On Tea Expertise (plus, my experience at a tea class!)

I am not a tea expert.

I know that for many who know me, that statement seems surprising. I mean, I blog a lot about tea. I review and taste teas for my posts and often share my opinions. I’ve even written an entire series of posts presuming to teach you something about tea practice. But I still consider myself an enthusiastic amateur.

That said, I am often thought of as “the tea expert” (or, probably more accurately, “that weird tea lady”) by my friends, family, and acquaintances. I joked over the holidays to a family friend who struck up a conversation about tea that I know just enough about tea that everyone is too concerned that I’m judging them to offer me tea, kind of like being the chef that no one will invite over for dinner. And over the hospitable season, I’ve had more than one person remark that they don’t have a tea “that is up to your standards.” Which is part of why my Tea Primer starts with tea bags. Because I don’t look down on tea bags. Do I think there are more delicious options? Sure. But if you like them, you do you. And you will pry my half-sweet oolong milk bubble tea from my cold, dead fingers.

But as I’ve settled into my tea-blogging niche, I’ve thought a lot about how to communicate my love of tea to a broader audience, and the subject of expertise comes up a fair amount. I’ve toyed with the idea of some sort of formal tea education course or credential, like a Tea Sommelier certification, but it seems like a lot of money for a title that is controversial at best. Ultimately, while it would be fun to be seen as an expert, no amount of certification is ever going to alleviate what could charitably be called “perpetual beginner’s mind” and perhaps uncharitably called “imposter’s syndrome” when it comes to my knowledge of tea.

That said, I love learning and I am constantly striving to expand my knowledge of how to enjoy tea. So to this end, I decided to take a tea class from Victoria at MeiMei Fine Teas, a tea company based near me in Northern Virginia. I was thrilled when I found out that such a knowledgeable tea person lived so close to me and was willing to share her knowledge in classes! I signed up for two classes, one focusing on puerh and one focusing on oolong. This past Sunday, I attended the puerh class where I met some lovely tea-lovers and learned from such a graceful and wise teacher, who also happens to be incredibly nice!

The puerh class started with tea. Victoria brewed up two different sheng (or raw) puerhs, one from a cake and the other rolled into a dragon ball. The dragon ball rolled tea was amazingly sweet and right away, I knew this was going to be a better introduction to puerh teas than I could manage on my own because I was getting to taste much nicer teas than I could afford to buy all on my own! It was interesting that we started by tasting before Victoria started presenting her slides on Yunnan province, the growing, harvesting, and processing of puerh, and some notes on tasting. She intermixed the slides with tastings of various teas so that the slides felt like a break, and she paced them to always be relevant to the teas we were tasting. We tasted six sheng puerhs, ranging in age from a few years old to over two decades old, in order to see how the tea changes. I also got to learn the difference between sheng puerh and green tea, which was something I’d always wondered.

Only after we’d tasted a full range of ages of sheng puerh did she bring out the shu puerh. Because shu puerh processing was developed in the 1970s to speed up the sheng puerh aging process, it was interesting to see how the shu puerhs compared to the oldest of the sheng puerhs. It was particularly intriguing to see how the color of the sheng puerh changed with age. That said, I think my favorite moment was when we tried two teas side by side, one that was from a famous tea maker, and the other an unidentified cake from Victoria’s personal stash. The unidentified cake not only held its own against the famous cake, but it had the added interest of having a slight smoky flavor and aroma to it. It wasn’t as pronounced as a smoked tea, but it definitely had a note of pine smoke, similar to some whiskies that I enjoy. Upon noticing this, Victoria explained that puerh is processed by firing it in woks to kill off some of the compounds that cause oxidation, and sometimes tea processors heat this woks over wood fires, which allows a smoky note to get into the tea.

After many hours of tasting and talking tea, I had to leave, which was sad, but I’m excited to take a future class and further expand my tea knowledge. And joining this group of people showed me how much I have yet to learn, plus I found that tasting teas with others, regardless of their level of knowledge, can help expand my own tasting notes. So I continue on my journey, tasting and learning, and enjoy those I meet along the way.

NB: Photo was taken by me and used with Victoria’s permission.

