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Tasting and drinking tea is comparable to tasting and drinking wine. Some tea drinkers consume the beverage with little concern for differences in taste and quality. To them a cup of tea is simply an enjoyable beverage.
In the middle range of the tea drinking spectrum are discriminating tea drinkers who have their favorite teas, who drink different teas at different times of day and occasions, and who are always searching for new teas. These tea drinkers usually buy their tea from a tea merchant whose recommendations they trust.
The most sophisticated of tea drinker is passionate about tea and can be considered a tea expert. This group seeks out distinctive teas, can recognize the taste nuances between the same tea from different years (vintages), from different harvest times (flushes), and from different tea plantations. Tea experts can identify the tea variety, vintage, and origin in blind tastings.
In general, tasting tea is not an elitist activity, but, rather, an enjoyable activity in which tea drinkers of all levels of sophistication can participate.
Many tea merchants offer tea tastings.
One of my favorite places to taste tea is at Teance in Berkeley, California, a tea shop which sells tea and tea accessories.
Tea tastings take place at a circular tea bar at the back of the store. Some people come in for a pot of a single tea. Others choose to taste a flight of two or three different teas, chosen from the extensive menu of white, green, oolong, red and black teas from around the world.
For a recent tasting, my guest and I each did a tasting of two different teas. She’d never tasted Matcha, powdered Japanese green tea. Our server measured out a scoop of Matcha and whisked it with a small amount of hot water, using a handmade bamboo whisk called a Chasen, until the powder was fully incorporated into the water. He explained that the Matcha is fully mixed when the whisk wipes clean against the side of the bowl. Only at this point did he add more water to fill the bowl and present my guest with the frothy bowl of Matcha.
Her second tasting was Yunnan Gold, a Red tea from China. This tea was more traditionally brewed in a warmed pot with loose tea that was first briefly washed with warm water.
My choices were Lu Shan Clouds and Mist, a Green tea, followed by a Pu-Erh, a black tea and the only tea variety that is fermented after oxidation and which ages, much like a fine wine. The Pu-Erh I tasted had aged for 5 years.
We sipped, we talked with our server and other customers about the teas, and we relaxed. Since loose tea can be infused up to five times, our server kept adding hot water to our tea leaves. With each infusion, the taste of the tea changed and we discussed the differences.
Another San Francisco area teahouse where I like to taste tea is Imperial Tea Court. Here the tasting is more formal and traditional.
Imperial Tea Court (two locations)
1 Ferry Building Plaza #27
San Francisco CA 94111
1511 Shattuck Avenue
Berkeley CA 94709
1780 Fourth Street
Berkeley CA 94710
Beverly Dubrin is a food and travel journalist and tea lover. Beverly regularly chronicles her discoveries and adventures on Beverly Dubrin’s Where-To-Guide blog at http://wheretoguide.blogspot.com. She lives in Walnut Creek, California and is author of Tea Culture, available in hardcover and paperback, wherever books are sold.