Friday, August 9, 2013

Guest Post: Discovering Tea

Photo: Tea Setter
Today I am featuring a guest post contributed by +Matt Kitchen of Tea SetterYou might remember him from my podcast interview. His enthusiasm for tea is contagious. I love hearing about how others discover tea. Each story is different yet love of the leaf is always a common thread. 

I discovered loose leaf tea about 8-10 years ago when I was looking for a coffee alternative. I always wanted to like coffee, but I found myself liking the sugar, cream, and other additives I put into coffee, not really the coffee. Thus, I went searching into the tea world. I drank various green, white and black teas for the next 3-5 years. I could never get into flavored or tea blends as I once again felt like they were trying to mask or improve upon something - I didn’t want additives, just pure tea leaves.

I liked what I was drinking, but was never blown away by it. Everything was whole leaf and brewed in a brew basket inside the cup. The white tea and green teas were good tasting, but I could never get over the vegetal flavors that kept them from being great or amazing. I love spinach, but drinking green vegetable flavor notes are not going to keep me thinking about that tea after I finish it.

So I was content with drinking tea, far from an evangelist, but at least I can enjoy a warm drink without adding anything to it and be satisfied with the flavor.

Everything changed when I went on vacation with my wife and visited an actual tea lounge. I was introduced to chinese-style, multiple infusion steeping and the world of Oolong and Pu’erh tea. I did not know tea could taste like this. Nothing added, just the exotic locations that these tea plants grew along with the way they were processed yielded flavors you swear were sprayed on.

I purchased my first gaiwan (lidded cup) and learned how easy it can be to brew in the traditional Chinese-style. Using the gaiwan to brew 5-10 short infusions of tea and taste the changes in flavor and smell the variances in aroma introduced me to tea for seemingly the first time again. Then, with my Gaiwan in hand, I made it my mission to explore this new range of teas.

First came Pu’erh. Pu’erh tea (the cooked style) can be thought of as a fermented black tea that mellows with age. The robustness of aged Pu’erh tea has so many dimensions in the deep earthy flavor and can often come with a subtle, backend sweetness. As multiple infusions mellow the tea these amazing notes of sugar cane come through and I swear somebody added sugar to the amber liquid. But no, it really is just that good. There are so many Pu’erhs and not all of them will have this amazing backend, but after experiencing it I can only search out teas that have different variances of it which all 3 that I currently sell have. From the deep and dark to the light and subtle. A good pu’erh can be bold enough to wake you up, but will soften up to bring relaxation.

Next were the Oolongs. There are so many different Oolong teas, but the notes of lilac and an aroma that seemingly can make all bad things disappear is why I keep coming back to the Iron Goddess Oolong (tieguanyin). Breathing in the aroma and tasting the floral nature of the tea is beyond what I had ever experienced in tea before. I could not believe it existed, I still have days I doubt it. These small rolled up balls of tea leaves unfurl and become large and full and you suddenly understand where that big flavor comes from. To brew a high quality Iron Goddess in short Chinese-Style infusions is to truly experience tea on another level. It changed the way I thought about tea forever.

I also drink an Oriental Beauty Oolong that has hints of grilled peaches. This tea makes me want to pick up a science book to fully explore how growing conditions, combining different parts of the leaf, and oxidation amounts (this stuff gets super technical) can impart such flavor. No peaches were used in the making of this tea, but the flavor is rich without being overwhelming. This is not a flavor blended tea nor where there natural or artificial flavors sprayed on. It is mind blowing to try to understand where that flavor comes from. But that is why I buy Chinese tea, they have have been perfecting these teas for thousands of years. Think about that for a while.

And so here I am, still befuddled that so many others do not know about these kinds of tea, how amazing they are, and how enjoyable they are to brew in a unique way. I have now made it my part-time job to show other people the beauty of tea this way. To be clear, I do not always have time to sit down and brew tea in this chinese-style. But you better believe when I do, the day is better.

For example, on weekend mornings I love to start early with multiple short infusions of Pu’erh to replace the traditional coffee. Robust enough to wake me up, but not bitter enough that it needs anything added. When I get home and the day was stressful I brew some Iron Goddess, breathe in the aroma and drift away for a couple of minutes. Or maybe after a heavy meal I will chinese-style brew some Pu-erh and sip to usher in the relaxation of the evening. Either way, to taste and smell the changes of a tea brewed over 5-10 short infusions is to experience the tea.

You owe it to yourself to experience some tea like never before. If you need some help, well that’s why I started Take Care.

+Matt Kitchen
Founder of Tea Setter, LLC

Matt Kitchen founded Tea Setter to make the Chinese-Style brewing of Pu’erh and Oolong teas approachable for everyone. He knows that when you enjoy tea like this you are no longer drinking tea - you are experiencing tea. He resides in Northeast Ohio with is wife and two kids (who love to play tea with daddy).