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.

Most Memorable Teas of 2019

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Marco at Steap’d has challenged us all to share our most memorable teas of 2019 and, thinking back, I can think of so many right off the top of my head (which I suppose is what makes them “memorable”). 2019 brought a lot of tea growth for me, so I think this merits a blog post rather than a series of Instagram posts. So here we go.

First of all, my most memorable tea moments of 2019 had nothing to do with specific teas. 2019 was the year that I really started to connect with the tea community at large, particularly through Instagram. I think having a long chunk of time at home on maternity leave helped, as did just feeling my own personal identity get dismantled and rebuilt through the ordeal of motherhood (ordeal in the “transformative event” sense, not in the “it’s so horrible” sense). 2019 was the year that I realized that, yes, I am a tea blogger. I may have pretended to be a beauty blogger in the past, but my true passion lies in what I pour into my face, not on it. And part of that self-definition came from meeting wonderful people, virtually and otherwise, like Marco and Nazanin and all the others I’ve met on social media. I hope that 2020 will bring more tea meetups, as well as some exciting tea adventures, some of which are already being planned.

Now, I want to say that these are not reviews or even tasting notes of the teas I’m mentioning. This is strictly Jenn’s story time about the teas that have stood out to her this year and why they might have felt more special. If I have a tasting or video featuring them, I will link it, but the primary purpose of this post is to be utter fluff and nostalgia.

Hojicha.Co Dark Roast Hojicha

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This one comes first because this was the tea that not only re-introduced me to hojicha, but also started me realizing that I love roasted teas. I think it was the day that Hojicha.co announced that they were selling their hojicha powder in 100g packets that I went to their site and bought one of everything. I started with the Gold Roast because it seemed more appropriate to the season, and it was good, but as the weather cooled down, I decided to crack open the dark roast. And, wow.

I featured this hojicha in my “Hobbits and Hojicha” video because it is the perfect tea for autumn. It reminds me of cozy blankets and fires in the fireplace, and I imagine I’m going to drink it throughout the winter as well. And Megan from Tea Musings has suggested that I try mixing the Dark Roast and the Gold Roast, which is something I’m excited to try as soon as I restock my Dark Roast.

Lapsang Souchong

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Not all memories are fond ones, and I think the face I made when I tasted a smoked Lapsang in this video should make the list. While this year was the year that I discovered I liked roasted teas, this was also the year that I confirmed that I dislike smoked teas. I did have a rather nice unsmoked Lapsang, which was akin to finding out I enjoy unoaked Chardonnay, but the real memorable taste is the utter regret I felt at brewing up a cup of the tarry stuff. Definitely not my cup of tea.

Storm King Tea Full-Leaf Phugri Estate Darjeeling

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When I was chatting with Mark of Storm King Teas on Instagram, it came up that I was rather enjoying the Phugri Estate Darjeeling I got in a sampler from his company earlier this year. I featured this tea in my historical tea video about Anna Russell, Duchess of Bedford simply because I love its delicacy and complexity so much. I never drank very much Darjeeling before this year and both this tea and the regular Phugri Estate Darjeeling from Mark’s shop changed that for me.

Old Ways Tea Shui Jin Gui

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This was the year that I discovered yancha in earnest. While I’ve had yancha before, I hadn’t really explored it as a style before this year. And I definitely fell in love. I started with an order from Old Ways Tea, and initially opened the Shui Xians and Rou Gui I ordered because the notes on the Shui Jin Gui suggested that the roast was still a bit fresh and might do with a bit of a sit.

Well, in an Instagram live session, Marco mentioned that he had a Shui Jin Gui that tasted like orange, so I decided to make that my morning yancha session that day, and I was blown away. Yancha in general is a new favorite for me, and Shui Jin Gui is probably my second favorite yancha now. I get notes of allspice, orange peel, and burnt sugar, so I think it tastes like Christmas. In fact, I woke up on Christmas morning and had a session with this tea under the Christmas tree!

Floating Leaves Tea Taiwan Da Hong Pao

Speaking of yancha, this was the year that I decided my favorite tea is Da Hong Pao. Of course, I’d had it before, but this was the year I really decided it was my favorite tea, out of all the lovely teas I enjoy. And this Taiwan Da Hong Pao from Floating Leaves Tea (which is in the photo at the top of this post) was instrumental in that discovery about myself.

