We’ve all been there. Whether you’re visiting a hip, local neighborhood for some window shopping or you’re strolling down the aisles in the grocery store, inevitably, you will find some commercial grade tea. Indeed, we’ve even discovered this tea in glass containers in both coffee roasteries and chocolate boutiques.
Just how good is commercial grade tea? Though the price might be tempting, is it even right for you?
Commercial grade tea is often purchased in bulk by a larger company before it is distributed to smaller, local businesses. Although this results in significant savings for the purchaser, like any common and sound business model, this company will turn around, divide their inventory into smaller increments, and resell it at a higher price point for the sake of making a profit.
Of course, since you’re at the end of that transaction, you ultimately pay more depending on how many hands are exchanged. But this is just business 101.
Now, you may be wondering, “If this is true, why is this tea so often inexpensive?”
In this case, it is helpful to remember the old adage, “You get what you pay for.”
The reality of the tea industry is that this business model often requires that bulk distributors purchase lower elevation, commercially farmed tea. This is because there’s more of this lower-quality tea available (remember: the more you buy, the more you save).
Imagine for a moment that you’re standing in an apple orchard. In the middle of this orchard is the best two trees on the farm, and although the orchard is filled with apples, only Braeburn apples grow on these two trees. And the apples are everything you expect—immaculate, juicy, amazing. Radiating out from these two trees are all sorts of other apples in varying quantities, such as Fuji and Granny Smith, but above all, there are far more Red Delicious apples than any other.
Now, if your job is to deliver apples to local businesses, then although you’d love to give them the highly-prized Braeburn, there simply aren’t enough to go around. You could purchase the Braeburn along with the Fuji, Granny Smith, and Red Delicious, but your buyer at Local Shop A will be frustrated when they order apples and you deliver an assortment. After all, if Local Shop A is promising their customers apples, they can’t give the good apples to some customers and bad apples to the rest. Their customers need to get the same kinds of apples to know what to expect.
Ultimately, then, the bulk distributor is trying to buy as many of the same kinds of apples as possible, and so they find a reasonable tradeoff between high-quality and high-quantity, settling for something lower-quality that can be produced in high amounts.
This is thus why commercial grade tea is inexpensive. It just isn’t very good tea.
Like a lower-grade apple, the flavor from commercial grade tea is one-dimensional, unable to withstand multiple infusions without a significant drop-off in taste. Having been machine-processed, this tea is even stored in less-than-ideal conditions in warehouses for significant periods of time before reaching their destinations to be sold. Worse still, the tea leaves are mutilated, making for lower surface area (which means you extract more of the bitter flavors more easily) and more dust and fannings in your cup.
So to reiterate, while commercial grade tea might be less expensive, you are most likely to purchase an inferior grade of tea that lacks a complex flavor, enticing aromatics (unless perfumed), and freshness.
For these reasons, we always strongly advocate for purchasing teas from smaller batches or specialized farms at higher elevations who practice sustainable farming techniques. There’s little risk of pesticide contamination, and the tea tastes so much better. When you also factor into the equation that you can steep high-quality tea multiple times without losing much flavor, you’re actually getting much more for your investment than you realize.
Following up last week’s blog some of the most important elements that affect your perfect cup of tea, we decided to complement that advice by zeroing in on an all-too-common mistake people make when preparing their tea, one that seriously impacts your cup of tea for the worse!
Unless you’re a serious tea connoisseur, you (like most of us) use the same cups and mugs for your different teas and beverages. We might have Dragonwell green tea one day and Wuyi Shui Xian oolong the next, using the same mug (washed, of course) without giving it a second thought. Because these wares are non-porous, it’s not usually a big deal as long as they’re cleaned well.
But did you know that you might be accidentally compromising the flavor of your tea?
Most of the time, this doesn’t tend to be a big deal, but there are flavors that tend to stick around in our cups—particularly strong flavors from herbal teas and blends, such as mint, coffee, smoke, or lavender. Even flavors like bergamot, citrus, and jasmine, especially if they’re from essential oils, can linger.
The last thing you want to do is get excited to drink some Silver Needles white tea only to find that it tastes “off,” minty or citrusy. This is all the worse in professional establishments, such as coffee shops, where they may be a little less discriminating about what’s been brewed previously in the teapot or served in the mug.
