The Sensory Experience of Tasting Tea
Every single specialty tea that we drink deserves a slow, measured, attentive evaluation and enjoyment.
For hundreds of years, professional tea tasters have spent most of their working life examining the dry leaf, wet leaf, and liquor of different teas. On a daily basis, they work their way down a bench of perhaps 50 teas, noisily slurping spoonfuls of each, one after the other very rapidly, and taking only seconds to assess the flavor and quality of each one. They may poke at the dry leaf, prod the wet leaf, make some quick notes and then move on. For passionate amateurs, the sensory evaluation of tea is a somewhat slower, calmer, more poetic activity that can reveal interesting layers of flavor and aroma, allowing us to recognize and get to know every element of each tea’s character.
So the first step is to pour or scoop out some of the dry leaf onto a flat white surface and then take a close look at the shape, size, and color of the leaves or broken particles. As we examine them closely and with a certain sense of wonderment at their beauty, we need to ask several questions.
- Are the pieces of leaf more or less uniform?
- What shape are they?
- Are they rolled into balls or pellets?
- Are they twisted or flat?
- Are the leaves and buds broken or complete?
- Are there lots of golden buds?
- What colors are visible?
- Are the leaves all one color or do they display many different tones?
- Do they look bright and clean or dull and dusty?
The type of questions we ask will depend on what sort of tea we are evaluating. For example, if the tea is a dark, open-leafed oolong from Taiwan or China, the leaf will be large, possibly unbroken, lightly twisted, and possibly with bud and leaves still attached to the stem. The colors will be a mix of deep plummy reds and browns, sage greens, maybe charcoal black. If the tea is a Chinese Long Jing (Dragon Well), the bud sets should be flat, shiny, regular, and the color should be a bright yellow-green. The more we taste and drink different teas, the more we come to know what to expect from a good Oolong, Long Jing, First Flush Darjeeling, or Silver Needle.
Our memory stores away images, tastes, and aromas of the good and bad teas and our bank of experiences guides us and helps us judge and evaluate each time we taste. So we begin to understand that uneven leaves will de-blend when mixed because smaller particles will settle on the bottom while larger leaves will remain on top. Thus, when you scoop out the dry leaf in order to brew your tea, you get an uneven mix and the tea will brew badly.
The shape tells is about how the tea was processed. The quantity of golden tips tells us how carefully and at what stage in their life the young shoots were plucked. Long Jing that has brown patches has been scorched in a wok that was too hot. A First Flush Darjeeling that is dark brown will not have the very delicate soft fruitiness we expect from a silvery-green leaf that is full of small, downy buds. And leaves that look old and dull have perhaps been badly stored and may even have become damp at some point in their lives. Thus we would expect a pu-erh to have exactly that appearance.
The second stage is to brew the tea so that the wet leaves and liquor may be examined, evaluated, and enjoyed. Look at and smell the wet leaf (known as the infusion in professional terminology), and it will confirm the thoughts and ideas you had on first meeting it in its dry form. The colors will have come to life, the twists will perhaps have untwisted, the buds will be plump, the pearls or pellets will have opened to reveal perfect baby shoots or crinkled leaves. And the aroma may be heavenly, exotic, toasty, unbelievably fruity!
Now it’s time to decide just what those aromas recall. Roasted vegetables, autumn fruits, summer berries, roses, orchids, hyacinths, cinnamon, nutmeg? The possible connections are infinite and as the leaf cools, other, sometimes totally different, aromas will become evident.
And then, the liquor deserves our full attention. First, take time to assess its clarity and brightness. Or, perhaps, in the case of a steamed tea such as sencha, there may be tiny particulates floating in the water to give it a slightly cloudy appearance. Find words to describe the color — gold, green-gold, honey-colored, deep amber, copper red, tawny. Assess the aroma. Does it match the perfume of the wet leaf? What does the aroma of the liquor remind you of? Check again as it cools.
And lastly, the moment you have been building up to: Assess and relish the taste. Is the liquor astringent, bitter, smoky, toasty, honeyed, sweet, fruity, or floral? Does it carry hints of toasted nuts, poached pears, baked apples, roast lamb, young broccoli, fish oil? Again, the possibilities are endless. Think also about the mouthfeel. Is the tea watery and thin? Or velvety thick? Does it fill the mouth and linger on the palate or disappear quickly?
Every single specialty tea that we drink deserves this slow, measured, attentive evaluation and enjoyment. Too often teas are brewed carelessly, drowned with milk, overwhelmed with sugar, drunk too quickly, the leaves thrown out without allowing them to speak to us, to share their hidden depths and allow us to appreciate and value the magic of the plant and the skill of the tea masters who captured that magic to pass on to us.