Today we explore the basics of tasting tea. While “cupping” tea is an essential tool used by tea professionals to evaluate the relative merits of specific teas, it can also be an enjoyable activity for the casual or serious tea drinker. Here is a simple ritual that you can use anytime to enhance your sensory appreciation of tea. It is important to keep in mind that tasting tea isn’t solely about taste; it involves all the senses: sight, smell, taste and touch.
Choose the tea. If you taste a group of teas, we recommend that you sample no more than 3 teas at a time to avoid overloading the palate. Feel free to choose similar teas (i.e. all green teas) or teas of different types. If you choose the latter, it’s a good idea to taste the teas in order of intensity (i.e. white, green, oolong, black).
Set up your tools. You will need a small ceramic teapot (we recommend a Chinese Gaiwan) that holds about 6-8 ounces, a tasting cup and a small bowl to contain the dry leaf. Place a couple tablespoons of loose tea in the bowl.
Prepare the tea. Place approximately 3 grams of leaf (about 1 teaspoon for small dense leaves and 1 tablespoon for large bulkier leaves) into the teapot and pour in water of the appropriate temperature. Steep for the desired time and then strain the liquor into the tasting cup. Retain the infused leaves in the teapot.
Here are several areas to evaluate:
Dry Leaf Appearance. Examine the dry leaf. High-quality tea will have a leaf shape that is relatively uniform in size and shape. Notice the style of the leaf: flat, needle-shaped, flower-like, tightly twisted, curly, tightly rolled, etc. Notice the color of the leaf. It should be glossy, not dull. Examine the presence of tips, or leaf buds, in the tea. High quality Chinese teas will have leaves as well as buds. Excessive stalk and stem, as well as incomplete leaves, are not as desirable.
Cup Aroma. Smell the aroma by inhaling it deeply two or three times. A good-quality tea should have a full, clean aroma without any stale or rancid smell. Note the aroma characteristics – is it floral, fruity, woodsy, earthy, fresh? Generally, oolong and black teas will have more aroma than green teas, due to their longer oxidation.
Cup Color. The color of the brewed tea will vary depending on the type of tea, but it should be clear and bright.
Flavor. To experience the full taste of the tea, you will want to slurp it loudly. This ensures that the tea is sprayed over the entire tongue and into the back of the mouth. Having slurped the tea, swish it around in your mouth. Swallow and take note of the taste and the texture. Good tea should have a smooth, fresh taste that lingers on the palate. Desirable flavors will depend on the type of tea being tasted. You may note the marine and fresh grass taste of Japanese Sencha, the honey and ripe peach flavor of Bai Hao Oolong, or roasted vegetable notes of Chinese Dragon Well.
Wet Leaf Appearance. Pick up some of the infused leaves from the teapot and put them on a clean plate. Note the size, color and texture of the leaves. An examination of the wet leaf can tell a lot about how and when the leaf was picked, as well as how carefully it was processed. Taking oolong tea as an example, a complete, whole leaf indicates a handpicked tea while a shredded or torn leaf may indicate a machine-picked leaf.
So, that’s it! Try to keep a written record of all your tasting experiences. Our Origami Tea Journal is a lovely way to capture your tea impressions . And remember that the more teas you taste and the more you focus all your senses on the tasting experience, the better you will become at appreciating all that a tea can offer.