charcoal roasted teas

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A great tea master once told me that the best tea processing is the processing that cannot be tasted.  In the case of charcoal-roasted teas, I would tend to agree. Some people might really like to taste the charcoal, but I like to taste a rounded, balanced, full-bodied tea with sweet notes that add to the tea, rather than a mouth full of charcoal.  Just as when one grills meat over charcoal, the objective is to heighten the flavor of the meat, not to taste charcoal or, worse, lighter fluid.

Charcoal-roasted teas have a very distinctive character that is usually quickly recognizable. When the tea is both carefully roasted and brewed optimally, the roasting adds a rich carmelized sweet note that heightens the flavor of the tea and rounds out or balances other notes in the tea. When charcoal roasting (or brewing) is done carelessly, what is left is the flavor of the charcoal which overwhelms the taste of what otherwise might have been a marvelous tea.

Teas that lend themselves to charcoal roasting include Taiwanese Dong Dings, Wuyi varietals grown in China or Taiwan, and Ti Kuan Yin varietals grown in China or Taiwan. These teas are typically brewed in hotter water (190-200ºF), but I notice that if I brew them in slightly cooler water (175-185ºF), the sweeter notes become more dominant, the tea has a smoother mouthfeel, and the charcoal roasting is not as pronounced.

Bon Teavant carries a traditionally harvested and crafted Charcoal Roasted Dong Ding which sometimes has a little more charcoal flavor than I like, so I brew it just a hair cooler and longer, which diminishes the charcoal flavor and still creates a rich, smooth, roasty cup of tea with a terrifically smooth mouth feel. If you are a person who likes to taste the charcoal, that is there for you also. Either way, this special tea provides an extremely satisfying cup that is distinctive and memorable.

rethinking the steep

This morning I did a sampling of 2006 Rice Pollen Green Puerh from Pure Puer Tea. Using very hot water for the first couple of infusions for a minute or more produced a very bitter, almost undrinkable tea. But the lovely, smokey aroma wafting off the lid of the gaiwan suggested that I had erred, and there was something good to be found in this tea.

According to Roy Fong in his book, The Great Teas of China, “Younger, less fermented puerh can easily become bitter, so try about 2 tsp in medium-hot water with a 1-3 minute steep time.” I’ve noticed that Roy likes his tea “thick” (heavily infused), so even the 1-3 minute steep time might still be too long for some teas for another palate.

So I started completely over with a new serving of leaves, and this time brewed only one teaspoon in 185-190ºF water for only 5-10 seconds (similar to brewing specs at Pure Puer Tea). Nice!

I had a very similar experience with David Hoffman’s Bamboo Fragrance Puerh, which when steeped for 90 seconds was undrinkable.  Taking it down several notches made the magic happen. Brewed in 195ºF water for about 15 seconds created a really fine and unique brew, offering a kind of smokey, exotic taste that made me feel as if I were sitting by an open fire with the tribe that had picked and processed the tea.

So, the next time you find an “undrinkable” tea, try steeping it very differently.  Hotter or cooler water, more or less leaf, different tea ware, or a change in steeping duration (or a combination of some of these variables) can make all the difference.

Then again, some teas ARE undrinkable.  In such a case, toss it in the garden, and find a new tea.