Friday, November 21, 2014

Sampling and Tasting

Continuing the topic of sampling and tasting, but this time around is not about finding and buying tea, instead this is about the preparation and appreciation of new tea. Appreciation is an individual thing and we should keep it that way, but it is undeniable that some things affect tea tasting sessions and sometimes my final view on the tea. 

Water, the most important element of course. Results will depend on what kind of water you use, whether you buy bottled water, filter your own or use tap water. Water lacking oxygen will make tea taste dull and even unpleasant; water lacking minerals will make for a weak and flat tea. If you buy bottled water make sure you check the bottling and expiration dates. If you filter water home you might want to check if your water is considered ‘soft’ or ‘hard’ water since this will affect your tea, this could also affect the type of filter you should use. If you live in a soft water area you should consider filters that add/allow retention of minerals in the water and if you are an area where water is hard you might want to buy a filter that helps reduce the amount of minerals, heavy metals and other pollutants that water can have today. You can also check your local water reports if you have a more in depth interest. Sometimes realizing what you have in your tap could freak you at bit. National EPA Criteria Recommendations.  EPA Standards and results by Region.

In the picture you can see two different colored filters by PÜR, the blue 'RF-9999' and 'Original RF'. I live in D.C. were we have 'hard' water, I need to filter water and tend to descale my kettle every two-three months when using the original filter. I then decided to try the RF-9999 with allow the water to keep more its minerals and also introduces some at the end of the filtering. If you live in a zone were you have 'soft' water, I'd recommend it. In my case, it made the water taste saturated of minerals and had me descaling my kettle every month.

With water out of the way, the next most important thing is your brewing vessel. I’ve bought more than I should have over time, but at this point I’m glad I did. I found my favorites and learned that they may all have their place, whether is due to convenience or they make a ‘better’ tea. Since I favor Chinese teas, I’ve favored Chinese tea ware in general and so my interest tends to lean toward them, although you can use any vessel you prefer for your tea, regardless of the origin. 

The Western cup with infuser has been helpful in a pinch or when preparing teas that will most likely discard after one or two steeps, but I feel like they are more a convenience to make bigger amounts of tea at a time than getting the most out of your tea. I love unglazed clay vessels for long Puerh sessions and enjoy those teas that I’ve already met and grown fond of (Sheng, Shou and Wuyi Oolongs). Glassware (for preparation/steeping), I find to be useless, mainly a fad that I succumbed to when I wanted to look at the tea the whole time; glass radiates the heat so your water temperature drops faster and grabbing the vessel is usually painful. I however, like using glass cups every once in a while to appreciate the color and clarity of the liquor/broth. Double walled glass vessels are very convenient travel buddies, but be mindful that you can't feel the heat so you may be over-steeping your tea and since it retains so much heat, it basically cooks the leaves even after you served it. My favorite material for tasting has to be Porcelain; it offers all the things I need to appreciate new tea.

I love a glass pitcher,  look at beautiful color of the broth.

Porcelain vessels, more precisely the Gaiwan, offers in general the perfect size to try tea without being wasteful, the control (with practice) to determine how well you want to filter a tea when serving, not to mention that the lid allows you to retain heat or can be removed for more sensitive tea and even to move leaves around to avoid over steeping ones at the bottom. The plain white color allows me to look at the dried and wet leaves and also allow me to determine how strong I want the steep to be. The lid is what makes the Gaiwan, it captures the scent of the broth and leaves; I use it all the time to help my leaves rotate during a steep and sample the scents the leaves and broth give.

Porcelain lined Yixing Gaiwan. The Clay holds the heat pretty well and the lining allows me to sample the tea with out foreign notes from previous sessions.

Although I obviously favored the Chinese Porcelain Gaiwan, you can get similar results from other glazed options. My biggest advice is to do your tastings on vessels that will not change the taste, avoid extra variables in the equation. I know it sound cool to drink all your Puerh in a beautiful Yixing, Jian Shui or other unglazed clays, but the reality is that you are using a vessel meant to round the taste and even impart some of the traits of the teas that were there in previous sessions, that defeats whole the purpose of doing tastings of a particular tea.
Sometimes we don't appreciate thing until they are gone. Thanks for the many steeps my dear. *sniff*

Friday, April 11, 2014

Mixed feelings about blended Puerh

The reason I decided on this topic is because I feel like it adds to the sampling post I made previously. I’ve ran into the problem of getting mixed experiences when comparing the samples from a blended cake to the actual cake bought later. Hopefully, this will make you aware of what you are getting when you consider buying a blended cake. 

The objective or goal behind the practice of blending is to ‘harvest’ the traits/characteristics and even aging potential from the desired  mountains, regions and plantations to enhance less renown, sought after and even young plantation material. This isn’t a bad thing, the problem lays in the practice, not the theory. So many competitors want to shine in the tea market that they buy raw material from renowned places to enhance to their cheaper (not necessarily lesser) material and make what most people would consider a descent cake or just more marketable cake.

