I feel like celebrating. I got a new pot for my birthday. Milche’s latest blood tests came back much improved. It’s been way too long since I’ve done a tea review, so let’s throw one up here!
I love my new pot. The turtle at the top is what really sold me on it. I’ve named him, and the entire pot by extension, Ralph, after the pet Florida softshell turtle I had in high school. Ralph is made of silver, which is supposed to affect the flavor of the brew. I haven’t noticed anything overtly different, but I’ll have to do a side by side review sometime. In case you were wondering, he comes from Yunnan Sourcing.
And the teapet? His name is Terrence, and he’s actually pretty cool. Terrence is the first (and probably last–there are only so many teapets a person can own) of my color changing teapets. Here’s a video of Terrence in action. He came from a random seller on eBay.
I have a sample of White2Tea’s 2011 Fuding Aged White Tea that I want to try before I place my order for 200 of their A&P cakes (okay, not literally 200 cakes, but A&P is so very good). I don’t have much experience with white tea. I’ve tried my grocery store’s okay brand, What-Cha’s incredible Kenya “Rhino” White, and some unidentified white squares that Liquid Proust is selling offsite that are pure honey. So far, I’ve been very satisfied with my white journey. But aged white? I’m not so sure.
This isn’t the prettiest sample, but then again we don’t drink tea for the looks. If I raked up a bunch of leaves in my front yard, pressed them tightly together, and left them to rot for a year outside, this sample is how I would imagine those leaves to look. The picture of the whole cake on the website looks better, so maybe I just got a bad section.
There was some question as to what temperature I should brew at, so I brewed about 9g in my 160ml pot, going back and forth between 200º and 212ºF. Brew times started at a couple of seconds and increased as the tea died. I think the last steep, which is the one pictured, ended up being about 5 minutes. I’ll give you a little spoiler at this point: I enjoyed this tea at both temperatures, so it didn’t matter. The leaves brewed into a stunning red, a color I wasn’t expecting from the leaves.
The tea starts out medicinal. I didn’t really understand that description when people used it for white tea, but I certainly do now. It proves that even when a description is relatable, it sometimes won’t make sense until you actually experience it for yourself. I also got a lot of autumnal leaf pile flavor. To be honest, I didn’t really enjoy the first three steeps of this tea at all.
Like the clouds parting after a storm, the flavor began to open up and become pleasant and warm at the fourth steep. The transformation began with some cinnamon and a touch of honey, though autumnal leaf pile was still the predominating flavor.
It was a freezing cold day, so the brew cooled quickly. At that point, I got a hint of green apple skin, which is a first for me in any kind of tea—pretty impressive! As much as I would like to think that it is my palate adjusting to detect the finer points of a brew, in preparation for my become some sort of tea tasting superhero, it’s probably just the tea being awesome.
As the leaf mellows out and begins to die, it keeps surprising me with other flavors: vanilla, honey, and dried flowers.
I think my White2Tea doomcart just got a little more expensive.
I want to approach brewing as many people new to the world of tea approach it. Very few people go from drinking tea bags to gongfu style. If you’ve gotten a full setup based on my last education post, Getting Started with Loose Leaf, you already have a mug, an infuser, some tea leaves, and a way to heat your water.
A Note on Standards
They’re bull crap. I can give you some guidelines on where to start, but it’s ultimately your palate you’re aiming to please. The high priest or the premiere sommelier of tea can tell you to steep all black teas at 212 degrees, but if you prefer them at 205, brew them at 205 and enjoy without guilt. Be unapologetic in your preferred tastes! This is actually pretty decent advice for life as well. I feel like I could go on an entire philosophical rant about this, so I’ll just leave it at that.
But the suggestions I am going to give here are good places to start if you’re unsure of how you like your tea. Feel free to make adjustments as necessary. As a matter of fact, I encourage you to play around with temperatures and steeping times. Though you can get a general sense of what certain types of teas will do with you play with steeping temperatures and times, teas can sometimes surprise you and improve outside of traditional parameters.
Each tea type has different optimal brewing methods to bring out “the best” of their flavors, but these are highly subjective. It’s possible to turn a tea from “meh” to “wow” just by adjusting how you’ve steeped it. Brewing a tea for hotter or longer can give the brew a stronger flavor, bring out more bitterness or astringency, or highlight different flavors. Shorter or lower temperature steeps subdue certain flavors, reduce bitterness and astringency, and highlight other flavors. Even the material, size and shape of the vessel you’re brewing in can affect the taste of a tea, but I’m getting ahead of myself. The reason I’m being so vague in is because each tea is going to react differently. It’s best to play around and find out for yourself.
