Tea Leaves Are Not All Created Equal
There's tea and then there is TEA.
Multiple tasting of various harvest and vintage teas from different sources can be quite an education. I drink tea about 4 hours a day, in the morning and in the late afternoon are the norm, and occasionally another client will come in smack in the middle of those preferred tea drinking times, and I'm at the tea table for 6 or more hours getting to know my leaves intimately.
It helps to be a chef with a discerning palate, because let's face it, there's a lot of mediocre stuff out there. In my teas I like a rich, balanced, robust flavor that will give me multiple steeps, allowing for a journey to occur so I can ride its energy all the way to the end and beyond. There's something truly wonderful about being tickled that way and feeling great calm yet alert throughout the day.
I do tastings with both wholesale and retails clients, and they couldn't be more different. The fun thing about wholesale clients is that they know what they want and they'll call ahead and say "I need this and that." They tend to be very particular, wanting to know which plot the leaves came from, grown at which elevation and the age of the tree. We get into specifics. It's both challenging and interesting to say the least. All of the sudden I am transported and my tea room feels like it is tucked away in the back of some dark warehouse building in some remote location. A sort of a speakeasy for opinionated tea professionals who come to deconstruct the leaves.
Chefs will also knock on my doors, wanting to up their game. They're wholesale and retail clients rolled into one. They know what they're looking for, but they can't always put their finger on it. So I start talking about wine and all of the sudden they have a way to express themselves. Tea is not so different from wine. Growing conditions, provenance, harvesting and production techniques, and storage all play an important role in the leaves we steep.
Retail clients come for a different reason. They're curious, wanting to taste all sorts of things and generally they don't really know where to start. Who can blame them! There's a lot out there and it's easy to get confused. So while wholesale clients will often determine how a tasting goes, I guide retail clients from beginning to end creating an enjoyable, educational eye-opening experience. And all of the sudden my tea room no longer feels like a secret location tucked away in the back of a strange building, but rather like a humble, quaint yet elegant tea house you might see on a Chinese water painting. And I love both the speakeasy and the quaint tea house feel.
This morning's tasting takes me to Fujian, China, a world heritage site that produces some of China's most sought after teas. Fujian is home to the famous Wuyi mountain "rock tea." Its oolongs are full of minerals, nutty, spicy, honey like notes. They are some of my favorite teas in the world, especially Rou Gui, but even when focusing on this single tea, it can be an involved process. A tea that is roasted twice or more will give you very different results in taste, mouthfeel and color. And then there is competition grade, generally from a smaller plot with older trees, the energy of the tea more balanced and smooth, like a fine cognac. Something that will blow your mind. It's not necessarily that one is better than the other, but that they have distinct differences to which you will react differently. There are great wines out there, some are $20 a bottle and others are $125 a bottle. The tea world works the same way. The $35 tea is absolutely solid and delicious and will keep on giving, but the smaller production, higher elevation, older and wiser tree can produce a $75 tea that is like a fine diamond. Then again the most expensive is not always the best, and each harvest will produce a different tea. Add your personal preference in the mix, and it reinforces the need to taste before investing.