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Tea

How to Taste Tea Like a Tea Sommelier

April 5, 2018

One of the frequently asked questions I get is about the words to use to talk or write about tea, which I really think is a question how to taste tea. After all, how can you talk about what you can’t describe? In this guide, I’m going to show you how to describe the physical characteristics of tea, and taste sensations beyond salty, sour, sweet, bitter, and umami. Then we’ll talk about how to get creative when describing tea, and how I make my tea tasting notes. Follow along and you’ll be talking like a tea sommelier in no time.

Maybe you’ve been out with your friends, when one of you orders a green tea. “Wow! I really like how this mellow tea has little astringency. It’s almost buttery, with hints of seaweed, wet rocks, and asparagus!”

Meanwhile, you look into their cup, seeing neither seaweed, nor wet rocks, nor asparagus. In fact, you’re pretty sure you’re just looking at hot leaf juice.

What are these crazy tea people talking about?

Much like how in the world of wine sommeliers there are hundreds—if not thousands—of ways to describe the taste and character of wines, in the world of tea sommeliers, there’s an established vocabulary and accepted amount of improvisation that goes along with describing what it is we’re experiencing when we drink tea.

Having a vocabulary to get into something can also make that thing richer too. Wine fanatics are a perfect example, or people who love baseball. To really get into something, you’ve got to know the lingo—shop talk—slang.

Describing Tea’s Physical Appearance

Before we even let that tea touch the tip of our tongues, let’s look at how we can describe how the tea leaves look.

Bold: Has big pieces of tea leaf.

Tip: The very end of the baby young buds that give golden flecks to the processed leaf.

Wiry: Twisted leaves, as opposed to open pieces.

Even: Leaf pieces of roughly the same size.

Irregular or Ragged: Uneven and non uniform pieces of leaf.

Choppy: Tea leaf that has been chopped or cut up, instead of rolled.

CTC: Tea processed using the cut, tear, curl method.  It appears as small pellets.

For more on tea looks and tea grading, check out my post on how tea grading works.

Describing How Tea Tastes

Now, as we begin to sip the tea, we can think about the aroma, body, and character. Think of it like the ABCs of tea.

Aroma: the odour of the tea liquor, also called the nose or fragrance. If the aroma is complex, it’s sometimes called a ‘bouquet.’ Think of it like smelling a bunch of flowers vs. a single rose.

Body: The weight and substance of the tea in your mouth. Is it light, viscous, thick? Sometimes people describe tea as being round—that is, having a full body that hugs your cheeks. It might be full—indicating a tea of good quality with colour, strength, and substance.

Character: A tea’s hallmark attributes, often depending on the country or region of origin, unique to its very own tea story.

Similar to wine, astringency is an important characteristic in tea. Astringency is that mouth-drying effect on the tongue—not to be confused with bitter. Astringency is a clean and refreshing quality, caused by a reaction between the tannins in tea and the protein in our saliva. Some teas are very astringent, and others—not so much. Astringency isn’t good or bad, but it’s important to take note of.

As you finish swallowing your tea, what happens next? The lasting taste on your tongue is called the finish. Is it smooth? Is there an aftertaste? Take a second to slow down, exhale, and really experience the end of the tea’s journey. Then go in for another sip, of course.

There’s also ways to talk about tea’s undesirable qualities. Tea that has gone off because of too much moisture is flat, while tea that has been through damp conditions during transportation or seen pollution is tainted.

Sometimes even if the tea survives transportation, it might have some other less desirable qualities. It might be brassy—bitter, coarse—strong but low quality, dull (like it sounds), or harsh—bitter and raw with little strength.

On the other hand, you might have an awesome cup of tea that is bright—a lively, clean tea that refreshes the palate; clean—has a focused, pure flavour;

It might have floral characteristicshave a muscatel aspect—just like the wine, reminiscent of grapes. Teas from the Darjeeling region are famous for this. Or, it might be malty—like a good whiskey. Teas from Assam are famous for this characteristic.

