Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Tea at UCLA

NCAM Organizers, Will, Louise and moi

NCAM at UCLA invited me to talk about tea last week. I was excited and honored to have the opportunity to open the door of tea world to young minds. About 40 to 50 students attended the event. Thanks to Will and Louise for helping with tea tasting. :)

Will's explaining steps of Kung Fu Tea

In more than 2 years of tea business operation, I learn that many people are interested in tea but not knowing where and how to start. Given that there are many products available, living habits and lack of information, it's a confusing world of tea in the US and other areas in the world, including China itself.

During the UCLA event, I did not know what to expect from the students. So I planned the topics safely, the normal introduction to tea. During the question session, I am delighted that this group of students are well informed at the level where they ask logical questions. Many of which are helpful for me to reorganize how I should teach in the future.

One question I particularly love is How to identify good tea. The original question is where and how to find good tea? This is a very important topic for novices. I could easily say buy my teas. :P But seriously, its about how to identify good tea more than where to find it. We all go through a learning curve, whether you drink tea since 3 or lead down the tea path when you meet that lovely spouse of yours, or whatever reason. For myself, I have drunk tea since I can't remember, then one day I tagged along a friend for a tea class and has been steeping in tea ever since.

Looking back at my learning curve, I find that sampling various types of tea during one session is actually confusing. Because each type is entirely different from an other. What you can learn from that is the flavor/aroma difference of the teas, but there are much more to it than the flavor/aroma. Given there can be grade/flavor/aroma/texture variations, tasting a Long Jing, Tie Guan Yin and a Da Hong Pao at the same time is like comparing apples to oranges and cherries. One can say I like the taste of cherry, and the orange is better than apple. But that does not reflect how good the cherries, oranges and apples are.

My advice to any one is taste the same kind of tea at the same time to learn the difference in grade. Pick a tea you are interested the most. Say 3 or more Long Jings from various sources or grades at a session, or 3 Da Hong Pao at a session. There ought to be a better one out of 3 right? Then set a palate profile and memorize it, use that as a standard, compare it to future purchase of the same type of tea, raise the bar as you go. After the first one, use the same method on the next type, once you get a hang of this for 3-5 types, you will be able to identify good teas no mater what they are, where they come from. This is a skill to identify good tea, not just to find the flavors you like.

Whether to try various types of tea, or try various grades of the same type of tea first at the beginning of your tea journey, is a personal choice. But the later might save you a few pennies and some shelf space down the road. You'll have to pay tuition no mater what, so don't be afraid to buy something nice and expensive.

Another question I was asked, where should I start, green white or? Well, most tea drinkers who spend the effort to learn and explore Chinese teas, most likely end up with Oolong and/or Pu-erh after trying many many types of tea. That's more than plenty to try for the next 5 years. It's necessary to try as many types of teas as you are willing, it's a process to find your preferred flavors. This is a different process from identifying a good tea.

In my opinion, a good tea is great in flavor, aroma and the most important of all substance. Characteristics of substance are texture, sweetness, long brewing duration and lingering after taste. I can't stretch enough about texture and how it separates the good from bad. Old high mountain teas of 75+ years have this thick texture like a film coats your tongue and mouth. In Chao Zhou local terms, the tea's got bones! Meaning you can feel the tea in the mouth other than the taste, it's not watery. Try drinking a cup of water and some chicken stock side by side, you'll know what I am talking about. Don't focus on the chicken stock flavor though. The substance of tea can not be imitated or hidden, flavors can change, aroma can change, taste can change, but texture will not change and can not be faked.

3 essentials when making good teas: good fresh leaves, skilled master and suitable weather. Without good leaves, a skilled master can make decent teas in suitable weather. With good leaves, an average tea maker can make not bad to good teas in suitable weather. Good leaves with substantial substance are god given and are the base of good tea regardless of the other 2 variables. Of course the tea maker and weather will later influence the out come.


ItsAboutTea said...

Great class on learning your own taste of tea. Hope you don't mind, I am going to share it on twitter. Thanks for all the helpful tips.

thewulongkid said...

More words of wisdom from Imen. I have learned much from her since dealing with TeaHabitat and chatting with her via emails, most recently about Chao Zhou Clay teapots.

You know, it's like pizza. If you want to know what's the best around, and what suits you best, you don't go into Pizza 'R' Us and order a mushroom slice, a pepperoni slice, a pineapple and ham slice, a calamari slice and so on ad nauseum and try to compare.

What you do is get a plain slice from Fat Sal's, another from Baldassari's, still another from Sloppy Louie's, and so on. You go for the basics that you can compare, and then you can make an informed judgement.

I like what Imen said about not being afraid of spending a little money on some expensive tea. I learned an important lesson in aged tea last October when I was in Paris with my wife. I bought 100
grams of 14 year WuYi RoGui from Madame Tseng at Le Maison de Trois The. It was well worth the money, and is my benchmark against which to judge aged teas since then.

Tea is truly a remarkable world, and education is such an important part of it.


Imen said...


I am happy to share what I know. You can share it with others as well. Thanks! :)

Imen said...

the wulongkid,

Ah! The world of pizza in NYC! There is nothing like that in LA. :I

Thanks for reading my blah. :)

Ryan said...

Hi Imen,

Nice insights on the difference between variety you like vs quality of a given variety. At the end you mention the effect of weather on tea making. I haven't heard this before. What weather makes for good tea making? What makes for bad? Do you know why the weather impacts tea? What elements of weather affect it (temperature, humidity, barometric pressure, etc.)?

Imen said...


Allow me to reverse the order of your questions.

What elements of weather affect it (temperature, humidity, barometric pressure, etc.)?
All of the above affects tea making.

Do you know why the weather impacts tea?
Here I specifically talk about oolong tea process. The very first step after picking fresh leaves is wilting. Wilting is to loose part of the moisture in tea leaves. It requires sun light, but not scorching hot temperature. Therefore, moisture in air, temperature, air pressure all influence how fast it takes to loose moisture in a fresh leave. Time it takes to loose moisture is not a whenever it's done process, if too long, oxidation will take place too much or too slow in this step which is not the main oxidation process. Too quick, meaning temperature might be too hot will damage the leaves. All of which are delicate and sensitive chemical reactions within the fresh leaves. When moving on to Zuo Qing - make green step which is the main oxidation process, weather condition has the similar effect as well. Sunlight is omitted in this step. Zuo Qing requires stable temperature for oxidation to take place, this process takes minimum of 8 hours depending on the weather.

For old bush Dan Cong teas, Same tea from the same tree can vary in quality and price greatly simply because of weather.

Some Taiwan factories make their teas in an air conditioned room. Some TGY manufacturers has adopted this method as well. Teas made this way have subtle difference from teas made in natural environment, such as charcoal fired teas are different from electric heated teas.

What weather makes for good tea making? What makes for bad?
This is a general question and a broad one in that, there is no direct answer to that. Because each type of tea from each region is different and subject to local climate condition. Each types of tea made locally are accumulation of experience for hundreds or even thousands years, making the best out of the local condition. Most of which can not even be transferred to another region or apply to another type of tea.