I’ve offered some tasting recommendations and guidelines for a beginner and an enthusiast. Before recommending more advanced tastings for tea connoisseurs, I thought it best to speak a little about the specifics of tea tasting. After all, how can one appreciate more nuanced tastings without the know-how to do so?
This guide is intended primarily to help one transition from a tea beginner or enthusiast to a tea connoisseur. It is perfect for anyone interested in improving their tasting palates.
Description is the Skill at the Heart of Tasting
As a kind of meditation, take a moment to look at a Jackson Pollock painting, such as Convergence. What do you see?
Notice that you can focus on form or content, paying attention to shapes and patterns or colors and textures.
In either case, your ability to appreciate what you see is limited by your ability to describe.
If we look at the colors, for example, we could describe what we see as “white, yellow, red, and black,” or we can describe it as “a mélange of butter and daffodil juxtaposed by alabaster and ebony with splashes of crimson and cobalt.”
Which description does the painting justice? Which description invites us into a richer experience?
I think you’ll agree with me that the latter description is superior. Some might initially think it sounds superficial, but I want to suggest to you that this isn’t a matter of being pretentious; this is a matter of capturing the essence of our experiences.
Knowledge and language help us more precisely pick out the fine-grained qualities within our experiences, and thereby, enable us to have a fuller experience.
Where Do I Start?
I love tasting wheels. They challenge me to pay more attention to what I am tasting and they help me pick out exactly what those flavors and aromas are. The International Tea Masters Association (ITMA) provides an excellent and helpful tea aroma wheel that is free to download and I would highly recommend getting acquainted with it:
This is just one version of a tasting wheel, and there are others that you can use as well. While there are some differences, the most important things are (a) to have one and (b) to know how to use it.
When using a tasting wheel, you always want to start from the center and work your way outwards. The middle features very broad categories, like “floral,” “spicy,” or “earthy,” and once you pinpoint one of those aromas or flavors, you can then move to the second-level of the wheel, narrowing your aroma or flavor down further until you stop at a more precise aroma or flavor on the third-level of the wheel.
Do not feel confined to the tasting wheel.
Use it to help you grow as a taster, but do not feel dependent on it. I recently described a tea, accurately, as tasting like “Honey Smacks.”
A very important part of tasting is having fun and getting inventive.
What Am I Doing?
When it comes to tea tasting, you want to imagine the tasting occurring “vertically” and “horizontally,” and you want to keep in mind that much of this involves your nose and sense of smell. This means you want to remember to breathe, especially through the nose, paying attention to the aromas with your inhales and exhales as you sip.
What I mean by “vertical” tasting is trying to pull apart the different aromas or flavors during a particular sample. I will walk you through the four different things to try to notice.
Note: Do not fret about doing it all, all at once. Let your tasting ability develop and mature, gradually improving a day at a time. Just focus on one aspect at a time until it becomes habit.
Begin by trying to identify your “top notes,” which are the first flavors or aromas to greet you as soon as you taste the tea.
Next, with the tea still resting in your mouth, try to identify the flavors or aromas that persist and seem to typify the tea. These are your “heart notes.” It helps to relax your jaw and form a space where the tea can rest.
Finally, bring your attention to the “aftertaste,” especially focusing on how long it lingers. A good tea usually has a pleasant aftertaste that lingers for quite a while. These notes are your “bottom notes.”
There is no need to overwhelm yourself by trying to pick out every single flavor. Instead, just challenge yourself to pick out three flavors total, one for each kind of note.
Remember that we have five primary groups of taste buds, organized into sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami (or savory). Try to figure out how the tea fits into any of these categories.
Be sure that you engage with tactile sensations as well. Notice how the tea first feels when it enters your mouth, how it feels when it rests there, and how it feels when you swallow it.
Does the tea have a “hot,” “cold,” or “dry” quality to it? This is not a reference to temperature. Think in terms of peppery sensations (hot), minty sensations (cold), or astringent sensations (dry). Is it velvety and thick like cream or butter? Might it be thin like water? Is it crisp or smooth?
Texture presents itself to us in a variety of ways, and when we become more familiar with it, it definitely adds some excitement to our tasting experience.
Finally, I cannot neglect color. Professional chefs believe that tasting begins with the eyes, and I believe this to be true as well with tea.
I derive so much excitement when I look at the color of the dry leaves, observe the changes in color after I pour water over them, and finally when I observe the color of the resulting brew.
Every tea is its own pleasant sight to behold. While there are some exceptions, such as pu-erhs, in general, you want to at least make sure the tea has clarity to it.
Lastly, it is important when tasting tea to recognize that not only does the first steep have its own flavor profile, but every steep of the same tea can present to us new aromas and flavors.
When a tea has been placed in the hands of an expert artisan, they know how to roast and fire teas with such skill, that every steeping unveils new and exciting flavors.Horizontal tasting challenges us to try to appreciate that the “taste” of the tea is not in any single steep, but it is the whole range of steepings; it is everything that the tea has to offer you throughout its “life.” Similarly, our own “life” is not in any single moment, but it is the whole range of our experiences; it is everything that we have to offer and experience throughout our lives.