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Forums » Smalltalk » AMA: Tea Taster/Specialist/Blender

I tried to keep the title succinct.

In short, I work in the tea industry. Title-wise, I mostly get called a 'Tea Specialist' (sometimes 'Tea Expert' but I try to discourage that 💦). I work as a quality assurance tea taster (new batches don't go out until I taste them), a tea blender (both in designing new blends from a recipe standpoint and to a lesser extent physically working with equipment and blending batches), and all around Walking Tea Encyclopedia at work (fielding difficult customer questions, etcetera). That's the gist of it, without rambling into detail prior to questions.

Despite this, I've actually got a degree in geology and am a registered junior professional geologist. For added background.

I really, really really enjoy talking about tea, and being the only Tea Geek at a tea company is... something. Ask me things?
How do you make chilled green tea? What are some good leaves to use?

I love it so much and I buy bottled unsweetened green tea and please save my bank account 🥺
How many teas have you tried?

Is there a taste difference between cheap tea and expensive tea?

What is your favourite tea?
Have you ever tasted a blend of tea that has been discontinued that you still think and dream about drinking?
AJ_89 Topic Starter

Claine wrote:
How do you make chilled green tea? What are some good leaves to use?

I love it so much and I buy bottled unsweetened green tea and please save my bank account 🥺
Green tea's a pretty good candidate for cold-brewing. So that's putting tea leaves directly into lukewarm/room temperature water, and then just putting it in the fridge for a good 12 hours to steep. A ratio of about 2-3 teaspoons per cup. This works better than making green tea hot and pouring over ice, since hot water will always tend to bring out the bitterness in green (plus your ratios become blurred/diluted the moment you add ice). Full leaf for green is usually better, as fanning teabags can make it a bit bitter too.

It DOES depend a bit on the brand--but most bottled green teas are going to be using Chinese green tea (Japanese has a distinct umami flavour). Maofeng green teas, or Anji baicha make nice chilled teas?
AJ_89 Topic Starter

nindyaru wrote:
How many teas have you tried?

Is there a taste difference between cheap tea and expensive tea?

What is your favourite tea?
That's a difficult question... I don't know if I'd be able to say. Easily in the thousands? More? At work and just recreational drinking. A large part of my job is also tasting and retasting the same teas, batch to batch, to make sure that the latest batch is consistent with the last batch before it's released.

Yes definitely, but it's hard to explain specifics sometimes--it does depend on the tea. There's also teas blown way out of proportion price-wise. There's difference in character and mouthfeel and taste, balance and bitterness and astringency when comparing a teabag-cut tea (made of fine fanning dust) to a full leaf tea from the same farm. Fanning is fast-liquouring, so the tea gets strong fast (I can get into detail about surface area and broken leaf, but). So that brings out briskness and makes a bold, astringent cup that takes milk better than full leaf teas. Full leaf teas allow you to control your steeping better, have rounder flavours, more nuance, less bitterness.

You also get differences in pluck--a tippy hand pluck versus indiscriminate picking or sheers, finer processing to produce golden-tipped leaf, etcetera... Nuance between region-blends and single-estate. Not to mention getting into single cultivars, high end Chinese teas--collecting oolongs and puer.

My favourite tea is 100% mood dependent, but often it leans heavily towards dan cong oolongs, which are a strip style oolong from Guandong, China. They're all about single cultivars, and mimic a range of aromas and tastes. They can be deliciously juicy and peachy, and very finicky to brew correctly because of how they're roasted.
AJ_89 Topic Starter

MissPixie wrote:
Have you ever tasted a blend of tea that has been discontinued that you still think and dream about drinking?
All the time! Sometimes it's discontinued, sometimes it's from a brand that just has impossible shipping to Canada.

When I took over from the previous tea blender, I also took over their Stash of discontinued teas from our company. One of the things I did this past fall was bring one back as a seasonal simply because I liked it too much. So that was nice. The company I work for also keeps a large blending book of past commissions/blends for customers/discontinued main blends, and I comb through this and occasionally reblend tiny batches to taste.

Blends I dream about from other companies, I try to recreate in-house if I can. I like the flavour-combination of Paris from Harney and Sons for example, and recently recreated that in-house. No plans to release it yet, but maybe if I find a good name for it.

