Learning the art of tea tasting allows tea drinkers to develop their palates, discover new qualities of their favorite teas, and deepen their appreciation for this ancient beverage.
Much like wine, beer, or coffee, tea encompasses a wide range of styles and varieties, each with their own distinct characteristics. The environment where tea is grown and the way that it is processed can greatly impact its color, texture, flavor, aroma, and health benefits.
Our Ministers of Tea have dedicated a significant amount of time to developing their palates, learning tea terminology, and understanding the properties of tea. Now, we would like to pass that knowledge along to you, our Citizens of The Republic of Tea.
1. Study the Tea Leaves
Surprisingly, your tea tasting experience begins even before the tea is steeped. First, you will want to examine the dried tea leaves, taking note of their size, shape, color, and texture.
High quality loose full-leaf teas should be made from whole leaves that are smooth, dry and sturdy, rather than small broken bits that crumble easily. Tea leaves with tips are considered premium varieties, that contain more distinct flavors.
Green tea leaves should have a deep earthy coloring, while white tea buds should be covered in silvery-white hairs. As your knowledge of tea grows, these physical indicators of quality will become easier to identify and appreciate.
2. Steep the Tea
Here at The Republic of Tea, our Ministers have perfected the science and art of steeping tea to ensure you extract the maximum amount of flavor and enjoyment from every cup.
Learn how to steep tea the right way with our detailed guide.
3. Examine the Tea Liquid
Just as you studied the appearance of the dried tea leaves, now you must inspect the steeped tea liquid. The color should be bright, though the exact shade will depend on the variety of tea brewed.
Lighter colored teas tend to also be lighter and cleaner in taste, while deeper shades may have fuller, richer flavors.
4. Smell the Tea
Have you ever noticed that when you have a stuffy nose, your sense of taste is diminished? Our abilities to smell and taste are closely linked, and in fact, much of what you “taste” when you eat or drink something is actually experienced through smell.
This is exactly why tea tasters first smell the tea and study the aroma before they taste it. In Chinese tea culture, this step is actually as important as the tasting itself.
Bring the cup as close to your nose as possible, and inhale through your nose with a long, slow, deep breath. Alternatively, you may prefer to take multiple short, quick inhalations through your nose.
You should notice a distinct aroma wafting up from your cup, but it is okay if your aroma descriptors are somewhat broad. For instance, you may determine that the tea smells grassy, woody, sweet, floral, spicy, or fruity.
More experienced tasters can often pick up on aromas at a more specific level; for example, they might be able to differentiate between a tea with an aroma of smoke and vanilla, versus one with an aroma of chestnut and liquorice.
It can take a long time to develop your palate to this level, so just do the best you can. Closing your eyes as you smell the tea may help you detect those more subtle aromas.
5. Taste the Tea
Finally, the part you have been waiting for—it is time to taste your tea!
Scoop up some of the liquid with a spoon (or if you prefer, simply bring the cup to your lips) and take a big splurp! Forget any notion of table manners; your slurp should be loud, to ensure plenty of oxygen is pulled into your mouth. This will aerate the tea and enhance the flavors.
Allow the tea to roll over your tongue as you breathe out through your nose, keeping your mouth closed. Finally, swallow the tea.
Now, the true fun begins! It is time to dissect the flavor, mouthfeel, and other qualities of your tea:
Much like aroma, flavor can be described in both very broad and highly specific specific terms. Is the tea sweet, savory, or bitter? Is the flavor light and clean, or bold and deep? Does it fall under the category of herbal, nutty, floral, fruity, smoky, spicy, or something else entirely? Can you detect any undertones, such as rose, almond, peach, vanilla, or cedar?
You might also notice that certain flavors appear and disappear as you taste the tea. For example, upon first sipping the tea you might describe the flavor as sweet and fruity. But as the tea moves through your mouth it may develop a pleasant floral flavor, which lingers in your mouth and becomes increasingly identifiable as jasmine after you swallow the tea.
These are all very important flavor characteristics to take note of as you taste your tea. Again, this level of tasting precision will come with time and experience.
“Mouthfeel” is quite simply the way that the tea feels in your mouth, particularly on your tongue and in your throat.
Is the liquid smooth and light? Or is it thick with a creamier texture? Does it leave your tongue feeling dry, slippery, or coated? Does it feel rough on your tastebuds, or do you barely notice that it is there?
Not all tea drinkers factor qualities like health benefits or physical effects into their tasting experience, but at The Republic of Tea we feel that they are an important aspect of understanding and differentiating between tea varietals.
Do you notice an increase in mental clarity, or a pleasant burst of physical energy? Do you feel relaxed and de-stressed? Has the tea helped to dull a throbbing headache, or soothe a scratchy throat? Has your mood or sense of well-being improved? Do you feel productive, happy, refreshed, or peaceful?
Much like sipping a fine wine or quality cup of coffee, learning to appreciate and understand the subtle nuances that make each tea varietal unique can elevate your tea drinking experience.
As you taste more teas following this method, you can expect your palate to develop and your ability to pick up on specific aromas, flavors, and other qualities to increase. Happy tea tasting!