Smart Tea Drinker is an article describing techniques how to learn and understand the tea taste. Understand the differences in processing ,be able determine age of pu-erh tea by taste. ( approx. )
Please also note that this is not a static article but dynamic one , we do update it time of the time with new information!
Selected tea for educational purposes here
1. Tea ware for Gong Fu Cha ceremony
2. Water Quality for Tea
3. Water Temperature for brewing the tea
4. Amount of tea for each session
5. Taste of processed tea leaf
6. Taste of pu-erh tea.
6.a Understanding Sheng Pu-erh taste
6.b Understanding Shu Pu-erh taste
7.Understanding the taste of pu-erh tea aging (transformation)
1. Tea ware for Gong Fu Cha ceremony
Simple white porcelain 100-120ml Gai Wan if you are single drinker. 300ml pitcher , porcelain strainer and some cups. Gai wan gives u an option to see the tea leafs after infusions, which u might particularly appreciate later in pressed teas like pu-erh and it’s better / easier for big size loose leafs to brew. Also it gives you an opportunity to smell leafs better when gai wan is preheated.
If you trying / tasting / comparing some tea for the first time and desire to experience ” original ” taste of it, generally is recommended to use brewing tea ware without any possible taste influence. That means, glass or glazed pottery. Any other clay is nice for overall ceremony experience, seasoned Yixing also good for your favorite tea , but when you try / compare / tasting , it’s best to choose “neutral” pottery.
Cups are also better to be made of porcelain, glass or some glazed ceramic. Also from the outside since your lips will be touching the edge and any kind of clay type ( Yi Xing, Zi Tao, Tu Tao..etc ) might influence your taste experience.
Probably 90% of Chinese tea vendors would claim that tea cup should be deep so you can experience “bei xiang” scent from the cup during the first ( washing ) infusion and following ones during the drinking.
The other 10% , more experienced tea vendors , would tell you that the best cup is your favorite cup 🙂 ..and it’s something about it .
Anyway, for beginning the deep narrow ones might be good option for learning about the “bei xiang” as well.
2. Water Quality for Tea
There is no any ultimate rule of what kind of water is the best for the tea. Generally speaking , avoid the tap water unless you live in some temple in Tibet where tap comes out of the mountain. Need to say , there is a temple not far from us ( Kunming ) where tap water is better than bottled and no wonder some breweries are based there.
The water shouldn’t have chlorine neither too much minerals which influence the taste. Also hard water is not good. There are some very good filtering technologies available these days , so if you have money to invest, that might be good start.
3. Water Temperature for brewing the tea
Many articles about the Right temperature to brew the tea with some water temperature table for brewing a tea available on internet. They could vary based on many aspects so we are not going make just one simple , rough statement.
- Green tea, white tea 75 – 85C ( old white tea can go even higher temp.)
- Yellow tea 75 – 90C
- Oolongs ( green / light roasted ) 90 – 95C
- Oolongs ( dark roasted ) 95 – 100C
- Black (red) tea — full oxid. 95 – 100C
- Black (red) tea — light oxid. 85 – 95C
- Puerh sheng (raw) 95 – 100C
- Pu-erh shu (ripe) 100C
- Hei Cha , Liu Bao100C
- Flower teas 95 – 100C
You don’t really need to stare at the barometer to get a perfect cup of tea , different water also can have different behavior with temperature , so just take those as an approx numbers.
Generally speaking , the softer and “greener” leafs are, than lower temperatures are suitable. Sort of deep processed, fermented or dark oxidized teas can withstand the hit of higher temperatures. Of course you can try 100C on older white tea, since it can be pressed and stored like sheng pu-erh. You can also apply different temperatures on other teas which will change the taste characteristics ( usually goes bitter ) . The table above is more than likely as reference of common used brewing methods which can vary on individual personal preferences of the tea drinker , tea leaf origin or purpose of brewing ( just drinking for leisure or seriously tasting / examine the tea ) .
The good tea can be brewed in any temperature and long time.
