, Winnie, asked a really interesting question about how to taste the natural flavors in a tea. I spent a bit of time responding on the e-list, so I thought it would be good to post part of my response to her in this blog.
WATER BOILING TEMPERATURE: This was a stumbling block for me until recently, I think because for so long I lived at quite high altitudes in Rocky Mountain states. I'd try the trick of grabbing the kettle just before the water boiled, but it just never worked correctly. The temperature of boiling water is too different at those altitudes. It wasn't until I (a) moved to sea level, and (b) finally started using a thermometer, that I was able to get the water to match the tea's needs. I still play around with the temperature a bit, but now I have a mark -- this has been especially important with oolongs. It continues to surprise me when a big dose of extra flavor sometimes comes through after the water has cooled even a few degrees in a cup I've been sipping.
THE FLAVOR OF WATER: The taste in water can be dramatically different from one town to the next. I'm just now (after 3 years!) getting used to the vegetative nature of the water here in the Pacific Northwest. I can't use the tap water for white teas (filtered or bottled for that) because the natural water flavor competes too strongly (for me, anyway). The water usually has a very nice flavor that matches up to most teas quite well, but I'd been used to the salt & peppery flavors of water in arid climates (caused by high saline from evaporation, and by lots of natural minerals filtering the underground aquifers -- like limestone and calcium). I wonder if I'd be able to taste the peppery bite of a yunnan with that salt&pepper water? I'll have to bring some along when I visit my family this summer. :)
BE WILLING TO DISCARD A BAD POT OR CUP: This past weekend, I actually tossed an entire pots' worth of freshly-brewed batch of tea (one of my husband's breakfast blends) because it tasted so strongly of asparagus that we couldn't drink it (this was black, not green, tea). We used the same blend, but shifted over to filtered water, and that asparagus flavor went away. There was just something in the water that day that interacted with and changed the nature of the tea. It's easier to toss the water and leaves with gaiwans, since you're using less and don't feel so guilty.
THE SERVING VESSEL: The gaiwan cup really helped me understand the power of oolongs. I don't know if it is having such close contact with leaves, or if having a lid somehow lets me taste more than I smell, but the gaiwan has been great for me. I generally use Chatsford pots of varying sizes (standard brown betty pots with a basket), and I've found that some teas prefer small pots -- especially my golden yunnans. Others want tons of room to unfurl and loosen the leaves before the true flavors come out. (see my previous post, Leaf: Before & After
TRYING A TEA WITH A STRONG FLAVOR: There’s just something about tasting what is familiar or known to you. This is sort of intuitive -- how can you identify or separate out a flavor if you don't already know what it is? There's more to it than this, though. For example, I didn't taste an after-bite of pepper until after trying IPOT's golden yunnan. There was an "ah, okay" moment -- now I get what that peppery note is, and now I taste it in other teas. The same for the cocoa flavor (dark unsweetened cocoa powder, not chocolate) -- I had one tea that was extremely heavy in cocoa flavor, and now I taste notes of cocoa all over the place (even in an Assam that has been a regular tea for years). So, once you "get it" in one, it spreads. By the way, that orchid taste was the first flavor I got in oolongs. It took several cuppings of a variety of oolongs (I purchased a bunch of samples to start out) before I really started to expand and taste other things as well. :)
QUALITY OF TEA: This doesn't necessarily mean the tea has to be ultra-expensive, but (unfortunately) that often is the case. The high-quality leaves that have been tended with care, then packaged and shipped carefully, have many more flavor characteristics. They also can often be steeped several times, so you end up using less tea. Most importantly, I think that the closer you are to purchasing from the actual tea makers, the better. The tea is fresher, plus it has had less opportunity for damage to the leaves from packaging and re-packaging.
STEEPING & LEAF AMOUNT: This is probably my number one problem. Some teas really do need a ton of leaves with just a little water, but other leaves need to spread out to unfurl and release their flavor. Additionally, if they sit too long (especially in extra hot water), the acidity in the tannins gets overwhelming and the tea flavor itself can become very strong and end up sort of suppressing the underlying notes. Now that I think about it, maybe this isn't so much a problem, actually, as it is part of the fun. :)