This tea is both unmistakably Da Hong Pao, and also unmistakably Taiwanese. It doesn’t have as much strong rock taste as the Chinese Da Hong Paos I’ve tried this year, but from the rinse, you get Da Hong Pao from the aroma. And it does take a little bit to get going in flavor because it’s rolled, but once it does, it’s definitely Da Hong Pao, but with the soft honey sweetness that I associate with Taiwanese oolongs.

Naoki Matcha 2019 Chiran Harvest

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I severely reduced my matcha consumption this year, possibly because I just preferred the experience of brewing leaves. But this matcha from Naoki Matcha was enlightening. As I mentioned in my video tasting, it’s probably the nicest matcha I’ve tried to date. I was fortunate enough to get to taste it for free, after responding to a call for tasters in Naoki’s newsletter, but I was pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t actually as expensive as I thought it would be.

If you’re new to matcha, this is an easily-accessible one in the States and it’s a fantastic example of what good matcha tastes like. If you have the means, definitely splash out for it, rather than getting one of the swamp-water matchas on Amazon like I started with.

Yunnan Sourcing 2011 Mengku Grade 3 Ripe Puerh Mini Tuo Cha

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This was also the year that I decided to buckle down and learn a little something about puerh. And this ripe puerh sample from Yunnan Sourcing was both the beginning of my exploration and the beginning of my switch from reviewing teas to sharing tasting notes.

Before tasting this puerh, I hadn’t really ever had a puerh that really tasted sweet more than earthy, but this one showed me the variation in flavor in a good ripe puerh. I’ve spent the rest of the year exploring raw puerh mostly, but puerh in general is likely to be a theme of my 2020 if I find more like this.

TeaVivre Shou Mei Cake in my Silver Teapot

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This isn’t really the specific tea, but more a technique that was suggested to me by Misha at Path of Cha. I bought this Shou Mei cake from TeaVivre rather on a whim when I was exploring teas that I could get on Amazon, and I was rather underwhelmed by it. So it got tucked in the back of my tea cabinet, and later packed in a box, and then unpacked and rediscovered when I moved this year. But it wasn’t until Misha suggested trying it in silver that I even opened it back up again.

And I was really surprised by the complexities of flavor. I even experimented with boiling it. It’s such an all-seasons tea, with a lot of interest. I think I’ll probably share this one the next time I have people over to taste teas. Plus, it’s an example of giving a “meh” tea a second chance.

So those are my 2019 most memorable teas. What are yours?

NB: Some of these teas were provided as gifts or in exchange for featuring in their own posts. All thoughts here are my own, and full disclosures will be with the tea’s individual posts.

Tuesday Tasting: Tea Tasting versus Tea Reviewing, plus Yunnan Sourcing Mengku Grade 3 Ripe Puerh mini tuo cha

Reviews are a cornerstone of many blogging universes, and this blog hasn’t been very different. Some of my most popular posts are reviews (mostly of beauty products), and recently, a large portion of my posts have been tea reviews. But lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of “reviewing” something like tea, which is so beholden to the reviewer’s personal tastes.

That said, of course I’m going to keep sharing my thoughts on teas I’m tasting. Have no fear. But I think I shall structure my thoughts as tea tastings rather than tea reviews. It may seem a silly distinction, but here is my rationale: flavors that I enjoy, you might not, and vice versa. I think my video on the immensely popular Lapsang Souchong is proof enough of that. So rather than “review” teas that come my way, either as gifts or my own purchases, I shall sit down and do a long tasting session, taking careful notes, so that I can share the impressions I get of the flavors and aromas I get from the tea. Hopefully, that way, it will provide some benefit beyond just “I liked this tea” or “I didn’t like this tea.” And it means that there’s no such thing as a positive or negative review. Just a tasting.

For now, I’m going to be very ambitious and try to do a tasting every Tuesday. And occasionally, I may also post about some topics relevant to tea tasting. I will say, this is my way of becoming more serious about my tea, without taking a formal class, so you should know that I merely have a lot of feelings about tea, rather than any real training. I take my descriptions from my experiences with perfumes, wine, cooking, and other hobbies of mine.

So if you are interested in knowing details of my tasting notes, stay tuned. And if you happen to sell tea and wish to offer up a tea for tasting, let me know through the contact form.