You can read this sometimes on some forums or blogs. For some teas 100 C water and 1 minute steeping time is like driving the loaded car up in the hill on 1st gear when trying not to get your speed below 50 km/h . Some very good cars can do it, yet it will be noisy , smelly and overall not really pleasure journey.
Yet , some tea is meant to be drink that way, like green tea ( lower temperature but long steeping time ) . Kunming people just throw few grams of Bi Luo Chun into the bottle and keep pouring hot water during the day , until the flat taste. Somebody might like few grams of black tea being brewed in big mug for 1 minute and drink it with or without additional ingredients ( sugar, milk..etc.) There are also shu puerh lovers who just throw 3g of the shu into the 500ml thermos over night and have it next day instead the coffee 😉
So you have to ask yourself a question : For what are you tasting / examine tea for ?
Logically , if you hit the tea leaf with 100C and brew it for long time , all tastes will emerge ( become more vivid ) with increased saturation of the tea soup . Good ones and also the bad ones. It will naturally become very bitter and astringent . Experienced tea drinkers can focus on certain characteristics of the tea brewed in such a conditions without being distracted by that front ” noise of the car when keeping acceleration pedal on the floor while 1st gear is locked in “.
We were testing various sheng puerh mao cha for futher processing – oxidation / fermentation ( making shu puerh ) . Very important to select the right material in order to achieve good output after aditional processing of the tea leaf.
For example , as on picture above , some shengs revealed that tea leaf after beign processed by ” sha qing ” kill green , were drying too long ( probably caused by bad rainy weather in the area where it was processed ) . The fermented / oxidised notes along with slighlty sweet taste was very pleasant to drink, yet for the futher fermentation / oxidation processing it is not suitable material. When brewing it only short time in gaiwan and lower temperature, that ” oxidised ” taste would not appear much distinctive but pleasant sweet notes still would be there.
Same would apply for testing other ” downsides ” of the tea leafs, like astirgancy , which can reveal faulty of processing , time of harvest ( summer tea ) , tea leaf origin ( bush or Gushu ) . Yet, only experienced drinker will know how much astrigancy is too much for exact type of tea ( because even some spring Gushu teas tend to be astrigent naturally ) .
*downsides – slighlty oxidised tea leaf ( the first paragraph case ) is not welcomed for post processing or futher aging tea, yet it is pleasant to drink ( since excessive astrigancy has been dimnished by this unwanted step – alias defect ) . This is also used in some teas as part of the New Processing Technology ” xing gong yi ” , which we mention in other articles – https://yunnancraft.wordpress.com/2019/02/21/tea-market-news/
4. Amount of tea for each session
This is very variable and it all depends on factors like : type of tea leaf, the way of the tea leaf is processed, size ( full or broken leaf ) , size of the brewing vessel, strength of infusion preference, min.time required for each steeping ..etc.
If using 110ml gai wan we usually put between 3-8g. of dry tea leafs. Why is so big difference?
Small tea leafs or broken leafs release flavor faster so smaller amount is good enough ( although they usually do not last long as the bigger leafs or full leafs ) .
Fermented or full processed ( like black tea or dark roasted oolong ) tea leafs also release flavor faster than green / sheng / light processed tea leafs where amount of the infusions also depends on depth of fermentation / oxidation, quality of fermentation / processing , grade , size and type of the leafs.
So the heavy oxidized small tea leafs like Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong releases the flavor quite fast, 3-4g is usually good enough for us. But light oxidized black tea like Jin Ya ( golden tips ) need usually between 4-5g in order to achieve similar richness of the tea liquor, since soft tea leafs and tips take more time to release the flavor.
Quite similar case would be with pu-erh teas, where shu pu-erh ( black / cooked / ripe / fermented ) could be understood same way as the heavy oxidized black tea mentioned above so only 4-5g is usually good enough, and for sheng pu-erh 6-8g ( depends if small / broken leafs pressed or loose large / full leafs ) .
With shu pu-erh depth of fermentation also plays the role ,so for ex.: medium-light fermented teas like our Cang Zhen can be very nice around 6g , but Menghai Gong Ting 4g would do the same job ( and releases faster due to the small leafs / tips ) .
