I don’t remember the last time I took down notes. At best, I scribble on white-boards or dexterously text on my smartphone. And the last time I was in a class glaring at a PowerPoint presentation was a good two years ago at business school. But for this particular class – a two-day workshop on the sensory analysis of tea – I did find myself scribbling through the pages of a brand new notepad.
Tea tasting is a deductive study, a scientific approach, more or less, to decode the flavors of tea and adjudge its “goodness” and its commercial viability. It’s a skill that comes handy when you want to buy a specific kind of tea – to sell or to drink. For there are limitless varieties of teas and it’s not easy to tell one apart from the other without elaborate tasting notes to convey their individual qualities.
Carine Baudry, a Paris-based perfumer-turned-tea expert, recently came down to India to take a training session for us folks here at Teabox on the topic of sensory analysis of tea. The workshop was held in Siliguri – a city parked perfectly between all the fine estates around Darjeeling, Assam and Nepal, and possibly the perfect location for this activity bon vivant. In attendance were buyers, blenders, and marketers like myself who are intimately involved with tea and want to fine tune our tea-speak. “To talk about tea we need a common language so we can share and communicate each other’s experiences better,” Carine informs.
Over the course of two days, Carine introduced us to different kinds of aromas and tastes, and all the many other things associated with tea tasting. In fact, our first assignment was to come to an agreement about basic flavors. For this, Carine prepared five samples of solvents in clear glass tumblers: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami – a textural component, which has more personality than taste – and asked us to sip each one. I picked up the first glass and immediately identified it as sweet. It was sweet, but not candy-sweet; it had a kind of sweetness found in fresh milk. The salty, sour and bitter were easy to identify while umami felt more weird than delicious. It felt thick and enveloping, and that, Carine tells me, is exactly what it’s supposed to feel like. Like a band practicing chords, it was important we all start on the same page.
A common vocabulary with which you can evaluate the smell, sight, touch and taste evens out much of the subjectivity surrounding taste. “During one of my sessions, I remember one of the participants describing the aroma of a Darjeeling summer black tea as being like her grandma’s home. She meant to say wild roses – which I figured out eventually. But she hadn’t known it was wild roses, nor was it incorrect for her to exclaim so. It’s just that none of us could understand it, and so we couldn’t appreciate it as well as she could,” Carine told us.
Carine’s approach is more scientific than I’d expected it to be. She tethers flavors to science to predict taste and also the lack of it.
Such objectivity eludes me. I don’t have a lot of patience for measuring out the perfect amount of tea and timing the water’s boil. Exotic tea paraphernalia intimidate me and the only thing scientific about my tea making is the tea itself. Obsessing over tea brewing techniques seems so formal and unromantic and while knowing what polyphenols can do to the taste of tea, it does very little to enhance the experience of the cup.
But, then again, would it hurt to have a measured hand when making tea, fine tea especially? I figured not. At the very least I will end up improving my usual cup and that’s a soaring achievement in itself.
Carine was trying to help us find and build our nose and taste memory. Her ideology is simple – if you can recognize appropriate flavors you are better equipped to talk about the tea, its quality, and its flaws. Our sensory memory develops as we experience new flavors and aromatics, and the more we acclimatize ourselves with them, the better we get at identifying them. One can argue whether such linguistic empiricism is altogether necessary since most of us are in the habit of swilling our cups of tea; our consciousness limited to identifying the level of bitterness and perhaps basic flavors of flowers or fruits. Truthfully, the real question is whether being coaxed into appreciating flavors this way really enhances our tea tasting experience or not. We found the answer soon enough.
In those two days, we smelt over 40 perfumes from small glass vials, taking deep whiffs to guess what each one was. Was it rose? Or was it rose followed by hints of “vanillia”, as our Parisian tutor called it. We laughed at our sub-par noses but kept at it.
We tasted over 30 teas from all over the world – from Darjeeling first flush and Assam summer blacks to Chinese Long Jing and Japanese Sencha. We evaluated each for its aroma, taste intensities, and texture. We tasted teas prepared using three different kinds of water to see the effect of minerality on tea. We discussed attributes like complexity, balance, and harmony and worried over astringency – how much is too much and is it really just another kind of bitter?
At the end of the workshop, we participated in a taste test where all of us were asked to adjudge a couple of teas on certain parameters. Armed with a now seemingly calibrated nose and palate, and an elaborate, laminated flavor wheel, I was ready to dive into every cup and emerge an expert. Half and hour later, I’d barely managed to scratch the ‘e’ of expert. I felt foolish, at my inability to pick roses when everybody else could – who can miss roses, for crying out loud. I smelt wood when most could pinpoint vanilla, and where I tasted fruits others, like a crusade out to the get the heretics, would speak of flavors that were nothing close to anything I had noted in my scribble pad, which was, now, four pages full. If somebody was asked to sum up my knowledge of what I learned in those two days, they’d say, “unimpressive and a tad too bullish.” I was definitely confronted by a deep realization of how far I have to go.
But it wasn’t about trying to pinpoint accurate notes and tastes. That’s not what tea tasting is about. At the heart of it all, it’s about being able to think about tea at a deeper level, Carine tells me. It’s about experiencing tea in a more involved way. To paraphrase Adam Gopnik’s words for wine in an old New Yorker article, without the whole elaborate idea of tea – the tea tasting and the tea speak thereof – it would all be the same. All tea would be is hot beverage made with steeped leaves. To be able to meticulously describe intricate flavors brings us not only closer to connoisseurship but to the beverage itself.
And that’s a good enough reason for me to keep at it. You may also want to read – Is Tea Teasting Only for the Experts