Bitterness

Bitterness is typically regarded as an unpleasant element of food and drink, but it can become enjoyable or even desirable when it comes to tea. Discussing bitterness can be difficult as the word is used to describe what I see as multiple, separate topics. Sometimes, I really crave bitter teas for their dry and medicinal character. In some ways, I view bitter tea as the opposite of a sweet, sugary beverage like soda or juice. American foods and beverages tend to be heavily sweetened compared to other cuisines around the world. I enjoy sweet foods but I rarely drink sugary beverages these days (I did much more often as a child) and find myself more drawn to dry, bitter and astringent drinks.

First, I want to lay out my personal definitions of a few different characteristics that are all referred to under the blanket term of ‘bitterness’.

  • Bitter taste or flavor – The flavor of bitterness sensed by your taste buds. An example would be the taste of an uncoated aspirin pill. This concept does not refer to any physical sensation in the mouth.
  • Sour taste or flavor – The flavor of sourness or tartness, separate from bitterness.
  • Astringency – The physical sensation of your mouth “drying” after swallowing. Could be felt on your tongue, gums, cheeks or throat. This does not refer to a flavor.

When it comes to bitter taste in tea (the first concept listed above), I generally think of it being split between two categories. First, some teas have a natural bitter flavor as part of their overall character. Sheng puer tea from Lao Man E village in the Bulang mountain area is a popular example. Second, you can bring out bitterness by over-brewing a tea which forces out more tannins and other chemical elements that affect flavor and physical sensation. I find the latter type to taste differently than the former. Inherent bitter flavor reminds me more of aspirin, while over-brewed bitterness is harder to define clearly and is often mixed with sourness, overpowering astringency and the sensation of consuming something heavy or “hard to drink”. Over-brewed bitterness is much less pleasant to me than natural bitterness and can present as a metallic or sharp taste in the mouth.

Everyone will find their personal preferred strength (ratio of water to leaves and duration of steeping) for brewing tea and brewing strength will affect how prominent the inherent flavors of the tea are as well as the parameters that will lead to over-brewed flavors. For example, during my review of White2Tea’s Diving Duck I found that extended steeps brought out noticeable bitterness in what I generally consider to be an ultra-smooth tea. So, bitterness will be subjective not only due to personal taste but also brewing practice. My suggestion would be to experiment with bitterness and see what you like. Push a tea you know well a little harder or seek out a tea that others find to be very bitter. 

Sourness is not something I encounter often in puer tea, though it can crop up sometimes, especially in very young sheng or funky shou. I haven’t experienced it myself but I have heard some varieties of green oolong like tieguanyin can contain sour notes. These types of flavors could also be related to added flavorings or contamination from pollution such as pesticides or herbicides since they are not typical of the natural profile of tea. However, sour and tart notes can surface alongside fruity, grassy or vegetal notes in tea, so as with any other flavor note it can be challenging to pinpoint exactly what element of the tea’s cultivation, processing, storage and preparation is the root cause.

Summer-harvest tea drying in Lao Man E village

Astringency, set apart from the other two concepts in that it is a physical feeling rather than a flavor sensed by taste, turns up in many teas. I would say most teas have some level of astringency even if it is mild, though you can find things like ultra-smooth black and oolong teas that mysteriously lack any astringency at all. To me, astringency can make a tea more ‘refreshing’ due to the crisp, dry feeling in the mouth. This characteristic can make you want to keep drinking more to quench the dry feeling, causing a sort of feedback loop. Too much astringency can make a tea unpleasant to drink, of course. Brewing style will also play a role here, with more aggressive brewing pulling out more of the astringent elements in the leaf. I usually tend to enjoy astringency in puer as an added level of complexity beyond flavor and aroma. This concept could be an interesting point to explore in comparison with the dryness of wines.

What to do with overly bitter teas? Some Chinese teas, especially young sheng, green teas, or dancong oolongs, can be difficult to brew without bringing out a ton of bitterness. “Flash-steeping”, or only brewing the tea for a moment (or as long as it takes to put down the kettle and pick up the vessel to decant), is a method you can try with gongfu to achieve the lightest-possible brew with a particularly potent tea. Cold-brewing is a great way to use up your teas that are too bitter to drink hot, as the cold water draws out much less of the tannins and other bitter compounds from the leaves, even in prolonged brews of 24+ hours. Another option is to blend your bitter teas in with sweeter or smoother teas to achieve something more enjoyable. Let me know your thoughts about bitterness in tea & how it affects your choices in what and how to drink!

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