Tasting notes used to describe natural products like tea are often ephemeral and hard to understand, because our sense of taste is actually multifaceted. Taste includes not only the sensation on your tongue, but also the way the tea smells and the texture that lingers in your mouth. Written tasting notes can be used to describe any or all of these aspects, and help distinguish subtle differences between natural teas. Whether you want to keep track of what you love in a tea or just make a little more sense of tea descriptions online, understanding these three parts of flavor will help make it easier.
The first part of any new tea experience is the aroma. When tasting, we make a point of smelling the leaves twice before beginning the brewing process: first as dry leaves, then after they’ve been added to a warmed gaiwan. Typically, we expect a subtle aroma in the dry leaves, which intensifies when they are placed in a heated pot. Smelling the leaves after each repeated infusion can also indicate when they are starting to lose flavor, or reveal when they have been over-brewed, when they start to smell like overcooked vegetables.
To describe the aroma of any tea, first describe the general characteristics, and then ask what the smell calls to mind. Does this tea smell delicate or pungent? Bright or deep? Floral or earthy or toasted? Does it remind you of spring, or almonds, or the smell of the earth after a rain? Jot it down quickly, before your first sip!
Though the aroma experience continues once the tea is in your mouth, it becomes inextricable from the sensation of flavor on your tongue. As tea coats the tongue, it reaches different flavor receptors in each region. Flavor is often more potent when the tea is not too hot - which is why some low quality teas are barely palatable once cooled. We like to slurp our sips when tasting in order to best understand the flavor, but most important is that the tea reaches all parts of your mouth.
Then, notice which part of the tongue is most engaged. Sometimes a tea leaves us with certain flavor sectors tingling! Again, think of other foods or experiences to compare this flavor to: does it taste like marzipan, burnt pie crust, or honey? Flavors can be fleeting and hard to capture, so be sure to let the tea linger on your tongue!
Perhaps the most important part of the tasting process, texture describes the way the tea feels in the mouth. This is most evident in the finish, after the first sip has been swallowed. We like to breathe out through the nostrils to re-engage the nose, and then focus for a moment on the mouth feel. Is there any dryness or astringency? Is there a lingering creamy texture? Does the tea seem to disappear without a trace?
Textures are often conflated with flavor - particularly astringency, which is often mistaken for bitterness. Again, tasting the tea once it has cooled can add definition, and brewing with a light hand can also reveal textures without drawing out dominant flavors. Try experimenting with time and temperature to observe how the texture of your brew changes!
Though they often overlap, the best tasting notes take all three of these aspects into account. By narrowing down our comparisons to define each area of flavor, we can create a comprehensive description of the experience that will endure much longer than any year’s harvest. Using this framework to write your own tasting notes can help you define what you like about any given tea and help you find more teas with those characteristics in the future.
Have you tried writing your own tasting notes? What have you learned about your tea preferences? Let us know in the comments below!
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