Welcome back to Tea for Everyone, an occasional series about digging seriously into the wonderful world of tea, minus the tall tales and pretension. If you're just joining in, take a look at our introduction to getting into tea, a foray into tea styles around the world, and this handy guide to shopping for the best tea. Today: How to hone your tea-tasting palate to make the most of your cup.
Big obsessions start out small. One day you're looking for something to cook for dinner, and the next thing you know you're making 30-hour burgers and building your own dry-aging rig. You don't know you've fallen off the deep end until it's too late.
Tea people have a bad obsession problem. There's all kinds of ways to drill down into what you're drinking: the leaf style and cultivar, the way it's processed, what mountain it's from, how the leaves were picked, what time of day they were picked...and that's before you even think about teaware or how to brew your leaves.
It's enough to scare away anyone who's tea-curious, especially since there's not much accessible writing in English to guide us along. Which is why when people say they're interested in learning more about tea, I tell them to start simple. Some leaves and a kettle and a cup—that's all you need.
Okay, there's something else: time. Do you remember how, when you first started drinking beer or wine, it all tasted more or less the same? Eventually you figured out which beers were more or less bitter, or what lies beyond those fruity grape flavors. And after a while you picked out a few styles that you really enjoyed, and maybe you started exploring those in more detail, and suddenly you've cleared out the extra closet to store the ten-gallon jug of beer you're brewing...
Tea's just the same. Developing your palate for it—picking up on its nuances and figuring out what you like and what you don't—takes time. It also pays to have some guidance.
Tea Time With Yoda
That's why I reached out to Ana Dane, a partner at In Pursuit of Tea, which 16 years ago became one of the first companies to successfully expose Americans to the depths of fine tea. One of Dane's chief occupations there is educating wholesale clients—restaurants and cafes—about the teas they serve. Those customers are smart people with highly developed palates for food and drink, but they may not necessarily know how to tell their dancong from their da hong pao.
I was curious what kind of insight she gives when hosting tastings day in and day out. Her response: "I try to be quiet because I think that's more helpful to people. It's so personal, the connections they make to tea."
As a new tea drinker, hearing that may make you feel like Luke when Yoda tells him that he can't show someone how to use the force. What's the point of talking to an expert if they're not going to drop some expert knowledge on you?
Dane explains: "It's easy for people to get overwhelmed and then they shut down. I try not to give too many tasting notes before someone opens their mouth and tells me what they think. I may think the stone fruit notes in a phoenix oolong are pretty obvious, but I also want to hear about what they're tasting."
This approach reminds everyone—the drinker and the educator—that there's no one "right" way to brew and taste tea. A lot of tea newcomers are so intimidated by the language and equipment that they fear getting something wrong, or that if they don't detect the same flavors as the tasting notes printed on a bag, they're somehow screwing things up.
Sure, there are some ways to screw things up, but what's important is to develop your own internal register of tastes, textures, and impressions, ways of thinking about tea that make the most sense for you. The more you taste, the more you'll build up that conceptual vocabulary, and the more you'll be able to discern about a tea's subtleties. Beer, wine, and coffee often have big, in-your-face tastes and aromas. Tea is a little more quiet.
Theresa Wong, the owner of T Shop in New York, doesn't have a vocabulary to talk about tea. She has two. "I first learned about tea in Chinese, and now a lot of my English tea vocabulary is from discussing tea with customers." Wong doesn't trade much in tasting notes; she prefers intuitive concepts, describing teas as "opulent" or "charming," and she pays special attention to how a tea makes us feel—"grounding" versus "elevating," for instance.
When you think about what makes a tea memorable, consider that one person's "asparagus" is another's "freshly cut grass." And neither of those terms are particularly helpful for communicating what makes a tea awesome. A good tea, whatever you want that term to mean, is one that makes you feel good. It's inherently personal.
Take Time to Taste
When Dane and Wong host tastings, they do so in peaceful, quiet places. That, to me, is as important as the tea itself. Some say wine's natural place is at a table with a full meal. Tea is best taken alone. Food and other drink have a way of throwing off your tea-tasting palate, and they make it harder to focus on the tea itself.
When I sit down to taste some tea, I cut out as many distractions as I can. An amazing-tasting tea that I brew carelessly at work while stressed and behind on deadline won't taste nearly as amazing. Good tea takes time, especially if you're re-steeping the leaves several times and watching the tea's taste and texture evolve in your cup. It needs a space of its own.
