A tea leaf is an amazing thing- it is the realization of so many different factors. First, there is the environment: how clean is a growing region? How much rainfall did the tea receive? What season was it picked in? What was the temperature? How does the spring water taste in the area? Next, there is the craftsmanship and knowledge of the farmers: how was the tea picked? How carefully was it processed? Was it picked at just the right time of day?
These are just a few of the variables that a good cup of tea depend on. The finest teas are grown and picked with a profound level of care from the farmer, and respect for the environment. It requires a rare alignment of all the perfect conditions, and the aspiration from the growers to share something truly incredible. It also requires the generosity of the farmers to even sell those rare and perfect crops instead of just keeping them for personal consumption.
Finally, a good cup of tea is dependent on the care with which it is brewed. The water used, the time steeped, and even the light and weather outside have an effect on the taste of the tea. The humbling beauty of the perfect cup is fleeting, enjoyed in the moment and never fully reproduced.
Yet, if meeting all these conditions guaranteed a beautiful cup, things would be much easier than they are. Truly, the most important factor that goes into the taste of a tea is the one never mentioned in the brewing manuals: the temperament and spirit in which the tea is tasted. Everyone has probably experienced this vividly. If a person is in a bad mood, or sick, they are not going to get as much joy out of a beautiful gift. Someone who has decided that they hate classical music is not going to enjoy a concert no matter the quality of performance.
Tea is just as dependent on the mental state of the taster. If you can put yourself in the right frame of mind, quiet the chatter of the everyday, and immerse yourself in the sensory experience of brewing and tasting a cup of tea, even a mediocre tea will be beautiful. This is the essence and heart of the whole culture of tea in China. All the beautiful objects, the teapots, the ritual, the fine teas, they are only there to make it easier to get to that state of mind.
So how do you taste tea then? The easy answer is that it is something learned through drinking lots and lots of tea with guidance from devoted tea friends. However, it is possible to learn proper tasting technique with a bit of ritual to help enforce the state of mind.
First, find a time every day to brew tea when you don’t need tea. This means, if you are looking to taste tea with care, you don’t want to be drinking it for your caffeine kick, for the water, or for any purpose other than enjoying the flavors. Removing necessity from the ritual of tea is the first step towards enjoyment. The Chinese ceremony is called gongfu tea, which means “free time tea.” This is because drinking tea for leisure is considered different than drinking tea while working, or to quench thirst.
Related to the first guideline of drinking tea for leisure is the important distinction between tea made while working on other things, driving, watching TV, reading, etc, and tea made simply for the pleasure of enjoying the cup of tea. There is nothing wrong with enjoying tea at work, or while busy. Indeed, tea in these situations can act as a stabilizing force, helping you to stay both relaxed and focused. It also provides a feeling of treating yourself to something special. However, to make a point of truly tasting tea, it is necessary to isolate yourself from other distractions, and give the tea a chance to really show off.
Once you have found a time to devote to drinking tea, preferably daily for the benefit of repeating the ritual, you need to find a place to drink it. If you have tea wares, set them all out on a table, or even the floor. If possible, drink tea in a clean room to avoid distraction. Find a comfortable place to sit that you can stay for at least an hour without interruption. Quiet music can be a good tool to stay relaxed, though silence is also perfectly acceptable, as it allows you to appreciate the sounds of the tea ritual, the rumbling boil of a kettle, the pouring of water, the clinking of porcelain or yixing clay.
Next, bring out the tea you plan to brew. Place the dry leaves on a saucer so that you and your guests can look and smell. Pick up the leaves, feel the down on the buds, the smoothness of a flat-pressed green, the texture of a brick of pu’er Look at the colors, try to imagine the plant itself and the forest or farm where the tea could have been picked. Even if you have not seen the farm yourself, try to give each tea you drink a location, a home, a story. Even if you do not know the farmer who picked the tea, imagine a farmer putting their craft into the leaf. I suggest this seemingly frivolous step because anything removed from a context is easy to objectify. Placing a tea in context makes it familiar and worth respecting.
Once everyone has a chance to look at, smell and discuss the leaves, it is time to brew. This article is not a discussion of ideal brewing, as that will change for every tea, so brewing is treated elsewhere on the site. While brewing your tea, try to focus on the motion of your arms as you pour water, the gesture of your hands as you hold the tea pot. Try as an exercise pouring as gracefully as you are able to. The physical care that you put into preparing the tea will actually help clear your mind of other thoughts, and give you more investment in the tea brewed. I always enjoy tea that I brew with intent and care more than tea brewed casually.
