Dragonwell at PSCS

Longjing in a Gaiwan with tasting equipmentEach week, I offer a tea class to the students of the Puget Sound Community School. Now in its fourth year, I’ve had to push myself every week to learn more about tea so that I had something to teach. Last week I put them to the test: they were to taste the same set of Dragonwell teas that I tasted and wrote about here. (Even though some students are new to the class, those who’ve been at it for four years ought to be able to pick out a good tea…)

After reading them a couple of descriptions of what Dragonwell is known for and how it is processed, it was time for the tasting. I had labeled the teas with a letter, had the proper amount measured out, brewed them to the same specifications and gave each student a scoring sheet based on a tea evaluation method that I first read about in Tea: Aromas and Flavors Around the World by Lydia Gautier.

They could give up to two points for dry leaf appearance, one point for infusion (wet leaf), two points for scent of the infusion, a point for the liquor color, and up to 4 points for scent and flavor of liquor.

There were five students in the class that day, and each dutifully inspected the dry leaves, sniffed and observed and prodded the infusion, compared liquors before slurping from their tasting cups…all the while taking notes and awarding points.

When everyone was satisfied, we tallied the points. One tea stood out with nearly 25% more total points than the second-place sample. All of the students graded it their highest, tied for highest with another tea, or second place in their rankings. The tea that won? The same one my partner and I had picked as the best, and the one that was clearly the most expensive of all of the samples, at almost $22 per ounce.

They have learned well. I’m very proud.

An Interview with Nigel Melican

As I mentioned in a previous post, I intend to post occasional interviews with tea people, and as you may have guessed from the title, this is just such a post. Nigel Melican is a “tea technologist” who has manufactured tea on six of the seven continents. His business websites are www.teacraft.com and www.nothingbuttea.com

The image below shows Nigel loading green leaf into the withering chamber of the “Teacraft ECM System,” a tea processing unit used for tea research all over the world (also known as “the tea factory in a box”).

TG: What’s your favorite tea?

Nigel Melican

NM: I’d say that a real favorite tea must be indulged in only rarely or it becomes routine – for me this would be a golden tippy Yunnan which I reserve for special moments. My favorite regular all day long tea is Yorkshire Gold by Taylors of Harrogate – a high end CTC blend mainly from Africa – several of my consultancy clients (in Kenya, Rwanda and South Africa) sell their best clonal teas to Taylors for this one. It’s strong black British tea bag tea that must be made with searingly hot water and have milk added, preferably low fat milk, and for me NO sugar

TG: How did you start on the path to tea geekdom? Briefly describe your history of tea exploration.

NM: Serendipity – I fell into tea in 1980 when I was sent to Papua New Guinea to sort out an agricultural problem on a tea estate (I was a research scientist with Unilever and had just completed two years trials in the Arabian Gulf countries of an arid agriculture product we had produced). Agriculture + Overseas experience gave me 2 out of 3 – the missing 1 being any knowledge of Tea! As the problem turned out to be in the factory and not the field my assistant and I spent 6 months on a very steep hands-on learning curve. In the subsequent 27 years I have continued to learn more about tea every day.

TG: What aspect of tea do you find most fascinating?

NM: The unbelievable number of completely different teas that can be produced from the same shiny green leaves just by subtle manipulation of an entirely natural process – and without adding any other ingredient.

TG: Who have you learned the most from?

NM: In 27 going on 28 years in tea it cannot be a single person I guess – still learning by listening to all those who know more than I do – and also learning by frequently questioning my own knowledge.

TG: What tea resource (book, website, person, etc.) would you recommend for a tea novice?

NM: Google Groups, rec.food.drink.tea – I’d advise to lurk; read; learn; trawl the archives; then contribute

TG: And what’s your own favorite tea resource, potentially for more advanced tea geeks?

NM: A book. Tea: Cultivation to Consumption edited by Ken Willson and Mike Clifford (ISBN 0-412-33850-5) compiled in 1992 but still the definitive technical book on tea – the one I carry with me when consulting around the world.

TG: What does tea mean to you?