Tuesday Tasting: Taiwanese Tea and Coffee Tasting from Mountain Stream Teas

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Recently, Matt at Mountain Stream Teas posted that some of his tea farmer friends had started experimenting with growing coffee and wondered if we might be interested in trying tea and coffee from the same terroir. Well, of course we would! Those of you who know me know that my husband Dan is something of a coffee snob, so I thought this would be a fun thing to try together, so I went ahead and ordered their February subscription box, which included the tea and coffee comparison. The box came with two coffees and two teas, from two different areas.

The set included samples of two coffees and two teas from two different places. There was a washed coffee and a Honey Fragrance Black Tea from Ruisui and a sun-dried coffee and a Red Oolong from Alishan. The coffees were obviously roasted to a medium-light roast, which is perfect because Dan strongly prefers lighter roast coffees.

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I decided to set up the tasting using professional evaluation methods for each drink. So the coffees were cupped according to the method we were taught when we tasted coffee at Vigilante Coffee a few years ago. The teas were tasted in a professional cupping set. We used stainless steep spoons to taste everything, which were rinsed between tastings.

The coffees were made with 6g of beans to 100ml of water, ground with a hand-powered burr grinder, while the tea was made with 3g of leaves for a 120-ml cupping set. Everything was made using 95C water. The coffees were allowed to bloom for about 4 minutes, while the teas were steeped for 2 minutes.

Right off, Dan and I decided we liked different coffees best. I loved the Alishan coffee, with its bright acidity and dark chocolate mouthfeel, but Dan interpreted the minerality as “chalky” and preferred the Ruisui coffee, which is said tasted like tea. I got a honey caramel aftertaste from the Ruisui and a more pronounced woody bitterness at first. The Alishan also had a bergamot aftertaste that I enjoyed.

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I agreed with Dan that the Ruisui tasted “like tea,” especially after tasting the similarities with the honey fragrance black tea. It had a very smooth tannin and a honey mouthfeel with almost oolong-level floral character. It definitely tasted very similar to the Ruisui coffee. The red oolong had a bright apricot fruitiness and a light, smooth mouthfeel. It echoed the bergamot brightness and had an almost slippery, mineral quality to the sweetness as it cooled. It was interesting to taste the similarities between the coffees and teas from each place. It was particularly interesting because they were so distinct from each other. I think choosing two different styles of tea to pair accentuated this, too.

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Ultimately, Dan finished the Ruisui coffee, while I drank as much of the Alishan coffee as I could before my stomach rebelled (I don’t do well with black coffee). I went on to taste a second steeping of the teas, steeped for 2:30. The Alishan developed a strong honey aroma on the liquor, with flavors of honey and bergamot and a honey-water mouthfeel. There was a sweet floral, maybe a gardenia or lily, note to the flavor as it lingered. The Ruisui tea didn’t have a lot of aroma on the liquor, with a light flavor that mostly showed fruity acidity and some honey aroma detected retronasally.

All in all, this was a fascinating experiment and I’m excited to try another coffee-and-tea tasting again sometime.

NB: Nothing to declare. If you’re interested in reading why I’ve stopped reviewing teas, in favor of tasting notes, please read this post. If you’re interested in collaborating with me, please read my contact and collaboration information.

Tuesday Tasting: Two Dongfeng Meiren Teas

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Today, I’m doing another comparative tasting, this time of two Dongfang Meiren (or “Eastern Beauty”) teas I got from two different sources. I got the first in my Floating Leaves Tea order that I mentioned last week, and the second I bought at Ching Ching Cha in Georgetown after Nazanin of Tea Thoughts mentioned that it was good. After trying them both separately, I thought it would be interesting to try them side-by-side. I’m continuing to use my cupping sets because it’s supposed to be a good way to evaluate teas quickly.

I used 3 grams of leaves for each 125-ml cupping set, with 95C water. I did warm the vessels before adding the dry leaves, but I didn’t rinse. I ended up steeping each three times. The dry leaf aroma on the Floating Leaves (FL) tea was of toast with honey, while the Ching Ching Cha (CCC) tea smelled of floral honey.

