About Me

My photo
I embarked on my tea journey when I studied abroad in China in 2008 and traveled around Taiwan that summer. I'm here to share my experiences and offer my own opinion, advice, and comments on tea.

Friday, November 6, 2009

The Most Useful Tea Device ... Ever

The following is the most important piece of tea equipment, and yes, it's more useful than a tea pot, cups, fair cups, etc. It's importance might even exceed that of the tea itself!

Okay, so I'm clearly joking here, but these competition tasting sets are really useful. I'm kicking myself for not buying a few earlier. I ordered these from Adagio, for the modest price of $9 each ($54 for 6 so you save $5). I received them the other day but there were some minor chips on the cups (the packaging was so poor that it was asking to be broken). But they're shipping me a new set of cups, and I'm glad they were so prompt it getting back to me. However, the replacements are being shipped from the East Coast, and they won't be here until next Tuesday. No biggie, since I'm not actually drinking directly from the cups.

But before I get to singing praises about the usefulness of a tasting set, how the hell does one use it? For those who are familiar with using these, you may scroll down at your leisure or feel free to correct my technique.

Step One

I have heard there are different standards, but what I've heard is either 3 grams for 5 minutes or 5 grams for three minutes. Granted, you can go longer or shorter depending on the type of tea at hand, but at the very least make sure that you have consistency across the board. Have someone else put the samples into the lidded cup so it's a blind tasting, and please have the person write down what sample they put in what lidded cup, as to ease any confusion.

Step Two

Pour the water into the lidded cups, and I believe the temperature should correspond with what tea you're dealing with. Greener teas will need cooler water while roasted teas can deal with hotter water. Of course, things like this are highly subjective so do what you normally do. Now put the timer on. Than wait, but don't wander too far; 3 or 5 minutes can go by faster than you would think.

Step Three

Decant the lidded cup into the bowl, starting with the lidded cup in which you poured the water into first. The lidded cup is position in such a way that it lies perfectly balanced on the bowl, as shown below. So you don't need to hold the cup while decanting. Continue as necessary until all the cups are decanted. Please be quick when decanting, because there isn't a spout, so the tea can "dribble" down the cup if you're not quick enough. Put the lidded cups aside for now. See the following:

Step Four

Place a porcelain spoon into the bowl. Ladle some of the tea into a separate cup using the spoon, and after doing so smell the spoon to catch the aroma, both wet and dry. Taste the tea and make notes, either mentally or physically. If you're tasting with someone else, talk about it. Two heads are better than one, and more ideas are created by the interaction of opinions. Continue this with how many different tasting cups you have, and feel free to go back to a particular one if you need a double-take.

So What's the Point of All This?

There are several advantages to using the tasting set, and these are just off the top of my head. First, this is how many competitions are judged, and this method allows for more consistency in preparing the tea. However, judging a tea competition style is only one way of judging a tea, because some teas don't perform well under competition brewing standards. Or you have a tea that does well brewed competition style that doesn't perform well when brewed regularly. Tasting a tea brewed competition style is one aspect of judging a tea, IMO. The other aspect is judging a tea brewed normally. So it's important to do both.

If the tasting is done blind, it frees you from much of the bias that may happen if you knew what the teas were. Of course, there is still some bias because you're frantically trying to guess from previous knowledge/expectations, but it still allows you to taste tea(s) "as they are." I'm surprised at how accurate I am about my preferences, and at other times I'm horrendously wrong. Some of the teas that I love perform well under competition standards, while others perform abysmally. It's also a way to notice similarities or differences within the same type of tea, i.e. if you're competition brewing all Shui Jin Gui, or Bu Lang, etc.

Finally, it offers a very good way of comparing teas. You can brew several teas over the course of a day or a few days, but because you're not brewing it at the same time, it's more difficult to make comparisons. So brewing something competition style gives you the chance to compare a whole slew of teas at the same time. Of course, you don't have to use competition sets...similarly sized gaiwan or even bowls/cups would work just fine too. I think that brewing competition style could definitely be a good way to narrow down a list of potential purchases, and thus saving a lot of money.