NM: A job that fascinates me and allows me to travel internationally for at least three months every year meeting nice people in wonderful scenery.

TG: Name your biggest pet peeve in the realm of tea and tea drinking.

NM: Two answers here: #1. Narrow minded people who cannot see that it is possible to have good CTC teas, and excellent tea bags just as much as you can have poor orthodox tea and lousy leaf tea. High quality tea is possible (and should be strived for) in ANY format. #2. You cannot (despite what some notables in the tea industry believe) you just cannot significantly decaffeinate tea by using a 30 second hot water wash (in fact 30 seconds leaves 91% of the caffeine in place – and removes a lot of the antioxidants)

TG: If you could let everyone in the world know or understand one thing about tea, what would it be?

NM: It’s amazingly healthy and health beneficial – and tastes good too!

TG: What’s the craziest/weirdest/most obsessive thing you’ve ever done in pursuit of your love of tea?

NM: Tea is certainly obsessive. After half a lifetime in a safe career with Unilever I left them in 1990 to set up my own tea technology company – Teacraft Ltd based on zero capital and a dream. Then in 1995 with my wife Helga I added Tea Technology Associates– a tea consultancy and training company. And then in 2002 with my daughter Chrissie we started Nothing But Tea Ltd – an e-commerce company selling rare and specialty teas. Tea is infectious and obsessive and once you become entangled it’s impossible to leave. We have may other future tea ventures up our sleeves – “so much to do, so little time. . .”

TG: Thanks, Nigel!

Tea is the Matrix

In the movie, The Matrix, the character Neo (played by Keanu Reeves) is given a choice by the mysterious Morpheus (Laurence Fishburn): he can take one of two pills–a blue one or a red one.

“This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.”

Tea is like this choice. You can take the blue pill and continue thinking of tea in the singular, in the teabag, in the same way you always have. Or, you can take the red pill and see how far you can go down the rabbit-hole of education–learning how plural tea actually is, learning and relearning what you thought you knew, and continually realizing that it’s always more complicated than that (regardless of what “that” is).

And wouldn’t The Matrix have been an absolutely dreadful story if Neo had just taken the blue pill?  Tea without the education can be just as awful, I’m sure.  If you haven’t already, take the red pill.

Expanding My Mental Dragonwell

The other day I realized that I’d been drinking the Dragonwell (aka Longjing) tea from the same source for years. Dragonwell isn’t my very most favorite tea, but in some circles it’s probably considered unconscionable that someone calling themselves a tea geek would only have a single version of Dragonwell in his experience. After all, it’s the most famous and sought after tea in China, right? So I set out to expand my mental picture of Dragonwell.

I started by going to six tea shops and buying an ounce of their best Dragonwell. Really, I went to more shops than that, but some didn’t have Dragonwell for sale, others only sold pre-packaged amounts of several ounces, etc. I also tried to get a little extra information if I could about the tea and what made it special. No probing questions or anything, I just let the shop give their Dragonwell pitch.

Then the photo shoot. I won’t go into this too much, but let’s just say I’m not a photographer, my camera is clunky, I couldn’t find enough light, and it was tough getting photos of the teas that actually made them look *different* from one another. However, there are pictures with each below–click to enlarge so you can get better detail.

Oh, and I “randomized” them by putting them in order of my purchases. Strangely enough, the dry leaf color alternated between dark and light green without fail when put in this order. While it won’t necessarily keep me from knowing where they came from while I’m tasting, hopefully it will minimize any prejudicing of my opinions.

And now for the tasting, with input from my partner, Loren. Each tea was brewed for 2 minutes in a gaiwan with the same temperature water (the lowest “green tea” setting on our variable-temperature electric kettle):

Sample A:

Sample ALooking at the leaves as they brewed, we both noticed almost all broken leaves and a few stems. Leaves seemed to be of various sizes, from large (by green tea standards) to tiny. My first impression of the smell was “bitter” (odd, since you can’t smell bitter) and Loren’s was fireworks or actual gunpowder. We both noticed the scent faded to sweet, though. The flavor was a basically standard nutty “Dragonwell” flavor, with a fairly noticeable astringency. We could tell it could easily turn bitter. Kind of like walnuts…nutty with an edge of bitterness to them. Loren thought it was obviously not the highest possible quality.

