Most teas are mass-produced to provide one consistent flavor year after year. This is intentional, and doing so requires strict management of production techniques. Producers of such teas must blending the right amount of tea from different plantations and, oftentimes, even completely different teas to generate the same flavor. As you can imagine, “quality” here is in terms of “consistent flavor.”
But, in terms of tea leaf purity, ethical sourcing, and biodiversity of the tea crop, there isn’t much “quality” in these teas at all!
With artisanal teas, on the other hand, you almost never get the same flavor twice. First of all, each year the artisan is refining his or her art and skill. One year they might use their comfortable technique, and the next, something slightly different. Hence this affects the tea’s flavor.
Second, there are so many variables that affect taste for a particular year, especially climate and weather. Particularly dry seasons will greatly affect the flavor as would an unusually wet season. Whether the season was colder or hotter than usual will also produce different flavors.
This is why drinking the same tea from the same artisan season after season is such an exciting, exploratory process: you not only can trust the quality, you also never quite know what flavor profile you might get!
For example: last year’s Artisan Golden Tips came from my good friend Tea Master Zhang Tian and his sister Tea Master Tea Master Wang Feng. Their tea – which was one of my favorite Golden Tips – produced a velvety, chocolate like flavor that left a cocoa aftertaste. It was incredible for the senses and it sold very well for Wild Tea Qi.
This year, however, when I went to source the same tea, I greatly anticipated the same flavor I grew to love last year. At first brew I was slightly disappointed not to get the same initial hit of chocolate when the tea first touched my tongue, as it instead had an almost herbal quality to it, slight tannic and tangy. But, with each additional sip, I realized this year’s tea has a much more complex flavor than last years – different than my expectation, yes, but more complex, too.
After a few more sips, the chocolaty flavor came back and became a grounding, pervasive after taste rather than simply a first burst of flavor. I also noticed in the previous year’s batch I needed to brew it to a darker, rich brown to elicit the right flavor out of it. With this years, I just brew it to a golden, translucent brown to get the peak flavor infusion after infusions.
As Zhang Tian and his family grow wiser and more skilled each year, accordingly their teas take on new dimensions. This is one of the reasons I stay loyal to his teas, as I can tangibly see and taste his true potential and ingenuity in tea production only growing with time.
This is one of the great lessons we will go into depth about during our Tea Sommelier certification course this May, during which we share our ways of controlling “quality” of the tea by avoiding the 7 Dangers of Sourcing Tea, and also how to both appreciate the changes in flavor implicit to artisanal tea, as well as convey this message to customers. We also cover this extensively in our last book the Wild Truth of Tea, where we talk about how producers control flavor, and the costs of doing so on both local and the global environment.
By pursing and purveying artisanal teas year after year, we truly get to understand the evolution of the processes and skills of each individual tea master, as evidenced by the changing flavor of their teas, as opposed to simply attempting to recreate the same flavor experience again and again. While I understand the market’s desire for consistent flavor, I can’t help but feel that something important– well, many important things – are lost in the process.