Tea Talk – Something’s Fishy and it’s not Black Yunnan!

Black Yunnan Tuo

This is a photo of my first really serious solo tea session … it was taken as I was about to take notes upon trying a tea I had confidence was good and after much exploratory listening, reading and watching. My first tasting notes can be seen in the photo here. I used red pencil to overlay points over my own on the tasting wheel made by the pros. I love a good visual. It shows I was close enough to feel ok to move ahead with some confidence.

The photo was taken just last week. I call it my first Real Tea Tasting Session. It really isn’t.

I will refer to it as my first intentional tasting … the one I took shortly after doing an involuntary tasting … one that was more of a joke – a bad joke. I’ve played at tasting different types of teas for a few years now. Making kombucha and jun introduced me to some more exotic varieties of tea and resulted in an initial awareness of the gongfu tea ceremony.

The tasting before this one was done with a button of tea tossed into a strainer in a cup. The tea was a roll of the dice purchase made while purchasing a fancy teacup online. I should have known – right. I decided to use it to overcome my fear of putting pencil to paper and fast found me laughing my way back into the kitchen, teacup in hand, to dump the contents. All I had tasted after getting to the first brew stage was a fishy, weirdly odd, couldn’t-quite -put-my-finger-on-it watery taste that I knew I’d tasted before. Foul water I found next to impossible to describe. The visual: a near-clear, liquid. My eyes rolled. I laughed and thought what else could I do. Then I seriously slumped into questioning $pending so much … on so much tea (really I only spent $3 on this particular tea tuo but still … there’s more.)

So much time consumed … and so much information … all for such a disappointing toe dip in the seas of finding my own tea voice. They said it was one of their best selling teas. And, it was an aged pu’erh … picked in 2010 … more floral and sweet than their other pu’erhs. Only now I notice there’s a typo … that should have tweaked my interest a little more maybe … it “goes down sooth.

I remained together enough and curious enough to wonder what ALL the others had to say and very quickly discovered someone HAD posted about the brew’s fishiness!

VOILA – totally hooked and took more bait … dove in for a more serious “sess” and had success … with a different tea. Black Yunnan.

So hooked and happy to proclaim there are no discernible fish-tasting notes on this one – phew!

When I bought this Black Yunnan Tuo, I made sure to read all the comments about it first. Teaheads on the UK site I purchased it from went out of their way to say this 30+ year old, relatively, inexpensive, ripe, pu’erh tuo had no fishy taste. They are correct. I purchased it here. Don Mei’s video about Fishy Tea goes into more depth as to the hows and whys. I’ve purchased a fair amount from them now and feel confident that what he and Celine bring in is top quality. Their enthusiasm and authenticity is palpable.

Back to fishiness. Fishiness is a thing I had no idea existed in tea tasting. I’d never experienced it nor seen it as a touchpoint on any tasting wheels … but WOAH – now I was seeing write ups about it everywhere … there was no mistaking the aroma and taste. I found out fast, a little more about tea tasting than I was actually ready for. Prepare to begin wracking your memory for vague recollections of all the things you’ve ever had in your mouth because what I’m finding covers the spectrum

Fishiness is most likely to occur in less expensive small, single-serve, pressed pellets of ripe pu’erh … in pressed buttons known as a tuo or tuo cha (resembling a bird nest). It’s usually found in aged pu’erhs but can be found in other teas, too. Basically, a result of poor handling either during the fermentation process or long-term storage … an undesirable breakdown of bacteria in plant microbial matter also known, by those in the ‘know’, as ‘dried squid’ aroma.

The person who posted about the fishy taste also said it tasted like dirt. Bingo! Thank You. That was definitely the other tasting note I’d not been able to spit out earlier.

In all, I found around ten other reviews about the fishy tea I’m not naming and shaming … reviews revering other amazing qualities. There is no explaining some people’s taste! Heck – there’s even mention of the ‘fish broth aroma’ on this amazon, 5-year, aged, pu’erh. Never again. When you know. You know.

As Don Mei explains, tea needs to be held for at least a year and often 2 or 3 years to be certain it’s aged well and offending ferment aromas have dissipated. The chemical responsible is Trimethylamine (TMA). Its smell is described as rotting fish – even worse. Again, it’s part of a process and tea can’t be pressed too soon or improperly stored. Ageing it properly is a science.

Ewwww – Yup. So that was the inadvertent tea tasting experience that caused me to attempt a more deliberate, first tea tasting where I picked up my pencil, opened the page to my first tea journal and so it begins.

I hope you’ll join me as I continue to taste all the teas.

I bought a lot!

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