Friday, June 26, 2015

Objectivity and subjectivity in tea tasting

The question keeps occurring to me:  to what extent is the experience of tea tasting subjective versus objective?  Probably just to me, right?  Do you ever get the feeling that maybe you've stopped making sense?  To start lets get the framing out of the way:

-of course there is a subjective element:  preference for specific characteristics and final enjoyment of the tea are mostly related to individual likes, personal preference, taken along with the qualities in the tea.

-to some extent there must be an objective element:  if an experienced and skilled taster says the tea tastes like raisin instead of grape (or leather instead of tobacco, etc.) to some extent that must be true that it does.

So why do I bother myself over the balance of ideas in the middle, getting it sorted?  It's because I review teas, granted only for a hobby, and both the teas and the process are interesting to me.

I've read reviews that provide very little information about how teas taste, just a few vague details.  That approach could make perfect sense for different reasons, for example to avoid overstepping the subjective element of describing the experience.  I've read other reviews that  identify a dozen different specific flavor elements, and the transitions over different infusions, and then I can't help but wonder to what extent another skilled taster would identify the exact same things.

To be clear, I generally trust those reviewers, so I'm not writing this as an any type of condemnation.  Most are careful to restrict the personal judgment component, to never say a tea is "good," only describing aspects.  I think people have varying abilities to identify flavor components, tastes, which are really present, and although there is still room for relatively outright error in general I accept that most of what one runs across is mostly accurate.  Most bloggers would try to err on the side of not saying much. 

I guess that doesn't work as well when different reviews say relatively different things about the same tea, but my point here isn't so much about error.  It's about to what extent the characteristics of a tea are fixed, separate from a person's individual purely emotional reaction, and truly describable.  It's a question of whether tea tasting is objective or subjective, and separate from preference.

I've asked my former wine guru about this.  He seems to not want to get caught up in the general context the questions imply.  To him the experience of tasting wine is primarily subjective, about preference and appreciation, and starting in on analyzing to what degree it isn't that way isn't fruitful.  Surely someone else with a different role in wine might have a very different perspective since he's a wine maker, not a critic or seller.  Those rating numbers must mean something very specific, and there is a reality behind the tasting requirements put on sommeliers to make very specific evaluations prior to being identified as trained to that level.  Or maybe some of it doesn't hold up, and reducing a wine to a single score or even a list of detailed attributes isn't justified at all.

I've probably said as much as I'll say that's interesting on the subject already but before moving on I wanted to add some background.  As it turns out I was a philosopher before, and all this echoes part of a long and more general debate about objectivity and subjectivity.

Objectivity in philosophy (realism versus relativism):


objectivity [in philosophy] means the state or quality of being true even outside of a subject's individual biases, interpretations, feelings, and imaginings (Wikipedia)

deep thoughts about tea!  (picture attribution)

This subject has so much related background I won't do it justice, but here goes.  In the branch of philosophy I studied under, analytic philosophy, one main assumption was that reality is objectively real, that facts and truths are a real, impersonal thing.  Truth was defined as justifiable, accurate belief.  It was a given that the generally opposite viewpoint, relativism--that all ideas are only relative to the context of a personal point of view and framework of understanding--was clearly wrong.  Arguing against it wasn't so easy, of course, because it would be hard to separate the assumption of either perspective from the discussion itself.

There is another main branch of philosophy where relativism might seem a bit less clearly wrong, the "continental" branch, but since I sort of didn't study under that it would be hard for me to say to what degree.  Things got messy because the two branches weren't necessarily divided into two separate sets of past philosophers, although to some degree they were. 

Make no mistake among students it was common enough to hate the premises of analytic philosophy, a field of study name that deserves no capital letters.  The scope of what was to be discussed was narrowly limited, and there were restrictions on how to treat ideas.  Most of human nature and human experience were considered out of bounds, related to wisdom instead of knowledge, so that in the end all the rest that was treated was relatively meaningless.

How could this context, stripped of so much personal experience, relate to a subject like aesthetics, the evaluation of art, and beauty?  For logic we might see how reason as a version of Boolean algebra might never completely map back onto ordinary, experienced reason but surely objectivity couldn't get that same degree of foothold on these other subjects, right?  Art must just be subjective.  Things got strange at this point.  Art is assessed per the norms of inter-subjective evaluation, so what art critics say is art, or define as good art, constitutes the fact of the matter.  Kind of a dodge, right?  It sort of works though.  Some of the same must be happening for tea, a final resort to inter-subjective agreement.

Also philosophy keeps shifting, so the responses for one decade are morphed or rejected the next.  One might wonder how that maps back onto ordinary thought, but one could keep wondering--people just don't make sense on either level, per theory or practice.  The arguments are just something to give professors something to teach and write about, forgotten later and abandoned for others.

