How To Taste Tea
'Tasting tea? I've been doing all my life - why do I need you telling me how to taste my tea?' - we hear you say. Tea tasting is a skill. Learn how to recognise the key flavour notes and identify different tea blends to get the most from your Twinings tea.
Like a good wine, chocolate or coffee, tea is the product of its environment; how the tea is grown and how it is processed. These variables make each tea unique and give it body, character, aroma (and health properties).
Here at Twinings, our professional tea tasters - who blend and craft your favourite cuppa - have spent years building their tasting vocabulary. So, for us mere 'tea drinkers' it is going to take us a while to develop ours.
The following guide is just that; it's designed to help you study your teas taste, flavour and aroma. We hope that, by using this guide, you will be able to tell us what you think of our new teas as you discover them, with you becoming our trusted, valued friends that we can then call on, in the future, during the development process of creating new tea blends before they are fully developed.
Appearance, Aroma, Flavour and Mouth Feel
When we're tasting tea we look for four key features: appearance, aroma, flavour and mouth feel. You will learn about all of these on this tea tasting journey… Interestingly, their roots lie in the Chinese tea ceremony. Understanding the full picture of what is happening around you is one of their key teachings.
1) First Impressions Count
As a tea taster, the first thing you do is inspect the dry tea. Surprisingly, a large proportion of our overall opinion is based on appearance:
Shape - what are the bits of tea like? Small? Large?
Colour - is it all the same colour? Is it jet black? If it's all different colours then it might be a blend.
Texture - is it finely ground like dust? Is it crumbly? Sticky?
Tea Buds - can you see any?
Signs of a Good Loose Tea:
- In Black, White and Green tea: Gold or Bronze flecks - these are the young leaves called tippy.
- It should crunch between your fingers - this means it hasn't absorbed any moisture (or flavour) from the air around it.
2) Making the Perfect Brew…
We've already started to talk about set standards - tea tasters talk about them a lot. They're necessary to make sure that every tasting is consistent. So we'll always use the same.
Standard Approach by Tea Tasters - this is somebody who tastes tea the same way.
Weight of Tea - between 2 and 3 grams in the UK (a heaped teaspoon).
Water - Use what you would normally drink - whether that's from the tap or a bottle.
Crockery - Every tea taster in the world will use the same crockery - but you can just find the purest, whitest crockery you can get your hands on. This will help you to see the colours and depths.
Brew time - that's three and a half minutes. It's the right amount of time for the colour, flavour and goodness to come out.
Its best not to overly squeeze your tea bag because this could release deep rooted tannins and they taste very bitter
3) Now What Does the Infused Tea Look Like?
In the world of tea, we call the infusion 'liquor'. When we're inspecting the liquor, we look for:
Colour - does it leap out at you? We are looking for a bright, jewel-like colour.
Physical Appearance - we are looking for shiny, slightly oily and bright? It's fine to have a little fragments floating around the bottom of the cup
Clarity - Once we've brewed the tea, we look at the wet leaves. For Twinings Whole Leaf Silky pyramids, why not carefully break open the tea bag and take a closer look? What do you see? What can you smell? We're looking for a great colour. And to see that the leaves have become plump and whole again.
By now you're probably dying to try your tea, so let's move onto the taste…
4) How Do We Taste? Here's the Science Bit
When we think of taste, we think of our tongue. But in fact up to 90% of flavour is perceived through smell. Our tongues detect five essential tastes and these give us our initial impression sweet, salty, acidic, bitter, umami (a word from Japanese, meaning 'pleasant savoury taste'). The initial perception of something can sometimes throw you off the taste, so that's why it's important to first take in the aroma.
Our taste buds form part of an intricate system that allows our brain to decide on a taste. The taste buds along with gustatory receptors and the Olfactory gland allow our brain to make a quick decision on whether or not we recognise and like the flavour of what we are about to ingest.
The Olfactory Gland is situated several centimetres behind the back of our eyes and nose. With its fine hairs on its surface it captures molecules of what we are smelling and in some case putting in our mouth (that's why it's important to slurp our tea to mix with the air).
A combination of the neural messages from the tongue, olfactory gland and with some help from the gustatory receptors we are quickly able to build a profile of the tea we are drinking.
Now let's put our olfactory gland to the test…
5) Aroma - Let's Take a Little Sniff
Because we mainly taste through our sense of smell, it's important to deeply consider the aroma. There are two techniques for sniffing, these are:
Deep Inhalations - this is when you hold the brew as close to your nose as possible and take a deep breath.
Dog Action - this is when you take rapid, shallow inhalations through the nose, rather like a panting dog.
Use your taste wheel to help you consider some of the aromas.
At this point you will start to get the first perception of the flavour.
6) How to Taste and Slurp
Here's the fun bit. It's when we actually get to taste the tea. So throwing all table manners out of the window - here's what you do:
Scoop up some of the liquor with your spoon.
Take deep breath (first).
Pucker up like you're about to give someone a kiss, then slurp the liquid up into your mouth from the surface of the spoon. The louder the slurp, the better. You do this to mix oxygen with the liquor as it helps to bring the flavours to life.
Now you need to breath out through your nose (whilst keeping your mouth closed) - this is called retro-olfaction perception. Then swallow the liquor.
Pay special attention to any sensations created on the tongue for example sweetness or savoury. And remember that bitterness is present in the majority of teas because of varying degrees of tannins.
Now that you've mastered the art of slurping, let's move on to inspecting the taste.
7) What's the Flavour Like?
When you're tasting not all aromas and flavours are detectable at the same time. There can be many complex layers of taste for us we will just look for three different notes: head, body and tail. You can use our flavour wheel for this part.
Head notes (First impressions) are the ones that give you the initial impression, and they come thick and fast.
Thinking about this first impression look at the inner ring of your taste wheel and describe what you feel you taste, different people may find different tastes, after a few years of tasting in this way you will find that you start to taste in a standard way, as we discussed before.
Then you feel the body notes (secondary ring). These give you the overall lasting impression and character.
And finally, the tail notes (after taste) are the ones that linger and stay with you after the liquid has passed from your mouth - look at the outer ring. This final stage often indicates the complexity and, in some cases, the quality.
Have a go at describing the flavour using your taste wheel. Here's an example of how it might sound: "A spicy head, a nutty body and a hazelnut tail".
8. How Does It Feel?
It's funny to talk about mouth feel, but it's important as it indicates strength.
Again, we can use the taste wheel for this but it's often better to use what feels right.
Mouth feel is all about the sensations you feel in your mouth when you taste tea. And of course, different teas trigger different sensations.
Some are smooth and round, some are drying and bite into the jaw - but all of them help us to decide if the tea feels right.
Often this is the connection between taste and smell - it's what makes us want to taste the tea again.