Have you ever been in a situation where you’re doing a wine tasting and you hear:
“I love that hint of cassis“
and while you’re thinking “what’s cassis?” you hear:
“fruit forward baking spices“
and you’re like “huh?” At:
“I love the hint of torrefaction,”
you blankly stare. If asked:
“does this lean more toward garrigue or underbrush?,”
Wine—and tea—descriptors have their place, and many times they are valid. However, sometimes they’re used simply to sell a product. A red wine marketed as “jammy” or “plumy” is easy to understand and may well be geared toward someone who’s looking for any sweet red wine, whereas other descriptors seem so over-the-top and pretentious that they’re laughable.
I find some descriptions of tea tastings similarly ostentatious, and I wonder how people can find so many terms to describe what they’re drinking.
During the 2021 World Tea Conference & Expo, I attended Phil Attee’s class on the science of botanical extractions, tea, of course, also being a botanical extraction.
Phil talked a lot about tasting, but came at it from a biology and chemistry perspective. Currently a sales manager and distilling consultant for Mammoth Distilling, his job depends, literally, on tasting. Although his presentation focused on tea as part of distilled spirits, bitters, and cocktails, much of what he said can be applied to tea alone.
Producing tea, like any wine or spirit, is part art and part science. Tea masters bring together centuries of knowledge and experience (the art) to drive the science of leaf production to produce exactly what they are looking for.
Phil described the art as “What flavor profile do you want?” and the science as “How do you get that?”
Tasting is integral to this process: you need to know what you’re looking for and then you need to be able to measure if you’ve achieved it. And if you’re marketing it, you need to be able to describe the flavor profile. But even if you’re drinking it by yourself in your own home, it’s satisfying to have words to label what you taste.
But here’s the thing, those words sometimes are elusive to those of us unused to applying them to what we drink, especially for tea. Particularly if we’re in a culture that largely uses teabags and doesn’t give much thought to flavor nuances of tea.
And unlike when we taste food, in which we are identifying actual ingredients, when we taste tea we need to relate what we’re detecting to something else.
However, any of us can learn to more fully appreciate what we’re experiencing, and to even put words to it. And you can perhaps taste more than you realize.
Humans are thought to taste only five categories—sweet, bitter, salty, sour, and umami (savory)—and we have only 2000–4000 taste buds on our tongues. This accounts for only 5–25% of what we perceive as flavor.
Taste includes aroma, and because we have thousands of sensory cells in our nasal passages, with more in the back of the throat and on the epiglottis, we can distinguish some 100,000 different flavors and, it’s theorized, some one trillion odors (Phil also pointed out that almost everything we taste in gin is in the nasal passage, not the mouth).
Maximizing the Tea’s Aroma
Since the nasal passages are instrumental to taste, you want to use a cup that enhances what you smell, or as Phil put it, the shape of the glass controls the aromatics.
Incidentally, this is partly why there are so many different types of glasses for alcohol (other factors are in play as well, such as controlling temperature and retaining bubbles, but controlling aroma is important for many drinks).
Try pouring the same tea into differently shaped teacups and notice how differently you experience its aroma. To do this, you want to stick your nose into the top of the cup and really pay attention to what you can smell!
If you’re like me, you have a lot of different types of teacups to test so this can take awhile! Alcohol is generally served in glass vessels whereas tea may be served in glass, porcelain, stoneware, unglazed clay, and more. Further, the shapes of the cups may vary widely (I have square cups, for example), teacup size is all over the board, and rims come in various shapes and thicknesses. Every factor is important, and clay can potentially even absorb the tea’s aroma! (See choosing a teacup for more info.)
Tasting the Tea
When you finally take a sip of the tea, let the liquid wash around your mouth and don’t swallow it right away. Let the flavor permeate your entire mouth. Even better, slurp the tea. This process oxygenates the tea in both your mouth and nasal passages, which allows you to better detect the taste and aroma.
After swallowing, pay attention to its flavor on your palate, in the back of your mouth, and down the throat. Notice what notes linger and where. You’ll find that the final notes of some teas disappear immediately whereas others linger for many minutes (with some having an incredibly long aftertaste or finish!).
As part of the tasting process, note how the liquid moved from the cup into your mouth, and where it went into your mouth. Did it wash over your tongue? The rim and cup thickness control how the liquid moves into your mouth.
How does the tea feel (mouthfeel), and how does your mouth feel after you swallow (astringency)? Remember that bitterness is a taste whereas astringency is the dry feeling in your mouth. Sometimes people describe a tea as “bitter” when it’s really astringency that they’re experiencing. And like wine, tea can have incredible mouthfeel, such as buttery or velvety.
Describing the Tea Flavor
So now that you’ve tasted your tea, what words come to mind? There’s always the “aroma wheel” to go to, but why not come up with your own words? And something that Phil mentioned really resonated with me about terminology.
The flavor profile of any substance is composed of chemical compounds, and any given compound may be found in many different food items. Therefore, when tasting a tea and describing the exact same compound, one person may say “almond” whereas another might say “apricot” or “cherry.” We use the term that most reminds us of where we previously encountered that compound.
This means that no one is “wrong” or “more correct” than anyone else. We relate what we taste to our previous experience. If someone is allergic to almonds and has never had them, they wouldn’t use “almond” to describe a flavor. Yet whatever term they might use to describe the flavor would be accurate because those same chemical compounds are found in other foods.
The fun thing about coming up with specific descriptors is that the exercise forces us to really pay attention. And to think.
Just remember that there’s no need to be intimidated or put-off by someone who uses a paragraph to describe a tea that you may simply think “celery.” With experience, we all are able to distinguish more notes; some of us probably can detect more than others (allergies can really damp down our senses); and unless you work in the industry, this is all about your personal experience and enjoyment.
Of course, further complicating—and enhancing—the whole tea tasting experience, every re-brew of a tea will yield a different aroma/taste/mouthfeel/astringency, sometimes drastically. The point of a gong fu session (in which you use a very high leaf-to-water ratio, brewing for very short periods of time in a small vessel) is to compare how each steeping of the same leaves yields a different flavor. Comparing re-brews, which takes time, can be wonderfully relaxing (until you ingest too much caffeine, I suppose).
In Other Words
You too can be a snooty describer of tea, using flosculations with aeipathy and a gaudiloquent manner. (Or you can just have fun!)