Have you ever had one of those experiences where you take the first sip of a tea and it is so moving, so intriguing, that you are tempted to pick up the phone and call a friend to come over to drink with you? There is just something wonderful about drinking tea with others. Indeed, the whole culture of tea in China centers around hospitality and the social interaction of a shared pot.
To drink tea alone can be a wonderful and introspective journey, a meditation on beauty through the synergies of flavor, smell, and taste. To drink tea among friends under the right circumstances magnifies the sensations of the tea, making it easier to see the beauty that tea has to offer.
This is possible because as you taste your tea and describe your experience, others can learn from you and look for the sensations you pinpointed. You can do the same by listening to friends describe their experience. Fine tea presents a vast spectrum of sensations, and we are all individually attuned to different elements of flavor, texture and smell based on our past experience. By drinking among friends, you are able to widen the spectrum you perceive and respect the tea more fully.
In addition, when you personally feel that a tea is wonderful, having that feeling confirmed strengthens your conviction and predisposes you to more carefully tasting. If you only drink the tea alone, you may love it, but may also have the vague suspicion that you imagined the whole thing. Hearing praise from others makes you more open to enjoying something. Just consider how infectious a cheering crowd can be at the end of a concert, or how quickly laughter spreads if a few people start.
The easiest way to create the conditions needed for communal enjoyment and feedback in tea is to organize your own tea tasting among sympathetic friends. All the better to make the tasting a monthly event so that you can become really comfortable with the way your companions taste and describe tea. Organizing a tasting is a pretty simple task with only a few basic considerations to start:
1. Pick a time that makes sense. If you want to try three or four teas, and you plan on steeping them out Chinese style, which will yield much more complex cups than Western style brewing, you will need at least two hours, with the option of lingering for three hours. Find a time that does not overlap a meal, or you will have hungry over-caffeinated guests. The best times are in the morning around 9AM, after a good breakfast, 2 in the afternoon, giving people a chance to digest their lunch, or about 7:30PM, after dinner. This kind of timing makes sure that nobody has to leave because of hunger or tiredness. Make sure to inform your guests that they are investing at least two hours into the tasting, and to come already fed.
2. Find a comfortable arrangement for guests. It is difficult to brew for and accommodate more than 6-7 people at a time without help. If everyone can sit around a table with comfortable chairs, this is best. Hard chairs will make people restless after a few hours. Low tables and living room chairs work reasonably well, though if any guests have back trouble, bending down to the low table can be difficult. Pillows on the floor is a good alternative in a pinch. Some low music can be nice so that if people feel like concentrating on the tea without making conversation, they won’t feel awkward.
3. Consider the supplies you will need beforehand. Besides, of course, fine tea capable of inspiring exciting discussion, you will need water and light snacks. Some snack food is needed to counteract more intense teas, allowing people to continue drinking without feeling weak. Good possibilities include shortbread cookies, dried fruit and nuts, and butter crackers. The idea is to present flavor-neutral but energy rich foods that will not leave a lingering taste on the palate. Overly savory food can taint a palate, as can overly sweet food. Of course, teas can be paired with foods selectively and thoughtfully, but that is a different party. For water, you will want to have a filter at the least, or large gallon jugs of spring water. Tap water is usually too heavy with metallic tastes. Filtering the water allows you to keep the minerals needed to act as a foundation for the tea, but remove distracting tastes. Try not use distilled water or reverse osmosis water if possible, as they produce very flat and thin tea.
4. Double check your tea equipment. Make sure that you have a water boiler of reasonable size, or are close enough to a stove to reheat a kettle throughout the tasting. Count your cups and be sure to have enough for everyone, plus one or two extra in the unlikely event that one breaks. Small cups are always best for long tastings, as they allow people to try just a taste of each steeping, drink a lot of teas and not fill up too quickly. If you don’t have small Chinese tea cups, shot glasses are a viable alternative, as are ramekins, soy sauce bowls, etc.
5. Set up your equipment. It is best to have everything ready to start brewing before guests arrive. Pour out the tea leaves you will be using into small dishes and set them on the table to be admired. It will help build anticipation for what is to come. Have everyone’s cup set out, and provide paper and pencils for anyone who wants to take notes. Jotting down notes, diagrams or even pictures can be a helpful way for people to remember the tea, and helps give people a place to start discussion.
6. Do some research. Try to learn enough about the teas you are serving to tell a few stories. The reason that we provide so many stories about tea on the blog and at tastings is because they truly do enhance the experience of tasting. Learn what farm grew the tea you are drinking, how and when they picked the leaves. Learn the origin stories for teas like Pu’er, Tieguanyin, Big Red Robe, etc. It makes tasting way more fun and fills any gaps in the conversation. If you are not so comfortable with story-telling, you can always read off the stories and product descriptions from your tea supplier.
7. This is part of research – taste the teas beforehand. When you set up two or three teas to present at a tasting, you want to be sure that their flavors are complimentary. You also want to nail down proper brewing. Every tea merchant has recommendations on brewing, but ultimately, exact specifications will depend on the pH of the water, the exact shape of the leaves used, the amount of insulation provided by your brewing vessel, etc. Don’t be intimidated by these tiny variables. Instead, feel liberated and confident to experiment. There is no right answer in tea brewing, only variations. Do what feels and tastes right to you. Merchant suggestions are often a good baseline to give you an idea of general time (2 seconds, three minutes, etc) and temperature, but feel free to interpret liberally. A practice run of your tasting will give you the confidence to brew and present the teas with care.
Those are a few of the suggestions collected from conducting many, many tastings. For actual brewing tips, check out our brewing page. The most important thing is to enjoy the tea to its fullest extent and make sure that your guests have the opportunity to do the same. Don’t be surprised if your tasting becomes a monthly, and then weekly, event full of lively discussion, excitement and sharing of tea all around.
Here are a few suggested tasting itineraries and themes to help give you inspiration:
Tasting focused around synergy of flavor:
Any tasting should consider the way that the flavor and texture of one tea affects the next teas you taste. Some pairings in particular make good counter-compliments. In general, lightest to darkest is a good rule. One suggestion from our offerings breaks that rule for the sake of interesting aftertaste experience:
Start with the He Family’s Laoshan Green, then contrast the sweet and crisp vegetals with Li Xiangxi’s juicy Wuyi Oolongs. Finish with a tea to draw out the sweetness of the green tea and the floral perfume of the Wuyi: Master Zhang’s Hand Picked Tieguanyin.
Tasting focused around seasonality:
Trying autumn, summer and spring teas from the same regions can be a great way to more deeply understand both the region and the effect of weather. It is an excersize in subtle tasting that rewards you with interesting flavor differences. For example, try:
Spring Harvest Laoshan Green and Laoshan Black. Once you get an idea of the sweet bean flavor of spring, try the two autumn harvest Laoshan teas and see how the crispness of autumn grows out of the sweet sparkle in the spring.
Tasting focused around regional flavor profiles:
Every region of China will give an innate flavor to the teas that are produced there. This is a result of the soil and the weather. The clearest example is an exploration of the teas of Yunnan, which all have a special linen-like texture and cinnamon sweetness no matter what kind of tea is made:
Tasting focused around aging of tea:
Pu’er grows in complexity and depth over time. This does not mean that young pu’er is less interesting. Actually it is quite fun to try several pu’ers of different ages and see how they are different. This gives you more reference for tasting the way a brick might age over time and help you become a better “investor” in pu’er. We suggest tasting a selection of sheng or shu pu’er, from youngest to oldest.