Like savoring a fine wine, tasting premium tea is a joy. With a few simple steps, you can elevate your tea tasting experience from “ho-hum” to “whoa”! Over time, you can use these steps to develop your tea palate and appreciate the many nuances that quality teas have to offer.
Look at the Tea Leaves
The appearance of the tea leaves gives you a hint at the quality of the tea. Full leaves tend to be better than broken leaves. White tea should be covered in fine, downy hairs. Many Japanese green teas should be deep (almost bluish) green. Teas with more tips tend to be more nuanced and complex than those without them. Fresh teas almost always have a glossy sheen.
Brew the Tea
Explore using different brewing times, brewing temperatures, water types, water to tea ratios, and types of teaware to find the best match for your teas, or use your brewing time to reflect on your day or otherwise relax.
Look at the Brew and Leaves
Look at the color and opacity of the brewed tea. This is part of the beauty of tea, and one of the reasons I recommend using a teacup with a white interior or a clear teacup. Also, a darker brew may indicate a fuller flavor, and murkiness or sediment may indicate a low-quality tea, although there are exceptions to this, notably with Japanese steamed green teas.
Looking at the tea leaves will also tell you a lot about the tea itself, especially in the case of rolled oolongs and other shaped teas. A close inspection can tell you if it is made from tea buds only, leaves only, or a specific proportion of buds and leaves. Sometimes, you can see more clearly how broken the leaves are after they have been brewed.
Smell the Brew and Leaves
In Chinese tea culture, the aroma and aftertaste of a tea are just as important as its flavor. In Taiwan, special “aroma cups” are used to savor the aroma of the tea before it is sipped. Fully appreciating the aroma of a tea adds a new dimension to tea tasting.
Using a narrow cup and closing your eyes as you sniff may help you smell the brew better. Professional tea tasters actually press their noses into brewed leaves to smell them. You don’t have to take it that far – just sniffing the leaves is fine – but smelling the leaves can be a very enjoyable and informative act to add to your tea tasting experience.
Taste the Tea
Finally, it’s time to taste the tea! To get the full taste of the tea, slurp it as you would slurp wine in a wine tasting. The goal is to spray a fine mist of tea over the entire palate and even the back of the throat. Just be careful not to choke!
Once you have slurped the tea, roll it over your tongue in a swishing motion. If you’d like, you can aerate it more by sucking more air into your mouth and through the tea. This activates the flavors more. In professional tastings, tasters spit the tea out after each sip, but once you have tasted the tea, it’s probably best to just swallow it.
Observe the Mouthfeel
Although “mouthfeel” sounds weird and complex, it’s actually simple. It’s just the way the tea makes your mouth feel. Does it leave a creamy coating, like milk, or is it oily? Perhaps it’s like a rich broth… or is it thin and cleansing, like warm water? Does it create a puckery sensation on the tongue? After you have drunk the tea, does it leave your mouth feeling dry, moist or coated? All of these feelings are part of the mouthfeel.
You can observe the mouthfeel during the first sip if you want, but I recommend noting the flavor first and then moving on to mouthfeel later.
Note the Aftertaste
Some teas have very brief aftertastes. Others (especially some artisan oolongs) are known for aftertastes that can last for an hour or more. Some aftertastes are simple, while others are complex and evolving. Sometimes, the aftertaste is identical to the tea. Sometimes, it’s completely different. Occasionally, a tea has an even more enjoyable aftertaste than the flavor itself! While you may not always love the aftertaste of every tea, aftertastes can be fascinating components of the flavors and aromas of many teas.
To note the aftertaste, open your mouth slightly after you have swallowed a sip of tea. Allow air to flow between your mouth and nose. Observe not only the flavor but also the scent that develops.
Observe the Mental or Physical Effects
Many tea drinkers report that different teas have completely different mental and physical effects on them. Generally speaking, people associate green teas with mental clarity and black teas with physical energy, but it’s different for everyone.
Note how different teas make you feel. If they offer any particular benefits to you (such as soothing stress or improving focus), you can use those benefits to your advantage once you are aware of them.