In this series of blogs we will look at flavour in three ways. In our first blog we examined how we experience flavour when we drink [how we detect and process flavour in different teas]. In our second we explored why different teas have certain flavour [examining how the chemical makeup of the leaf and the processing it goes through form different flavour compounds that are brought out in the final beautiful cup]. Finally today, in our third and last blog on the subject we will investigate the best way to taste tea.
Why not make a cup of tea before we embark on this final part of our journey. We will be looking at :-
- How we physically go about tasting tea.
- How we make sense of the tea we are tasting and appreciate their complexities, subtleties and true magic.
- Different ways of tasting and the emphasis of these methods.
- Some insights from our tea friends around the world
The first element to examine is the question of why YOU are tasting tea? Perhaps take a moment to consider that before reading on.....
It is quite possible that at the mention of ‘tasting’ you have imagined standardised cupping sets in long lines and white coated professionals tasting off spoons and spitting their tea out afterwards. This is of course one of the angles we are to look at, but tasting is so much more. Perhaps ask yourself....
- Are you simply tasting for enjoyment? Or understanding?
- Or are you analysing the tea because you are buying 500kg of it?
- or have you just finished making it?
The good news is that in all these cases the best way of developing is to simply do it more often, drink more tea and involve other people. Sounds good! A ‘proper’ tasting technique can always be developed later.
Before we look at the aforementioned purposes in turn it must be mentioned that in all of these situations flavour perception is personal and subjective. It can of course be studied and developed to be more uniform but as we mentioned in our second blog genetics means taste receptors vary vastly between drinkers. For example some people can be categorised as ‘supertasters’ because they have more taste buds and receptors and therefore experience flavour much more intensely than others. Others may have fewer but can detect certain tastes better.
Michelle, for example - pictured above with Anindyo & Nibir in the famous tasting room at J Thomas in Kolkata - has an ability to detect light, floral flavours in teas that I can’t. This idea that genetics means taste receptors vary vastly between drinkers is also backed up by many years of asking tea drinkers at the Tea House or through our online Tea School how they found/liked their tea. Descriptions of the same tea can vary enormously
Where you live, your lifestyle and your life experiences are all factors that we can relate to personally and all factors that can affect your exposure to, and experiences of, flavour. To use an example close to Comins - life in Rural Dorset [surrounding our home Tea House] offers completely different aromas to built up central Bath [where we have our second Tea House], but being a foodie in a city like Bath may expose a diner to many more reference points to flavours detected in tea. This could possibly result in a different approach in describing the same tea. A great example of how our personal experiences affect our perceptions of flavour is from a group tasting where one taster said Genmaicha (a Japanese green tea blended with toasted rice) reminded her of pork scratchings. Both the rice in the tea and the pork scratchings will have flavour compounds created by the Maillard reaction [detailed in our second blog] so it’s not as strange as it seems. However, most people will mention rice crackers, nuttiness or the breakfast cereal Rice Crispies. So how you experience and describe the taste of a tea will, to some degree depend on your experiences and points of reference.
For the majority of tea drinkers being able to eloquently describe the aroma and flavour of their tea is not important, so don’t worry that you may not have the vocabulary, this can be developed if it is something that interests you!
1. Tasting for Enjoyment
We are all sometimes guilty of gulping down food or drink without really experiencing it. Hopefully if you are reading this, tea drinking does not come into this bracket. If you are taking the time and effort needed to find a tea you like, heat water and brew it correctly then we should put the same attention into tasting it and getting the most enjoyment out of it.
Simply by being mindful, that is to be fully present in the entirety of the moment, goes a long way towards this and will enhance any experience. The energy and spirit you bring will always affect this. On the reverse of our tea menus in our teahouses we have a short Tea Meditation from our friend Camille. This guides those who read it to this point of extra connection with the tea, the flavours it contains and much more that makes up the experience. Lets head to South Korea to gain some more perspective on this.
Mr Oh is a tea master whom Rob had the great privilege to meet in South Korea in his teahouse in Hadong county. Mr Oh also visited Comins Tea in January 2020 when he and a group of potter’s and metalworkers kindly responded to our invitation. Mr Oh’s perspective on how he tastes tea fits in very well with the idea of tasting for enjoyment and also moves forward into tasting for understanding
Mr Oh pictured below at our Tea House in February 2020
How do you evaluate the flavour of a tea? The scent and flavour both are important elements; significant criteria to evaluate the quality of the tea.
