When you think of connoisseurship, what comes to mind? Wine, almost certainly, leaps to the front of consciousness. Perhaps this is for good reason, as the sommelier has been associated with fine wine since shortly after the French Revolution, when fine restaurants began to emerge.
What else, did fine cheese come to mind? Or, more relevant to modern world culture trends, beer and coffee? And yet, where is tea in the discussion? The west loves its wine, cheese, coffee and beer, but the appreciation of fine tea has largely stopped at Twinings and Teavana.
A connoisseur, or more precisely, a gastronomic connoisseur, is someone with great knowledge about a food item. Connoisseurs have passion to pursue understanding of their item of choice. He or she continually tastes with mental effort, in hopes to pull flavor notes, aroma and mouthfeel out of the item. Is tea not worthy of such connoisseurship? Is tea too one dimensional that such analysis would produce nothing intriguing or worthy of discussion?
I propose and have experienced that such claims are patently false. The world of tea is vast, with flavors ranging from oak and fallen autumn leaves, to aromatic lilac and apricot. Tea has processing methods ranging from simple picking and drying, to fermentation and aging for over 30 years. Tea has growing areas from 2400 M on the top of Da Yu Ling mountain in Taiwan to cliffsides in the Wuyi mountain area of Fujian, China. Each of these factors produces a profound difference in the cup of tea and creates an endless world for the connoisseur to explore.
There are five main types of tea (with a quasi-6th in the form of yellow tea), and yet, most of the western world is only aware of black and green teas. Each type of tea has great complexity, offering interesting flavor notes found simply in the unadulterated leaf. Most people have never learned to experience the subtlety, the sweetness, and the flowery character of white tea; the great diversity of oolong tea; or even the deep earthiness of post-fermented tea. Certainly, one will taste blueberry in a tea with dried blueberries in it, but isn’t it more interesting to find blueberry notes unexpectedly in the extract of tea leaves? Each of these types of tea has enough interesting diversity to be worthy of effortful pursuit across a lifetime.
Take pu’er tea. Pu’er comes solely from Yunnan province in China and uses a single cultivar (Da Ye); thus, it represents just a sliver of global tea diversity. All pu’er is processed into maocha, which is similar to green tea. After this, it is either inoculated with local microbes, steamed, pressed and slowly aged (becoming sheng pu’er), or it is fermented in piles within factories (becoming shou pu’er). Not only does each mountain and growing region provide interesting terroir (the flavor of the region) to taste in the tea, but the introduction of local microbes unique to the area adds to the great complexity of pu’er tea. Certainly, Ai Lao mountain pu’er will taste different from Yiwu mountain pu’er, both because of the unique soil and because of the microbes found in the region. Additionally, Ai Lao sheng pu’er from 2004 will taste quite different from Ai Lao sheng pu’er from 2012 due to the effects of aging. Couple this with the changes in weather and processing from year to year and you can easily be overwhelmed by the diversity of just pu’er tea. Realize that there is more to post-fermented tea than pu’er, then, extrapolate this diversity found in post-fermented tea to the other 4 types of tea, and your head will spin trying to comprehend the world of tea.
As a result of its great diversity, tea demands connoisseurship. I invite you to join me in the pursuit and appreciation of great tea. Go beyond the supermarket shelves to find the best that China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, and countless other countries have to offer. Find out why tea from Ali Shan mountain tastes different when compared to tea from Li Shan mountain. Look into the four renowned types of tea from Wuyi mountain. Taste the flavor of a single tree with Dan Cong tea. Be a tea connoisseur.
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