Tuesday, November 27, 2007

What Makes a Great Tea?

by ADRIAN LURSSEN

Recently I fell down the rabbit-hole and, under the illusion of acting via my own free will, decided to conduct an experiment: brew the same tea twice, with roughly the same parameters, first using a gaiwan and then a Yixing pot. All the while making careful notes.

The goal: determine once and for all if one brewing vessel is "better" than the other. I know, I know, it's all relative and personal and a contrivance -- but, tea-crazed as I am (you must be, too, if you're reading this) I decided to run the exercise anyway. The subject comes up often enough, doesn't it? If nothing else, it'd be a chance to slow down over a few hours to pay attention to a great tea (I would be tasting a high-quality sheng pu-erh) and also to find the limits of an excellent new pot I found for brewing younger sheng.

And report my findings, should they make a difference.

Like many folks in this realm, I love Yixing pots. Now and then in a quiet moment I like to dip into, among other books, Lim Kean Siew's The Beauty of Chinese Yixing Teapots for a good dose of Yixing porn (to coin a phrase): page upon page of pictures of Lim's own pots which, he says, "range from the lowest to highest grade." Accompanying notes match teas to individual vessels. I've had this intriguing book for many years and it remains a favorite, partly for the gallery of gorgeous images, but also for the brief text in which the estimable Lim (who died recently) holds forth on the idea of "affinity" between a pot and a tea. He argues that there are no hard-and-fast rules regarding clay type and favorable teas, or pot shape and tea, or -- etc. Rather, he says, the affinity between a tea and its pot is something a little more mysterious, magical even: "It is the magic of Yixing clay. So clear is this phenomenon that I am tempted sometimes to say that even though the teapot has no tongue, it can speak for itself and tell you if the tea suits it or not" (ibid., p. 22). The book offers examples of pots speaking for themselves on the subject of tea. If not poetry, certainly poetic.

Lim's book -- which documents his own "experiment" with Yixing -- is in part a celebration of tea and pots, but it is also one fan's response against what passes for conventional wisdom, even rules, in the tea world. What is the standard? he asks. What drives the standard; what determines one way over another? How can you pinpoint quality? And what is the basis of this or that steadfast rule? Not particularly new questions, you'll agree, but ones that seem to come up again and again in this rarified community of ours, where East and West meet to teach and learn and separate myth and fact, substance and hype, over a cup of tea.

[Aside: another great pot book is the massive Chinese Yixing Teawares, a hardbound, stunningly gorgeous catalogue of pots from the collection of Taiwan's MAI Foundation.]

But what about the tea?

An excellent post on THE HALF-DIPPER (a tea blog you should know if you don't already, by an eloquent cat named Hobbes in Oxford) decided the cake for me: 2005 Xi-Zhi Hao Lao Banzhang (spelling differs slightly in various places).

Hobbes's post inspired me to try this particular tea again anyway; it had been a year since I'd brewed it. I wanted something big -- Banzhang! -- that would make itself known, so that within certain fireworks any difference(s) between gaiwan and pot might be clear rather than subtle and nuanced. A fair theory -- on paper, anyway. The Xi-Zhi seemed to fit the bill.

Would've been best to use two vessels of the same size but, making do with what I have, I used my newish 150-ml Yixing pot and a 100-ml gaiwan. Following my standard tasting-test ratio of 5 gr per 100 ml, I adjusted to 7.5 gr of leaves for the pot. I also followed the fairly standard brewing process of 20-15-20-25-30-35-45 seconds (etc.) for infusion time. First (20 seconds) was rinse only.

A year ago I'd paid some attention to the 2005 Xi-Zhi Hao, comparing it to two other impressive Banzhang cakes (notes posted here on CHA DAO) -- but I did not recall what I'd said and chose not to refresh my memory until after tasting the cake again.

(Funny that I'd be moved to experience Banzhangs in the same month, almost exactly one year apart. Hobbes must be right: "Cold November mornings were made for teas like this.")

The dry cake is lovely to behold -- big, flat leaves, loosely packed together -- and it smells truly like a big Banzhang tea: a sharp, dry, perfumed and very familiar green aroma fills the nose (if not the room itself).

