Short answer: no, and qualified yes
I asked a colleague who works for a large Kolkata tea brokerage: “How would you begin to describe a ‘good tea’?” “Frank,” he said, “a good tea is the one you are enjoying in the moment!” A sound bite, but I wanted practical information, not a platitude and certainly not a haiku. In 1990 I became tea buyer for a Seattle (USA) company I co-founded. I had to learn how to critically taste and evaluate teas. Over the years Ive developed some skill and gained some insights I’d like to share.
Getting good at tea-tasting, like anything complex piano-playing, for instance takes patience and practice (Chin., gongfu), but you don’t have to be an expert to do it passably well. You will, however, have to sample a lot of teas – thousands of them, eventually – before you become very good at it.
One of the skills you will develop is what Chef James Beard called “taste-recall”. If you experience the taste, let’s say, of sour cherries, black pepper, wild flower honey or bittersweet chocolate, you will be able recall the experience when you next meet. This will allow you to taste food analytically when exposed to complex stimuli.
Language is another critical tool in the tea-tasting kit; its important to adopt the vocabulary, speak the jargon, of tea-tasting. Word-labels, such as ‘tart’, ‘bitter’, ‘astringent’ and ‘sweet’ allow you recall and communicate your impressions to others.
Professionals engage in tea-tasting in order to discriminate between teas and establish market price. That practice goes back to the British East India Company tea traders in Hong Kong.
But why would a non-professional want to develop these skills, when it is much easier to lay back and unselfconsciously take a sip of tea? Well, some consumers take a serious interest in tea. It may become an avocation or a small business. Perhaps they’re writing about tea, like I am; others may simply want to be able to make more informed tea purchases.
Many of us can now access a global tea market via the Internet and acquire teas from every tea-producing country, bypassing the traditional supply chain. This democratization allows anyone with access to a computer to access a large range of teas of various qualities at various price points. This is an opportunity and a challenge that begs the consumer to develop a more educated palate.
To evaluate a tea or compare several teas, we consider three different forms: hot brewed tea (liquor); wet tea leaves strained from the liquor (infusion); and dry leaf. Of our five senses, we will engage four: smell, taste, sight, touch.
Our sense of smell and taste are the most critical. Some tea bloggers give short shrift to the aroma given off by hot brewed tea and infusion, but it is important, as it is closely linked to “taste.” A lot of what you pay for is revealed in tea aroma and taste.
When a freshly-brewed tea has cooled down a bit, lift a tablespoonful to your pursed lips and (do what your mom told you never to do) slurp loudly, drawing the liquid over your tongue. If you gag reflex is strong, as mine is, this can be irritating and socially embarrassing, but train yourself to do it. Sucking air and tea into your mouth aerates the liquid, combining molecules of air with molecules of tea. In this way, the receptors (making up the so-called nose bulb) at the back of the nose will register odor, downloading signals to the brain.
When you roll the tea around your mouth, the tongue harvests perceptions of saltiness, sweetness, bitterness, tartness and umami/savory flavor; astringency or roughness is picked up by soft tissues in the mouth. Skip this procedure and you get less intense flavor and aroma impressions.
Don’t confuse bitterness with astringency. They are two of the least understood qualities in brewed tea and are very different. With few exceptions, a tea should show some astringency or mouth feel, which is sensed by the soft tissues around the oral cavity. Especially black tea. Mouth feel is responsible for a teas body. On the other hand, bitterness is sensed by the tongue. In the course of human development, it has meant do not eat this item; it may be poisonous! However, some bitterness (or bite) as in beer or tea or coffee is complementary to other flavors.
A simple home tea-tasting
You can do a tea tasting with ceramic items you have at home, but I encourage you to find a set which mimics the standard set-up; you want to approach this scientifically, to evaluate each tea under similar or identical conditions.
The standard tea-brewing vessel is a white porcelain cup with a capacity of 150cc or 3/4 C. You can purchase specialized tea-tasting sets or find an equivalent in your cupboard. You will need a white porcelain cup to hold the hot tea decanted from the brew pot. All items are white to get maximum light reflection for judging the color and transparency of the liquor.