The first steeping was for two minutes. The FL wet leaves smelled of clover honey and yielded a medium-dark gold liquor with a light hay or alfalfa flavor and a light mouthfeel. The empty cup smelled of muguet. The CCC wet leaves smelled of buckwheat honey and yielded a lighter gold liquor with a honey aroma. It had a sweet fruity flavor and a honey-water mouthfeel. There was a lingering cereal sweetness and the empty cup smelled of hay and honey.

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The second steeping was for two and a half minutes. The CCC wet leaves smelled of honey with a touch of smoke. The liquor aroma had a slight incense-smoke quality to it. The mouthfeel was thicker and juicier with a more pronounced straw flavor and less sweetness. There was a mild tannin. The empty cup smelled of honey and sandalwood. The FL wet leaves smelled of sweet grain. The mouthfeel was syrupy with floral and mild tannins. It tasted a bit like red raspberry leaf tea. The empty cup smelled faintly of caramel.

The third steeping was for three minutes. Both teas were obviously past their best flavors. The FL wet leaves had started to smell a bit like wet paper, and had a light honey sweetness but was obviously fading. The CCC had a sweet aroma, but fading, with a fruity honey sweetness. The spent leaves were similar in appearance, though the CCC leaves seemed a bit bigger.

NB: No affiliate links or promotional samples to disclose. To learn about contacting me for a collaboration, click here.

Tuesday Tasting: Taiwan Ruby 18 Black Tea from Floating Leaves Tea

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I ordered a few teas from Floating Leaves Tea a little while ago, but I’ve been remiss in showing them the love they deserve. So, to remedy this, I decided to do a tasting of the Ruby 18 black tea this week. I’ve also started exploring tea cupping using a cupping set I got from Camellia Sinensis (or, if you want a US-based store, Art of Tea has a similar one*). I’m still learning the ropes of tasting in this style of brewing vessel, so I played around a bit. I suppose I might want to take an actual course in tea cupping, but that’s not really my style, so for now, I’m experimenting.

I used 3g of leaf in a 125-ml cupping set with 99C water. I did not rinse or preheat my cupping set before starting the tasting, but I did smell the dry leaves after adding them to the vessel. I got aromas of dried fruit, like prunes and sweet cherries, from the dry leaf. I did not rinse the tea.

The first steeping was for two minutes, after which, I got sweet aromas, almost like the glue on the back of old postage stamps, from the leaves. I know this sounds like an odd note, but it’s actually a very positive and comforting aroma for me because it reminds me of helping my mother at the office on snow days when my school was closed. The liquor was a rich mahogany brown color and really exemplifies why the Chinese refer to this kind of tea as “red tea” rather than “black tea,” as the West calls it. The liquor had a light fruity and smoky aroma. The body was medium-rich and had a lightly syrupy mouthfeel, with a hint of dryness afterwards. There was a light, smooth tannic flavor, followed by caramelized onion and dark stone fruit. This developed into a sweet-acidic flavor that reminded me of dried tart cherries and amaretto.

The second steeping, I went for two and a half minutes. The wet leaves smelled of caramel and wood. The liquor was slightly lighter in color, with a sweet smell that I couldn’t quite put my finger on, like some sort of sweet-smelling herb. The mouthfeel was richer and juicier with no dryness. The flavor had a sweet cereal taste, like barley syrup or toasted soybean powder with brown sugar. I still get stamp glue from the flavor. The cup aroma after finishing the liquor was pure caramelized sugar, and I noted that I was starting to sweat.

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The third steeping was for three minutes, after which I got aromas of wet paper from the leaves. The liquor was a similar color to the second steeping, with a faint sandalwood aroma. The mouthfeel is the same round, rich feel, but there is an acidic note, almost like a tomatillo, on the taste. The liquor was starting to taste a bit papery, which is often a sign that the tea is about finished. The fourth steeping, for three and a half minutes, was the last. The liquor was lighter — a dark apricot color — and the leaf aroma was exhausted. Only the acidic notes seemed left to the flavor with a bit of woodiness.

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The spent leaves were surprisingly large. I actually took a photo after the second steeping, but was surprised by how much more they expanded over the next two steepings, so I had to photograph it again. I’m definitely going to have to explore more Taiwanese red tea cultivars.

NB: Tea was purchased by me and all thoughts are my own. Links may be affiliate links (affiliate links noted with an asterisk). If you’re interested in supporting the blog by using my affiliate links, you can find them here. If you’re interested in collaborating or providing tea for tasting, you can find my contact and collaboration information here.