Like many other tea sellers, Dane and Wong do their tastings in the Chinese gong fu style (sometimes romanized as kung fu). It's less about ceremony and more about getting the most out of the tea-drinking experience by brewing a lot of leaves in a little water for a series of short infusions. Upping your leaf-to-water ratio lets the tea stand up and show you everything it has to offer, revealing nuances that might get lost in greater volumes of water. Small servings per steeping force you to focus on what you're tasting. And the tea's flavor will change as you keep brewing; the first couple infusions of a roasted oolong might be light and fragrant, but after steeping seven or eight it's all about a deep, warming sweetness.
Traditionally, gong fu tea is brewed in a porcelain gaiwan or an unglazed clay teapot with a capacity of just a few fluid ounces. The tea, anywhere from a tablespoon to half a pot's worth depending on the variety, brews for just a few seconds, and is then decanted into a pitcher and poured into small tasting cups.
Dane likes this approach because it lets you taste the tea "with all your senses." Beyond the tea itself, "there's the dried leaf, the infused leaf in the cup, and there's the aroma that the gaiwan captures so well." All of this input feeds into the tea-tasting experience, forcing you to focus on everything the tea is telling you.
A good gaiwan doesn't cost much, and its flared top and squat sides invite taking a whiff more than a mug does. I've also found that porcelain helps to carry aromas your nose better than heavier ceramics. But you don't need a gaiwan to brew tea this way. A teacup with a mesh filter basket gets the job done well enough.
What to Look for When Tasting Tea
With all that in mind, here's what I do when I sit down to taste a tea.
Check out the leaves. Some tea leaves are rolled up into little balls, others are shaped like feathers, and others are twisted into long, elegant curls. This is what Eater's restaurant editor Bill Addison, a tea buddy of mine, describes as the "visual poetry" of a tea. Once you've given the leaves a good look, take a whiff. Most quality teas have an inviting, intriguing fragrance before any water enters the picture. Take note of what you smell, because the aroma may change quite a bit once the tea starts to steep. And oh, what the hell, nibble on a dry leaf too and see how it is.
Smell the first brew. Before you taste your brewed tea, bring your nose up close and sniff again. How has the aroma changed? Is it deeper or brighter than you expected? Some teas smell as sweet as freshly baked muffins while others are savory to the point of soupiness. Now go back to the steeped leaves and give them another whiff. They may be even more fragrant now. If you're brewing with a gaiwan, give the lid a sniff as well; you might find a totally different aroma from either the strained leaves or the tea in your cup!
Take a taste. Some teas electrify the tip of your tongue while others glide across it. Is the tea subtle, like a piece of raw tuna, or as commanding as a fatty burger? Note how weighty or light a tea feels as you sip. Then pay attention to where it "activates" in your mouth and what it does there. Some teas like to linger and develop while others slip away and tease you with hints of flavors.
Think about the tea's structure. Chinese greens tend to be bright, perhaps even juicy, with crisp, snappy flavors and a prolonged gentle sweetness. Tasting them is often a smooth, easy-going experience. Japanese greens might strike you as more precise, with sweetness giving way to savory broth flavors followed by astringent tannin, all in distinct stages.
Breathe out the finish. Once you've finished your cup, slowly breathe out across your tongue. The tea's finish may be cooling, sweet, or warm, and with a quality tea it'll linger for a while. You may look silly, sitting there tasting the air, but a tea's finish matters just as much as its taste. And it goes to show that there's a lot more to tea than the first flavor that hits your tongue.
Do it again. Now that you've finished your cup, make more tea with the same leaves. Green, white, and black teas can be resteeped two to four times; oolongs and pu-erhs can go up to eight, 12, or 20 infusions. Some flavors and aromas may only come to the fore during later steepings, and the tea's texture, astringency, and finish are all subject to change.
After all this, you might find you just don't like this particular tea. But the experience is still a valuable one. Like making a perfect omelet, tasting tea takes practice. Eventually you'll notice what registers with you and what's less important.
Drinking tea alone can make for an almost meditative experience, but I get the most out of tea when I drink it with others. Dane considers it the difference between "a classroom context and reading a syllabus on your own. It's all about the discussion that comes after."
Tea is made to be shared, both as a means of social bonding and to enhance everyone's individual appreciation of what they're drinking. You might notice something in a tea that I totally missed. "A lot of times we associate a tea with our past experiences," Wong says, "but we don't get a chance to see that until we discuss it."
If your friends aren't interested in spending a few hours blissing out on some tea with you, hit up your local tea shop and sit down for a tasting with the staff, who should be more than willing to answer any questions you have and to help guide you toward teas that are right for you. If you don't have one of those, the internet is full of communities, forums, and enthusiastic commentators to visit. You'll find tea people are a friendly, sharing lot. And they're always thirsty.