Back to tea tasting:

Seems a bit of a gap to jump to get back to tea tasting, doesn't it?  I guess a long look back might question if it's possible for a tea to taste like raisin to one person and grape to another, and for both to be right.  "Better" is never part of the question; obviously that's under the scope of preference.  Some might want to assert that if a person likes a certain set of characteristics in a tea then it should be possible to say which specific tea is objectively better given those preferences as assumptions, but there would be problems with the last step.  It's all too subjective, with too many factors.  You could express something is a great example of a type but probably not map likes to teas so directly, or to the extent you could it would be general, with other factors not so well defined.

Someone might want chemistry to step in and save the day.  In the world of wine there is the understanding that the same flavor compounds in raisins, grapes, leather, and tobacco are really also found in the wine itself (or tea), so objectivity is restored, validated, essentially proven, if only to a limited extent.  As everyone knows there are a range of very basic taste elements and beyond that complex compounds make up both smell and taste, right.  Alas it's not as if there is one compound or element per each of these as "atomic" taste elements, so we resume a slide back to vagueness and personal judgment.

never mentioned in tea reviews:  lychee, longkong, mangosteen, rambutan

As a little more background, I wrote a blog post once on the use of tea flavor wheels.  I guess it's an assumption in the structure that the divisions of flavors or aromas really are objective, and somewhat distinct.  Of course any grouped list of flavors would be limited; there would always be others. 

No need to even drag mouthfeel and cha qi and the rest into this; better to stick with flavors.  The Temple Mountain wheel mentions the aspect of  mouthfeel / body (not really starting on aftertaste / finish), but it's hard to do much with that on such a chart. 

Bottles of smells, very cool!  (from here)

The obvious prior starting point for all this is wine related palate training, and the use of scent training kits (here is one example source, including kits for wine, beer and coffee, just not tea yet, at least for sale by this vendor or that I've yet to hear of).

Online research isn't going to help a lot with how to taste tea and palate development.  It won't grapple with the extent to which the process might actually be subjective, but some references talk around the background of tasting a little (like here, or here). 

Beyond trying to be consistent most of it is up to the person tasting the tea.  Even some of the most basic guidance doesn't seem to make it to these sorts of references though, like the idea that your sense of taste isn't optimum when tasting liquids close to boiling point, so another temperature would be better.  I've read that 60 C is optimum but I have no opinion on that; seems as likely there isn't really an optimum.  I ran across a cool idea recently that relative humidity affects sense of taste, so variance in a taster may not be due to inconsistencies one would normally identify as subjectivity, not isolated within the person at all.

I've already said that I accept that detailed tasting probably works to the degree a person has that developed skill, and that it's probably objective, as much as it could be, separate from the final evaluation relating to preference.  I get a bit hung up on one particular aspect of that tasting process, but it's not really related to all of this.  There is an underlying assumption, and not a clearly defined one, that simple flavors are being described (as examples, grape and raisin, leather and tobacco).  But as two pairs those components share individual flavor range, which varies for each.  Raisins taste a good bit like grapes, they're not completely distinct, and there are different kinds of both. 

It would be easier for me to relate to the first pair because I only smell and taste foods, and tasting leather and tobacco is only going to help so much.  Of course leather might taste good; what child doesn't give in to checking on that?  As for taste memory, maybe not so clear; I'd probably benefit from at least smelling a baseball glove again.  But pipe tobacco, cigarettes, cigars, snuff, chewing tobacco--these are all different things, made from one primary ingredient prepared in different ways.

Is it possible that for two people one could identify grape, and the other raisin, and both could still be right?  I don't see why not.  It does introduce a bit more of a grey area.  Of course number scoring related to overall quality in light of personal preference assessment is all grey area; no way that could ever standardize.

To me this is part of the beauty of tea:  we learn about ourselves along with the teas.  Foodies and wine geeks have their own journeys of self-exploration but tea is a purer experience, just dried leaves in water, and tea drinkers barely ever taste the leaves.  Of course I'm probably overthinking it.  For me that aspect of considering context and details is a bit separate from actually drinking and enjoying the tea.  For me there are sort of two different types of experiences related to whether I intend to describe the tea or not, but that difference is a tangent I'll save for another day.

My wine guru offered a take on where all this probably leaves off:  "John we think we can possess the truth and then it slips away."

Friday, June 19, 2015

Review of a Ruan Zhi from Fine Thai Teas

This ruan zhi oolong from Fine Thai Teas is a good example of one of the two main Thai teas, along with jin xuan oolong.  Both are names of cultivars, or tea plant hybrid types developed in Taiwan from crossing existing plant types (number 17 and 12 in a numbered series, respectively).  This cultivar is almost always prepared as a lightly oxidized oolong in Thailand, as it was in this case, although of course it could be made into other types of tea.  This flavor profile and feel are just what this tea is supposed to be, both of which remind me of teas from Taiwan.

rolled ball oolong, the typical style

The predominant flavor component is an earthiness, a mineral element that is hard to completely define.  A second flavor element is a mild spice, similar to nutmeg or cardamom (and no, it doesn't taste like Chai, not even a subdued version).  There is also a hint of a floral component.