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Today’s tasting is of the 2011 Mengku Grade 3 Ripe Puer mini tuo cha I received as a free sample in one of my recent orders from Yunnan Sourcing. While the tea was provided free of charge, it was a normal sample-with-purchase rather than one provided for promotional reasons.

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I used one 4.7-gram tuo cha in a 120-ml gaiwan with boiling filtered water. I rinsed the tea, and then steeped this eight times, starting at 10 seconds and increasing by five seconds for each steeping, and then finished with a ninth steeping for one minute.

The dry tuo cha is quite compact, with a very subtle earthy scent after being warmed in the gaiwan. Upon rinsing, the leaves released a light aroma of wet earth.

After the first steeping, the gaiwan lid held the light aroma of petrichor and damp earth and the wet leaf itself smelled more strongly of earth. The liquor smelled of mushrooms and was a surprisingly light rosy amber color. The flavor of the first steeping was surprisingly sweet, with notes of Biscoff, brown sugar, and maple syrup.

The second steeping brought out a slightly darker color, like Grade B maple syrup. The wet leaf smelled of forest floor while the gaiwan lid brought out a sweeter woody aroma that took me some time to place. I believe I eventually settled on some sort of aromatic wood or liquorice root. The mouthfeel was noticeably creamy, with a little less sweetness and more fruit. It had jammy apricot notes and custard, so I noted a flavor of apricot tart.

During the third steeping, I was still trying to place the lid aroma. The liquor was much darker and started developing that rich, dark earthy flavor that I associate with ripe puer, though it still had some sweetness. By the fourth steeping, I had placed that the lid aroma was some sort of sweetly aromatic wood, though not spicy like sandalwood. I also noted that the tuo cha had started to noticeably come apart. The sweetness of the liquor had died down a bit, but it paradoxically retained a very smooth chocolatey flavor, almost like milk chocolate without sweetness, or perhaps like Crio Bru brewed cacao.

By the fifth steeping, I was starting to notice a bit of warmth in my body and was feeling rather good. Despite drinking on an empty stomach first thing in the morning, I had no stomach upset. The fifth steeping was the deep, dark color that I associate with ripe puer — almost like coffee — and the aromas were all sweet woods and earth, with some mulchiness in the wet leaf itself. I, very poetically, wrote that the liquor “tastes like the forest on a rainy day.” I then went on to wonder if there was such a thing as “poetic cha qi” and noted that I feel like lounging around like a cat. It had a very substantial, chocolatey mouthfeel and the tuo cha had completely come apart.

The sixth steeping had the same earthy aromas and dark liquor, though the flavors were somewhat muted. The color of the liquor had started to fade again at the seventh infusion, but still had strong earthy aromas and the leaf almost smelled of firewood. The flavors brought forward minerals — iron and salt. The eighth steeping looked very similar to the second steeping, with a little return of that woody sweetness. It was here that I identified liquorice root in the flavor. By the ninth steeping, I decided it was pretty much done, though with some pleasant lingering sweetness.

Upon examining the spent leaf, I noticed a fair amount of sticks. The overall mass of leaf was very dark, with little color variation.

Tea Review: Craftedleaf Teas

NB: This sample set was sent to me for the cost of shipping for review, but all opinions are my own.

Recently, someone from Craftedleaf Teas got in touch with me and offered me a chance to try some of their teas for just the cost of shipping. Honestly, I was on the fence about getting more review samples, but I’d seen a few other friends on Instagram raving about their Bilochun and I was intrigued by their Lapsang Souchong, so I accepted. If you follow me on Instagram, you’ve seen me tasting them over the last few weeks, and you may have caught my recent video where I tasted one of their teas, but I thought I should organize my complete thoughts into a longer-form review here.

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First of all, their website is rather gorgeous, and relatively easy to navigate. Every listing gives the full information for the tea, along with instructions for brewing gongfu style and Western style, which is nice, particularly if you’re like me and lose the little packet of instructions that were included in the box! It’s nice because the instructions are obviously tailored to each tea, rather than just giving the same instructions for everything.

