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Friday, October 17, 2014

About Teas and Terroir

More and more, the term terroir is popping up, and with the expected misrepresentations and explanations. One tea vendor even wants to include culture (as in types of clothing worn, languages spoken, traditions, etc.) in the mix. So I thought it was time to see what I could find out. Is it just more confusing lingo about tea, or is terroir the new defining quality that distinguishes the great teas from the good teas from the dust in those teabags at the grocery store? If it is the latter, all the more need for sorting things out a bit.

Sloping or level, high elevation or low, sunny or rainy – all part of terroir

The Simple Explanation

Terroir is a French word, meaning essentially “soil.” It was originally applied to wines to show how the soil made a difference in the flavors of the wine.

The Evolution of That Simple Explanation

Language is fluid and changes constantly over time. I know this because I have a dictionary (that is practically falling apart by now from extensive use) that has some definitions much different from my new replacement dictionary. Words like “nauseous” that used to mean “inducing a feeling of nausea” but now also means the feeling of nausea, so that you now have to ask someone which they mean or try to discern it from their full sentence. “I am nauseous” is, for example, totally ambiguous. But often words get additional meanings tacked on, which is the case with terroir. People have added environment to the mix – wind, temperature range, rainfall, days of fog/mist, etc. Plus other factors have been thrown in – cultivar, age of the tea plant (tree, bush), how much active cultivation by humans takes place, period of dormancy, degree of slope the plants grow on (I guess this makes since because water will run down so that tea plant further up will be dryer), elevation, and so on. The list seems to grow every day. This is probably due to no exact definition or explanation being accepted throughout the tea industry, just as with other terms like oxidation vs. fermentation.

What’s NOT Part of That Explanation IMHO

All of these extra items are good to know and also good to see people having that interest, but several are outside of the true scope of what terroir is. I especially draw the line at people saying a tea from one country tasting different from the tea from another country is due to their culture and that that is part of terroir. The differences in flavors can be in part due to culture, such as the more seafoodish flavors I have perceived in teas from Japan. But that, I believe, is more to do with how the teas are processed, not how they are grown. And since the term terroir has to do with the growing side of things, we can’t include these cultural things in it. Even some of the growing factors can’t be included. Organic methods is a prime example. Those tea farmers who were already not using factory produced chemicals (as opposed to those that occur naturally and make up everything in the world) would definitely not be doing so because of culture but because of economics. Now, many grow that way due to pressures on them from various groups who get paid for the certification process. But also cultivation methods, harvesting methods, and tea plant/bush/tree age are not part of terroir, even though they are part of growing. Remember that terroir means “soil,” so limiting this term to location, elevation, and environment seems the most sensible solution.

As always, we welcome your comments.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Sensual Delicacy of Fine Teas

I’d better preface this article with the statement that this is intended as my own musings on tea, not as something hard and fast to go by. There have been occasions in the past when folks thought the opposite – an oversight on my part that I will try to avoid in future. As a tea vendor, I have the privilege quite often of selecting those teas for my store that I actually like as opposed to just what is popular or will sell a lot. In fact, my store is dedicated to those teas I would personally classify as “fine teas.” That is, they are higher quality than many you will find, certainly higher than what is available in the big box stores, and are often very special, unique, and hand-crafted teas. Why? Because these teas provide something the others don’t, something that could be called “sensual delicacy.” Special aromas and flavors – ones that are not flat and singular but that have depth and variety, presenting something up front at that first sip and then revealing their full spectrum as you savor.

Many of you reading this already know of and seek out this “sensual delicacy” in your tea as well as other qualities that can only come from these fine teas such as the ability to infuse them many times and observe the changes in their flavor profiles. This quality makes possible the sensual delicacy provided by watching how the leaves expand as they soak up moisture to replace what was taken from them during processing – during this time they can seem to twirl and dance and writhe in what some call the “agony of the leaves” and what others call their “dance of joy.” This visual aspect, including admiring the leaves when you are done infusing them, is totally lacking in teas that are ground to dust, poured into little teabags and then infused by dunking the bag up and down into hot water.

I know that life can be hectic, that grabbing a quick cup of something caffeinated in the morning before heading off to work is often a necessity, so these fine teas have to wait for when you have the time to enjoy them thoroughly and properly. Or do they? Steeping mugs that you can carry around with you, often ones that are clear so you see the tea inside them, lets you enjoy the sensual delicacy of these teas even when you are dashing from place to place or stuck at your desk (I’m thinking of you phone support folks as an example here) for hours. You can still get multiple infusions and enjoy the vision of those leaves infusing. You can still sip and savor. So you can avoid the teabag for that quick morning tea or the one you drink during the day.

Or maybe it’s better to save these teas for when you can give them your full attention. My personal experience is that I enjoy them more when I can focus my mind on the sensory input – the taste, aroma, and general feeling they impart. You can also take time to infuse them in a way meant to maximize pulling out of the leaves all the goodness in them.

Enough musing. Time to go enjoy some of that sensual delicacy!

Friday, October 10, 2014

Is It a Black Tea, a Green Tea, or an Oolong?

The difference between a black tea, a green tea, and an oolong can be difficult to tell sometimes. This article will focus on the difference that is due not to cultivars but to the level of oxidation. As in how much (expressed in percent) the leaves have been allowed to oxidize (often mislabeled as fermentation, a totally different chemical process as we wrote about here and here on this blog). Most tea sites will describe green teas as “un-oxidized” (actually, they can be oxidized to about 5% just getting from the field to the factory), black teas as “fully oxidized” (more correctly 95-100%), and oolongs as “partially oxidized.” But that’s not very exact, so a closer look is warranted here.

Debates arise about teas at the ends of the oxidation scale (light to dark). An example at the light end is Pouchong (aka “Baozhong”), which some vendors put with their green teas and other vendors with their oolongs. At the other end (heavy oxidation) of the scale is a category called “Champagne Oolongs,” also known as Xiangbing, Baihao (White Hair Oolong), Pengfeng (Puff Tea), and Dongfang Meiren (Oriental Beauty), which are considered heavily oxidized and the nearest oolongs get to being black teas. [There is some confusion between a heavy (but not fully) oxidized oolong and a dark roasted oolong due to the dry leaves both being fairly dark. They are not the same thing.]

I need to mention Darjeeling teas here as sort of a side note. Many of them get classified as black teas although the tea leaves are not black. That is basically due to the classification being based on the amount of oxidation the leaves have undergone during processing but also a historical matter. Some experts consider them more like oolongs in terms of oxidation levels.

Oxidation Levels

Some sources say the range is 10-80%, 12-90%, 8-70%, or 10-70%. There seems no consensus, so the table below is to be considered a general guide only. This is gathered from various tea listings:

One source says there is a difference in oxidation levels between oolongs from China and those from it’s sister nation Taiwan: Chinese oolongs range from 10% to 20% oxidation only – very light; Taiwanese oolongs are oxidized to 70%, producing stronger flavors. How credible this is can be doubtful, considering that Tieguanyin, a Chinese oolong, is usually oxidized more than 20%. But the real issue is when does a tea oxidize enough to be an oolong, and that seems to be above 5%, and when to be called a black tea and that seems to be above 90% (some sources say 95% minimum oxidation).

Roasting Effects

Oolongs are roasted (baked) to stop oxidation, further dry the leaves, and shape them. They can undergo several roastings, depending on the tea being created. This will also darken the leaves. So again I say not to go by the color of the leaves. These Dancong oolongs vary in color, as do the Anxi oolongs shown above, due at least in part to the roasting:

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Thoughts on Labeling Teas

There was a time when you drove to the grocery store, went to the coffee aisle, and hunted for that box of teabags filled with “black tea” dust. At one point, someone started claiming that green tea was more healthy to drink, so boxes of teabags labeled “green tea” began appearing alongside the black tea ones. No other labeling. No tea garden name. No harvest time or flush time. No specifier to the exact type of each tea (gunpowder, sencha, Mao Feng, Chun Mei, etc., for the green; Keemun, Assam, etc., for the black). Are these things really important? Certainly. Let me share some of my thoughts on labeling teas with you by way of explanation.

Different Levels of Label Information

There are various levels of information on tea labels. Here are some:
  • Level 1 (Basic): general tea type (white, green, oolong, black, pu-erh), weight (usually ounces or grams net weight, which means it does not include the packaging), the number of bags if it’s a bagged tea, the company name/logo, and of course the price. These are pretty essential things to know.
  • Level 2: a fancy name for the tea such as “Tahitian Sunrise” or “Golden Sunset”; this is basically marketing and ends up being pretty useless to you, the tea drinker.
  • Level 3: details for those who know or want to learn more about tea, but not too much, things like the tea garden name, the Romanized tea name such as “Tie Guan Yin” (or “Ti Kwan Yin,” etc.) or its translated equivalent such as “Iron Goddess,” any certifications, year harvested and/or flush, steeping instructions, the tea vendor’s web site URL, and so on.
  • Level 4: actual information about the tea garden, location, harvest, processing, etc., which can become essential to you as you learn more about fine teas.
Why the Information Could Matter to You

Do you really need all that information on the label of the tea you buy? Some is good to know: the general type of tea (white, green, oolong, black, pu-erh). But how many folks know or care what Phoenix Mountain is, what “Tie Guan Yin” (or “Ti Kwan Yin,” etc.) means, or where Yunnan province is? So why put these things on a tea’s label? And that fancy name, as I said above, is just a gimmick. Right?

