Over the past few days I have come down with a rather unpleasant sickness. The damage to my sinuses has greatly impacted my ability to taste tea. For this reason I decided to write a short blog post on how tasting tea works physiologically, rather than writing a post in which I sample and evaluate a new tea.
Prior to drinking the brewed tea, there are a few different visual cues that can offer some useful bits of information about a tea’s processing, quality, source material, etc. The size of the dry tea leaves can tell you what grade of material was used to produce the tea. The smaller, tippy buds are usually graded higher for the fine qualities they bring out in tea. Larger, coarser leaves are usually graded lower for the more robust qualities they bring out in tea. These larger leaves are also easier to harvest, and makeup more of the tea plant’s material. For this reason larger leaves tend to be less expensive than buds.
While some teas use one size of leaf in production, other teas, like Pu’er, will be blended with a mixture of larger leaves and buds. For this reason it is not uncommon to see a range of leaf size in a blend. Regardless of the size of the leaf, there should be an overall sense of uniformity and healthiness in the appearance of the dry material. This will usually be accompanied by a smooth, rich, and overall pleasant aroma.
If the dry tea leaves look broken, or are gray and lackluster in coloration, this is a bad sign. It is also a bad sign if the leaves look fine, but there is something unpleasant in the aroma. Pairing visual cues with aroma can be helpful. This is because even if a tea was made with good quality material, it is possible to do damage with improper storage methods. This kind of damage would be revealed by unpleasant aromas.
Another important visual cue is the appearance of the brewed tea liquor. In my experience good tea will usually have a liquor that is somewhat clear and vibrant. Lower quality teas will have an infusion that is lackluster in coloration, or even worse, one that is cloudy and murky in appearance.
After drinking the tea, the appearance of the brewed tea leaves offers some more information about the quality of that tea. There should be no off-putting aromas coming off the leaves, and they should have a somewhat healthy and vibrant appearance.
How the Sensations of Taste and Aroma are Created
There are two very important bodily functions that come together while tasting tea: gustation and olfaction.
Gustation refers to the tasting of flavors on the tongue. On the tongue, taste receptor cells form together in groups of 50 – 150 to form a taste bud. Taste buds then group together to form tower like structures called papillae. On average, humans can have anywhere from 2,000 – 8,000 taste buds on their tongue. This may be one reason why tasting experiences can be dramatically different between individuals.
Gustation is how we taste the five main flavors, which are bitter, acidic, salty, sweet, and umami. Bitterness will usually be present in tea in varying amounts, because this flavor is associated with the tannins produced by the tea plant. In some teas the bitterness will be less noticeable, and there will be more acidic, sweet, or umami flavors present. We all have different preferences, so there’s not just one definition of a ‘good’ flavor. I usually find that good teas will have a flavor that is substantial and pleasant, and releases evenly over a few infusions. It is a bad sign if a tea gives you any sharp unpleasant flavors. Another bad sign is if the tea offers no flavor, and yields an insipid brew.
Olfaction refers to the way in which we gain our sense of smell. There are two functions that make this happen: “direct” or ortho-nasal olfaction, and retro-nasal olfaction.
Direct olfaction occurs when we inhale through our nasal passages, which bring molecules to the olfactory gland in the brain through a barrier of olfactory mucus.
Retro-nasal olfaction on the other hand occurs after we drink the tea. After drinking the tea aromas rise through the pharynx (a membrane lined cavity behind the nose and mouth) towards the nasal cavities, then finally reach the olfactory gland. This retro-nasal olfaction offers us a more intense sensation of a tea’s aromatic qualities.
I find that the ability to discern different aromas is very important when tasting a tea. This is because there are so many different qualities which can appear within any one of the five flavors. In other words, a particular aroma can help point us in the direction of a specific quality that we are trying to describe. This is why I’ve been unable to taste tea with my sickness over the past few days. When drinking tea recently I can get a general idea of whether or not it is bitter, sweet, umami, etc. However, without the ability to recognize the specific aromas, I can’t put words to the more specific notes that I would usually be able to pinpoint.
Final Thoughts – Challenges of Tasting Tea
I find that there are a few challenges when trying to taste tea. One challenge is that flavor and aroma are heavily based in memory. Memory can be useful if we are at a loss for words when trying to describe a specific quality of a tea, because sometimes exploring these memories will reveal what we are trying to get at. Often times when tasting however, we will have to move past our first impressions to understand in greater detail what we are experiencing in the present moment. If we rely too much on the memories that tea can elicit (either good or bad), we may miss some parts of the tea.
Another challenge is when you encounter a specific flavor and aroma, but are at a loss of which words to use to describe that quality. I’ve found that some tea books and websites will have “aroma wheel” graphics that will have many different aromas separated into categories. These can be a useful tool to reference, or jog your memory.
Tasting is a sensory experience, therefore all of our senses are at some point involved in the process. This can pose a challenge because if one sensory aspect of tasting is compromised, it can affect our impressions of the other aspects. If the lighting is bad, or our vision is compromised, we may miss the beauty of the tea leaves or the brewed tea. If our hearing is compromised, we may let the kettle sit too long and over boil the water. This is why part of the art of tasting tea includes trying to more fully engage all of our senses, and trying to create a sense of harmony in the environment. For this reason it can be useful to taste tea in an environment we are comfortable with, because we may have less confounding variables that would interfere with tasting. It can also be useful to postpone important tastings if certain senses would be interfered with too much. I’m fine drinking tea to feel better while I’m sick, but I wouldn’t try to sample a tea that’s expensive, rare, or special in any other way right now. This is because I know that with blocked sinuses, there’s a level of enjoyment and understanding that I would be missing out on.