Tea is a teacher, no doubt about it. All you gotta do to get taught by tea is to be attentive, mindful and listen.
There is one subject in particular I have had many, many lessons in from tea. And this subject is: bitterness.
Before I started becoming obsessive in tea at a time when I was more of a coffee junkie than anything else, bitterness was one of those things that kept me away from tea. Funny as it is I drank my coffee back then always without sugar and without milk. You can imagine, that that brew was far from being delicious and actually tasted bitter like hell. But I had no attention to switch to tea, cuz what I expected of it was more that it tastes like water. And green tea… ah forget about green tea its the climax of how bitter and untasteful things can possibly be.
Also, bitterness has a rather negative connotation in our day to day life I would say. When you say someone is bitter, then that is very bad and actually very sad thing to say about someone. I myself had felt bitter for a very long time after something happened to me, which had made me feel betrayed and treated unjust. Took a long time to get over it and the days I was carrying around that bitterness was one of the worst parts of my life.
So, there you have it. Bitterness is a very negative thing in regards to social standards and I can only agree to that. Feeling bitter is not good.
But, luckily I had tea to tell me that there are other ways of bitterness and that bitterness not necessarily has to be bad. It took a while to realize that, though.
It started with green tea itself. After I had gotten more and more interested in tea, I got to try more and more green teas. And possibly for the very first time, I got to drink some green tea, which was of good quality AND prepared right. I bet still 80% of the habitual tea drinkers would say that they dont drink green tea, because it tastes so bitter. And all of those 80% most certainly do not know, that you are not supposed to use boiling water on green tea. And thats simply because the hot water will loosen the bitter particles in the green tea leaves and will dissolve them in the water. This cant happen with teas in which more steps of processing are involved, such as Oolong or black tea. The tea leaves of those teas simply had to undergo so many steps, heating and firing included, which pretty much rid the leaves of all natural bitterness. Therefore you can use boiling water with those teas.
Well those green teas I got to drink then were absolutely fabulous, like Long Jing and Bi Lo Chun and if they had any bitterness at all, then it was very slightly at the end of your tongue, the last bit of flavor before the tea goes down into your belly. The smooth bit of bitterness actually enhanced the whole taste experience of the tea and that was very new and exciting to me to realize.
But there is an even better type of tea to talk about in order to explain the interesting part of bitterness. And that is PuErh tea. The green one. The raw one. The untreated one. The… bitter one.
Man, when I recall my first sheng PuErh experience in the Dragonwell Tea House in Sydney, I remember how much I hated that stuff. I was used to Shou (artifically fermented PuErh) and actually liked its mouldy, thick, sometimes cocoa like flavor. It tastes like age and wisdom.
But then I got to try the Sheng PuErh, I was very excited, and was so shocked by the flavour. SO bitter and strong. I was disappointed, because up to then each time I tried a new tea I loved it from the start. I simply did not understand the tea. And that was particularly sad for me, because I knew from so many tea lovers and experts that Sheng PuErh was their absolute favorite and in their opinion the most exciting tea in the world. That first experience really nagged at me.
But I did not give up. I did not tell myself, that raw PuErh is simply not my tea, which does not correspond with my taste buds, instead I told myself that I had simply not understood the tea yet, I have got to give it time.
And luckily I did. I kept on trying raw PuErh, the next time I think in the Zensation tea house in Sydney. And slowly, but steadily I started understanding the tea. After some time I went back to the Dragonwell Tea House and bought my first raw PuErh cake. I was very sceptical if that was the right decision, because just the half of the cake cost me 80 bucks.
But the purchase allowed me to investigate the tea very carefully at home. I made 15+ infusions with the same leaves and just watched how the flavor slightly changed each time. That was quite a revolutionary experience to me.
And most commonly the tea experience with raw PuErhs start VERY bitter, even though there are some raw PuErhs available which are more sweet. But once you got the hang, you start to examine that bitterness. And there is a huge difference compared to the bitterness you experience with bad prepared cheap green teas. While the latter described bitterness of cheap green tea kind of just numbs your tongue and your taste buds, the bitterness of a good PuErh plays with your taste senses. It does not just knock out your mouth, it plays with it. It comes and goes a little and it kinda takes a walk on your tongue. Very good PuErhs can create a feeling in your mouth thats similar to eating hot food. The tea is so hot and so bitter sometimes, that it takes hold of your whole mouth and makes it a hell hot oven for some moments. Its not exactly like eating a chilli, but its similar and honestly: very exciting.
If I would have to choose an alcoholic beverage I have to compare with raw PuErh, then I would choose Whisky, most definitely. Good Whisky has the ability to play with your mouth just like PuErh. Interestingly the influence Whiskey has on your mind after you have had some shots is not alcohol typical in my opinion. You do not become alcohol dull and stupid, you rather become alcohol wise and you start to feel very intellectual (even though you might be not, as with me).
It is my assumption that those spirits and teas that challenge your mind and your other senses the most, also have the most impact on your feeling and state of mind.
Believe me, when you drink 15+ infusions of raw PuErh in a time of 2-3 hours by yourself, you most certainly become tea drunk, but also very mindful and creative.
These were some of the lessons re bitterness I learned from tea. You have to be patient, just like with tea in general and you have to be persistent and be determined and willing to want to understand its specific phenomenas. If you do that, then you will be truly rewarded :-)