Sunday, April 6, 2014

A Beginners Guide to Tasting Teas

Often, teas are consumed without really tasting them. Focusing on other activities while drinking tea can distract from the beauty of tea.  This article will address what taste and flavor is, why tasting teas mindfully is important, and will provide a way to actively taste tea.  Additionally, this article will discuss how to work on tasting ability.  

Taste & Flavor
Before discussing how to taste teas, it is important to understand the way in which flavor is perceived.  Flavor is affected by olfactory and gustatory systems.  Olfactory sensations can be perceived in two ways.  The first way in which it is perceived is when molecules pass through the nasal cavities and travel to the receptors of the olfactory gland.  That is the first impression of flavor, through smell.  The second way in which flavor is perceived through the olfactory system occurs when tea is in the mouth.  The aroma rises through the pharynx toward the nasal cavities and reaches the olfactory gland.  This is known as aroma and is the main way in which the flavor of tea is perceived.  It is estimated that 75% of what is tasted is regulated by smell.  Additionally, the tongue detects taste (gustatory system).  The tongue is covered with gustatory receptors and can detect bitter, acidic, salty, sweet, and umami flavors.  Flavor is combination of the olfactory and gustatory sensations.

Why Mindfully Taste Teas
Why set aside time to focus on actively tasting teas?  There are 3 main reasons for focused tea tastings, including: learning, appreciation, and evaluation.  Focusing on tasting teas and recording observations allows for teas to be compared and contrasted.  This can help draw conclusions about individual teas, categories of teas, and particular similarities within a region and will help expand overall knowledge of teas.  Moreover, fully focusing on each tea allows for a greater appreciation of and to better understand the complexity of that tea.  Finally, evaluation aids in establishing the quality of the tea and helps determine personal tea preferences.  When evaluating a tea and comparing it to similar teas, quality level can be determined.  Additionally, evaluating teas and keeping notes allows an individual to hone in on their personal tea preferences.  This also helps develop the language of tea and can make it easier to discuss tea with others and review teas.          

To do a focused tea tasting (also known as tea cupping), the dry leaves, wet leaves, and liquor (steeped tea) will be evaluated. 

Dry Leaf Evaluation
Dry leaf evaluation includes appearance and smell.  To examine the dry leaves, note the sizes and shapes of the leaves.  Are the leaves mostly uniform in length and width?  Are they twisted or rolled?  Are there stems?  What part of the tea plant is present?  Two leaves and a bud?  What are the colors of the leaves?  Are the colors even?  Be as specific as possible.  Rather than describing a color as ‘green’, delve deeper.  Are the leaves forest, spring, or jade green?  A color chart can be utilized to better describe the colors. 

Next, smell the leaves.  Try to pick out specific scents.  Tea is often described in the following categories: fruits, spices, nuts, vegetables, grass, floral, cocoa, tobacco, forest, smoke, wood, marine, and earth (these categories will also be used to evaluate the wet leaves & liquor).  The list of possible scents is endless, but those are some very common categories.  Keep in mind that there will probably be multiple notes.  Perhaps a particular tea might smells of roasted walnuts at first then develops into an apricot scent.  If determining the scent is difficult, the leaves can be rubbed between both hands to release more of the scent.

Wet Leaf Evaluation
Wet leaf evaluation includes smell and appearance.  After the tea liquor has been poured out of the brewing vessel, immediately smell the leaves.  What do the leaves smell like?  Be specific.  Use the above categories (from the dry leaf evaluation section) to help narrow down the scents.  Remember to describe how the aroma first hits your nose and also how it follows. 

What do the leaves look like now?  What are the colors of the leaves, is the coloring even.  If the leaves were twisted are they untwisted now? 

Liquor Evaluation
Evaluate the liquor by sight, smell, and taste.   What does the liquor look like and what is the color?  Be specific.  Is the liquor mahogany or possibly amber in color?  Does the liquor have good clarity or is it cloudy?  Is the liquor bright or dull? 

What does the liquor smell like?  Be specific. 

The best way to taste the liquor is by slurping.  Slurping will aerate the tea so the vapors become airborne and evenly spray the tea in the mouth.  Notice the mouth feel.  Is the tea heavy or light on the tongue?  Is there a noticeable texture?  For instance, does the liquor feel silky, velvety, or creamy?  What are the flavors of the tea?  Be very specific.  Use the above categories (from the dry leaf evaluation section) as a guide and try to narrow the flavors down as much as possible.  For instance, if you note that there is a fruity flavor, delve in deeper.  Is it citrus, berry, stone fruit, etc?  Maybe a citrus flavor is noticeable. Try to pin it down as much as possible.  Is it grapefruit, lemon, orange, tangerine, lime, yuzu, etc?  If possible, go even further.  What type of lime is it?  For example, could it be a kaffir lime or a key lime?  Be as specific as possible but do not worry if there is difficulty narrowing down specific flavors.  Specific flavors will be easier to determine when teas are more frequently actively tasted.  Most teas will have multiple notes.  Be sure to pay attention to the tasting notes at the front, middle, end, and after taste.    For instance, a particular tea might have almond, peach, and blackberry notes up front followed by hay and jasmine notes in the middle.  Oak notes and lemon may be present at the end of the sip with lemon notes that linger.  Pay attention to whether the tea exhibits astringency (drying feeling) or complexity (many layered notes).  Is the tea bright (fresh and lively) and/or round (full, smooth)?   Finally and most importantly, how does this tea make you feel?   

Training Tasting Ability
Tasting teas can be difficult at first.  We have often heard, “I don’t know, it tastes like green tea”; however; over time tasting tea will become much easier.  The more tea you drink and the more you compare teas, the better you will be at tasting tea.  We recommend sampling a number of teas at the same time and trying to identify tea based solely on taste.  Additionally, tasting a variety of food will help expand your palate.  Try tasting a variety of foods, particularly different fruits, vegetables, spices, and nuts.  Compare similar foods.  For instance, purchase 5 different pears and compare and contrast them.  Tasting new foods will provide more options to describe various flavors in tea. Finally, reducing or avoiding cigarettes, artificial flavorings, and heavily processed foods will help with identifying subtle flavors.  

Please keep in mind that this is an introduction to the world of tea tasting.  We recommend learning some general tea terminology.  Below is an example of our tasting sheets, which may be helpful when tasting tea.  We hope you enjoy your journey into tea tasting.