Joy from Tazo makes me so steamed. It was one of Steven Smith's signature blends--every company he owned, he always did a green-black blend for Christmas (Joy for Tazo, Christmas Morning for Stash, Morning Light for Smith Tea even verges into that). When Starbucks shifted to Teavana, they took Joy and rebranded it under Teavana's brand. And then dumped Teavana and discontinued it, so now neither Tazo nor Teavana carry Joy. What I wouldn't give for that back. I can recreate it in-house to some extent, but I also don't have any reference samples to compare against anymore. Steven Smith was just a really solid tea blender, but I feel like his companies always get screwed over in the end.
do you drink tea in your spare time? :0
Thank you so much for your help! I'll give it a try
AJ_89 Topic Starter

Sunflower wrote:
do you drink tea in your spare time? :0
Yup! My tea-drinking habit is what got me into this field in the first place. I find I drink less tea at home during the weekdays, but anytime I have a free moment at work I'm making tea. And then a cup when I get home, and then definitely on the weekends. The style of tea I drink at work does differ from how I drink in my spare time, though.
AJ_89 Topic Starter

Claine wrote:
Thank you so much for your help! I'll give it a try
You're welcome! I enjoy cold-brewing a lot of oolongs, they can be very refreshing.
Ohhh.... Tea! I love tea! I tend to use a diffuser with loose tea when I make a cup. also I have a nice ceramic teapot with a loose tea basket inside it.
I'm a fan of Oolong, Gunpowder, Darjeeling, and a lovely smoky tea called Russian Caravan. Question for you... what is the typical 'expiration date' for loose tea?
AJ_89 Topic Starter

Rogue-Scribe wrote:
Ohhh.... Tea! I love tea! I tend to use a diffuser with loose tea when I make a cup. also I have a nice ceramic teapot with a loose tea basket inside it.
I'm a fan of Oolong, Gunpowder, Darjeeling, and a lovely smoky tea called Russian Caravan. Question for you... what is the typical 'expiration date' for loose tea?
A large inset infuser basket is best as it gives tea leaves lots of room to expand. There are some really nice Russian Caravans out there--most use just Lapsang Souchong and Keemun, but a few add Darjeeling, which really rounds out the nuttyness in the blend.

There is basically no 'typical' in the industry. Tea doesn't really go bad, just stale, losing its flavour. What gets slapped on a package is usually about a year, maybe two from its packaging date. But the tea in the package is already often half a year old if not older, from picking to auction/brokering to shipping to landing, blending (if any), packaging, shipping. Ignoring things like the optimal time to drink certain teas after picking (varies--most need to rest after production to come into themselves).

Flavouring and 'bling' (the super technical term used in my side of the industry to describe whatever else is added to tea for visual effect--dried fruit, candy, flower petals...) also effects shelf-life, since that can introduce moisture, and sugars which date things. Flavoured teas usually need to be drunk in a year to two, as the flavouring will start to go, and if they've got bling that can turn things rancid if it introduces sugars and moisture into the blend.

It's a REALLY complex question that I can't properly answer without the pu(ehr)-heads coming out of the woodworks. In terms of general drinkability: Green tea (fresh, which uh, supermarket stuff is not), drink in under a year. White tea is the same. It will lose flavour after that. Black tea can last a few years before it gets pretty dull, oolong tea depends on if it's a new-style 'green' versus a traditional roast, which can be aged. Honestly, any tea can be aged these days--if you treat them right. But that's 200 extra cans of worms, and I'll keep my pumidor to myself for now.

Usually you can ignore the best-by date, as long as you store tea right. For loose tea, that's in a sealed, air-tight container, away from moisture, direct sunlight, basically a cool, dark environment. Avoid the fridge unless you don't plan on opening the container for some time, as that'll introduce condensation.

Sorry if that ended up a ramble.
Cool!Thanks for all the info! Lapsang Souchong... yes, that was the name I was looking for. It’s good on its own. Anyway, I’m having a cup of Earl Grey... basic Twinings teabag sort.
AJ_89 Topic Starter

Rogue-Scribe wrote:
Cool!Thanks for all the info! Lapsang Souchong... yes, that was the name I was looking for. It’s good on its own. Anyway, I’m having a cup of Earl Grey... basic Twinings teabag sort.
It is! Occasionally you'll see smoky earl grey blends as well. Those are quite nice. They'll get called 'Russian Earl Grey' often, or some variant.
That's very neat!! The way you described the types of teas was beautiful... I love tea. Have you ever had orange peel tea? I think it's very nice. As long as the orange is washed first, of course. :,) I like to blend teas as well- do you have any general advice about blending? I usually pair spicy teas with citrus teas, and often add other components myself, but if you have any helpful tips I'd much appreciate it!