So you have your tea leaves, and your preferred infuser is all set up in your mug and ready to go. How much leaf should you put in your infuser? If you have a small infuser, like the snappy spoon or a noveltea infuser, the decision is already made for you. Fill it up about half way to allow for room for the leaves to grow as they rehydrate. There’s not a lot of room for experimentation with these types of infusers. Otherwise, start with a teaspoon per 6-8 ounces. I like my tea to be a bit stronger, so I will usually do 1.5–2 teaspoons per 6 ounces.
Heating the Water
If you have a kettle that tells you the temperature of the water, congratulations! You can skip this section. If you’re using a less precise method, such as a stovetop or a microwave, and you don’t have a thermometer, you’re going to have to make a guess. And that’s okay if you’re just starting out and deciding if you even want to be a tea drinker. But once you’re hooked, I recommend at least getting a thermometer—a kettle if the bug has really bitten you.
Anyway, if you’re using a microwave or a stovetop and you don’t yet have a thermometer of some sort, it’s easiest to start from boiling. Then take the water off the heat (or out of the microwave) and wait for it to cool some. The amount of time to wait for it to cool is obviously going to vary greatly depending on what vessel you’re holding the water in, but you’ll want to wait 1-3 minutes for it to cool down. I know that newbies especially are obsessed with “getting it right” when first starting out, but going by feel and instinct is really the best thing for you (she says as she sits down next to her electric kettle that has a continuous reading of the temperature of the water). It’s how the Chinese did it for centuries before electricity.
Times and Temperatures
So here are the temperatures and times I am recommending for these teas. For the ten millionth time, feel free to adjust these to your taste. I find that sometimes I even go outside these parameters based on how a tea looks. Greener teas tend to prefer the lower and shorter end of the spectrum while darker teas tend to prefer the higher and longer. For second steeps and beyond, I use the same temperature and add 30 seconds to a minute to the steep time. And use your nose! The aroma will tell you when the leaves are ready to be pulled.
I’ll definitely go into greater detail about each type of tea in a later post. For now, we just want to get you steeping!
Black: 205º-212ºF for 2.5-4 minutes
Green: 140º-170º for 1.5-3 minutes
Oolong: 180º-195º for 2-4 minutes
White: 160º -180º for 1.5-2.5 minutes
Mate: 190º -205º for 3-4 minutes
Puerh: 180º -212º for .5-3 minutes
Rooibos: 212º for 4 minutes
Herbal: 212º for 4 minutes
There are other teas, like yellow and purple teas, but the beginner is unlikely to casually run across those. And don’t forget that you can always look up the suggested brew time and temperature on the vendor’s website to see what they recommend.
Now enjoy your tea until the next post comes along!
Some people spend time with their families on Labor Day. Some people drink a lot of chocolatey teas and do a lot of typing. Can you guess which I am?
Intro to Laoshans
Last week, I did a post on comparing Verdant’s regular and reserve grade Laoshans, and as you can see from my last post, I just got a shipment of blacks in from Yunnan Sourcing, which included both grades of their new Laoshans. Normally I wouldn’t buy both grades from two companies like this, but as Laoshans are my favorite, I thought it would be a good idea to really dig into the differences between grades and companies.
For those who don’t know, Laoshan teas are grown in the Laoshan region of China. I’ve seen greens and oolongs produced in that region (I have an oolong sample I can’t wait to try, but I wasn’t wild about the green), but blacks are my favorite from Laoshan. The typical flavor profile for a Laoshan black is cocoa to chocolate, dark to light breads, and yeasty. It’s about as close as you can get to a dessert without adding flavorings.
A Note on Bias
The great thing about being new to the world of tea is that I am coming in with my own set of expectations. I don’t really care if the tea community has something against an owner or marketing techniques. You can tell me that the tea comes from trees that were blessed by Jesus himself and then stored in the emperor’s private cave in jars made from the first yixing pots out of the famous Dragon Kiln, and I’m still going to be judging it on its flavor:value:feeling ratio.