How do you describe the flavour of a tea (do you have a certain framework) It is my personal choice to not describe and categorise the flavour in a detailed way, as we do in wine. Rather than that, I focus more on the cultivar, area that has been produced, and processing method, to track the general characteristics created by these variables. For customers, a detailed description of scent and flavour can be conceived as a good indicator, but I prefer to focus on each experience, which differs from case to case. Each person has a different ability to track these elements, and different ways of describing these characteristics, yet sometimes, the words of an expert can deceive the customers.
How does the environment you taste the tea in effect the flavour of a tea? How would you describe the perfect tasting environment? The most ideal environment would be the place where the scent and flavour are less affected by the surrounding elements (temperature, humidity, windiness, hygiene, etc..). But if you enjoy the tea, regardless of when or where, that mood and memory will give you the soothing and heart-warming senses and will bring out the best tea that you have ever had. It is of course, important to prepare the settings, but I do hope you first enjoy the tea in front of you.
2. Tasting for Exploration
Our experiences in serving tea to our customers in the teahouses is that some people are happy to stop there. However, with more tea drinking can come a greater desire to learn and understand, to delve a little (or a lot) deeper but still with the main focus on enjoyment and the experience created. It’s important to acknowledge that drinking tea for enjoyment and beginning to develop it as a ritual (as described above) starts to enforce a state of mind that is very useful when developing tasting techniques.
From our experience and also various texts* the following is our advice for how to start (or continue) your understanding of the flavours in your tea.
Before we set off on actually drinking tea it is very important to pick the right time, create the right space and most importantly prepare yourself. A few tips are outlined below :-
- Firstly take tea when you don’t need tea, when you’re not thirsty or requiring a pick me up as these will skew your enjoyment.
- Find a space that allows you to avoid all other distractions and give the tea a chance to be the focus. It should be clear and uncluttered, where you can set out your teaware, even if this is just a simple teapot.
- Try to make it quiet so you can hear the sounds of the tea preparation.
Before commencing your tasting put the tea in context, contemplate any information you have about where the tea comes from, who has made it and what processing it has been through. This will aid what is to come and also makes a conscious link with the grower. Then take time for the following:
- Dry leaf - Look at the shape of the leaf. It could be a bud, a flat leaf, a ball or a curly strip. Look at the colour, character, uniformity and tightness.
- Liquid - examine its freshness, brightness and transparency
- Brewed leaf - investigate a leafs thickness, uniformity and completeness. See if there are scorched areas, or any black veins or stalks
- Dry leaf - Hopefully it has an inviting, intriguing fragrance even before being brewed. It’s important to remember this smell as it will probably change with brewing.
- Brewing - smell the aromas released when brewing. They could be sweet savoury, toasty, clear, flowery, nutty. Their character could be mellow, delicate, refreshing or earthy.
- After brewing - get into a habit of smelling the underneath of the teapot or gaiwan lid and the bottom of cup as this often provides different aromas again. Bear in mind some flavours will not be released at high temperatures, so smell everything again once it has cooled.
Finally, take a sip of your tea. Don't worry about slurping or spitting it out, just hold it in your mouth a little longer than you might usually do.
- First aspect - is the tea brewed too long, too short or correctly.
- Second aspect - allow the liquor to flow in the mouth, focus on what feelings the tea brings so that you can pick up different flavour characteristics. It might be subtle or bold, feel light or heavy, thick or thin.
- Third aspect - after drinking experience the aftertaste - the ‘lingering charm left in the mouth’. Notice if there is a sweetness on the back of the tongue, or whether the mouth produces more saliva. Breathe out across your tongue and notice whether this feels warm, cooling, sweet and how long this lasts.
With most teas remember to investigate multiple infusions of the same
leaves. This will change every aspect detected on the first brew
Then repeat. A lot.
Tasting tea takes practice and eventually a more complete picture of the tea will start to open up.
3. Tasting for Analysis
So far the emphasis has been on enjoyment and exploration in tasting. This next category concerns tasting to define a tea and also to examine faults and flaws. This is necessary if you are a tea buyer or a tea producer but also develops on from the previous section of this blog.