I realize I've just said the tea tastes like a nondescript mineral, spice, and flower, so basically I'm saying I don't know what it tastes like.  It would be easy to adjust that to saying it tastes like flint, nutmeg, and orchid (which is really a group of flowers anyway), and I'd sound more competent, but really I'd need to train on smelling more rocks and flowers to be more certain.  Nutmeg is really a relatively complex flavor, with the flavor profile, warmth and sharpness exhibited across a range, so it sort of tastes like part of what nutmeg tastes like (to me), the warm, rich component, not the sharper aspect.

One other notable characteristic is the aftertaste / finish; the taste lingers long after drinking, in a good way.  This can be even more pronounced in some teas from Taiwan but is significant for this tea.

nice looking leaves

When I first started drinking oolongs I really loved this tea type.  I don't mean to say that my palate has matured past it, or that it's inferior to the teas I tend to prefer most now, but preferences can just change over time.  I still love this type of tea, and it's the kind of tea that's great to have as one of many types to drink when you feel like it, not really a type of tea I would get tired of.

It's also nice that lighter oolongs are easy to brew, so it doesn't matter if one uses boiling point water (more on brewing temperature and timing in this post), or lower, or messes up timing by a good bit.  Another nice aspect of decent versions of such teas is that they brew a lot of very consistent infusions.  With black teas or darker (more roasted) oolongs it's easy to Western-style brew two good infusions and then depending on all the factors maybe a third, but this tea is fine for twice that.

It would even be good as an iced tea, although tea enthusiasts tend to not typically go there, unless something unusual happens, like the Bangkok hot season.  Even then I'd just drink hot tea and sweat even more, but I've been experimenting on making iced teas for my wife and her mother since they'd been drinking some bottled teas--not as nice a taste, almost certainly not as healthy.  I recently read an article claiming you shouldn't drink iced tea or cold drinks in general in hot weather, that it's bad for you, but who really knows about that, people seem to be getting away with it.

Compared to a jin xuan, the other main type, this tea type tends to be less sweet, and a bit earthier. Jin xuan can have a notable creaminess to it, even natural flavors that resemble butter to some extent.  Decent versions of both are pleasant and easy to drink, with good flavors, and better than average versions can be very nice, but in general the two teas are consistent.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Tea made from coffee leaves! Review of Wize Monkey tisane

I recently tried an usual product leading to my first review of a tisane here (herb tea to most, but not a word that tea enthusiasts prefer to share).  It's a "tea" made from coffee leaves, from Wize Monkey, who provided the samples.

A first thought might be "why did they do that?"  Per the marketing content the brewed tisane has more antioxidants than tea made from a tea plant (hard to say about that; even with research support it would be hard to say), and is low in caffeine, but it does have some.

Some background echoes free-trade concerns related to other products:  it allows for agricultural production outside the limited time-period of coffee bean harvesting.  For many the final product taste would cover if making or drinking it is justified or not.


The brewed "tea" tastes like a tisane, but it's hard to compare to which, or describe it.  The flavor is pleasant, and smooth, a bit rich, and not really close to tea made from tea.  From the taste it seems like it is a roasted product, not just a dried green leaf, but what little is on the website implies it is just dried coffee plant leaves.

One taste element might be similar to "malt" described in other tea, just not the same.  Think chamomile, but with more going on.  It really it doesn't exhibit the same complexity some better teas do, so it's not as if there are a lot of different flavor elements to describe, but then teas from tea plants vary related to that.  The taste is distinctive and pleasant, just not exactly familiar.  It has a strong aftertaste, one might describe as "finish," a property common to tea, positive since the related flavor is good, and no astringency / bitterness.

There is a primary flavor element I can't identify, something unfamiliar, which makes it harder to sort out other flavors.  Of course some reviews do just that, which I cite a bit on later.  I guess to me it tasted a bit like caramel and some type of nut, towards the rich and relatively neutral flavor of a brazil nut.

To evaluate related to my own preference, leaving aside bias towards tea, it's possibly comparable to a mid-range tea.  There isn't a lot of complexity, and the flavor is nice, the body or feel of the tea pleasant.  Of course some of this is subjective.  For someone without the bias towards tea made from tea plants it might come across even more positively.

I also tried an "Earl Grey" version, which was kind of interesting, trying an herb made in that style.  I liked it.  The herb is fine on it's own, with a full flavor, so it would come down to preference if a hint of citrus was really an improvement or not.  It took me half a cup to divorce my expectation of the black tea component from drinking it, the normal Earl Grey association, but I could still enjoy it prior to making the break.

loose version, taken out of the bag

I recently evaluated Thai dark oolongs that were nice and had some similar questions, about who the tea would appeal to.  Those teas were better than any most people would ever be exposed to shopping for tea in grocery stores, commercial teas, but perhaps not as good as many that people routinely seeking out loose teas would try to obtain.  I would rate this as roughly on the same level.

