Friday, May 15, 2015

Sharing tea, getting started on loose tea

I recently gave a friend a number of samples, and not so long before that introduced my family to loose tea on a visit home.  The results were kind of what you'd expect, but since I had two examples of introducing people completely new to tea to a lot of different types I wanted to talk through how that went.  And I get bored with just writing reviews, although I do love the tasting and research parts.

Visiting home (Pennsylvania):

SNOW!!  And wild turkeys, who should be freezing to death.

Just in time for a polar vortex and the coldest weather you could ever find outside of the Arctic, I visited home in America in February.  Perfect for hot tea, really.  It wasn't about bringing tea for them to try but of course I did.

Recommending "real" (loose) tea to someone always starts with something like "what do you like?"  If the answer is black tea as tea bags and some Celestial Seasoning blend--not bad for what it is, but not the same thing--then you start from scratch.  When you are also drinking the tea it's much different; you just grab some and go.

roughing it!

I brought some standard favorites for me to drink, and to share, black teas from different countries, different oolongs (different levels of oxidation, from different countries), different green teas, etc.  While I was there I could finally "get in on" mail-order shopping in America, without paying to ship the teas back to close to their starting point in Asia.  A tea contact was just then offering specials due to closing an on-line shop (Tea Journeyman store), so I added a white, Ceylon, and Indonesian black tea.

I'd just been to Vietnam not long before then and green teas are nice there, and pretty consistent.  I'd just ordered some really nice black and darker oolong from a source in Vietnam after that trip (Hatvala), so between those and others we were drinking teas I liked.

I expected black teas to seem familiar, since they are related to what goes in tea bags.  To me lightly oxidized oolongs also seem a really approachable form of tea.

excited about tea or cold?  both!

I was surprised it was all so well received.  My nephew seemed to love the teas the most but everyone tried them and for the most part liked all the teas.  Later my Mom said she didn't care for one, the Ceylon, likely due to that edge of astringency, but she liked all the rest.

Since I was there brewing technique was a bit less of an issue; I could keep making it.  I can still over-steep my own teas from time to time but in general the process is relatively automatic, and I'm informal enough about it I'm not setting timers all the time.  Adjusting water temperature for green tea brewing is another issue but I also don't mind getting that roughly right.

For some others this would be the chance to really get on it, break out more gear, introduce Gong Fu Cha (Chinese for tea technique, essentially, but it sounds much more impressive than that), and try out lots of teas most would never cross paths with.  But I took it the other way, as a chance to normalize drinking decent tea, interesting teas but to me ordinary teas.  Plus I was really jet-lagged (the time shift is 12 hours, opposite side of the planet), so I needed lots of tea, ideally with minimal messing around.  Given that starting point my family could also soon make the tea in the same way, and continue to after I left.

visiting with a very special person

Seems there should be lessons learned, right, what to do differently, what worked and what didn't.  Not so much.  Everyone liked the teas, but if anything it all seemed more normal to them than I'd have expected, not so different than tea bags, even though it is.

I'm sure there is plenty of work to be done ramping up their brewing technique, and tea gear stock, and working through sourcing issues, but all of that depends on them wanting to keep drinking loose teas.

Giving teas to a Bangkok expat friend

One of my expat friends here mentioned considering getting into teas related to reading some claims about health benefits (see, that marketing spin does work).  One irony is that we've talked a good bit about tea (people have trouble completely dodging the subject with me), and he doesn't really care for it.  And he's British--supposed to like tea.  But of course not even all Chinese people like tea, even with some really nice options all around them; those are just stereotypes.

Really the main thing one could do in sharing an introduction to tea is provide some approachable types that span a range to see what they like.  Next after that packaging should keep the tea in decent shape for a minimal time to drink it, and ideally some basic labeling would say what it was.  I sort of covered the first point, the others not so much, just different bits in whatever I had on hand.

Conveying brewing basics are a tricky thing; it seems kind of simple once you practice for a few months, aside from optimizing it, or delving into better and better gear, but starting from scratch is a different thing.  So I did the obvious thing:  sent a couple links.

I did send my friend a description of the different teas, after thinking through that I really should have labeled them better (in cases when packaging didn't).  Hopefully he could figure out if he liked black tea or oolong (for example), and go from there about more specifics later.

Here are the descriptions I sent, not exactly tea blog review level of detail, just saying what the teas were:

black, fine chopped pieces of tea:  black tea from Cambodia.  I'm not so sure why it's a little smokey but I like that, but not everyone would.  It's a decent black tea, to me, but still mid-grade, I guess even lower-mid-grade.  It could still make sense to prepare this tea with milk and sugar (although I wouldn't), or without sugar if you like, but a little would change flavor without any significant impact to healthiness of the tea.

brown, chopped tea, some stem:  hojicha, roasted Japanese green tea.  This tea is supposed to be low in caffeine and easy on the stomach.  To me it tastes like sesame, or even towards genmaicha, the Japanese tea mixed with toasted rice.

green tea (only one looks like a green tea):  green tea from Korea, a bit extra vegetal (teas can be sweet, or grassy; this one wasn't great, just an ordinary tea I ran across in a traditional market).

osmanthus oolong:  tea rolled into balls with strong floral scent (infused flower tea), from Thailand.

