Talking Tea: Let’s Talk Appearance, Flavor and Aroma

For tea enthusiasts, being able to accurately describe the appearance, aroma, flavor and aroma of tea is essential to sharing their passion for tea. In this article, we will discuss how to talk about tea effectively and the commonly used terms that can help you do that.

Describing the Appearance of Tea

The appearance of tea can vary greatly, depending on the type of tea and how it is processed. Here are some commonly used terms for describing the appearance of tea:

Leafy or Full-Leaf: Used to describe teas that have large, open leaves. Examples are Oolongs or White Teas like White Peony.

Wiry: Used to describe teas that have long, thin, tightly rolled leaves. Examples are Black Teas like Keemun Concerto.

Needles: Used to describe teas that are either just the leaf bud (not yet opened), or young, opened leaves which have been tightly rolled back into the needle-like shape they had just before opening. Examples are White Teas like Silver Needle or Green Teas like Anji Duet.

Pearls or Pellets: Used to describe teas that have been rolled into round balls. Examples are Oolongs like Jasmine Pearl or Green Teas like Gunpowder.

Tippy: Used to describe teas that have very visible white buds (buds may appear golden in the case of oxidized black teas). Examples are Whites, Oolongs or Black Teas like Golden Monkey.

Flat or Pan-Fired: Used to describe teas that have been pressed flat (usually by being pan-fired). Examples are Green Teas like Dragonwell. Traditionally, this approach is associated with Chinese teas. Pan-fired teas tend to have a grassy, slightly roasted aroma and flavor.

Steamed: Used to describe teas that have been steamed. Examples are Japanese Green teas which can be identified by their dark green color and “shiny” leaves. Their aroma tends to be sweet and briny (like seaweed). A good example is Sencha.

Broken: Used to describe teas where the leaves have been broken into smaller fragments during rolling. Examples are Black Teas like the base used for Cherry. Broken teas tend to be slightly less expensive and deliver a stronger cup when brewed for the same amount of time.

Describing the Liquor

The liquid that results from brewing tea is called the liquor. The potential colors (especially if you include tisanes and flavored teas) run the spectrum of the rainbow. Here are some examples of how to describe the liquor:

  • Straw instead of pale yellow
  • Amber instead of orange
  • Jade or emerald instead of green
  • Khaki or olive instead of tan
  • Copper instead of light brown
  • Mahogany or cognac instead of dark brown

Describing Flavor and Aroma

Tea is an incredibly versatile beverage that offers an extensive range of flavors and aromas. Understanding these flavor and aroma profiles is crucial in becoming a tea connoisseur. There are various words used to describe tea’s different characteristics, from the health benefits of astringency to the rich, buttery notes of floral teas.

Astringent: Astringency is a highly prized characteristic of the finest teas. It’s the sensation of dryness on the tongue and sides of the mouth caused by the binding of natural antioxidants, known as polyphenols, with our saliva. Astringency is different from bitterness, which is a flavor. It is a physical sensation that is sensed more along the sides of the back of your tongue, similar to sourness. Proper levels of astringency are essential in teas such as first-flush Darjeeling.

Vegetal: This term describes the green, herbaceous, and grassy notes that are typical of green teas.

Briny: Most commonly associated with Japanese green teas, the briny flavor evokes the taste of seaweed, spinach, kelp, and the aroma of the sea. It’s a common descriptor for teas like Gyokuro, which have a sweet and fruity finish.

Floral: Floral teas have a warm, sweet, and pleasant aroma that is similar to perfume. High-mountain green Oolongs like Ali Shan are known for their exquisite notes of lilac blossoms and smooth, buttery finishes.

Roasted or Toasted: Chinese green teas like Dragonwell have a unique flavor that lies somewhere between roasted chestnuts, walnuts, or almonds, or sometimes even straw/hay. This nutty flavor is generally created by pan-firing or certain tea-drying techniques.

Umami: Umami is the fifth taste component, in addition to salty, sweet, sour, and bitter. It is the physical experience of taste, the mouthfeel of the tea. It’s a rich, savory, buttery taste that is found in foods like chicken broth. This flavor is also present in Gyokuro teas, alongside bright and fruity notes.

Muscatel: Darjeeling tea is known for its muscatel flavor, which is borrowed from the white, muscat grape used for making certain sweet, sparkling wines. This flavor is brisk, astringent, bright, floral, and has a dry finish.

Strong: This descriptor is pretty straightforward. It means that the tea has a lot of taste! Other common synonyms for strong tea include full-bodied, bold, rich, robust, and heavy.

Earthy: Earthy teas are savory, woody, musty, and sometimes sweet. They’re often associated with mushrooms and potting soil. Chinese Yunnan teas are excellent examples of earthy teas.

Malty: This descriptor is borrowed from the rich, caramel sweetness of fermented barley or wheat. Some strong black teas like Assam Harmony have this honeyed, brown sugar richness.

Smooth: Teas that have a full body but without the astringent “bite” are often described as smooth, soft, mild, mellow, or round. Chinese Keemuns are a great example of a rich tea that is always smooth. Oolongs are also regularly characterized as smooth.

By understanding the different words used to describe the flavors and aromas of tea, you’ll be well on your way to becoming a tea connoisseur. So, grab a cup of tea, sit back, and enjoy the nuances of each sip.

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