5. Taste of processed tea leaf
The taste of the tea leaf it self can be influenced by processing, type, grade , variety , location ,storage etc. That makes too many variables to focus on in one time , so the best way is to separate them into the sections and learn to understand those parts one by one in certain steps , rather than jump on any tea you read as recommendation from some tea forum.
Of course it’s better to have some experienced friend with you when tasting new teas but there is no guarantee that the way he/she learned is the right one either , so the best what you can do, is learn by comparing ( because taste difference perception is individual ) .Which means , choosing two or more teas same in one character but differs in other one ( ex. same type of tea but different grades ).
In this case it’s also good to have at least 2 same tea sets, in case you compare the teas with very little difference or for blogging purposes like we do in our Tea Compare .
If you are completely beginner who is transferring from the “tea bags” to loose leaf, it’s recommended to start with some already familiar to you, which would be more than likely black ( red ) or green teas.
Black tea ( hong cha )
From beginning is good idea to focus on processing first ( since this is what mostly influence the taste of the tea ) , means trying black teas by different ways / levels of processing. Light oxidized like golden tips Dian Hong – Ji Si ( the small or big yellow / gold tipsy tea ) , then full oxidized ( roasted ) black tea , which u can see that tea leafs are really dark black. Some of them have applied final high temp. roasting for short time , called “ti xiang” or “gao xiang” , that makes cocoa – chocolate hint in flavor spec. of the tea. There is also “shai hong” processing of black tea, which is different from the previous two.
Educational Red Tea Sample Box.
Be also aware of different varieties like “zi juan” ( purple leafs ) or Ye Sheng ( wild tea tree ) . Try to stick to the regular tea leafs while learning by comparing, since those two have also different flavor spect.
There use to be 4 different ways of processing in past but now-days mostly 2 types are applied : ” hong qing” and “chao qing”. The effect / result of the processing could be understood same way as in black tea case , where the ” hong qing” would be like the light oxidized as Dian Hong Ji Si and “chao qing” would be like the “gao xiang” .
In order to understand the “original” flavor we suggest to try light roasted version of each oolong you decide to taste / compare first. There is lots of marketing going on , especially around tea like Dan Cong and name specification can be really confusing ( since there is no any written / set rule for that ).
Light roasted Dan Congs we distinguish in our shop by adding word – green. By trying light roasted version you are going to develop sense for the original taste and consequently will be able to recognize it in medium or dark roasted ones as well. That will allow you to focus on other characteristics ( developed by roasting process ) aside of mentioned original taste.
The major Yunnan white teas are Yue Guang Bai and Da Bai Hao. Yue Guang Bai processed by two different ways : traditional and new. The main difference is in the last step – drying , in which the new one is dried quickly on the hard sun ( now-days in drying drum ) . Traditional way is in dark dry place ( according the story in the night under the moon , that’s where is the name “yue guang” – moon light – coming from , “bai” – white ) . Places like Fujian produces this tea by new technique and call it Bai Mu Dan.
Comparing those you are slowly getting you into the advanced level which is tasting same tea but from different areas ( provinces ). It’s also influenced / complicated by storage factor ( since Fujian province is more humid , so the tea storage ) , so it could get bit tricky in sense of judging older teas.
In Yunnan the Yue Guang Bai ( Moon Light ) also can be seen in wild tea variety.
6. Taste of pu-erh tea.
There are many pu-erh drinkers on tea forums , some beginners some advanced and for you ,as a beginner , it’s hard to distinguish who is who, so the best and the safest way is to follow same simple logic as with previous mentioned teas — comparing.
But before you proceed reading further , we highly recommend to read our Smart Tea Buyer article in order to understand some terminology and issues related to pu-erh tea used in following article.
6.a Understanding Sheng Pu-erh taste
Apart of the regular front taste , pu-erh possess unique characteristics in after taste part which accrues in your mouth , on the / under the tongue, at the back of the tongue or throat. In sheng pu-erh , especially young ones , you might experience bitterness and astringency.
