Janet Wang on the CWW May virtual tea tasting and reflections on why wine writers should know more about tea!
I love the diverse range of topics discussed in the various CWW forums, so when the latest ‘Let’s taste…’ series offered a chance to try fine teas from the specialist house of Jing, I was surprised and delighted. It was straight into the diary in permanent ink.
When the tasting set arrived, I was pleased to note that what initially looked suspiciously like tea bags, were in fact pre-measured portions of loose-leaf sachets, covering styles from green to black to Oolong. I was also intrigued by the accompanying ‘tea-iere’ – a clear glass container with a fill level marker for making exactly one perfect cup, and a lid with an in-built cafetiere style mesh to keep away the leaves when pouring. Although I should add that I am not averse to tea leaves floating casually about in my mug or the occasional bits of leaf that I end up chewing and swallowing. I liken it to how winemakers taste grapes in their vineyards, pips and all, and in that act a bit of Truth is revealed. Well, one thing was for sure by the look of this ‘tea-iere’ – this was not going to be a traditional tea ceremony. More a tasting with fusion influences: tea-ware with a nod to coffee culture and an audience of wine experts – I couldn’t wait!
The tasting was conducted by the deeply knowledgeable tea masters Felicity Fowler, Head of Tea Experience at JING, and Will Ritson, a Tea Experience Executive. Felicity first took us on a whirlwind tour of tea fundamentals. First things first, tea comes from Camellia sinensis, like wine comes from Vitis vinifera. How can a single plant produce such diverse styles of teas – white, green, yellow, black, oolong and pu’er? As with wine, many factors determine the ultimate characters of a tea – cultivar, terroir, pruning, picking season, processing, service, and many details in-between – all play their indispensable part. Felicity further highlighted the concept of ‘single garden’ (similar to single vineyard or clos in winemaking) being the hallmark of character in tea, also defining quality and provenance.
Soon it was time to taste some tea, accompanied by breath-taking photo slides of the traditional tea regions. The first tea we tasted was the ‘Organic Jade Sword’ green tea from Hunan province, China. As is with wine, we started with the most delicate. Will then showed us the optimal way of preparing the tea incorporating the ‘tea-iere’. Since this was an audience of wine experts, the tasting must include consideration for aroma and colour. The tea-iere was first warmed with a rinse of hot water, then the loose leaves were added. Each measure of 4-5g of tea goes perfectly with one 250ml serving as per the tea-iere marking. Before adding hot water, we were invited to first take in the aroma of the dry leaves in the slightly warmed tea-iere. There was a palpable sense of ‘familiar territory’ as the audience pitched in their detections of precise aromas. Then hot, but not boiling water (about 85 °C) was added to the tea-iere. This was an important point to note: boiling water will draw out excessive astringency and bitterness from the ‘tea tannins’, whilst 85°C allows the release of aromas without unleashing the bitterness. Then it was lid on for three minutes while the tea brewed. I must say watching the unfurling of tea leaves and the development of the colour in the glass tea-iere was most pleasing – in this case a light green of jade. When the tea was poured, it was at the right drinking temperature, and many remarked how fresh and fragrant it was, without any hint of bitterness – and that was due to using water at the right temperature – a simple tip that will make all the difference to your tea drinking experiences henceforth!
We went on to taste a Wuyi Oolong – a roasted, partially oxidized tea – from the legendary rock tea region of the Wuyi mountain in Fujian province in China. This was followed by the ‘Red Dragon’ – a unique black tea made with a Taiwanese cultivar planted at the high altitudes of Yunnan province in China. Fine teas like these certainly engage the senses and the intellect and deserve to be savoured slowly. Clearly, we could talk about these teas in terms of their aromatics, complexity, mouthfeel and length, and it was evident how much this audience appreciated them with their fine-tuned palates and wine writer’s hats on.
I would like to think that I have drunk my fair share of not-so-shabby teas since memory began. In fact, Chinese (loose leaf) tea is my main source of hydration throughout the day, and I drink different teas for different moods and seasons. So, I hope I am qualified to congratulate Felicity and Will for the choice of teas here. To me each was representative of its category, but also displayed distinctive and memorable traits.
I have long been fascinated by the parallels between wine and tea. This session clearly demonstrated to me, as a wine lover, that there are many aspects that we appreciate about wine that are transferable to the world of tea. In fact, the two worlds are not just comparable, but they can benefit from cross-pollination to enhance our understanding and appreciation for both of these absorbing and fascinating subjects. As communicators, cross-disciplinary cross-references are always useful, fascinating and illuminating.
This tasting was insightful for me for another reason. If the human body is made up of mostly water, then I suspect I am made up of mostly tea. Apart from drinking tea throughout my waking hours, I have also sat through many tea ceremonies around the world including China, Japan, even at weddings in Thailand… but this was my first tea tasting with a predominantly non-Asian audience. I was curious to see what aspects of tea drinking would capture the most interest from this audience. A few observations then: the advantages of using loose leaf tea over tea bag – for the sake of taste, choice, environment, value for money – came up several times, and I concur whole-heartedly. People asked about caffeine levels in the various teas; many remarked on the lack of perceivable tannins in each tea and certainly there was a focus around the taste profiles of the teas. By contrast I imagine with a Chinese or Asian audience, ‘teabag’ would not cross anybody’s mind; practical discussions may revolve around seasonal suitability of the teas, and how many rounds of brewing would be optimal and how might the tea evolve with each round. There will likely be more focus on health and wellbeing from an Asian audience but probably not about caffeine; and the session will quite likely ascend (or descend) into the realms of symbolism and philosophy! Well, surely that is a call for a sequel!
In the meantime, if you want to know your white tea from your green tea, your oolong from your pu’er, and whether that cup of tea will keep you awake at night… do watch the recording at on the Circle’s YouTube.