The board's been pretty slow lately. Time for an interesting discussion...
I just got back from San Francisco where I bought a few teas from Red Blossom and Imperial Tea Court to bring home and try. Trying teas at the shop is ok, but rarely do the shops make their teas in the same way you would at home- often they just put enough leaf in the gaiwan to make 3 brews before the leaf is spent. Of course, from the shops perspective (read "economics") this makes perfect sense, but this brewing style only gives you half the picture of what the teas are all about.
Back at home now, I am trying some of the same teas in my own style (i.e. fill the sucker up and push it to the limit), and they are not performing as I would have hoped. So, should I write these teas and companies off? Hardly. There are so many little things which can have a BIG effect how your tea is coming out. Most serious tea drinkers think about our choices in brewing vessels, water quality, leaf ratio and brewing times, but how many people pay attention to concepts such as the weather, travel shock, or acclimation?
Weather- Serious tea drinkers might be some of the few people who look forward to rainy days. Almost without fail, my tea just comes out better when the weather is humid. I will actually break out the "extra good" teas on rainy days, simply because I know I will get the most from them. Conversely, a dry day, especially during the cold winter, can kill good teas, making them come out flat and lacking a dynamic range. So, is it humidity? Does it have to do with the barometric pressure? I honestly don't know. It may be time to invest in a cheap digital weather station for my tea table and zero in on those perfect storm conditions!
Travel Shock- In the wine world, people talk about travel shock in terms of too much agitation and movement causing the wine to temporarily go "off." In Ireland, it's commonly heard that Guinness only really tastes like Guiness in the mother country. The old timers in any pub will state, as a matter of simple fact, that crossing a body of water will cause the beer to take a turn for the worse. With tea, it would seem traveling negatively effects the leaf in some way too. I really should have known better than to drink my new San Francisco acquisitions the day after getting home. I thought keeping them in my carry on bag might get me around the travel shock trap. Sadly, not so. Here's another mystery that I have no scientific explanation for. I see no real reason why being on a plane should temporarily effect dry leaves, and cause the tea to not come out right, but it does. The taste buds don't lie. It's like there is a better tea wanting to come out, but it's stuck in bed with a cold! Luckily the effects usually wear off in a week or two. One thing I always do as soon as I receive a shipment of tea is to open the bags, and let the local air get into them for a good hour or so. This seems to speed up the recovery process.
Acclimation Perhaps there is no other "trick" I use to get my teas to show their best other than acclimation. Oddly, I learned of this trick back when I was very involved in the world of hookah smoking. It was widely discussed on forums that taking the shisha (tobacco) out and letting it sit uncovered for 1-2 hours before smoking would make it much smoother, more balanced, and more flavorful. It did indeed turn out to be true, so when I got into the world of serious tea, I thought I'd try the method here too. Undoubtedly, in my opinion, it works like a charm! Of course, letting a portion of tea sit uncovered on the table for a few hours takes patience and planning, but the results are worth it! I try to do it with most teas, but I will not drink one of my top shelf special teas without letting it acclimate for at least a couple hours. Why this works is something I can take a guess at; the humidity inside your storage container is almost certainly different from the ambient humidity in the room. If there is too big of a difference between the two, the tea leaf goes into "shock" when exposed to the air in the room, trying to reach a state of equilibrium. Somehow, someway, this makes the resulting liqueur slightly flat. If you've never tried acclimating your tea, please do so. I think you will be surprised with the results. A smooth, balanced, flavorful tea will be the reward!
So, what are your experiences with these issues? Anyone have some science to mix in with the superstition and magic? I'm interested to know!