Tasting teas calls to mind a shift in mindset. There is a difference between sitting down and enjoying a cup of tea compared to tasting tea. To taste tea is to evaluate it critically. At work, I taste teas everyday whether sampling teas that are newly produced and blended or ingredients we’ve purchased to see how they taste as they’re aging. As I’m tasting, I’m judging whatever tea I’m sampling against my recollection of my gold standard, the best version of that tea I’ve tried. After 30 years of tasting teas, I’ve developed a flavor bank upon which I can compare teas. If you’re a tea drinker and want to conduct your own tastings at home, there are several things you will want to consider as you get started.
First, treat every tea exactly the same. To conduct a tea tasting at home of say, seven Earl Grey black teas, use seven identical cups so you will have the same thickness of ceramic, color, etc. Then, display the tea leaves in front of each cup if using loose tea, or if using tea bags, cut them open to display the leaves inside—this allows you to see the leaf cut size (whole leaves / broken / fannings / CTC / other ingredients) and begin comparing them. Brew each tea correctly using the same water, temperature and length of time. These consistencies cup-to-cup allow the differences in the teas themselves come through.
Next, balance between keeping an open mind and thinking critically about each cup of tea. It can be easy to select your favorite from the bunch, but just as important is to consider the choices each tea blender made in composing each blend. Using Earl Grey black tea as an example, the Russian-style is pungent with bergamot. The British-style, to my palate can taste medicinal.The Persian-style of Earl Grey tastes lighter, cleaner and more delicate—you don’t know it’s Earl Grey until you stop and think about it. The American-style tends to be light and more citrusy. When tasting teas at home with an open mind, questions might arise as to why these differences exist. Elements to consider include what culture the tea blend is coming from. Is it from a new tea brand or an old one? It might also trigger questions about what flavor profiles and aspects of flavor are most appealing in different cultures.
While learning how to taste tea years ago with my mentor, Jim Reynolds, he taught me a valuable lesson. Aside from qualifying if I liked a tea or not, he challenged me to ask of the tea we sampled, “is it a good representation of what this tea is supposed to be?” Tea is like wine. A California Chardonnay will taste different from a French Chardonnay.
When tasting teas, pay attention to the taste and the after-taste. Some teas can start out sharp and mellow over time in your mouth to something sweet and pleasant. Other times a sharp tea might stay sharp to the end. I also like to think about the long after-taste that happens 10-15 minutes after tasting a tea. What lingers on and does it make your mouth feel better? As you taste, it’s important to focus on the cup in front of you and not the last or next cup.
In the office, we conduct our tea tastings quietly. We don’t talk until everyone has a chance to taste. Part of the fascination in tasting teas is the associations that can leap into your mind as you taste tea. Tea flavors can be subtle and those associations are fleeting. Tasting tea might transport you to the living room of your grandmother’s house with memories of being eight years-old. Maybe you haven’t thought about your grandmother in weeks but the aroma or flavor takes you back. Our sense of smell is connected to our memories and it’s no accident. Every aroma and taste is composed of chemical compounds. Maybe it’s the lavender ingredient that brought you suddenly back to grandma’s house? I call that the surprise in the cup. You never know when the associations will happen. So as you set out to start tasting teas at home, prepare yourself for fun. You never know where tasting teas will take you.