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Thursday, December 22, 2016

Weighing the Tea

Weighing tea toward ideal parameters is a no-brainer for most puerh tea drinkers. I hadn’t really thought about it before, but now I wonder how much I actually learn from pre-measuring tea. Maybe I learn more when I don’t. With the risk of over-thinking, I want to explore this idea of pros and cons of weighing out tea.

When I read tea reviews it’s usually helpful to know how the person brewed the tea, or at least somewhat helpful by a process of deduction. For example, I have a number of friends who report their common parameters as 1g/20ml and some others go a bit lighter with 3g/80ml. First off, I wonder if the notion of a “common parameter,” a single weight to water ratio is really the best idea for every tea. Of course it’s a jumping point for some teas. But what about people who use what I might consider “light” gram-age of 3g/80ml and then report a tea as “woody,” or “hay-like?” I begin to wonder if their assessment of the tea itself is really more about their choice of parameters. I wonder if the tea might have more body and character going heavier on the leaf. But I won’t know unless I buy the tea.

The assessment goes the other way with heavier leafing when someone reports a tea as unbearably bitter. Then I think to myself, is this tea really punishing? Maybe he needs to lighten the leaf rather than judge the character of the tea at this stage. Or let the tea age for twenty years and see what happens to that bitter tea. Characteristics like smokiness are not so affected by gram to liquid ratios. But certainly traits like viscosity, bitterness, maybe even huigan or qi are simply not noticeable in some teas if going too light on the leaf. As a reader, I end up trying to deduce whether I might like the tea regardless of the writer’s opinion. Someone describing a tea as super bitter while using very light parameters is a very good tea to me, the tea is probably powerful and maybe a good buy depending upon the price, even when the reviewer says she hated it.

I got to thinking about this after seeing a spate of what I consider really light parameters on various social media. I am surprised how light a lot of people go on tea and then describe the tea as woody or something bland. This becomes their assessment of the tea when at a heavier parameter someone else might like it. Lately I’ve been doing more guess work when leafing a new tea because I learn something. I don’t want to judge a tea if I’ve gone too light, I won’t know what I’m missing. Going heavy might result in a tough to drink tea, but I’d rather learn why than miss key traits entirely.

Perhaps the ideal ratio for some teas varies a lot more than I realized before. By using a “common parameter,” the only real variable I’m truly testing is my parameter! This is okay as a starting point, but only a starting point. I can say X tea tastes one way at a common parameter, while Tea Z is different. If I’m tempted to conclude one tea is better than another without testing any other parameters, then I’m probably in error.

Readers can deduce or glean some information with a given ratio, such as ruling out some traits they don’t want, like processing problems or mold or overly sweet/bitter. But that’s not really a whole lot of information if the tea is going to take a few hundred dollars out of my wallet. Even if I tell you my leafing parameters, you still won’t get any idea about whether the tea is amazing at some other parameter. Issues like leaf quality are easy to distinguish as are undesirable traits, but maybe the way to go with a new tea is heavy and then back off the leaf as needed.

Ratios are more of an issue with medium and low tier teas. Some of the truly astonishing teas, unless served truly super watery, are still obvious as really good tea despite a brewing error. No mistaking good leaf quality, at least for me. But at 25-50 cents a gram price range we have a lot of teas to pick from and people really debate teas that are all about the same quality. At this point it will come down to finding those brewing parameters. For example, if someone says “If You are Reading This” is better than “Poundcake,” give me the ratios you brewed at so at least we are making the same comparison. I shouldn’t be shocked to find out the person who loved Poundcake has been grandpa brewing it all along, or the person preferring the Reading cake steeped 10g/100ml because these brew ratios might be a “never” for me.

Really great tea you love and really awful tea you hate might not improve with changing the ratios. But we have to question everything, like amount of time you aged or aired that tea, how you brewed it etc. Maybe the way to go with a new tea is leaf the gaiwan as heavy as possible. Stuff it full, and see what happens. Does the tea have power? A $200 beeng with heavy leaf to water ratios I should get some serious power. A known and proven tea, such as an expensive sample of aged puerh I get from a friend with some advice to go along, perhaps then I might go 3g/80ml and feel like I’m prudent and still getting a good cup.

