Tea Tasting

Tea tasting, much like wine tasting, uses similar steps – visual, smell, taste and touch. A lot about a tea can be told by examining the dry leaves. Gently press some dry leaves in your hand – most new teas are a little springier and less likely to crumble than older teas. Tea tasting is the process in which a trained taster determines the quality of a particular tea. Due to climatic conditions, topography, manufacturing process, and different clones of the Camellia sinensis plant (tea), the final product may have vastly differing flavours and appearance. These differences can be tasted by a trained taster in order to ascertain the quality prior to sale or possibly blending tea.

It is the taster who describes and values tea. His description of the liquor is based on taste. In its widest sense, which includes aroma, taste is a very complex property that has so far not been assessed chemically. A taster may deal with several hundred tea samples in a day. In making his evaluation, he brings his knowledge and experience of the outturn of a particular estate to bear upon his conclusions. A 3-5 minute brewing time and boiling water is recommended for black tea and green teas are usually brewed at < 90 °C and for under 3 minutes. A tea taster uses a large spoon and noisily slurps the liquid into his/her mouth - this ensures that both the tea and plenty of oxygen is passed over all the taste receptors on the tongue to give an even taste profile of the tea.

While it is mainly the tongue that experiences taste, other surfaces of the mouth also play a role here. There are four kinds of tastes - salt, sour, sweet and bitter. Sweetness is tasted at the tip of the tongue, and bitterness at the back. Saltines too are tasted at the tip, but also at the sides of the front of the tongue. Sourness is experienced at the back edges. A stringency or pungency is a sensation, not a taste that is felt on the gums and part of the cheek. When the liquor is swirled round the mouth, the thickness, body or viscosity is felt and judged. For tasters, "infused" leaf refers to the wet leaf left over after the liquor is drained out; "infusion" refers to the liquor. The flavour characteristics and indeed leaf colour, size and shape are graded using a specific language created by the tea industry to explain the overall quality.

The tasting process includes measuring a level teaspoon of each sample into the cup. Generally, white or clear cups are used to view the truest colour. It commences by analyzing of the infused leaves as the cups are filled. Smaller flat leaves will show more body than larger twisted leaves, which take longer to steep. After steeping take in the aroma of the tea and examine the infused leaves for colour and evenness. Colour does not necessarily indicate the strength or body of the liquor.

Tea tasting is a precise skill and one that can be performed only with a good natural palate and active olfactory nerve. Apart from tasting and describing tea, the ability to value a tea calls for long experience and knowledge.

Tea Tasting Terminology

Terms Describing Dry Leaf -

  • Black: A black appearance is desirable.
  • Blackish: A satisfactory appearance.
  • Bold: Particles of leaf which are too large for the particular grade.
  • Brown: A brown appearance in teas that normally indicates overly harsh treatment of the leaf.
  • Clean: Leaf that is free from fiber, dust and all extraneous matter.
  • Curly: The leaf appearance of whole leaf grade teas such as O.P., as distinct from "wiry".
  • Even: True to the grade, consisting of pieces of leaf of fairly even size.
  • Flaky: Flat, open and often light in texture.
  • Gray: Caused by too much abrasion during sorting.
  • Grainy: Describes primary grades of well-made CTC teas such as Pekoe Dust.
  • Leafy: A tea in which leaves tend to be on the large or long side.
  • Light: A tea light in weight, of poor density. Sometimes flaky.
  • Make: Well-made tea (or not), true to its grade.
  • Musty: A tea affected by mildew.
  • Neat: A grade having good "make" and size.
  • Powdery: Fine light dust.
  • Ragged: An uneven, badly manufactured and graded tea.
  • Stalk & Fibre: Should be minimal in superior grades, but is generally unavoidable in lower-grade teas.
  • Tip: A sign of fine plucking, apparent in top grades of orthodox "Low Grown Type Teas".
  • Uneven & Mixed: "Uneven" pieces of leaf usually indicative of poor sorting and not true to the particular grade.
  • Well Twisted: Used for describing whole-leaf grades, often referred to as "well-made" or "rolled".
  • Wiry: Leaf appearance of a well-twisted, thin-leaf tea.

Terms Describing Infused Leaf -

  • Aroma: Smell or scent denoting "inherent character," usually in tea grown at high altitudes.
  • Bright: A lively bright appearance. Usually indicates bright liquors.
  • Coppery: Bright leaf that indicates a well-manufactured tea.
  • Dull: Lacks brightness and usually denotes poor tea. Can be due to faulty manufacture and firing, or a high moisture content.
  • Dark: A dark or dull colour that usually indicates poorer leaf.
  • Green: When referring to black tea, refers to under-fermentation or to leaves from immature bushes (liquors often raw or light). Can also be caused by poor rolling.
  • Mixed or Uneven: Leaf of varying colour.

Terms Describing Liquors

  • Bakey: over-fired liquor. Tea in which too much moisture has been driven off.
  • Body: liquor having both fullness and strength, as opposed to being thin.
  • Bright: Denotes a lively fresh tea with good keeping quality.
  • Brisk: The most "live" characteristic. Results from good manufacture.
  • Burnt: Extreme over-firing.
  • Character - An attractive taste, specific to origin, describing teas grown at high altitudes.
  • Coarse: Describes harsh, undesirable liquor.
  • Coloury: Indicates useful depth of colour and strength.
  • Cream: A precipitate obtained after cooling.
  • Dry: Indicates slight over-firing.
  • Dull: Not clear, and lacking any brightness or briskness.
  • Earthy: Normally caused by damp storage, but can also describe a taste that is sometimes "climatically inherent" in teas from certain regions.
  • Empty: Describes a liquor lacking fullness. No substance.
  • Flat: Not fresh (usually due to age).
  • Flavour: A most desirable extension of "character," caused by slow growth at high elevations. Relatively rare.
  • Fruity: Can be due to over-fermentation and/or bacterial infection before firing. An overripe taste.
  • Full: A good combination of strength and colour.
  • Gone off: A flat or old tea. Often denotes a high moisture content.
  • Green: An immature, "raw" character. Often due to underfermentation (Sometimes underwithering).
  • Harsh: A taste generally due to underwithered leaf. Very rough.
  • Heavy: thick, strong and coloury liquor with limited briskness.
  • High-Fried: Over-fired but not bakey or burnt
  • Lacking: Describes neutral liquor. No body or pronounced characteristics.
  • Light: Lacking strength and depth of colour.
  • Malty: A full, bright tea with a taste of malt.
  • Mature: Not bitter or flat.
  • Metallic: A sharp Metallic taste.
  • Muddy: dull liquor.
  • Musty: Suspicion of mold.
  • Plain: A liquor that is "clean" but lacking in desirable characteristics.
  • Pungent: Astringent with a good combination of briskness, brightness and strength.
  • Quality: Refers to "cup quality" and denotes a combination of the most desirable liquoring qualities.
  • Raw: A bitter, unpleasant flavor.
  • Soft: The opposite of briskness. Lacking any "live" characteristic. Caused by inefficient fermentation and/or firing.
  • Strength: Substance in cup.
  • Taint: Characteristic or taste that is foreign to tea, such as oil, garlic, etc. Often due to being stored next to other commodities with strong characteristics of their own.
  • Thick: Liquor with good colour and strength.
  • Thin: insipid light liquor that lacks desirable characteristics.