A tasting like this doesn't just to teach you about a tea; it's a ritual, an almost meditative experience.
The tasting cups, in the foreground, hold about one ounce of water. Behind them, to the right, is the gaiwan, the lidded bowl used to brew whole leaf tea. To the left is a decanter, also known as a "fairness cup," which ensures that each serving receives a brew of the same strength.
Warming the gaiwan
An electric kettle sits next to the brewer and keeps filtered water just below a boil. Before any tea is brewed, the gaiwan is heated with boiling water so the temperature stays more consistent during the actual brewing.
Warming the fairness cup
The fairness cup is warmed with the same boiling water. Sure, you could just heat it simultaneously from the kettle, but part of the ritual is the linear passing of water from vessel to vessel. It's a pattern repeated throughout the brewing.
The tea drinker's spit bowl
Okay, so we don't spit like you would at a wine tasting. But it is handy to have a garbage bowl to dump excess water and tea dregs.
Start with lighter teas
Like with wine tasting, it's best to start light and finish dark. This tea is a high mountain oolong from Cedar Creek in southern Taiwan. It's a light oolong, with strong floral notes and a crisp, almost vegetal bite.
High mountain oolongs are some of the finest teas in the world. They come from a few select regions of Taiwan where the misty air and drastic temperature fluctuations are ideal for creating light, abundantly aromatic teas with strong floral, fruity, and woodland flavors.
All oolongs are partially oxidized. Some, like this light variety, are pretty close to green tea. More heavily oxidized varieties carry deeper flavors more like black tea or coffee.
Passing the tea
The tea is passed around the table for both appreciation and evaluation. Tasters sniff to get an initial impression of the aroma and examine the leaves to see if they're evenly rolled, which makes for a better cup of tea.
Filling the gaiwan
A tea rake transfers the tea to the gaiwan, which is generously filled with tea. Unrolled leaves, which aren't as compact, may fill a gaiwan halfway.
Waking up the tea
The tea is rinsed with boiling water for just a second or two before decanting into the fairness cup, which is then poured into the tasting cups.
Rinsing does a few things at once: it washes away dust and opens up the leaves so the real first steeping extracts better flavor. This rinse is discarded, but the leaves have plenty of life in them yet.
Sniffing the fairness cup
After the rinse is discarded, the fairness cup is passed around to smell the tea in bloom. Before you've even tasted the tea, you've smelled it at two different stages.
Finally, a cup of tea
After all that, you finally get a cup of tea, to be downed in two or three sips. First steepings are often more about revealing aroma than deep flavor or body. In the case of a high mountain oolong, this first sip is as close as most of us will come to standing on a mountaintop and drawing a deep breath of misty air.
The second and third steepings reveal much more about the tea's character. Since this is a lightly oxidized, unroasted tea, its flavor is almost vegetal with a naturally green sweetness. The fourth and fifth steepings emphasize the finish, which are exceptionally smooth in high mountain oolongs.
Expanding tea leaves
Hand-rolled teas expand to several times their original volume, which is why the original rinse is important to "bloom" the tea's flavors.
Feeling the leaves
When you finish tasting the tea and its leaves are spent, the tea master may dump the leaves on a plate and pass them around. Feeling the leaves by hand offers one last chance to appreciate the tea.
Charcoal-Roasted Lishan Oolong
The second tea we tasted was a more oxidized and slightly roasted—though still light— high mountain oolong. More mature, fruity flavors came through in this gorgeous, almost juicy tea. We picked up accents of ripe peach skin and black walnut. Latter steepings revealed flavors not unlike toasted barley.
Tieguanyin is one of China's most prized teas, an boasts one of the coolest names, which translates to "Iron Goddess of Mercy." Traditionally it's deeply roasted to coax out deep brothiness from the leaves and a ferrous intensity that tickles the sides of your mouth, but over the past couple decades the Chinese market has moved toward unroasted versions.
Our tea seller explained the shift: roasting is time-consuming, expensive, and difficult to get right. Screw it up and you've ruined an entire batch of tea. Selling unroasted is a safer bet. Over time, tea drinkers have become more accustomed to to the taste of unroasted tieguanyin, and the roasted version is harder to come by.
Da Hong Pao
To bring us down from our high mountain oolong high (seriously, you do feel a little high after drinking a high mountain oolong or two, and not just because of the caffeine), our tea seller offered one of my favorite teas, dahongpao. It's a famous dark oolong that grows in rocky cliffs and mineral-rich soil, a whole different environment from more delicate high mountain teas. It's also heavily roasted.
In subsequent steepings, Da Hong Pao will taste briny, sweet and caramelized, or malted. In other words, it's the single malt Scotch of tea.