While we are on this topic, this is another reason why we tend to discourage plasticware and sometimes even metalware.
The metal can sometimes impart undesirable flavors into your tea, usually if it has developed a patina, trapped water, or has rusted. From iron teapots (unglazed) to stainless steel thermoses, we’ve tasted some pretty bad tea poured from these things.
To be clear, metalware is not necessarily or always bad; it’s just that, depending on a handful of factors, they sometimes do affect the flavor of your tea for the worse, usually the longer the tea is kept in them and the more they’ve been used. If the tea you pour from your thermos, for example, isn’t tasting as you expect, then it’s probably your thermos and time to either clean it thoroughly or switch it out.
Similarly, when you leave your tea in a plastic container, such as a bottle for refrigerating, it can give your tea a plastic flavor, which isn’t too tasty. This is usually a problem for people making iced tea than it is for anyone else.
The bottom line is that if you’re picking up a flavor that shouldn’t be there and you know it’s not the water to blame or the quality of the tea leaves, start thinking about switching out the teacup or mug.
Sometimes no matter how hard you try, your cup of tea just doesn’t turn out right. Does it taste too weak? Too bitter? Maybe it doesn’t taste right? What could possibly be wrong?
With so much advice out there, it’s easy to mistakenly believe you’re doing everything right (and maybe you really are). Fortunately, when it comes down to it, there are only four factors that have the greatest impact on how your cup turns out, and they’re really easy to remember.
We simply cannot emphasize this enough. The taste in your cup begins and ends with this simple ingredient, and what kind of water you decide to use will absolutely influence the taste of your tea. Water has a pH level, mineral content, and volatile compounds, each of which contributes to its taste.
Lead in water, for instance, can taste “sweet” in high levels, while sodium will taste saltier. Higher levels of zinc or iron will cause your water to taste more metallic, while copper has more of a bitter flavor. Bacterial and algae growth can lead your water to taste earthy, musty, or even fishy. And we’re all relatively familiar with the smell of chlorine.
This doesn’t mean that distilled water is best though, on the contrary, we are against the use of distilled or purified water. Actually, some mineral content in water is necessary for extracting the tasty phytochemicals in your tea. Though more studies can surely be conducted, early research suggests that the best water for your tea is mountain spring water—and as it turns out, mountain spring water has been the standard practice for preparing tea for centuries.
If you are not yet using a scale to weigh your tea leaves, you might be wasting money. Professional chefs have long understood how difficult it can be to create and follow recipes, many now opting to present their recipes in terms of weights rather than sizes. Not only does a cup of sugar weigh very different from a cup of almonds, but there can be as much deviation as 40 to 50g of sugar from one person’s cup to the next.
How we treat tea should be no different. In fact, try this out when you have the opportunity.
- Weigh one tablespoon of Long Jing Dragonwell green tea.
- Weigh one tablespoon of Butterfly Jasmine Tea.
- Weigh one tablespoon of Floral Tieguanyin Oolong.
What were your results? Did it surprise you? Not only does the weight vary from tea to tea, but some teas are incredibly difficult to handle with even the best tablespoons, such as Tai Ping Hou Kui green tea.
A good cup of tea uses approximately 4g of loose leaf tea to every 6oz. of water, and most mugs in the west vary between 8 to 16oz. in size! If your tea tastes too weak, you may very well be using too much water and not enough tea leaves!
You should experiment with these two parameters first.
Like water quality and weight, water temperature can be easily overlooked and neglected. We have seen so many people prepare their tea by placing a kettle or pot on the stovetop and waiting until the water boils. Other people even guess at the temperature. Unfortunately, temperature matters…a lot.
If it is too hot, you will extract too many of the wrong phytochemicals too quickly, leading to an astringent or bitter cup of tea; and if it is too cool, you will not extract enough or even the rights kinds of phytochemicals that optimize the taste of your tea.
To complicate matters, each type of tea is best brewed at different temperatures—and if we’re being honest, even the same types of tea can have different water temperature recommendations due to other factors, such as leaf size, harvest date, and crafting touches.
