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The Tea Squirrel reports from the Global Tea Initiative at UC Davis

The Tea Squirrel reports from the Global Tea Initiative at UC Davis

Last Thursday I attended the 2nd Annual Colloquium of the Global Tea Initiative at UC Davis. I had RSVPed almost a month in advance, so I managed to attend the additional “special opportunity” tea tasting scheduled for that morning. 

Tea Master Wingchi Ip from LockCha tea house in Hong Kong provided attendees with a chart illustrating the tea making process for every type of tea from picking to packing and a list of information and criteria as well as a list of the teas for the comparative tasting.

Tea Tasting at the Robert Mondavi Sensory Theatre

By way of introduction, he explained that there are several ways to taste tea. 

  • With your 5 senses. Sometimes it’s not objectively enough, though, because the same person, the same body has different responses at different times of day.
  • With your mind. According to Buddhism, we have 6 senses, the mind is our 6th sense. It plays a very important role in the tasting process, not only of tea. Tea Master Ip provided two examples. If we look at the price of tea, we might be influenced and we are probably going to assume that the more expensive tea tastes better. The environment might affect our perception as well. Compare having some wine in a random location with the very same wine enjoyed in front of the fireplace, while listening to music in a romantic atmosphere. We don’t know it’s the same wine but chances are, we might not like it at all in the first setting, whereas we might say it’s the best we’ve ever had in the second. Therefore, it is important to keep an open mind.
  • By relying on experience. The more you learn about tea, the more you understand it. Think about pu er tea. Thirty years ago, pu er was not popular in Western countries. It was considered rotten, spoilt tea. Now it is one of the most appreciated and sought after teas. 

The comparative tasting was not meant to be a quality comparison but its purpose was to show the result of different tea processing methods. Tea Master Ip used a gaiwan. He explained that steep time and water temperature vary for each tea but in this case, a standard was needed to evaluate and compare teas. The parameters were 3 grams of tea leaves to 150 cc of water at 100 C (212 F) steeped for 5 minutes.

What is analyzed when tasting tea:
1.    Shape
2.    Color
3.    Aroma
4.    Taste
5.    Aftertaste

He pointed out that the light in the room was not ideal. Usually, to assess the color of tea, natural light from a north-facing window is best. Furthermore, the color is difficult to evaluate because the tea liquor oxidizes quickly. The sooner you do it, the better. Another trick is to use the gaiwan lid to analyze the aroma. He suggested to smell it and then take it away from your nose to better appreciate it.

Long Jing tea leaves

The tea tasting program was very ambitious. Here it is (from the handout).

First group (difference in fixing methods):
Pan-fried green tea: Long Jing from Hangzhou
Heat-dried green tea: Tai Ping Hougui
Steamed green tea: Japanese Sencha from Shizuoka

Second group (oolongs from different locations and varietals):
Northern Fujian: Wuyi dahongpao
Southern Fujian: Anxi huangjingui
Guandong: Phoenix danchong
Taiwan: Lishan oolong

Third Group (slight fermentation with or without fixing)
White tea from northern Fujian
Yellow tea from Anhui

Fourth Group (full fermentation with or without fixing)
Red tea: Yixing golden tips
Black tea: Yunnan shu pu er

Unfortunately, due to technical problems at the beginning of the session, we were only able to taste the first three teas and see and smell the Lishan oolong leaves. Very sad, I was eager to try all of them. It would have been a unique experience to compare so many outstanding teas in one session.

Taste, Smell, Sight, Hearing, Touch: The Sensory Aspects of Tea

In the afternoon, Katharine Burnett, the Faculty Director of Global Tea Initiative, welcomed the attendees and gave the opening remarks. 


Culture: Tea perceived: From a 9th-century shipwreck to a 19th-century snuff bottle by Victor Mair, Chinese Language and Literature, University of Pennsylvania

Victor Mair

The highlights (I don’t mean to summarize the talk, just to mention what caught my attention):

  • Chinese people have been drinking tea for 1200-1300 years and NOT for 5000 years, as some believe.
  • The growth of tea as a beverage in China began under the influence of Buddhism during the medieval period and then was legitimized among the population at large through the efforts of Lu Yu (733-804), the "Sage of Tea." (from the talk abstract)
  • The botanical origin of tea was found in the area were the southern part of Yunnan, the northern part of Laos and the eastern part of Burma meet. 
  • The Chinese started using tea as an infusion, domesticated the tea plant (which is a tree and not a shrub and can reach a height of 20-30 feet) and commercialized tea. 
  • The Chinese character for tea means “bitter weed”.
  • Tea drinking grew up in a vernacular environment.

Science: Environmental and Management Effects on Tea Quality by Selena Ahmed, Sustainable Food and Bioenergy Systems, Montana State University

Selena Ahmed

The highlights (see above):

  • The agroforest is a way to grow tea that mimics the forest, it’s organic, it’s environmentally friendly and has a positive impact on human health.
  • The onset of the East Asian monsoon marks the beginning of tea harvest (monsoon harvest) in the Bulang mountains and this means a 30-50% drop in tea prices. 
  • Tea quality is determined by secondary metabolites. They influence tea flavor and consumers’ decisions. They are caffeine (responsible for the bitter flavor), theanine (responsible for the umami flavor), catechins (bitter with sweet aftertaste). 
  • The total catechin content in tea from agroforests is twice as much as that in tea from terraced gardens. Catechin and aromatic compounds decrease in the monsoon harvest.
  • Spring teas are more intense in flavor. Tea quality is higher during dry spring/drought. Climate scenarios predict drier spring seasons and wetter monsoons.
  • Agroforests are more resilient to extreme variability.

Technology: A Scientific and Cultural Quest of Taiwan Tea, Aroma and Taste by Kai-Hsien Chen, Horticulture and Landscape Architecture, National Taiwan University

Kai-Hsien Chen

The highlights (see above):

  • There are at least six "variations" of oolong from Taiwan. 
  • Kai-Hsien Chen’s research starts from a fundamental question: how can a leaf (the tea leaf) have the aroma of a flower? 
  • He brought a vial containing "tea essence". They were able to reproduce it starting from a process called fragrance and aroma analysis. A systematic "aroma fingerprint" of tea is created by using gas chromatography and mass spectrometry together with olfactory detection (and the use of the aroma cup).
  • Hexanal and hexenal are some of the chemical compounds responsible for the grassy notes in tea.
  • Linalool, d-nerolidol and geraniol are some of the chemical compounds responsible for the floral notes.

Society: Coolie Poesis: Plantation Sounds and Labor Heritage on Sri Lanka’s Tea Estates by Mythri Jegathesan, Anthropology, Santa Clara University

Sound is often neglected in tea. The attendees were invited to close their eyes. A series of audio recordings were presented.

Mythri Jegathesan

The highlights (see above):

  • In the early 1800s, Tamil laborers migrated from South India to British Ceylon as “coolies”, wage plantation workers. They were largely excluded from decolonization movements and civil society.
  • The monthly net earning of a female coolie plantation worker is around 11$.
  • Despite their current lack of land and housing rights, Tamil plantation workers have sustained their place in Sri Lanka through cultural practices of song and poetry on the tea estates. (from the talk abstract)
California grown tea

California grown tea

Tea in an Italian stovetop espresso maker

Tea in an Italian stovetop espresso maker