I decided to brew in the 100-ml gaiwan first -- this is my standard method for benchmarking teas, anyway. Seemed reasonable to start with the familiar -- draw out what I could based on old habits -- and then compare the brew to what happens in the dance with a Yixing pot.

I recently acquired the pot from Scott at Yunnan Sourcing. I've had a fair amount of difficulty finding a smallish shengpu pot that satisfies with frequent use, but this one is magnificent. (Borrowing, ahem, a page from Lim's book, for me there must be some magic in the pot. Most have either been too big for daily use, or have lacked magic.) This one pours beautifully and I like the simple lines. Clay seemed to be of excellent quality, too (purportedly 1992 Zhuni, though that ultimately doesn't matter to me), and has a ring to it that makes me think it is high fired. For these and other reasons, including magic, I just love the pot. I've used it every day since it arrived in the mail, roughly a month ago. Sheng pu-erh, five years and younger, daily.

So -- everything lined up, time to begin the experiment.

For the aroma in the lid, after a 20-second rinse in the gaiwan, I wrote: "Smoky sweet, but better than ash or cigarettes. Faintly: Chinese medicine. Liquor: crystal clear, tending towards orange." (Last year I wrote: "After sitting for a minute the rinse smells smoky but not of cigarettes." How's that for consistency in a tea?)

Reading the newer words now, just hours later, I can say unequivocally that these are the notes of someone who is looking forward to the imminent pleasures of a great tea. Pot, gaiwan, leaf, water -- it is "all dialed in" as the hip kids say, and -- to mix metaphors -- we're about to reach cruising altitude. (Actually scratch that, I have no idea whatsoever what the hip kids say. And they definitely don't mix metaphors.)

But you get the idea. The aroma in the lid and the rinsed gaiwan said: "Sit back and enjoy the flight."

Problem is, there really wasn't much of a take-off, let alone a reaching of cruising altitude.

The apparently impressive tea -- rich with real Banzhang tree flavors and packed with elusive Qi -- didn't really do much for me this time around, no matter how I brewed it. It was good enough, but hardly amazing. By the fourth and fifth brews there was a little bitterness in the brew that seemed to bring forward a perfumed aftertaste, but after the hints, the teases, there was no big ... arrival ... of anything. Just really subtle hints. The soup was "thick" -- that's all I could come up with in my notes -- but for flavor I once wrote "tasteless." And my note for the 30-second brew was one word: "m-e-l-l-o-w."

I must report that it did seem ever so slightly better with the Yixing pot. There seemed to be a better balance between the sweet and bitter. After the rinse I wrote: "here the smoky aroma has crept away, into the recesses of another, darker aroma -- sweet and bitter -- but what is it?"

For both brewing styles, the "rinse" aromas were lovely, but they made promises that mostly came to nothing. The pot-brewed soup came with an almost immediate aftertaste, something like Muscat on the lips and throat, but it was a tease that didn't fill out or last for very long.

Last year, at the 25 second infusion, I wrote: "Still restrained, but complex. I want more, because the hints are amazing."

Ditto for this year.

Understand, I'm not this obsessed all the time. Well, okay, maybe I am this obsessed all the time, but I definitely don't have the hours every day to pour so much attention into a single tea session. Like many of us (I'm guessing) my daily tea brewing and drinking is some kind of bastardization of the gongfu method: small pot, lots of leafage, multiple & quick infusions. It's that simple. And I choose teas based on whim. Whatever strikes the fancy. In other words, it's not always this precise.

But I had a plan. And, here I found myself, in the middle of an experiment comparing gaiwan to Yixing, in which the real question suddenly became: what exactly makes a great tea great?

With this particular tea, I couldn't see it. Apparently the 2005 Xi-Zhi Hao Lao Banzhang was featured on the cover of Pu-erh Teapot magazine and ranked first in its production year by a group of Asian collectors (?) -- so it comes with pedigree. There is something there for me -- a reminder of greatness; as I said, a tease -- but the tea never really rises to the occasion. (As an aside: if anyone would like to recommend a brewing style for this tea in the comments below, please do. I'll try anything to make it come alive. I will, by the way, be conducting the five-minute stress test, a.k.a. competition-style brewing method, and will post the results.)

