How to Taste Tea: An Introduction – Herbs & Kettles

How to Taste Tea: An Introduction

In developing your tasting skills and vocabulary you’ll be able to communicate your experiences with other tea lovers and form a common bond with those that appreciate other forms of food or beverage.
by Christopher Heale
How to Taste Tea: An Introduction
In developing your tasting skills and vocabulary you’ll be able to communicate your experiences with other tea lovers and form a common bond with those that appreciate other forms of food or beverage.

The idea of being told ‘what’s the best way to drink tea?’ may be a strange concept.

We all learn to taste from the very first time we are given something to eat or drink. We instinctively know what tastes good and what tastes bad to us and those tastes can generate emotions and form lasting memories. We detect and remember certain flavors and aromas and note the texture and feeling they exert upon us. But, we also need to have a language to communicate these complex sensory experiences with others as well as a way to evaluate the quality of different tastes relative to one another. Evaluating a tea follows methods and language common to many other beverages such as wine, coffee, and whisky. In developing your tasting skills and vocabulary you’ll be able to communicate your experiences with other tea lovers and form a common bond with those that appreciate other forms of food or beverage. So here is a brief introduction to how to taste tea.

Firstly, flavor is predominantly a combination of the olfactory system (through the nose), and the gustatory system (through the tongue). The olfactory gland, which is located at the front of the brain can be stimulated directly (from smelling through the nose), or retro-nasally (a fancy word for scents going up to the olfactory gland through the back of the throat up the nasal cavities). Technically ‘smells’ come from direct olfaction through the nose and ‘aromas’ are perceived from retro-nasal olfaction through the back of the throat. The tongue detects flavors using 10,000 or so receptors under the taste buds. In addition, receptors in the mouth allow us to detect texture, viscosity, astringency, and a perception of temperature. Mouthfeel is an overall combination of these tongue based sensations and is usually categorized as poor, good or rich. Us humans can only detect five different ‘types’ of taste: sweet, salty, acidic, bitter, and umami. However, the combination of these tastes in different degrees can lead to the perception of a much broader range of tastes. The combination of sensations from both the olfactory and gustatory system together is what becomes known as ‘flavor’. In fact 80% of flavor is from aroma, and the remaining 20% is from taste.

The art of drinking tea

Cupping Method of tasting tea

The standard way of preparing tea for tasting is known as cupping in the industry. The cupping method consistently uses 2.5g of tea in a 4 oz (120 ml) cup, at a boiling temperature which is then brewed for 3 minutes. The cupping method is designed to subject all teas to the same conditions so that their characteristics can be compared, and the small amount of liquid is designed to concentrate the flavors. It is not necessary to use this method at home of course. You can use any combination of cup size, tea amount, and brew time that you wish but it is helpful to use the same brewing parameters each time and it is even more helpful to compare several teas side by side to really note the differences and subtleties between them. It is also extremely useful to keep notes of each tea, the brewing parameters and the flavors you perceive. We would advise making a tea journal which will guide you through the visual, olfactive and the flavor of tea. Record the brewing methods, research to develop the proper way to drink tea, identify flavors and the ranks of teas you’ve tasted.

What does tea taste like?

So what is the general process for tea tasting? Well, the first step is to simply look at the leaves. Observe their color, their texture, are they whole or broken?, are they ball-like, or twisted, or open? Then, we want to warm up the cup with hot water. Once the cup is warm, discard the water and place the leaves in the cup. The warmth from the cup will release the scents of the dry leaves. Sniff the heated dry leaves and try to describe what you smell. At first, this will be hard to do but with practice it will get much easier.

One of the best tools for describing smells and tastes is a tea flavor wheel. These wheels display families of flavors in the center, which are then subcategorized as you move away from the center of the wheel. So the families will be something like: woody, fruity, vegetal, spicy and the subcategories could be citrus, stone fruits herbs, dried grass etc. An example of a flavor wheel is pictured below to help you in your descriptions of your teas.

A tea flavor wheel describes the smell and taste of a tea

Once the dry leaves have been smelled, we brew the tea and then smell both the infused wet leaves and the liquid itself. Notice what has changed between the smell of the dry and wet leaves, and how does the tea liquor itself differ from the smell of the leaves?

After smelling the leaves, we take our first sip of the tea. Be sure to slurp the tea to allow it to aerate as it is brought into your mouth. Once, the liquid is in your mouth, exhale through your nose to stimulate the retro-nasal olfaction as mentioned earlier. The notes from the tea are often characterized by the head, body, and tail notes. The head notes are the transient smells and aromas that are volatile, arrive quickly and give you a first impression of the tea. The body notes are the dominant, strong notes that will give us our predominant impression of the tea and define how it feels in the mouth. The tail notes are those that linger longer than the rest and characterize the lasting impression that you get even after you have swallowed the tea.

In addition to noticing the aromas and flavors in the tea tasting experience, note the feeling and texture of the tea in your mouth. Is it light and refreshing, or thick and heavy? Does it make you pucker and give a drying sensation or is it smooth and silky? It is also good to notice the length of time the flavors linger after the liquid is swallowed. A tea whose flavors and aromas remain for a long time are described as having a ‘long finish’ as opposed to a ‘short finish’, whose flavors and aromas quickly fade. Another common descriptor you’ll hear is that of astringency, which is often confused with bitterness, but is not the same. Astringency is the feeling of drying and contracting of the mouth which is also often felt with dry red wines. Astringency in itself is not a bad thing in tea, but a feeling of harsh astringency in a tea is known as pungent and can be quite unpleasant. Teas that are full and thick in the mouth are known as full bodied while those that are silky and smooth are known as light bodied teas.

To summarize the proper way to drink tea

  1. Read the leaves - Observe the color and shape of the dry leaf.
  2. Warm the teaware, place the tea into the warmed teaware, and smell the dry leaf.
  3. Brew the tea (typically 2.5g of tea in appropriate water temperature for 1-3 minutes based on the tea), then smell the wet leaf and the tea liquor.
  4. Slurp the tea into the mouth, then exhale through the nose to stimulate retronasal olfaction.
  5. Use a flavor wheel to help describe the notes you detect in the tea and describe the texture and mouthfeel of the tea.
  6. Try to compare multiple teas side by side and take notes as you go along.
  7. Keep a tea journal that you can refer back to over time.

Now that you have taken your first steps into the world of tea tasting, try out your new found skills and compare our Herbs and Kettle Darjeeling 1st Flush, Darjeeling 2nd Flush and Darjeeling Autumnal Flush and notice the differences in aromas and flavors. Don’t forget to make full use of the flavor wheel to help you with initial descriptors and get started on your journey today.