Tea tasting is at its elemental level nothing more than the act of consciously assessing a tea’s quality, or if one is doing a blind tasting it’s identity as well. It is most important to state here that tea tasting is in no way to be thought of as the ever enjoyable act of drinking tea. Here we are concerned only with the actions and activities involved in consciously cataloging the sensory impressions that tea can stimulate.
Almost all of what is commonly called the sense of taste is actually the sense of smell. This can be easily experienced by holding the nose so that you cannot breath through it and then consuming any flavorful food or drink. The same condition often occurs when you have a bad "Head Cold" and you claim to have no appetite because food does not "taste" good anymore. What then, tastes the tea that we drink?
Let us begin with the mouth whose tasting capacity is very limited. Our tactile sense can register temperature, viscosity [often described as smoothness], and the pungent astringency that are induced by the tannin compounds in the tea reacting with certain cells in the mouth and creating a dry sensation in the mouth. It is this pungent astringency that is found to some degree in all teas that come from the Camellia sinensis plant. It is thus possible to know that you are tasting real tea blindfolded as only real tea offers up that pungent astringency in the mouth. Herbal’s and fruit teas do not possess this quality.
In the case of the tongue we also find a limited tasting capacity as it relates to tasting tea flavors. The tongue has taste receptors called taste buds that can discriminate only four separate or primary tastes. These are sweetness, saltiness, sour or acidity, and bitterness. The location of these taste buds has a very logical order. At the front of the tongue we find the taste buds particularly sensitive to sweetness and on the front edges of the tongue we find a sensitivity to saltiness. Farther back on the sides of the tongue we find taste buds with a sensitivity to sour or acidity and at the back of the tongue we find a particular sensitivity to bitterness. It is important here to note that the taste bud bitterness is a quinine bitterness and not the misnomer bitterness of over brewed tea that is actually a very harsh astringency caused by excessive amounts of tannin compounds in a tea. The logical placement of these taste buds reflects a time past when mouth was the last protection against poison or harmful foods. If food or drink in nature were sweet it was generally all right to consume. If, however, it were sour or tart this was cause for question and the possibility of not swallowing it. Were the food or drink to get past the sweet, salt, and sour or acid taste buds and trigger the bitter taste buds then the mouth would gag as a last defense to prevent the body from ingesting anything that might be harmful to it. Because the body needs a certain amount of salt, the salt taste buds located towards the front of the tongue are in a position to taste salt early like sweetness and accept it into the body as a good and needed food. All of this is to say that tongue in no way tastes tea as there is no sweetness, salt, sour or bitterness in any brewed real tea.
This being the case, how and where do we taste the teas we drink? The answer is retronasally and the location is the olfactory bulb located at the back of the nasal cavity. Our brain senses what we call taste [which is actually aroma or flavor] in the olfactory bulb. This organ is composed of thousands of receptors each of which are sensitive to a particular aroma or group of aromas. These receptors are reached by the nostrils and also by a passage at the back of the mouth called the retronasal passage. It is here that the depth and character of choice rare teas are tasted. These receptors are extremely acute in their ability to recognize thousands of different aromas. Therefore, concentrations of aromas in as small as one part in ten thousand can be sensed, recognized, and remembered by the average person. This is why a single sip of a particular tea can transport us immediately to a remembered scene of many years ago. As regards tea, what is commonly called taste is really the sense of smell and flavor is really aroma.
The word flavor is often used to describe all the measurements sensed by the tongue and the mouth. In the case of tea, however, the essential character of the drink is found in its aroma which when drunk as a hot liquid is partially vaporized and sensed by the olfactory bulb via the retronasal passage and by exhaling through the nose.
There are two ways to accentuate the olfactory sensation of tasting tea. The first way is acceptable for use in public when you want to seriously explore a tea. First take into your lungs some extra air, enough to allow you to exhale without feeling out of breath. Then keeping you nose closed take a good sip of the tea when it is cool enough to hold comfortably in your mouth. When the tea is in your mouth keep your mouth closed until the end of the exercise. With the tea in your mouth experience the mouth of the tea, the astringency and the tactile feel of the tea in your mouth. Now with your mouth and nose still closed swallow the tea and with the extra air in your lungs slowly and with concentration exhale through your nose and experience the aroma and character of the tea. It is sometimes helpful to tip your head back and close your eyes in order to concentrate more fully on the tea.
The second way is difficult to do in public but offers a more intense experience. When the tea is cool enough to take into you mouth take a teaspoon and with the spoon about three quarters full of tea raise it to your lips and slurp it into your mouth as fast and as hard as you can. What you are trying to do is to send the tea at about thirity miles per hour against the back of your mouth and vaporize it. Immediately close you mouth and keep it closed for the duration of the exercise. Then exhale through your nose which until now you have kept closed. As you exhale concentrate on the tea and the olfactory experience that you are having. Once you have experienced the tea you can then swallow the tea. When tasting teas it is best to taste them at as hot a temperature as your mouth can tolerate. This is allow for the vaporization of as many of the flavor compounds as possible and to promote the azeotropic mixture of these many flavor compounds being passed by the olfactory bulb in order to expose the full flavor of the tea.
The reason for tasting teas in these ways is to amplify their flavor characteristics so that the taster can form a lasting memory print of that particular tea or type of tea so as to be able to compare the next teas of that type when they next have the opportunity to taste them. All teas should by tasted in these ways in order to form that base memory print that is so necessary to be able to judge the next teas that you taste. All grades of teas can and should be tasted in this manner, but it will quickly become apparent that the better the tea the greater the olfactory experience. This is work and requires concentration. It is not the enjoyable drinking of tea with friends or in a quite personal moment. The benefit to the taster is to build a data base in the brain that allows them to be their own guide through the wonderful world of tea. Whatever effort is put into tea will be returned by the tea many times over in enjoyment and a tranquillity that are truly beyond price to the serious tea drinker. Work hard at your tasting and enjoy!
© 1999 Todd & Holland Tea Merchants Ltd.