Tuesday Tasting: Dragon Claw Oolong from Tea Runners

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This Dragon Claw Oolong tea was part of the free Pure Teas box I received last month from Tea Runners that I unboxed on my YouTube channel recently, and I’ve been curious to try it. I finally opened it (I have a plethora of oolong right now) and decided to give it a taste. This is a rolled Nepalese oolong that looks semi-oxidized and was harvested in Summer 2018.

I used 5 grams of tea in a 120-ml gaiwan with 87C water. The dry leaf is dark green-brown and rolled into loose spirals. I get an aroma of cream and roasted nuts from it. I did not rinse it, but instead went straight into steeping it.

The first steeping was for 20 seconds. The wet leaf aroma was roasty with an undertone of hazelnut liqueur. The liquor was reddish amber brown and smelled of amaretto. It had a smooth, milky mouthfeel and almost tasted like black tea with maple syrup and milk. It has a jammy and sweet fruity aftertaste, maybe like prunes. It also had a lingering flavor of roasted nuts. The second steeping was also for 20 seconds and yielded a slightly darker liquor with more roast aroma on the wet leaf and a fruity aroma on the liquor. It had a similar tea-with-milk flavor, with a hint of Frangelico.

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By the third steeping, also for 20 seconds, while the liquor was a similar color, I noticed the flavor becoming milder, with some tannin coming through. I left the fourth steeping for 45 seconds and for some cherry and firewood aromas from the wet leaves. The liquor had a lovely maple sweetness. The fifth steeping, also for 45 seconds, had lighter flavors and tasted of cherries, almonds, and tannin. By the sixth steeping, for a full minute, the tea seemed done.

The spent leaves were interesting, as they were quite narrow and small, despite being a whole-leaf tea. I’m used to oolongs have big fat leaves, but these were different from other oolong leaves I’ve examined. All in all, this was an intriguing oolong and makes me curious to try other non-black Nepalese teas.

NB: This tea was sent free of charge in exchange for my honest thoughts. All thoughts are my own. To learn more about the format of my tea tasting posts and why I switched from reviews to tastings, please read this post. For more information about collaborating with me, please read my collaboration information.

Tuesday Tasting: Two Black Teas from Georgian Tea Limited

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Recently, I saw a new company launch on Instagram, Georgian Tea Limited, which offers tea grown in the country of Georgia. I was first intrigued by Georgian teas when I saw Northern Teaist review some a little while ago, so I commented letting them know that I would be interested in trying some of their teas and they offered to send me “a few free samples.” What arrived was three 100-g bags of tea, one of each tea they offer, the Black Classic Tea, the Black Premium Tea, and the Green Premium Tea. Since it went back to feeling like winter this weekend, I decided to do a tasting of the Black Classic Tea, but as I was sipping it, I was really curious how it compared to the Black Premium Tea, so I decided to try that one, too.

Black Classic Tea

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I used 2g of leaf in a 120-ml gaiwan to taste this one, with 95C water. I steeped it once for three minutes and a second time for five minutes. The warm dry leaf had light aromas of dry hay. After the first steeping, the wet leaf smelled mildly tannic, with some malt and dark chocolate. Oddly enough, the first time I smelled this wet leaf, I thought that it smelled like the fancy version of Lipton’s tea, and my husband thought it smelled of lemon. The first steeping yielded a medium rosy-amber liquor that smelled similar to the wet leaf. The liquor has a bright citrusy flavor right up front, with a pleasantly light body and no astringent dryness. The website states that this tea has very mild tannins, and they’re not wrong. The aftertaste is lightly caramel-y and fruity, and it’s a very smooth cup of tea. I had tried this previously with milk and sugar, and I see now that that was a mistake. This is very much a straight-cup-of-tea daily drinker. There is a slight hint of sweetness to it.

The second infusion was similar in color with similar flavors and aromas, just slightly lighter. I decided to stop after two steepings. The wet leaf is interesting. These leaves are obviously much less broken than the Premium tea, and when they unfurl, they are narrow leaves with a shallow serration on the edges. I would be curious to learn more about the cultivars they use.

