"All philosophies are mental fabrications. There has never been a single doctrine by which one could enter the true essence of things."
First, since this is my first blog post, I want to make sure the reader knows that I do not see myself as the absolute authority on tea. I do not claim to be a tea expert or master, and I am constantly learning more about tea and of course life. Everything I write is my opinion, which is inextricably linked with the countless people I have interacted with and experiences I have had up to this time of writing. I began studying Chinese language and culture, Buddhism, Daoism, and Chinese Medicine around 10 years ago, and believe that these subjects and tea are worth discussing together. Words are both powerful and limited. I will do my best to explain my understanding, and I ask the reader to acknowledge that the truth is beyond words and therefore each statement can be at least partially refuted.
So, What is Good Tea?
Many people will argue that this is a very subjective question, and therefore there is no "right" answer. If we use cars as an analogy, we can show that what makes a good car is far more objective than subjective. Objectively, a good car transports us to where we want to go. Tea is similar in that for a tea to be considered good, it must meet certain criteria. This post is not about what makes a tea great, which type of tea is best, which region has favorable environmental conditions for growing tea, nor which flavors we prefer; the gross over-simplification of our question is intentional and serves to make an extremely complex topic more manageable.
The following are the most important factors for determining a tea's quality:
1. Good tea quenches your thirst. This is the most important thing that is universal to all good tea. Good tea nourishes our body; it does not dry us out.
2. Good tea is sweet. Human beings are attracted to sweet things for many reasons, and we could write quite a bit just on this idea. In Chinese Medicine Theory, sweet is a moistening, nourishing flavor and this of course connects to #1 of our list. However, if a tea is only sweet it typically isn't a good tea.
3. Good tea has some bitterness and astringency. The key word here is some; and the bitterness and astringency we taste should quickly transform into sweetness and saliva. The bitter and drying qualities should not linger in our mouth. How much is too much? It depends on the kind of tea and the area. Again, there is a great deal of complexity to this topic and there is a wide range of appropriate bitterness and astringency. That said, everybody universally knows... If a tea is really bitter and drying, they don't want to drink it. People often add sugar, milk, and other substances to mask the bitterness of tea. Good tea needs no additions.
4. When we drink good tea, we feel comfortable. Good tea typically makes us feel both awake and relaxed. It gives us energy, yet our body and mind feel clear and smooth. This is why tea is such an incredible beverage! When I say good tea gives us energy, this does not mean that we feel really hyper, have a rapid heart rate, and are unable to sleep. These effects are typically damaging to our body, and are caused by poor quality teas. Some people associate this overexcited feeling with "Cha Qi", or tea Qi. Although this is technically Qi, it is bad Qi and undesirable in tea. As an aside, I don't translate Qi as energy; this is a poor translation and oversimplifies the meaning of Qi.
5. Good tea has a pleasant smell. Often the smells are like flowers, fruits, honey, etc. However, good tea does not have overly powerful, chemical-like smells. Often, good tea has a somewhat subtle and sweet smell. If a tea's smell is very powerful but then fades away quickly after 1 or 2 steeps, this situation can point to poor quality tea that has been processed in such a way that artificially amplifies the smell. Judging tea by smell alone is tricky, and inexperienced tea drinkers are most often fooled into thinking bad tea is good by the upfront, powerful smell. Conversely, very skilled tea connoisseurs can discern a tea's quality through the smell. Particularly bad tea will give me a headache just from the smell, and a good tea's smell will make me feel relaxed.
Now, back to the car analogy: if I said this car here is good, but it doesn't have an engine, you would think I was missing something too, right? That is like saying this tea is good but it has no feeling, no Qi, no reaction. Tea without an affect is at best flavored water, it can never be a good tea. Even worse is tea that negatively impacts your body; this is poison.
What you should feel from good tea is discussed briefly in this post, and the main points are relatively easy to understand. However, the affect of tea is a very deep and complicated topic that no article can truly encompass. Experience is the best teacher, and fortunately there are many tools and people who can help us on the journey.
The Realm of Subjectivity
The qualities of smell and taste certainly fall into the subjective realm. Some people like very sweet tea that smells like honey, some prefer Puerh that tastes like tobacco and is far more bitter. This is personal preference, and calling a tea bad because it isn't your taste is not right. On the other hand, teas from certain areas should have certain qualities and if the tea lacks these specific qualities it is not good. For example, Lao Ban Zhang Puerh should have bitterness that quickly transforms into sweetness. If it doesn't have this, it is either fake or possibly just poor quality.
Chinese Medicine, Tea Qi, and Further Complexity
From a Chinese Medicine perspective, each person is unique; sometimes a very cold natured, bitter tea (i.e. wild white tea) will damage one person's body while actually helping another's. Cold natured tea in and of itself is not necessarily bad, however generally human beings will be most benefited by warm natured foods and beverages. This is why we typically favor warm, sweet teas: they are very balanced and benefit the general human constitution. However, if somebody frequently eats hot and greasy foods, drinks copious amounts of alcohol, and smokes cigarettes, they will typically feel better after drinking tea that is more cold and bitter. This imbalanced lifestyle is effectively counterbalanced by the cold, bitter tea. The imbalanced tea helps them, while hurting someone with a more balanced body constitution. In this case, one person's medicine is another's poison.
Chinese Medicine theory is very deep; seeking balance means that each person requires a different treatment approach based on their individual constitution. This complexity cannot be removed, and we should not try: it is arguably the most powerful aspect of Chinese Medicine. The key point is that cold natured food and drink will easily damage the digestive system, which will in turn negatively impact other areas of our body. For a clear experience of comparing cool and warm teas, drink one of our high mountain wulongs and then drink our Jiao Dian, a red tea. The wulong is cool and the red tea is quite warm. As you drink the teas, observe the reactions within yourself. This is not just plugging our tea; I know these teas and their nature. In fact, many red teas on the market are cool and bitter and will lead to incorrect understanding.
So, here we have covered the basics of what is good tea, and have added a great deal of complexity to make clear that this is not an easy subject to understand. In truth, most tea on the market will not meet this "good tea" standard. I will discuss why in a later articles on tea economics and production. To briefly summarize, mono-cropped machine made plantation tea makes up the majority of the tea market and the tea quality suffers greatly.
-Forest Amsden, LAc