? Also yes. No regrets.
If you’re 100% brand-new to tea, yes, it’s a good idea to look up some general guidelines or read the packet to get an idea of how to brew this tea. But “brewing instructions” are like the Pirate Code — they’re really more like guidelines. Don’t fully enjoy that tea made the way the instructions say to make it? Try something different with it! Try brewing at a different temperature or with a different amount of leaves or for a different amount of time. I’ve written in the past about how I “troubleshoot” a difficult tea, and that is a good place to start, but I also love Rie’s experiments at Tea Curious. If you have the time, try to catch one of her tea practice Live sessions on Instagram where she often performs experiments to see how different parameters really affect tea. I’ve even tried my hand at these experiments, by testing out whether a bamboo whisk is really the best way to make matcha, and I have more tests planned in the future.
So there you have it — my top three tips for new tea drinkers. We were all new to this once, and honestly, the best thing I’ve brought to my tea practice is the concept of “beginner’s mind.” Always be learning, never consider yourself finished or an expert. There is always something new to explore and always someone who can teach you. Happy sipping!
I am continuing my look at high mountain Taiwanese oolongs today with the Chi Lai Shan spring pick oolong from Mountain Stream Teas (this is a conventional oolong that doesn’t seem to be available on their site anymore, but is from the same mountain as their Missed Opportunity). This one is a bit of an odd person out, as it is the only tea in my order that was not harvested in the winter season, but I wanted to try a different mountain, and this seemed to be the only tea from this mountain I could find at Mountain Stream.
I used 5g in my 120-ml gaiwan with 212F water, as with the others. I warmed the gaiwan and then smelled the warm, dry leaf, detecting aromas of green vegetables and warm spice cookies. I did not rinse the tea.
The first steeping was for thirty seconds. The liquor was very pale in color and had a light creamy floral aroma. The wet leaves had an aroma of a muddled variety of green vegetables and a sweet, creamy floral. The texture was surprisingly milky with a light green floral flavor. It is interesting because in tasting teas from these three mountains, I’ve realized that there is a stark difference in texture among milky, creamy, and buttery. It’s been fascinating to try teas that seem to exemplify each.
The second steeping was for forty-five seconds. The dominant aroma on the leaves was nettles and the dominant flavor was nettles. This steeping tasting strongly like nettle infusion, which I dislike, so I was a bit disappointed, personally. The third steeping, for sixty seconds, also had a nettle aroma on the wet leaf, but I also smelled something lightly coconutty, almost like sunscreen. The flavor was spinach or nettles and milk, so perhaps like a light spring green soup with milk.
The fourth infusion was for seventy-five seconds. The wet leaf brought out a gardenia aroma and it had the same milky texture. The flavor started developing a vegetal brightness with some creamy floral. The fifth infusion, for ninety seconds, had a gardenia-and-coconut aroma on the wet leaves that reminded me a bit of monoi oil. Over the course of five steepings, the liquor color developed from nearly colorless to a bright chartreuse. The milky texture and green flavor persists.
On the sixth infusion, for two minutes, I noticed the aroma and flavors fading. The aroma had the same monoi aroma as the previous infusion, if lighter. At this point, I decided the tea had given its best and finished the session. So far, the primary distinction I’m seeing among the mountains I’ve been tasting has been in the texture of the tea. I’m glad that I’ve started listening to the Floating Leaves Tea Podcast and have had more education about evaluating tea by texture, rather than just taste and smell, because it is apparently an important layer of complexity.
NB: Nothing to disclose. If you’re interested in reading why I switched from reviews to tasting notes, read this post. For more information about collaborating with me, click here.