Tea World

Lesson 25

How to taste tea?

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Now let us move onto tea tasting and how the tea taster tastes tea.

When a tea taster tastes tea, he looks for four key features. They are:

  • Appearance,
  • Aroma,
  • Flavour and
  • Mouth feel.

You will learn about all of these aspects on this tea tasting journey.

a) First job- look of the Tea

As a tea taster, the first thing the taster does is to inspect the dry tea sample. A large proportion of his overall option is based on the look of the sample.  He first examines the sample of the dry leaf for its complexion, style, evenness of sortation (uniform sizing) and stalk and fibre content. Also the colour is examined, whether it is all the same colour. If the colours are different, then it might be a blend. He also observes if there is any silver or gold tips.Normally he takes note of these by putting about 5 g of tea on a white plate.

The tea taster feels (by touch) the sample whether the leaf is spongy (too much moisture) or brittle (too little moisture). He also sniffs the dry leaf by blowing a bit moist breath to pick up any outstanding aroma.

A good loose tea has certain signs like-

  • In Black, White and Green tea: Gold or Bronze flecks - these are the young leaves called tippy
  • It should crunch between the fingers - this means that it has not absorbed any moisture (or flavour) from the air around it
  •  Presence of tips /buds –It  is a  sign of good tea

b) Making the Perfect Brew

It is the next step. The standard procedure for the preparation of the brew is to weigh out 2.9 g (2-3 g -a heaped teaspoon in the UK) of the sample into a brewing pot and infuse it for 5 minutes in 120 ml of freshly boiled water. The liquor is then strained into the tasting bowl and the infused leaf retained on the upturned lid. In the UK, the brew time they follow is three and a half minutes. It is considered to be the right amount of time for the colour, flavour and goodness to come out.

  Every tea taster in the world uses the same crockery, the purest and whitest crockery.  This helps to see the colours and depths.

c)  Observation on the liquor and infused leaf.

 In the world of tea, the infusion of tea is called 'liquor'. When the tea taster inspects the liquor, he takes note of the color and hue of the liquor, as well as its transparency, reflectiveness and clarity.  Black tea liquor is not “black,” but ranges from reddish amber to a dark, deep mahogany. Green tea is seldom deep green, but a light, greenish amber or bluish green. The reason for this is the transparency of tea liquor, its unique manner of reflecting and refracting light.

 For colour, he looks for a bright, jewel-like colour. For physical appearance, he looks whether it is shiny, slightly oily and bright. It is fine to have a little fragments floating around the bottom of the cup.

Once the tea is brewed,he looks at the wet leaves (infused leaf) how itlooks, and also the smell.While the infused leaf is still hot, he brings it up to thenose and sniff repeatedly. This sends molecules of tea to the olfactory zone at the back of the nose. Olfactory evaluation of the infusion is of primary importance in tea-tasting. It is not only a foretaste of what to expect in the cup, it can reveal information not in the cup.  

Good tea should have a uniform black colour with a bloom or sheen.The infused leaf gives an indication of the merit of the liquor and a bright and coppery infusion is the ideal one.

Up till now the tea taster judges the physical look of the tea. Now he moves to tasting it.

d) How does the Taster Taste?

Let us have a bit scientific understanding before we read how the tea taster tastes.

When we think of taste, we think of our tongue. Some studies have suggested that up to 90% of flavour is perceived through smell. Our tongues detect five essential tastes and these give us our initial impression:  sweet, salty, acidic, bitter, umami (a word from Japanese, meaning 'pleasant savoury taste'). The initial perception of something can throw you off the taste, that is why it is important to first take into consideration the aroma.

Our taste buds form part of an intricate system that allows our brain to decide on a taste. The taste buds along with gustatory receptors and the Olfactory gland allow our brain to make a quick decision on whether or not we recognise and like the flavour of what we are about to ingest.

The olfactory gland is situated several centimetres behind the back of our eyes and nose.With fine hairs on its surface, it captures molecules of what we   smell and in some case  what we put in our mouth (that is why it is important to slurp our tea to mix with the air). 

Combining the neural messages from the tongue, olfactory gland and with some help from the gustatory receptors we are quickly able to build a profile of the tea we are drinking.

e) Tasting the Aroma

The taster takes a little sniff to taste the aroma. What do you mean by aroma? Aroma is a fragrant smell of a number of smells in a concentrated form. Flavour is an aroma. Aroma is tasted by the taster through his sense of smell by sniffing. He sniffs the vapour rising from the steaming liquor holding it as close to his nose as possible and takes a deep breath. This helps him   use his taste wheel to start to get the first perception of the flavour. In tea tasting, “tasting” is really a “Taste-smelling”. So, the tea taster never attempt to taste tea when he has a cold!

 f) How to taste and Slurp?

While tasting the liquor, he takes out some of the liquor with a spoon, takes a deep breath and then slurps the liquid up into his mouth from the surface of the spoon with a loud sucking noise. He swirls the liquor round his tongue and gums, drawing the aroma back into his mouth and up into the olfactory nerves. After a few seconds he spits it out.The louder the slurp, the better. He does this to mix oxygen with the liquor as it helps to bring the flavour to life.  By doing so, he tastes, feels and smells the liquid.

He judges the strength, body, briskness and also the finer aspects like quality, flavour and character. Sometimes milk is added to judge the colour and strength more accurately.

While it is mainly the tongue that experiences taste, other surfaces of the mouth also play a role here. And that is what we call ‘mouth feel’. Mouth feel is all about the sensations you feel in your mouth when you taste tea. There are four kinds of taste - salt, sour, sweet and bitter. Sweetness is tasted at the tip of the tongue, and bitterness at the back. Saltiness too is tasted at the tip, and also at the sides of the front of the tongue. Sourness is experienced at the back edges. Astringency or pungency is a sensation, not a taste, that is felt on the gums and part of the cheek. When the liquor is swirled round the mouth, the thickness, body or viscosity is felt and judged.

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