For the sake of variety I would think tea drinkers might still want to buy and drink those oolongs, or it's possible someone's preferences would evaluate them much more positively than my own, but in this case the product isn't going to automatically appeal to tea drinkers by virtue of being tea.  Of course now I'm mixing concerns of product review based on characteristics and marketing, really two different things.


I wanted to add a bit more about the product, per the usual approach, just a bit different in this case.  Others gave their opinion of it on Steepster: / wize-monkey / coffee-leaf-tea-armandos-original-blend # tasting-notes

A familiar blogger I like wrote a more in-depth review of the flavor profile as well:

ramblingbutterflythoughts / wize-monkey-coffee-leaf-tea-armandos

Or another: / armandos-original-blend-coffee-leaf-tea-from-wize-monkey

Interesting reviews from both of those, generally positive, but the flavor references are more about how the taste isn't so easy to describe.  The first says it "tastes exactly like the way Vitex smells... The finish is wildflower honey sweet with a hint of straw" and the second compares it to guayusa, another type of herb (more on that here).

So the consensus is that it has a nice taste, smooth, rich, enjoyable and a bit earthy, and an unfamilar one.

I couldn't help but wonder if the coffee leaf doesn't have more potential than this; if this is as far as it could go.  Tea enthusiasts are familiar with discussion of lots of variables that affect the final tea beverage:  terroir (soil, environment, etc.), cultivar (plant type), harvesting details (timing, seasonal periods, related weather, leaf selection, etc.), and a vast multitude of processing categories and details, and even after storage and brewing concerns, it just goes on and on.

They've made it good; could they make it great?  Is it even possible to prepare it in a way comparable to a more roasted oolong, or push oxidation out to similar to a black tea?  I have no idea.  Here in Thailand they are still working on learning from other regions' processing of the same tea plant, still preparing different styles, or improving what they have been making, this after 20 or so years of production.  This may only be the beginning for coffee leaf "tea."

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Keemun from Peony tea shop (in Silom, Bangkok); a classic Chinese black tea

I checked out a new tea shop and an interesting tea, a Keemun from Peony shop in Silom (Facebook page and related website, which includes a Thai language tea blog about tea basics).

Luckily my wife doesn't read this blog because I still have teas from my last two purchases I've not tried yet, and a few other samples around, but I ran across mention of this shop near my office, so what could I do.

They have a nice selection of single teas and blends (maybe half and half), but at first I was disappointed because I've tried all the types they carry, maybe around 20 single-origin teas.  Some other favorites were there, Lapsang Souchong, Thai oolongs, Tie Kuan Yin, a Bai Mu Dan, a couple nice looking Darjeelings, but I've been drinking all that.  It almost seemed time to start into blends (mint with tea, flowers with tea, etc.) but I smelled the sample tins to see which I might like and the Keemun stood out, sweet and rich.  And it's a tea type I might have only tried a couple times.


Straight to it then!  I was immediately struck by a nice, sweet fruity flavor, one element reminding me of grape.  Not like grapes usually taste now, I mean concord grape, like Welch's juice.  Which reminds me of eating them from a vine at my great-grandfather's house as a child, growing near a pear tree as I recall.  It was a bit similar to the "wow!" you can get from a nice Darjeeling, and a generally related flavor profile, just not exactly the same.  Another predominant taste was non-distinct stone fruit, maybe plum, with additional mild floral tones.

The flavor profile and feel of the tea were really nice.  Beyond the fruit elements there was a nice underlying earthy tone, malt mixed with a light and subtle wood tone.

To be honest these flavors most people would generally describe as "tasting like tea," since that general "malt" range is common in other black teas that would be familiar, Assam and Ceylon.

In some Chinese black teas the flavors don't always balance in a way that is pleasant, with sweetness  coming across in a way that isn't completely positive (to me), but altogether this tea really worked, nice and pleasant and clean.

There was a bit of astringency but it was still a relatively mild tea, so not as soft as the various roasted oolongs I've been drinking, but far from bitter.  There was just enough astringency to give the tea a nice feel to it, but not at all "brisk," which to most would probably be a good thing.

About the shop, I might also mention it was both a loose tea sales shop and a cafe.  For me I'd just as soon take the tea and go but it does make for a nice alternative to coffee shops.

Brewing instructions tangent:

They included a recommended brewing instructions card, not bad as these go.  I wrote a recent blog post about how these can vary, and the limitations of advising any one set of instructions.  Based on that research and my own experience these would work as a starting point, it's just not quite that simple.  

Without water quantity this is incomplete, and it doesn't address re-brewing multiple infusions (any of the teas would make at least two cups of tea, maybe three or more depending on the tea), but again some of all that depends on preference.

