Ayden Graham Reveals What's Brewing At Melbourne's Sensory Lab

Ayden Graham, Sensory Lab.

Sensory Lab's Ayden Graham was crowned the National Tea Brewers Cup Champion earlier this year at Fine Food Australia. FoodService spoke to him about the complex subtleties and the oft-misunderstood world of tea. 

Congratulations on being named the National Tea Brewers Cup Champion. How does it feel?
It’s pretty surreal. I wasn’t expecting to win at all. It’s really exciting to have this opportunity to go to China next year and visit a whole bunch of people and explore. It also feels good to have my work and ideas pay off.

What exactly was in Australia's 'Best Cup of Tea'?
I think calling it the best cup of tea in all of Australia is perhaps a tall order, taste is subjective after all. It was however pretty interesting to me. I found a tea from Xigui, a small village in Lincang, China. The material is normally turned into raw puerh, a type of fermented tea. A very limited amount was reserved and turned into a black tea - black meaning fully oxidised. It was made from massive leaves, some almost the length of my hand once brewed, and it had a very clean, delicate, sweet flavour. Lots of muscatel, and perfumey floral aromas. Super delicious, but also interesting because of the experimental processing.

How would you describe your tea philosophy?
I like to be open minded, and minimal. I think it’s important to approach tea (or anything for that matter) with the intent to always learn more, and recognise when you are wrong and learn from it. I like a healthy dose of science, and I like to really focus on what it is I am actually tasting, and cut out all other noise (i.e the purported quality or pedigree).

What types of tea do you usually drink?
My focus is generally on Chinese and Taiwanese teas, of which there is a huge variety, but particularly raw puers. The types of flavours you get out of puer processing are pretty unique, and the flavour changes with time as there is microbial and enzymatic oxidation that very slowly continues, yielding interesting results. I really enjoy learning something when I drink tea; tasting the effects of different growing conditions, varietals, processing finesse. This includes tasting tea with flaws! I’m constantly sampling new teas, I don’t really have something I drink every day. Often I find something I really like and drink all that I bought of it, and then it’s gone for the season.

What is your first memory of tea?
Not very standout - having a cup of generic black teabag tea when I was probably eight or nine years old, probably made for me by a grandparent. I remember it being horribly bitter.

Ayden Graham, Sensory Lab.

What was the path that lead you to Collins Street's Sensory Lab?
I started a part time barista job when I was still in highschool to pay the bills, and sort of ended up with Sensory Lab in early 2015, making coffee. It’s kind of an accident; my goal was never to be a barista or work in coffee. I was always a tea nerd at home, and I saw an opportunity to bring that knowledge into the industry, as not many people at all really care about this stuff. So we launched this new tea program for our new store to try and do something a bit different and start showing people what tea can be beyond what they are maybe exposed to normally.

What would you say to a coffee drinker hesitant to delve into the world of tea?
Don’t be afraid. Tea has a lot more history than coffee (an extra few thousand years). It’s an interesting intersection of culture, history, agriculture, taste, and of course people. There’s a lot to learn, and it’s fun the whole way through.

What teas are you currently excited about?
I’m excited about teas from areas with progressive agricultural practice, and teas with interesting or experimental processing. There’s a few people I follow at the moment commissioning some really non-traditional, interesting teas.

What are your tips for brewing that perfect cup of tea?
The next most important thing after the quality of your tea itself, is water quality. Too hard or too soft water will affect the taste of the tea significantly. I’ve found soft spring water to be the best in general. See if you can visit one and stock up or failing that, supermarket own brand spring water tends to be a) cheap in a big container b) roughly the right mineral content c) reliable and accessible.
         My other big tip would be to measure what you do each time you make tea, and record it. Water temperature, how much tea you used (get some scales!), how long you brewed it for etc. Write this down along with what you taste and experiment as you go. This will lead to better tea in general, for your tastes, as you play around.

What would you drink with your final meal?
That’s a tough one. Probably a tea I’d never tried before. It would depend on my mood at the time!

What piece of equipment could you not live without?
A gaiwan. A gaiwan is a small lidded vessel. You put the tea in the cup, add water and infuse for a short amount of time (five to 30 seconds), and use the lid to strain it off. You use a high ratio of leaves to water (three to six grams in 100ml) and do multiple infusions. This way you taste all of the characteristics of the tea as it changes and opens up, so to speak. It’s a very engaged way to drink tea.

Who has been the biggest influence on you as a hot drink connoisseur?
Undoubtedly Matt Perger, who also works for ST. ALi / Sensory Lab - a well known coffee professional, but more importantly a super smart and down to earth human, always willing to try new things and give honest opinions. He’s been a great mentor for the competition, and his thirst for knowledge and science based thinking is aspirational.

In your opinion, how have the tastes of the average Australian drinker change or evolved over the past five years?
People are generally more educated and more discerning that 5 years ago about the type of things they buy and where it comes from. People in general expect a bit more information and justification to come along with their coffee, tea, food and such, which is great. I think tea has a long way to go in making more types and origins of tea accessible, served and
presented well, tasty, and interesting. More people need to start selling better tea, and then more people will start drinking it!

For further information, please visit sensorylab.com.au.