If you’re anything like me, your tea adventure may have started with the “Chai Latté.” It was the first tea that I can remember tasting appreciably different from all of the bagged teas I had tried. While I enjoyed the spiciness, some days I found myself feeling bored with the flavor, and so curiosity and a desire to experiment eventually pushed me to try loose leaf teas.
The preparation at the time was similar: heat some milk, add a strainer of loose leaf tea, drop in some sugar, and stir. This worked best with maltier teas, like dark roasted oolongs or black teas. While it was a suitable substitute for the chai latté, I started feeling like I was missing out on what the tea itself had to offer.
Could there be more to the flavor of tea than I had realized?
When one first turns to the world of artisanal, loose leaf teas, the first thing you notice is the price. “Could this possibly be worth it? I can pay the same for 8,000 bagged teas.” While the difference in cost isn’t as great as it first seems (another post for another day), the difference in flavor is unparalleled.
Now, some of you might be thinking, “But it all tastes the same to me.”
For those of us that feel this way, this is why I especially recommend tea tasting.
We best develop our tasting palettes when we experience what foods and beverages have to offer us side-by-side. Clearly, it’s far easier to remember what something tasted like just moments ago than it is to remember its flavor days ago. In addition, side-by-side tastings give us points of reference, making it easier to notice contrasts and draw comparisons.
Here, I’m going to recommend several ways to try your hand at tea tasting.
What is a Tea Tasting?
A tea tasting is where you prepare several different teas all at once so that you have the luxury of sipping them side by side. It’s not too dissimilar from a beer or wine tasting in this respect.
It is important to brew them using the same methods. So, if you’re going to brew them using a tea strainer, for example, be sure to brew all of your teas with a tea strainer. Likewise, if you are intent on using a teapot, be sure to use a teapot for all of your teas.
Similarly, if you prefer to add sweetener to your teas, try to make sure they are all sweetened similarly. I personally don’t use sweetener in any of my teas, but I did at one time.
Like wine, I think as we grow as tea drinkers, our preferences shift from the “sweet” to the “dry.”
How do I Taste Tea?
Tasting tea can be a relatively simple process or a more involved one. That’s somewhat up to you. At a minimum, pay attention to the following: (1) the aroma of the dry leaves, (2) the aroma of the wet leaves, (3) the color of the resulting brew, and (4) the immediate flavor of the resulting brew.
When you become more comfortable with tasting, you will want to involve more of your senses and enhance your tasting techniques. For example, you can pay attention to the aroma of the tea as you exhale through your nose when you drink. You might also want to bring your attention to the texture of the tea while you sip it, whether some flavors are more pronounced as the tea cools down, or observe the clarity of the tea in your cup (note: with the exception of pu-erhs, most high quality teas should produce a relatively clear liquor).
For the Beginners
If you’re brand new
to the world of loose leaf teas, it’s best to start with tea types. Though there are exceptions (like aged, yellow, and purple teas), in general, there are five types of teas: (1) White Tea, (2) Green Tea, (3) Oolong Tea, (4) Black Tea, and (5) Pu-Erh Tea.
The Beginner’s Tea Tasting should therefore focus on tasting three to five different teas, selecting a representative from each type. For example, I would recommend a tasting such as the following:
- White Tea - Fuding Bai Mu Dan (White Peony)
- Green Tea - Zhu Ye Qing (Green Bamboo Tip)
- Oolong Tea - Anxi Tie Guan Yin (Iron Goddess of Mercy)
- Black Tea - Yunnan Dian Hong Jing Ya (Gold Tips)
- Pu Erh - 2003 Vintage Gong Ting (Palace Puerh)
As a convenient alternative, there is also the Ultimate Collection Sampler, which also includes 12-15 grams of each kind of tea except it features the highly prized West Lake Dragonwell in place of the Zhu Ye Qing and it features a different grade of the Anxi Tie Guan Yin, which has more floral notes.
Each of these teas is a distinctive representative of its category, and by tasting them side-by-side, you will easily be able to detect the differences between them.
Remember: the main purpose of the Beginner’s Tea Tasting isn’t so much to pick out nuanced notes, but it’s to become acquainted with the general qualities of the types of tea and how they differ from one another.
In the next posts in this series, I want to explore other methods of tea tasting for the initiated.
For those of you in the Washington, DC area, don’t forget to check out MeiMei Fine Teas’ newly announced tasting classes for August 2016 (or contact firstname.lastname@example.org)!