The intensity of those two is accepted also very individually based on the drinker preference but they are the one of the key elements how to judge the sheng pu-erh tea. It’s getting very complex from here since those characteristic also can be controlled / amended by processing , so we stick to the original explanation for the moment ,which would be young sheng pu-erh processed by traditional way.
Bitterness is typical almost for any tea and in some cases it has been purposely suppressed by processing ( mostly in order to approach wider group of consumers ) . Speak of the pu-erh , this is not being treated as a downside and excessive bitterness is know for tea made in places such a Lao Bang Zhan or Lao Man Er. However, it’s not common with teas like Bing Dao for example, where front taste is very mellow and sweet almost from the beginning ( if not real Gu Shu material where sweetness emerges after few cups later ). There is always some bitterness in tea as it’s in coffee or beer and intensity depends on many factors including your brewing methods.
Astringency is the probably the one very noticeable characteristic in pu-erh tea which is used in sense of judging tea from the first cup / infusion. It’s also one of the key element how to estimate the type of the tea – bush or arbor tea tree ( bush tea usually is more astringent ). Many people don’t know how to taste the astringency and in some articles it’s described as inner skin of banana persimmon fruit. It is kind a very close description.
Qing Wei ( green taste ) tastes as it says in the brackets. Gives an experience as drinking a “hong qing” made green tea but with addition of pu-erh tea characteristics (“sheng jing” and “hui gan” …explained later ) . That mostly appears in new sheng pu-erhs and it’s not really welcomed by majority of pu-erh tea drinkers.
However , this is usually good tea for storage because it has bigger potential for transformation / aging thanks to more enzymes being in presence / alive ( that’s why that green taste ) . Pu-erh tea with strong “qing wei” can be nice to drink 2-3years later if dry stored.
Fruity and other taste notes are usually connected with specific location of the tea like Jing Mai Shan , Yi Wu or Lincang area , but also can be controlled by processing ( as mentioned in our Yi Wu article ) or by aging. These are also very individual and usually compared to some common food like fruits , spices etc. Those are also quite amplified / exaggerated by some beginners who try to look as experienced pu-erh tea drinkers on some dedicated tea forums , so we suggest not read those too much but focus on your very personal taste . You can try our Sheng Box – location sample set in order to get a closer idea.
Pu-erh tea after taste and body reaction
“sheng jing” could be experienced as sweetness lingering on top of the tongue or railing on sides / bottom of the tongue. You can imagine sour sensation on your tongue after eating lemon , but in sweet form. Or drinking a bit sour white wine. The name from Chinese refers to the nerves ( nerves on your tongue reaction ).
“hui gan” could appear after few cups as a sweetness sitting somewhere around back of the tongue , tonsils or back of the throat after experiencing front bitterness of the tea. This one is hard to imagine since it might be sensed by many people many different ways. Many blogs describing it scientific or some fancy way without any particular example as comparative to something what everybody has experienced.
We have quite similar experience with eating Yunnan olive and drink water right after that. It also works a bit with typical Greek or Spanish olives. The name from Chinese means literally «returned sweetness».
“Qi” is the energy or also called “Cha qi” – tea energy, which is very individual. Usually it appears in form of body warm feeling , slight feel of being bloated which follows by burping. Also know term “ba qi” which is freely translated as a strong “qi” and it’s usually associated with bitter teas like Lao Bang Zhan , Lao Man Er , Bu Lang etc. From tea with powerful “ba qi” it’s easier to get a tea drunk.
“hou yun ” pleasant aftertaste in the back of the throat (esp. when drinking tea)literally Throat Rhyme, a sensation at the back of the throat after swallowing, separate from taste and aroma, that is prized by some pu’ercha (普洱茶) connoisseurs; this phrase is used as a brand by Jing Feng (菁峰)
“ti gan” body feel . Similar aspect related to “Qi”. Many long puerh tea drinkers prioritize this aspect above the previously mentioned ones. As they say ” drinking tea with body not only mouth ” . This factor is also individual and can not be assigned to specific teas.
6.b Understanding Shu Pu-erh taste
As the most of the taste / quality of sheng pu-erh tea is based on the tea leafs ( location, grade, type — bush / arbor tree , variety ) , for shu pu-erh tea the major part plays the processing ( the fermentation ). In simple words : you can get 5 starts shu pu-erh made from very cheap and low grade tea leafs because it all depends how master handles the fermentation.
