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?