Tea tasting is an art form that requires a skilled palate and a deep understanding of the tea-making process. Similar to wine tasting, tea tasting involves examining the appearance, aroma, flavor, and texture of the tea. In this article, we will guide you through the steps involved in tea tasting and provide you with useful tips to help you become a tea-tasting pro.
Examining the Dry Leaves: The First Step in Tea Tasting
The first step in tea tasting is to examine the dry leaves. The dry leaves can tell you a lot about the tea’s quality. To examine the dry leaves, gently press some dry leaves in your hand. New teas are typically springier and less likely to crumble than older teas. The appearance of the dry leaves can vary depending on the tea’s origin, manufacturing process, and the Camellia sinensis plant clone used.
Analyzing the Infused Leaves: The Second Step in Tea Tasting
After examining the dry leaves, the next step is to analyze the infused leaves. Measure a level teaspoon of each sample into a cup and fill it with hot water. The infusion process will bring out the tea’s flavor, aroma, and color. Smaller flat leaves will show more body than larger twisted leaves, which take longer to steep. After steeping, take in the aroma of the tea and examine the infused leaves for color and evenness.
The Tasting Process: Using Your Palate to Evaluate Tea
Tea tasting is a precise skill that requires a good natural palate and active olfactory nerve. A tea taster uses a large spoon and noisily slurps the liquid into their mouth. This ensures that both the tea and plenty of oxygen are passed over all the taste receptors on the tongue to give an even taste profile of the tea. While the tongue experiences most of the taste, other surfaces of the mouth also play a role in evaluating tea. There are four kinds of tastes – salt, sour, sweet, and bitter. Sweetness is tasted at the tip of the tongue, and bitterness at the back. Saltiness is tasted at the tip and sides of the front of the tongue, while sourness is experienced at the back edges. The taster will also judge the tea’s thickness, body, or viscosity when the liquor is swirled around the mouth.
Using Specific Language to Grade Tea
Tea tasters use specific language to grade tea based on flavor characteristics, leaf color, size, and shape. The tasting process includes analyzing the infused leaves as the cups are filled. White or clear cups are typically used to view the truest color. The color of the tea does not necessarily indicate the strength or body of the liquor.
Tea Tasting Terminology
Terms Describing Dry Leaf
- Black: A black appearance is desirable.
- Blackish: A satisfactory appearance.
- Bold: Particles of leaf which are too large for the particular grade.
- Brown: A brown appearance in teas that normally indicates overly harsh treatment of the leaf.
- Clean: Leaf that is free from fiber, dust and all extraneous matter.
- Curly: The leaf appearance of whole leaf grade teas such as O.P., as distinct from “wiry”.
- Even: True to the grade, consisting of pieces of leaf of fairly even size.
- Flaky: Flat, open and often light in texture.
- Gray: Caused by too much abrasion during sorting.
- Grainy: Describes primary grades of well-made CTC teas such as Pekoe Dust.
- Leafy: A tea in which leaves tend to be on the large or long side.
- Light: A tea light in weight, of poor density. Sometimes flaky.
- Make: Well-made tea (or not), true to its grade.
- Musty: A tea affected by mildew.
- Neat: A grade having good “make” and size.
- Powdery: Fine light dust.
- Ragged: An uneven, badly manufactured and graded tea.
- Stalk & Fibre: Should be minimal in superior grades, but is generally unavoidable in lower-grade teas.
- Tip: A sign of fine plucking, apparent in top grades of orthodox “Low Grown Type Teas”.
- Uneven & Mixed: “Uneven” pieces of leaf usually indicative of poor sorting and not true to the particular grade.
- Well Twisted: Used for describing whole-leaf grades, often referred to as “well-made” or “rolled”.
- Wiry: Leaf appearance of a well-twisted, thin-leaf tea.
Terms Describing Infused Leaf
- Aroma: Smell or scent denoting “inherent character,” usually in tea grown at high altitudes.
- Bright: A lively bright appearance. Usually indicates bright liquors.
- Coppery: Bright leaf that indicates a well-manufactured tea.
- Dull: Lacks brightness and usually denotes poor tea. Can be due to faulty manufacture and firing, or a high moisture content.
- Dark: A dark or dull colour that usually indicates poorer leaf.
- Green: When referring to black tea, refers to under-fermentation or to leaves from immature bushes (liquors often raw or light). Can also be caused by poor rolling.
- Mixed or Uneven: Leaf of varying colour.
Terms Describing Liquors
- Bakey: over-fired liquor. Tea in which too much moisture has been driven off.
- Body: liquor having both fullness and strength, as opposed to being thin.
- Bright: Denotes a lively fresh tea with good keeping quality.
- Brisk: The most “live” characteristic. Results from good manufacture.
- Burnt: Extreme over-firing.
- Character – An attractive taste, specific to origin, describing teas grown at high altitudes.
- Coarse: Describes harsh, undesirable liquor.
- Coloury: Indicates useful depth of colour and strength.
- Cream: A precipitate obtained after cooling.
- Dry: Indicates slight over-firing.
- Dull: Not clear, and lacking any brightness or briskness.
- Earthy: Normally caused by damp storage, but can also describe a taste that is sometimes “climatically inherent” in teas from certain regions.
- Empty: Describes a liquor lacking fullness. No substance.
- Flat: Not fresh (usually due to age).
- Flavour: A most desirable extension of “character,” caused by slow growth at high elevations. Relatively rare.
- Fruity: Can be due to over-fermentation and/or bacterial infection before firing. An overripe taste.
- Full: A good combination of strength and colour.
- Gone off: A flat or old tea. Often denotes a high moisture content.
- Green: An immature, “raw” character. Often due to underfermentation (Sometimes underwithering).
- Harsh: A taste generally due to underwithered leaf. Very rough.
- Heavy: thick, strong and coloury liquor with limited briskness.
- High-Fried: Over-fired but not bakey or burnt
- Lacking: Describes neutral liquor. No body or pronounced characteristics.
- Light: Lacking strength and depth of colour.
- Malty: A full, bright tea with a taste of malt.
- Mature: Not bitter or flat.
- Metallic: A sharp Metallic taste.
- Muddy: dull liquor.
- Musty: Suspicion of mold.
- Plain: A liquor that is “clean” but lacking in desirable characteristics.
- Pungent: Astringent with a good combination of briskness, brightness and strength.
- Quality: Refers to “cup quality” and denotes a combination of the most desirable liquoring qualities.
- Raw: A bitter, unpleasant flavor.
- Soft: The opposite of briskness. Lacking any “live” characteristic. Caused by inefficient fermentation and/or firing.
- Strength: Substance in cup.
- Taint: Characteristic or taste that is foreign to tea, such as oil, garlic, etc. Often due to being stored next to other commodities with strong characteristics of their own.
- Thick: Liquor with good colour and strength.
- Thin: insipid light liquor that lacks desirable characteristics.