I generally brew black tea at slightly below boiling point for the first two infusions (varying all the brewing process by specific black tea type), and switch to full boiling temperature for the third, but then nobody does that (that I've read of), so what do I know.


I've tried this tea type before but haven't written it up as a blog post, so I'll add a bit more about it.

It doesn't make for great looking research effort but the Wikipedia article usually isn't a bad place to start, just as well to keep in mind those can be biased or incomplete.  That description mentioned unsweetened cocoa is another common flavor element, and of course thinking that and trying the tea again lets me "get it," but the taste is complex enough it can be hard to separate out all the components.  There's a floral tone (at least one) someone with a more amazing palate might describe in more detail, and also a trace of a mineral element component.

A Teavivre vendor reference goes into more detail about the type, the character and the story of the tea, which they describe as one of China's ten most famous teas:

first produced in the year 1875 after a man named Yu Ganchen traveled to the Fujian Province of China so that he could become privy to the secrets of quality black tea production because prior to that time, the Anhui Province had only produced green teas.  What he learned ... enabled him to produce the world's first Keemun black tea, ... [which] has since become one of the primary teas included in English Breakfast tea blends.

They recommend brewing the tea at 90 degrees Celcius, for what that's worth (194 F).  Related to storage (a subject they mention) the shop sells the tea in the typical plastic / foil layered and self-sealing bags designed for tea.

A non-vendor reference, Wiki-tea, gives an interesting description of the typical taste profile:

The aroma of Keemun is fruity, with hints of pine, dried plum and floweriness (but not at all as floral as Darjeeling tea) which creates the very distinctive and balanced taste. It also displays a hint of orchid fragrance and the so-called 'China tea sweetness.'

They also mention four different more specific types of Keemun, and one related additional type.  As usual trying one decent version of a tea is really just a starting point.

Another Tea Guardian general reference is worth a read for similar descriptions of the tea type, and also more about "English Breakfast" tea:

“English Breakfast” is actually the name of a blend first used by a retailer in New York in 1843, before Keemun black tea appeared in 1875. It was a Mr Richard Davies of “Canton Tea Company” on Chatham Street.... Davis added touches of pekoe (a name for tippy flowery black teas back then) and Pouchong (a Taiwan oolong) to a base of gongfu black tea, and it instantly became a hit. Today different companies have their own blend formulas for it...  However, most better ones use broken grade Keemun as the base.

Beyond that lots of vendors have lots to say about the tea type but it starts to repeat.  Oddly there is a Facebook group just about this type:  Or maybe that's not odd; I just checked and there are supposed to be 54 million pages now, apparently in addition to the 1.3 billion users.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Two dark-roasted Thai oolongs; a new Fine Thai Teas source

I recently tried two different dark-roasted oolongs from Thailand.  It seemed at least initially possible that both are the same tea, but more on that to follow.  I should start by saying I've been happy to find better and more interesting Thai teas lately, and that I liked these.

It seems a bit bizarre to review the two teas together, as if identical, but I did find both to be very similar.  Both were sold as relatively inexpensive teas, not intended as the highest grade of tea either vendor was offering, but the style was one of particular interest to me, a darker roasted oolong. 

The only other darker roasted oolong I'd tried from Thailand was actually awful, so bad I couldn't drink it, and I felt apprehension about giving it away for free.  But I don't discourage so easily, and you can't judge a tea type by one tea.  I've tried nice versions of lightly oxidized Thai oolong (many), and also black and green teas (less of those), so finding a decent darker oolong had to be possible.

Maybe as well to begin with reference to the two vendors and their write-ups:

Vendor tea details:

Fine Thai teas:  Organic Jin Xuan Red Roasted Oolong

Description:  rich amber color, slightly toasty flavor, fresh rich aroma, smooth aftertaste; medium oxidation level, 50%

Description of vendor (my own):  an online mail-order Thai tea vendor, seemingly set up for wholesale quantity distribution (pound / kilogram) more than small-order retail sales, but they seem flexible, and probably accustomed to overseas sales.  I wasn't familiar with there being a Thai organic certification system but they list limited details about it, so there is.

Fine Thai teas dark oolong

Tea Village (local Pattaya shop):  Black Oolong Tea

Description: sold as a darker roasted oolong, without extensive flavor profile description, or really even a cultivar listing (almost surely Jin Xuan; most Thai tea is, and as an easy to produce high-production volume cultivar it's what inexpensive teas here tend to be).

price conversion:  nearly free

Vendor description:  I've went on and on about their other teas already, last about a nice Thai version of Oriental Beauty here, and in other posts.  I've really liked a lot of the teas from them but of course the nice thing about a physical shop is you can try the tea before you buy it (if they let you, as they do there), unless you aren't actually visiting the store, in which case of course you can't.

