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Tea water separation a strange but useful term

It is almost impossible to talk about a tea without water, from cultivation to the final stage of tea brewing.

The ‘tea water separation’ discussed here is however a different but meaningful concept.

The very reason that teas are delightful to sensors is because of the effects of their internal substances. The correct brewing methods maximise the extraction of these substances and their optimal concentration in the tea brew.

‘Tea water separation’ is a term used to describe the breakdown of this process. The impression is the ‘incomparability of the tea and water’.

Following are some of the causes to ‘tea water separation’ of Pu-erh teas:


Processing issues:

  1. jelena 4Tea leaves harvested during the raining season, Chinese term ‘水味’ (water taste)
  2. Short of rubbing during the processing. These causes the insufficient release of the internal substances for tea brew.
  3. Not steamed and compressed thoroughly during the processing. The ‘tea water separation’ phenomenon is especially prominent when new/young for these teas. 

Brewing method issues:

  1. Pu-erh tea requires 100-degree temperature hot water to brew the tea. The tea can taste ‘watery’ if the water temperature is not high enough.
  2. Insufficient ‘tea waking (醒茶)’ time. It takes normally 5-10 seconds for the tea leaves to be separated from each other when brewing compressed tea. A rush to serve the tea can cause the brew to taste ‘tea water separation’.
  3. Inadequate serving intervals can cause the tea internal substances to dissolve in the brews unevenly.
  4. Too many infusions from one serve of the tea leaves.

 

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A comparison study of consumer’s ripened Pu-erh preferences against two differing temperature and humidity storage conditions

Overview:

The implication of Pu-erh tea’s storage on it’s aging has gone through intense debate during recently years, largely by two camps of tea dealers and consumers: 1/ the traditional cool and dry storage camp, represented by the conventional Kun-Ming storage 2/ south eastern Asia semi wet storage (natural and artificial) camp represented by HK storage.


With all the opinions and arguments in the community and industry, we would like to find out what the consumers, especially those outside of the conventional Pu-erh consumption areas ( ie with no or limited pre-conditioning to one type or the other) , think.

The result was a surprise, with preferences split down the middle and summed up neatly as “One’s cup of tea might not be the next person’s”, indicative of tea consumption across the wider tea industry.

Background

Conventional wisdom would indicate that the best storage conditions for loose leaf Chinese teas (green tea, white tea, Oolong tea or black tea) involve environments that are dry, cool and lack moisture and foreign odours.

This does not necessarily apply fully to Pu-erh tea however, which, due to its leaves being harvested from arbour tea trees instead of tea bushes, is a unique class of Chinese tea. When raw and fresh, Pu-erh teas can be rough, bitter with plenty of astringency and could be harsh on digestive system. As such these teas need to be “softened” to improve and become more mellow, smooth and richer in aroma and flavour.

The conventional way of ‘softening’ Pu-erh tea is via natural aging which involves three forms of oxidisation and fermentation:

  1. simple chemical oxidisation.
  2. enzyme mediated oxidisation.
  3. micro-organism involved fermentation.

Differing climate conditions require different storage times to achieve similar results for Pu-erh tea, but with subtle quality trade-offs. ie

  • 10 years storage in Beijing is equivalent to 4 years storage in GuangZhou.
  • Slower aging retains more botanic aroma and mellow aftertaste, but at the cost of retaining greater astringency.

Two main traditional regions have an association with Pu-erh tea consumption under differing storage conditions:

  1. The south-west and north-west regions of China (including Tibet) have a long association with aged Pu-erh teas stored under cooler and drier conditions.
  2. South-east Asia is another market with a solid foothold.
    • Pu-erh consumers here discovered that the Pu-erh teas stored under certain tropical or sub-tropical climates (typically higher temperature and humidity level) such as HK and Malaysia go through a faster post-fermentation to reach a state that is categorically different from the same age Pu-erh tea from the south-west and north-west of China.
    • The market then started differentiating Pu-erh teas by storage types, in addition to other crucial elements such as areas and year of production and raw or ripened: HK storage, Malaysia storage, Taiwan storage and Kun-Ming storage etc.

Test to compare the differences between Pu-erh from these regions

We wanted to find out how consumers respond to differences in storage, so invited a small group of volunteers from a Pu-erh discussion group for a blinded test.

