Why Tea Tastes Bitter & How To Get Rid Of It (Part 1)

Many people who visit me at the Chinese Tea Shop in Vancouver’s Chinatown say they would like to enjoy tea more but don’t like the bitter and astringent taste. I ask them to pick a tea (any tea! Oolong tea, white tea, black tea, or puerh tea, for example) and I make it for them using the Gong Fu Cha method of traditional Chinese tea-making.  They are always surprised that the tea is smooth, sweet and refreshing.

There are a number of reasons why tea tastes bitter and astringent. This week I will show you some of these reasons. Next week I’ll show more reasons and a quick way to make your tea to get rid of the bitter taste.

  1. Chemical Compounds: Tea’s bitter and astringent qualities come from two types of chemicals that are found naturally in tea leaves; polyphenols (tannins and catechins) which cause astringency and theophylline which causes bitterness
  2. Plant Species: Most westerners drink Black tea from India. The Indian tea plant (Camellia sinensis var. assamica assam) is a tougher plant than the Chinese variety (Camellia sinensis var. sinensis) with higher levels of natural caffeine and the chemicals that cause bitterness and astringency. The leaves are often broken, causing bitterness while brewing
  3. Harvesting Season: Longer hours of sunshine increase the concentrations of catechins in tea leaves and so increase the astringency.  Teas made from leaves picked in summer (which are usually the cheapest and lowest quality teas) tend to contain the highest concentrations of catechins, followed by spring tea, autumn tea and then winter tea which has lowest levels. Since a tea tree or bush has had its leaves picked multiple times by autumn, new autumn tea shoots contain less nutrients and bitter compounds. Autumn tea is prized for its fuller taste and aroma compared with spring or summer tea.
  4. Growing Altitude: High altitudes have more unstable weather patterns and less sunlight than other regions. Tea leaves produced at high altitudes contain lower levels of catechins, hence, tea from these leaves tastes less astringent than teas grown at lower altitudes.
  5. Natural Sugars: The presence of natural sugars and amino acids in tea leaves help to balance the bitterness in tea. There is a higher concentration of these sugars in spring and autumn picked leaves, which gives these teas a sweet and less bitter taste than teas made from summer picked leaves.
  6. Size/Age of Leaves: Young, tender leaves have high levels of catechins. They also have higher levels of caffeine which intensifies the bitter taste of tea. Tender leaves also contain higher levels of sugars and amino acids which balances bitterness. Old leaves contain lower levels of polyphenols and caffeine as well as lower levels of amino acids, which gives these teas a lingering bitter taste.

Next week I’ll show more reasons why tea can be bitter, and a quick way to make your tea to get rid of that bitter taste.

For more information on how to buy Chinese Teas, see our complete article in the Library at The Chinese Tea Shop: How To Buy Chinese Tea – by Daniel Lui

For full instructions on Gong Fu tea-making, see our complete article in the Library at The Chinese Tea Shop: Gong Fu Cha – The Complete Guide To Making Chinese Tea – By Daniel Lui

Don’t know which tea is right for you? Answer a few questions and the Online Tea Wizard will show you all the Chinese teas that suit your taste. Amazing!

More About Ban Zhang Pu-erh Teas

What is the “real” Lao Ban Zhang Tea? 

Last week I wrote about the Ban Zhang Pu-erh Teas I have brought back to my store from Yunnan. These are a rare type of green/raw Pu-erh tea that many people were very interested to know more about. These teas have just recently become popular and are hard to find as the best ones are kept by collectors who appreciate this tea and know its true value.

Lao Ban Zhang is the best of these teas, with a very unique bitter-and-sweet taste with a long lasting aroma and sweet after-taste or “hui gan” and still tastes strong and fragrant after many infusions. In just ten years it has earned a reputation amongst Pu-erh Tea connoisseurs as one of the finest green/raw Pu-erh teas.

Lao Ban Zhang tea trees grow at high altitude between 1,700 to 1,900 meters above sea level (about 6,000 feet), in a subtropical monsoon climate zone. This area does not get too cold in the winter or too hot in the summer and the climate is separated into two distinct dry/rainy seasons.  The Lao Ban Zhang plantation is well preserved and located in an ancient forest which is not easily accessible by outsiders.  The soil is fertile and is formed from a mix of sand and fallen leaves.  This environment gets abundant rainfall and sunlight, both excellent conditions for large leaf trees. Leaves that are harvested in this forest are large, thick and vigorous looking with a shiny and deep green colour. The tender tips are covered with shiny silvery bristles/hairs.