Repeating what I said before, the reasoning behind blending is to ‘harvest’ those traits from the desired mountain, including longer term storage potential; although some, if not all are meant for immediate consumption(not aging). Most blended tea use a very low ratio of the prime material to enhance their Puerh… take into consideration that most cakes are usually 357-400gm, using 10-20% of prime material (very common ratio, about 35.7-71.4gm), the premise that this is enough to change an entire cake is almost absurd, at least in my experience. This doesn’t mean that a blend is not enjoyable, you just have to be aware of what you are getting when you buy them, so you it will meet your expectations.
'09 "Ban Zhang" - Departed from name/possibly a fake.

If you are looking for a Cake that is to drink now (blended to show the favorable traits from each region used and/or just provide an enhanced experience), then you need a cake that has enough of the prime material make a noticeable difference, here that 10-20% is ‘O.K.’ since usually the prime material chosen is usually known for apparent/active traits that are enough to ‘enhance’ your experience (examples: pleasant bitterness, fast huigan, thickness, cha qi, etc.; usually blended to reach a balanced experience with little or no harshness).

If you are interested in aging, mostly want a distribution that has a higher prime material distribution usually around 40-50% (above this percentage the price is high enough to encourage just sampling a pure prime material composition). This doesn’t mean the distribution I mentioned for the ‘for now’ cakes won’t age, but rather that it will be least likely to hold the traits desired. Aging cakes that are not blends is already somewhat of a gamble (you can’t foresee the final result), this is in my opinion far more true for blends.
Sampling is STILL key, but it has a flaw; when sampling blends or even recipes with several grades of material, you won’t truly know what the cake is like until you’ve tried the front, back and middle of the cake. And believe me, sometimes it feels like you are drinking completely different cakes.

2009 "Bu Lang" - Nice blend, only minor changes around the cake
This doesn't mean that you can't age a low distribution ratio cake or that you can't drink the higher distribution ratio cake now, rather that my experience with the two 'types' have been enjoyable when I consider the distribution against my goals. I only mentioned blended cakes referring to a cakes that use two different raw materials; a 'prime' material and a 'cheaper' material because I feel like once you go into a three or more regions blend, you are definitely acquiring something blended to be drank now, since the blends are usually done balance each of the materials' traits and make a pleasant drink right away; this to me minimizes the 'harshness' that allows for better aging. 

When looking at blended cakes:

  • Use the descriptions – reputable vendors will disclose if the cake is blend, it will include a rough estimate of the ratios of the material used and even if the grade of the material might be inconsistent throughout the cake (usually lower quality in the back and/or middle). Tip: a cake labelled with a famous name on the wrapper, but lacking information about the material/source is a sign to inquire for more information (prime material is usually a bragging right when describing the cakes, if they avoid it, maybe there isn't much to brag about).
  • Research! – Sometimes gathering information will help you determine if it is even worth trying to obtain Puerh made of a specific material. Some areas are highly sought after, this combined with a limited supply opens the doors for 'close enough the location' material and even fake material.
  • Contact your vendor – Vendors carry several types of Puerh to satisfy different types of consumers, as such they usually can recommend based on your current goals.
  • Trial and error – Even undesired results from purchases bring something positive; a learning experience. As you continue your journey you’ll define and redefine what you prefer and even your goals. Don’t dwell on bad experiences; use them as tool for better judgment in the future.
2006 "Ban Zhang" Spent Leaves - This one was an obvious blend, even before buying. Its taste and aroma was far departed from the title claimed. The leaf distribution isn't bad but the experience was almost heartbreaking. To me a reminder that 'bargain' prices sometimes are too good to be true; don't be pessimistic, but remain skeptic when buying Puerh.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Experts know best, Cognitive Bias.

  When starting with something new I often seek for experienced people or at least people whose opinion I value, respect and/or feel might be helpful. I have to admit, I usually hoped for a recommendation to experience the ‘best’ possible examples. As part of my learning journey, I found that experienced enthusiast often seemed to agree with naming their favorites or ‘best’ to the point that sometimes made me feel like they agreed that most other options were sub-par or just not good at all.  I heard the same region names/brands/factories repeatedly when asking about the best and favorite Puerh. Some of them I tried while still discovering Puerh and well, I did not appreciate all of them at that point. This was mostly related to my lack of experience with Puerh and the need to open up to new experiences, tastes or in other words acquired taste.

Wild Orange Shou - Possibly the only Puerh type I completely avoid.

  As I progressed and kept developing my taste for Puerh and tea in general, I found myself leaning towards the some of the ‘expert preferred’ choices in terms of brand/tea regions and traits from certain tea.  I started to agree with some of the views I have read and heard from enthusiasts; this is including traits that make a specific region/brand “better”. However, I also found that even though I could appreciate all of them, not all were winners in my book. I kept trying them and buying new samples and cakes since I know that tastes evolve and change as you experience new sensations and even grow fond of some of them.

Liu-An - I can appreciate it, but not favor.

