The entire experience of taste feels like a grand game of pleasure our brain is playing, piecing together so many diverse sensory inputs, usually without our awareness. The tongue has an incredible sensitivity to bitter and sweet- old primordial tastes- the universal tastes that every successful animal needs to distinguish poison from treat. This sensitivity on its own would be enough to steer us in the right direction and stop us from eating things we shouldn’t. Why then is taste so incredibly complex? Is our brain just having a good time?

In this continuation of our multi-part series on taste, texture and aroma in tea, we’re focusing on the flavor profile that relies most heavily on aroma: the floral taste spectrum.


Aroma: the Power of the Nose

Take that primordial sensitivity to bitter and sweet and combine it with a much more nuanced sense organ- the nose. Our ability to smell developed not just to sort good from bad, but to remember other people, make judgements, even in courtship. The nose uses its nuance to tell detect subtle chemical cues, or distinguish the path of an animal through a forest.

Smell gives us so much information, that we can’t even consciously process it all. Take pheromones as a great example of the brain using smell cues to make unconscious judgements.  The nose is certainly working hard when we sip and savor our tea. Applying the incredible human nose to tea lets our brain gather an unimaginable amount of data on what we sip. Every breath in is taking data and checking it against every memory in our brain to look for close matches. That is why smell is so evocative – aroma is processed very close to our seat of memory, and so the two are often tied closely together. The brain needs to sort the information it has received, make sense of it, compress it. A completely new smell is easier for the brain to understand if we break it into a combination of old smells, and give it the context of the rest of our experience.


Add the touch sensation of texture on the tongue, the sounds of the environment, the visual appearance of a tea, and our brain has so much to go off of that it barely even needs our taste buds to form its vivid perceptions and evaluations of the tea in our cup. The floral flavor spectrum is a prime example of an entire genre of taste that, at the end of the day, is the brain picking up a smell and running with it during our taste experience. If you have a cold and are completely congested I guarantee you wont taste jasmine in your jasmine.

For me, the heavy reliance on smell in the floral spectrum makes it one of the most powerful taste experiences. Aroma is forcing the brain into recall mode, giving you the chance to be nostalgic, to connect the floral notes of a Tieguanyin to a childhood spring morning with the lilacs in bloom and the aroma fresh cut grass wafting in the air. One of the most powerful and evocative florals is the Vanilla Orchid, whose beans make that ubiquitous vanilla aroma that has been recognized as one of the strongest aphrodisiac aromas on the planet. Every floral note in tea is tapping into our strong smell and memory associations to not only influence the flavor we experience, but influence our mood and receptiveness.

Floral Flavor on the Tea Spectrum

With their ability to evoke powerful memories, floral teas are singular powerful expressions. On the more fruity luscious side of the floral spectrum is Tieguanyin. Visit our farmer parter Master Zhang in Daping Village of Anxi, and his terraced tea fields smell thick, rich and wet with floral aromas wafting through the air. Wild flowers grow all over Master Zhang’s fields, and many of the 100 year old untended tea trees his great grandparents planted are allowed to grow without disturbance and bloom with their own camellia flowers, rich with honey and vanilla. All of the florals in the air support the natural floral notes in the Tieguanyin varietal tea, and Master Zhang’s finishing process brings out even more.


Tieguanyin is heavy, with its orchid-like florals drawing from savory sweet saffron and fruity honeydew melon for support. The floral notes in tieguanyin are extremely evocative, but can change wildly depending on supporting notes. Spring Tieguanyin evokes the fresh lilacs of early spring, while the savory creamy notes of Autumn Tieguanyin anchor its florals and evoke luxury- silk, rice pudding, baths of rosewater.


As floral teas move away from the fruity end of the flavor spectrum, they shift towards a more pure and unadulterated floral sense experience. This is best captured by Yunnan White Jasmine, which is made from white tea buds scented with wild picked jasmine flowers as they blossom at night. The aroma, not the flavor, of jasmine flowers is absorbed into the buds. Lower quality jasmine is made by applying jasmine oil to tea, but this shifts the experience of floral perception from smell to taste, and the result can be a harsh chemical quality. Well-scented traditional jasmine evokes the heavy scent of a moonlit garden as the nighttime flowers open. Jasmine brings associations of the ancient world, as it is one of the oldest perfumes, favored by Cleopatra.

The issue with jasmine, and any floral note is that, at the end of the day, people don’t eat flowers that often. The actual “taste” of flowers can be off-putting. Teas that are flavored with floral notes usually push too far. Florals are most pleasing to the palate when they are well balanced and offset by thick rich texture.

Yunnan White Jasmine XL

Bai Mu Dan is one of the purest natural expressions of floral notes in tea. Honeysuckle and bright, warm marigold dominate. These florals work because they are bolstered by a linen-like texture, a certain crispness. This crisp texture moves florals more towards the spicy end of the spectrum and away from fruit.


The “spiciest” florals are taste experiences where the floral flavors are so light and vaporous that they feel like inhaling incense more than tasting tea. This is especially true with the sandalwood-like quality of Qilan Wuyi Oolong, or even some pu’er like Master Han’s Sheng pu’er. Because florals are so reliant on aroma, the brain is super sensitive to texture and mouthfeel in floral teas to give those teas a grounding point. To translate floral aroma into taste, it needs to be associated with a physical sensation. That is why a silky texture can make a floral note rich and orchid-like, while spicier note scan carry it towards sandalwood, and crisp notes yield a pure jasmine flavor.

Evocative Florals; Lingering Aroma

One of the most fun parts about tasting floral teas is that, because of their association with smell and texture, and because the aromatics leave behind such a distinctive perfumed aftertaste, each sip of a floral tea tastes stronger and stronger. The engagement of texture and aroma while sipping train the palate to pay more attention to smell and touch sensation and less to flavor sensation. This heightens the experience, all while actually building up stronger aromatics in the back of the throat and nose that prime the palate for for more.

The ability of floral notes in tea to evoke memory, accumulate aftertaste and bring smell to play in the taste experience make them incredible supporting elements in so many teas – basically every oolong has florals of some kind, even subtle notes. These notes in even the smallest doses heighten the entire taste experience. They are so powerful, that you can even sip a cup of hot water after tasting floral tea and you will still get floral sensations from the water drawn out of the aftertaste lingering in the back of the throat.