Note: I originally submitted this article to the U.S. League of Tea Growers. It was published as The Flavor of US Grown Tea on Nov 15, 2013.
The buzz about the potential of US grown tea seems to increase in a rate proportional to the number of new tea bushes put into American soil. Although it may be too early to look for US grown tea on grocery store shelves, it is the right time to consider what those teas should taste like when they do hit the mainstream.
If you ask a grower, he may say that the final taste profile of a tea is 60% due to elements like terroir and growing conditions.
If you ask a tea processor, she may say that the final taste profile of a tea is 60% due to the manufacturing process.
Determining who is right at this point may not be as important as a more fundamental question for US grown tea – what should US grown tea taste like?
Or, what teas should American teas seek to imitate?
In some cases, imitation is the stronger, more straightforward path to success.
Despite criticisms in the judging and scoring processes, The Judgment of Paris reveals how skillful imitation can give a much-needed boost of recognition to a group of growers/processors whose product is considered inferior by the Establishment. In The Judgment of Paris, a group of French judges gave higher scores to California wines over French wines during a blind tasting.
Even though the French judges tried to rescind their scores, and French wine publications refused to acknowledge or publish the results, the impact changed the wine world. The California wine industry received validation and was no longer defaulted to an inferior status.
California wine makers’ skill in producing wine in recognized categories, or styles was validated. They could then build on that skill and validation to continue making competitive “Old World” style wines, or use their recognized abilities to create “New World” styles.
If American tea producers could similarly best teas from more established, and “superior” tea regions, wouldn’t American teas receive a similar boost in prestige? Would American tea producers similarly prove their growing and processing skills?
Instead of anticipating a characteristic “American tea profile” (even if a single profile could be established), American tea growers/processors may be better of imitating the classic, “Old World” teas.
But which classic teas to imitate?
1. Imitate teas that engage the full tea tasting experience. The taste of tea, like most tasting experiences, is more than just flavor/aroma. It includes texture. It has finish, or aftertaste. And it is not only about intensity of each of these elements, but also the duration of these. Staying-power is more often ignored than the other elements. It is said that it was the duration of character found in preciously small sips of teat that sustained monks during meditation.
A full tea tasting experience is a harmonious blend of each of these elements. A pure, un-blended, artisanal tea would be severely deficient if it were limited to a brief, initial pop of flavor as the tea hits the tongue.
2. Imitate classic teas that American tea drinkers already appreciate, or are growing to appreciate. Admittedly this will be a challenge. A large portion of the North American tea drinking population simply wants to wear the healthy halo they see in tea. The temptation here will be to produce green and white teas with simpler flavor characteristics that will appeal to those who may only tolerate the taste. It is more profitable to create teas with lower production complexity. But sooner or later, the tea drinking public will year for better quality. And when they do, producers who took the simple path may not have the processing mastery to create more refined product. Sell tea to pay your bills, but be prepared for the day your customer will ask for a more exquisite tea.
There are already a set of specialty teas with well-received profiles and strengths. Granted, each kind of tea can come in different grades of quality. They still have common components that make them stand out. Look to these when setting your standards
Teas with more broadly appealing, yet relatively complex profiles:
Senchas with sweet vegetal notes and creamy brothiness can generate broad appeal as they can be cold or traditionally brewed.
Chinese-style longjings or maofeng teas can express unique toasty/nutty character with gentle brothiness
Roasty, high-fired teas like some dong dings and roasted tie guan yin deliver rich character, strong and enduring aromas, with sweet aftertastes.
High-mountain Taiwan teas combine sweet floral characteristics, soft, silken textures, and lasting finishes. These teas are another example of ones that open even more character as they are drunk cool.
Malty, silken Yunnan-style (dian hong) already have a following, and may be a better choice for those who still want some milk in their cup.
The brisk but floral character of Darjeeling teas may also be worth imitating.
During the 2013 World Tea Expo, I was talking with a US tea grower as he shared one of his teas with his Taiwan tea mentor. The mentor took a sip and said “Tastes like a dian hong.” Through experimentation and imitation, this tea grower has already developed the skills to re-create a desired tea profile that resonates with tea masters and tea drinkers of the world.
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