The finest teas in the world inspire through their sheer sensory presence a sense of awe; they demand that the taster stops and contemplates. Sometimes they are startling; they upend our very conception of what food and drink can be. What elements go into the tasting experience at the highest level? It seems like tea would be primarily a taste experience, but in fact, tea is just as much about smell and texture as it is taste. In addition there is the physiological aspect of how the tea actually makes you feel in regards to the stimulant and relaxant qualities that any given tea might have.
The purpose of this article is to set forth a few of the basic guidelines of what tea offers in taste, texture, aroma, and physical sensation to give any tea taster an awareness and vocabulary of what they might come across.
Taste is the most straightforward element at play, and the best to look at first. There are many ways to divide the flavors within a spectrum, but for the sake of simplicity, there are five main categories that tea falls within: vegetal, fruity, floral, spicy, and savory. Let’s take a look at what each of these elements of the spectrum encompasses.
Green Tea and the Vegetal Taste Spectrum
Vegetal is a common trait in green teas, as well as some oolongs. Crisp vegetal notes are sometimes found in black teas like Darjeeling, or Fujianese Qimen. Vegetal lies between savory on one side and fruity on the other. The savory side of vegetal taste is best represented by green beans or edamame, which edges towards nutty but still taste very ‘green.’ Seaweed is also on the savory side of vegetal within a very different realm of texture and aroma. We will look at the effect of texture and aroma a little later. Examples of savory vegetal teas include Laoshan Green, and steamed Fukamushi Sencha.
A step away from savory towards more pure vegetal taste is the leafy green profile. These teas taste more like spinach, or sometimes basil or lettuce, or cabbage. This is a vegetal taste without an edge. Leafy green vegetal teas are not going to be astringent or sharp. Instead they are lush and very ‘green’ tasting. Some Japanese Gyokuro moves in that direction, as does summer harvest Laoshan Green. Sometimes summer and autumn harvest Tieguanyin can also have a leafy green quality.
Finally the lush green teas move into grassy green teas. These make you think of fresh cut grass, wheatgrass juice, and other sharper greens. The grassy profile borders the citrus profile of the fruity spectrum. Grassy teas are going to have a similar edge to citrus tea, but defined by a green quality instead of a juicy quality. Dragonwell and Jingshan green are two examples of fine green teas within the grassy spectrum that do not move too far towards astringent in texture
The Role of Texture in Tasting Tea
The vegetal or green spectrum is only one small part of the full flavor spectrum, but within it lie the dominant flavor profiles of some of te most beloved teas in the world. Honestly considered, the taste of “green” is caused by the polyphenols in the tea leaf. Intense polyphenol concentrations can actually create a bitter taste. It is the complex set of synergistic sensations known as texture in tea drinking that create such a diversity of taste within the green spectrum. For example, a tea that we perceive as creamy and soft feeling is more likely to taste like green bean is it is vegetal, while a tea that seems sparkling and crisp texturally is more likely to be thought of as grassy.
Considered this way, texture becomes even more important than the base flavor. In the west, people are considered to have the ability to taste sweet, bitter, sour and salty. The Chinese add in pungent, and the Japanese add umami. Just as three base colors can be combined to make any color, flavors can combine fo infinite possibilities. What makes taste even more astounding is that the infinite flavor combinations can be further modified by the concurrent sensation of texture. Tea is a real celebration of the role of texture in taste.
Common textural traits in tea include sparkling, stone or mineral sensation, juicy, creamy, musty, and linen-like. Jingshan green is a vegetal linen-like tea while Dragonwell is a vegetal mineral or stone texture tea. Laoshan Green is creamy vegetal, Tieguanyin is juicy vegetal, while gunpowder green is musty or smokey vegetal.
Next time you try a green tea or a green oolong like Tieguanyin, or even a young sheng pu’er use your first sip to feel the textures in the mouth, and the second sip to taste the flavor. The third sip combines the impressions of both into singular or complex memories, sounds, images, etc. Then, as an experiment, focus first on flavor then texture and see if the tea tastes different. It takes time to separate the sensations of flavor and texture, but it is possible.
Remember that texture is not an abstract concept. It is the actual physical feeling on the tongue and in the throat experienced while drinking tea. Once you can relate it directly to the sense of touch, it becomes easier to understand and fathom the role of texture in tea tasting.
In the next installment, we will be looking at the savory end of the flavor spectrum, and the black teas and oolongs that embody the savory elements best. Then we will examine how texture can alter a savory flavor, and finally introduce the role of aroma into the equation. The goal of the series is to take a relatively comprehensive look at the base components of the tea tasting experience and explore a few of the possibilities of combinations to help you become more aware next time you brew up a pot.