You will need a tablespoon or Chinese ceramic soup spoon. Place a bit of dry tea leaf on a square of white paper before the brew cup to refer to during the tasting. You ought to have a way of identifying each tea being evaluated with its name, grade, origin and commercial source. A kitchen scale that measures to the nearest .01 grams is useful, as well, as is a kitchen timer.
To the brewer, add 2.5g or 0.10oz of dry tea leaf and fill with freshly-boiled bottled water (not distilled or tap water, which is generally chlorinated). The quantity, 2.5g, is the standard set in 1883 by British law and tea-tasters tend to stick with it by tradition. Boiling hot water (90-100C) is another standard. There is a strongly-held belief that exceptionally delicate black teas, all white teas, most green teas and some oolongs do better with cooler brewing temps (80-90 C), but I try to brew all my tea samples at the same temperature. That, to me, is a more scientific way of approaching it. I have a very experienced colleague in Austria who feels the same way. No doubt, others will disagree.
Cover the brew cup and steep the tea leaves for 5 minutes. Decant the hot tea into a white ceramic tea cup, using a stainless steel strainer to keep the leaves back. Put the cover back on the brew cup to keep the used leaves warm.
While the hot tea is cooling down to sipping temp, bring the brew cup containing the warm leaves (infusion) to your nose, raise the lid slightly and sniff a few times to evaluate the aroma. This should give you a hint of whats to come when you taste the corresponding brewed tea. Make a few notes about what you smell. Now bring a tablespoon of warm tea to your mouth and slurp, noting down flavor, aroma and taste components that you can identify.
I move on down the line of teas, trying not to cover more than ten to twelve teas at once (a small percentage of what a commercial tea-taster may do!). I then go back over each tea and record comments on liquor color, infusion color, leaf shape and size, and note.
A Tea-tasters vocabulary
Lets assume we’ve just tasted a tea and want to convey our impressions to others. Where would we start? Probably with a generalization, like “good,” “smooth,” “great” or “yuk”! That’s a start, but we need a richer vocabulary.
There are hundreds of tea-tasting terms professionals apply to dry leaf, infusion and liquor. We cannot list or discuss them all here. There are exhaustive (and exhausting!) lists on the Internet. Here are some of my favorites:
[Negative assessments are in italics]
Liquor and Infusion
(Aroma/Taste) Flowery, fruity, sweet, malty, tart, vegetal, greenish, grassy, smoky, spicy, complex, balanced / simple, pointless, bland, sour, dull, insipid, too smoky, over-ripe, off, moldy, earthy, woody, tainted.
(Color) Consistent, clear, bright, coppery, yellow-orange, gold, amber, light amber, dark amber, pinkish, greenish, blue-green, coppery, chocolate-brown, gold, khaki / cloudy, murky, evidence of sediment, colorless.
Delicate, soft, light astringency, medium astringency, round, full-mouth feel / lacking astringency, mouth feel; bitter, shallow, pointless.
Well-made, consistent size and shape, well-sorted, absence of stem, tightly-rolled, semi-rolled, flat, spider leg, contorted, curled, polished, shiny, graceful shape / irregular, inconsistent in size and shape, too much stem, poorly sorted, unattractive, poorly-made.
It is also useful to note on how closely a tea sample conforms to the standards for the type, the garden, the region. If the tea comes pre-graded, such as OP, FOP, BOP, BOPF, CTC, etc., this should be in the tasting notes.
At some point one needs to summarize findings and perhaps score a tea. I have used a simple 1-10 scoring system, where 1 is obviously abysmal and 10 is unreal. I use 5/6 as low and high average.
On the tasting table, which, by the way, should be well supplied with natural light and have a water-resistant surface, I sometimes move the tasting cups toward or away from me as I stand in front of them to remind me which I felt positive about, which were average and which I did not favor.
I also make notes like, “Def. buy this one!” “Really good for an iced tea blend” or “This is a bold, brisk breakfast tea with a touch of malt, warm tones of lightly-toasted bread.”
I also number my teas individually so notes and tea samples are synchronized.
Obviously tea-tasting is not for everyone, but its also not strictly the preserve of the expert. Knowing how to taste tea like the experts can increase your satisfaction with the teas you purchase and enjoy at home, increase your sensitivity to tastes, aromas and flavors of the foods around you and expand your knowledge base.Photograph by Gopal Upadhyay You may also want to read “What I Learnt at my First Ever Tea Tasting“