After a brief hiatus due to a delayed tea shipment, I was able to write my third blog post today! This post was inspired by a marketing email sent my way by a certain tea vendor that was selling 5 grams of red tea (hong cha 红茶) for $38.00. The tea in question was a kind of red tea called ‘wild tongmu jin jun mei’ (桐木金骏眉). This entirely bud set red tea is grown in a small but famous village called Tong Mu village near the Wuyi Mountains, a mountain range famous for its wulong teas. This vendor claimed that the high price was due to “The incredible amount of labor required, the steep domestic demand and tiny supply . . . [which] make this one of the most valuable teas coming out of China, with demand for genuinely wild Jin Jun Mei growing every year.”
Although I understand basic economics, I was skeptical about the price point of $7.60 / gram because some high end premium pu’er teas can sell for about 2 – 3 times less ($1.00 – $2.50 / gram), even after the pu’er vendor’s markup. There was another claim in the email which irked me more than the high price of this tea, however. In this email the vendor claimed that “We poured over thirty steepings with our five gram packet when we tried this tea for the first time, and the tea only seemed to get stronger and fuller each steeping instead of lighter.” After reading this I was more skeptical, because some of the strongest teas which I have tried did not last anywhere near 30 steepings, and certainly did not seem to get stronger and fuller with each brew. With the mentioned issues in mind, I decided to find a fully bud set red tea, and brew it 30 times using the brewing method outlined by this vendor.
The tea that I decided to drink for this experiment is called Imperial Pure Bud Yunnan Red Tea of Simao, picked in Spring of 2017. Despite being from a different region, this tea is a fully bud set tea like Jin Jun Mei. The image beside shows the small / medium sized buds that make up this tea.
For this session I brewed the tea in the exact way outlined by the vendor in their marketing email. The reason that I used a different bud set tea was to avoid the cost. Despite being a premium tea, the red tea from Simao came in at a cost of $0.85 / 5 grams, rather than $38.00 / 5 grams. The process used to brew the tea outlined by the vendor includes:
1) Preheating a small (< 5 fl. oz.) gaiwan with boiling water.
2) Cooling the boiling water for 15 – 20 seconds in a glass pitcher, then rinsing the 5 grams of tea leaves for a few seconds.
3) Brewing the first 20 infusions with boiling water that has been cooled in a glass pitcher for 20 seconds, and then steeping the tea for 5 – 8 seconds.
4) Brewing the next 10 infusions with boiling water that has been cooled in a glass pitcher for only 6 seconds, and then steeping the tea for up to 45 seconds.
The image to the below this text shows the setup I used for brewing the tea, including a small gaiwan (roughly 4.5 fl. oz.), glass pitcher, and tea cup. To the left of the setup was a clay water boiler that I kept at boiling using a small flame to ensure the precise temperature control outlined by the vendor.
There is one big design flaw in this ‘experiment’ that has to be mentioned before evaluating this tea. Tea is a terroir based beverage, therefore comparing a tea grown in Yunnan to a tea grown in Fujian is ultimately pointless, because they come from different locations with different weather, processing styles, soil, cultures, etc. With this in mind, it is possible that I am missing out on the location and source material of the premium tea listed by the vendor, and that my conclusions from this tasting are not a fair judgement of that tea. My main purpose for conducting this tasting is not to evaluate that marketed tea, but to see in general how a bud set red tea will react to 30 steepings.
Steepings 1 – 10
For the sake of convenience, I will summarize my main tasting notes from this session in groupings of 10 steepings, and include images of all 30 steepings at the end of this post. The 2017 Simao red tea started out light, but opened up very much during the first 10 steepings. This tea was very red and rich during these brews, had warm flavors of baked bread, and also had slight fruity sweet flavors similar to those of raisins. The mouth feel of this tea was smooth, and left a impression on the mouth that reminded me of silk or soft wool. The image below shows an example of the brewed teas color during the first 10 steepings.
Steepings 11 – 20
During the second 10 steepings, the rich flavor of the tea faded out quite quickly. Most of these brews were an enjoyable textural experience, however. The tea had a slight mineral texture that some wulong teas have. It also left a palpable and slightly astringent mouth feel, similar to the mouth feel that some younger raw pu’er teas will leave. This texture was however, less pronounced than it was during the first 10 steepings. The image below shows an example of the brewed teas color during the second 10 steepings.
Steepings 21 – 30
The final 10 steepings of this tea were not enjoyable. Even with increased water temperature and brew time, the tea brewed up a very pale yellow color, and only had hints of flavor, texture, and aroma. At this point I was feeling full of tea, and didn’t feel satisfied by the flavors or textures of the last brews. The image below shows an example of the brewed teas color during the final 10 steepings.
Although I did not drink the same tea that was marketed towards me, it was an interesting experience to drink a bud set red tea through 30 steepings. I found that even using the suggested brewing methodology, the tea did not seem to get stronger and fuller with every steeping. In fact, I enjoyed the best flavors, texture, and aroma during steepings 1 – 8, with some far less strong but somewhat interesting sensations happening during steepings 9 – 15. After steeping #15, the enjoyable aspects of the tea had mostly faded, and my body felt full of tea.
The price / value ratio of the red tea from Simao seemed to be very high in my mind. At a cost of $0.85 per 5 gram brewing (slightly under 45 times less expensive than the wild jin jun mei), I felt completely satisfied with this rich tea that gave roughly 10 – 12 enjoyable steepings. In my mind I attribute the egregious price, and supposed duration of the other tea (30 steepings – each richer than the last), to bad marketing.