The Secrets of Tea-Tasting

The Secrets of Tea-Tasting

Many tea-lovers find tea-tasting inaccessible and its jargon off-putting.  They recognize its utility but only faintly understand the details. In a career that spans three decades, I have been asked numerous times “What am I supposed to look for when I taste a tea?  I feel like I’m missing something!

 Perhaps it would help if I would explain the process and try to get at its meaning and significance.   

When we hear the word taste we think “mouth.”  The sensitivity of taste buds on the tongue and on oral tissues, however, is limited. They can distinguish only five “pure” tastes: sweet, salty, bitter, sour and savory (umami). They cannot sense complex flavor:  They know “sweet,” but not cherry pie, “bitter-sweet,” but not chocolate.  

For that level of discrimination we need the nose – actually, the unattractively-named olfactory bulb, at the terminus of the nasal passage. The conglomeration of sensory cells in the bulb collects information from molecules of aspirated tea sucked into the mouth and drawn into the throat.        

For all its centrality, the human “smeller” is relatively under-endowed. A poodle has 3,000% more olfactory tissues then its master and can rapidly and exquisitely sense odors she will miss. But, Gigi does not have the capacity to interpret and verbalize, so poodles will be employed as drug sniffers, but not as tea-tasters!  

Taste sense organs telegraph packets of sensory information to the brain which decodes it. This leads from “ah!” to recognition. Formless sensations become words, phrases and thoughts which can be communicated to others. We can say tea-tasting changes from a solitary activity into a social one!   

All of us are capable of gathering sensations, but labeling them requires prior experience tasting teas, the power of memory and a taster’s vocabulary.    

Nothing is as memorable as the taste or smell of food, especially from childhood. We humans store the sensory impressions of foods we taste – those we like and those we abhor – in our food memory bank. We recall and identify a food when we reencounter it. American Chef James Beard said food recall is the key to being a good cook. Without it one is forever limited to slavishly following recipes.  

Robert Luis Stevenson wrote (rather clumsily), “Wine is bottled poetry.”  The ability to verbalize is critical for tasting; one must have a well-honed taster’s vocabulary.  

The German philosopher, Edmund Husserl, wrote trenchantly in Logical Investigations about tasting coffee; I quote him here substituting “tea,” with due apologies to Herr Doctor.  

“What is a cup of [tea]? I might define it in terms of…chemistry and…botany, add a summary of how it’s…grown and exported….”

Or [I] might say what the cup on the table actually is….” This cup of [tea] is…aroma…earthy and perfumed; it is the lazy movement of… steam rising from its surface. …it is a placidly shifting liquid… intense…flavor on my tongue…a slightly austere jolt…relaxing into comforting warmth, which spreads from…cup to…body, bringing the promise of…alertness and refreshment. The promise, the anticipated sensations, the smell, the colour and…flavor are all part of the [tea] as [a] phenomenon. [It exists] by being experienced.

Husserl has it right: tea-tasting is subjective, but unsentimental; it is informed, but spontaneous.       

Tasting tea is different from eating a meal to satisfy hunger. A tea-taster is not taking tea out of thirst, but to taste and evaluate it.  For that he must go from a distracted, diffuse state of consciousness into one of concentration and awareness.  

The role of a tea-taster is to make comparative judgments that will guide professionals – tea-traders, blenders and retailers in downstream transactions. The taster is the first individual to taste a tea after it leaves the garden and it is the taster employed in a tea brokerage house who helps determine value and set price.  A rave review by a respected tea taster at a respected house can make or break a tea.

Further down the supply chain, hundreds of individuals will taste teas on offer to determine if they have the required quality and value in a variety of commercial contexts, in retail shops or teahouses, web stores, hotels or tea-bagging operations. For the bottom line, there is no perfection, no absolute good, only utility and price.    

It is easy to imagine why the world of commerce needs tea-tasters, but why would consumers wish to hone their tea-tasting skills? There are three common reasons: to learn a useful skill, to acquire knowledge and understanding and to gain insights into the fascinating, complex world of tea. The uncommon reason: to master tea-tasting form – the mechanics – to gain access to a new world where the mundane (sensory phenomena) gives way to a silent and still land.   

To paraphrase Okakura Kazuo in The Book of Tea: to experience a work of art is to enter into a relationship with the artist. When we read a novel we enter into a relationship with the author. When we take tea we are at one with tea-farmer and tea-maker, in a purely human space. 

In my book, we first master the technicalities; later we can access the larger space tea occupies. So, tasting begins with the observation of the phenomenological aspects of the tea:  the dry leaf, the leaf drained of tea immediately after infusion, and the decanted liquor. 

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