It is unusual both vendors mix references to black teas with oolong descriptions (one cited black and the other red; but it's the same thing, since red tea is a literal translation of the name for black tea from Chinese).  But it's clear what both are anyway; relatively more oxidized oolongs, teas that are still less oxidized than black teas.  I'm not trained to judge the percentage but the 50% value assigned by the Fine Thai Teas oolong seems about right; not the darkest oolongs I've tried but far from green, a nice level if the tea taste and character works out.


I liked both teas, and both seemed really similar, only slightly different.  One was sold as organic, and the other not (not specified anyway), and the taste only varied a little.

Organic versus non-organic is not a trivial matter given how much tea I drink, although I suppose I am skeptical of the use of different such labels, especially in this part of the world (organic, fair trade, etc.).  Of course one would hope it corresponds to use of less chemicals but hearsay about limitations of certifications in general here isn't positive.

Both had a rich dark-wood earthy taste.  Both had a nice clean flavor profile, not the fullest body or most pronounced aftertaste of other types of darker roasted oolongs, but these were decent teas, no negative flavor elements at all, and essentially no astringency.  Both had a cinnamon component, more pronounced in the Fine Thai Teas version, so that tea could seem better to someone that likes such a taste element (and cinnamon and cocoa are two of my favorites, and malt, but that gets more complicated).  If you bought them as a high grade of tea they wouldn't seem exceptional; if you bought them as ordinary grade tea they might. 

You absolutely could not walk into a grocery store and buy tea like this in Thailand, or maybe even in a tea shop.  In America I'd guess even decent lightly oxidized Jin Xuan oolong isn't sitting around lots of places, in decent tea shops of course it would be, from either Thailand or Taiwan, and of course it does turn up here since it's the main tea type they make.

This still doesn't seem like a satisfying description, does it?  Two flavor elements spelled out, not so much about body, or sweetness.  I did really like the teas; both just lacked the same degree of complexity and finesse I've been spoiled by from nice Da Hong Pao, Rou Gui, and Shui Xian teas lately, which to be fair were sold as different and higher grades of tea. 

brewed leaves, Fine Thai teas

The wood tone and roasted flavor might have hinted a little towards toffee, and one could stretch their imagination towards some fruit component, maybe a hint of cherry, or different brewing made the wood tones seem more like leather (not a bad thing), but the teas just weren't that complex.  To me cinnamon, wood, proper sweetness, decent feel, and clean flavors are a great start though, and for an inexpensive tea not a bad place to leave off.

I'm reminded of a Google + post comments discussion about people drinking good tea or ordinary grade tea as an introduction (the background was discussion of a study claiming that people don't prefer more extensive wine, which was probably due to selection of specific wines that lead to that outcome rather than to any meaningful tendency). 

A comment quote from that post:
Organoleptics take time to develop, however not sure why that means people should drink boring one-dimensional substances until they have a "palate".

Hard to disagree, right.  But what does that mean?  About wine, maybe that better wines that match one's preference are still better suited to appreciation and further developing preferences than box-wine that happens to be light and sweet and acceptable to someone that doesn't really drink much wine.  But we were talking about tea, so maybe a similar point; just because someone can't fully appreciate all the aspects of better teas at first they needn't stick to mediocre tea.  It could be informative to start back at what I said in writing the original post:

I don't think it's correct to just write this type of article off as being wrong; there is something to preference changes related to experience, so wine beginners should probably start with mild and sweet Merlot, or Zin, whatever.  As for tea, maybe that equates to Jin Xuan oolong or something such, I'm not so sure.

We're already well on the way to throwing dirt in the eye of that particular cultivar, right.  It doesn't need to be made into cheap, one-dimensional tea, but at the same time I've drank it as inexpensive tea more often than as mid-range, and have never heard of a higher-end Jin Xuan product.  To be honest I've had more impressive Jin Xuan cultivar based teas from Taiwan than from Thailand, although some from here were more notable for the light, sweet, buttery flavor profile, which is nice in it's own right.  But was it ever multi-dimensional?

I said "I'm not sure" because I'm not (really about the point of what makes for a good "beginner tea," since the point about tea having dimensions was the response, but along the same line as evaluating cultivars).  Related to the most typical teas produced I've had better lightly oxidized Tie Kuan Yin, based on my preferences.  I must admit I liked the similar Red Buffalo oolong from Vietnam better than these (from Hatvala, written up here, and website here), but that's not really a fair comparison because that was one of my favorite teas I've yet to try, and from a different country and tea cultivar.  It doesn't seem right to dislike a tea just because of trying a better similar version from elsewhere, but eventually I guess one could naturally move on to only drinking the better versions and leave some diversity out of it.

A similar point about diversity in grade in a tea type came up in the post about Shui Xian, about how the tea is known for production as restaurant tea, a relatively low grade, but how the plant type has the potential for production to a very good tea.