A professional tea taster must be able to structure what they detect so that they can express them succinctly and precisely. In order to do this they must develop their vocabulary alongside their memory of flavours and aromas, not just in tea but in other drinks and foods. If you can describe what you taste and smell then you can categorise it, meaning it can be recalled at a later point. This knowledge can then be refined and more details added leading to more precision and a greater understanding of our palates.
Tasting methods vary but often involve ‘cupping tea’
Tea cupping is a method in which to compare teas, determine quality and examine flavour characteristics. It is mainly used in India, Sri Lanka and Africa, but not very common in Asian countries.
There is an industry standard for preparing tea for sensory tests. In the UK this is ISO/NP 3103 which details amongst other things the vessels which should be used (a cupping set and bowl of a set size), amount of tea used (2g per 100ml of water), amount and temperature of water (150ml or 210ml at 100°C) and brewing time (6 minutes).
Clearly the purpose is evaluating teas in a commercial environment rather than for drinking pleasure! The goal is to show faults in the tea rather than creating the perfect tasting brew. By using the hottest water and brewing the tea for a long time ALL of the flavour compounds are pulled out of the leaf, meaning that with a developed palate it is possible to detect problems.
There is a modified version can be very useful in comparing teas. Rather than brewing for faults the parameters are changed to brew the tea how it would actually be drunk. The cupping set is a standardised cup a serrated ‘pouring’ edge, with a lid, a handle and a bowl to pour into. Made in white porcelain they are usually used against a black background to produce maximum contrast to aid viewing. Tasting rooms where this is often down are designed to face north so they get good light, but windows are not positioned so that it is too bright
It is worth mentioning at this point that being in an incredible tasting room [such as above - here Michelle is with Reggie at Kanyam in Ilam, Nepal], often in the heart of the factory [below Michelle is with Diwakar at Khongea in Assam] or overlooking a beautiful tea garden, after having spent time with the people around it, can seriously enhance the perception of the teas tasted! For the tasters this is normal and this is not a factor, but we as buyers definitely need to be aware of it.
In contrast to the previous tasting methods many teas are tasted at the same time [as you can see above and also in the picture at the top of this blog where Michelle is at J Thomas Auction rooms]. To allow direct comparison all the tea is brewed first before evaluation begins. Once brewed the leaf is tipped on the underside of the lid and displayed on top of the cup, meaning that a drinker can compare the dry leaf, wet leaf and liquor of each tea easily.
The evaluation process is similar to what was mentioned above. A key element is that all observations are recorded at every stage and sets can even be photographed for reference later.
- A visual inspection is made. firstly of the dry leaf, to evaluate processing methods, oxidation levels and also to give an indication of what might be expected with brewing. It is also important to examine whether the leaf is broken and if so whether pieces are equal in size. Uneven broken leaf indicates bad processing or handling.
- The tea liquor is examined :This will give an idea of the strength of the tea.
- The wet leaf is examined : a great deal of emphasis is placed on looking at the wet leaf. From this you can detect whether the tea pieces are uniform and will therefore infuse evenly. It can also show you whether the tea was harvested by machine. Tasters will be looking to see if the normal plucking standard of that type of tea is present - are there two leaves plus a bud for the Darjeeling or four leaves on a stem for the balled oolong. This step can even detect whether pesticides were used by examining insect damage.
- Next it is on to aroma : The dry leaf, liquor and wet leaf are all assessed through the nose and then when drinking we also detect aroma through the back of the mouth (see blog 1)
- Finally the tea is sipped and passed around the mouth : to coat every taste bud present. From this the taster will be picking up key flavours, tastes and also mouthfeel. Of these tastes (bitter, salt, sweet, sour, umami) will indicate the presence of certain compounds such as the level of caffeine (bitterness), amino acids (umami) or carbohydrates (sweetness). Using this and a knowledge of processing will allow assessment of the quality of the leaf. Mouthfeel describes sensations rather than flavours. The one we have mentioned previously is astringency (a puckering contraction) but others are smooth, thick, robust or buttery.
For those who taste tea in this way the resources that are initially useful are tea flavour charts and wheels and also lexicons of terminology.