Luckily for me, brewing my favorite sheng competition style has only confirmed how much I like them, so my short list of what to buy hasn't changed at all. I think I'm going to have a fun time competition brewing the same single-estate teas, just to notice the similarities/differences between them, if any, and maybe even see which ones are "better" examples of said region.


Bret said...

This has nothing to do with tasting sets but while re-reading older posts I saw the Purion teapot you have, how do you like it and what type of tea do you use it for? Ive considered buying on of those pots but have been wanting input from others before I spend the money.

Maitre_Tea said...

Speaking to it's functionality, it works like a charm. The lid is pretty wide so it can fit longer leaves easily, but it's also roundish so it's also conducive to expanding balled up oolongs. The fit is impeccable, at it pours like a charm. The walls are also quite thick, so it retains heat nicely.

Now, from my own experiments, the clay is okay, I guess. In terms of clay composition, I've heard from some people the firing technique is similar to that of Japanese wares. They say it works well with roasted teas such as yancha and pu'er.

I remember when I bought my current pot for yancha I did a triple comparison between a gaiwan, the tea pot, and the purion. The purion did better than the gaiwan, but not as well as the yixing. It rounded out some of the harshness that comes from the roast, but it didn't do the job as well as the yixing. Of course, this is just one experiment, and maybe my yixing was just of better quality.

I think the clay imparts minerals or something into the tea, so maybe that complements yancha and perhaps at the same time the minerals help soften the taste. This is just speculation on my part and what I have tasted with its effects on plain water. It also doesn't develop a patina (I think), which may or may not be a big deal.

I used it for yancha for about a year, and it served me well. If I didn't have my current yancha pot I would be using this.

If you're interested, I would be willing to sell my pot for a low price, since I'm not using it any more. There's a slight chip on the inside part of the lid, but you can't even see it. Email me if you're interested.

Zero the Hero said...

I'd really love to witness an actual competition tasting--not to taste the tea, just to see what happens--although I'm not sure if tea competitions are really around for any reason but to make the tea 4x more expensive.

I might be wrong, but I've heard that true competition brewing always uses boiling water--if you stress the leaves and take all the flavors out of the tea, you can accurately assess its overall quality, and "great" teas supposedly stand up to the stress without becoming disgusting.

I don't know if I agree that a good tea must taste excellent brewed competition style; to me tasting a tea is more about approaching it as an individual and trying to unlock its appropriate brewing parameters. I can think of quite a few of my favorite teas that would be unmercifully destroyed by a competition tasting, but taste great prepared differently.

I do agree, though, that preparing teas a variety of different ways can be very illuminating. Don't let the competition tasting talk you out of your favorites! If you like a tea and know a way to make it taste great, what more do you need? One thing I've learned from so much tea drinking is that we just have to have faith in our own tastes, not those of others out there in the online vendor and blog world; that's what it's all about. Thanks for another thought-provoking post.

Maitre_Tea said...

Zero the Hero,

Of course, a good tea doesn't have to taste good brewed competition style, and I hoped I had stressed that point in my post (I should really get into the habit of re-reading my words more carefully).

A tea that doesn't performs well brewed competition style will won't necessarily dissuade me from from buying it, because I'm don't normally drink tea brewed competition style. I think a tea that performs well under both regular brewing and competition brewing is just an extra bonus, IMO.

The real test of a tea is how it performs when you brew it like you do normally, because that's what you do most of the time. Luckily, the teas I've liked brewed regularly I also like when brewed competition style.

Even more so than using competition brewing to help with purchases, I'm thrilled about the idea of competition brewing as a means of comparison, and also a self-test as well. How well do I know my Menghai recipes? How well do I know the differences between different estates? I hope that brewing teas competition style will help develop my palate, and hopefully I can taste things in a tea that I normally couldn't taste normally.

I've heard similarly that in true competition style you use boiling water, but I didn't want to be too anal with it in my blog, and when you're doing stuff like this with yourself or between friends, you don't have to be too picky about the rules. Personally, I use boiling water for everything, but than again, I don't drink green teas that much.

I too would want the opportunity to witness a competition tasting, because tasting a tea brewed competition style is a skill unto itself, especially if you're working with something like young sheng...and the bitterness just overwhelms everything else. Thanks for the props, and please update soon!