Thursday, September 13, 2012

White Peony Cupping Experiment

A couple days ago I conducted a new cupping experiment with a high quality White Peony (aka Bai Mudan) (白牡丹). I thought it might be interesting to stagger the water temperature and the steeping time three ways and taste the resulting infusions.

For this cupping, I used six identical 8 ounce glass mugs. After the cups were cleaned and warmed I placed 2 grams of White Peony dry leaf into three of the cups.

The first cup was brewed for 2 minutes with 200° F water,
the second cup was brewed for 4 minutes with 180° F water,
and the third cup was brewed for 6 minutes with 160° F water.

After they steeped for the correct number of minutes the tea soup was immediately decanted into an empty mug.

200° (left) - 180° (middle) - 16o° (right)

As you can see, the liquor had a very similar color for each cup. They all smelled nice too but 200° had a little less fragrance than the other two.

I sipped each cup carefully going back and forth between them while making notes.

16o° for 6 minutes was easily my favorite. It had the cleanest mouth-feel, a pleasant sparkly sensation in the throat and aroma notes of champagne and fragrant wood.

Predictably, 180° for 4 minutes was squarely in the middle. This cup of tea was a bit heavier and earthier than 160° with some similar flavor notes but also notes of grass and sand.

200° for 2 minutes tasted "cooked" and had a harsh finish. The usual nice fragrance of White Peony was present but in the mouth it was muddy and elusive.

After sipping the 200
°, when I switched back to the 160°, the 160° really popped out with a sweet, clean, happy flavor. And of course, going the other way made the 200° taste even worse.

Another point in favor of the cooler water was the look of the leaves after the first infusion. The 200
° were limp and dull looking. They did not steep well at all for their second infusion. The 180° and the 160° both still had little bits of dry white fuzzy buds shielded by the top leaf. These cups produced good second infusions.

160° right after the first infusion (left). The white fuzzy bud is still mostly dry.
180° (in the middle) has a little fuzz left.
200° on the right is spent and the bud is cooked to a pale green.

*Like all my casual cupping experiments these results don't really mean anything in the larger scheme of things. This same experiment could have totally different results depending on any number of variables. Even so, it reinforced my long-standing personal belief that most white teas prefer a longer, cooler infusion.


MarshalN said...

Actually, what you're doing is basically extracting things out of the teas faster or slower, so for example, the 200 cup will, of course, release less things in the second infusion - because it's already spent, whereas there's a lot more stuff left in the 160 so it'll keep giving you things in the cup. Also, lower temperature keeps some of the more bitter elements of tea in the leaves, so to avoid harshness or bitterness, brew with lower temps.

That's why even the nastiest, bitterest tea can be really nice if you cold brew them. I had some highly roasted, pretty crappy tieguanyin that I brewed in the fridge. The resulting tea was fragrant, sweet, and lovely. Brewed hot, at any temperature, and it's pretty gross.

Cupping is designed for testing what a tea's got, and what you can get out of it, not what you want to drink. All cupping results are usually pretty nasty - bitter, harsh, not fit for consumption, but that's how it should be (and you probably already know this). If it comes out sweet and mellow, it's not a tea you want to buy.

Brett said...

Thanks for the great comment MarshalN. And thanks for helping to put this blog post into better focus (for myself as well as for my readers).

"...extracting things out of the teas faster or slower" is exactly right. I was also curious if the different steeping times would somehow "even out" the results (like it usually does, in my experience, for many oolong and puer teas). For this session it turned out that the steeping times 2, 4, & 6 minutes didn't matter all that much. The hot water was the major variable.

Regarding the verb cup/cupping as it pertains to tea, I always thought it meant something like "to evaluate a tea(s) while drinking more than one sample at the same time." But I like your definition too... would you say it's something along the lines of: "to brew a tea(s) strong so as to evaluate its merits" ?

MarshalN said...

I think cupping means "steep in a standardized fashion that is useful for evaluating and comparing a tea's potential", which means comparing teas, not methods. I think what you were doing is more like playing with parameters, which in cupping shouldn't be happening.

Brett said...

I like the phrase "playing with parameters" and agree that it does a better job of describing this experiment.

I'm going to use your definition of cupping "comparing teas, not methods" in the future. This gels with a blog post I wrote on 4/20/09 called Cup (a verb) in which I wrote: "During a proper cupping, all variables should be controlled. The same weight of leaf, the same temperature of water, the same brewing vessels, and the same steeping time must be used for each tea."

By titling this post White Tea Cupping Experiment I actually contradicted myself.

Dom said...

Hi Brett and MarshalN,
thanks for this lovely article and for this lovely experiment. It excites me to read about experiments from fellow tea lovers too.

For Bai Mudan (white peony), I found this tea to be a very sensitive tea,like other white teas. Hence it needs a low temperature like 70 degrees Celsius.

Otherwise it can be very nasty. Tried this at a new age tea cafe and was shocked to see a brown liqeur from Bai Mudan.