To those unfamiliar with the vast array of fine teas from around the world, the range and subtlety of tea flavors can be overwhelming and intimidating. As with fine wines, written tasting notes describing subjective flavor comparisons are often too poetic to be believable, and regularly fail to accurately describe the personal experience of the average tea drinker. Does that tea really taste like creme brulee or fresh papaya to anyone but the most talented tasters?
Luckily, there is no wrong way to taste tea. Each taster’s palate is shaped by a unique combination of experiences and priorities, and no two people are likely to have exactly the same impression of any tea. Even minimal experience is usually enough to create a personal definition of “good” and “bad” tea, and for most tea drinkers, this is enough. But for those who would like to train their palate and deepen their appreciation of flavor complexity, here are a few simple techniques to practice when tasting.
1. Experience New Flavors
Tasting notes are based in association, so the easiest way to increase understanding is to experience new flavors by trying new foods. Take a mindful moment to absorb and imprint unfamiliar scents and flavors in your memory. Identify which of the five basic flavors you’re experiencing - is it sweet, salty, sour, bitter, or savory?
Flavor experiences like these are foundational for isolating and naming the nuances of flavor in a tea - just as they are in the context of wine, beer, or chocolate. The broader your pool of reference, the easier it is to pick up on familiar notes in a complex cacophony of taste.
2. Smell & Aerate When Tasting
Tasting tea is fundamentally different from drinking tea, despite their practical overlap. While drinking tea is a simple matter of pouring and swallowing, a properly considered tasting has many facets to consider.
First, aroma plays a large role. When tasting tea, the aroma should be considered from the dry leaves, then again from the warmed or moistened leaves, and finally from the brewed leaves - along with the tea itself. In most natural teas, each stage of aroma will be different from the last, revealing different nuances with each step.
Once the tea is in your mouth, the intensity of flavor can be amplified by aerating, or essentially slurping. To try this, take a small sip, and then draw air in through your lips to spread the tea over the whole palate. This can take practice to get right, but it is particularly important in tea tasting, as it serves to cool the tea in your mouth and remove the distraction of heat from the flavor.
3. Practice Describing Flavors
At each stage of the tea tasting, try to name the flavors you’re experiencing. This may be a straightforward description of a food you’ve tried or an aroma you’ve smelled, but the most prominent aspect of flavor may also be a texture or feeling in the mouth, or even an association with a place, time, or experience. Many pu-erh teas, for example, are described as tasting of petrichor, or the smell of earth after a rain.
This is the point in the process where it is important to remember that there are no wrong answers. A tea may be fruity, or tingly, or bold, or sad, and whether those things are good or bad or indeed there at all is purely a personal judgement.
4. Experiment with Context
While it can be illuminating to explore the vast array of flavor opportunities across wildly varying styles, nuances are often more easily understood when familiar teas are brewed in unfamiliar context. Changing the water temperature or steeping time can reveal new aspects of old favorites, and any good whole leaf tea should develop through several infusions, changing in flavor each time water is added. Try cold-brewing a tea for a truly different perspective, or try several grades of the same style to appreciate what aspects of flavor are traditionally valued.
In the end, training your taste buds is mostly an effort of experience - though mindful practice is required to take full advantage. Take a moment to fully appreciate the complexity of flavor, and each cup of tea will improve your understanding.
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