One of the first things we tell customers who try tea in our shop is that it’s not rude to slurp your tea! In fact we encourage our customers to loudly slurp teas they are trying for the first time – followed by short intakes of breath through the nose.
When we visit tea growing regions we spend a great deal of our time trying new teas. In fact, on a typical tea buying trip to India we would typically try around 200 different teas from Darjeeling and Assam.
Our 10 g tea samples and tea sampler sets offer an ideal opportunity for customers to stage their own tea tasting session at home.
Here’s a brief summary of how to taste tea like a professional
Before we try the tea we explore the dry leaf:
- What shape is it? Are the leaves large or small, curly, wiry, rolled…?
- What colour is it? Is it just black or are there lighter (golden or bronze) parts that are the tips and a sign of quality?
- What is the texture like? At The English Tearoom we specialise in orthodox tea so we are looking for the leaf to be as whole as possible and it should crunch between the fingers showing that it hasn’t absorbed any moisture from the air around it.
After exploring the dry leaf we move on to the liquor and wet leaf:
- Professionals call the infusion “liquor”. Does the liquor have a bold, bright almost jewel-like colour? Does it glisten and look slightly oily? Don’t worry about little fragments of tea that have settled in the bottom of the cup.
- What do the used leaves (the “wet leaf”) look and smell like? We’re looking for a deep colour and leaves that have become whole and plump again.
Now it’s time to taste the tea:
While our tongue detects five different tastes (sweet, sour, salt, bitter, umami) most of the flavour (around 90%) we experience when tasting tea is perceived through the olfactory gland that is situated several centimetres behind the back of our eyes and nose. Through fine hairs on its surface the olfactory gland captures molecules of the teas we are smelling and then tasting. That’s why it’s important to slurp the tea and then take sniffs of air through the nose.
Tasting tea like a professional enables us to identify a flavour profile of the tea.
First we identify the aroma
We hold the wet leaf close to our nose and take a sniff followed by deep inhalations. Then, by taking rapid, shallow inhalations through the nose we start to understand the flavour of the tea.
Then we get to taste!
We scoop up some of the liquor on a spoon. Take deep breath, pucker up (as if you’re about to give someone a big wet kiss) then slurp the liquor into our mouths. Don’t be shy! Breath from the diaphragm, slurp loudly and energetically. Remember, you need to mix oxygen with the liquor to bring the flavours in the tea to life.
Before you swallow the liquor breath out through your nose (keep your mouth closed!). Then swallow (or spit out) the liquor.
Think about how it feels on the tongue. Mouth feel is all about the sensations you feel in your mouth when you taste tea. Some are smooth and round, some are drying and make us pucker. The mouth feel combined with the aromas and flavours help us to decide if the tea feels right.
How to identify the flavours in tea can be a bit challenging at first, but with practice this is something that it is possible to learn.
First of all one should bear in mind that there are often many complex levels of taste and that not all aromas and flavours are detectable at the same time. Using the flavour wheel as a guide we can split the aromas and flavours into three main categories.
In the inner circle we see head notes. These are the flavours that build your first impression. They are immediate and come thick and fast.
In the next secondary ring of the flavour wheel we find the body notes. These give us an overall lasting impression and character.
The final ring of the flavour wheel identifies the after taste (tail notes). These are the flavours that linger and stay with you after the liquor has passed from your mouth. This final stage often indicates the complexity and, in some cases, the quality of the tea.
Tips for tasting tea at home
- When professionals prepare tea for tasting they use a tea tasting set, twice the quantity of tea we would use and they brew the tea for five minutes. But you don’t need to do that!
- What is important is consistency. Making tea the way professionals do it brings out the best and the worst of the tea. Buyers experience the full flavour profile and know that the tea has been made to the same standard regardless of who has made it or where they are trying it. You just need to make the tea as you would enjoy it at home.
- Water quality is important. We filter our water. In Kolkata – the tea auction centre of India – the water is a little salty. This is strange at first, but what’s important is that it’s always the same salty water, ensuring a fair comparison of all the teas. Ideally, the water you use to make tea should be neutral, with a pH as close to 7 as possible.
- Use the right ratio of tea to water. For Western style brewing we use 12 – 15 g per liter of water.
- Make notes (even if it just keywords) or keep a spreadsheet to help you compare the teas you have tasted at a later date.
- Have fun!