Also, do you think brewing tea in a pre-warmed teapot has much effect on the tea? I've heard it helps. :P :)
AJ_89 Topic Starter

Shinyrainbowlithogra wrote:
That's very neat!! The way you described the types of teas was beautiful... I love tea. Have you ever had orange peel tea? I think it's very nice. As long as the orange is washed first, of course. :,) I like to blend teas as well- do you have any general advice about blending? I usually pair spicy teas with citrus teas, and often add other components myself, but if you have any helpful tips I'd much appreciate it!

Also, do you think brewing tea in a pre-warmed teapot has much effect on the tea? I've heard it helps. :P :)
I've not drunk orange peel on its own, but often dried and either blended with other herbs (especially citrusy ones--lemon grass, lemon myrtle), as a decoration in a flavoured true tea, or it's also commonly used to store puerh or white tea for aging, which can be quite nice. Like so:

Because this image might be big.
3pcs-orange-puerh-tea-puer-2005-year-ripe.png

As for blending, the best advice is 'experiment', and also 'taste lots of unblended/single-origin teas'. It helps you get a better idea of what you might want to blend together. Since I lean more classical tea blending, examples: Assam and Yunnan-grown black teas compliment each other very nicely, since they're so close region-wise. Yunnan is sweet and helps blend out the astringency, but Assam offers more body, depth, and malt. Darjeeling and Nepal teas are usually very very similar, making them near indistinguishable when used in blends with other teas. A tiny touch of bergamot in a non-Earl Grey style tea often helps ground other flavours; you see this a lot in Kusmi teas, for example.

Cinnamon can be a good source of sweetness in teas as well, and I'm sure you know how well that pairs with orange in general.

Pre-warming teapots absolutely helps. It's especially important if you've got a thick-walled teapot. If you don't pre-warm it, you immediately lose the majority of your heat to warming the pot that would otherwise go to steeping the tea. If you need really hot water, aka freshly boiled, pouring it into a cold teapot brings that temperature down to mid-80°c, which if you're brewing a black tea means you don't steep out a lot of what gives tea the body/briskness.
What are the top 5 teas that you personally recommend?

Is there a difference (taste or otherwise) between drinking loose tea leaves and tea bags?

What is your most hated tea?
AJ_89 Topic Starter

Avelithe wrote:
What are the top 5 teas that you personally recommend?

Is there a difference (taste or otherwise) between drinking loose tea leaves and tea bags?

What is your most hated tea?
This one took me a while to think over, hah. That's a really difficult question that I've been sitting on All Day and I guess depends on how Specific I want to be.

For people who are just making that jump from flavoured to unflavoured teas, who are maybe just starting to think more about single-origin teas instead of blends, who or just kind of beginning to experiment or read more on tea:

  • Dong Fang Mei Ren. Also called Oriental Beauty, Silver Tip Oolong, Bai Hao... The famous 'bug-bitten' oolong from Taiwan, it's a delicious, sweet tea that is very difficult to brew wrong, and really something anyone should experience.
  • Lapsang Souchong. The outdated transliteration for Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong, it's the 'ancestor of black teas'. It's also smoked and definitely an acquired taste. I'd really say 'any Fujian black teas' for a different reason--they're deliciously complex, fruity, smooth. But in terms of 'something you haven't tasted before' let's say Lapsang Souchong.
  • GABA Oolong. I'm using this as a bit of an overarching category as there are several GABA teas, but oolong being the most well-known/easy to find. The tea is fermented under oxygen-free conditions, which forms gamma-Aminobutyric acid. Health benefit arguments aside (I tend to take those worth a grain of salt anyways), its usually got a more pronounced fruity, sometimes even sour taste to them when compared to other oolongs of a similar style (which lean more floral and buttery).
  • 'Milk' Oolong. Jin Xuan oolong. This one's tricky. You're going to find the artificially flavoured ones mostly, or the ones that claim to be 'steamed in real milk'. Rarely you'll find an unscented true cultivar version. But it's an oolong with a light, sweet, creamy mouthfeel and taste. Originally the result of the Jin Xuan cultivar and very careful processing, but commonly flavoured these days. Although I'll admit the flavoured version is nice too--a bit like cheesecake.

