Reading the Tea Leaves

Tea Education, Consultancy, and Tastings

Leaf Look or Flavor?

The large and dramatic leaves of Tai Ping Hou Kui Green make this a stunning tea, one that never fails to elicit queries at tea events.  Each leaf was laid out by and pressed, fulfilling that often used but not always accurate description of a handcrafted tea.

Tai Ping Hou Kui (sample #3)

Given the processing story, I always feel I should like this tea more than I really do.  It’s not that I let a tasting sample go to waste; I do drain the cup, but it’s not the first Green that comes to mind when choosing one to brew for myself.

This is a costly tea, retailing for over $100 a pound in this country, so expectations are high.

Tai Ping Hu Kui (sample #2, more expensive than #3)

One might expect these large leaves to yield a rich, full tasting cup, when in fact the opposite is true. The cup is rather restrained, and the pleasures one finds in such a cup lie in its cleansing fresh note, its reference to something newly green, and undeniably, in the visual component.

So here lies the quandary: am I to choose the brighter, greener tea that produced a leaner cup or go with a less attractive version that gave a better tasting cup and resign myself to the realization that the color does not show this tea at its best?

TPHK Sample #1: best flavor but note how the leaves have a yellowish hue, whereas #2 & #3 show bright green.

The three teas shown here fall roughly into the same price range, with the most expensive about USD15/kg more than the lowest of the three.  The decision came more easily after tasting repeatedly: the less attractive sample definitely had an edge in flavor over the other two prettier teas, offering a slight chestnut note lacking in the others.

TPHK upcs: #1, 2, 3

As my colleague remarked, the other two tasted like many other Green teas, offering nothing beyond that.  Many tourists who visit Anhui quite understandably bring Tai Ping Hou Kui home; who could resist a tea that looks like this? Yet at tastings, people have admitted to disappointment in the cup.  It is hard to fault them for this small indulgence: TPHK is a delicate, subtle tasting Green; only the experience of cupping in a context of having more than a couple will highlight the best features to be found.

The next set of samples, Huang Shan Mao Feng (Yellow Mountain Mao Feng from Anhui), posed a slightly different question: why did the top standard offer fuller flavor?  This more expensive of the three cost more because it had more budsets, and one would expect this to give the palest color and the mildest cup, rather than the richest tasting cup.

Huang Shan Mao Feng #1

The other two showed more robust leaves, from somewhat lower on the tea bush and fewer budsets, and yet as the photo shows, the cups were lighter in color and more importantly, less flavorful.  I can only attribute this difference to the earlier plucking of the best tasting example.

Infused leaves from Huang Shan MF #1

Both of these Green teas are costly for reasons that have less to do with the inherent flavor than with the fastidious processing of one (Tai Ping Hou Kui) and the famous place association with the other (Huang Shan/Yellow Mountain).

Huang Shan Mao Feng #2

It’s easier to see the difference when inspecting the wet leaves:

From #2

And here is the 3rd sample, the least expensive of the three:

Larger leaves in this Huang Shan MF #3

Consider the three cups together:

HSMF teas: left to right: #1, 2, 3: note how light #3 is.

In buying such teas, therefore, the enjoyment stems in part from being aware of this factor, and if the teas are in fact quite subtle, even austere, then the tasting must be accompanied and bolstered by this cognizance, perhaps more so than would apply to bolder teas.  This is why I don’t think these are good “beginner” Green teas.  I realize this is probably counter-intuitive – why wouldn’t one start with famous, big-name Greens?  First and most simply, both are expensive teas; it is not necessary to pay at this level to enjoy delicious China Green teas.  Second, without much experience with other tea categories, early spring Greens seem bland.  Any disappointment, however, might be mitigated by the realization that such teas are mild because they come from raw material that is only barely coming into its own, at the cusp of sprouting, and 2nd, the realization that in order to keep this quality intact, very little was done to these young plucking. The intent is to capture this young, tender phase of the tea plant and stabilize the leaves.  There is no bruising of the cell walls (as in Oolong and Black tea processing) before oxidation to draw out what inheres in the leaf to produce heftier flavors at the end.

Brief and quick oxidation of young tea shoots destined to become Green teas insures the integrity of the early spring raw material.  Only during rolling (after oxidation) do the juices exuded by the budsets coat them again, so that when dried, the tea bears the flavor-giving properties that inhered in the leaf.  And some Green teas do not undergo even this stage; Tai Ping Hou Kui is pressed and in making Huang Shan Mao Feng, it is desirable for the leaves to retain the natural shape of the budsets; these are not the twisted, rolled leaves we often see.  With this in mind, then, we can more easily accept the minimalist taste because the whole point of Green teas is that they are very close to what is most natural.

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About This Post
  • Date: October 27, 2013
  • Category: Green Teas
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Reading the Tea Leaves
Lydia Kung