Well, you may not know about tea gardens and flushes and all the other details about the tea you’re buying. But having it available on the label will encourage you to find out, thus learning more about and better appreciating those teas. Knowing about the many tea growing areas of Taiwan can lead you to select just the right oolongs or other Taiwanese teas that suit your taste, for example. And that fancy name can often be easier to remember.

Some Things to Look for on a Tea’s Label

You’ll certainly want to know if it’s a green tea, black tea, pu-erh, etc., in that pouch, tea tin, or other container. Considering the vast difference in flavor between Chinese green teas and Japanese green teas, you will want to know that much at least. Knowing the amount you’re buying is also important. Steeping instructions are good for first-timers but not necessary for those used to the tea. For pu-erh, knowing the factory name and/or tea master and year the cake was pressed is good. One thing is for sure: we need to know more than just “green tea” or “black tea” like those grocery store teas were labeled.

Friday, October 3, 2014

About Grades of Tie Guan Yin (Iron Goddess) Oolong

Tie Guan Yin (铁观音, “Iron Boddhisatva of Mercy,” or simply “Iron Goddess”) has several grades, but what do those grades mean? We wanted to take a closer look. So, we checked with some oolong experts out there. Always a good thing to do. First, though, this article is not a rehashing of the origins of this tea. You can get that in a lot of places.

Grade 6A Tie Guan Yin [photo used with permission]

The Various Grades We’ve Seen

The number of grades of Tie Guan Yin seem endless. And the names for the grades also seems quite varied, with flowery descriptions of them abounding (one of the neatest was: “a refreshing kick you might otherwise only get from a bubbling brook in the Himalayas; it evokes a cool-mountain-air feeling reminiscent of spring, no matter what time of year it is.”).
  • The very best grades: “Monkey-picked,” “Special Grade,” “Selected Grade,” “Master Grade,” “Premium (Competition) Grade,” “Emperor’s Delight,” “Fancy,” “AAA,” and so on.
  • In-between grades: “First-grade,” “Grade A” (sub-divided into 1A, 2A, etc.), “Grade B,” and so on.
  • Lowest grades: If no grade is specified, you are probably dealing with a lower grade tea, but that’s not always the case.
Grading Methods

There seems to be no standard way to grade tieguanyin teas. One source says that the grading is varied with “many different classes” that are set according to their flavor, the best ones (supposedly) being the highest priced, plus the fragrance/color of the infused liquid and the shape and color of the dry tea. Generally, you can look for these qualities: The leaves should be sturdy and consistent in color and size with a freshness to their appearance; the aroma should be orchid-like and fairly strong, best determined by infusing some in a gaiwan and then smelling the aroma on the lid (don’t go by the scent of the dry leaves, which can be quite misleading; the liquid should be clear and pure but can vary in color from a golden color to a yellowish green; hold a sip of tea in your mouth awhile to see if it gets better or worse; a sweet aftertaste with the orchid aroma lasting awhile.

There are also special tea masters said to process the best grades of Tie Guan Yin, and their name will be included as part of the tea name, with good reason. There are quite a few steps involved and can be mastered only after many years of training and experience (see a list here). In addition, the amount of roasting varies from light to dark, and which is best is up to your personal preference. There are also aged versions, ones that have been carefully stored to help them develop richer flavors.

Sometimes a specific area is named such as the famed tea growing Nanhu Mountain range and the area near the town of Xiang Hua in Anxi County. And the harvest season is a factor in grading, with Spring harvest considered the best, Summer the worst, and Autumn being in-between the two.


One thing is for sure – Tie Guan Yin is big business. So much so that Anxi County has a China Tea Capital ( 中国茶都; Zhongguo Chadu) – a large center dedicated to showcasing this tea. Top versions have set record prices due to their quality and limited availability (and a few marketing ploys). Our recommendation is to zero in on the ones that are medium priced, order a sample pack, and give it a try. But then, that’s a good thing to do with any new tea you come across. And why we offer samplers of various teas.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Tea Plant Varietal for Pu-erh

A lot of tea from China is from the Camellia sinensis var. sinensis. Pu-erh is a bit of an exception. It is from a different tea plant varietal. But the real uniqueness of pu-erh comes from the way the leaves are processed more than from that tea plant varietal, which nevertheless still accounts for the difference in the flavors and aromas of pu-erh teas.

The species of plants from which tea is made is Camellia sinensis and the two main varieties are Camellia sinensis var. sinensis and Camellia sinensis var. assamica. The latter is the one used for pu-erh (post-oxidation fermented tea also called “bannacha” by some or even “dark tea”). (The name “camellia” is said to have come from Carolus Linnaeus in honor of Georg Jeoseph Kamel, a Moravian Jesuit who studied Asian plants. Kamel’s name in Latin was “Camellus”; he was a missionary in the Philippines and died in Manilla in 1706, most likely without ever seeing the plants named after him.) It is a broad-leafed plant variety also called da ye or da yi (like the brand name being used by the Menghai Tea Factory).