“dui wei” name in translation means the scent of the pile , which comes from the way of fermentation ( loose tea leafs piled up , fermenting in hot and wet environment causing some chemical reactions which are responsible for this scent / taste ).
In light and medium-light fermented teas the pile scent could be experienced as dried longan pulp. With full / deep fermentation it usually appears as fish scent / also in flavor. ( like smell from empty tuna tin ).
Neither of them is considered as a positive characteristic of the shu pu-erh tea by most of the Chinese pu-erh tea drinkers , however not only tolerated but also welcomed by many foreign pu-erh drinkers.
Anyway, it is very common scent / flavor in new shu pu-erh teas and it’s expected to fade away during some time.
Shu and Sheng pu-erh
Smokiness – “yan wei” in many cases is regarded as the faulty of processing and downside of the sheng or shu pu-erh tea taste. It is true that many tea farmers can’t handle processing and the output might be quite too smokey. Also Yunnan minorities process the tea hundreds of years same way ( most of them are smokey ) so technically shouldn’t be called as a faulty, it’s just a way they do it and like it. Smokey sheng pu-erh was also popular back in 2010-14 or so , which was imprinted in products like 2011-12 Mengku Rong Shi — Da Ye Qing Bing. Also famous Xia Guan tea factory produces tea based on this type of processing. Based on our personal experience we know that many big known factories sourcing sheng pu-erh tea from Nan Jian area ( smokey processed ) mostly for fermentation post-processing ( shu pu-erh production ) .
The tolerance to the smokiness is also very individual and usually coffee drinkers or smokers enjoy it the most. So in our opinion the smokiness is not the faulty but another taste characteristic of pu-erh tea ( although we also do have a barrier where we consider between “clean” smokiness and “burned” leaf ) .
Both of the scents / flavors could be amplified by wet storage and also turned to the extreme flavors reminding gasoline or other weird , unnatural notes / characteristics.
Storage taste refers to the older / aged pu-erh teas ( sheng and shu ) . It is good to be familiar with wet and dry storage before even start buying any pu-erh tea, because that will dramatically influence the overall drinking experience, taste development and learning curve. For Cantonese the wet stored teas are the usual thing so they are not being put off by wet wood, laundry room, mushroom taste like notes in their cup , as major Kunming pu-erh drinkers would. Actually notes mentioned above are considered in Kunming as faulty caused by bad storage and therefore downside of the tea.
Foreign pu-erh tea market has been still mostly supplied from Guangzhou or Hong Kong so the developed taste preference along with it. ( wet stored teas ) . And probably the lower price than dry stored teas will still keep it going that way in future.
The tolerance to the wetness of the tea is also very individual , but drinker should be careful / cautious to not buy a tea with unwanted developed mold.
However there are some teas for which the “wet basement” scent / flavor is common like Liu Bao due to it’s processing and storing specifics.
There is no a bad pu-erh tea , just this one is not of your liking….
…you will hear from many Chinese tea vendors referring to the old saying , freely translated as everybody’s taste is different …using it mostly as an excuse for their low quality and poor taste products. Said that , there is something about it and as we follow the foreign tea market for a while , we can observe big differences in individual choices , special requests from our customers.
The taste preferences are also changing with drinking experience so if you happened to get some pu-erh you don’t like now, don’t throw it away. Store it and get back to it later.
“nai pao” is not a taste of the tea but expression for duration of the tea session. In other words , now many infusions can be done from the tea , which is another aspect of judging the type ( bush tea or arbor tree ) and age of tea tree ( Qiao Mu or Gu Shu ) . Classification of those we describe in Our Tea section in the footer of our online shop.
Generally speaking , pu-erh tea drinkers in China judge the quality based on those factors mentioned above , but the value and price involves more variables explained in our Smart Tea Buyer article.