Sample B:

Sample BThe brewing leaves seemed more uniform in size, but with a goodly number of broken pieces. It was also more uniform in color…all in the yellow-green to bright green neighborhood. The scent was lighter but sweeter than Sample A, and a bit more herbaceous. The scent was appetizing and fresh…a little like fresh veggies being steamed or something. Loren’s first taste impression was chocolate, which we narrowed down to an agreement on cacao beans as opposed to sweetened chocolate bar…a darker, richer flavor, anyhow. A little bit of astringency, but not as much as Sample A. Spent leaves looked more like a single harvest from the same place, whereas Sample A seemed like it might have been a blend of harvests.

Sample C:

Sample CThe leaves looked like tiny pea pods, and many of them stood on end in the bottom of the gaiwan. All very even in color size and shape. It was mostly individual leaves–not just buds or leaf and budsets. Loren proclaimed it the highest quality one just looking at the leaves brewing. The smell was very fresh and clean–like a spring breeze, with a hint of spicy or chocolate. I got a flavor of like a winter squash or something, but Loren didn’t think so. But it was by far the strongest in flavor of all of them. It seemed like you could gongfu this forever and keep getting things out of it. (After we were done, we had more of this brewed for only one minute and it was kind of spicy in flavor–like nutmeg or cinnamon, but not as intense in flavor.) The leaf color of the spent leaves were, as Loren put it, “very pleasing.”

Sample D:

Sample DAgain, more variation in leaf size and including pieces. We both got a baking/toasted scent off of it soon after adding water. (Maybe extra heat applied during processing?) This one had more bud-and-leaf combos than the rest. The baking scent continued through the scent cups as well. The flavor was much lighter, but smooth…it struck me as being like a genmaicha in taste, only without the marine-like flavor that’s common to the sencha or bancha in the genmaicha blends. Maybe if you made genmaicha using Dragonwell instead of sencha. My impression was that Sample D was very pleasant, but that it wouldn’t go as far as Sample C in a gongfu session.

Sample E:

Sample EWhile brewing, this seemed a little similar to Sample A–some larger variation in leaf size and with pieces and stems. Loren kept smelling it and saying, “weedy.” The brew was a little yellower than the others. The smell in the scent cup was very light…not nearly as robust. However, the taste of it had a very nice sweetness in the back of the mouth/soft palate/nose. This was probably the sweetest of the lot…light and subtle, but sweet. Loren didn’t find it very distinguished in flavor, though. I kinda liked it. But we both agreed it was better in flavor than in aroma.

Sample F:

Sample FLeaf size was fairly uniform, with a few (but not many) broken pieces, with color in the cheery yellow-green to greenish-brown range with the occasional dark brown bit. The scent of the wet leaf was kind of confusing–neither of us could put our finger on it, but we both recognized that it was different from the rest. Again, very little aroma in the fragrance cup, but the flavor was interesting. It was still Dragonwell, but leaning strongly towards the marine. Not as much as a sencha, but moving in that direction. This had very little sense of where bitterness would come from. Fresh, smooth, and sweet…a nice balance of elements with the added interest factor of the hints of marine.

And a bit more information:

  • Sample A was $2.25/oz
  • Sample B was $2.75/oz and was said to be a Xi Hu (West Lake) Dragonwell
  • Sample C was $21.88/oz and was said to be a competition-grade Dragonwell
  • Sample D was $6.00/oz
  • Sample E was $8.40/oz
  • Sample F was $14.97/oz and was also said to be a Xi Hu Dragonwell.

And perhaps not surprisingly, Loren and I both both picked out the most expensive one as a top tea. Loren picked Sample F as practically a tie for him. I liked D, E, and F for different reasons, so taken all together I’ll give C the gold, F the silver, E the bronze, and D will get the “most bang for your buck” award.

If you’d like to try any of these, email me at teageek (at) teageek.net and I’ll see if I can’t get you some!