To me these two darker Thai oolongs are not boring or one-dimensional teas, not "bad tea," but I would prefer a decent Da Hong Pao over them (which I suppose relates to personal preferences as much as an objective evaluation of the teas).  But then such a tea would cost significantly more, and it is a different type of tea, with some commonality related to general flavor profile and oxidation level but different in many other ways.  I would recommend anyone newer to tea to try these two teas if they have a chance, and would guess that many experienced tea drinkers would also enjoy them.  They would probably also notice limitations in complexity, and the teas probably wouldn't be ideal for palate training, whatever that is.  Per my wine guru I probably wasn't the most trainable acolyte, and of course I can't assess my competency in tea tasting, and I'm not currently on a training track to sommelier status.

A comment on the one site mentioned the tea would be good for blending, and I can see how it might, but I'd expect combination with another a black tea with more astringency might work better for blends with other ingredients.  Astringency isn't one of my favorite components in teas in general but it can play a role in establishing a complex profile, and blends involving fruit or floral elements could benefit from that, along with the earthiness and richness of this flavor profile.  For drinking as a single-type tea I'd much rather have this tea than a more typical black tea, but then I've tried a lot of black teas from different places that had interesting complexity and great flavor profiles without much astringency, even sold as different grades and at different costs, a number of them reviewed in different posts here.

Both teas were a good value, although of course that depends on someone liking the tea.  I could imagine this type of tea not appealing to some based on preferences, or instead opening a new world of types of teas to others.  Some might reasonably dispute there is such a thing but they seemed an excellent "beginners tea."

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Tea brewing timer; standard tea brewing times reviewed

Today when I came to work there was a tea brewing timer sitting on my desk, but with no indication of who put it there.  It has a cool look to it, with three different sand timers for three different types, from Twinings.

Of course my first thought was "my kids are going to love playing with that."  Next I wondered who put it there.  Then after a lot more synapses firing I wondered how well it would work for timing tea infusions.

the gift!

If I timed tea brewing more often that thought might have came up earlier.  I experimented with a tea brewing app once, a little, but didn't use it much to time stopping an infusion process.  I got stuck at the part about the times it suggested as standard not matching other references for standard brewing times, and sort of kept on winging it, experimenting with changes a lot.

I had started drinking a lot of loose teas about six or seven years ago, oddly enough years before really going overboard with research and purchasing, so I was thousands of cups in by the time the idea of optimizing would have made much difference, and already decent at guessing out times.  I was over a decade into drinking tisanes before switching to tea made from tea at all (tisanes = herbal teas to most people), so I was lots more thousands of cups of brewing those along prior to then.  But tisanes do tend to be a bit forgiving, and of course tea from the tea plant does require a more careful touch to get better results, or optimization (for some).

I'd like to say I've internalized brewing to the degree that I vary every tea related to temperature, ratio of tea, and time by type, and to some extent that's actually true.  A lot of infusions are a test of varying these, and I don't vary them as much as in the past.  Of course I take vendor instructions into account or even actually use them as the case warrants.

example Tea Pal table from page

Google mentions that a "Tea Guy" blog post lists a number of different apps for this.  It doesn't take much clicking around to see the same issue coming up, along with the related concerns of brewing temperature and tea to water ratio.

Note that this table isn't shown as an indicative optimum for these teas; it's an example from a blog page details about the app.  Of course it's going to let you adjust these parameters for preference (surely?).  From this image it's a bit odd that two types of dragonwell (longjing) could have differing brewing parameters, but of course such a thing could happen.  The parameters don't look so far off at a glance but comparing them to other tables will show the odd part about "standards" differing.

But then after an hour of looking around for standard tables not much turns up.  There is a lot there in a Google image search, and the typical major tea producers are going to say something, but other reputable references are hard to find (bloggers, standard tea resources).  You see bloggers mentioning the standard parameters versus what a manufacturer says relatively often in posts but that could as easily be related to their typical, learned preferences, not some objective consensus.

testing the timer

Before I get into all that, a bit on what times the sand timers indicated.

white:  2:00 (just over)

black:  3:45

green / tisanes:  4:45

Odd, right?  The first thing that seemed odd is that white teas are often recommended for the longest brewing times rather than the shortest, sometimes for 4 or even 5 minutes instead of 2.

3 to 3 1/2 minutes might be an average recommended time for brewing in general (varying so much related to preference and other parameters there would be no standard), but it would seem odd to brew green tea for nearly five minutes.  Green tea is actually kind of a broad category anyway (oolong or black tea too, for that matter), so citing just one time wouldn't make sense.

It's probably about time to get back to some tables and see where any of this stands related to research.

Tea timing parameters references:

lots of brewing parameters tables!  but they don't match  :(

One last tangent before I do get to these:  the question ignores a general separation in brewing technique into two types.  Related to the same general question in a LinkedIn group discussion (in Tea Enthusiasts and Entrepeneurs), I commented this (really the question was about adjusting tea strength by changing different brewing parameters--close enough):

The question doesn't address the context that in general there are two different approaches to brewing loose tea.

