In China, tea is brewed for even the slightest social occasion. Family, friends, and business partners are all welcomed with a small cup of tea, which will be sipped and refilled throughout the conversation with multiple infusions from a single small pot, packed full of tea leaves. In a similar way, tea took on a central role in social lives in Europe as an alternative to alcohol, and an acceptable social beverage for women. Afternoon tea quickly became a cultural institution designed to facilitate social gathering. If you’re looking for new ways to bring people together, tea has a proven track record.
Today, the incredible array of tea available from across the world means there is no end to tasting opportunities, but solo analysis often falls flat. Even a single tasting companion with different flavor associations can expand your understanding of any given tea. If you’ve recently fallen in love with tea, sharing your new passion with friends can unlock a whole new appreciation. No matter what the context of your tea tasting, these general guidelines will give you an idea of what to plan for.
Part I: Set The Scene
1. Arrange the space
First, consider how you’ll serve your guests. Make sure everyone has a seat within reach of the tea table, and that you’ll be able to reach every guest’s cup with refills. This will limit the size of the group, but encourage discussion and keep things manageable. If you’d like to serve a larger number of people, think about setting things up so guests can come and go from the tea table as you brew. If you don’t have a suitable table with enough chairs, lay a decorative piece of fabric on the floor and arrange pillows around for seating.
2. Collect your teaware
Next, consider your equipment. Your teaware will vary depending on the style of your brew, but at minimum you’ll need a steeping vessel and cups. When tasting new teas, we prefer teaware that gives us a good view of the leaves and the liquor while we’re steeping. You’ll need to be able to separate the leaves from the water to avoid over-brewing, so make sure your brewing vessel has an infuser that you can remove and set aside, or have a serving pitcher ready to decant the brew into. To brew more than one tea, have a brewing vessel and serving pitcher ready for each tea. Use a tray under your brewing vessel to contain any spills, and prepare a large bowl for any excess water used to rinse tea leaves or cups.
3. Set up hot water
Finally, think about where your hot water will come from. An electric kettle is convenient and versatile, but will require refills if you plan to brew more than one tea. A large water heater will heat a large amount of water at once, but offers little variability in water temperatures for different teas or experimentation. To get the best of both worlds, we use a combination of both, with the water heater set at a medium temperature and the kettle available for small adjustments.
Part II: Invite Some Friends
1. Make a guest list
Six or eight guests is usually the maximum manageable size for a traditional Chinese gong fu cha tasting. A more intimate group will allow each person to taste every infusion, and make it easier for you to reach and refill small tasting cups. For larger groups, we adapt the gong fu brewing method with one of our large, European-style glass teapots, using more tea leaf but keeping our steeping times short and decanting fully after each infusion.
2. Schedule a time
Reserve plenty of time for repeated rounds of tasting and discussion. Be ready to spark conversation with a bit of research on the provenance, variety, harvest date, and crafting style of the teas you’re going to brew. For those who are interested, you can prepare pens and paper, and encourage note-taking on intriguing teas or flavor notes.
3. Include snacks
Tasting tea is hungry work! You may want to provide snacks for your guests if you plan to taste more than one or two teas, or if your tasting is scheduled near mealtime. Try mild crackers or cookies to keep your strength up for marathon tastings without disturbing your palate, or introduce snacks near the end of your tasting. Alternatively, get fancy with flavor pairings to impress your foodie friends.
Part III: Choose Some Tea
1. Curate a selection
It’s easy to get carried away with a long list of teas to taste, but we find that our palates start to numb after tasting about three or four teas. Choose teas from several different categories to explore a wide range of tea flavor, or select two or three related teas to focus in on the details. If you’re stumped on where to begin, our Discovery Collection includes four teas that cover the whole range of tea styles. Make sure to maximize your appreciation of every tea you taste by doing multiple short infusions and noticing any changes in flavor.
2. Test your brew
To avoid any surprises, do a test brew of your selected teas ahead of time to work out any kinks in the process. Pay attention to what water temperature works best, and how long the leaves are in the water. Make a few tasting notes alongside any information you have about the tea’s origins. Be sure to arrange your tasting from light to dark, with the most robust flavors coming last. If you have the opportunity, reserve some of each brewed tea, and taste again after they’ve cooled to observe more flavor notes without any heat to distract the palate.
Part IV: Discuss
Your tea discussion may take a backseat to other topics, depending on your guest list. This is fine, of course, but if you’d like to steer the conversation back to tea or keep things more focused, here are a few questions to prompt discussion about the brew:
- Observe the dry leaves. What color are they? What shape? Are they whole or broken? How do you think these properties might come through or affect the flavor?
- Smell the dry leaves, and then smell them again after a rinse or first brew. How has the aroma changed? What about the appearance?
- Slurp the tea or roll it around on your tongue to reach every part of your mouth. What flavor notes do you detect? How does the tea make your mouth feel?
- Swallow the tea, and pay attention to the aftertaste, or ‘finish’. How does this flavor differ from when the tea was in your mouth? Does it linger or disappear quickly?
- Share any details you collected about the provenance, variety, harvest date, or crafting style of this tea. How do you think they relate to the flavor notes you’ve observed?
- Taste again after the tea has cooled. How has the flavor changed?
Part V: Enjoy
Though we’ve tried to cover all the details to consider in this comprehensive guide, the most important part of a tea tasting is to enjoy the tea and the company. Tea tasting is a flexible activity, and there is no one “right” way to unite people around a tea table. Just make sure everyone gets a cup!
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