Flavors of Pure Tea: Rich Textures
One of the most difficult aspects of flavor to put into words is texture, or mouth feel. Though it is theoretically simple to describe the way a tea feels in the mouth, direct comparisons to other foods are often tied up in flavor. It can be hard to pin down the definition of a word like ‘rich’ without conjuring specific tastes like those of cream or dark chocolate. Yet words like this are truly attempting to convey texture, rather than flavor. The creamy sweetness of milk might be present in a ‘Milk Oolong’, but the dominant flavor profile is usually more floral in character.
Nevertheless, rich textures contribute heavily to the objective quality of a tea, especially in lighter styles. Tea drinkers new to Chinese spring greens, for instance, are often taken aback by the subtlety of flavor, but blown away by the rich, buttery quality of the mouth feel. Similarly, while Taiwanese oolongs can look and smell nearly identical, terroir (specifically elevation) creates distinctive differences in the texture of the finished tea.
In part, the association with quality comes about because texture is impossible to create after the leaf is harvested. Rich, smooth textures in the mouth are dependent on the natural carbohydrate content the leaf has developed before it is plucked from the plant. Incidentally, this is also why smooth textures are associated with natural sweetness - these carbohydrates are stored in the form of glucose to power the growth of the tea leaf.
Carbohydrate content in the leaf is determined by the growth cycle of the plant. When leaves struggle to grow, the plant sends stored carbohydrates from the roots to power growth. When the leaves are fully grown and exposed to sunlight, they photosynthesize, creating new energy molecules to build new reserves. Slow growth caused by inhospitable seasons or terroir leads to more carbohydrates in the leaves overall, as the plant expends more energy. Harvesting at the right time is also key to maximizing the carbohydrate content required for rich textures.
Aspects of terroir like elevation or latitude can slow the growth process and create richer textures along with more complex flavor profiles. Limited sun exposure on foggy mountaintops prevents plants from producing excess sugars to trigger storage, keeping these compounds where we can taste them. This is the reason that Taiwanese oolongs from high elevations are the most sought after, despite their limited quantity.
Temperate weather and winter dormancy also allow the plant to store reserves of natural carbohydrates to power a burst of spring growth. The first buds of spring, too small to yet capture their own sunlight, are prized for their tender, creamy flavor, especially in green and white teas that undergo minimal processing.
Rich textures are in no way limited to lighter styles, either - the same effects can be seen in ‘true cliff’ oolongs from the Wuyi Mountains, where traditional crafters perform a series of gentle roasts to preserve the smooth finish of the tea, and in ‘tippy’ black teas, where the gold color of oxidized leaf buds indicates a malty sweetness. In all styles, natural richness is evident as a long, smooth finish that coats the mouth and lingers long after the tea is swallowed. To us, this is a defining feature of any high-quality tea.
Which teas do you think have the best mouth feel? Tell us about your favorites in the comments below!
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