Many teas claim to have some or all Ban Zhang leaves.  A way to tell is the length of time the bitter taste stays in your mouth before it turns sweet. Lao Ban Zhang is the best quality and turns the most quickly and has the most intense sweetness. Xing Ban Zhang is the next best and then Lao Man Erh.

Some fake teas have no Ban Zhang leaves at all. These are produced from randomly blended, thick, sturdy and bitter tasting “tai de cha” (mixed with bush tea). Another kind uses Mengsong bitter tea as the base and other types of leaves are mixed in.  This tea gives a distinct bitter taste, but not a sweet aftertaste or “hui gan”.  It is easy to spot this kind.  The leaves are not clean and tidy nor strong and vigorous looking with the silvery bristle/hair.

I am carrying limited quantities of the Organic Xing Ban Zhang Tea Cake from Import/Export Corporation (CNNP). I also have the 100% Lao Ban Zhang Collector Edition with tips and large leaves.

For more information about Ban Zhang tea, see my blog from last week “Ban Zhang – A New Kind of Pu-erh Tea”.

Ban Zhang – A “New” Kind of Pu-erh Tea

Big Leaf Tea from an Ancient Hidden Forest 

Last May I was in Yunnan province in China buying new teas for The Chinese Tea Shop. At a visit to a Pu-erh tea factory I was given a tasting of a wonderful Lao Ban Zhang (Raw/Green) Pu-erh tea. This was a very lucky day as it is quite rare to find this kind of Pu-erh tea. I have wanted to buy Ban Zhang tea for ten years but could not be sure of the quality until now.

For those who have tasted Lao Ban Zhang, their first experience is often overwhelming. This tea has a very unique bitter-and-sweet taste and the “cha chi” (tea energy) is very strong, but leaves a balanced and long lasting sensation in the mouth and throat.  The distinct bitter taste dissolves within seconds and turns into a sweet after-taste or “hui gan”.  Another special characteristic is its mild sweetness that becomes more and more apparent after multiple infusions.

There are a few types of Ban Zhang teas on the market.

  1. The best quality is from Lao Ban Zhang village.  The plantation is in an ancient forest which is not easily accessible by outsiders so this Pu-erh tea was largely unknown until 2008.  The rarest teas are made from 100% Lao Ban Zhang leaves and are not blended with any other types of leaves. Today this tea is regarded by connoisseurs as among the very best of Pu-erh teas.
  2. More common are leaves grown in nearby villages such as Xing Ban Zhan and Lao Man Erh. These are often blended with leaves from other parts of Bu Lang Mountain. The appearance, flavour, energy, long lasting “hui gan”, special aroma and other unique qualities is similar to Lao Ban Zhang.

Because of the growing demand and rising prices, many fake Ban Zhang teas have come on the market which have no Ban Zhang leaves whatsoever. If your Ban Zhang tea has a bitter taste that does not go away quickly, it may be an indication that the tea is “tai de cha” (mixed with bush tea).

What constitutes the best Ban Zhang and how it is different from other Pu-Erh teas is still very much a fascination to many tea drinkers. This is due in large part to its scarcity on the market because the best ones are kept by collectors who appreciate this tea and know its true value.

I have brought back limited quantities of two Ban Zhang teas. One is the Organic Xing Ban Zhang Tea Cake from Import/Export Corporation (CNNP) and is a good quality and reasonably priced. The other is the 100% Lao Ban Zhang Collector Edition Tea Cake I found at the tea factory I mentioned above. This tea was a special order by a private collector who requested young tips and large leaves in the recipe which gives the tea a delightful sweet and intense taste.  I was able to purchase some of these cakes from the factory who had kept some extras for their own collection. The Collector Edition comes with a beautiful wrapper and calligraphy and is more expensive but a must for Pu-erh tea connoisseurs.

To learn more about Pu-erh Teas, visit the tea section at the Chinese Tea Shop. To purchase top-quality pu-erh tea now, visit our online store.

2 Secrets of the Tea Masters

Today, I am sharing two advanced techniques of tea-making and why they make your teas taste so much better. The first is a better way to use your teapots and the second is about water temperature.