  Is not an unusual thing for experienced people to lean towards renowned names/brands or traits, setting somewhat of a trend. It has a lot to do with personal preference, but a trait that undeniable is that as you repeatedly drink tea (or anything you enjoy) your taste buds move on to new dimensions as far as what it takes to stimulate them (you need ‘better’, perhaps less subtle tastes and/or new experiences). As part of this trend people usually seem to disregard or avoid anything that does not constitute part of the new favored "better" option. I never knew how to properly explain it, so I turned to researching other things people enjoy and I found a good article about beer with a chart that (in my opinion) was incorrectly perceived as an association of people’s preferences with the level of expertize/knowledge, as the only reason why people choose certain traits/types of beer. Article Here! Preference, in my opinion, does not have a direct and exclusive relationship with expertise. I always thought about exposure-to-exploration as the main reason, but I didn’t know how to properly explain it.

  Later, I found a response to the article/chart by a reddit user that to me, perfectly explained how palate/taste fatigue is the main reason why experts may agree on stronger almost more pungent tastes. He explains that there is a bias existing in both beginners and experienced people's preferences:  

I have to say that this article also highlights a strong beer bias among experts, as well as the more commonly realized lager bias among beginners. I have noticed that the longer one is in the field (either brewing or being a connoisseur), the most tastes shift towards stronger beers. There is an assumption that this is due to expertise, but I think that taste fatigue and social conformity may also play a role. When you are regularly drinking strong beers, certainly within a session, but also between sessions, you are going to experience some taste fatigue and have difficulty appreciating nuances of weaker beers. Also, when you are embedded in a community that universally prizes certain experiences (Pliny the Elder, etc.), if you don't express appreciation for those beers your competency is questioned. This is a form of social conformity, and it would produce the exact same statistical convergence in expert opinions that expertise would produce.” - psychguy via reddit

2009 Feng Qing Shou - A cheap but reliable Shou.
  I feel all the points made by Psychguy play a role in the world of tea as it does with beer. Beginners prefer certain tea types due to the ease to appreciate them, while more experienced/seasoned drinkers have a tendency to prefer stronger (sometimes not stronger but rather more complex) tastes, but the most interesting point is the social conformity portion. I feel like this is possibly the most prominent issue in regards of tea reviews and popular opinions, not to mention pricing. Being able to appreciate something is not equal to favoring it, appreciation means that you understand and recognize the traits and characteristics something has or should have. Not liking/favoring a particular famed tea region/type would make people question your capability to taste/rate tea for sure if you are renowned reviewer or vendor, but the truth is that if you are a true tea enthusiast, the reason you became one is your love for tea, not to seek approval from others. As far palate fatigue goes, giving yourself breaks and changing up routines helps quite a bit.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Sampling to meet your goals

 If you are a new to tea, sampling is perfect for getting to know tea and once again when you want to find new favorites or expand your experience. As a more seasoned tea drinker, sampling helps to spot bad quality, undesired traits or the way around by helping you find exactly what you were looking for.  It seems like all around win-win, but you have to be careful not to fall into anything past sampling… like hoarding.

Portion of my previous sample hoarding.
 Hoarding samples is the counterproductive thing you can do while trying to sample tea.  What defines hoarding? Hoarding is literally to amass or store huge amounts of anything. But at least in my opinion, is anything you accumulate past being useful/practical; like any samples you don’t drink before buying other samples. It doesn’t sound like much but if you continue you will find yourself with samples that you didn’t even remember you had. Worse yet, samples you have tried and barely remember what they are like (which defeats the purpose of sampling completely).  This happened to me while I was trying to find Puerh I would like to Age/store and try others I had not tried before. The other problem is tea going stale. Tea goes stale over time and more so when not stored properly. Puerh will not go stale at the same level other tea does, but it is still very prone to cross contamination (smells/taste) from sources nearby and will change in taste in a unfavorable environment.  

 All of this happens because you are not aware it is an issue of it until… you become aware of it (too late). Hopefully these tips will help you avoid falling into hoarding tea:

1.       Set a goal! Even if you think that the more you get the more you’ll learn/experience, in general humans have a short attention span/memory for things that are not constant or fail to trigger your curiosity right away. So instead of trying a bunch of teas, narrow down the search and tasting. You could even make it an elimination tasting and rid yourself of the ones you don’t like right away. Be sure to know if you are looking for something specific or barely exploring. Setting this goal will make sure you don’t drift into just buying samples on a whim.

2.       Set a limit! As part of effectively learning and/or deciding, you need to pace yourself. Set a maximum number of samples you want to try within a time frame. Tea takes time to truly appreciate its potential; only two types of tea are easy to make your mind about right away; incredible tea and terrible tea.

3.       Move on… The tea you tried and didn’t like or didn’t stand out will only take up space in some drawer or container.  You can share the samples you don’t want/like with others. Someone might like a tea you didn’t or at least you’ll save them money from buying it themselves.

4.       TAKE NOTES!!!!  If you are trying to find the best tea for you, or just one of a specific kind you may want to write down which ones you liked and didn’t like. That way if you look back you don’t have to wonder OR reorder samples.

note: I take regular taste ‘notes’ to remind me what it tasted like. But if you are running a side by side comparison (similar teas from different shops/grades/seasons/years) sometimes having your own rating system helps.
Side by side tasting is a great way to spot less obvious differences

5.       Steep, enjoy, learn and repeat!

Hopefully this will save some of you some time, money and make sampling that much enjoyable.