I mentioned yesterday that gaiwans were great for tasting tea. Today, I want to go a bit more in-depth about how to do tea tastings, which are absolutely necessary if you want to be your very own tea guru. To get to know the tea, you want to use as many senses in the tasting as possible. Though I try not to discriminate against bagged tea, you should use loose leaf for these types of tastings. Finally, you may want to take notes during a tasting. There’s no way you’ll be able to remember all of the subtle details just by memory.
Step one: Dry leaf analysis.
There are three components to this step, but I would only say that two are mandatory, with the third being if you want to appreciate the tea in every way possible. First of all, you should smell the tea. It sounds weird, but the best way to smell tea is like a dog sniffs. Just take three sharp inhales through your nose, note what it smells like, then smell again. You don’t want to smell too much because you’ll eventually become desensitized to whatever it is you’re smelling. Take notes and move on. After you have warmed your gaiwan (or other tasting vessel) and drained the water, shake it up and down a few times and smell again. The heat from the gaiwan will warm the leaves and give it a stronger smell.
Second of all, you should take notes on what the tea looks like in its dry leaf form. From shape and size to colour and sheen. Though it’s not a foolproof indicator, visual cues allow workers to grade teas. When you learn more about it, you’ll be able to tell what teas are what grades, just by looking at them, and that skill will help you buy good tea.
The optional step is feeling the dry leaf. I’m not certain what this is supposed to accomplish, but it is cool at any rate. It is interesting to note that some teas feel waxy, others feel rough, things like that. If it sounds appealing to you, then by all means go for it. It adds another dimension to tea appreciation. But it’s not a mandatory step for tea tasting.
Step two: Wet leaf analysis
After you steep and strain your tea, set aside the liquor and dive right into the wet leaves. Wet leaves are where the strongest smells come from. Sniff and note. Also, be sure to note the wet leaves’ visual appearance. Sometimes they look like spinach. Sometimes they look like snow peas. It’s super trippy.
Step three: Liquor time
Give the tea liquor a look. Note the colour, note how shiny it is, note how see-through it is. Note everything!
After that it’s onto tasting. Before you taste though, give the liquor one more sniff. The previous smells you’ve given will give a satisfactory profile of the scent, which will finish off when you do the final one. You will want to drink the tea like an aerosol can sprays. Lots and lots of air. It will cover all of your taste buds which will give you a more complete flavour profile. You seriously want a lot of air. After doing that once or twice, drink it normally, swish it around. Note how heavy it feels in your mouth. Note how viscous it feels. Note which flavours come in at what times. After you swallow, note what the aftertaste is like.
Some final notes:
When you are doing tastings in a group, keep your findings separate until after you’ve developed your own tastes in the tea. The moment I tell you that I taste artichoke, guess what? That’s all you’re going to taste. That being said, tasting in a group can help a lot with developing your palate. Say I can’t put my finger on a particular taste. Chances are, somebody in the group can.
Tasting is very much subjective; however, you get a lot better at descriptors the more you do tastes. When I first started doing them, all I, or anybody in the class would say is “uh… it tastes like wood, but also sort of like grass…?” Don’t get discouraged. Just enjoy the tea. The more tastes you identify, the better you’ll be at tastings. In essence, that’s all a good palate is. Practice.
Finally, building up your tasting vocabulary is a great way to identify tastes that you wouldn’t notice normally. Here’s a good start.