Friday, September 30, 2011

Comparing Teas at Their Best, vs. Controlled Tastings

Bon Teavant recently published a post about Professional Tea Cupping which I found interesting, and which provoked some thought for me. One of the ideas of the method of cupping communicated in this post is to sample many similar teas, under controlled circumstances: by keeping the amount of leaf, water temperature, and steeping time constant.

This got me thinking...when I sample teas, I tend to like to experiment with brewing each tea in different ways. Even with a particular style of tea, there are some individual teas that I like to steep longer or shorter, using more or less leaf, and occasionally I may even vary the brewing temperature. While the scientist in me is initially attracted to the idea of carefully controlled tasting times, the tea drinker in me observes that what I really care about is how each tea performs at its best. In some odd cases, I have even found teas that I do not particularly like on their own, but like better than most other teas of their style when paired with particular foods; see my old post Tea-Food Pairings: Spicy Food Enhances an Otherwise Undesirable Tea.

Comparing Teas At Their Best:

When comparing teas to find my favorites, I like to compare a tea at its best. Thus, if I had four Long Jings or four Tie Guan Yins of a similar style and level of roast, I would likely settle on different optimal ways of brewing each tea, if I took the time to get to know each tea. Comparing them at their best, I think it would be unlikely that I would always pick the same tea as my favorite that I would pick if I ran a single carefully controlled experiment.

I also suspect that if I ran several experiments with different steeping parameters, I would probably also pick different teas as my favorite. Certain aromas, flavors, and other qualities are very pleasing if there is just a hint of them, but unpleasant if there is too much of them. Bitterness, astringency, and vegetal qualities come to mind as these sorts of qualities.

Allowing For Acquired Tastes:

Another aspect of tea tasting that I like is allowing my taste for a particular tea to develop. My first impression on drinking a cup of tea, especially one that has a novel or peculiar quality to the aroma, is rarely indicative of how much I am going to enjoy the tea after trying it several times over a period of days or weeks. I remember the first time I tried green Se Chung oolongs; I was not impressed. Now, this family of oolongs is one of my favorites. Another type of tea I needed to acquire a taste for were the highly vegetal first flush Darjeeling teas, with tones of asparagus in the aroma. At first, I thought these teas tasted unpleasant; now I love them.

Professional Cupping Cannot Do This:

Professional tasters who are selecting batches for purchase and sale cannot invest this time into each individual tea. Presumably, professional tea tasters have years of experience, and highly developed palates, which give them a fairly accurate impression of tea from a controlled tasting. It also seems likely that their tastes are more well-formed, and they probably do not run up against new aromas that they have not yet acquired a taste for as often as I do. But I do wonder if this method actually selects the best teas, or if anything is lost in this carefully controlled approach. The unpredictability and wonder with which I experience tea drinking suggests to me that it is at least possible that indeed, a lot is lost.

What do you think?

What do you think? Do you have any experience with professional cupping? Do you like to compare teas with carefully controlled steeping environments? Do you find that you may prefer radically different brewing methods to bring out the best in different teas of the same style?

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