Opinion | The language of tea tasting
Spicy, floral or smoky—master the art of picking flavour notes, aromas and colours
My friend, a tea expert, takes a loud slurp of the tea. Some swishing in the mouth is followed by an expert arc of spit. I follow suit with a slurp and swish and focus on the notes I am tasting. I deduce they are pleasant and fruity. My friend, on the other hand, notes smoke and apricot but also leather. The fruitiness—she’s more specific—is “grape" and “cherry". I am still stumbling over the leather, wondering what that must taste like.
Tea tasting, I find, demands an uber refined palate. While this is still work in progress for me, I do think acquiring a tea vocabulary helps articulate what you like about it. The language of tea tasting was necessitated by trade, so there is nothing poetic about it. But you will find that the terms grow on you because everybody uses them. If you shop regularly for loose leaf teas, you probably are already familiar with them.
Professional tasters sample several teas at the same time, examining the dry leaves, wet leaves and infusion. As tea lovers, we can pare this. Choose four-five teas and arrange them from lightest to strongest. White porcelain cups work best, for they highlight the colour. Write or record any details you notice. Start with the dry leaves. Choose from a few adjectives to describe them, such as wiry, whole, broken, well-rolled.
Note the wet leaves after you have decanted the tea. What colour are they? What scents can you pick up? Now, turn to the colour of the infusion: pale green, amber, golden yellow, reddish gold, cream.... Take a deep whiff of the tea, what aroma do you detect?
Slurping tea as part of tasting cools the liquid but also helps take in oxygen that emphasizes the flavours. Swishing it helps coat the palate to better pick out flavour notes.
The International Tea Masters Association’s (Itma’s) Tea Aroma Wheel on Teamasters.org is a good source for a tea flavour wheel. The base flavours are sweet, spicy, floral, herbaceous, earthy, marine (umami), fruity, fire (smoky, toasty, tobacco, leather), mineral (chalky, granite-like), milky and nutty. Each of these are divided, in turn, into specific flavours, nudging olfactory memories. Is that the fruitiness of tropical fruit, tree fruit, berry or citrus? If it’s citrus, is it orange, lemon, lime, bergamot or mandarin? When you taste herbaceous notes, are they of grass, vegetables or herbs?
In appreciating tea, you are also looking for characteristics like body (which is exactly what it sounds like, as in light or medium or full-bodied), astringency (a dryness in the mouth that may or may not be pleasant), briskness (liveliness in the tea, as opposed to a flat dullness). Note any unpleasantness in the tea, including bitterness. And do remember to pay attention to the finish and the aftertaste.
There is one more detail that a professional taster wouldn’t record: How does a tea make you feel, what do you like about it, and why would you buy it the next harvest season? For a tea lover, that may be most important.
Tea Nanny is a weekly series steeped in the world of tea. Aravinda Anantharaman is a Bengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry.