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Don’t Judge a Tea by the First Steep

(ETS image)
(ETS image)

Having been so fortunate as to gotten to taste test a whole bunch of tea samples from a bunch of tea companies, I have found that the initial taste of a tea, and even that whole first potful, is not an indicator of things to come. A recent experience with two black teas that I actually purchased (not freebie samples) are a great example of why you shouldn’t judge a tea by the first steep.

The first thing to know about these teas is that they were the types I normally drink all day, every day. In fact, if I could devise a way to hook up an I.V. tube, I would…except that my tastebuds would miss out on a lot of the reason I drink tea — that wonderful flavor! Yes, these were a couple of my faves — one a black tea blend and the other a black tea from Sri Lanka. These were not some of the odd things we’ve tried and relegated to that “occasional” category. Most whites, greens, and even some pu-erhs and oolongs are in this category. So, everything should have been peachy dandy, assuming the teas weren’t the junk kind.

That brings us to the second thing to know. These were both orthodox style teas, that is, they were not the CTC “nuggets” or had been ground to a fine dust and loaded into little hemp teabags. They were loose. And the size of the pieces clearly showed that the processing had been carefully done. Yes, all was looking good for a perfectly steeped pot of each to greet our eager tastebuds.

And so we come to the third thing to know which is that we steeped these teas extra carefully since it was our first try of them. The vendor recommended a cooler than boiling water temperature for them and a steep time of only 4 minutes instead of the usual 5 minutes used for a lot of black teas. Being sticklers for accuracy, we followed these instructions and at first got what we thought was a fairly decent result from each tea. But…

Here we come to the crux of the matter — the saying that you should always make a good first impression. Well, the teas did just that. Both had wonderful flavors expected of this type of tea — rich, malty, raisiny, cocoa-like, etc. But as another saying goes, “First impressions can deceive.” (I will digress for a moment to say that our initial try of these teas was done in a 2-cup teapot.) Being pleased with the teas and finding that our usual manner of adding milk and sweetener also worked well with both of these teas, we put them in our stash of black teas. Later we pulled out one to make a 6-cup pot of tea and fully expected the taste experience we had had the first time around. It was … well, uh, gee … a bit of a letdown. The wonderful flavors were no where to be found. In their place was a medicinal quality and a bit of astringency. It left us scratching our heads and asking ourselves questions like “Were we mistaken in our first impression?”, “Did we do something wrong this time?”, “Were the teas stored improperly?”, and “Could the larger amount being steeped make that much of a difference?”

Now, if this had been one of those “occasional” teas we’d mentioned earlier, that last question could have been answered with a resounding “Yes!” But these teas are often meant to be steeped in such a quantity and our experience with other teas steeped first in a small quantity for a tea tasting and in a larger quantity for our own enjoyment has not shown such a difference. As for doing something wrong, we again followed the vendor’s instructions and also made sure we used enough tea leaves (skimping can often cause a bad taste). And the teas were stored with our other black teas, which have steeped up before and since just fine, so improper storage does not seem to be at fault here. All we are left with is that first question. We may have been psychologically set to enjoy the teas first time around.

This same type of experience has happened to us with other tea samples we’ve tried and gone back to later for another round. Usually, it’s the white and green teas that are a problem. This is expected since they are usually ones you should store only a short time (a few months at most). We have found, too, that teas with “stuff” added will also change flavors dramatically over a period of time being stored (and again we take great care in storing our teas properly). Jasmines will become almost overpowering and the floral odor grows stronger and the tea aroma grows weaker. Fruit-enhanced teas will take on a more bitter or even overripe character. Don’t even get me started on teas with chocolate added — some interaction between the tea leaves and the chocolate maybe. And so on.

On the other hand, there are teas that improve with age. Most pu-erhs fall into this category. Even a cooked (ripe) pu-erh will get better after a year or so of proper storage. And there have been other teas where I have tried them again after a month or two or even more and found them to be much better than remembered.

Gee, maybe that memory of “liking” or “disliking” a tea is what’s haywire here. After all, we humans are not as accurate in that way as other “memory” devices, especially as the years pass by faster and faster.

Bottom line: Give teas that you didn’t initially like a second chance and don’t be surprised if a tea you used to love no longer appeals to you.

See more of A.C. Cargill’s articles here.

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