A Tea’s Story Affects its Flavour

How your tea is processed and where it comes from has a big impact on its characteristics, too. Everything from terroir to shipping methods can affect this delicate leaf.

As an easy example, during the kill green stage of tea production, green teas from China are often pan-fried, while Japanese green tea producers steam their green tea.

This means green teas from Japan (sencha, gyokuro, genmaicha, etc.) are often described like steamed green vegetables—asparagus, Brussel sprouts, spinach, etc. Green teas from China (gunpowder, dragonwell, etc.) are more often described with a sweet, toasty word—chestnuts, roasted corn, etc.

To make things even more confusing, both of those teas, could include a number of other ‘vegetal’ descriptors that overlap. Next we’re going to break down descriptors to use for different sensations. Here’s where things really get creative.

Hand holding pink tea over spring tree in bloom

Spring brings new tea to the market—this is a great time to try experimenting with something new. Keep your eyes open for the ‘first flush’ (aka first harvest of the season) teas making their way into North American stores in May and June.

Descriptive Vocabulary for Different Characteristics of Tea

Here are some starting points. Feel free to get as creative as you want. The sky’s the limit. I once heard a wine sommelier describe a white wine like, ‘opening a fresh can of tennis balls.’ These words are meant to evoke a sense of taste and place with your fellow tea-lovers. Obviously this tea won’t contain actually seaweed, tennis balls, or leather, but using descriptors like this in sequence can help evoke a sensation to give your fellow tea lovers a literary taste of what’s to come when they imbibe.

Vegetal: Earthy, herby, vegetable, and marine qualities

Tastes like sea air, sea weed, garden peas, green peppers, asparagus, wet rocks, musty, compost, old wet wood, leather, turning over a log, peat moss, bark, resin, camphor, sawdust, cherry wood, mahogany, pine, fresh-cut grass.

Smokey: Like a cigar

Ash, tar, smoke, smoked wood, burning leaves, beef jerky, bonfire, whiskey.

Spicy: Open the spice drawer

Cloves, cinnamon, cocoa, thyme, parsley, oregano, black pepper, vanilla, coriander, liquorice, eucalyptus, saffron, fennel.

Sweet: Nuances of sweetness

Honey, maple syrup, malt, nectar, caramel, molasses, burnt sugar, cotton candy, bubble gum.

Nutty: That chewy, often toasty taste

Almond, peanut, chestnut, hazelnut, roasted nuts, nougat, peanut butter.

Floral: When your nose feels like it’s walking into a greenhouse, or mountain meadow

Hints of jasmine, lilac, orchid, honeysuckle, wildflowers, cherry blossoms, orange blossoms, rose, dandelion, violet, geranium, hops, perfume.

Fruity: From stone fruits to bush berries, all your jammy concerns

Jammy, peach, apricot, strawberry, raspberry, blueberry, lychee, pineapple, banana, citrus, lemon, black currant, rhubarb.

How I Do Tea Tasting Notes

To try and keep my tea tasting notes consistent, I use the same formula every time: tea name, harvest location, harvest date, company, dry leaf appearance, wet leaf appearance, liquor, aroma, taste, steeping method, additional notes.

It may sound pretty obvious and straightforward, but having a consistent method for evaluating your teas keeps you honest, and makes it easy to get into a practice of writing about teas.

Here’s a handy PDF I made so that you can just print it and fill it out: Tea Tasting Notes

Pro Tip: Build Your Tea Taste Buds

As you can see from the list above, the best way to describe tea is using other foods! Therefore, the best way to learn how to taste tea is by trying other flavour sensations. Really pay attention when you put food in your mouth. Pay attention to smells. Lick rocks if you have to. Learn what the world tastes like. The wider your taste buds blossom, the richer your tea writing will become.