Black Premium Tea

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I know that among US tea aficionados, “premium” is synonymous with bigger, unbroken leaves, so I was surprised when I received my tea samples to feel through the packaging that the Premium tea seemed to be a smaller leaf size than the Classic. So I was curious how this translated to the flavor. I also used 2g of tea to a 120-ml gaiwan with 95C water, with two steepings, one for 3 minutes and one for five minutes. The leaf didn’t really smell like much, dry or wet, but the liquor it yielded was definitively darker, with a dark ruby-amber color. It had the same smooth and balanced flavor as the Classic, but with a burnt sugar sweetness and a fruitiness that was bolder on the tongue.

The second steeping brought forward the lemony flavor I got from the Classic, with a smooth, non-bitter, and slightly sweet taste. I didn’t take a picture of the wet leaves, but they didn’t really look much different from the dry leaf, just, well, wet.

I found these two teas extremely interesting and am likely to turn to them again as morning teas, as they are uncomplicated and invigorating, without needing much help from fussy brewing parameters or additives, making them perfect for rushed mornings and travel flasks on the train.

NB: These teas were sent to me free of charge in exchange for sharing my honest thoughts about them. To read my reasons for changing from tea reviews to tea tastings, read this post. For more information about collaborating with me, click here.

Tuesday Tasting: 2016 Little Mountain White Tea from Bitterleaf Teas

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I tasted this tea in my recent video, but since then, I’ve read others’ tasting notes and determined that I got some very different flavors from this one. So I decided to sit down and do a proper tasting, with my own house filtered water and after cleaning my tea ware with some baking soda to make sure there weren’t any old off flavors affecting things. The 2016 Little Mountains are a compressed Shou Mei white tea that I originally received in my anniversary sale order, but that I have since bought more just because I enjoyed them. I’m tasting it in my silver teapot because I tend to enjoy aged white teas more when I’m drinking them out of silver.

I used a 5.4-gram mini-cake in a 140-ml teapot with boiling water. I warmed the pot and then warmed the leaf. From the dry leaf, I got aromas of some sort of sweet baked good. After a rinse, I got aromas of sweetgrass from the wet leaf.

The first steeping, I let this go for a minute, as per Bitterleaf’s suggestion. The liquor was the color of Tokaji wine, a lovely mellow gold. The wet leaf had aromas of fresh, sweet alfalfa, though the liquor itself did not have a lot of aroma. The mouthfeel was thick — syrupy, but not oily — and I got a slightly fruity tartness from the liquor, kind of like a very fresh apricot that isn’t overly ripe. The aftertaste was caramel. Despite this sweetness, I still felt like the tea had an umami quality, almost like it feels sweet more than it actually tastes sweet.

The second steeping was for thirty seconds, and yielded a similarly-colored liquor with a similar leaf aroma as the first, though the liquor had taken on a honey aroma. The mouthfeel was smooth and lubricating, with flavors of almond blossom honey. The third steeping was also for thirty seconds, after which the leaf smelled of honey and fresh hay and the liquor was slightly darker and had the same syrupy texture. The flavor had gotten sweeter, with a flavor similar to chamomile. The fourth steeping, I bumped the time up to forty seconds and got a darker amber-gold liquor with a slightly smoky and herbal aroma from the leaves. It still had the same honey-sweetness.

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The fifth and sixth steepings were for forty-five seconds each and held steady in flavor and aroma. I went up on one minute for the seventh steeping and two minutes for the eighth steeping. By then, I felt like I once again was tasting alliums, perhaps some caramelized onion or leek. After that, I decided to finish by boiling the leaves in a cup of water for about ten minutes. This yielded a very dark infusion with a reddish-brown liquor and a strong flavor that had a bit of bite in the back of my throat. I would probably be less aggressive in the final boil, but all in all, I definitely get more of the sweetness that others have found, so perhaps it didn’t play well with the tap water in the Philadelphia suburbs. If anyone is in the Philly area and has tried this with their tap water, did you get honey or onion soup?