That being said, accidental bias is still a thing. So I will be tasting all four teas: Yunnan Sourcing for the first time and Verdant as a refresher. Then I’ll do a blind taste of all four.
Prepping for the Showdown
I thought I had a lot of teaware until I started this experiment. Then I realized I don’t have enough gaiwans or enough identical cups to do a fair color comparison while brewing all these teas simultaneously. Though it isn’t ideal, I am going to have to brew these up one at a time.
While this is a lovely excuse to have to go out and get more teaware, I am going to see how often I run into this problem before going gaiwan shopping.
Dry Leaf Comparison
Visually, all four of these look pretty identical. There is some slight color variation, but the difference is so slight that it’s hardly worth noting. The real difference in dry leaf comes from the smell. I didn’t know that these companies sourced from different farmers when first began this test. I actually suspected that they came from the same location. But it’s immediately apparent from the scent of the leaves that these are NOT from the same farm. A little research as I am writing this up reveals that Verdant comes from the He family farm, and Yunnan Sourcing comes from the Liang family farm.
YS Classic vs. YS Imperial
The classic version smells a little like Hershey’s chocolate, maybe with a touch of raisin and a nutty, Halloween candy sort of scent. The Imperial grade is even sweeter, and it smells EXACTLY like the bottom of a Halloween candy bucket the night after a humid Florida evening of trick-or-treating.
YS Classic vs. Verdant Classic
The smell of these dry leaves is almost identical, but the Yunnan Sourcing smells just a touch stronger.
YS Imperial vs. Verdant Reserve
This comparison had the most distinct difference in aroma. Verdant is a dark cocoa butter where Yunnan Sourcing is that sugary Halloween candy. If I breathe in the Yunnan Sourcing first, my nostrils are so washed out with the Halloween scent that the Verdant no longer smells sweet at all to me.
Once brewed, the wet leaves lose their Halloweeny smell, for which I am grateful. Trashy American chocolate isn’t really my thing in either tea or food form. The aroma is more like a burnt chocolate pudding, a scent I can definitely get behind. I’m one of those people that actually enjoys eating the skin off of a cooling chocolate pudding.
The brew is a bit thin, lacking in body and depth, for a black tea. There is a light cocoa flavor, a sugary sweetness, and a hint of yeasty sourness. That hint of Halloween candy is back on the finish. As the brew cools, it gets sweeter. There is also some slight astringency on the back of the palate.
Subsequent steepings reveal a bright, yeasty honey flavor with a wash of cocoa on the finish. Though it’s still on the astringent side, the brew definitely thickens and sweetens as it cools. I’m still getting that Halloween candy flavor out the nose.
Though this tea is perfectly pleasant, I know I’ve had better Laoshans than this.
Yunnan Sourcing has this to say about the Classic: “Our Classic grade, although not as small and fine as its Imperial counterpart, it is more robust in taste and has more of a dark chocolate bite to it. It is very smooth with a golden yellow tea soup that is viscous and soupy.”
The brew to this smells more appealing after the Classic version—more like a chocolate biscuit. The wet leaves almost smell like a hot cereal with cocoa. There’s something almost liquor smelling about the brewing leaves that leaves me a little dizzy with anticipation. I’ve never had the Godiva chocolate liquor, but it’s how I would imagine it to smell.
The cocoa flavor is much more pronounced than in the YS Classic.; it comes out of my nose as I breathe out. The dark chocolate flavor becomes sugary as it cools, and the flavor turns a little bready. I’m getting chocolate croissant feelings from this tea. There’s a bit of astringency that brews out in subsequent steeps, and any bitterness is like that of a dark chocolate rather than a bitter black tea; it’s very faint.
Yunnan Sourcing has this to say about the Imperial: “The taste is sweet and voluminous with notes of cane sugar, chocolate and baked yams. The Classic Laoshan Black we offer is also excellent with a more robust taste and a little more of the dark chocolate bite to it. I recommend getting a little of each grade to start and then decide for yourself which you like best!”
I’ve already weighed in on the fact that I don’t agree with their assessment between Classic and Imperial. I didn’t really get much sweet potato from these, and even if I somehow missed it, it’s definitely nothing like you would get from a Yunnan black. I pretty much only agree with the chocolate and sugarcane notes.
