On Tasting Tea

單叢: I like your haircut! 單樅: Thanks, I just got it today!

I’ve gotten a few questions on how I taste tea, specifically how to pinpoint the flavours of a tea. I think like lots of people, I sourced a bunch of information from veteran tea drinkers, tea masters, took notes and decided to put them to the test. Some methods I agreed with, some didn’t work for me.

Although my findings have allowed me to find the flavours to the point I can distinguish the aromatics from what hits the tongue, this is only one aspect of tasting tea through the discipline of 功夫茶 [gongfu cha/gung1 fu1 caa4] and beyond. The other aspect I want to draw attention to is the feeling of a tea because not only is it considered one of the most important aspects of tea tasting (功夫茶 emphasises this a lot), but it also appears to be a bit vague due to the many translations.

Is it feeling in the physical sensations such as the viscosity, the mouth-feel and the lingering aftertaste in the forms of astringency and 回甘 [hui gan/wui4 gam1] or ‘the return of sweetness’? Or is it feeling in the metaphysical sense such as the emotional sensations one experiences when drinking. Some may recognise this variation in the form of 茶氣 [cha qi/caa4 hei3] or ‘the breath of tea’. For those who like Uncle Roger videos, you may recognise 氣 in 鑊氣 [huo qi/wok6 hei3] which he has affectionally calls ‘the breath of wok’. Based on this connection through 氣, I wonder if one can sense both the 茶氣 and 鑊氣 in some teas such as Chinese green teas which depending on the variety, often undergo 殺青 [sha qing/saat3 ceng1] or ‘kill-green’ via a 鑊 <see reference 1>. If so, I wonder if that’s among one of the reasons why some Chinese green teas are considered to be very energising. Maybe that’s a bit of a reach.

Wait, hang on a second: 茶氣 is not metaphysical! That’s the response I imagine I’d get at this point. But if we look at how 茶氣 is interpreted in practise and recorded (at least in the English language, my Chinese ain’t good enough for Chinese texts), there appears to be variation such as having a spiritual connection to the tea <see reference 2>, feeling the energy of the tea <see reference 3> or as a way of connecting to one’s inner self <see reference 4>. The encounters with 茶氣 tend to be personal, with teaheads coming to understand 茶氣 in relation to oneself and the tea. Even if we look at the Chinese characters themselves, there are similar transformations taking place. 氣 can mean ‘air’, particularly if you look at the radical 气 (Avatar anyone) which in turn, could also though uncommonly translated as ‘vapour’. Some of you may recognise 气 via Simplified Chinese. For those versed in Chinese martial arts and medicine, 氣 can be translated as ‘spirit’ or ‘energy’ respectively, or even ‘life energy’ <see reference 3> which is often used to describe the energy within all things. This means 茶氣 may also be translated as ‘tea energy’. Perhaps this is due to the second radical, 米 [mi/mai5] which is often translated as a grain with a outer shell whether that’d be rice, mullet or corn, etc. There is also another component within 米, 木 [mu/muk6] which is often translated as ‘tree’.

So for the structure of 氣, there is indeed life energy within and beyond the shells of nature but let’s not forget our dear friend 茶 since 氣 is situated within this context. Through the radical 艹 [cao/cou2], better known through 草 we have ‘grass’ but there is also the radical 人 [ren/jan4] which can be translated as ‘man’, ‘people’ and ‘humanity’. Through the final radical 朩 [deng] which is often translated as a ‘rank’ but it can also be interpreted as 木. Based on the radicals of 茶, it seems (at least to me) this particular 氣 only manifests when tea comes in contact with humans – quite literally perhaps through the picking, processing, preparation and consumption of tea. But also mentally too as we call upon what we understand when we’re trying to make the best tea with what we’ve got. With all these possible meanings (there’s probably more) deriving from 茶氣, there are many ways to interpreting the meaning behind ‘the breath of tea’ or however you read these characters. So as far as language is concerned, 茶氣 is a metaphysical experience.

For those who can read Chinese, I’m sorry you had to go through all that. For those who can’t: these words will be on a test at an unforeseen date! But linguistics aside, what relevance does this have with tasting tea? It’s not like everyone’s thinking of radicals every time they pop the kettle on.

I focused particularly on 茶氣 because as of now, my tasting notes show that while I’m able to bring out flavours of a tea, I’m pretty bad at pinpointing the feelings that can come about within a tea – especially when it comes to 茶氣 which has only ever really mentioned once or twice. I also imagine that this may also be a challenge for others too. Although I don’t have a specific method or technique for tea tasting, I do believe we can better comprehend things like flavour based on how we interact with tea as 茶氣 suggests. Does it suggest we focus on the ‘air’ which is perhaps expressed in aromatics? Or do we look to the internal ‘energy’ of tea, the one beyond the ‘shell’? In the context of tea, this perhaps best comes across into the flavours of a tea including the bitterness. Do we look to the ‘energy’ it gives us? Or, do we look to ‘people’ as in understanding the producers of the tea but also ourselves as people and how we brew it? At least for me based on the readings of 茶氣 I gave above, they all have a factor in experiencing 茶氣.

But hang on, it’s not like we can just literally jet set off to a farm and watch people make tea from start to finish (maybe some of you can). Also, does this mean 茶氣 is the aim for tasting tea, in the 功夫茶 sense or otherwise? Personally, I would say yes, but not as some kind of destination to reach. To call upon the translations and structures earlier, my perspective on 茶氣 is that it occurs in the moment tea interacts with ‘people’ in the preparation of drinking tea. This starts when we begin to brew it. I say this because while the notes, flavours, textures and whatnot of tea are good and all, the question that comes up is how to distinguish a tea. For the increasingly economical drinker, this may lead them to thinking it’s better to buy x instead of y because it tastes the same but at a cheaper price. For me, this is where 茶氣 distinguishes one tea from another. Like how 茶氣 is linguistically constructed from various different radicals, the 茶氣 of a tea will manifest itself through the combination of its scents, flavours, textures and so forth. In other words, its character will unveil itself as you get to know your tea.

The question that will mostly likely come from this is how to get to the scents, flavours, textures and such to begin with. Well, only your tea can answer that one.

But that’s my two pence. What’s yours?

References:

1) Tea is for Everyone by Chan Sin Yan (Man Mo Media Limited, 2019)

2) https://www.teamuse.com/article_150503.html

3) https://pathofcha.com/blogs/all-about-tea/cha-qi

4) http://theguidetopuerhtea.blogspot.com/2016/04/an-appreciation-of-cha-qi.html

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