Vietnamese darker oolong, balled tea:  the other tea prepared rolled into balls, one of my favorite teas really, so my favorite of all I've given you.  To me it has a nice natural cinnamon taste.

dahongpao (Chinese dark oolong, prepared as chopped leaves):  darker tea, in the original labeled package.  This is my favorite type of tea but a medium grade version of the type, decent but not great (but in this case I mean decent tea; the Korean green is sort of not so good in comparison, to me, surely not a good example of one).

lapsang souchong (smoked Chinese black tea):  this version is so lightly smoked you really can't tell, but it is a nice grade of tea, probably the best I've passed on in terms of grade.  I love versions with stronger smoke flavor but some can be a little sour, so it varies by individual tea even more than most types.

taiping houkui:  green tea from China, very broad leafed tea (  It's a very mild green tea, and a forgiving one, so it won't matter so much what temperature you use or how long you brew it (but better at normal range, using cooler water than boiling, not too long of steeping time).

Icing teas:  you can drink any teas you like as iced tea, but for me it only makes sense for certain types, and although I keep making it for my wife's mother I would still drink hot tea on the hottest day.  Green teas and lighter oolongs would be nice iced (or darjeeling, but I didn't include any), and darker oolongs I wouldn't drink that way, or for me maybe not the lapsang souchong too.  But it's really up to someone's taste.  To me iced tea sort of needs a little sugar, when I do get around to drinking it, but again it depends on preference.

Thais drink black tea with condensed milk iced, but given that you want to avoid sugar that wouldn't make sense, and it's a strange thing to do per standard tea enthusiast take.

His feedback:  he liked them, but some seemed a bit bitter to him, so he passed on that someone new to teas should start with a sweeter and lighter versions.  Fair enough.  Of course brewing technique could relate, so adjusting that would be one part of it, something I kept emphasizing.  

Oddly the dahongpao was his favorite (also essentially my favorite type in general, or really Wuyi Yanchas in general since the other types are also nice).  There's something telling about his preference; even though a light, smooth oolong might be a good place to start someone new to tea might like something else better.  I get dahongpao but to someone new to tea it could easily taste like brewed cardboard or rocks, or maybe even to someone that just doesn't like the type.  Or maybe I'd like cardboard brewed with rocks.

My general take is that people can easily adapt to normal versions of loose teas, by which I mean mid-grade (decent) loose teas, and begin to appreciate them for what they are right away.

Tea grades and introduction to tea

Perhaps I didn't really do that experience justice for any of them, since it's not that hard or really that expensive to pick up something like relatively higher grade Tie Kuan Yin (quite sweet and floral, not astringent at all, nothing to "get used to" about it).  It's also not that hard to break out a gaiwan to brew it the other way, gongfu style, it just doesn't work well for larger groups of people trying teas.  Related to that brewing approach, a different ratio of tea to water and shorter brewing time usually does result in better tea (usually; it's possible results could vary by tea type, and the difference could be relatively minor for many in comparison to Western brewing).

I guess I'm not so much an advocate of people drinking tea for optimum results as I am of getting started and continuing on, drinking better teas than they've ever had, and continuing to drink better tea by improving the different inputs as they like.

For me right now that's more about exploring new tea types than pursuing higher grades or teaware options, although I do cross paths with quite decent teas now and again.  I can see why others focus more on brewing aspects:  teaware, or use of timers, or ways to control water temperature, experimenting with different types of water--these things matter.  I guess I'm more or less careful about process issues depending on what tea I drink, or under what circumstances.

I expect for myself that at some point I'll focus more on optimizing the experience of trying better versions of tea types I've had lots of times, rather than focusing on trying lots of different teas.  My palate has adjusted to picking out flavor elements better but I've got a ways to go related to that and other aspects of tea experience.  Of course for me it's also about research to some limited extent.

When I run across other's "introduction to tea" stories sometimes they imply a different approach might work better for some.  For them the tea experience really just clicks when they try that one very special tea, so maybe drinking a half-dozen relatively ordinary versions of tea could somehow not enable that.  I say "ordinary" but of course that's a bit relative; the average person would never try most of the teas I've been talking about sharing; they wouldn't know the types exist.

I remember the first time I tried a good version of Tie Kuan Yin, or the first time I tried a good Darjeeling tea, and those experiences wouldn't have been the same with just-decent teas. I try to think back to one trigger when tea really made sense to me but for me it came in steps, about different types of exposure that led to wanting to continue on to other experiences, not about drinking one tea.  Time will tell if I've successfully shared that experience or not.

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