During my tea sommelier training, we practiced tasting all kinds of things—chocolate, olive oil, and even coffee. Read more about how to become a Certified Tea Sommelier.

Did I miss your favourite descriptor to use when talking about tea? Any more fun ones? Let me know in the comments below!

  • Reply
    whitenosugarblog
    April 8, 2018 at 3:51 pm

    I love your post! I often struggle with describing teas but I find that keeping a list handy is helpful. Does it happen often that you don’t agree with a tea’s description or is it just my nose and taste that are broken? haha! And are there any books you’d recommend reading to help one become a better taster?

    • Reply
      Mel Hattie
      April 8, 2018 at 4:20 pm

      Your nose isn’t broken! Haha, everyone’s palette is different, so everyone might have a different taste experience. The most important thing is just to be present and pay attention to what’s happening. Rather than books, trying lots of different foods and cross-tasting other artisan foods like olive oil and chocolate will probably help a lot! That being said, Linda Gaylard’s ‘The Tea Book’ I find to be a really comprehensive guide, and a great reference book. Also, anything by the team over at Camellia Sinensis. Their book on terroir is awesome. I’m trying to learn how to connect terroir more with taste, and they’re super informative.

  • Reply
    whitenosugarblog
    April 9, 2018 at 9:57 am

    Awesome, thanks a lot Mel!

  • Reply
    Damiano
    April 14, 2018 at 8:21 am

    Hi Mel, finally I had time to read your article. It is great!
    But I have some question for you.

    1) I suppose that all the descriptors that you have listed come from a flavour wheel, but I have seen that different sites list (slightly) different wheels. Is there some reason for this, or is ok using whichever of them?

    2) That’s a strange question. I’ve tasted “seriously” only two teas up until now (so my experience is quite low) but I found a big problem in the note-taking process. While I can recognise that there are some differences between the 2 teas, I find really difficult to find descriptors because for me a tea tastes like… tea (this sentence is so silly, but I don’t know how to explain it in a different way). So, is there a way to improve this “bug” in my tongue recognition-process? Or am I doomed to be a bad taster?
    I don’t have so many troubles to recognise taste with other types of food, even though I have to admit that I don’t lick rocks 🙂

    • Reply
      Mel Hattie
      April 14, 2018 at 8:30 am

      Hi Damiano,

      Glad you enjoyed the article! In response to your questions.

      1) It is okay to use whatever descriptors you want to talk about tea. Flavour wheels are just a starting point to get you thinking about all the possibilities. You can always liken the taste you’re experiencing to a totally different analog, like the wine sommelier who compared his wine to a can of freshly-opened tennis balls! You won’t find ‘tennis balls’ on any flavour wheel, but it works because describing tea is kind of like poetry. The goal is to convey to the listener the taste and sensation that the tea evokes in you. This will also be slightly different for everyone, since everyone tastes differently.

      2) I think you’ve written your own answer in the question! You need to taste more teas. Seriously. Otherwise it’s like asking a pianist to practice twice, then perform a Mozart concerto. There’s nothing wrong with your tongue, it just needs practice! It’s harder when you start out comparing two like teas (say black vs, black, or oolong vs. oolong). I recommend starting out tasting one properly-steeped tea from each of the larger umbrella categories (white, green, oolong, black, pu’erh) and seeing if you can spot the differences there first. Then you can narrow it down to tasting the more subtle differences between say, a bai hao yin zhen, and bai mu dan (both white teas).

      And don’t worry, haha, you don’t have to lick rocks… yet. 😉

  • Reply
    Damiano
    April 14, 2018 at 4:15 pm

    Lucky me then! 🙂
    Thank you for your advice Mel, I will follow them for sure!
    I really enjoy your blog, each post is always rich with information. Hope to read you soon in a new post!

    • Reply
      Mel Hattie
      April 14, 2018 at 4:40 pm

      Thanks Damiano! Hope you have a great weekend.

  • Reply
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