It’s fun every now and then to test one’s taste perceptions and challenge one’s ability to appreciate the subtle differences between teas from one region. Lately I have been doing just that by brewing cups of Assams from different gardens and taking notes to compare them—Duflating with its honeyed and malty aroma; Ramanugger with a somewhat Darjeeling-like personality, redolent of orange blossoms and with an undernote of lemon; Akiya, broken-leafed with peachy notes; Halmari, tippy with a honeyed cinnamon undertone and a deep amber/ reddish liquor.
Through my tasting, I established that each of these teas has its own flavor personality. Brewed using exactly the same weight of tea leaf, dosage of good quality water, temperature and steeping time, it’s tempting to parse which factors can influence (and to what degree) how these teas taste when they arrive in the cup. Cultivation practices, terroir (or should we call it tea-oir) including atypical climatic fluctuations, age of the tea bushes, processing after picking —all of these come into play. And then there is that intangible something that one would have to call finesse—the art of the brewer, coaxing every last nuance of flavor and even mouth feel from the leaves.
Through my tasting, I established that each of these teas has its own flavor personality. (I did this sequential brewing using the four teas noted above and then turned the task of brewing the same teas according to the same parameters over to another tea aficionado and then we compared results—we found different intensities and subtleties of flavor in the two brewing sessions). I liken this scenario to one in my role as baking instructor: in any given class, I assign twenty-five of my professional baking students the same simple recipe and then find that, in different hands, the results can be startlingly different.
How to account for this? Is it the mood of the baker (or brewer) on any given day? Is it the position in the oven or how precisely the recipe was followed in the smaller details—scraping the mixing down thoroughly, incorporating the dry ingredients gently or vigorously? In the case of the tea, is it something seemingly less significant such as how the tea leaves float in the water, freely or constrained? I can only attribute this phenomenon to highly unscientific factors and have come to appreciate (and in fact, embrace) that in the hands of one person, the tea will taste one way, and in the hands of another, completely different.
I’m convinced that the personality of the brewer is imprinted on the tea. Traveling through the world of tea is a constantly evolving journey not always completely decipherable, and given the numbers of tea estates worldwide, staggeringly unknowable. Does your experience echo mine?
Fascinating for sure but I’ve been asking similar questions myself about other foods. Last night I got a call from a friend living in Columbia. We were talking about rice and how it was a staple in Columbia. Dave commented that every restaurant serves rice that is qualitatively different from the next. Given a small community, he believes all the rice comes from the same supplier. He concluded that even within the same household of his friends, if the wife cooks the rice it is different from the husbands version of the rice – and with the same recipe -as with your students.
So I’m not surprised that your friend and you had different experiences with the same tea. Taste is truly subjective.
We were out for a birthday dinner last week-end with my daughter, who had a head cold. She couldn’t eat her Pad Thai because she felt it was “disgustingly” sweet. Both my husband and I tasted it and it was delicious. What’s going on in our bodies can obviously affect our taste and smell – which affect each other. Us humans are quite a complicated and complex species.
Kind of a different subject but it’s interesting to me how our own perceptions of a tea that we try to brew the same way at different times can vary. I’m all over the map related to drinking different teas day to day, and adjusting brewing technique based on immediate preference and mood, so it’s normal for me to miss noticing some degree of variances related to that. A tea friend would comment on brewing the same teas over and over and marvel over differences, trying to sort out factors. It seemed most likely the differences were in him, not so much in his brewing details but from his perceptions changing at different times. I mostly tend to notice missing more when the noise level is higher around me (I have young kids; that comes up). But it seems possible that using slightly different water temperatures could change things (and varying teaware could cause that, even for the same starting temperature water), or that relative humidity in the air makes a difference, or purely subjective factors instead, like mood, or energy level.
What you said, Chef. I had been trying to track down an Earl Grey that would really hit the bell for me. I even went back to the best I’d ever found that the grower/blender had stopped selling in smaller quantities to people like me as loose tea, just bags, which I don’t do. They said they were now selling it loose again but it just isn’t as I remembered it. I finally blended two Earl Greys that had all the qualities I wanted, while neither quite did, and came up with a winner. Once you find something you love, it is frustrating if you ‘lose’ it, either to discontinuance, change in formula of ingredients. I’ve even been known to go all the way to a supplier’s master blender before I could ‘prove’ that a mint had been sourced from a new supplier, etc. My palate is so delicate that it’s either a huge blessing or not. But I’m happy that tea is so versatile. It makes for a constant journey.
I have actually noticed this as well when I make tea vs my mum vs my grandma. they all taste different. I have watched them both making tea and they do the same thing but I can always tell who made the tea for some reason. mine comes off the worst haha.