Often, I am asked why I don’t do tea reviews on this blog (well, I did do one very early on but I don’t count that; hey, it’s my blog and I can overlook if I wish.) The answer is not complex. It flows from two principle points:
- I’m not particularly proficient at discerning all of the descriptors that aficionados use to describe their taste experience. Save for the most obvious ones that, on occasion, I can recognize, I am not one who generally finds aromas of stone fruits or notes of pomegranate lingering in my cup.
- I feel it would be impossible for me, as a vendor, to review teas publicly and remain true to my desire to keep this blog non-commercial. I initially thought that I could simply take the obvious step and avoid reviewing any of Tillerman’s selection but I have come to believe that I should not review any vendor’s tea. Bias would, at least subconsciously, play a role. Of course, I have no compunctions about recommending to anyone on an individual basis, teas from my colleagues.
But clearly, I must have some way of evaluating tea; after all, how do I assess those I select to carry in the Tillerman shop? If I don’t analyze teas on the basis of descriptors, what motivates my choices?
I strive to avoid choosing teas simply on the basis of whether or not I like them, which is the case with most reviews one reads. Rather, I focus on the structure of the tea. Although it is impossible to eliminate all subjectivity from the tasting effort, focusing on structure is the most objective way I know of to evaluate tea. Using structural criteria, one should be able to determine whether a tea is “fine” or “poor” even if one does not like the tea being evaluated. For example, I am mot a big fan of matcha; I find the tea to be overbearingly weedy. But as someone who has had the temerity to select tea for resale, I had better be able to sort good matcha from poor matcha.
What then is structural analysis of tea? It is made up of several components the first of which is balance. A good tea is balanced. That means that there is no one characteristic that overpowers the others; the bitterness and the sweetness work together, the astringency does not hide the other elements of the tea, the tea forms a whole in the mouth. To be a good tea a tea must be in balance.
After balance comes complexity. This refers to the layers of flavor exhibited by a tea; a simple tea is relatively uni-dimensional whereas a fine tea will have many layers of flavor to discover. But balance is still most important; a simple but balanced tea is much better than a complex tea that is out of balance. Generally, the more complex a tea is the higher its price.
Mouthfeel is an important structural element in tea. Does the tea seem to increase in volume as it enters the mouth? Is it viscous or thin? Higher elevation tea tends to have higher pectin levels and higher viscosity. They also tend to be more expensive.
Another structural attribute one looks for is length. Length refers to the tea’s presence in the throat and how far down the throat the taste sensations remain evident. The further down the throat, the longer the finish.
Finally, I look for persistence. Persistence refers to the time that the flavor stays in the mouth after the tea has been swallowed. Persistent teas generally are better teas. An important part of persistence is the phenomenon of hui gan. Hui gan or “returning sweetness” is the flavor sensation that returns to the mouth after the tea has been swallowed. Not all teas, in fact not even all good teas, exhibit hui gan. Only very well made and special teas show this character.
These five structural elements, balance, complexity, mouth feel, length and persistence provide the solid framework that allows us to judge a given tea and to decide whether or not it is Fine, Good, or Poor. The final step is to assess the “value” of a given tea.
I define value as the quality/price ratio of a tea. A good tea is often far better value than a fine tea. Very often the incremental increases in quality cannot justify the substantial differences in price. Sometimes one chooses the best value; at other times the superior tea. There is no correct approach here but one should be aware of the options
So how should we choose the teas we wish to drink. That decision depends upon our preferences more than the quality of a given tea. I, for example, would much prefer a simple roasted oolong over the finest matcha. The correlation between the quality of a tea and our preferences for it is tenuous at best.
That’s my take. What’s your view?
 That, of course is a pretty bold statement and there are several exceptions, Two of note are Geoffrey Norman and his “Steep Stories” (https://lazyliteratus.teatra.de/) and Nicole Wilson at “Tea for Me Please” (https://.teaformeplease.com.)
 This should be true even though I focus only on Taiwanese oolongs. But there are very good oolongs that I don’t particularly like as well.