Verdant Rehash and Comparison
As I pointed out in my post on reviewers, taste is determined by a lot of different factors. So I did a quick rehash of the Verdant teas not only so they would be fresh in my mind, but also in case there was something in my mood or environment affecting how I am tasting the tea today.
This has a very pronounced bready taste, but it isn’t like the dark bread of the Verdant Reserve. It’s more like a chocolate biscuit. There’s much more yeast and much less cocoa flavor than the two higher graded Laoshans.
This is definitely a very, very dark yeasty bread with a dark chocolate. The brew comes out much darker and redder than the other teas on the first steep.
Comparing this brew to the YS Imperial, the chocolate notes are more pronounced, and the brew is smoother without the astringency.
Blind Tasting and Final Rankings
I was thinking at this point that I had a pretty good idea where my rankings were, but it’s always a good thing to eliminate bias when doing a taste test. I assigned each tea a number 1-4 and mixed them up so I no longer knew which leaf was which.
I managed to correctly identify each tea, so I’m definitely not imagining the differences in taste. Here are my final rankings:
Tied for 1st and 2nd Place: Verdant Reserve and Yunnan Sourcing Imperial
3rd Place: Verdant Classic
4th Place: Yunnan Sourcing Classic
Bonus Neophyte Round
As I’ve mentioned before, my husband isn’t really into tea. I always give him sips of what I am drinking, and he usually responds with, “Tastes like tea.” I left the brews in the bubble cups out until he stumbled out of bed. The brews were cold, but that hardly mattered to him. There were no identifying marks on the teas; only I knew which was which. I had him rank them, and though he said he had some trouble distinguishing between the four, his final rankings were similar to mine:
Yunnan Sourcing Imperial
Yunnan Sourcing Classic
I like to weigh cost vs. flavor, so let’s look at the rankings again with price per gram (note that these are bullets and not numbers…I’m not subliminally ranking 1st and 2nd:
Verdant Reserve: $0.30 per gram
Yunnan Sourcing Imperial: $0.19 per gram
Verdant Classic: $0.18 per gram
Yunnan Sourcing Classic: $0.12 per gram
In my opinion, this makes things pretty clear. Flavor wise alone, I would say Verdant Reserve just barely nudges out Yunnan Sourcing Imperial. But if you add in the price differential, I would say the final, final rankings are thus:
Yunnan Sourcing Imperial Grade Laoshan Black
Verdant 2016 Reserve Spring Laoshan Black
Verdant Spring 2016 Laoshan Black
Yunnan Sourcing Classic Grade Laoshan Black
I should note that I re-steeped all the used leaves western style separately throughout the day so I could get an impression of each tea on its own without a comparison. All of the teas were lovely on their own, with sweet, chocolate notes just like they should have. It’s only on sitting down and comparing them that I can find flaws and distinct weaknesses. So take from these reviews what you will. Whether you prefer the sound of a certain flavor profile I’ve described or you want the absolute cheapest tea possible, it’s going to be a pleasant experience.
The entire world is based on opinions these days: social media, blogs, and comment sections on practically every packet of information available. Every human being in the world is shouting out their own point of view as loudly as possible, and it makes you wonder if anyone is even taking the time to truly listen and understand.
But even when people are listening, opinions are so different that you may or may not start to wonder in the dark recesses of your mind if your opinion is the only one that matters. These are the kinds of thoughts I’ve had when reading reviews against teas I’ve tasted:
Everyone says that this tea is fantastic, but I think it tastes like soap.
This tea is called French Toast, but to me it tastes like vanilla pudding.
Everyone says this tea is fruity, but it tastes malty to me.
So how do we make the most use out of reading reviews to choose teas we love and avoid teas we hate? How do we make our own reviews most helpful to others? What I have to keep in mind when reading and writing reviews is that the taste of a tea is subject to so many factors…
Taste is based on memories, psychology, and life experience; it’s subjective as hell.
People tend to judge the flavors of tea through the filters of their own experience with other foods and drinks.
Let’s start with lavender first as an example. A lot of people love blends that contain lavender, especially earl grey. I’ve tried so many blends that have lavender in it, and I’ve really hated them all. I don’t see how people can drink lavender tea. It took me a while to figure out why. I’ve been using lavender bath products since I was a kid, and I just don’t think my brain is capable of separating the lavender smell from the idea of soap.
