Lately my role at work has evolved to include training people to understand tea better. I have been a student of the leaf for four years and have had the great fortune of studying under Joshua Kaiser from Rishi Tea, learning from his words and tasting tea alongside him. Tasting tea with him has taken the form of both brewing it as he would enjoy it and cupping it as he does when evaluating teas.
While conducting my tea tastings, I have gone back and forth on how I should have the participants taste the tea. Should I have them cup to evaluate or cup simply to enjoy? Both styles have different purposes, yield different results, and provide different experiences.
Cupping tea for the purpose of evaluating it calls for a different set of teaware, different brewing instructions, and a different mindset. When we cup teas this way, it’s a sensory experience that includes taste, memory, and previous knowledge. This makes it more of a personal voyage because by brewing teas using this method – higher leaf-to-water ratio, hotter water, and longer steeping times – you are pushing the leaf to the limit. You are extracting a strength and flavors that most tea drinkers would call unpleasant. It is through the overbrewing of the leaf that you truly understand its character and can taste its unique voyage from being on the plant to being processed after plucking. High heat, no rain, and freezing winds are forces of nature that can leave their mark and come through in the flavor as well as overprocessing, unskilled hands, and smoke contamination. It is the search for and understanding of these impurities and of each tea’s unique attributes that calls one to taste tea this way. It is to understand the true nature of the leaf. This type of tasting takes skill and experience.
Making tea for one’s own personal enjoyment has a different purpose that can lead to appreciating the previous method. By manipulating how you brew loose-leaf tea, you can discover the perfect cup of tea. By changing brewing styles, you can love something different in each cup.
So, what experience do I want to share with people at a tea tasting? I have come to the conclusion that it helps to taste tea according to certain brewing instructions – either those suggested by others or your own. Beginners have to evolve and train their palates to understand the unique nuances each tea has to offer before they are asked to distinguish between what different brewing styles bring to the table, which requires that you draw on previous tasting knowledge.
I began this post by telling you that I tasted tea with Joshua both to evaluate it and to understand what he liked. However, my own personal tea journey began in my own teapots with me making tea over and over again, learning to love it as I do.