Study design:

ripenedpuerhstudysamplesaged ripened pu-erh teaWe sent out two samples of ripened Pu-erh without identifying the region of storage as follows:

  1. One of Kun-Ming storage Xia Guan TuoCha (dry and cool storage).
  2. One of HK storage (semi-wet storage, completed Jin-Cang 进仓 and Tui-Cang 退仓 – please see footnote for explanation). The tea had been stored in HK for 10 year under classic HK storage before bing compressed into cakes in 2017. 

The samples were marked as #1 and #2, and we invite the volunteers to send back their response on the following aspects: aroma, flavour, texture, aftertaste and overall comments. We publish the full results as follow.

Results

General demographic details:

  • Sample size: 12
  • Gender: Male -6 Female-6
  • Country of residence: Australia, USA, Canada, Germany, Mexico and UK

In summary there was a 50/50 split with regard to the tea preferred.

Result in details:

 

Gender Preferred tea

Xia Guan Tuo Cha (XG) –
Kun-Ming dry storage

Hong Kong -
Semi wet storge

Preferred Xia Guan (dry storage) over Hong Kong storage
 M XG  Bright over all flavor, Woodsy & Uplifting. *hints of old wet compost and fish? Musty, swampy.

*in my imagination it seemed like maybe it was kept in a damp basement

 F XG  heavily favoured #1 (Xia Guan) * did not like #2 (HK) at all

* did not stick with sample HK for multiple brews as was put off by it

M

XG

tasted very well from the first steep. No bitterness, slight astringency, Huigan came at steep 3. is not bad, no bitterness, no astringency. But my even after the 6th infusion i tasted no Huigan. All in all very weak.
 F XG  Smooth, forest floor, clean, strong huigan (or lingering in the throat area). This tea became a little astringent by brew 4 Just a tad gritty; musky, no lingering in the throat; comforting, mellow on first infusion. This tea became bitter by infusion #4. Although I liked the first infusion of this puer better, I did not like subsequent infusions.
 F XG *very nice taste, aftertaste is very nice, it's not drying at all.

* nice and dark color. Still has a pleasant earthy taste.

 *wet leaf smell

* very dark color. For me it's a bit too woody/earthy for a 1st infusion. It has a dry aftertaste for me

 F  XG  had a bolder, more woody/earthy taste and the texture was beautiful.  
Preferred Hong Kong storage over Xia Guan (dry storage)
 M HK   taste was heavy and overall astringent, had a mineral/chalk/smoked taste since the beginning but did not evolved well over several brews, it kept much of its initial flavor over the infusions until about the 7th infusion it started to smooth and acquire an earthy flavoring. had a nicer aroma from the beginning. Ample, bold and full bodied, it evolved very well over several infusions from smoked/woody/dry wood to a earthy/mild/smooth brew.
 M  HK  no comment    no comment
 F HK   no comment   my answer to all questions was #2(HK). I would add that in the initial steeps I leant towards #1( XG), but after the first couple then #2(HK) was much better
 F  HK  no comment    I really enjoyed both, but the little bit of sweetness in #2(HK) made it my favorite
 M HK  - the colour was dark (coffee like) with a hint of red along the edges, the aroma and taste was very mild with some earthy tones. There was no real after taste. * my preferred Pu-Erh, more red in colour

* with a more familiar flavour and intensity. I was able to brew more cups from Sample #2(HK)
*the aftertaste was silky.

 M  HK tasted somewhat leathery to me which I find to be an off taste. I prefer raw over ripe anyway but 2 had more going for it between the two ripe.  I found it more complex and aromatic.

Main findings:

  • It is clear that even after the completion of the Tui-Cang 退仓, the ‘damp’ taste as the direct result of the HK Pu-erh storage (Jin-Cang 进仓) is sensed and tasted by tea drinkers, mostly describing it as a major putting off factor.
  • By comparison, the dry storage Pu-erh is described by those who preferred it as bright, clean, bold, with good woody/earthy taste.
  • It is a common consent that HK storage Pu-erh is darker in colour with a smooth texture. 
  • The main surprise to me: for those who preferred the more heavily ‘storage fermented’ HK Pu-erh, there is no report of the ‘damp’ sensation at all, which is quite prominent in the other group. 

Acknowledgement:

We would like to thank you all for those who participated in the taste test and sent back you valuable feedback. 