Also be sure that while brewing, or after the first rinse or infusion, you take the lid off your teapot or gaiwan and smell the wet leaf. The intense aroma of the wet leaf is a great preview that will get your taste buds primed for what lies ahead. Seeing the leaves dancing in the water in the case of green and white teas is also a great visual treat. Taste may seem like the primary sense involved in tea, but ultimately tasting tea requires an appreciation of sound, touch, visual beauty and smell. All feed into each other, and a positive experience with one sense will influence your other senses.
Finally, you are ready to take the first sip. Be sure to use small cups whenever possible to really appreciate the tea, and to allow yourself to go through many infusions of the same leaf. Take a slow sip, let the tea liquor linger in your mouth. Swish it over the tip and sides of your tongue, noticing the texture and weight of the tea in addition to the flavor. Finally, swallow the tea slowly, and then exhale gently, noticing the flavors and sensations on the tongue in the exhale. Wait at least a few seconds before taking a second sip to give the aftertaste time to emerge.
On your first sip, don’t try to place the flavor, or describe it. Just enjoy the full sensation. Wait until the second or third sip to begin contemplating the flavors. I always find it a useful exercise to reach for similar identifiable tastes related to the tea. Common elements of a flavor palate include several spectrums of taste:
First, there is the grassy spectrum, which can be divided out into sharper taste, like fresh cut grass, but can also be more mild and leafy like spinach, or savory like asparagus. Grassy elements of flavor are most common in green teas, but can be present in oolong, white tea, pu’er and even some black teas.
Next, there is the fruity spectrum. This includes crisp fruity tastes like apple, but can be juicy like peach, citrusy like orange or distinctly sweet like banana. Oolongs are often characterized as fruity.
The darker side of the fruit spectrum is the berry flavor grouping. The tart side of this is like hibiscus, but darker more mild berry flavors can be described as black berry or even elderberry. Big Red Robe is a good example of the dark berry profile.
Berry moves gracefully into spice, like cinnamon, ginger, and peppercorn. Spice can slide into savory elements like saffron, raw cacao, semolina, or malt. Black teas are often malty and sometimes spicy.
These flavor guidelines are only mentioned to give you a few ideas of words you can use to help think about and appreciate what you are tasting. Try creating your own personal flavor spectrum based on foods or tastes you identify with. The fun begins when a tea is not simply a single flavor, but an intriguing and unexpected combination of flavors.
Yet, flavor is only the beginning of what fine tea has to offer. Hopefully by this point you are having a blast tasting the subtleties of tea in a way that is personally meaningful. (Everyone tastes tea differently). Now it is time to start thinking about texture and mouthfeel. As you sip tea, swish it back and forth and try to “feel” the tea on your tongue in addition to tasting it. Some teas have a weight that makes them seem creamy. Others are light, and almost feel slightly carbonated like they are sparkling. For textures, you may find that you have to evoke weird images to understand the tea. I often think of things like old books, leather, linen, stone, and wood when contemplating a texture.
Once you get an idea of the texture, you can stop and think about the aftertaste. Fine tea leaves a wonderful taste in the mouth that grows over time. Some last hours. The aftertaste that grows in your mouth will actually act in harmony with later steepings of the tea, strengthening the flavors that you are tasting.
Throughout the whole process, it is often useful to discuss what you are experiencing with friends. I always find that my tea tastes better in good company. I may be tasting some elements of the flavor, while my friend is tasting something completely different. We share our experiences, and use them to listen more closely to the tea and taste a greater depth of flavor and texture.
Ultimately, when you finish the tea, you have the whole experience to reflect on. We often like to draw conclusions of whether or not we enjoyed a tea. We want to rate something and place it in order of best to worst. While it is tempting to do so, try to refrain from thinking about the tea as a product to judge. Instead think about your whole experience, and reflect on the beauty you were able to appreciate. Recall your favorite element of the tea, write it down so that you remember what you were most interested in while drinking the tea.
I am confident that by following a few basic suggestions, you can vastly enhance your tasting experience. Don’t think of tasting as an objective skill to learn. If somebody tells you that you should taste apple in a tea, but you taste orange, just enjoy the orange. Tea, and all the ritual around it, exists to help you appreciate beauty to a greater degree in your everyday life, and to act as an antidote to those things that distract us from beauty. Once you see this, you will find that every tea is offering a small sliver of beauty, a reflection of the land, the care of the farmers, and of your own mindset in tasting. Drink slowly, and most of all, have fun!