I’d rather get smacked across the face from too-strong tea than feel like I’m really pushing a tea to get a decent cup out of it. I’d rather have too-strong than too-weak, especially if I’m thinking of buying a $200 tea. Even better is a smack in the face again after going lighter. A common response to strength in tea is to cool the temperature, and in truth I will get a drinkable cup from many teas by going cooler. At this point, I believe I will learn more trusting my gut instead of meticulously weighing and hoping the scale and the same parameters with each and every tea is a gold standard. Go heavy or go home, at least as long as my system holds up.


  1. Great insights on a topic that doesn't get lots of discussion. How would you say varying brewing time relates to that ratio? Of course it's not possible to get the same results by just shifting both but to some degree they do counter each other, don't they?

    1. Under leafing automatically gets me steeping longer and then the tea steeps out sooner. That might be okay for someone who wants to minimize their intake. But I think I like to taste the tea releasing the flavor in stages. The first steeps are often storage anyway muddling up the brew. In a wet stored tea I might miss the better steeps.

  2. I agree for the most part, but overleafing can also lead to a very unpleasant brewing experience. I recently tried some teas at a very old Hong Kong tea chain, and the elderly gentleman there had NO IDEA what he was doing. Dahongpao and tieguanyin brewed in 350ml pots with a long steep, and both were overbrewed. I bought the tieguanyin--even though it was bitter from overbrewing, I knew from experience the store had good tieguanyin. It was a much more pleasant experience an hour later, when I got back to the tea table at my office! I still don't know if the DHP is any good, though, but I don't want to spend $60 to find out!

    1. Maybe the old fellow has no idea how much time went by?

    2. He was right there next to the massive tea table, teapots and tea tray, and had been controlling the process all along. He also went VERY heavy on the leaf. Just a total lack of skill at brewing tea. The vast majority of Han Chinese tea drinkers do NOT gongfu brew and just put their tea in a large pot/mug and grandpa brew. It's really only the Chaozhou and Fujianese who gongfu brew traditionally, and I've even seen Chaozhou families brewing with very large clay pots. What upset me most is I hold that particular store in a certain kind of esteem since my dad worked right up the street and bought tea there for over twenty years. I now know their hired staff really don't know what they're doing and are really just selling tea. The last time I went in there, I asked to have my tea put in a can and the guy smashed the sealed bag of tea into the can to make it fit, crushing many of the leaves in the process. :(

      A scale can really help even things out and for those who go by eye, it can be rather eyeopening! Going with established parameters and times can really improve your experience if you have been winging it all along.

      Great article. :) I'm brewing a sheng I thought was disappointing much heavier tonight (YS 2016 San Ke Shu) and I realize I tend to go too light with fancy sheng and too heavy with the factory stuff. I should really use my scales more often.

  3. Definitely relevant information when sharing an experience, but I tend to worry less about leaf ratio and more about what type of water that person used.

  4. I often see people tend to underleaf & oversteep, or end the session too early. There seems people have a mindset a tea ends at some determined number, and the unconsciously stop there every time instead of pushing the tea to its limits and bang for buck.

    I think people are anti ratios as they see tea as art/magic/meditative/fetish than a reality they paid for this tea, you better make it right. Go into a tea shop and a common question a new drinker will ask is "how much do I use?" the answer of random pile of leaf or "how much you feel like" is useless and contributes to more flakey crap.

    But yeah, for reviews stating ratio is important. People steep their tea freaking weird. I also pay attention to their temperature and vessel, things I can control, I've been shocked a few times on other tea reviews getting complete opposite results to find out they are doing their puer 35F cooler or 75% less leaf.

    1. Thanks so much for chiming in. You're one of the few who really try to let the tea speak.

  5. go heavy or go home. thats the way i roll too. the only tea i "under leaf" and long steep is greens.

  6. I remember getting a shocked look from a tea vendor who invited us to a tasting, when he asked how much oolong I put into my pot, and I told him " a lot more than you just did".
    I neither own a tea scale, thermometer, nor anything resembling a tea timer. I fill my pot with 1/4 to 1/3 leaf, depending on leaf size, boil the water until it looks and sounds about right, and steep as long as it feels right, then adjust according to taste and what the tea does to me. Is it possible to compare my results with yours? Is my tea/water ratio too low/too high?
    You made me wonder: how much can we standardize and objectify our brewing before it impairs our drinking experience?
    I don't think that there are tea drinking rules that can be set in stone, but how much can we bend the general guidelines?


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