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Tea 101


Chris Amirault
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It's an interesting question--how do you tell the difference between better and lesser teas? I've been reading a lot and asking questions here and elsewhere as I try to figure out what teas are worth my time and effort and which aren't. The ones I generally like best have a lot of flavor from each leaf or piece of leaf, give me some leeway in brewing conditions, and when I get them just right, are terrific.

An example of one that I used to like a lot, but have mostly put aside now, is an inexpensive green jasmine tea. If brewed just right, it can be ok, but if I am just a little distracted and use water that is too hot or let it sit a bit too long, it rapidly gets bitter--and not just a little bitter, a lot bitter. And if I do get it just right, its best is never anything to sing about. At best, it's good. In comparison, the japanese Sencha we're also tasting now is so sweet and lush that even when I don't hit it just right, the sweet outweighs the mild bitter, and when I get it just right, it's pure heaven.

Another example would be the Lao Mansa puerh from Norbutea that we're tasting right now. The first time I brewed it I got quite a bit of bitterness, but also could tell that there was a lot of wonderfulness there too. In subsequent brewings, a lower brewing temperature after the first rinse really downplayed the bitterness, and suddenly the sweet, fruity and spicy flavors came through big time. So a moderate downside if I do it wrong, but a very big upside when I get it right. The cooked puerhs I started with are less prone to bitterness, but at their best, they're not nearly as interesting as the Lao Mansa.

I tried to think of some other rules that would distinguish the keepers from the try them once, and these rules didn't help: leaf size--some of them have big intact leaves, some little tiny buds, some are broken bits; intensity of color of the dry leaf--some are bright green or rich dark brown, but some are pale gray; scent--some strongly scented before wetting, some almost odorless until they're infusing; and price--it's a relief to realize that I'm not automatically preferring only the most expensive ones!

Edited by Wholemeal Crank (log)
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That's a good start, WmC. And I think your "rules that don't help" dilemma has to do with at least four issues: 1) different rules for different types of tea, 2) differences within categories at different quality and/or price levels, 3) individual differences in tastebud sensitivities (as you know) and preferences, and 4) tea mysteries (like knowing which pu-erhs will age well).

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  • 2 weeks later...

Tea greetings, just realized this was still alive and moved.

Pitiful and pedestrian: I mostly mean teabag tea as compared to the more exotic teas that are discussed so interestingly here. I have over 30 types of bagged tea on hand, and only about 10 types of smaller batch loose teas, mostly from tea specialty shops purchased while traveling.

I find that the water makes a big difference. Bad water = bad tea.

I am enjoying reading and trying the multiple infusions with my loose teas. Also trying to take the water temp, but mostly scorching myself, how is that best done?

Another discovery is the aroma, I am finding after reading here that this is more important than I realized. My cheapie teas have about zero aroma. It seems that this is one of the big differentiators.

Bottom line, does anyone here want to hear about grocery store teas or is this just a big snore?

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There are some very nice teas available in bags, especially in the last few years. I've had some terrific jasmine pearls in bags. I know that there are high quality European-style teas especially there, but I generally don't like that type of tea for it's flavor profile, not because it's in bags.

I'd be happy to hear about the teas you like, and why, bagged, loose, fancy or basic.

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Tea greetings, just realized this was still alive and moved.

Pitiful and pedestrian: I mostly mean teabag tea as compared to the more exotic teas that are discussed so interestingly here. I have over 30 types of bagged tea on hand, and only about 10 types of smaller batch loose teas, mostly from tea specialty shops purchased while traveling.

I find that the water makes a big difference. Bad water = bad tea.

I am enjoying reading and trying the multiple infusions with my loose teas. Also trying to take the water temp, but mostly scorching myself, how is that best done?

Another discovery is the aroma, I am finding after reading here that this is more important than I realized. My cheapie teas have about zero aroma. It seems that this is one of the big differentiators.

Bottom line, does anyone here want to hear about grocery store teas or is this just a big snore?

I am glad to read about any tea that you find of interest for whatever reason. We're all learners here and questions and other posts of all sorts lead in many interesting directions. There's nothing "wrong" with grocery store teas, bagged or loose. While it is true the better quality teas are sold loose, there are some that are now sold in bags that are a little larger and give the leaves more room during the infusion, though they are still not as effective as letting the leaves flow freely within a tea pot or even within many teacup infusers - and they are more expensive. The problem with most teabag teas is that they are filled with the lowest quality leaf, essentially tea dust. And the drawback to grocery store teas is that they are often over-priced for the quality you receive. Nonetheless, there is a place for them and a lot of people find them convenient.

Yes, water is very important to brewing well. What are you doing for your tea water?

The aroma generally is more prominent with quality teas, and if aroma is important to you, you may want to seek out teas that are known for their aroma and select teaware that will make the most of it.

Ten loose leaf teas may not sound like a lot, but it's more than most people have. And nothing bad about having small amounts. I prefer to buy teas an ounce or two at a time. While some teas have a long shelf life, many start fading soon after you get them, so large quantities are not always practical to store. And with small quantities I can explore more teas than if I bought larger quantities of each tea, given the same total amount of money for my tea budget.

So if you have something to report or a question about a tea, "snoozer" or not, post away. If it's just boring to you and you're finding teas you enjoy, then....

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  • 2 months later...

Bumping up this TEA 101 topic to remind other members and readers that tea can be brewed in a regular old mug or teapot - since we have so much "way beyond 101" tea brewing going on in the forum. If you are feeling confused or intimidated by all this gongfu/yixing/kyusu/gyokuro gibberish, no need to fear. Brewing a good cup of tea is relatively simple, and this topic has some helpful basic tips. Also a good place to ask any questions at all.

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