This broad-leafed Yunnan tea plant is used to produce most of the pu-erhs on the market (at least the ones that can officially be labeled as “pu-erh” by the Geographical Designation put into effect by the Chinese government). Some are classified as tall, small-leafed (yes, a bit contradictory), wild, and ancient. The major growing areas include: Baoshan, Dali, Dehong, Xishuangbanna, Lancang (Mekong) River Basin, and of course Puerh county. Da ye is botanically different from other tea varieties cultivated in China. The leaves are not only larger but rather leathery in texture, and they grow on a multi-trunked tree. You see photos around showing leaves off of the assamica varietal that are longer than a man’s hand. But the leaves used for most pu-erh teas are the bud or smaller stem tip leaves.

Wild (ancient - about 300 years old per our friend Thomas Kasper
of Siamtees.com) tea trees photo found online.

The ancient, wild teas are the most rare, sought-after, and hard to make (in part because of the difficulty in locating the tea trees, getting to them since there are seldom good paved roads leading to them, and climbing them to harvest the leaves). This results in a lot of pu-erh teas being labeled as such even though they aren’t (one estimate is that only about 10% of “wild ancient pu-erhs” on the market really are). The tea tree age is also an issue. Claims of them being hundreds of years old are hard to substantiate. You have to rely on the trustworthiness of the vendor. And the question is how do they tell? Plus there is the issue coming to people’s attention more and more of these tea trees being over-harvested.

All good things to keep in mind when shopping for pu-erh teas.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Mutiple Infusions vs. Overinfusing Your Tea

A question came up the other day on our Facebook page: “If over steeping a tea can make the cup bitter, then why is the same not evidently also true for multiple steepings? Won’t the additional steepings be more bitter than the previous ones?” At the time, we gave a short and not very well thought out response but now want to take the time to post a longer and better response here. The question was a good one and really got the gears in our brain to creaking. Please bear in mind that we are not chemists and are presenting the information in as clear a way as possible for those of you who are also not chemists. Hopefully, the chemists out there will chime in wherever we go astray here.

The basic questions seems to be why a long infusion of a portion of tea leaves would yield one result and several short infusions of a portion of tea leaves would yield another. At least, that’s how we’re reading it here. Let’s take these one at a time.

Each infusion has more tannins in it.
Why a Long Infusion Turns Bitter

Let’s start by saying why tea is bitter in the first place and go from there. In a word, tannins. Camellia sinensis, the species of plants from which teas (not the herbal kind) are made. It has a naturally high tannin content. Tannins are released into the water during the infusion process. This is good due to the catechins and other flavonoids in the tannins. But too much can cause the tea flavor to turn overly tart or astringent.

A big mistake often made when infusing tea leaves is using too few leaves and infusing a longer time to get a stronger flavor, thus releasing too much of the tannins. Another mistake is using poor quality tea leaves or leaves from a cultivar that tends to be bitter (the assamica varietal comes to mind here, but the ones grown in India tend to be more bitter than those grown in Yunnan, Kenya, and elsewhere). Of course, the processing of those leaves can make a big difference in how they infuse. The Yunnan leaves are processed into máochá and then stored to ferment or they undergo wo dui (wet pile fermenting). The longer they are stored, the less likely they are to have any bitterness in the infusion. Some say 15 years is a minimum time.

Water quality can also contribute to bitterness, especially when infusing a tea for several minutes. Minerals and other elements in the water can make it “hard” and influence the tea flavor. Too few of these, though, makes the water “soft” and gives you a “flat” tasting tea. The right amount is needed. Plus, avoiding water that has chlorine or chloramine in it also helps.

All of these are factors that explain bitterness. But why a long infusion is more likely to be bitter than a number of shorter infusions is another matter. The longer you infuse the leaves, the more tannins are released from the leaves and go into the water. Too few will rob you of the benefits of drinking tea and/or give you a weak tea flavor. Too much will cause that bitterness. The longer you infuse, the more tannins are concentrated in the tea liquid.

Why Multiple Short Infusions Aren’t as Likely to Turn Bitter

A great thing about using a gaiwan or Yixing pot for infusing tea leaves is it encourages shorter infusion times. Just be sure to use a sufficient amount of tea leaves to get a good flavor from those short infusions (often less than a minute in duration). The main appeal of these shorter infusions is their tendency not to let tannins build up an overly intense concentration in the water. You may eventually experience some bitterness and can then decide whether to continue infusing the leaves or stop. Unlike one long infusion, therefore, you can get a number of good infusions before reaching that bitter stage.

Bottom Line

The key is concentration of tannins in the liquid. Shorter infusions don’t build up that concentration. Longer infusions do. And now you know.