brewing mediocre Tie Guan Yin better?
So my girlfriend just took out some lower quality Tie Guan Yin from my heap of discarded frustrations to make a thoughtless Western potfull. Amazingly, it tasted of something. Toasty – roasty flavours, like a rock oolong (this stuff wasn’t particularly ‘jade’), and surprisingly crisp for that.
Whenever I attack that stuff with all my dollhouse clay or porcelain, I get a thick, flavourless sunflower oilish brew, and complaints from my kidney. I tend to go for a fair amount of leaves + fairly hot water, but I did vary a bit for experimentation.
In fact all but the very best TGY tends to become oily thick but quite bland with me. What am I missing?
I can pass on some experience with trying a different kind of oolong made two different ways recently but it won’t necessarily shed light on this particular case. I’ve been drinking a more-oxidized version of Thai “red” oolong recently (from the Tea Village vendor, if that part is of interest). It’s modest quality but nice, a bit thin but the flavor that is there is ok, with a bit more cinnamon than is standard along with tea character just as close to a sweet Chinese black tea as a lighter rolled oolong. I’ve been making it Western style and it turns out slightly differently based on shifting parameters but it’s somewhat consistent.
I just made it Gongfu style with breakfast today and it was quite a bit different. That’s not unheard of; usually rolled oolongs or any oolongs will be slightly better made that way (if parameters are right), with that splitting out the experience to more infusions to allow experiencing that. But the character seemed quite different, and not as good instead of better. It had a good bit of tartness, not in the cinnamon range with whatever else backing that (dark wood, dried fruit, underlying mineral), but more like cranberry with very little cinnamon spice and the rest shifted.
I can only guess why, but I will guess. Of course the proportion and timing change things, but usually not that much. I suspect brewing temperature difference was a main factor. I didn’t attempt for it to be but at a guess the different way that different devices absorbed and shed heat probably led to brewing the tea a good bit cooler in the case of Western style preparation. I didn’t check that by shifting temperature for a couple of rounds this morning, but I could have.
Since this initial post is talking about a different kind of tea and not the exact same effect and change (or maybe it was a similar change) it’s hard to begin to draw a parallel. It’s not unheard of for people to say that some teas do better Western style; I’ve done comparisons and have said that. I just don’t remember there being that much variation in character.
One last factor that changes in experience of tea is us, and I don’t think we can pin that down to the extent we get the impression that we can. Some people try to drag that back into the light of reason and say maybe foods eaten prior, time of day, or even relative humidity in the air could be causing shifts but it may just be mood, or environment. If I review a tea with my kids making noise versus without I’ll pick up a completely different level of detail. I tend to think that’s more about cutting off a level of input versus changing results but the point here is that I’m not sure I’m sure of how all the variables and results play out.
You were right. It was the temperature.
I had developed a blindness for it because all the folks out there say that ‘a good oolong can stand higher temperatures’ or whatever. Turns out that a mediocre oolong can’t. And a good one might improve with lower temperatures for my taste as well. I got triggered by a teadb film where they also went for hot, but just mentioned, ‘ of course, if you go lower, it gets sweeter’.
I never realized that! I guess just expected the tea to go bitter on me if brewed too hot. But of course oolongs went to finishing school and learned not to express their malcontent like that. Should have known. It will certainly help me refine my other brews as well. I also have a few black teas that I never really got beyond the ‘woody’ flavours.
Of course, if you write it down like this it’s downright silly (I had just one task…!). But it implies that I can make cheaper teas taste already much better than I thought, which I prefer over ruining high quality ones :)
It is common for mediocre grade teas to be more toasty. It’s because they’re often processed like that to make up for the lower quality of leaves. That said, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. In fact, many like these nutty toasty flavors more.
The conclusions in that next to last comment match my understanding of how brewing oolongs works out; better ones do well brewed using boiling point water, and more limited quality versions might work better using a cooler version, depending on preference and the limitations of a particular tea. Exactly how a broad range of different styles and quality level teas will vary at different temperatures is complicated, so that part is informed best through some messing around. All that background discussion appeared here in a post (probably just not summarized that clearly):
Thanks everybody for providing input!
Liked the blog post. My current opinion is that because of the perception that ‘better tea can take hotter water’, people will feel that using less hot water = admitting to a flaw in their tea. Way I see it, everything is flawed ;) and it is a bit of an insult for such a delicate product exported over such vast distances not to be ‘handled with care’ at its final stage because of any minor imperfections it may have acquired along the way.
I am certainly re-learning to appreciate the subtleties, like temperature, brewing time and even the agitation of the leaves through water flow. It is sometimes wasted on the more flawed teas, but at least they do provide you with undeniable feedback if you get it wrong. It will take a better quality to also get a reward if I get it right ;)
Looks like you already got some really interesting feedback on the topic!
I’ve also had the impression for a long time that good quality oolong teas must be brewed perfectly, preferably with lower temps. Then I was more and more convinced that a good oolong will pretty much taste good no matter how you brew it. Also learned this from watching the farmers brew their best lightly oxidized oolongs at boiling temperatures and steeping it for a time that seemed like eternity. The results were some of the best teas I’ve tasted.
Anyway, one trick I’ve learned with the teas that really don’t meet my expectations is cold-brewing. Really helps to bring out some better qualities of a tea. So if you’re TGY is not a completely lost case I suggest trying it :)
You can check on my how to guide if you like: