Many tea-lovers find tea-tasting inaccessible and its jargon off-putting. They recognize its utility but only faintly understand the details. In a career that spans three decades, I have been asked numerous times “What am I supposed to look for when I taste a tea? I feel like I’m missing something!
Perhaps it would help if I would explain the process and try to get at its meaning and significance.
When we hear the word taste we think “mouth.” The sensitivity of taste buds on the tongue and on oral tissues, however, is limited. They can distinguish only five “pure” tastes: sweet, salty, bitter, sour and savory (umami). They cannot sense complex flavor: They know “sweet,” but not cherry pie, “bitter-sweet,” but not chocolate.
For that level of discrimination we need the nose – actually, the unattractively-named olfactory bulb, at the terminus of the nasal passage. The conglomeration of sensory cells in the bulb collects information from molecules of aspirated tea sucked into the mouth and drawn into the throat.
For all its centrality, the human “smeller” is relatively under-endowed. A poodle has 3,000% more olfactory tissues then its master and can rapidly and exquisitely sense odors she will miss. But, Gigi does not have the capacity to interpret and verbalize, so poodles will be employed as drug sniffers, but not as tea-tasters!
Taste sense organs telegraph packets of sensory information to the brain which decodes it. This leads from “ah!” to recognition. Formless sensations become words, phrases and thoughts which can be communicated to others. We can say tea-tasting changes from a solitary activity into a social one!
All of us are capable of gathering sensations, but labeling them requires prior experience tasting teas, the power of memory and a taster’s vocabulary.
Nothing is as memorable as the taste or smell of food, especially from childhood. We humans store the sensory impressions of foods we taste – those we like and those we abhor – in our food memory bank. We recall and identify a food when we reencounter it. American Chef James Beard said food recall is the key to being a good cook. Without it one is forever limited to slavishly following recipes.
Robert Luis Stevenson wrote (rather clumsily), “Wine is bottled poetry.” The ability to verbalize is critical for tasting; one must have a well-honed taster’s vocabulary.
The German philosopher, Edmund Husserl, wrote trenchantly in Logical Investigations about tasting coffee; I quote him here substituting “tea,” with due apologies to Herr Doctor.
“What is a cup of [tea]? I might define it in terms of…chemistry and…botany, add a summary of how it’s…grown and exported….”
Or [I] might say what the cup on the table actually is….” This cup of [tea] is…aroma…earthy and perfumed; it is the lazy movement of… steam rising from its surface. …it is a placidly shifting liquid… intense…flavor on my tongue…a slightly austere jolt…relaxing into comforting warmth, which spreads from…cup to…body, bringing the promise of…alertness and refreshment. The promise, the anticipated sensations, the smell, the colour and…flavor are all part of the [tea] as [a] phenomenon. [It exists] by being experienced.
Husserl has it right: tea-tasting is subjective, but unsentimental; it is informed, but spontaneous.
Tasting tea is different from eating a meal to satisfy hunger. A tea-taster is not taking tea out of thirst, but to taste and evaluate it. For that he must go from a distracted, diffuse state of consciousness into one of concentration and awareness.
The role of a tea-taster is to make comparative judgments that will guide professionals – tea-traders, blenders and retailers in downstream transactions. The taster is the first individual to taste a tea after it leaves the garden and it is the taster employed in a tea brokerage house who helps determine value and set price. A rave review by a respected tea taster at a respected house can make or break a tea.
Further down the supply chain, hundreds of individuals will taste teas on offer to determine if they have the required quality and value in a variety of commercial contexts, in retail shops or teahouses, web stores, hotels or tea-bagging operations. For the bottom line, there is no perfection, no absolute good, only utility and price.
It is easy to imagine why the world of commerce needs tea-tasters, but why would consumers wish to hone their tea-tasting skills? There are three common reasons: to learn a useful skill, to acquire knowledge and understanding and to gain insights into the fascinating, complex world of tea. The uncommon reason: to master tea-tasting form – the mechanics – to gain access to a new world where the mundane (sensory phenomena) gives way to a silent and still land.
To paraphrase Okakura Kazuo in The Book of Tea: to experience a work of art is to enter into a relationship with the artist. When we read a novel we enter into a relationship with the author. When we take tea we are at one with tea-farmer and tea-maker, in a purely human space.
In my book, we first master the technicalities; later we can access the larger space tea occupies. So, tasting begins with the observation of the phenomenological aspects of the tea: the dry leaf, the leaf drained of tea immediately after infusion, and the decanted liquor.
Place about 5 grams of dry leaf on a clean white plate and observe it. Note leaf color, size and consistency in shape, style, manufacture. Note the presence of remarkable aspects, such as silver or gold tips, stems, foreign particles, dust. Is the leaf spongy (too much moisture) or brittle (too little). Blow a bit of moist breath into the dry leaf and sniff to pick up outstanding aroma. After many tastings, one can distinguish well-made from poorly-made teas.
While the infused leaf is still hot, bring it up to the nose and sniff repeatedly. This sends molecules of tea to the olfactory zone at the back of the nose. Olfactory evaluation of the infusion is of primary importance in tea-tasting. It’s not only a foretaste of what to expect in the cup, it can reveal information not in the cup. Check it out.
While the brewed tea is still hot, but not scalding, bring a cup or spoonful to slightly-parted lips and suck it forcefully and noisily into the mouth. Roll the liquid around to expose the taste buds to it. To prevent choking when slurping, be sure you feel the epiglottis (flap) close over the windpipe. Practice with tepid drinking water first.
Take note of the color and hue of the liquor, as well as its transparency, reflectiveness and clarity. Note that black tea liquor is not “black,” but ranges from reddish amber to a dark, deep mahogany. Green tea is seldom deep green, but a light, greenish amber or bluish green. The reason for this is the transparency of tea liquor, its unique manner of reflecting and refracting light. Next, note the aroma of the vapors rising from the steaming liquor.
What we mean by “tasting” is really “taste-smelling.” If you hold your nose while eating a flavorful piece of food, you will only register the five basic tastes. You hear the notes played by the musicians, but not the symphony. I can’t stress enough the importance of olfactory sensation in tea-tasting. Never attempt to taste tea when you have a cold!
Throughout this piece I have stressed sensory evaluation, but have said little about verbalizing to bring observations to consciousness where they can be put to use, communicated to others. Now I will.
Here is an illustrative account of a recent tea-tasting:
The first of a pair of black teas tasted is a Gopaldhara Autumn Clonal Black. I have visited this beautiful Darjeeling estate and enjoyed breathtaking views from its “sky-high” plantings. I enjoy knowing something of a tea and its garden before tasting it. For an experienced tea-taster a tea is seldom a blind date. If you are not personally familiar with a tea you are about to taste, Google it.
I have high hopes for this tea; it is produced from high-grown tea plants clonally reproduced to assure the best traits of its forbearers are carried over to future generations.
Inspection of the dry leaf reveals medium-sized, attractive, consistently-made leaf, with scattered golden tips – a fine pluck; medium rolling and full oxidation. The dry aroma is malty and peppery – nice! I decant/strain the infused tea into a clean, white porcelain tasting cup.
I immediately take a series of probing, exploratory sniffs of the separated infused leaf, by bringing it right up to my nose and inhaling. There is a strong, bracing bouquet of mixed flowers with a beguiling hint of pine needles – just a hint. I greedily hope the cup will reveal more of the same.
I suck the cooled-down liquor through my lips and roll it around my mouth, like gargling. In this manner I can sense the full aroma of the tea, notes of tart green apple, a touch of roses, wild flowers and Muscat grape, “muscatel.”
This tea is a “self-drinker,” a pure unblended tea with superior, stand-alone qualities. It will not be blended with other teas; it needs no fortification or remediation.
[ I have a personal tea rating system: On a scale of 1-10, a score of 5 means “This is tea, not coffee!” A score of 6 says “OK, good, but not great.” A score of 8-7 is more-or-less complementary. I would buy a chest of a tea given a 9; award the “Noble Teas Prize” to a 10. The Golpaldhara got a score of 7.5/8.0.
The second tea is an Assam, so I won’t compare it to the Darjeeling – that’s “apples and oranges.” (I would compare and contrast it with other Assams I have known and loved.) Experienced tea-tasters have benchmarks.
Halmari is a venerable Assam garden. I have not visited the estate – or the Indian State of Assam – but its good reputation precedes it. I anticipate a rich, thick cup from an Assam plucked late in the second flush, large, supple leaf with a plethora of gold tips.
Inspection of the dry leaf reveals a fine pluck, with unusually small leaves for the pluck, lots of gold tips, a fine malty/woody aroma, with a twinge of green – novel for an Assam. The infusion gives off a malty aroma with a touch of cocoa, flowers and wood.
Sucking the liquor into the mouth there is a fair amount of astringency and plenty of bass notes with light flavors in the treble portion – a muted, spiciness and some nuttiness. Overall, a light-ish, round taste with a malty finish.
I give this tea a score of 6.5/7.0. I’m a fan of gold-tipped June/July Assam teas for maltiness and sweet roundness. This one was a bit plain, but well-made. With milk, it’s a viable breakfast tea. It would blend with a high-toned tea for an English Breakfast.