7. Understanding the taste of pu-erh tea aging ( transformation )
Imagine a fresh green apple you bite in and sour notes will fill your mouth. Leave it in open for few hours to oxidize , then bite again into the brown surface appeared due to the oxidation. The sweet notes also appear. Leave it for longer time and bite again , compare the differences. Of course with apple it will get bit dis-comfortable after certain time of leaving it oxidizing, but it will give you an idea about the how long the apple has been “aging” in the particular environment. I’m emphasizing the environment because our apples ( or vegetables ) last longer fresh on the table in our Kunming apartment than we had in our Shenzhen apartment( were we use to live ) . The humidity is one of the factor.
In order to understand the taste of transformation it’s logically the best learning by comparing same tea of different ages. You need to eliminate as many as other factors influencing the taste you can. It is like a comparing two different cars by power of their engine. You hardly to get feel of the proper judgment if compare light car BMW with 1.8l engine and some heavy truck with 3l engine.
Same with tea. Choose same storage ( we recommend dry one for beginning and from same source / storage preferably ) , same tea ( probably tai di cha – bush is the best for starting point ) , same processing ( the factory teas are the best as they keep their standards usually same few years ) .
Trying those step by step , one by one will help you to get feeling of what is happening to the pressed sheng pu-erh tea leafs trough the few years , which consequently creates your “aging taste scale”. This type of scale will be very basic from beginning, but once you start to tasting other teas withing different years of aging , your ability to judge the age of sheng pu-erh by taste will improve. During that learning process we recommend to stick with dry stored , since in combination with wet stored teas , your learning curve might drop down and stuck in limbo.
Learning by buying GZ stored teas labeled with 20-30 years old dates is not leading you anywhere but just wasting your money for mushroom taste like soaked tea leafs.
It is quite difficult to estimate right age of the wet stored sheng pu-erh due to it’s faster transformation in wet and humid environment ( also differences within the humidity of each stored tea ) , same as it’s difficult age judging task with shu pu-erh teas ( not even mentioning the wet stored shu pu-erh ) . More about the storage complexity in our article Tea Storage
In order to understand Guangzhou stored teas aging we recommend to buy new , 1 year, 2years, 3years and 4 years old sheng pu-erh , preferably from one private brand / producer. Not famous big factory one , since that might be faked. Do not bother with Gu Shu or Qiao Mu, just go for any regular tea , but make sure it’s from the same area. If it’s some cheap tea , there is no reason for vendor to make up some stories, so it would be either Lincang or general Menghai stuff. Some small producers make tea from same place every year and label them with exactly the same label just differentiate by printed date or some extra symbol. So pay attention to that. It is good idea to buy those teas in one time, not one by one during some period of time , to be sure they are all in same conditions when you compare them. It also might be good idea brew them simultaneously in separate gaiwans ( two of them for example ).
Once the wet stored tea arrives to your home , if weather conditions are very different from Guangzhou ones, the tea will also start to change.
You might notice those changes when store the tea and come back to it year later.
Please note that in reality is very difficult to create some precise ability of detecting the age of tea. What you actually learning is the ability to detect the degree of maturing / aging / oxidizing of the tea leaf and the age / time is the only a relative tag to it. That taste you learn as begin adequate to 10y old sheng , can also be only 5 years old sheng stored the way that it had achieved the same transformation in half time. Highlighting that fact because in real life you hardly get an opportunity to drink only tea of similar storage even sourcing from the same vendor holding all tea in one place ( the weather is not same every year as well ).
Of course you would spot the difference between those two if compare them at the same time as the faster aged would more than likely have more fruitier notes , maybe some wet notes and the slow matured one will keep it’s more original flowery notes maybe with touch of dry wood and such ….talking about general Kunming storage here now. But it gets more difficult to keep all those taste notes aspects database in your head in order to say “this tea is 10 years KM storage ” , let alone the 10 years stored in north KM and or south KM might have quite noticeable differences in taste ( aging ) , as mentioned before.
The best tea is the one You like the most. That of course might , and more than likely will , change with time / experience / and other factors like mood estate etc. This article is not about to teach you how to find a perfect tea , but how to avoid spending bunch of money for understanding the differences. The good way to learn is to drink, the best way is knowing what you are drinking.