From the sound of a whistling kettle to the feeling of a warm cup in the hands, tea stimulates all of the senses. The unique appeal of tea's taste has made it one of the world's most popular beverages (second only to water). Almost nothing compares to the joy of relaxing with a favorite cup of tea. Yet, it is often through the evaluative tasting of new and unfamiliar varieties that tea can be truly appreciated.
One of the most important factors to consider is the water source. Quality water provides the foundation for tea. Sources that are chlorinated, have high concentrations of minerals, or contain impurities can overpower the more delicate flavors of a tea. Equally detrimental to flavor is water that is too soft, which can leave a tea flat and uninteresting. Spring water with a natural balance of minerals is best.
Proper water temperature is important as well. Black teas are usually best when steeped with water that has been brought to a rolling boil. Use cooler water that is around 180 degrees for more delicate teas such as oolongs, greens, and whites. Even lower temperatures are recommended for some of the finest Japanese green teas. When comparing similar types of tea, it is important to use water of the same temperature to ensure comparable steeping conditions.
To further assist in this comparison, use a consistent measurement of tea leaves. Professional tasters use a scale to consistently weigh out the same portion of tea for each sample. Small tea tasting cups of uniform size are used to ensure that the same amount of water is used for steeping each sample. For the individual, there are a number of inexpensive scales on the market today. Due to widely varying leaf styles, reliance on volumetric measurements will often lead to less consistent results compared with weight measurements of tea leaves. Small two-cup teapots can be used in place of professional tasting cups.
Those with access to a gram scale can use 2.25 grams of tea for each 6 ounces of water for consistent evaluation. An ordinary balance can be used successfully by measuring one dime's weight for each 6 ounces of water! A uniform tea scoop (such as a simple measuring teaspoon) is suitable for general evaluation of most tea, as long as one compensates for the wide variance of tea leaf styles.
The time a tea is allowed to infuse is also crucial. Attempting to judge when a tea is "done" simply by eyeing the color of the liquor is nearly impossible and will give unpredictable results. Professional tasters usually evaluate a tea by steeping samples for the same length of time regardless of the type of tea or leaf style. This can yield a cup that is not optimal for pure enjoyment, but it provides a wealth of information to the trained palate. Just as a wine expert can evaluate the potential of a great wine from a barrel sample, the tea expert can judge a tea that has not been steeped to perfection.
Begin tasting a new tea by steeping it with the time usually used for a tea of similar leaf style and type. This will provide a basis for comparison and for future experimentation with the tea. Start evaluating as soon as the steeping is complete. Look at the color of the liquor, the dry leaves, and the infused leaves. Swirl the tea in a cup to agitate the volatile compounds and immediately take a deep breath of air in through the nose, noting the character of the aroma. Take a small amount of tea in a cup or large spoon, and sip it vigorously to spread the liquid across all of the taste buds and to enliven the aroma. Feel the texture and body of the tea, and spit into a waste jar or basin, if desired.
First impressions and initial thoughts of a tea are important. Think of descriptive words to express the taste. Does the tea feel thick and rich or thin and delicate? Are there any distinguishing flavors in this tea? What is the aftertaste like? Many people find that keeping notes in a journal or with the catalog description is the best way to record their thoughts and compare teas from different tasting sessions. If the tea is good, but the flavor or balance isn't quite right, try steeping it for a different length of time, using more or less tea. If customary, add a bit of milk, sugar, honey, or lemon to the tea, but do so only after the first evaluation of the liquor to avoid covering the subtleties of the pure flavor.
Remember that because taste is personal, each individual will have different reactions to the same tea. With tea tasting, the learning process is never complete. Experience and continual experimentation are some of the best ways to develop a better understanding of the amazing world of tea. The Chinese tea sage Lu Yu once observed that tea's "goodness is a decision for the mouth to make."
In our next issue of the Upton Tea Quarterly, we will discuss some of the recent scientific findings concerning taste and how they are related to tea.
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the finest teas available. We purchase teas from reputable brokers and estates worldwide, dealing only with
sources who are capable of providing top quality teas. We sell directly to the consumer, thus ensuring the
freshest product and fairest pricing."