Is a good tea a strong tea, flavor-forward -- full of fireworks and fury? No. Some are this way; but not all. It isn't a requirement. Some are quiet and restrained and nuanced. They wake up slowly. But you stick with them because there is a payoff ... somewhere. Somehow. They do eventually wake up. Right?

Someone recently posted an improvised guide to "benchmarking a good tea" on the LJ Pu-erh Community site. One consideration was "lightness" -- a quality described as something like an initial tastelessness that however "comes back from within." Sounds great! And I like the idea of the return, the rhyme, the aftertaste from within -- especially because this benchmark quality seems to contradict another on the same list: "A good tea will have a full body [when consumed] ..."

(Read the comments to that LJ post; additional benchmarks are offered and seem just right.)

This tea seems to have neither lightness nor heaviness. Nothing "oily" even if there is a little thickness to the soup. That's my own personal take on it; let the stoning begin.

Maybe it comes down to this. To adapt a famous aperçu of Tolstoy, all bad teas are bad in the same way, but all great teas, are great for their own reasons.

Well. Whatever Leo might've said, the point applies. A tea can be great for many different reasons. I've drunk some that make themselves known immediately. Others that make themselves known slowly -- taking their time, like a good long story with a worthwhile punch line. Others: it's all about the aftertaste. Yet others: it's about something else. Qi. Or whatever you'd like to call it.

Something in the Xi-Zhi Hao Lao Ban Zhang makes me want to say it is "great" or even "regal" -- but I think that's me giving in to the influence of what I've heard and read about it. Physically, it was "soothing" to drink -- but again, to me, hardly a great tea.

On the opposite side of a benchmarking list for great teas is a list of excuses for why a supposedly good tea doesn't shine. Poor storage. Incorrect water. Wrong pot. Wrong gaiwan. Wrong attitude. Poor attention. Afternoon session, not morning. Morning session, not afternoon. Catching a young sheng pu-erh in the wrong year. Or during a dry season. And on and on. That's all good and well -- but a great tea should make itself known despite the difficulties.

Please don't say it is all "personal taste" because while that is true, I do believe that quality finds company. Or, at least, quality finds an audience. Some teas are -- must be -- better than others. Better leaf, better farming, better process for turning into a tea cake. Better storage. And so forth. Me, I'm still in search of that consensus. And so, next: same test, different tea.

16 comments:

corax said...

adrian, you are far too modest. i googled 'hip kids' and your picture came up first.

i'm intrigued by the counterpoint in your essay between standards and subjectivity. i surmise that your word 'consensus' is in some way crucial to this whole discussion. you usefully remind us not only that different people will evaluate a given tea differently, but also that even the selfsame person will experience a tea variously at different times. and yet: a vendor must put a price on each tea, and h/er clients will either buy it at that price, or not. money, as they say, talks. this is one of the most telling indices of evaluation; and the very setting and paying of this or that price represents, i maintain, a sort of consensus.

in that regard, it's no wonder that tea aficionados spend so much time shopping around and comparing notes; it's a constant process of adding to our data and adjusting our expectations, the better to evaluate teas we own or might want to own. too, the very act of reading someone else's tasting notes is a gesture [at least] in the direction of consensus. and moreover, as a classicist i cannot resist commenting on the word 'consensus' itself, which in latin means something like 'common/shared perception'; this of course is one of the great pleasures of savoring tea with someone else.

finally [for the moment; nothing here is ever entirely final], one of the profoundest powers of tea is its capacity to help us reach across the vast gulf that separates soul from soul: the question 'do you taste what i taste?' has the capacity to go much deeper, i think, than mere gustation.

adrian said...

[corax]:

"finally [for the moment; nothing here is ever entirely final], one of the profoundest powers of tea is its capacity to help us reach across the vast gulf that separates soul from soul: the question 'do you taste what i taste?' has the capacity to go much deeper, i think, than mere gustation."

---

a lovely, lovely thought, corax. and really at the heart of what makes this so much fun and worthwhile.

