Setting up a ‘Tea Tasting’ can be one of the best ways to explore new teas and the ones you may have previously tried. Preparation is different for creating a tea tasting cup than for your everyday cup and making a habit of tea tasting will eventually help you distinguish between the subtleties of the various teas.
Professional tea tasters go through thousands of different cups a year, appraising the quality of tea from gardens around the world. For the beginner, trying three teas and figuring out how to describe what you are tasting and smelling can seem nearly impossible. Taking the time to do a tea tasting can help you learn to differentiate between types of teas and appreciate the nuances between tea types. The sheer number of teas that exist ensure that it will keep you very busy for a very long time, but the chance of becoming bored with this is slim. Eventually, you will be able to pick out the most common notes in the cups that you like and this will also help when you are looking for you next favorite tea.
Preparing Tea for Tea Tasting
Line up a few cups and select the teas you wish to taste. It is best to select ones of the same type, such as all Oolongs or all White Teas so that they can be easily compared to one another.
Your average amount of loose leaf or bagged tea is 2 – 3 grams per 8 – 11 oz of water. For a tea tasting, you want to either double the amount of tea or cut the amount of water by half. By doing this, you are overemphasizes the flavors in each cup. This is not always exactly pleasing to the palate, but it will help bring out the flavors of the tea you might not notice in a regular brewing.
Remember to be careful of your water temperatures! Water that is too hot will singe green and white tea leaves and give the cup a burnt, bitter taste. Follow the suggested temperature for the tea you have for the best result. Follow the steep time as closely as possible and always opt for the longer steep time if it is given (if a tea says to steep between 4-6 minutes, steep for 6 minutes, etc).
Just like with a cup of wine, inhale the scent of the tea as you bring it to your mouth – A good deal of what we tastes depends on what we smell.
The last thing anyone ever wants to do in most settings is to slurp their tea…but that is exactly what you want to do here. Slurping the tea will cool it while allowing it to run over the tongue, hitting nearly every taste bud on its way. However, do not swallow your tea just yet! Allow it to sit on your tongue, or swish it about in your mouth slightly, to get a sense of the full flavor. Spitting the mouthful of tea out is optional, but either way, move directly onto your next tea. You do not need to worry about cleansing your palate between each cup. Moving on quickly will help you notice the differences between each tea you are tasting.
Keep a notepad with you so that you can quickly jot down the first impressions you get upon tasting the tea. Looking back over this will help you keep the differences between each in mind, but do not take too long between teas (I suggest tasting each tea in a row first and then doing so a second time to take notes).
Traditional Tea Tasting also takes into account the appearance of the leaf, the scent before steeping and after, and the colour of the resulting liquor/infusion. Examine the leaves and note how they are processed (here is another place to make helpful notes for yourself so that you can see how the difference in leaf affect the taste), are the rolled, choppy, or ragged? Smell them and try to describe how the scent changes after they have been steeped. Are they spicy, malty, vegetal? How much of a change has the aroma gone through since steeping? What is the aroma of the actual cup like and how does it compare to the leaves?
Which brings us to what may be the most daunting section: How to describe what you are tasting.
There is no “right” way or “wrong” way to describe a tea. It is purely subjective to the taster. A flavor wheel is an excellent addition to your collection and will help you put words to the taste of teas. There is a fantastic one available (for free) from Temple Mountain Tea.
For the sake of this post, here are some of the most common tea description terms I have come across:
Body – A tea with ‘body’ has a strong liquor not a thin, weak one.
Bold – Big pieces of leaf.
Bright – The tea has a bright liquor.
Brisk – A lively tea. Well fermented or well fired.
Choppy – The leaves have been chopped in a breaker or cutter rather than rolled.
Coarse – A tea that has strength but is of poor quality.
Coloury – Special category teas with a good coloured liquor.
Dull – Opposite of bright. A tea that is of undesirable quality.
Even – Leaf pieces are roughly the same size.
Flaky – Leaves that are in flakes rather than twisted pieces.
Flat – A tea that has gone off or has too much moisture.
Flavory – A tea with a distinctive taste.
Grainy – Denotes well-made fannings/dust.
Grey/Gray – A grey-coloured leaf results from over-cutting or because the desirable coating of oils/juices on the leaf have been rubbed off due to over-handling during the sifting stage.
Greenish – An infusion with a bright green colour. This is not always desirable as it can be due to under-rolling or under-fermentation.
Harsh – A bitter or raw taste with little strength to the cup.
Malty – A hint of malt (this is often present in well processed teas).
Mellow – The opposite of greenish, harsh, etc.
Point – A leaf with desirable briskness
Pungent – Astringent without being bitter.
Smooth – A pleasant, rounded taste.
Thin – An infusion with little strength due to hard withering, under-rolling, or too high a temperature during transportation, etc.
Wiry – Well-twisted leaf.
Your first tea tasting may not go as planned and it may not be ideal. Just remember that experience is key – Keep trying and keep experimenting. The words may not always come to you and you may not always be able to pin down exactly what you are tasting, but more you taste the better your palate will be trained and you will be developing a better appreciation for the teas you are tasting as well as the skill to tell them apart where others might not be able to. If you plan to seriously practice tea tasting, then I would suggest investing in a cupping set as it will make things easier.
Most importantly, remember to have fun with it. If you are not, then something has gone awry and perhaps a break is in order.
Note: The main image for this post is ‘Darjeeling Tea Tasting’ taken by Thunderbolt Tea.