Did you know, for example, that our artisanal Lu An Gua Pian (Sunflower Seeds tea) and our Zhu Ye Qing (Green Bamboo Tips tea) are better at different temperatures even though they’re both green teas?
For this reason, it’s best to consult a steeping guide for each tea, a recommendation that is usually carefully made after an expert has had a chance to determine the optimal temperature for the tea. Of course, taste is somewhat subjective, and so you’re always invited to tweak the temperature yourself as well. The most important takeaway is simply this: take your temperature seriously!
Time and temperature are closely related variables in the sense that adjusting one can have consequences for the other. Some experimenters will prepare even their green teas at 95–100°C (200–212°F), but they’re able to make a good cup because they remember that time is related to temperature, adjusting their infusion time downward to just a meager 5–10 sec. steep to compensate for the higher temperature.
We mention this so that you can think of these two factors as closely related. In other words, if you are trying to diagnose why your tea doesn’t taste the way you would like, only adjust either time or temperature individually (not at the same time)—unless you know what you’re doing.
With our warning out of the way, your infusion time works pretty much how you might expect: longer infusion times will extract more phytochemicals and shorter infusion times will extract less. People get into trouble, however, when they assume that more time is equivalent to a more flavorful cup of tea. That is false.
As we mentioned before, only certain kinds of tasty compounds are extracted from your tea leaves at certain temperatures. Think of your temperature as unlocking the flavors from your tea. Some of these flavors are desirable, making your tea taste floral, fruity, or herbaceous, and other flavors are less desirable, adding a medicinal, bitter, or muscatel component.
Now, in small quantities, medicinal notes can enhance the final taste, but if your leaves are over-extracted, then too many of these compounds might be released into your tea, making for a mostly medicinal flavor, which is not desirable. Likewise, a vegetal flavor can be appealing for some of us, but if we let too much of that vegetal flavor into our tea so that it takes over, it can taste like you’re drinking a cup of freshly cut grass.
When it comes to time, you’ll want to adjust it only after you’ve settled on the right temperature, and to adjust accordingly, you’ll want to think in terms of the tasting notes you’re noticing in your cup. Do those particular notes taste too strong or not strong enough? Then be sure to adjust your infusion time down or up, respectively. If you still can’t get it just right, then reconsider your temperature.
While there’s certainly some scientific relations between these four factors in your cup of tea, it’s as much art as science when it comes to getting your particular cup right. Each bag of tea will take some playfulness and experimentation, and as long as you know what you’re doing, you’re bound to fine tune it to just the way you like.
Hopefully this guide helps you do just that.
We’ve spent the last few weeks extolling the virtues of pu erh, addressing some common misconceptions, and providing some advice for picking out good teas while avoiding bad ones. Inevitably, however, there will come a time when you have to make your pu erh.
Now maybe you prefer the old, reliable method of an infuser and a mug? There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, but this post is particularly for those looking to ascend, to take that next step into pu erh aficionadodom. It’s time to level up!
So what do you need?
Great question! Here are some important accessories:
Why do you need one?
Making tea the traditional way can lead to some drips and spills, especially while you pour the tea out of your teapot, gaiwan, or server. Tea trays help keep our messes to a minimum.
What is more, they have a height of about 2–4”, which makes for some elegance at the table. Your tea preparation is guaranteed to be the center of attention and topic of conversation.
The extra height isn’t just for aesthetics though.
Tea trays also function as storage compartments for your tea and teaware when they’re not in use. By lifting the top of the tray, a hidden area is revealed in which you can keep anything (preferably tea-related items).
Why do you need one?
When we prepare tea using traditional methods—known as gong fu—we will be using a small teapot or gaiwan, and while these allow for a number of benefits (such as more infusions and better flavors), for some of us, they also make too much or too little tea.
Sometimes we fill our teacups and still have some tea leftover in our teapot. Do we reach for another cup for the excess tea? Do we (heaven forbid) pour it out? Do we let it sit in our teapot, continuing to extract phyto goodness from our tea leaves?
Still, other times, we may feel like there just wasn’t enough tea. Do we try to exercise some self-control and delay gratification? Maybe we consider prematurely ending our session to heat up water yet again?
In either case, we face a dilemma.
The good news is that servers address both of these issues!