-a

Hobbes said...

Dear Adrian,

What a good post; thanks for the detailed and very readable notes. I love the subtle humour in your writing.

This tea is an odd one, I fear. To add one further subjective element to an already nebulous nebula, my impression of a tea also depends on what I have not been encountering of late.

So, taking this 2005 Xizihao as an examplar, my previous days had been filled with very humdrum teas, redefining the word "mundane". This tea came as a noticeable step-change with regard to them, and was very welcome.

I heartily approve of your ability to reject previous words by a tea. Truly independent tasting is a rare thing indeed, as one can see in the various "on-line tastings" that occur; in order to get closer to the goal of an independent tasting, we perform all manner of odd feats to try and remove prior information from the task - with varying degrees of success.

In all honesty, the "lone voices" are the ones that appeal to me the most, and which I find the most informative when making tea-related decisions; if ten people say one thing, but one person says another - chances are, that person has identified something unique that will interest me (or they've messed it up, which is definitely possible with me).

Thanks again for the article, and toodlepip,

Hobbes

Warren said...

[corax]:

"the selfsame person will experience a tea variously at different times"

---
That's exactly right. There are some objective parameters to evaluating tea. But... depending on many many different factors, one's experience of the exact same tea can vary tremendously at various times. Let's face it, each day is different. Some days it rains, some days the sun is shining. Some days it's cold, some days it's warm.

Basically it all comes down to how we feel, and our perceptions of our environment. Some days we don't feel so good, so that affects how we enjoy a tea. Some days we don't like the crappy color of the paint, and we want to re-paint, but there are no little elves around to help us do it quickly, etc., etc. You get the idea.

And this is exactly what ancient Chinese tea masters have written in their books, starting with Lu Yu - well, not about elves, but about how to properly enjoy tea, and when it's inappropriate to drink tea. It all comes down to that Yin-Yang philosophy; and seeking the center, or harmonious way.

Adrian said...

Speaking of consensus, when I re-read this piece it seems very much the start of a conversation (I hope), and so it's gratifying to read the comments - which all ring true.

I like the idea of the shared experience of tea, which I live daily (I'm always pushing the stuff on my friends) but don't often put into words as beautifully as Corax did. There's an old post by Phyll Sheng about, if I recall correctly, the anxiety of deciding just how far to take it, re: tea experience, when friends stop by for a visit. Funny and accurate.

I also respond to this notion (descr. by Warren) of what *we* bring to the tea; another reason why this tea universe is so attractive. Sometimes (maybe always?) the time spent coaxing value out of tea, or comfort and pleasure out of tea, or simply good flavor out of a tea, is in fact time spent finding your own center in a busy day, a cluttered world. Yeah, that seems right.

The choice of tea for this experiment was almost entirely arbitrary - I just happened to see Hobbes' review ... and I'm glad it has spurred this conversation.

I think I am also interested in the dissemination of information in this tea community. More specifically: I have been trying to finish a review of the new Art of Tea magazine, and I thought a tea tasting would be a good distraction for a moment. But the tea itself brought me right back to the subject of authority and information. In this community - disjointed and global and fascinatingly diverse - there are several points where East meets West, and usually right there East is teaching West what it knows about tea. I read the amateur blogs written as labors of love, some are brilliant. But I am troubled by the blogs that are in fact storefronts. Is a blogger who fashions himself after a tea master and writes emphatically about what makes a good tea, and then happens to sell that tea -- is that person a blogger or a merchant? or both? you decide for yourself, I have my own opinion on itand can think of more than one example of such.

And the Art of Tea. After the initial and obvious fact that the mag desparately needs a good English language editor (it's fair to argue for that, given their desire to reach an English language market), there are other issues of authority at stake. Hopefully I'll finish that review soon. Sharpen your weapons as ye wait...

Warren said...

Adrian asked: What makes a great tea great? Corax said: setting or paying of this or that price is consensus.

Well, tea is really a commodity, so it's pure market demand that is driving prices. On the supply side, if there's not much puer, and demand is high, the price goes up.

It's the same with all the teas that are extremely famous and popular in China. Mostly, it's all domestic demand within China that determines pricing.

