Monday, September 3, 2012

Blind Oolong Tea Tasting with Evan, Brandon, and Others

I recently had the pleasure of attending a blind tea tasting, hosted by Evan Draper, who runs the not-so-active blog Pluck Tea. Incidentally, Brandon of Wrong Fu Cha also attended.

Pictured here is the setup at the very end of the tasting:

In addition to the tea, there were bowls of figs and concord grapes to snack on.

There were seven of us, and Evan proceeded to brew up 7 teas, each of which had been packaged with a mystery label that we opened after the fact. We drank four infusions of each tea. We each took note of all the teas while drinking them, and discussed them before revealing their identity. I took separate notes on each infusion.

I think this sort of setup is a great exercise, because it forces us to pay attention to the tea itself, without allowing us to bring preconceptions based on the tea's origin. We knew nothing about the brands or types of teas, although it was quickly evident that they were all oolongs. Evan used a gaiwan for brewing, rather than an Yixing teapot, which allowed for a purer experience of each tea, rather than having it be influenced by the seasoning of the pot.

Brewing for richness of experience instead of consistency:

One thing I liked about how Evan approached the brewing in this gathering was that the way he brewed these teas brought out different characteristics of the tea in each infusion, which I think helped greatly in the blind tasting setup. By contrast, some people (Evan has done this before) often carry out Gong Fu brewing in such a way that the tea keeps a more consistent character through each infusion. Although this can be pleasant for enjoying the tea, I found the approach Evan used here was more fruitful for actually understanding the tea.

The difference between these two approaches? I'm no expert at Gong Fu brewing but I tried to pay attention to what Evan was doing, and from comparing to my own experience, using a briefer second infusion, and a slightly longer first infusion, often seems to result in a more consistent character, whereas keeping the first two infusions closer in length seems to result in more of a difference between the two cups. The difference usually manifests in the first cup being more aromatic but the second being more flavorful, which I find helps to separate these two characteristics of the tea. However, it also can bring out different qualities of aroma between the first two cups.

Brandon's knowledge impresses:

If you are a die-hard tea enthusiast living within driving distance of Wilmington, Delaware, and have not yet had the opportunity to meet up with Brandon, I would recommend doing so. His knowledge and expertise of teas is uncannily reminds me of my Ornithology professor, Greg Shriver, who can walk out in a salt marsh and hear a tiny, brief buzz noise, so quiet or distant that most people in the group did not even hear it, and he would immediately identify the sparrow to species level, long before anyone was able to actually see the bird.

Brandon not only pinned down the variety, county of origin, and style of production of most of these teas merely by sampling them, but was also able to identify the production date of the aged teas with a remarkable degree of accuracy. This level of tea identification skill not only shows that he has sampled a great number of teas, but that he pays attention to nuances of the tea's character enough to identify them with such specificity.

My thoughts on the teas:

I have not yet posted reviews of all the teas, but you can find my reviews of the first two, both from Seven Cups: Old Style Tie Guan Yin 2011, and Old Style Tie Guan Yin 2012. I liked the 2012 tea better, although I did not dislike the 2011 tea quite as much as the others present did, nor did I like the 2012 tea as much as the others seemed to.

The other teas were from the small company Floating Leaves, and I have yet to write up and post reviews.

To be honest, I was not wowed by any of the teas. The first two Tie Guan Yin's were in a similar style to a tea that I gave a 100/100 rating, Life in Teacup's Tie Guan Yin Traditional Roast Master Grade. That tea, granted, is pricier, but I thought it to show a world of difference. I've also had cheaper Tie Guan Yin's that I enjoyed more. The 2011 tea had too much sourness and too little flavor, and the 2012 tea had too much astringency, for my tastes.

There were a lot of oolongs from Muzha in Taiwan, which had been aged in various amounts, and one that was fresher, from 2011. None of these really impressed me. The only tea from Floating Leaves that I really liked was a Dong Ding Select, from Spring 2012. This tea had some interesting complexity, suggesting caramel in the aroma, but with a hint of mint in the finish, something I have never before encountered in a Dong Ding. But at $10 an ounce, it did not seem to compare with other teas in this price range.

The whole experience started to make me wonder if I perhaps have developed somewhat different tastes from the group gathered for this tasting. This morning I'm drinking a rather inexpensive Chinese green tea from Zhejiang province, Mountain Rose Herbs Dao Ren Tea, and I am enjoying it much more than I enjoyed any of the oolongs, in spite of Evan's greater skill at brewing (I've nearly always enjoyed a tea better when Evan brews it than when I prepare it myself).

How about you?

Have you ever participated in a blind tea tasting like the one described here? Have you tried teas from these two retailers? Have you experienced drinking tea with someone who has an insane level of tea identification skills? Have you noticed or thought about the distinction between brewing tea so as to retain consistency between different infusions, vs. brewing it so as to bring out different characters in each cup?


  1. Nice to see you there, Alex. Lovely write up, but I think you gave me too much credit!

  2. Hey Alex, my name is David Galli — we've chatted a bit on TeaTrade. I sent Evan those teas, and it's really fun for me to read this & imagine the tasting, the group, the process, etc. Thanks for writing it up!

    There's one thing I should correct, though: the Seven Cups teas were from 2010 and 2011, not 2011 and 2012.

    Also, I'm curious what you thought of that aged Miao-Li from Floating Leaves; it's hard to compare teas with one another when they represent such different styles, but I really love that one — for me it's definitely the standout in that group.

    1. Hi! And thanks for providing the teas, and thanks for the correction!

      The Miao-Li, I think my favorite of those was the 2005. The one that was aged longer (year unknown?) was a little alien to me, and had a quality like over-ripe fruit that was interesting, but slightly objectionable to me. I can see someone with slightly different tastes really appreciating that tea though, as it had a lot of complexity, and was exceptionally smooth.

      The 2005 batch I liked seemed crisper than the other two, and bitter but without being astringent (which is a combination that I love). It also had a faint floral quality that I found was absent in the other two teas, especially evident in the second infusion. The 2011 I found was just not very interesting...not as much complexity as the other two.

      I'm not really experienced with this type of tea though.

    2. Thanks for the additional input!

      Actually, I think you're talking about the Muzha Tie Guan Yin teas. The one I was talking about is from the Miao-Li area, and is of unspecified age, style, or cultivar. Maybe it didn't really make an impression on you, though. :) To each hir own!

      I like that 2005 TGY quite a bit as well.

  3. A blind tea tasting sounds like a lot of fun! Even if you weren't really impressed any of the teas you tried, it looks like a great experience. Will def. have to think about hosting something like this. Thanks for the idea and the post!