On the simplest level, flavor can be considered sweet or savory. Much of what creates more nuanced definitions of taste is the interaction between texture, aroma and taste perception. Floral and fruity taste perception are squarely on the sweet side of the spectrum. Malty, nutty and beany are on the savory side. Take a look at part one and part two of this open exploration of the potential of taste to get a better foundation before moving on to look at the heavily texture-influenced spectrum of spicy flavors in tea, and the way these flavors evoke memoy.
The Spicy Flavor Spectrum in Fine Tea
When we discuss spicy, we are not limited to the heat of peppers. Rather, we are looking at tastes with a certain sharpness, an assertive quality that makes itself all-encompassing. Sometimes this comes out like peppercorn, but sometimes it is closer to cedarwood. You might not think of spiciness with tea, but it is always there in the finest teas from pu’er to Tieguanyin. The spicy spectrum is what contributes dimensionality to a tea.
Talking about spice as a flavor is very abstract. When it comes right down to it, spice is a texture, a physical sensation on the tongue. Still, since every major breakdown of flavor includes spice as a taste sensation, and since we are so used to thinking of it in terms of food, we will include it in our discussion as part of the flavor spectrum.
In the last article we looked at teas that had strong chocolatey notes. They are interesting not because they taste like chocolate, but because they evoke chocolate and then move beyond it. Indeed, this whole series of articles is not meant as a guide to help pinpoint that single flavor in a tea, but to celebrate the immense potential for depth in tea. The spicy spectrum provides a lot of that depth through textural harmony. Spice is like the backup singers to an incredible soloist. They make the soloist shine, and provide the mood for the whole piece of music. For example, the chocolate flavor of Autumn Harvest Laoshan Black is great, but it is the textural qualities of cinnamon and spice that push the tea to a higher level.
How to Taste Tea with Spice in Mind
So, if we are going to talk about spice in any specific terms, we can’t just call it an elusive and generalized texture. Let’s break it down to make it easier for you to taste next time you sip a cup of good tea. In the flavor spectrum we are using, spice lies between savory and floral. Savory shares the trait of evoking food, just as spice does. As discussed in the last article, teas that evoke satisfying foods can be quite addictive. Spice shares textural elements with floral in the way that it lingers on the tongue and extends to the back of the throat.
The malty edge of savory flavor can easily slide into a mild peppercorn flavor. Peppercorn will create a tingling spice on the sides of the tongue, and a warming earthy sensation in the back of the throat. Pu’er is most often identified with a peppercorn taste. The Yiwu 2004 Sheng and the Yabao both have that delicate peppery quality, giving more dimension to the other flavors at play.
From peppercorn, it is easy to move towards cinnamon. Cinnamon is common in Big Red Robe teas from Wuyi, including our Shui Xian Wuyi Oolong. The Laoshan black also has cinnamon qualities. Cinnamon still has a spice, but it is smoother, and the aftertaste in the throat is sweeter. Cinnamon moves into ginger, which maintains the sweetness, but with a spice that lingers not just on the sides of the palate, but on the tip of the tongue and the back of the throat.
Sliding even further towards floral, and all the perfumed textural intricacies that it offers, we get into the intriguing realm of clove and sichuan peppercorn. Both have a unique numbing quality. When you drink extremely fine teas, like the Farmer’s Co-operative sheng, after several sips, you will notice a certain numbing tingling sensation on the tongue. In Chinese, this sensation is called ma (麻). This numbing does not reduce your ability to tase, but actually seems to leave your taste buds even more sensitive to flavor and texture. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t notice the numbing sensation right away in fine teas. It comes out much more when brewing gongfu style because of the extended time drinking, and the potency of the brew.
Finally, the closest the spicy spectrum come to floral is the sensation of wood. It seems strange, but if you have ever been in a cedar forest, or opened a bag of wood chips, you know that earthy, woody sensation that is somehow both warm like bark in the sun, and cold from the camphor-like pine quality. Tea gets this particular texture from growing near (or in) evergreen forests. The smells of fir trees get absorbed right into the tea leaves. Pu’er is absolutely the most likely tea to possess this quality. The Tea Trail 2004 shu is a great example. Dancong oolongs can also have a wood-like sensation to them at times. The woody cooling sensation is called 樟 (zhang) in Chinese, and literally means camphor.
The numbing sensation and the wood-like sensations are the hardest to pinpoint, but once you notice them and add them to your tea tasting vocabulary, tea will be a totally different experience. The numbing sensation brings out complexity like nothing else. Its insistent intensity helps to focus your senses in to taste and texture, blocking out external thoughts to truly experience the depth of a tea. The zhang sensation is transportive. The wood-qualities can vary from that of an incense-infused lacquered wood chest to cedar or fir wood, to a freshly broken branch with sap, to sandalwood. In any case that zhang makes itself apparent, it will evoke a place. It will bring up memories of being outdoors. It creates a visual space within which to contemplate everything else that a tea has to offer.
Pu’er Tea and its Unique Benefits
As this discussion turns more towards the abstract of ‘ma‘ and ‘zhang‘, it is worth taking a moment to celebrate pu’er. Pu’er tea is like the final frontier, the unexplored infinite possibility of what tea can offer. Because of the complexities of fermentation, pu’er is often the most likely tea to have zhang flavor or ma flavor, or to have the psychoactive effect of chaqi discussed in our last article. Even the same cake of pu’er can yield different experiences every time you try it depending on which textural nuances you focus in on.
Tea and Memory
Clearly, we are dealing with some pretty powerful and evocative stuff when we drink tea. The right cup of tea at the right moment can change your life. It can challenge what you know and open up new ways of thinking. Skeptical? Read our article on the psychoactive effects of tea. L-theanine, caffeine, and EGCG interact in some pretty incredible ways. Yet, this is just the easy to pin down chemical interaction between tea and the brain. It is in discussing flavor, texture and aroma that we get to the root of tea’s incredible 3000-year hold on the psyche of mankind.
Have you ever had an experience walking along where a smell seemed super familiar? Maybe it made you think of somebody’s house, a person, a place. What about taste? Doesn’t a bright citrus salad feel like summer? Doesn’t pumpkin pie feel like autumn? Don’t certain foods evoke a holiday? The senses inevitably trigger memories through association. If passing whiffs, or a bite of food can trigger memory and evoke emotion, then what about the immersive full-sensory experience of tea drinking?
The cleansing and centering ritual of preparing a cup of tea could be done with any leaves, or even just hot water, while still giving you the meditative benefit of the drinking ceremony. However, only very fine tea will posses the multi-dimensional complexity to inspire multiple memories and states of mind in a single tasting session.
It is worth noting that as a taste evokes a memory, all other tastes and textures fall into service of the memory evoked. We just received our autumn harvest Laoshan Green for example, and the aftertaste of baked pumpkin evoked the memory of being out on the farm and baking pumpkin pie. Suddenly, the creamy and spicy notes aligned to support the idea of pumpkin pie. If we had noticed the grassy elements first, the tea may just as easily have evoked green tea ice cream. Next time you drink tea, be mindful of the powerful ability of tea to evoke memory, and the powerful ability of memory to alter sensory experience.