The building blocks of flavor in tea can be broken into vegetal, savory, spicy, floral and fruity. The magic of a moving tea taste experience is how these building blocks blend together at the ambiguous edges, and how they are altered by texture, aroma, aftertaste, sweetness, and physiological effects. In part one of this open-ended exploration of taste in tea, we looked at the vegetal spectrum, and the effects of texture on taste. Read the full article before moving on to this one for a more comprehensive look at tea taste possibilities.
Black Tea and the Savory Taste Spectrum
Savory qualities are the defining element in black teas, and play an important role in many oolongs, pu’ers, and even green teas on occasion. Savory for our purposes is a loose term given to the rich, full and satisfying flavors a tea has to offer. Savory is that quality we look for in a breakfast tea that can shake us out of a morning malaise. Savory is also one of the most psychologically addictive elements of taste in tea. Grassy and vegetal notes can be just what you need, but a majority of intense tea cravings are related to deep malty or nutty tastes, notes of pastry and baked goods, even chocolate.
The savory side of the spectrum generally tends towards sweeter rich flavors, simply because tea is naturally very sweet. However, in some pu’ers savory becomes more meaty and herbaceous. The savory spectrum is between vegetal on one side and spicy on the other side. Borderline transitional teas between savory and vegetal will have bean-like flavors and nuttiness. A classic example of a rich bean-like tea is Laoshan Green. Moving one step further into savory are teas that have strong nutty tastes like walnut and hazelnut. Farmer’s Cooperative ’03 Sheng is known for its hazelnut and walnut undertones. Sheng pu’ers are especially likely to fall into the transitional space between savory and vegetal.
Moving one step closer to more pu’er savory flavors is semolina, and grain tastes. Barley and roasted barley are especially common notes. Black teas from Laoshan tend towards the barley side of this flavor, while Fujianese black teas tend more towards the semolina notes. This is where we start to get into psychologically satisfying flavors. Drinking a tea that evokes a warm and filling food reates a similar sensation to eating the food itself in terms of comfort. Perhaps this is one reason that black teas are so popular in the west- they do the same thing as good old-fashioned comfort food.
The next common element of the savory spectrum is chocolate. It sounds strange to group it with savory, but in fact, unsweetened chocolate is a common flavoring in savory cooking, including mole. It is the creamy texture of a tea, the sweetness and the aftertaste that make the savory chocolate notes taste like dessert. Laoshan black is also the most conspicuous example of a naturally chocolatey black tea. Wuyi oolongs can also move into chocolate notes. Once again, the taste of chocolate is supremely satisfying, often forming strong psychological addictions to chocolatey teas. Addiction is a misleading word in this context though. We aren’t talking about a problem here, but identifying reasons that a person would keep coming back to the same tea over and over again. We all have our go-to teas. Try thinking about what flavors are in your own go-to tea and identify flavors that evoke something you love (like chocolate). This will help you understand what you look for in teas.
As the savory spectrum moves more towards spicy, we finally get to malty teas. Malt is essentially that satisfying bread-like quality we discussed, but with a textural edge to it that borders on the textures of spicy teas. Malt strongly engages the sides of the tongue and lingers like a full meal. Yunnan clack teas like Zhu Rong have maltier qualities, as do Fujianese black teas like some Qimen. Indian black teas are also sought for their maltier qualities, though the malt of many Indian teas relates to a more crisp textural quality instead of a creamy texture.
A Word on Texture in Tasting Savory Teas
As we break down the savory spectrum, it might become clear that nutty, malty, and chocolatey are really taste sensations caused by the texture and sweetness of the tea relating to and changing a common savory quality. Savory on its own is very ambiguous. It is simply the idea of more satisfying meal-like tastes. Texture and sweetness give savoriness life and diversity.
An easy example is looking at the difference between clack teas and roasted oolongs. Oolongs will generally have a juicy or sparkling texture, sometimes with mineral stone-like qualities in the case of Wuyi. Black teas tend towards creamy, and for Yunnan Black, linen-like. Creamy textures make savory elements taste like milk chocolate, or pastry. Juicy textures will make chocolate elements darker tasting and more hibiscus-like, while making maltiness more caramel-like. Sparkling textures will make chocolate more like frothed Mexican Hot Chocolate, or dark chocolate with cacao nibs. It will make malty qualities tase more stone-like or woody.
Try isolating just the texture of your black tea. Is it rough and dry? Is it creamy and thick? Is it soft like linen? This will tell you a lot about where your tea came from and how it was processed. It will also help you understand why the tea tastes the way it does.
What is Sweetness in Unsweetened Tea?
A few times in this article, the word sweet comes up. Tea drinkers will use concepts like honey, rock sugar, caramel, molasses, or brown sugar to describe the sweetness of a tea. This does not refer to any sweetener being added. All teas are naturally sweet, some more than others. This is due to the simple fact that plants store energy as sugar, and use that energy to grow. Tea picked while the leaves are still young is sweeter because the leaves are still full of sugar they were planning to use to grow to full size. These sweet young leaves are not limited to spring harvests. Young leaves can be picked in the summer and autumn too as they sprout.
Sweetness fundamentally changes the flavor of tea. In the case of the savory spectrum it pushes that savory core element away from roasted meats and towards dessert pastry, chocolate and malt. Only smokey teas like some younger sheng pu’ers or Lapsang Souchong counterbalance the sweetness and allow savory to come through as meaty.
When you next drink tea, think about what kind of sweetness the tea has. Wait to add sweetener until you have tried a sip. Knowing what sweetness your tea evokes will help you better understand your perception of its taste. If you do add a sweetener, try to add one that matches the natural sweetness- honey for honey-like teas, and brown sugar for teas with darker sweetness, etc.
In the next installment we will look at the spicy flavor spectrum, from cinnamon and peppercorn to cedar wood. The spicy spectrum gives life and complexity to pu’er, as well as Yunnan black teas and some oolongs. With a basic handle on sweetness and texture’s role in taste, we can turn to the effect of aroma on the taste perception of tea. We will also examine the potency of memory affiliation in relation to taste.