Tea masters always have a large selection of Chinese Yixing unglazed clay teapots on hand for every kind of tea (including Oolong Tea, Pu-erh Tea, and White Tea). These are the tools of their trade when making tea the traditional Chinese way called Gong Fu Cha (Tea With Great Skill). Each teapot is designed to be used for a specific type of tea. This chart shows the basic guidelines that are generally used by Gong Fu Cha tea-makers.

The different densities and firing temperatures of the clays used to make Yixing teapots regulate heat and oxygen in different ways which are very important factors in tea-making. Even the shapes of the teapots are designed to optimize the different ways tea leaves expand in water. So a lot of consideration goes into the selection of a Yixing teapot. You can get a real Yixing teapot at a Chinese tea shop for around $25.

Yixing teapots also absorb the oils that give tea its bitter taste. Low-fired teapots are thick and porous and are used for strong and robust teas like Black tea and Pu-erh teas. High-fired teapots are finer, denser and less porous and absorb less oils. These are used for more delicate teas like Green tea, White tea and Oolong teas.

For better tasting tea, try this technique. Use a higher-fired teapot for aged teas that have already mellowed like aged Pu-erh teas and aged Oolongs like Wu Yi Shui Xian or 20 Year Old Iron Buddha and any tea made from tips. Many people would like to drink Green teas like Long Jing Dragon Well and Silver Needle  but don’t like the grassy, bitter taste. This is largely because they use glass or porcelain teapots. Use a high-fired Yixing teapot for these teas which will make them taste sweet.

Water temperature is another important factor in tea-making. The higher the temperature, the faster the tea leaves dissolve but this gives less control over the brewing time. An advanced technique is to find the lowest water temperature possible for the tea you are making. This chart will give you a good starting point:

*Boiling means when the water has just reached a slow boil with big bubbles.

A great accessory that we use every day to control water temperature is the new digital variable temperature kettles. With a little experimentation using different teapots and water temperatures, you will be able to control your tea brewing with more precision and get the very best taste for each brew. You will be amazed at the results. You will also use less tea and save money which will make you happy.

More information about clays, firing temperatures and using Chinese Yixing Teapots can be found in a complete guide here, in the Chinese Tea Shop’s Library.

Myths & Facts About Caffeine

Which have the higher level of caffeine: coffee or tea, Indian tea or Chinese tea, green tea, white tea, oolong tea, pu-erh tea, or black tea?  

There are many opinions, and good facts are harder to find.  Scientific studies can be less than detailed about what products were used so this can add to the confusion.

A well detailed and easy to read study published by the British government in 2004 concluded that:

  • All Teas – mean 40 mg per serving
  • Instant Coffee – mean 54 mg per serving
  • Ground Coffee – mean 105 mg per serving

For those who are sensitive to caffeine, there are ways to reduce the caffeine levels of any tea. The traditional Chinese method of tea-making called Gong Fu Cha (Tea with Great Skill) makes tea in small amounts with many brews to concentrate the taste and minimize the caffeine.  The first step of Gong Fu Cha is to rinse the leaves. Caffeine is water soluble and this first step washes away a significant amount of caffeine but keeps the taste.

Here is a quick guideline:

  • All coffees are higher in caffeine than all teas
  • All Indian teas are higher in caffeine than all Chinese teas
  • Chinese green teas are higher than all other Chinese teas.

The camellia sinensis var. assamica tea plant that is used in India is a heartier and more robust species than the variety used in China. It produces stronger flavours, a higher yield of tea leaves per plant, and the leaves have naturally higher levels of caffeine.

Of all teas, green teas have the highest caffeine levels followed by Oolongs and then Black tea. This comes as a surprise to many people because green tea does not taste as strong as Oolong and Black Tea. Green teas (along with Yellow and White Teas) have a subtle taste but use the least amount of processing to produce the tea, so most of the natural caffeine from the plant is still intact in the leaves. The process used to manufacture Oolong and Black teas removes more of the caffeine.

One of the strongest tasting Chinese teas is the Pu-erh tea which has some of the lowest caffeine levels due the processing methods used and the fact that they are aged and the caffeine breaks down over time.

To learn more about us,  come on in to The Chinese Tea Shop today. To find out which of the various teas will suit your tastes, try The Chinese Tea Shop’s Tea Wizard now!