    Mmmm... And maybe one that I'd recommend but are basically near impossible to find in this day and age:
  • Arunachal Pradesh-grown black tea. You basically never see this exported. I tried it years ago, and then the company that carried it went belly-up. It was reminiscent of a Taiwan Sun-Moon Lake black tea. Using an Assamica cultivar, it had a very dry cocoa flavour, subtle sweetness, not heavy on the tartness or astringency of Assam teas... Still a tea I crave to this day. That's another tea (although not a blend, it was a single-origin) that I miss dearly. The origin pops up in other places (Mariage Freres has one, although I haven't tasted it). Otherwise: try a Sun-Moon Lake black tea. Also called Ruby Black, or Ruby 18 as that's the cultivar it normally uses.

There's definitely a difference in loose and tea bag. Most tea bags (although companies have been moving into 'full leaf' teabags in recent years--except for the Plastic Issues) contain fanning or dust grade teas. Very fine powder. These liquor extremely quickly, as in they steep out fast (science: higher surface area, more contact with the water, faster steeping). This can be good, it makes for a strong tea, but the broken leaves also make for a much more astringent tea. This isn't really a problem with milk, but can be a bit harsh if you take your tea plain. I'm talking mainly about true tea (camellia sinensis) here. Side by side, you'll notice a difference--loose leaf is usually subtler, rounder, and less bitter, whereas fannings can be stronger, usually overwhelming any subtle notes, while being a bit harsh (almost peppery?) and bitter. Brisk gets used a lot. There's a lot more to it than that (fannings from more orthodox tea production versus CTC fannings or other rotary type teas... These all mess with the withering/production/oxydation stages and make fo different cups).

It's hard to say what my most hated tea is--most hated True Tea? I don't know if I have one. I've never loved yellow teas, but I wouldn't say I hate them. If we're including herbals/tisanes, I don't care for hibiscus. Or lemongrass. Or rosehip. Or really anything particularly tart, since these get thrown into tea blends to try and make the tea more 'fruity' and instead just makes them so acidic they're downright drying on the tongue, and overwhelm whatever 'fruit' note they were going for. Otherwise, on their own? Great for iced teas.
AJ_89 wrote:
Shinyrainbowlithogra wrote:
That's very neat!! The way you described the types of teas was beautiful... I love tea. Have you ever had orange peel tea? I think it's very nice. As long as the orange is washed first, of course. :,) I like to blend teas as well- do you have any general advice about blending? I usually pair spicy teas with citrus teas, and often add other components myself, but if you have any helpful tips I'd much appreciate it!

Also, do you think brewing tea in a pre-warmed teapot has much effect on the tea? I've heard it helps. :P :)
I've not drunk orange peel on its own, but often dried and either blended with other herbs (especially citrusy ones--lemon grass, lemon myrtle), as a decoration in a flavoured true tea, or it's also commonly used to store puerh or white tea for aging, which can be quite nice. Like so:

Because this image might be big.
3pcs-orange-puerh-tea-puer-2005-year-ripe.png

As for blending, the best advice is 'experiment', and also 'taste lots of unblended/single-origin teas'. It helps you get a better idea of what you might want to blend together. Since I lean more classical tea blending, examples: Assam and Yunnan-grown black teas compliment each other very nicely, since they're so close region-wise. Yunnan is sweet and helps blend out the astringency, but Assam offers more body, depth, and malt. Darjeeling and Nepal teas are usually very very similar, making them near indistinguishable when used in blends with other teas. A tiny touch of bergamot in a non-Earl Grey style tea often helps ground other flavours; you see this a lot in Kusmi teas, for example.

Cinnamon can be a good source of sweetness in teas as well, and I'm sure you know how well that pairs with orange in general.

Pre-warming teapots absolutely helps. It's especially important if you've got a thick-walled teapot. If you don't pre-warm it, you immediately lose the majority of your heat to warming the pot that would otherwise go to steeping the tea. If you need really hot water, aka freshly boiled, pouring it into a cold teapot brings that temperature down to mid-80°c, which if you're brewing a black tea means you don't steep out a lot of what gives tea the body/briskness.

Thanks so much! That's all really cool. I appreciate your helpful reply! ^_^ I was actually looking at tea online before you replied and saw one of those orange-peel-container things! :D

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