A server gives us some ample space for additional tea, and a good server will keep your tea warm enough to enjoy (especially if you preheat it). And besides, it looks much cleaner and politer to pour your tea from a server.
Why do you need one?
Although a gaiwan will do when preparing your tea gong fu style, a Yixing teapot makes for a completely different experience. These teapots, naturally non-toxic and made from authentic Zisha clay, are porous, absorbing the flavor and aroma of the teas you use. This means that, over time, your Yixing teapot will ultimately enhance the flavor of your tea!
Similarly, the outside of your Yixing teapot will absorb the oils from your hands with each use, eventually leading to a deeper color and brilliant sheen.
Just remember to season your teapot before use!
To do so, you’ll want to gently place it in a stainless steel pot with tepid water, taking care to ensure that your teapot is completely covered (leave the lid aside). Heat the water over a stove until it begins to boil, letting this continue for 30–60 minutes. Once finished, let cool, carefully remove, and rinse your teapot out. You’re now ready to give it some love.
Why do you need one?
Unless you purchase a sample of pu erh or otherwise purchase loose leaf, pu erh tends to be sold in a tightly compressed block or cake, usually known as a zhuan or bing. Trying to loosen your pu erh with your bare hands can be done, but it will be really messy and, at times, even frustrating. Alternatively, you can try to use standard kitchen utensils, but this, too, tends to be a disaster.
The solution is the pu erh pick or pu erh knife!
A sharp, pointy or knife instrument, pu erh picks make separating your pu erh tea easier than ever. Just gently push it through part of your bing in several places to loosen the leaves you want, and then use the pick to delicately pry away those leaves.
It’s easy to fall victim to some marketing and invest in a wooden pick, such as sandalwood or bamboo, but these picks are not very functional, often breaking during use. It’s best to stick with a dependable metal pick.
Obviously, some other things to have on hand include some gorgeous teacups and some good pu erh tea, but the above accessories are the ones most likely to be overlooked or underappreciated when jumping into the world of pu erh. Each serves an important purpose, and together, they make for the ultimate pu erh drinking experience!
Imagine that your interest in pu erh is piqued. You’re now browsing a selection and trying to figure out what to purchase. How do you make up your mind?
Should you just experiment, take a chance, purchase one, and hope for the best? That’s certainly one option, but it may not be the most economical or yield a good outcome. Fortunately, there are some telltale signs of quality to keep in mind, signs that can help ensure that you get the most for your purchase. So now that we’ve talked a little about how pu erh is supposed to taste and how you’re supposed to store it, it’s time to look at those qualities that make for a good pu erh tea!
- Size Matters
Large leaves are not always desirable when it comes to selecting your teas. It really comes down to the plucking standard.
For many white teas, for instance, the tea bud is most desirable, and for many spring harvest greens, the bud is plucked along with the first or second leaf. These are the newest, freshest parts of the plant, and so tend to yield more floral flavors in the cup. If you were to find a white or green tea made from larger leaves, it is usually a sign that the oldest leaves have been plucked and is indicative of a lower grade tea.
When it comes to oolongs, however, hardier and more resilient leaves are desired, and these are the older, thicker tea leaves. Since the crafting of many oolongs requires kneading, bruising, and shaping, the tea leaves have to be able to withstand this labor-intensive process. Older leaves are ideal, and they also have the added benefit of making for a more robust, complex cup of tea (precisely what you want in a good oolong!).
As one might expect, when it comes to pu erh, it’s a little tricky because a good pu erh has both qualities, the freshest and largest leaves.
How is this possible?
The plucking standard for a good pu erh is one bud to two or three leaves. When purchasing a pu erh, then, you want to make sure that it does in fact contain some buds. If you find very few buds and you even find a lot of stems, it might be a sign of a lower quality pu erh. However, this is a little more complicated than just standard buds and leaves, it also depends on the types of tree, and the traditional plucking styles in different regions.
Still, good quality pu erh should also feature larger leaves. This is made possible by picking buds and leaves during the right season and from the right kind of tree!
