Recently a buddy of mine was telling me about his experience developing his wine palate at a wine tasting class. He told me in the beginning he didn’t even get to drink wine. Instead, class started with tasting food items that embody flavors the students might encounter when drinking wine.
In place of wine, the teacher had the students tasting raw lemon, straight vinegar, and whole grapes. It might seem strange—my friend signed up for a wine tasting class, after all. He could eat raw lemon and make sour faces at home for free!
This Is Your Brain On Tea
The point of this exercise of course was to train the tongue and the brain to memorize these pure flavors before being asked to pull them out of a beverage as complex as wine.
Any hobbyist serious about learning more about tea might it as a goal to achieve similar level of fluency in tea as the avid wine drinker, which means the tea drinker’s tongue has to be trained in a similar fashion.
Now you may be thinking you need to go outside and start chewing some grass. Well, you can if you want but I’m here to tell you there’s a better tool for getting started and that tool is called the flavor wheel.
Building Your Flavor Vocabulary
The beauty of the flavor wheel is it does all the thinking for the drinker by providing a variety of flavor words they can use to describe what they are drinking.
One drawback of the flavor wheel is that taste is frequently a subjective thing. In the course of drinking tea you may encounter a flavor or aroma that is not present on the wheel. That’s fine; the flavor wheel is meant as a reference only and not an exhaustive list of everything you’re going to taste.
That said, equipped with only the flavor wheel and some introspection, a novice tea drinker should be able to understand enough about any tea they’re drinking to enjoy that tea in a brand new way (provided it’s quality tea, but more on that later).
To get a better idea of how to apply the flavor wheel to your tea tasting experience, let’s look at some of the ways this vocabulary manifests in the wild.
One of the best places to go to see examples of this vocabulary on display is in the reviews and descriptions of tea sold online. Here’s an example from Five Mountains Tea, a teashop based in San Francisco:
Look at some of the adjectives used to describe the flavor of these teas: amaretto (sweet almond), plum, and wild honey; herbaceous, sweet, and grassy.
Now look at the flavor wheel from the International Tea Masters Association and you’ll see almost all of these words on there (plum being the exception).
Let’s look at another example from Amazon:
Very good quality! Bright colorful dense green powder with a wonderful sweet green tea taste. Made traditionally the brew comes out very sweet and pleasantly vegetal and grassy. No bitter or off tastes, just a sweet pure green tea flavor. You can tell it was made from a quality leaf. I was very surprised and am in love with it! Worth the money and the quality is there. It is a good balance of value and quality.
Here the reviewer of this Japanese matcha (powdered green tea) uses words like sweet, vegetal, and grassy.
This kind of flavor vocabulary is prevalent not only in the sale of tea, but also the discussion of tea. Let’s look at one more example from the tea community on reddit (emphasis mine):
So far I’m really loving this [shou pu’er tea]. Nice thick mouthfeel. Taste of dark chocolate, plum, medium roasted coffee, sweet molasses and hints of cedar in aftertaste. None of the flavors I’m getting seem weird or off. If brewed a little stronger, this might be a good tea for a coffee lover who says “tea has no flavor.
Pretty astonishing array of flavors from hot water poured over some aged and fermented leaves.
You now have enough information to be a more informed tea drinker. There’s only one requirement left to satisfy–learning how to drink thoughtfully.
Learning a new skill takes a period of focused learning and practice. Developing your palate for tea is no exception. What this means in practice is taking time to think about what you’re experiencing while you’re drinking tea.
Here are a couple of ways you might go about doing that:
When you take a drink, hold the tea in your mouth for a moment (assuming it’s not too hot). Swish it around. Maybe suck in some air. Feel the texture of the liquid. Give your brain time to parse through the massive info dump your nose and tongue have just unleashed.
Keep a tea journal. It doesn’t have to be a “journal” in the literal sense, just a place where you can keep some notes. Use your smart phone, Evernote, a Word document, a spiral notebook, whatever. If you maintain your journal, not only will it help you keep things straight in the short-term, it will also become a valuable resource for remembering what you liked and where you got it from in the future.
Experiment. Try different temperatures (steaming water versus a rolling boil), longer or shorter steep times, more or less leaves, multiple steeps with the same leaves. All of these will produce different results. If you’re keeping a tea journal, make sure you write all of this down for later!
On Tea Quality
Drinking quality tea matters. If you’ve got the inclination to get serious about tea, go for loose leaf. You’re not going to get the same amount of depth out of many bagged teas from big name brands as you will out of the real stuff. Here’s a great guide for where to get tea online. It’s really not that much more than bagged tea in terms of price, and though you may get less in terms of quantity, you’ll more than make up for it in quality.
If you’re new to the realm of loose leaf tea, this guide may be overwhelming. It’s okay, just take it slow. Pick one type of tea you like (eg. black, green, oolong) on the lower end price-wise and work your way up from there.
Tea can seem serious, but ultimately what matters is you enjoy it the way you like it. I’ll be the first to admit I don’t make every cup of tea an event. Sometimes I just want a no-frills glass of the good stuff without any of the fanfare and frippery. Other times I want to be serious and focused on what I’m doing. Do what makes you feel the best at the time.
Let’s get drinking!