- Tea Flavour Charts & Wheels : There are many references you can investigate around flavour charts or flavour wheels : this one is from the International Tea Masters Association
- Lexicons : There are also many sources where you can read about tea lexicons should this be of interest to you such as this article which explains that 'A lexicon is a standardized vocabulary that objectively depicts the sensory attributes of consumer products
We mentioned at the start of this section that there are variations in how the methods we have discussed above are used. For us, at Comins, we enjoy sharing our research and knowledge with you but we also like you to know that we certainly don't believe there is 'one uniform' way to do things - there are many variations in tasting around the world using much of what we mention above as the 'foundation'. To illustrate these variations we reached out to two more of our tea friends [one in Japan regarding the evaluation of Japanese green tea & one in India regarding the evaluation of Indian black tea] to ask how they analyse their tea in their countries and roles - we hope you enjoy their insights - the perfect way to finish this blog today
Rob first met tea master Kumiko Koga on his 2017 trip to Fukuoka. We were then delighted when she came to visit us at our Bath Tea House in 2018 [you can read more about that here] Koga [pictured below at our Bath Tea House during her tea demonstration] is the fourth generation of her family business established in Yame (Fukuoka) in 1938. Her mother is the current head of the company and Koga is next in line to take over. To have two women in these senior positions, even today, is rare in Kyushu and Japan which makes Koga's insight even more exciting!
How do you train to become a tea taster in Japan, how long does it take, what does it involve? We do not require any special training to be a tea taster. We drink different kind of teas and compare the taste to train our palate or tasting sense. It depends on the person how long it will take to be recognised as a taster, but it is often said it takes 20 years to be a reliable taster.
Do you need a specific palate to do this job? : No. No specific palate is needed.
How do you taste tea? What equipment do you use and why, what environment do you taste tea in? Is this important? We first check the colour of tea leaves in a room with natural sunlight. As for the place, we use a room facing to the north to avoid direct sunlight.
There are two different types of tasting method;
- We put tea leaves in a cup and directly pour hot water in it
- In this case we usually use a specific tasting cup (a big size white-colored teacup). We put 3g of tea leaves and pour boiling water and wait for 30 seconds to 1 minute. Then scoop the leaves with a mesh to smell it. And drink some tea using a spoon to check the taste of tea.
- We use a teapot and cup as normal brewing.
- In this case we put 3 to 4g of tea leaves into a teapot and pour 80-90 Degrees Celsius hot water (a bit hotter than normal brewing) and brew it for 30 seconds to 1 minute before serving in a cup. Then scoop the leaves with a mesh to smell it and drink some tea using a spoon to check the taste of tea. In order to carefully check Umami, we use more leaves than tasting method 1).
Here in this photo the man in front smells the tea leaves and the man behind is doing the tasting method 1) and smelling the brewed tea leaves using a mesh.
When do you taste tea? Is there a particular time of day that is better? We do not fix the specific time of the day for tea tasting, but we usually recommend in the morning because we do eat meals in this time.
What do you do with the tea in your mouth in order to taste it? We hold the brewed tea in a mouth and taste it with tongue. We do not take any air just like wine tasting.
What do you focus on when tasting a tea? How does this change for different teas? We focus on Umami, astringency, and bitterness. We always focus on these points and never change for different types of tea.
How do you describe taste - what words do you use - how do you all ensure that you are talking about the same thing? We always describe Umami, astringency, and bitterness. We sometimes mention about the after taste using the words such as ‘clear’, ‘refreshing’, ‘rich’, and ‘mellow’ etc.
How long does it take to evaluate a tea? It takes 10 to 20 minutes in total because we evaluate how the tea taste will change before and after cools down.
What if there is a disagreement? How is a final decision reached? Based on our experience, several tasters reach the same rating. When we evaluate Ara-cha (semi-processed tea), we focus on taste itself to see the tea will totally match our products. When we evaluate Shiage-cha (finished product), we evaluate if it well represents the theme of tea product (Umami, aroma, and its balance).
How do you score a tea - is there a particular sheet or list of criteria? We do not have specific guideline or criteria for scoring, but if I have to say that, we evaluate the balance of Umami, astringency and bitterness.