- Tis the Season
Pu erh tea leaves can be plucked in the spring, summer, or fall, but this doesn’t mean that all seasons are equal. The best pu erh leaves are harvested during the spring season as the tea trees begin sprouting new leaves and growing rapidly, if everything else is equal. Fall harvest can yield a great tea if it has the good leaf, process, and storage. One good example of fall harvest is called Gu Hua pu-erh tea. Gu Hua means grain blooms and start to ripe for harvest in the fall around late September and October. Gu Hua pu'-rh refers to the puerh tea that produced in this time window.
When leaves are harvested in the fall in a good environment, for instance, you’ll begin to notice more fragrant and fruitier notes, like dried or roasted plums or dates. Our Confidant Arbor Tree Raw Pu Erh, sold in the form of mini-cakes, is a fall-harvested tea that showcases notes of nutmeg, almond, vanilla, and passion fruit!
Understanding how the harvest-time affects flavors can help you narrow down the right pu erh for your taste buds, and all of the pu erhs we carry mostly are spring harvest with several fall harvests.
- Call of the Wild
Perhaps the most important quality when it comes to picking out a good pu erh is the source of the tea. Did it come from a bush or a tree? Was it on a farm or was it feral? Be wary of the marketing gimmicks that prey on the less informed!
Pu erh tea will generally come from one of three places: a plantation, a former plantation, or a higher-elevation, wild environment.
When grown on a plantation, the tea is farmed at a much lower altitude and is pruned to be no larger than a bush in an effort to try to maximize leaf yields. It is sometimes marketed with more pleasant sounding or exotic names, like guan mu cha, “farmed,” or “cultivated.” It is not uncommon for farmers of plantations to use pesticides and chemical fertilizers on these teas.
We don't source any of our pu erh tea from plantations unless it meets stringent requirements. It has to use ecological and sustainable farming practices; it has to grow at a high altitude; the tea has to come from trees (not bushes); and it has to be ecologically grown, using no pesticides or synthetic chemicals.
Much more highly desired are wild arbor pu erh teas. These are grown on former plantations that have been abandoned and allowed to grow with very little human intervention. Sometimes known as yefang or yesheng (“wild grown” or “wild tree”), the pu erh from these trees are not truly wild but still produce a very good cup of tea.
The best prized of all pu erhs, however, is the gushu or qiao mu sheng (“ancient” or “old tea tree”). Grown only at the high altitudes and in the most pristine of environments, these tea trees are often 100 or more years in age, some even reaching close to 800! They are totally and truly wild, free from human intervention, showcasing the most floral and complex flavors. One study even suggests that true gushu pu erh has the highest levels of antioxidants!
Now that you know what to look for, we hope that you find shopping for pu erh a little less confusing, making it easier to find what you want.
At MeiMei Fine Teas, we’re pleased to offer to you both, wild arbor and ancient tree pu erh, and if you look closely at the harvest dates, you’ll find both spring and fall harvests. This creates a nice variety from which to choose, taste, and compare, pinpointing exactly that flavor profile that you want to enjoy now and save for later!
Whereas an airtight seal is important for your usual teas, this is not the best way to store your pu erh. Remember that pu erh tea undergoes fermentation during its production, and as a result, it is a special type of tea that is ready for aging, much like a good wine. This is why you will often find pu erh marketed and sold by its year and region of production (the year indicates its maturity and the region tells us something about its character).
So how do you store a pu erh tea? There are several things you need to take into consideration.
- Any tea, including pu erh, is sensitive to the surrounding environment.
You want to be vigilant with the odors near your tea. If you keep citrus fruit nearby, your tea can eventually absorb some of those citrus-like aromas. Ditto for garlic and onion, cleaning agents, car exhaust, flowers, and spices.
Does the area smell stale and damp? If so, your stored pu erh will eventually smell and taste the same way! Does it smell like pine or cedar? Don’t be surprised if your pu erh begins having a sharp, woodsy taste. Storing your pu erh in plastic? Guess what? Yep. Plastic flavor.
If you want your tea’s flavor profile to shine through, you really need to keep it away from these types of things while storing it and thoroughly check the storage area itself for strong, undesirable odors. Otherwise, you risk permanently affecting the taste of your tea!
- Humidity is a good thing.
We sometimes think that moisture is the enemy, and usually it is. We definitely do not want any moisture around our usual teas. But as we’ve said before, pu erh is just different. It’s ready and waiting for you to age it!