For example, Anxi teas - most people in Fujian drink Tieguanyin exclusively. They wouldn't even consider purchasing Huang Jin Gui. So, you can buy a very excellent Huang Jin Gui pretty cheaply - perhaps at 1/3 the cost of a comparable tieguanyin.

The same is for Wuyi teas. Dahongpao is pretty famous. So the price is also very high. Buy a pretty good Tie Luo Han on the other hand, and the price is much cheaper.

I have talked to tea vendors in China about pricing too versus tea quality. Some teas taste almost identical, yet, one is priced much higher than another. They said, it's all about what the market is willing to pay. Some people praise one variety of TGY more highly than another, and the price is much higher.

Tea vendors really know how to burn their customers on this one in China. A customer (not a friend of the tea vendor) comes into the tea store, they ask for TGY. The vendor is very friendly and courteous, and serves a low-quality TGY. The customer doesn't like it. So they brew up another batch of tea - still not very good. Then they bring out a good batch. But it's not TGY, it's a Ben Shan, or Huang Jin Gui - except the vendor says it's TGY. The customer never knows and they pay the high TGY price instead of what they should be paying.

So, when buying tea in China, as with anything, it's all about guanxi (connections), and who you know. That's the only way to get good tea in China. But.. heck, I just go for the Huang Jin Gui. I don't have to drink TGY. And it saves me money.

You know, there are some really really excellent teas in China, where the price is so low, you just wouldn't believe. No demand for them, so not too many people know about them or drink them. Only the local peasants drink the stuff.

Warren said...

Adrian, I'm sure you must be doing everything mechanically correctly to brew tea - as well as anyone could do - whether in the East or in the West.

There must be something else, our feelings and perceptions, as I said, that alter our tea experience.

I also like the idea of a shared experience of tea. And I have also read stories of tea competitions in ancient China - to see who could brew the best tea - under the same conditions. I think that is something that should be checked out. There are online tea tastings, but people should meet in person, and compare notes. Have a go at brewing the same teas - with the same utensils, and with utensils of choice. That would be cool. Modern tea competition. They have tea events all around China where tea enthusiasts or "teaists" get together and make tea - but they all bring their own teas, and their own equipment. That might be something cool to try out sometime here in the back woods.

Grasshopper said...

Adrian--

Great article! Look forward to the final word on the gaiwan-zisha comparison. Also to the mag review. What makes a great tea? Hard to say since jasmine tea is likely the biggest seller. We could judge them like Johnson suggests we judge lit: If people will drink a tea when it's 100yo, it is by definition great.

MarshalN said...

Adrian: Thanks for the well written post. Gaiwan vs Yixing Pot is a subject that will always generate debate. My take on it personally is that it matters more for some teas than others, and it also matters more what kind of pot you're using than just a generic "pot". But I have no clue what the specific answers to any of those "depends" questions are :)

Looking forward to your review of the mag, although I think the primary market is, in fact, not the American readers, but more like people in Malaysia, Singapore, etc who have access to lots of tea (and be a potential customer for the teas featured) yet don't read Chinese and thus cannot be subject to the hype that the mag generates. I hope I'm not stealing your thunder :)

Corax: Surely you forgot about the cost of other things, such as advertising, hype, speculation, price discrimination (where one customer gets charged more than the other for the same thing because of who they are), etc?

adrian said...

[MarshalN: I think the primary market is, in fact, not the American readers, but more like people in Malaysia, Singapore, etc who have access to lots of tea (and are potential customers for the teas featured) yet don't read Chinese and thus cannot be subject to the hype that the mag generates. I hope I'm not stealing your thunder ]

Not at all, Marshal, in fact that is good to know. One could guess that, I suppose, based on the ads... Thanks! I think for me audience location is secondary; regardless of "where" - the magazine is reaching for an English-language audience... Anyway, we'll see what comes of it.

MarshalN said...

Agreed, I don't think it gives them license to have sloppy editing.

corax said...

[marshaln] Corax: Surely you forgot about the cost of other things, such as advertising, hype, speculation, price discrimination (where one customer gets charged more than the other for the same thing because of who they are), etc?