Tuesday Tasting: Kukitori from Hojicha.co

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Today’s Tuesday Tasting is a special one. Today, my favorite purveyor of roasted green tea, Hojicha.co, is releasing a new tea and I had the opportunity to try it so I can share my tasting notes with you. Their dark roast hojicha made my list of 2019 most memorable teas, so I was understandably excited to try a new one. This is their Kukitori, which means “stem bird” (thank you, Duolingo). The tea is their take on a kukicha, or twig tea, made from the stems of tencha, which is the type of tea that is grown to make matcha.

I used 4 grams of loose tea in a 120-ml kyusu pot, with 180F water. The dry “leaf” is twiggy, consisting of twigs of varying shades of brown, from light to dark, about 5 mm in length. After warming the leaves in the pot, I could get aromas of pipe tobacco and toasted sesame oil.

The first infusion was for thirty seconds, after which I could smell aromas of coffee on the wet leaves. The liquor was a rich chestnut brown color and smelled sweet and smoky, like a campfire. It had a rich, yet clean mouthfeel with flavors of maple and wood. There was an undertaste of toasted nuts, like pecans or hazelnuts, which persisted as an aftertaste.

I infused it again for thirty seconds. The leaf smelled of sandalwood incense. The liquor was the same rich shade of brown, with a sandalwood aroma. The flavor was sweeter and with more umami, with a mouthfeel similar to light soy sauce. It was very smooth and nutty, with that same hazelnut flavor and a subtle note of buckwheat honey, sweet and dark with a little acidity. I noticed a clear and meditative energy coming off this tea.

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The third infusion I let it go for forty-five seconds. My notes turn poetical at this point, with the note that the wet leaf smells of “chestnuts roasting on an open fire.” The liquor was slightly lighter in color, body, and aroma, and the flavor was subtler, too. I still got a light flavor of tobacco smoke and umami, but it was the kind of umami that turns into sweetness. After a fourth steeping, it was apparent that the tea was finished.

The wet leaf is not much to look at, just a darker color and, well, wetter, because it’s twigs and won’t unfurl like leaves do.

NB: Hojicha.co sent this tea to me free of charge for tasting. All thoughts are my own. If you’re interested in why I switched from reviews to tasting notes, read this post. If you’re interested in collaboration, click here.

Tuesday Tasting: Jasmine with Ceylon Leafy Green from Lumbini Tea Valley

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Continuing my tasting of the samples I got from Lumbini Tea Valley, I thought a little tasting of this Jasmine with Ceylon Leafy Green Tea would be a nice way to wind down the year. I saved it for now because jasmine can supposedly adversely affect breastmilk supply and now that Elliot is one year old, I don’t really have to worry about that as much as I did. And jasmine is one of my favorite scents and flavors.

I used 1.5 grams of tea in my 60-ml gaiwan with 180F water. The dry leaves have visible creamy off-white dried jasmine buds and petals, but are mostly some very large, twisted leaves. The leaf almost looks more like a green yancha than a young green tea. The warm, dry leaf has the scent of white florals, but I get lily and gardenia in addition to jasmine.

I tasted this tea without a rinse, steeping for one minute each time. After the first steeping, the jasmine aroma came out of the wet leaves more strongly, though I could still smell the other white florals, with a vegetal undertone. The pale green-gold liquor had a pronounced, but not overpowering, jasmine flavor, with a subtle umami quality and a rich, syrupy mouthfeel. There was a grassy brightness on the aftertaste.

The second steeping revealed a sweeter jasmine aroma that was more like orange blossom. The liquor was a slightly brighter and darker color. The flavor and body were richer, with the jasmine flavor fading and the vegetal and “tea-floral” flavors coming forward (i.e., the floral notes that I associate with the tea itself rather than the scenting). The third steeping was much the same, with the aroma and color holding steady and a slightly lighter flavor.

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On the fourth steeping, I noticed a bright acidity in the flavor, which was lighter, but still enjoyable. But by the fifth steeping, the tea was obviously done. The spent leaf unfurled into some very large leaves, again more like what I would expect in an oolong than a green tea. The leaves were either from some massive-leafed cultivar, or else were older than typical green tea leaves. I tend to think it was the later, since it had more complex flavors to meld with the jasmine, rather than the grassy notes I associate with very young green leaves.

NB: This tea was sent to me in exchange for featuring. All thoughts are my own. If you are interested in contacting me for a collaboration or featured sample, please read my collaboration information.