Then there’s the ubiquitous pumpkin spice. Think about pumpkin spice really hard for a moment; do you really, really ever taste the pumpkin part of the pumpkin spice? Be honest with yourself, because if you think about it hard enough, there really is no pumpkin flavor in about 95% of pumpkin spice flavored things. I’ve even run across “pumpkin flavored” items that are actually just pumpkin spiced items. So why are people tasting pumpkin in pumpkin spice? Why the hell is it even called pumpkin spice if there’s no pumpkin in it? It’s because of tradition; in American cuisine, those spices usually only appear in that combination in pumpkin pie, which does contain pumpkin. Since much of my experience with these spices together centers around pumpkin pie, my brain automatically fills in the pumpkin. This can happen with other foods too.
Another issue is food experience and culture. Someone growing up in the southern part of the U.S. is going to have a very different take on flavors than someone growing up in Japan, but we don’t even have to go that far. A poor person will have different references for taste than a wealthy one. People of differing ethnicities living next door to one another will have different references. No matter how much a tea tastes like longan fruit to someone, the person who has never even heard of that fruit is going to have difficulty relating, and will most likely describe the tea completely differently.
And then there’s just the simple fact that despite everything, our brains interpret flavors differently even when differing social circles don’t factor into it. No matter how many black olives I make my husband try, he’s never going to like black olives, which obviously makes him insane. How some people don’t like black tea is beyond me; even when it’s malty and bitter, it’s still fantastic. I still get incredulous exclamations of “HOW CAN YOU NOT LIKE CHOCOLATE?!” when I tell people I am just not a fan of milk chocolate. It just happens.
Also, another quick point to I want to tack on here, experience in the tea world itself matters. It’s difficult for someone to know that a bad tea is bad if they haven’t even had the good stuff yet.
Brewing parameters can change the taste of a tea drastically.
These are all factors that can make a sweet tea into a sour, soapy gut bomb, and not all of them are in your control at all times:
Weight to water ratio
This post is already long enough, so I’ll save the details on these points for another day.
The smallest thing can affect your taste buds.
As a reviewer, it’s even possible to lie to and mislead yourself, which pretty much means that there is no hope for us to be 100% reliable as taste reviewers. Your own day-to-day experiences can make a tea taste drastically different from one day to the next:
How long it’s been since you’ve eaten and how hungry you are
What you’ve eaten that day
What kinds of smells you are surrounded by as you drink
What kind of mood you’re in
What your surroundings are: weather, indoors, outdoors, forest, city, bathroom, etc.
How to read and write reviews to everyone’s advantage.
So how do I find reviewers I trust? What strategies do I use in writing reviews to make them more accessible to people? I don’t always succeed in these endeavors, but I do try to keep them in mind when I read and write.
Find people with similar tastes to yours.
Most bloggers and reviewers are pretty easy to pin down as far as what directions their preferences face. Some bloggers will only review certain kinds of teas. Try looking up some of your favorite teas on Steepster and follow those people that rate them highly.
Read tea reviews to find a common thread.
This is a pretty simple one. Look up the teas on the business’ website, if the website allows for users to give feedback. Keep in mind though that some sites only feature positive reviews. You can also go on Steepster to find unbiased reviews on a tea.
Chances are, if 10 people says that the tea tastes like library books, it probably tastes like library books.
Watch your language!
Because readers are coming from so many different backgrounds, I try not to be too exotic when describing the flavors I am getting. I have had some teas that taste exactly like green peanuts pulled fresh from the ground, but how many people know that flavor? So while I might use that phrase, I also try to add in simpler flavors as well to help out. Green boiled peanuts have an earthy, dirty taste to them, but with a nutty kind of beaniness that balances the earthiness with a sweetness. While this may not be as concise a description as green peanuts, it does make some headway into helping translate. And yes, I do have a tendency to make up words like beaniness when writing reviews.
I have to admit that I am not always successful at this, but I try to step back in a review and give an emotionless account of a tea’s flavor before giving an actual opinion. That way people can decide for themselves if they want to try it. It’s not fair for me to vent about the terrible flavor of a sheng if I hate sheng, so I try to identify the flavors I am tasting instead before reacting to them. I try to keep in mind that someone might actually like the flavors I am reacting badly to, so I describe them instead of just saying that a tea is terrible.
Hopefully this advice will help you newbies out there find sources and opinions that will lead you to more great teas and fewer awful teas.