One great thing about blogging about tea is the wealth of punny post titles you can wring out of the word "tea". It's a great thing about doing anything with tea in general. Hell, Adagio's entire teapot line is based off of puns.
Anyways, I digress. The topic of this post is something that I'm sure all fledgling teaheads know about, and that is the worried feeling that you're "doing it all wrong."
Just imagine it: you've just bought a sample of some outrageously expensive tea. Sure, you've brewed a quite a bit of leaf in your short time as a tea enthusiast, but this is your first time with a big league, masterpiece tea. Like a rookie stepping up for his first time at bat, you make sure that all your equipment is in order. Gaiwan pre-warmed, timer set, variable-temperature kettle set correctly. All the variables have been accounted for; the rest is up to you.
As you watch the leaves slowly open up and colour the water, you think to yourself "did I screw this up? Water too hot? Gaiwan too large?", and so on.
The timer goes off. You decant the liquor and take a deep smell of the wet leaves. So far, so good. Then you sniff the liquor...once, twice...then, finally, you sip. The results are...disappointing. Instead of the "sweet plum and floral notes" the website described, you get a big, tin cup of blah. You do a few more infusions, and you get more of the same.
You sigh. Guess you messed it up. What a waste.
Now, I've gone through several of those moments in my admittedly brief career as a teahead. They can be quite defeating, especially if I'm brewing tea for a few people and I KNOW that it's a great tea, but I mess up the brewing and I end up serving a sub-par tea to my dear club members. Tea is supposed to be a relaxing, calming experience, but the anxieties that come along with brewing high-quality leaf can ruin the fun of tea drinking.
So how can the beginning tea enthusiast get over all this? Well, just remember a few key things and your mind will be put a little bit more at ease:
Having expectations is probably the worst thing you can do when tasting a tea for the first time. Yes, the website or tea shop will tell you what the tea tastes like, but it's really only a vague guide. Not only that, but as a beginner, your palate is not going to be refined enough to pick out every single note. Lots of the best teas are very subtle and complex, and aren't going to be hitting you over the head with "plum" or "raisin" or whatever flavours. So try not to go in with any pre-determined ideas of what you're going to get; just let the tea be what it is.
Of course, if you've payed through the nose for a tea, it should probably not taste like swill. Even if you aren't getting all the flavour notes, it should still taste good.
2) Personal Preferences
This might seem sort of obvious, but it's worth saying anyways: you aren't going to like everything. Even if you've read over and over again that Da Hong Pao is the best oolong out there, but if you don't like it, then it'll never be the best oolong for you, even if you brew it perfectly. It's good to have an open mind about trying new flavours, but there's no point in wasting time and money pursuing something you don't want to drink.
3) There's Help Out There
Let's say you brewed a tea and you like it, but you don't think you're getting the most out of it. You can taste what kind of tea it COULD be, but it's not there yet. If you've tried all the variables and it's still not working out, it might be time to ask somebody a bit more experienced. The forums at TeaChat are probably the best place to start. Don't worry about coming across as dumb; most people who are into tea ask a question (or many questions) about brewing at some point. At the very least, it gives you something new to try.
4) Some Tea Just Sucks
Yeah, it's true; not every batch of $600 per pound Da Hong Pao is going to be worth the money. Generally with tea you get what you pay for, but there are still bum deals out there, and some vendors will charge through the nose for product that has a "name value" but really isn't very good at all. It's important to listen to what the tea community has to say about a vendor (especially online ones) before taking the plunge. If the vendor offers sample sizes, try those first. Don't beat yourself up if you work and work and all you have to show for it is a cup of stuff you don't want to drink. Chances are, if you've put in the time and effort, it's the tea's fault, not yours.
5) It's Just Tea, Jeez
This is what it comes down to in the end. Tea is cheap. Very cheap. As James Norwood Pratt stated once, "no luxury is cheaper than tea", and he's right. Tea is far cheaper than alcohol or coffee, and there's more of it than anybody can be expected to drink in a lifetime. It might not SEEM cheap when if you're spending 45 bucks a cake of pu-erh or 100 grams of Silver Needle, but that cake and those 100 grams are going to give you more value for your money than any other foodstuff (if only because you can steep both of those teas multiple times). Don't fret over messing up one brew or seventy, because there's always more good tea out there for you get right later. Just enjoy the ups and downs and learn from the screw ups.
This video makes some good points about brewing, though I don't really like its tone: