Learning how to taste tea

6 10 2008

The tea liquor has different dimensions and it’s flavor has a foreground, middle ground and background flavors and by properly tasting tea we can experience all of those. Teas from the same region can share similarities in taste, therefore their differences and quality can be compared with teas from other regions and provinces. When tasting tea you need to pay attention to three main things – aroma, flavor and color.

A complete tea tasting consists of examining the dry leaves, examining the leaves after infusion and tasting the tea liquor. Look at the dry leaves and pay attention to how they are rolled, what size they are and how they smell. After infusing the leaves look at how they unfolded and if they are whole or in smaller pieces. Professional tea tasters take a small sip of the tea, swish is around their mouth and spit it out, tasting the teas quickly one after another.

Key things to pay attention to while evaluating tea

  • Acidity – sensed on the sides of the tongue
  • Sweetness – sugary taste that can be tasted at the tip of the tongue
  • Tannin – can be tasted at the back of the tongue and tastes bitter, also has a drying effect on the gums
  • Length – is how long you can taste the tea in your mouth after you swallowed, the longer the taste stays the higher the quality of tea
  • Body – weight and fullness of tea
  • Balance – when all the components of tea work well together

You don’t have to be a professional to enjoy tea and with time the more teas you taste the easier you’ll be able to develop your own palette of flavors and indentify tea quality. Here is some vocabulary taken from Teaosophy used by professional tea tasters that might help you describe your experience of each step

Dry leaves

  • Adhesive – Well-rolled, wiry leaves that tend to cling together when picked up
  • Attractive – Well-made, uniform in color, size, and texture
  • Bloom – Leaves look lively and have a lustrous quality
  • Brown– Leaves are brown in color. Although black is a desirable color for black tea leaves, tippy teas are never totally black due to the presence of the lighter-colored tips, which are desirable
  • Dull – Lacking bloom
  • Dusty – Leaf tea that contains some tea dust
  • Golden Tip – Tea contains golden colored leaf tips. This is desirable
  • Leafy – Tea containing larger than average leaves
  • Leggy – Tea leaves are long and thin
  • Stylish – Leaf of superior appearance containing “tip”
  • Tip – Pieces of the leaf tip
  • Tippy – Teas that contain generous amounts of leaf tip and therefore produce a more flavorful cup.
  • Well-twisted – Refers to how the leaf was rolled. A leaf that has “twist” is well-rolled.
  • Whiskery – Leaves covered with a fine hairy fiber. Also described as “hairy”.
  • Wiry – A thin long leaf that has been nicely rolled.

Infused leaves

  • Aroma – Leaves have a fragrant smell
  • Bright – Leaves have a lively reflective quality rather than looking dull
  • Coppery – Leaves have a coppery color, usually denoting a good quality tea
  • Dark – Leaves are dark or dull in color, sometimes denoting a lesser quality tea
  • Dull – Leaves that lack a bright, reflective quality

Tea liquor

  • Aroma – An attractive smell sometimes referred to as “nose” or “bouquet.” High grown teas, such as Darjeeling, are prized for their distinctive aroma
  • Astringency – The lively, pungent sensation on your tongue that gives tea its refreshing quality. This is not to be confused with bitterness
  • Bakey – An unpleasant taste caused by using very high temperatures during drying (“firing”) the leaves and consequently driving out too much moisture
  • Biscuity – A pleasant taste resembling fresh baked bread that can be found in some Assam teas.
  • Bitter – An unpleasant bitter taste.
  • Body – How the tea liquor feels in your mouth. A tea is described has having light, medium, or full body. Full-bodied teas have fullness and strength as opposed to being thin. A tea’s body will vary according to the region in which it was grown.
  • Brassy – An unpleasant, bitter metallic taste.
  • Bright – Liquor looks lively as opposed to dull. This quality becomes more apparent after the addition of milk.
  • Brisk – A vivacious, slightly astringent taste as opposed to flat or soft tasting liquor.
  • Character – Distinct qualities of the tea that allow the taster to detect the region where the tea was grown.
  • Color – Describes depth of color. The region when the tea was grown and the grade of tea play a part in the resulting shade and depth of the liquor color.
  • Coloury – A liquor that possesses depth of color, sometimes indicating full body or taste, but not necessarily so.
  • Course – An undesirable harsh, bitter taste.
  • Complex – A multidimensional aroma or taste profile.
  • Dry– A slightly bakey or scorched taste.
  • Dull – A liquor that lacks a lively, bright character in both appearance and taste.
  • Fine – Tea of exceptional taste and quality.
  • Flat – Lifeless liquor completely lacking in briskness. This can be the result of tea that is old or has been stored improperly.
  • Flavoury– Tea that has a pronounced, satisfying flavor. Pronounced flavour is more generally found in high grown teas such as Darjeeling, Nilgiri, Kerala, and Ceylon.
  • Full – Tea possessing color, strength and body as opposed to being empty or thin.
  • Hard – Tea that has penetrating and desirable strength, particularly used for Assam tea.
  • Harshness – An unpleasant degree of strength.
  • Heavy – Tea that possesses a thick, strong liquor with depth of color but is lacking in briskness.
  • Hungry – When the characteristics generally associated with the tea variety or region of origin are not present.
  • Light/Pale– Liquor that does not have depth of color but may be flavoury or pungent. Darjeeling tea is a good example of this.
  • Malty – A desirable malted barley taste often found in Assam tea.
  • Mellow – Tea leaves which have matured well produce a mellow tasting tea.
  • Muscatel– Grapey taste. This is an exceptional characteristic found in some Darjeeling tea.
  • Point(y) – A desirable brightness and acidity often associated with Ceylon teas.
  • Pungent – A bright liquor that has pronounced briskness and a strong, astringent flavor. Highly desirable.
  • Rich – A pleasantly thick and mellow liquor.
  • Round – A full, smooth-tasting liquor.
  • Stale – Tea that has an unpleasant taste because it is old or has been stored in damp conditions.
  • Strong – Liquor possesses strength of body and flavor.
  • Thick – Tea that has good body as opposed to being “thin”. Assam tea is known for producing a thick liquor.
  • Thin– Tea that lacks body. This is not necessarily undesirable as certain tea growing regions, such as Darjeeling, are celebrated for their tea’s thin, flavoury liquors. However teas from Assam should never have a thin liquor.
  • Tired – Tea that is past its prime and consequently has a flat or stale character.
  • Woody – Tea that has a sawdust-like character


If you’re interested in tea tasting sessions you can check out Jane Pattigrew Masterclasses or Teatasing.net



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