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THE ART OF TEA TASTING FOR PERSONAL PLEASURE

Written by : Indi Khanna, Tea 'n' Teas.  www.teanteas.com  0309 4096254

For most tea drinkers, the mental picture that springs to mind when there is mention of ‘tea tasting’ is of some mysterious ritual beyond the lay person’s comprehension.  A ceremony which only the abstinent ‘tea taster’ fully understands the rules of.

Taste being perceptible only by the human palate and since that development of that sense is achieved only after years of dedicated training before one is able to develop oneself into a professional taster, is it any wonder then that the taster’s art form is viewed with a tinge of awe and wonderment.

Far from being shrouded in anonymity, the skill of tea tasting, much like the tasting of wine, is an art form acquired by the taster, who does not necessarily conform to the generally held picture of a ‘Tea Taster’ as a tea totaling introvert.  The tasters skill is acquired through years of practice during which the ‘taster’ slurps his/her way through countless cups of tea ranging from the very ordinary, watery brews to those sublime cups which transport one to a different level.  Tea tasting is after all, only a talent, albeit drawing upon an encyclopedic knowledge built up over years of slurping, which enables the expert to not only identify, but also intensify the subtle nuances and essences of a particular tea by comparing them to other teas.

From the time tea was introduced to the West, well into the early part of the 19th century, any tea sold was simply unblended leaf, shipped directly from the tea estates and consumed as such regardless of variations in taste or quality.  That there would be wide variations from one consignment to the next was a ‘hazard’, well accepted by the tea consumer.  Over the years, as with most other consumer products, the habit of tea drinking also matured.  This growing level of sophistication, lead naturally into a heightened expectation in the minds of the consumer with an unstated demand for uniformity.  And so, with the maturing of consumer tastes, evolved the practice of retailing a blend with a pre-set taste profile which would offset seasonal and other variances in characteristics, thereby providing the consumer with the ‘same’ cup of tea throughout the year.

This demand for a pre-determined standard to be maintained throughout the year is what created a new breed of professionals.  Tea Tasters!  The job demanded individuals who had their senses of sight, taste and smell developed to the highest possible level, since the job required not only a sharp eye, but also an equally delicate and discriminating nose and palate.

A cursory understanding of how the professional practices his art unveils the ‘mystery’, enabling the casual tea drinker to better enjoy a cup of tea as a multi-sensory experience.

The basic equipment which a tea taster uses, includes:

  • A tea tasting set.  This includes a tasting bowl and a brewing cup with a lid.

  • A weighing scale.  To measure accurately a similar portion of tea for each cup.  This is usually 3 grams of tea.

  • A tasting spoon.  Similar to a soup spoon, though a mite deeper.

  • A spittoon.  To spit out the tea after tasting it

  • A timer.  So that the tea may be steeped for a precise time of 3-5 minutes.

For the ‘lay taster’ a couple of small teapots, cups, spoons and any watch or clock serves the purpose just as well.

While tasting tea without adding any milk to the cup is preferable from the point of view of sharper judgment, it is a subjective choice to taste with or without milk, just so long as an equal quantity of milk is added to each cup.

Once the ‘equipment’ is ready, choose the teas you wish to taste.  Initially avoid being too expansive in the range.  Start with a few cups and gradually over a period of time, as your palate begins to discriminate the nuances, increase the number of cups in one session.  A thumb rule to follow is to set up the teas in a progression of increasing intensity.  If conducting a tasting across types, the general order to follow would be:

White

Green

Oolong

Black

Puerh

However, since each type of tea is so poles apart from the other, try as far as possible, to avoid tasting different types of teas in one session.  Then again, the size of the leaf being in inverse ratio to the strength of the cup, if it is blacks you are tasting, the larger sized leaf particle should be tasted first, followed by the smaller grades leading to the smallest sized grade at the end.

