02 November 2008

My Tea language - tea leaf terms

Different types of puerh tea - one from a broken-up cake, one from an old tea tree
I take a "live and let live" philosophy to tea. Although it can be hard to find the good in all teas, I can usually find something nice to say, like "at least that jasmine green tea was green. . .ish." In short, I appreciate that there are many ways to enjoy tea, and to each their own.

Chinese phrases that I commonly use to describe tea include:

-Hui Gan - the delightful occurrence of returning sweetness (usually starting in the throat) after drinking a nice oolong tea
-Hui Wei - the aftertaste - should be clean and not astringent
-Se - astringency of the tea as sensed by the tongue. Generally not a good thing to have
-Huo Qi - a phrase that I use to describe the "fire energy" of a roasted tea. You'll find that I like to talk about the energy of tea. If it doesn't make sense, don't fret, I might be tea crazy

Describing fine oolongs with English words is not so easy. With the lack of descriptive translations in English, many tea lovers turn to using wine terms. There are some similarities between tea and wine. They can both be expensive, they're both liquids, they have legions of lovers, and they can be delicious.

I'm not upset by or critical of people that use terms like tea sommelier or tea liquor. However, these are misnomers, as the term sommelier doesn't apply to tea and tea is not a liquor. It's my hope that tea will stand apart on its own and have its own vocabulary of interesting terms.

I'd like to use this post to describe some common English phrases that I'll be using when I talk about the stuff we love. Many terms and their definitions are wholly of my own creation; I don't intend to be a "Dictionary" of tea terms. I support people using terms to describe the tea experience that they feel make sense to them, so if someone tells me that my aged puerh cake takes like mud, that's completely fine. If there's a term that I use that doesn't make sense or doesn't sit well with you, don't sweat it, you're welcome to think of a descriptor that you find more appropriate - please do share though!

To keep this post to a suitable size, I'll be talking about my common tea terms for the leaves. In the next installment, I'll talk more about the tea tasting experience. While I do borrow terms from the appreciation of food/wine/gadgets/beautiful people, I try not to use words that I feel inaccurately describe tea, such as "tea liquor." In describing the taste of teas, my descriptions can be strange, like "goat-milky" or "soapy." If you're curious about what such sensations are really like, come have tea with me. If after that you still don't quite get it, please refer to my following disclosure:

"Rich drinks a lot of tea. All opinions expressed in this blog are his own, and if they make no sense to you at times, don't worry about it, he probably just had too much tea and his head is in the clouds."

And now for some of my terms:

-The complete set: Refers to a high mountain tea with a bud and 2 or 3 leaves that appear to be hand-picked. One of several indicators that the tea is of a higher quality.

-Red-trimmed: Many varieties of Taiwanese high mountain tea, such as Lishan and Shanlinxi, have nice, green leaves that have a slight reddish tint to its edge. This is a sign of good oxidization in these types of teas. However, some great teas do not have this; it's again, just one indicator of the tea's quality.

-Whole: The tea is intact and resembles a leaf. Many lower-quality teas are picked using less-skilled laborers or machines, both of which may break apart the leaves as they collect them.

-Stemmy: Too much stem can be a sign of a lower-grade tea or poor picking. Stems have a different flavor than leaves and I have seen oolong farmers pick out the stems of their product before tea competitions. Stem-only tea is pleasant in its own way.

-Good color: Fresh, lightly-roasted oolongs should be quite green. I've found that some inferior grades of oolongs have substantial yellowing, spotted leaves, or appear grayish. Off-colors can be indicative of an inferior product, or just one that's not so fresh anymore. Medium to heavily-roasted oolongs are tan in color, and the tea they brew is also quite a bit darker. There are exceptions, though, like Oriental Beauty/Bai Hao.

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