I received the Fullhouse Sample Set, which retails for $23 and includes 10 grams each of six different teas, two oolongs, a green, a white, a raw pu’er, and a black. Shipping from Hong Kong to the US was $8, and it arrived twelve calendar days after I placed the order. They also included a 5-gram sample of another dark tea. Looking at the prices, Craftedleaf tea is not as inexpensive as a place like Yunnan Sourcing, but they’re not outrageously expensive, especially for quality tea. Plus, the extra information on the website and the sense of curation suggests a higher-touch experience. Interestingly enough, the founders of the company both come from the two regions of China that lay claim to the origins of gongfu brewing. I particularly appreciate that they are able to use language on their site to express their careful curation, without resorting to calling themselves “luxury.”

When my tea arrived (much sooner than I expected), I broke into the box almost immediately. The seven sleek, white envelopes were carefully packed along with a little book of paper slips containing the information and brewing parameters suggested for each tea. While I jumped on the Bilochun right away, it didn’t take me long to try every tea, sometimes brewing more than one per day (something I haven’t done since before I got pregnant last year). I’ve now tasted all the teas at least once, and some more than that.

Tasting Notes:

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Spring 2019 Dong Ting Lake Bilochun: Because this was the first tea I tasted, I tasted it three ways. I first brewed it gongfu style, using 5g, as suggested; then, I tried it Western style with 3g; finally, I brewed it grandpa-style, by simply putting the remaining 2g into a mug and sipping on it throughout the day. This is a remarkably delicate tea, with a sweet fragrance and mild liquor. It doesn’t get bitter or unpleasant, even brewed for a long time. And I was able to re-steep it even when I brewed it Western style.

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2017 Ba Da Shan Wild Tree Raw Puerh: This tea, I steeped using Marco’s ten-step tasting process that I outlined in my last video. It is a remarkably well-balanced tea, with the aromatic complexity I expect from a sheng, but without the bitterness you might fear from one so young. And, wow, I got some serious energy off this one, even after just one steeping.

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Spring 2019 Wuyi Golden Horse Eyebrow: This was the extra sample that was included in my order and I’m so glad they included it. This was an absolutely fascinating tea. The damp leaves after the first steeping smelled of rich, black pumpernickel bread, and the tea itself had that flavor at first. But then, over later steepings, the most glorious sweet rose scent and flavor came through. Of all the teas I received, this is probably the most likely that I would buy for myself (once I’ve gone through my stash!).

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Spring 2019 Song Dynasty Old Bush Milan Dancong Oolong: This was the most disappointing of the bunch. Despite the description, I found the roast on this to be too heavy. I love Phoenix Oolongs and I was sad that the roast seemed to obscure a lot of the honey and orchid flavors, to my tastes. But it was still enjoyable, especially if you like a smokier tea.

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Spring 2019 Golden Tip Lapsang Souchong: This was the one that both excited me and worried me. My only experience with Lapsang has been the smoked Western-style variety and I am not a fan. I felt a little thrill of contrary joy when a tea sommelier on a podcast I listened to recently called it “bro tea” because I felt somewhat vindicated. But I know that Lapsang, as a category, is well-loved, even among tea connoisseurs. So I was eager to try this one. And it did not disappoint. It has a pronounced caramel sweetness and a rich body, but with bitter notes more akin to really good chocolate than an astringent tea. I even got a bit of pine aroma from the leaves after the last couple of steepings. And I got a bit of energy off it.

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Spring 2019 Organic Wild Baimudan: I may have come to a realization — I don’t think I actually like Baimudan. Now, what does this have to do with this tea? Well, this is probably the most enjoyable Baimudan I’ve ever had. It was a balance of flowers and hay, without too many off flavors, and a pleasant thickness in the mouth without being cloying or syrupy. And yet, I personally found it only okay. But my conclusion is that if I didn’t like this Baimudan, I probably just don’t prefer the tea as a type, because this was a good Baimudan.

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Spring 2019 Premium Anxi Tieguanyin: Tieguanyin is one of my favorite teas, which is why it is odd that I saved this one for last. Perhaps I didn’t want to color my opinion of the rest of the samples if this one turned out to be disappointing. Well, I needn’t have worried. This is an exemplary TGY. It has an unctuous, creamy liquor with a fragrant floral aroma and flavor, the creaminess punctuated by a citrus brightness that is really quite enjoyable. And look at those leaves! They’re huge, and hardly a stem among them.

So those are my honest thoughts on the Fullhouse Sample Set. One thing that struck me throughout my tastings was that every tea seemed very thoughtfully selected. They all had complexity and interest, even those that weren’t my favorites. I’m glad that I had the opportunity to investigate this company that I might not have otherwise found.