Without humidity, your pu erh will not age quickly enough, and yet it’s also true that we have to watch for moisture on the tea, as that can lead to mold growth and funny, undesirable flavors. This means that you want to store your pu erh in a humid area while still protecting it from water. To accomplish this, we recommend keeping it in a well-ventilated package or even an aging box.
If you want to get really technical, a hygrometer is an inexpensive device purchased from most home improvement stores that can tell you how much humidity is in the air. Pu erh aficionados recommend a room that averages 60–85% humidity.
Traditionally, puerh tea is stored in the form of tongs. One tong usually contains five or seven cakes wrapped in bamboo skin. This is our preferred method, if you want to store a puerh for aging or consume in later years.
- Some of the standard storage rules still apply.
It’s a big tea storage “no no” to expose your tea to any kind of sunlight. Sunlight increases the oxidation rate of your tea, effectively making it taste worse. This same rule applies to our pu erh as well! Whereas a green tea exposed to sunlight will showcase weak or stale flavor, a pu erh will instead taste increasingly bitter, destroying some of those oh so delicious fruity, complex notes we’ve come to enjoy.
Similarly, we also want to watch the temperature of the storage area. If it’s too cold, it slows the aging process, but if it’s too hot, we encourage the growth of the wrong microorganisms, giving our pu erh undesirable flavors, such as compost or, worse, worn socks. Yuck!
As it turns out, the ideal temperature is not too dissimilar from the ideal humidity levels. Think: 65–85°F (20–30°C).
So how long should you age a pu erh?
That kind of depends on what you’re looking for. It can be enjoyed right now, but with each year and proper storage, new flavors will blossom forth, becoming sweeter and more complex over time. Some will say 5 years is a good number, but others will argue 10, 15, and even 20 years or more! This is just part and parcel of the wild world of pu erh tea, and it invites so much playfulness and experimentation, more so than any other kind of tea.
For the final entry in this series of post, we’ll be sure to discuss next week a few of the things to think about and look for whenever you purchase a pu erh. There’s also some good equipment to add to your collection!
Turning to pu erh for the first time can be overwhelming, confusing, and even intimidating. What is it supposed to taste like? What are you supposed to do with the block of tea in front of you? How do you store it? Do you prepare it like any other tea?
Addressing all of these questions would take up quite a bit of space, but we can at least walk you through some basics in today’s post, hopefully making it just a little bit easier to give this amazing and unique form of tea a chance.
As you may know, pu erh tea is a fermented tea that hails from Yunnan Province. With the exception of intentionally aged teas that have been carefully stored, many other teas begin to mellow out, lose flavor, or even taste stale over time. Pu erh, however, is a special kind of tea that gets better as it ages—so good, in fact, that its desirability and value increases with time.
But age alone isn’t a sign of quality. There are many pu erhs that can taste moldy, earthy, or fungal, and too many tea drinkers having spent money on these teas try to convince themselves that this is the way pu erh is “supposed” to taste. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
Your pu erh should never taste moldy. Trust your gut instincts. If it doesn’t seem right at first sip, then it probably isn’t.
On the contrary, when fermented properly, pu erh has a wide range of tasting possibilities with flavor profiles ranging from dates and figs to honey and caramel! The flavors can change so much from pu erh to pu erh that it can almost seem like pu erh tea itself is its own kind of beverage with a handful of subcategories waiting to be defined.
While more work can probably be done to classify pu erh teas into more specific types based on their flavor profiles, there are two broad categories that are already well-established: sheng and shou. (You can read a little more about each here). We also know that each of the four major growing regions (Jingmai, Menghai, Mengku, and Yiwu) have their own little nuances.
Between location and type—as well as an artisan’s unique touch, the climate in any given year, and storage—there is a lot of variety to discover within the world of pu erh. This is why tea connoisseurs and food experts tend to compare pu erh to wine. Both share a depth and breadth of aromatics and flavors that are unlike anything else you’ll taste. It should come as no surprise then that, also like wine, the prices can vary wildly.
Next week, we’ll discuss how you’re supposed to make a pu erh, in what ways its similar to and different from preparing other teas.