[corax] i guess the reason i didn't comment on those costs is that i was more focused on the consensus that arises from the very sharing of tea: the human act of drinking together, in real time and face-to-face if possible, is a way of overcoming existential isolation -- not only of experiencing sensory pleasure, but also of taking joy from the fact that such pleasure is shared by the other tea-drinkers with you.

but the factors you list here are precisely the sorts of things that may destroy consensus. advertising and hype, i suppose, could sometimes foster it, if everyone is similarly affected by them; but if someone, say, buys up huge quantities of a particular tea on spec, thereby basically taking it right off the market, there can by definition be no consensus about it. and yes, outrages such as price discrimination are very destructive to consensus: if i find i am being charged drastically more [or less] than you for a tea, i may be filled with anger, and/or may suspect that you and i are not even getting the same tea. and/or i might decide not to buy the tea at all. it's very difficult to build consensus in situations like that. [conversely, if a whole group of people find that they have been the victims of price discrimination or hype, they may -- ironically -- find a new sort of consensus over that issue. i imagine you've seen this happen, as i have.]

Jason Fasi said...

You can thank me for that series of pots. I found those at an Yixing store that just opened up two days before I visited it at the northern Kunming tea market. When I saw what quality they were, I bought six of them. Already having surveyed Shanghai, Hong Kong, Guangzhou, and Taiwan for good yixing, they were the best in their price range by leaps and bounds.

I begged Scott for nearly two weeks to get into the store. I told him, "THESE are the quality of pots you should be selling." Finally, after i'd bought pots there on four occasions, he asked me to take him. We entered the store, and literally a minute into our time there he was called away to pick up his order elsewhere. I considered it a lost cause.

Months later, the pots popped up on his ebay store, and I smiled from ear to ear. When I returned to the US and showed a tea store owner here the same pot you have, she held it close to her face and said, "That's real zhu ni!" without looking at the underside of the pot at all...she now carries them in five different styles.

I've devoted that same pot, incidentally, to shu pu'er. It makes excellent, mellow, rich shu. My favorite attribute of this pot: its red color deepens to purple when hot. It seasons quickly as well, which you may have already noticed. After using it twice per week since June, my hot water heating rinse yields peach colored water, and its deepened a shade.

adrian said...

I'm not religious, but God bless you, Jason.

Was wondering about the pedigree - and thank you for the tale.

-a

corax said...

[grasshopper] What makes a great tea? Hard to say since jasmine tea is likely the biggest seller. We could judge them like Johnson suggests we judge lit: If people will drink a tea when it's 100yo, it is by definition great.

[corax] LOL! a fittingly literary reference from you, grasshopper.

you know, i might go so far as to impute a certain measure of greatness to any tea that makes it to 100 years of age -- whether people are drinking it at that point or not! maybe that's what you mean by 'by definition.'

icetea8 said...

Teapot vs. the cover bowl....
Hello corax and all,
here's my take, a purple sandy clay teapot(a kind of yixing teapot) or stoneware teapot vs. a porcelain cover bowl,
some yixing teapots are the best money can buy and this can be expensive, so I will use a stoneware comparison and also with the porcelain cover bowl, we can also use good quality stoneware made of sandy clay which is made of different size particle and that’s what makes them good, useful and beautiful, some goes for the yixing vessels, which also have great cover bowls. We need to remember that the comparison is not only pot vs. bowl but stoneware vs. porcelain.
Stoneware teapot (unglazed)-holds heat well, some say the pot is good for flavor
Porcelain cover bowl -released heat well, some say the bowl is good for scent
To me it is like apples and oranges they are different but!!!!! Both are the same (fruits), of course to get the same results you should adjust your brewing times and brewing temperatures. One interesting fact is in some areas of china the seem to have never heard of pots for they use bowls all the time and of course they are brewing green tea, bingo! The green tea in not process much so the water temperature should be much lower than boiling 75C? , and in other areas they seem never to use a bowl, and bingo! Roasted oolongs, and the temps should be boiling which is about 95C due to steam, the pots work great because they retain heat.
icetea…