Think of your favorite piece of music in the whole world; one that drives you close to tears, inspires you to jump for joy. Now imagine that piece of music stripped down to a 1998 cell phone MIDI tone ringer. Not so great. You still get the melody, or at least an approximation, but all the harmony lines, the quality of the instrument or the singer’s voice, it is all gone. Maybe if you had never heard the song before, even the MIDI tone would have been catchy, but once the veil is lifted and you hear the music in all its glory, you can’t go back to the cell phone ringer version.
Now think of your favorite tea. Try to remember all the complexities of flavor that are present. Perhaps you prize the grassy sweetness of a green tea, the floral and vegetal notes of an oolong, the malty taste of a black tea. What if you were told that all those elements at play in the tea were like the MIDI tone version of its full beauty?
Every system of grading and analyzing tea used in the United States is intensely biased. There is nothing inherently wrong with bias in a world as subjective as tea, unless that bias directly contributes to a lesser tasting experience. What is this bias? Flavor. The culture of tea in the west is so obsessed with the taste of a tea that we forget the other senses at play. We have taste, smell, sight, sound and touch at our disposal. Most of us are aware of aroma, and appreciate it. We don’t have trouble looking at a tea or hearing the sound of the water pouring. What about touch? Truly, touch may be the most important sense of all in understanding tea, above even taste.
The tongue is an incredibly sensitive touch organ; far more sophisticated than a hand. Why else do babies put things in their mouths so often? They are trying to understand the object in the most vivid way possible. It is for this reason that I find it necessary to write an article calling out the sense of touch as an integral part of thoughtful tea tasting.
Think about texture for a moment. We like to talk a lot about texture, calling a tea sparkling, silky, crisp, lineny, rocky, etc. These are not abstract metaphors. They are absolutely literal connections. When we describe a tea as silky, we are saying that the sensation on the tongue while sipping the tea is comparable to the sensation on the hand of touching a piece of silk. If you are a tea veteran this may not seem like a revelation, but this is just the beginning.
Tea is one vivid example of an experience that engages all the senses and creates a system of feedback between things like touch and taste, touch and smell, etc. As a simple illustration, consider the taste of sweetness. In a basic tea, sweet will taste like sweet and nothing is amiss. However, drink a tea with a thick and smooth texture and suddenly the basic taste of sweetness is being perceived as thick smooth sweetness. The brain puts together the taste and the texture, and then searches for an equivalent experience from your past to help make sense of the new experience. It is likely that thick smooth sweetness would be linked to honey. Suddenly, you are tasting honey, which is far more complex in flavor than basic sweetness, and more complex in texture than just thick and sweet. The interaction between senses creates a much more complex tasting experience.
On the other side of the spectrum, you start with sweetness and then drink a tea that has a more sparkling, tingling physical sensation. When linked, you are suddenly tasting a sparkling, tingling sweetness, perhaps like raw sugar. Of course, a good tea has more than one taste and more than one texture to experience. Put together six flavor profiles and six textures and you are reaching a vast array of possible combinations and experiences being evoked. This potential for complexity is one of the most staggering beauties of tea.
The same feedback occurs between smell and taste and between smell and texture. A crisp light texture and the smell of flowers evokes lilac, which then influences taste. A heavy texture and the smell of flowers evokes orchid, which has its own separate connotations. Take all three of these senses, and understand that a powerful and inspiring cup of tea comes from having an acute awareness of each sense on it own, along with the synergy of these senses working together to create new sensations you have never experienced before. These cups of tea are the ones that bring you to your knees like inspiring music.
Yet, we are so used to people asking what a tea tastes like that it is easy to ignore, tune out and suppress the influence of the other senses. We might talk about texture in the tea world, but it is treated in such an abstract manner that we are looking for abstract sensations. Then we are frustrated not to find them in a tea that many describe as fine and moving, when all along the sensations were there on a more visceral level.
Abstract sensations in tea tasting are an entirely different discussion related to warming and cooling natures, Cha Qi (or the energy of the tea), the personality of the tea, memories and places evoked, etc.
The vast potential for enjoyment of tea that comes from treating the senses equally and distinguishing them from each other is only eclipsed by the pleasure of understanding how blurred the line is between taste, smell and touch. Sight is easy to understand. The images we see appear to be situated psychically in a space that we can navigate. Light and dark can be measured scientifically. Sound comes from a source and levels of volume. Taste, touch and smell are localized sensations. They do not appear to exist outside of us. in the case of tea, taste seems to be expressed as a sensation on the tongue itself. Smell as a sensation on the inside of the nose. Both smell and taste seem to extend to the back of the throat. Texture is a feeling on the tongue, in the nose, in the throat.
What is this craziness? Three senses all physically localized, all manifesting in the same spot? When you think about the feeling on your tongue as you taste something, is it not similar to a physical sensation, to touch? Where exactly do you draw the line between when your tongue is tasting and when it is touching? The same goes for the nasal passageways. Smell, carefully considered, is not so different from touch. Therefore, is smell also taste, is taste also touch, is touch also smell? Anatomically, things are more clear, but when it comes to considering the subjective experience of understanding a tea, having an acute awareness of all three senses at play also give you an acute awareness that all three senses blur together into one.
This is where things get really interesting. The finest teas are the ones that walk the line between senses. Some teas actually create the sensation of synesthesia. Perhaps not so pervasive as clinical cases of tasting color, seeing sounds, etc, but certainly within the already blurred realm of taste, smell and touch. These are teas that leave you mystified. They are so spectacular that when you pay attention and drink them mindfully, they can humble you with their sometimes terrifyingly intense sensations, or they can create a peace and tranquility with their comforting and enveloping qualities.
It is difficult to even put into words the extent to which one can taste and appreciate tea. The best way to understand is to pick a promising tea and experience it with as much care as possible. Don’t worry about placing all the tastes. Don’t even worry about whether or not you like the tea. Just be mindful of touch, taste and smell. Try to listen to each sense separately, and then take the experience as a whole. After swallowing the tea, continue being mindful of the touch, taste and smell of the aftertaste that lingers on the palate. Try comparing texture sensations to previous steepings if you are having trouble placing them. Even better, line up a tasting of two or three teas and think about how they engage the senses comparatively to begin building your texture awareness and vocabulary.
Being ready to appreciate the sensations of infinite flavor / touch / smell feedback and the synesthetic sensations that can result will permanently change your tasting experience. The intensity of combined sensations leads to lingering aftertastes that continue to react and synergize with every steeping of tea you drink, building up to an irresistible crescendo. The acute awareness you will develop through the senses will allow tea to act in its goal to be a connection to both the everyday beauty that surrounds us and the sublime beauty of the landscapes where tea is cultivated, and to act as an agent of humility.