Jaime has been talking a lot lately about the processing involved with coffee. It is interesting to apply this to Tea. Essentially when you roast coffee, you are bringing out the flavor; making it palatable. When you get to a certain point however, you start to kill the flavors by bringing the oils to the surface and scorching them. When you do this with a very flavorful coffee you are simply scorching the flavor, but when you do this with a less flavorful coffee you create a taste with the roast, simply because the bean has little inherent flavor.
Now the question I am posing in regards to tea is this: Does processing a tea, whether withering, oxidation, or firing, impart bad flavors, take away flavors, or add additional pleasant flavors without killing the flavors inherent in the tea leaf? Is it only certain processes such as heavy firing that impart or take away flavors in an extreme way? Do they shorten the life of the tea? Obviously the flavor is heavily affected by the processing and the degree to which it is taken, but at what point are you taking away from the flavor or manipulating it to a point where it has become less desirable? This is a hard question to answer, because there are so many different tastes and opinions on what tastes good. This is a way in which tea is different than coffee. Tea is steeped in so much tradition and ages of thought, that it is hard to say exactly what is good and bad from an objective stand point. When you take an opinion however, you could be simply ruling out a whole different world of taste different than yours. If you processed all the different varietals from the different places that fine quality tea is grown into white tea, would get the “true flavor” of the tea leaf, or would you just get a single expression of that tea?
Processing tea is an art and a science, as is coffee roasting, so is it my job as a taster to judge and simply express my opinion and expression by selecting teas that I like? Is my job to choose teas based on the criteria for that single type of tea? As a tea server is my job to serve tea in a way I think is correct or is my job to serve tea as a way of expressing the taste of the person to whom I am serving?
I think the key to understanding the flavor in tea, is what type of processing is done as opposed to how much is done. The taste of green tea is dependent on the way it is processed, but also on the varietal used. The main difference in taste regarding tea processing can be highlighted in the difference between Japanese and Chinese green tea. The Longjing green tea is the same varietal as the green tea in Japan, but they are processed very differently. Longjing is pan fired; whereas Japanese greens are typically steamed. Japanese green teas are usually very fresh, grassy, and sometimes sweet, whereas Longjing is more fruity, nutty and a much smoother flavor overall.
The best teas that I have ever tried are Oolongs. They are processed just enough to bring out the flavor without changing it too drastically. Oolongs are very specific and often complicated in processing. The truth though is that white, green, yellow, and Oolong teas all have their specific tastes and are all good in their own right. Black and Pu-erh teas usually have their fair share of flaws because they are processed so heavily. Because of this they have created a certain taste based on their flaw, much like coffee that is too darkly roasted or coffee that is fermented in processing the green bean.