There are a variety of approaches to tea tasting, but when it comes to professional tea tasting, there is a pretty well-defined process for going about it, in order to consistently evaluate the sensory aspects of tea, including flavor, aroma, and color.
PROFESSIONAL TEA TASTING
For tea industry professionals, it’s important to have a consistent method of tasting tea in order to determine tea quality, compare batches or tea types, choose suppliers, and to be able to correctly market the tea to customers. Products from the Camellia sinensis plant can have vastly different flavors, appearances and qualities due to terroir (growing conditions, weather, location, etc), processing method, leaf grade (broken/whole leaf), tea plant variety, and other factors.
Tea tasting may be used to ensure consistency of the same tea from batch-to-batch, or to choose between multiple growers and grades on a tea based on the quality and flavor profile desired. For example, if a tea retailer has been buying Assam from one tea grower for years and suddenly needs to switch to another grower, they may taste new Assam samples from a variety of suppliers, to determine which one has a flavor profile that best matches their normal supply. Many tea businesses that buy different types of teas will conduct tastings or “cuppings” whenever they receive new batches or samples of new teas.
When tasting tea professionally, certain tools are used and a specific process is followed to achieve consistent results. Generally, a porcelain or ceramic “cupping set” is used – this includes a lidded cup and a bowl, and a tasting spoon. The cup generally is 4-6oz and may have some slits on one side of the rim for infused tea to flow through. It is designed to capture the aromas of the infusion, and to display the infused leaves. The bowl is ideal for observing the color of the tea infusion. See how the general process works below.
HOW THE PROS TASTE TEA
What You'll Need
- Brewing vessel: Ideally a cupping set including a lidded cup and bowl, and a tasting spoon. Ideally white (to observe color), and ideally porcelain or ceramic
- Water (ideally filtered or spring)
- Method to heat water to a particular temperature
- INSPECT Inspect the dry leaf – note if there are stems, twigs, broken leaf pieces, or if the leaves are uniform in size. Note leaf style (twisted, rolled, flat, curled) and aroma of the dry leaf
- WEIGH The tea leaves are weighed out and placed into the cup
- POUR Water is heated to the correct temperature and poured into the cup, and the lid is placed onto the cup
- TIME A timer is set for the correct steep time
- DECANT When the time is up, the cup and lid are turned to the side and placed sideways into the bowl, so that only the infused liquid can flow through into the tasting bowl. This is sometimes called “decanting” the tea.
- SMELL When the tea is done straining into the bowl, turn the cup upside down so that the wet leaves are resting on the inside of the lid. You can crack the lid open, put your nose up to it and smell the aromas that have been trapped inside of the cup. Then, flip the lid upside down and rest on the cup so that the leaves are piled on top (see pic below).
- OBSERVE Note the color of the wet leaf, how much the leaf has expanded, if there are many broken leaf pieces or full, intact leaves. For rolled oolongs, for example, the leaf will generally unfurl a lot and you may be able to see groups of two leaves and a bud, still connected together. Also, observe the color of the infusion (known as the “liquor”) in the bowl. The liquor color can give insight into particular characteristics of the tea, such as the concentration of organic compounds in that particular leaf, and even its growing elevation (high-grown Ceylon teas have bright gold/red colors due to higher concentration of theaflavins, while Assam has more brown/black colors due to more thearubigins – these are types of tannins).
- TASTE A tea taster will then take a large spoon and slurp the liquid. The noisier and quicker the slurp, the better, because the force ensures the tea and oxygen are moved to the back of the tongue and pass over all the major taste receptors, creating a better sense of the tea’s flavor profile and mouthfeel. If the tea taster is going to be tasting several teas that day, he or she might spit out one tea before trying the next.
In terms of the amount of tea to be used, the water temperature, and steep time, this all depends on the type of tea and the tasting style. It is common for extra leaf to be used, compared to what is normally recommended for everyday brewing (professional tasters may use 2.5-4g leaf for 4-6oz water). Some professional tea tasters will use boiling water and steep all teas at 5 or 6 minutes. This ensures that all of the flavor notes come out, even if it means the tea will become bitter and over-steeped, but this helps the trained taster be able to identify all the positive and negative characteristics of the tea. Tea tasters also may brew the tea according to the recommendations of the producer – they just need to ensure consistency.
Like wine tasting, there are so many different flavor nuances you can pick up in different teas. Use your best judgment and record what the tea reminds you of - it will come easily after you’ve been tasting teas for a while. There are also many resources available online, such as flavor wheels like this one here.