Secrets of Tea Tasting

Tea Tasting involves three of one's senses – Sight, Smell, and Taste.

One first sees what the dry leaves look like (whole, broken, crisp) then smells the dry leaves (clean, musty). Then one brews the liquor, observes it (muddy, clear) smells it (fresh, flowery) and finally tastes it.

Tasting has three steps – sipping (or slurping, as some air has to go into one’s mouth along with the tea), swirling and spitting – just as in wine tasting. However, in tasting fine teas, one has to swallow the tea to compare the differences at the throat and after swallowing.

When one sips the tea and swirls it in one’s mouth, one has to think about the ABC of tasting –Aroma, Body, and Character. These three attributes have their own vocabulary.

The aroma is the smell of the tea liquor. It is called nose or fragrance for a simple scent and bouquet if more complex; like smelling a single flower or a bunch of them.

The body is the feel and mass of the tea in one’s mouth. Some words to describe body are light, viscous, thick, gutty, round and full. The last describes good quality tea which has colour, strength, and substance.

Character refers to a tea’s unique attributes, which depends on the country or area of origin. For example, muscatel is a word used to describe the musky-sweet taste of Darjeeling tea, similar to wine made from the muscat grape; while malty is used to describe Assam teas which are reminiscent of malt whiskeys. Green teas from China are often pan-fried, so words like chestnut, or roast corn are used to describe them. Japanese green tea is steamed and often compared to green vegetables such as asparagus or spinach. Astringency refers to a clean, refreshing characteristic that dries the tongue. This is caused by the reaction between the protein in one’s saliva and the tannins in the tea.
After spitting out the tea, the lingering taste of it on one’s tongue is called the finish. It could be smooth or have an aftertaste.

Infusion is a very important factor in tea tasting. One steeps the tea to prepare it for drinking by keeping the leaves in hot water for a certain amount of time, in order to release the flavour, strength and colour (infusion). Different teas have different steeping methods and timings. The time depends on the kind of leaf – Orthodox or CTC, black, green or white – the required temperature, the desired strength (light or strong), and whether it is to be drunk with or without milk. Black tea needs a higher temperature and a longer time to bring out its aroma and flavour, while a lower temperature and shorter time allows the green tea to release amino acids, which gives the tea its flavour.
Since the cup can affect the taste of the tea, it is important to drink from a bone china, porcelain, ceramic or glass cup, in which tea remains hot, and retains its flavour and aroma.

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