There are too many factors to consider in tea tasting for there to be any one person that can set an absolute standard for what is “the best” or what is “right.” Don’t think that the competition judges get it right, either. When you have to taste hundreds or thousands of teas in one afternoon and only have a few moments for each one, it may be the luck of the draw for the producer whether he gets a prize or not.
If you’ve read the reviews of teas in the “Art of Tea” magazine, you’ll know that the experts that review are mostly experienced, “master-level” tea people. However, not only do they never completely agree on which tea tastes best, but they can’t even agree on what each tea’s flavor, aroma or energy are. Depending on the tea, temperature, brewing vessels, water, our own health and qi, our individual tea experiences will vary (this proclamation also serves as my official, public disclaimer to write-off all my past and future tasting errors!).
I often say drink good tea, with “good” being defined by yourself, and your own definition coming from experience, guidance (through well-intentioned tea educators, tea houses, books…) and your innate spring of wisdom. Naturally, each tea will have a signature taste that you can learn to appreciate as well. “Good” will change for you over time.
I will also say that there are tastes that are NOT correct and are NOT good. I’ll use charcoal as an example. A good charcoal-roasted tea is hard to find in the US. Few produce it anymore; it’s labor intensive and costly.
I had the good fortune of being in Taiwan at the right time and meeting the right tea craftspeople to see actual charcoal roasting being done. I’ll detail it more in a later roasting post, but it takes longer to charcoal roast a tea and it takes more diligence, since the temperature changes often and one must watch closely to prevent the tea from burning. A properly roasted tea of any sort should have some fire, but should NOT look shiny in the light. A lot of so-called charcoal roasted oolongs have an immensely strong taste of fire that covers the body of the tea. Some may find the immense taste of fire to be enjoyable, not unlike overcooked bacon that is black, smoky and crunchy, but that’s not tea that has been roasted correctly. There are issues if the leaves fail to open. I have canisters of tea on a rack that, very fortunately, have a strong enough tea base to withstand the over-roasting that I’ve applied. A small batch of Alishan, though, was over-roasted until some of its base flavor was replaced by fire. It’s shiny, dark and fails to fully open in boiling water. Experts in Taiwan say it can be fix, but the base is dead and it will not produce good tea. A good charcoal roasted oolong – even recently fired - will open and showcase the tea’s flavor; this I’m positive of.
As a student of the roasting craft, I have a passion for learning and then passing on the essence of tea love. I’m lucky to be able to enjoy extraordinarily unique teas, and I want others with such a penchant for it to be able to try and understand what I think is good as well. A well-roasted charcoal tea, even a recently roasted one, will have fire and smoke in the taste, but it will still be round and delicious. The charcoal is not meant to supplant the tea’s taste, but to augment it.
When I parted ways with Mr. Zhan of the Nine Pots Manor, I left with the feeling that the lingering questions I had about tea roasting, the energy of the brew and learning to master one’s own skill would be answered by his tea water. As I left, he placed into my bag a present, one that I feel he thinks might further my learning. To share the spirit of tea love and my commitment to spreading the virtues of good tea, I will send the first three people to comment/email/knock on my door a 5g sample. It’s aged, it was once charcoal roasted, and it will be quite unlike anything you’ve had before. If you have the affinity to be able to enjoy this brew, I hope that you will be able to share this tea with a friend(s) and will continue to contribute positively to the movement for good tea and tea knowledge.
Drink good tea and enrich your life.