Basically Tea-tasting involves your three senses, smell, sight and, of course, taste. Let’s start with sight, look at the color of the teas laid out before you.  You may notice that the color of the teas can vary greatly, even within the same type of teas.  Now move a step forward, to aroma.   In order to intensify the smell of wine you swirl the wine in the glass and sniff.  Similarly with tea, the best way to release what is called the "bouquet" is to hold the lid onto the teapot, AFTER the liquor has been poured out, and shake. Now lift up the lid and inhale.  While you may not be able to describe the smell, take that as being a non-issue, because after going through the routine with many teas you will begin to notice similarities and differences.  Finally taste.  To experience the full taste of the tea, concentrate on the initial taste, the taste, and the aftertaste. Take a sip of a tea and hold it in your mouth.  Swirl or gargle in your mouth so the liquid is distributed throughout.  You cannot help but notice the flavor and texture left coating your mouth.  That’s about it!  Try not to be intimidated by the apparent number of steps involved.  Simply and very naturally allow the three senses of sight, smell, and taste to extract the most out of each cup. The more teas you try and the more attention you pay to each cup, the better you will become at appreciating each tea's distinct characteristics!  To take this step by step:

  • Arrange your dry tea samples on plates or bowls for inspection of leaf grade, particle size, color, tips, and overall uniformity.
  • Place approximately an equal volume, depending upon the size of the tea pots you have, of between 2-3 grams, of tea in each teapot.

  •  A thumb rule is to use approximately 2 to 3 grams of tea leaves per 6 ounces of water.

  • Pour an equal amount of water which has ‘just boiled’ into each teapot.

  • It is preferable to use the freshest and purest water available.  Hard water is best avoided.

  • Depending upon the size of the leaf, steep the samples for 3-5 minutes, before straining out the leaves

  • The soggy mess of leaf is eloquent to the extreme and has an interesting story to tell, so inspect the infused leaves for fragrance and leaf condition.  A bright coppery hue points to a ‘good’ tea.  On the other hand, a dull infusion means an unexciting cup!

  • It is often helpful to cup your hand over the top of the vessel to funnel the vapor toward your nose.  It doesn’t take an expert to tell you what a good aroma, a good ‘nose’ in the taster’s parlance, indicates.

  • The final step is to taste the liquor.  Professional tasters typically slurp the tea from a teaspoon.  This slurping, which children are constantly berated about, aerates the tea and sprays it across the entire palate, giving the mouth a full bodied ‘taste punch’. 

  • Once the tea is sprayed into your mouth, swish the mouthful around your mouth, sucking in further short bursts of air, in order to release the more delicate characteristics inherent in the tea.

  • While definitely not in the first couple of tastings, but as the palate begins to get used to the onslaught, your senses will automatically start recognizing and characterizing the subtle nuances.  The first step to YOUR encyclopedic knowledge!

  • Having tasted the tea, like a true professional, you spit out into the spittoon.

Human perception and appreciation of flavor and aroma, like most sensory cues can, and do get easily swayed significantly by the time of day, mood and even inconsequential environmental factors such as the lighting, cleanliness and organization of the tasting room.  One of the key elements of professional tasting being consistency, wherever possible, tasting sessions should occur at the same time each day while the tasting room should be kept clean, clear and free of obtrusive odors.  It is needless to say that the taster(s) should refrain from the consumption of strongly-flavored foods prior to a tasting.

While the professional Tea Taster employs a bewildering vocabulary to describe the leaf, the infusion, the liquor and the whole experience in general, the lay person should be simply content with being able to differentiate between the good and the bad.  That very demarcation is, after all, exactly what the tasters confusing phraseology boils down to.

While any questions are welcome, the author is also available for professional tasting sessions or consultancy.  For details, please write to indi@teanteas.com

Above article Written by : Indi Khanna, Tea 'n' Teas.  www.teanteas.com  0309 4096254

©2006 Indi Khanna -- May not be re-printed or used in any manner without prior permission from the author.


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