When I was very young, I once asked our tea maker Mr. Xue Sr.: natural talent and experience, which one is the more important quality of a good tea maker?
“Well, all amazing tea makers are experienced for sure,” he said. “However, never have I ever met a young talented tea maker who can figure out tea-making all by himself.”
“You see,” he continued. “Tea-making is not just about processing leaves. A qualified tea maker must be able to understand the nature, tea plants, and everything that hidden in a cup of tea. And this process takes time.”
“If you are just talented at processing fresh leaves but failed to comprehend the essence of what you do and why you do it, you are no more than a glorified mechanic.”
As I grew older, I started to appreciate more and more what he said. Tea-making is an agriculture activity, and agriculture is all about first-hand experience.
Experienced tea makers can learn quite a lot from just a cup of tea. When most tea drinker sample a tea, all we can get is a blurry feeling of the taste and the aroma. Experienced tea makers, however, can tell us a tea’s place of origin, the level of craftsmanship, details of the tea-making. In some cases, a seasoned tea maker can even tell if a tea is plucked from an old tea plant or a young tea plant.
You might think this is nothing but a hoax. After all, how can a tea maker possibly know the age of tea plants with only one sip?
The answer lies within the tea soup. The tea soup is the direct reflection of tea leaves’ past. Fresh leaves from premium tea fields can better accumulate and transform nutrients. When they become tea, they can produce a much thicker and more fulfilling tea soup.
For example, a Rou Gui tea from “Niu Lan Keng/牛栏坑”, one of the most prestigious tea mountain fields, has a tea soup so thick that it feels like a rice soup. Only fresh leaves harvested from premium tea fields can deliver a tea soup as thick as the rice soup. Therefore, experienced tea makers are able to make out a good tea’s place of origin.
Besides place of origin, experienced tea makers can also tell the quality of the tea-making process. For instance, they are able to know whether a Wuyi oolong (Yancha) is properly fermented from just one small sip. A properly fermented Wuyi oolong has a mixed fragrances of fruits and flowers as well as a smooth tea soup.
Sometimes, expert-level tea makers can also tell the age of tea plants by carefully sampling a tea. Nonetheless, this limits to just a small basket of teas. Even the most respected tea makers can only distinguish few teas when it comes to the age of their mother plants.
For example, Shui Xian is one of few teas that have a significant difference when it’s harvested from younger or older tea plants. Different from other tea cultivars, Shui Xian is not a bush but an arbor. Most tea plants can only live up to a few decades. Shui Xian, on the other hand, can live up to hundreds of years.
The longer life span allows Shui Xian plants to develop many unique flavors (see Blog 14 for more). Shui Xian plants that are 60 or older are considered as “old plants”. Experienced tea makers can often tell whether a tea from an old plant or not. But in terms of the exact age of a tea plant, no tea makers can give an accurate guess.
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