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.

20 Responses to “Taste, Texture and Aroma Part One: Green Tea & the Vegetal Flavor Spectrum”

  1. Enjoyable. I hope you will continue through all the base components so that I can fill in what’s missing in my current habits. I’m sure that I’ve a lot of fine tuning to do!
    I would love to read a tasting ‘How To’ from the first aroma of the leaves, then the wet leaves, to the scent and color of the liquor and finally how to drink (slurp, sip) the tea for maximum flavor.
    It’s one thing to watch someone in a video pour and drink tea and another to have a detailed description from an expert.
    (Loved the photo of you, Lily and your Teacher!)

    • Thanks Bonnie,
      I am getting to work on the next base component of the taste experience today: the savory spectrum, and introducing aftertaste in addition to texture as a variable that influences taste perception. Fun morning ahead! A full how-to that references back to these more detailed flavor spectrum pages would be a good idea, as long as I can do it without introducing snobbery or rules that don’t need to be there. Hopefully an article like this comes off as geeky, but not snobby 🙂

    • I agree! A tasting “how to” from a more professional/experienced standpoint would be very interesting. I of course have developed my own way of things, but I know wine tasting is done in a specific manner (I don’t like wine, so don’t have much experience there), and I can only imagine that there’s a similar sort of… ritual(?) for tea.

  2. Ash-Lee (DaisyChubb)

    It makes such a difference in the tea drinking experience to come here, read an article like this that truly opens you heart and mind – and then sit down to a tasting session (although it’s so much more than taste!).

    Thank you David, your articles are so much more than words – they really do resonate!

    • Thank you Ash-Lee! This means a lot. I try to write the articles in service to the tea, or the people who grow it. I am happy to know that they are doing good. Tea is definitely more than the experience of tasting, and I feel a responsibility to convey all the stories and experiences that make tea significant for me.

      Just wait until my next trip to China. I will come back with so many more stories to tell…

  3. Sarah

    I love green tea and appreciate you writing this article. It definitely makes me think more about the various tastes going on with green tea – from vegetal to grassy qualities.

  4. I am very grateful for you sharing this. Great article! I have become obsessed with vegetal-tasting green tea and when I refer to a “grassy” taste people keep laughing and acting like I am nuts. Glad that I am not alone in this!

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