How many teas do you taste in one session? We taste 1 to 12 cups in one session. 12 cups is the limit as our tasting stand is wide enough to place 12 cups at one time!. In normal business days, we taste 20-30 cups per day and taste the same tea over and over again. In the bidding season, we taste several hundreds cups of tea.
Finally, anything you can share about HOW we taste - i.e. what special qualities may a tea taster have vs an ordinary person. We do not think we need special quality but one important thing is we train ourselves a lot by comparing different types of tea. When ordinary people enjoy tasting, we recommend that they put tea leaves in a teapot and pour hot water, and serve in a cup as usual. You often do not like the tea recommended by other person. So we hope that all the green tea lovers select what they like and enjoy tasting and aromas based on their preference
You can see Anindyo in action below as profiled in a Kolkata newspaper
How do you train to become a tea taster in India, how long does it take, what does it involve? Do you need to have a specific palate to do this job? It's basically on the job training- some are good and some aren't all that good - like good drivers and bad drivers OR good chefs & not so good chefs. Some people have a predisposed leaning towards sense of taste & flavour, so it becomes relatively easier in their case. However to be able to co-relate taste with green leaf condition or manufacturing flaws is a skilled task!
- CTC- Good Manufacture - Brisk/full bodied-perfect withers and precise fermenting time achieved
- Green/harsh- under withered/ under fermented
- Case hardened- firing temp high but run through time short
- Mixed in appearance- sorting incorrect.
How do you taste tea? What equipment do you use and why? Slurp on the tea so that it strikes the palate of the mouth, that's where the sensory or taste buds are located. Make sure it doesn't go through one's nostrils- different people have different tasting quirks- some noisy/ messy & some quiet environment do you taste tea in? Is this important?- Not really, just focus!!
When do you taste tea? Is there a particular time of day that is better? No, anytime as long as the water and light is good
What do you do with the tea in your mouth in order to taste it? Well...no magic really, swirl it to ensure the taste explosion is complete.
What do you focus on when tasting a tea? Oh that's a big one- the infused leaf gives you an indication of quality/ the leaf appearance also tells you a bit of the story, so one starts forming an abstract opinion of what to expect when tea strikes your palate.
How do you describe taste? What words do you use? CTC- brisk, full-bodied, croppy, harsh, high fired, smoky. Orthodox- brisk, malty, green/harsh
How long does it take to evaluate a tea? Is this the same for speciality grades? Not long really, less than a minute I would say but we tend to spend more time on speciality sorts and for commodity teas. Infact, [the amount of time taken to evaluate] is totally up to the taster..takes longer as specialty grades are made differently, subtle changes in production techniques have distinct impact on the end product..as a taster one also needs to be equipped to taste and know the nuances
What if there is a disagreement? How is a final decision reached? Repeat tasting helps, if its Darjeeling tasting after a few days can help as teas often mature during second flush. Sometimes differences are not resolved-they just die a natural death...quite often the consumer/buyer who pays for it is the ultimate judge... and the taster knows what worked and didn't work
How do you score a tea? Is there a particular sheet or list of criteria? On 3 parameters largely- leaf appearance / colour or nose on infused leaf & of course the cup. Different people or organisations have different scales based on above criteria.
So! Thank you SO much for reading and for going on this 6 week [3 blog] exploration of flavour with us. We hope this has excited your taste buds for a tea tasting of your very own. The big question is will you be tasting like a tea taster, tasting like a tea drinker or a bit of both!
And one last big question we know you will ask us is where do we taste our tea? Well, as you would expect from Comins we have a custom built tea 'shed' at the bottom of our Dorset Tea House garden. Rob designed the tiered tasting counter based on a tasting room he visited in Taiwan. It allows us to view the dry leaf, liquor & wet leaf with lots of light (hence the bright sunshine through the window in front of the tasting counter). The surface is black to bring a contrast between the white teaware and the tasting surface allowing you to see the colours with more clarity
And when do we taste? We like to taste tea at different times of day but at this time of year when we are tasting many light first flush teas the crisp morning is perfect.
What's coming up next?
We are excited to announce two very exciting tasting events on our IGTV over the next 2 Saturdays. The first with Wouter from Satemwa and the second with Anindyo mentioned above. We would love you to taste along with us - if you would like to then why not buy one of our tasting boxes and join the flavour journey!