One relatively Western version relates to standard brewing times (3 to 5 minutes, typically using a teapot, although the vessel doesn't matter as much as water to tea proportion and timing). A second technique typically referred to as gongfu cha (which translates roughly as tea technique) uses either a smaller pot, generally clay rather than ceramic, or a gaiwan with a much higher proportion of leaves to water and many shorter brewing times.

Different references vary for the second technique brewing time depending on the strength of the tea desired, but it's not uncommon to see very short brewing times used for some tea types resulting in a very diluted version of the tea (of course intentionally).

So to answer the question, one would select a general brewing technique then other aspects like desired tea strength, vessel, number of infusions, etc. based on preference, which would also relate to tea type. A black tea would generally produce less infusions than other types, perhaps only one depending on those factors, and in my experience then green, then oolong, then pu'er in order of increased tea output from tea type, but others might contest that since all the different factors tend to mix.

Good answer!  Always best to not actually answer the question.  From here on, and prior, I'll be citing references about Western brewing, and won't really get into gongfu technique.  Those infusion times are much shorter.  Sometimes 30 seconds is used as a base-time, adding length of time subsequently per preference and tea type, or even shorter times could be used.

Note the link goes to the group, not the discussion, since it's a private group (but you could join it, just explain to them that you have an unusual level of interest in tea).

That said a tea brewing times table isn't really valid, as the other discussion responses generally agreed, in addition to other factors relating (eg. "green" tea isn't all one thing; it really might make sense to brew different teas of the same type different ways, especially for tea types that varies a good bit).  All the same, back to seeing where standard tables do lead.

This table is a nice looking graphic, reasonable enough content, although taken from a blog not really focused only on tea (a food blog, "fine dining lovers").  Why even cite it then, right?  I guess for comparison, and it shows one more type of reference out there.

By now I'm getting familiar with the expression "for the perfect cup of tea."  I wrote a post about an article on it not long ago, and I've seen other references since.

The two references are actually not that far from each other.  Darjeeling is a bit off, with temperature and brewing time varying a lot for both, but then identifying Darjeeling as just one type of tea is already a mistake (even more than for the others, maybe, but I did just see a table about brewing different types of Japanese teas differently, possibly related to this blog site).  Darjeeling can be prepared as white, green, or black tea (or even oolong), and these categories seem to tend to mix a bit, to me.  Darjeelings from the different seasons (flushes) are different, and surely there are other variables.

Art of Tea table reference

Both tables agree on really short brewing time for white teas, expressed as a broader range than for most, and oddly I'm with them on that, it varies even more than for other tea types related to what you want out of your white tea.  Of course this doesn't speak to the longer times some white tea makers recommend.

One more quick tangent, related to a point about this in a recent post of this blog about a white tea::

Second infusion I brewed longer to see how that changed results,  since it's common to see that advised for white teas.  The character of a tea can change over infusions so really separating out the two effects would require making the tea again. 

I did this on purpose this time (really!) since sometimes it seems a light-brewed tea can actually help subtle elements stand out, or maybe that just seems so to me.  Brewing longer allows a white tea to reach a more conventional flavor strength but some subtlety might get lost, so in the end the best way is subjective, however you like.

If the point were only to show that there are different standards being recommended as starting points I'd already be there.  But why not go on to see what tea makers recommend, to look a little closer at some of these numbers.

Teavana brewing table

On the right is Teavana's online page reference for brewing guidelines (and obviously they'll recommend adjusting for preference).  Some differences:

-white tea is back to the longer recommended time I'm typically seeing from vendors, with the temperature consistent across the different references

-green tea brewing time recommendation has dropped way down to a minute or less, without differentiation within the range of green teas

-everyone is ok with brewing oolong for 3 minutes

-black tea is back to a standard range, allowing for a shorter time of 2 minutes, with their temperature range dipping below the others.  Some people consistently recommend brewing black teas at boiling point but in general I do like results for a bit below for a lot of black tea types.

Getting back to the idea of timing support, a simple on-line timer allows you to set the time in a window, offering these guidelines (Steep It).

It's hard to imagine not using a phone-based application for something like this but I guess there must be some reason why it would come in handy, like if you lose your phone.  Some of these parameters are close to the others, some are way off, like green tea dropping to one minute (a bit short, that, for Western style), or white down to 30 seconds.  And I've seen chai references that say to boil the tea, then let it sit, then reboil, but I'm still working on my chai basics.

Had enough of the tables yet?  One last check on what Twinings suggests, since their sand timers did seem a bit off:

Note this page again references a "perfect cup of tea."  Probably better for them to not go there...

And they say for temperature just use boiling point water to brew all of them.  Noooo!!!!!

Aside from those horrors, and white tea again a bit low (1 minute), the times are ok.  (cold brewed iced tea in 5 minutes?  whatever).

It doesn't match my sand timer "settings" at all; not sure how that came about.

tea party!  never mind the toy coffee maker


My kids will love playing with this timer.