Monday, March 12, 2012

Accessible Teas: Easy Teas to Appreciate

A post by Ken MacBeth(lahikmajoe), titled do I really have to like white tea? got me thinking some time back about the question of accessible teas, that is, teas that people not as familiar with tea would be likely to appreciate.

What makes a tea accessible? There is no one answer, but there are certain trends.

Because tastes are subjective and highly variable, a tea that might be an instant favorite of one person might be completely inaccessible (or perhaps, more of an acquired taste) to another. For this reason, I've found that, in order to figure out what teas might be most "accessible" to a given person, it is necessary to ask the person what they like, or at least to observe them and listen to their opinions on food and drink.

Nonetheless, I've served countless different teas to numerous people over the past few years, including at tea tastings where people sampled many different teas each, and I've observed certain fairly strong patterns in people's reactions. When planning a tea tasting, especially one oriented towards people relatively unfamiliar with tea, I have found it helpful to include some more accessible teas in the selection, although I also like to include some unusual or unfamiliar ones as well, both in order to broaden people's palates, and because there will usually be one or two people who, even from the start, prefer the "stranger" teas.

Teas that I have found to be highly accessible:

This list represents my own personal experiences of serving tea; other people may have had other experiences. But these are the teas I have found that people I've served tea to have been most likely to appreciate most easily:

  • Strong black teas - A lot of people (including both coffee drinkers and those who are really not into coffee) enjoy strong black teas. A lot of people like to sweeten their tea and/or add milk, and this practice tends to work best with strong black teas, but I've found that these teas also appeal to many people, like me, who drink their tea straight. I've found that it's hard to go wrong with high-quality, fresh, loose-leaf black teas from Assam, Kenya, and Yunnan province. Ceylon and Keemun can also be accessible. The tea does not have to be the highest-grade, and it is often best to avoid the most expensive teas; I often have found, for instance, that plain Dian Hong tends to have more universal appeal than Yunnan Gold made predominately of tips. But I find that freshness is very important; even people unfamiliar with tea will tend to notice and be more impressed by strong black teas with a powerful, fresh aroma than stale or low-quality teas.

  • Hojicha - Hojicha is a bit of a specialty tea, but I've found that it has a pretty wide appeal. Many people who tend not to like green teas tend to like it; its strongly-roasted aroma makes it appeal to coffee lovers, and yet it still seems to satisfy green tea lovers as well. Its smooth flavor also allows it to appeal to people who tend to not like most stronger-tasting teas. Given that it can be relatively inexpensive, and that many Americans have still never tried it (or even heard of it), I think hojicha is an excellent example of a tea to include when sharing tea with new audiences.

  • Genmaicha - This mild-flavored Japanese green tea also tends to go over well, I think in part because the vegetal aromas of the tea are downplayed and partially replaced by the pleasing, toasty aroma of the toasted rice, something that seems pretty easy for most people to appreciate.

  • Darker white teas - These include darker Bai Mu Dan / White Peony (although not all examples of it, some of it can be rather light and subtle), Shou Mei, and other teas as well. I have sometimes even found low-grade, broken-leaf white tea can be relatively accessible. The light oxidation of darker white teas I have found removes some of the vegetal tones that people object to in green teas, and often produces aromas like autumn leaves, which most people have pleasant associations with.

  • Sheng Pu-erh - (For those unfamiliar, RateTea provides a brief explanation of the distinction between the two types of Pu-erh tea.) I know this goes against conventional wisdom, but I have found that sheng Pu-erh tends to be much more accessible than Shu Pu-erh, and in general, much more accessible than I would expect based on the way people talk about Pu-erh. I have even found this to be true of Sheng Pu-erh that has barely been aged at all (1-2 years), including very edgy batches which are highly bitter, astringent, smoky, or have other qualities that one might think of as being off-putting. Most Americans that I meet have sampled several low-quality shu Pu-erhs, often from tea bags, and have never tried sheng Pu-erh. The typical response that I get is: "This doesn't taste anything like Pu-erh. All the Pu-erh I've tried so far tastes like a damp basement, but this tastes more like black tea / oolong tea / green tea / something else. I like it."

The above observations (as well as those below) are merely coarse trends. In groups, there are usually a number of people who will still dislike the teas with a more universal appeal.

Herbal teas that I have found to be most accessible:

I nearly always offer caffeine-free herbal alternatives when I serve tea or run a tea tasting, both because I want to accommodate people who cannot or do not consume caffeine, and because I think herbal teas are fascinating to explore in their own right. These two herbs are the ones that I have consistently found to be the most accessible:

  • Lemon myrtle - I like to call this the "lemoniest of the lemony herbs"; it is almost more lemony than lemons themselves, if that is possible.

  • Tulsi / Holy Basil - This was an herbal tea that I instantly liked. With a strongly clove-like aroma, similar in some respects to sweet basil, and also having strong suggestions of other spice (like cinnamon and nutmeg), I found this tea to be pretty accessible, and I've found that people I serve it to tend to consistently like it.

What tends to be less accessible?

I've found that teas that, from my experience, are more likely to receive negative or lukewarm reactions, include silver needle white tea (too mild), single-estate single-harvest Darjeelings (too vegetal), Shu Pu-erh (too dusty/earthy), greener oolongs (too alien), and gyokuro (too vegetal).

Contrary to what one might expect from the fact that most people seem to have a sweet tooth, I have found that most of the naturally sweet teas, like pouchong, greener oolongs, and some green teas, are not the most accessible. People may not say they like bitterness, but I think there is some degree to which people still do expect (and like) their tea to be bitter. I also think that the teas that are naturally sweeter tend to be dominated by vegetal characteristics, which I think are one of the main reasons that people dislike green teas, greener oolongs, and some Himalayan teas. The same goes for the shu vs. sheng Pu-erh distinction: shu Pu-erh is nearly always smoother than un-aged sheng Pu-erh. Yet I find many people object to the aroma of shu Pu-erh, saying it tastes like dirt or mold.

Keep in mind how many people love black coffee...and even higher-quality black coffee is more bitter than most of the more bitter teas.

What do you think?

Have you found any patterns or trends like the ones I've described here, when serving tea to others, especially, to people who are relatively inexperienced at sampling teas?

Which teas do you think are truly the most accessible in a broad sense?


  1. I read your post occasionally, never fully. This one is most apt when describing tea drinkers of dark teas; and those who favor coffee drinking. As well as describing those who tend to favor Hojicha for its strong-roasted aroma. And with regards to the pu-erh comments I shan't take bite. It is good analysis/opinion for summation.

    Thank you for sharing. Happy teas!

  2. Interesting! I would have thought something like an Anxi Tie Guanyin would be more accessible, but maybe it's too sweet? I guess we need to keep in mind most people's idea of tea is a bag of flannings with milk and sugar or genmaicha at sushi restaurants.

  3. My experience with Tie Guan Yin and other oolongs has been that the darker-roast ones seem to have more universal appeal...whereas the greener ones sometimes elicit a more mixed reaction. I tend to get more of the "love it or hate it" with the greener ones...for example, with Pouchong, I often hear "This tastes like honey and flowers, I love it." from a few people but: "This tastes weird / fishy / like vegetables." from others.

    Everyone is different though, these are just the trends I've observed. I've done a lot of tea tastings for college-aged people or just a bit older. If anything though, I've noticed the older generation (about my parent's age) seems to fit within these trends more, whereas younger people seem to have more varied tastes.