Footnote:

  • Jin-Cang 进仓 (Entering the storage): storing Pu-erh teas under artificial conditions that are classically higher humidity and temperature, and low air flow to speed up the ‘post fermentation’. Various HK storages apply different conditions. The teas after Jin-Cang 进仓 often have some level of mouldy smell/flavour and cloudy tea brew.
  • Tui-Cang 退仓 (retreating from the storage): removing the teas from the initial storage and store in close to classic dry storage conditions (cool, dry and high air flow) for up to 2 years to remove (although not fully) the dump and mould flavour, and restore the initial Pu-erh's the bright and clear tea brew.
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Raw Pu-erh tea, a green tea or Hei-Cha

I have always thought of Pu-erh tea as: traditionally compressed and produced in the Yunnan Province of China, ripened Pu-erh as HeiCha (黑茶) and freshly produced raw Pu-erh as green tea.

I have recently come across a few posts and articles debating about this categorisation, especially the term of ‘fermentation’ used in the categorisation.

From a consumer, but not scholar or academic’s perspective, I make following observations.

Teas were traditionally ‘categoryless’

Tea has a consumption history in China for more than 2000 years. For a big majority of this history it was ‘categoryless’.

To understand the absence in categories, we need to look into its history during the pre-modern transportation era: tea’s production and consumption were extremely geographical.

For example, Oolong teas such as Tie Guan Yin and Zhang Ping Shui Xian were the local teas in the area where I grew up (Long Yan of the Fu-Jian province). With a few exceptions, these teas were only grown, processed and consumed locally (pre mid-20 century), and these were the only teas the local tea drinker were familiar with, known as Tie Guan Yin or Zhang Ping Shui Xian, but not as Tie Guan Yin Oolong tea or Zhang Ping Shui Xian Oolong tea.

From the production point of view, the tea farmers leant their knowledge and skills from the previous generations and were more likely NOT even aware of the 6 tea defining categories. This however had zero impact on both of the tea product and consumption. The locals knew their teas best and no one else could do a better job in making their teas. This is why the tea names in China are more associated with the areas they are produced than the tea categories they belong to: An-Xi (area name) Tie Guan Yin (tea name)Zhang Ping (area name) Shui Xian (tea name), Yunnan (area name) Pu-erh (tea name) etc. 

The categorisation of teas only came into place and became meaningful when modern tea scholars and researchers started studying and analysing teas from top down – with so many varieties around, it makes sense to create some ‘shoe boxes’ to put them into.

Pu-erh tea looseRaw Pu-erh tea, green tea or else

To discuss or answer this question, we need to step back and ask some of the following first:

  • ‘Fermentation’ is the factor used to define and differentiate the various categories of teas. Some argue that the term 'fermentation' used to describe the tea processing process, such as Oolong or black tea, is not actual fermentation as there are not yeast or bacteria involved. This is a topic of debate for another day. We would just call it an 'enzyme mediated oxidation' now, bearing in mind that 'fermentation' is the term used in most of the tea books and journal reports.  
  • Is tea categorisation as clear cut, black and white as people think or expect? My personal opinion is that the modern science is trying to use a simplified and well-ordered format to capture a highly cultural tradition, and the reality is that there is plenty of vague and grey areas that deserve due respect and acceptance. 
  • Green tea is a category with a vast variation within, but not a single tea. For example, if we offered the exact same tea leaves to a Mao Feng processor and a Long Jing processor, the end products produced could look and taste rather different. This however would not make one more of a green tea than the other, or one ‘yes’ and the other ‘no’. 
  • I personally believe the very fundamental difference between a conventional ‘green tea’ and a ‘raw Pu-erh green tea’ is in the tea leaves, or more precisely the tea trees/bushes: The bush leaves are smaller and more tender, more suitable for being consumed fresh and young; While the arbor leaves on the other hand, being bigger, thicker and stronger, are more suitable for aging and fermentation. They are therefore processed accordingly to facilitate these different consumption styles: most of conventional green teas are dried with relatively higher temperature: eg. Chao-Qing (炒青 – fried dry) and Hong-Qing (烘青- baked dry); while the Pu-erh is Liang-Qing (凉青 – aired dry) with a much lower temperature to preserve enough enzymes and nutrients for the future post-fermentation.
  • Based on the category definition, as long as a tea is not fermented, it is a green tea. An unfermented, newly produced raw pu-erh therefore can only be a green tea.

It is also worthwhile mentioning that there are new products coming to the market all the time, challenging the conventional categorisations/definitions. Eg, Pu-erh teas are conventionally compressed, this does not make loose pu-erh not a Pu-erh tea; Is a Pu-erh white tea cake pu-erh tea or white tea? All this prompts me to re-ask the question: do we really need to know the categories of the teas we drink? Or we should just enjoy the teas as they are and not to worry too much about anything else as our ancestors did?

 

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