It took me a while to really 'get' tea, and if I'm honest, I still struggle to describe certain tastes and flavours. The good news is that there are very reliable techniques that help you improve your tea tasting experience, ones that I use all the time to evaluate the teas we buy and sell at Min River Tea. Here's my top tips.
1. Take your time
I can't stress this one enough - it starts with turning off your computer, blocking out 5 or 10 minutes, and really concentrating on the tea for a few moments. The traditional tea ceremony in Japan can sometimes take hours, and approaches a form of meditation; you don't need to go that far, but because tea is naturally light in flavour, it benefits from a little bit of quiet time to pick out the tastes that develop over each brew.
2. Use the same equipment each time
When I know I need to taste something seriously, there's a trusty white gong fu tea set that I use each time. It's not expensive, and it helps immensely. Each time I know I'm using the same amount of water, the right amount of tea leaves, and the brewing times can be controlled more easily (flagrant plug - we sell a range of excellent tea and glassware here!). I often use a digital scale to measure the tea, but I don't use a stopwatch or thermometer to control time and water temperature - approximately right is enough.
3. Write notes
I use my iPhone to take notes (using the excellent Simplenote for Mac), but a book, notepad or any other tool will be fine too. Write about any impressions you have - the colour of the leaves, the smell, whether it's easy to brew, if you think you messed up the brew or steeped it too long. You can't get it wrong, and it will help immensely to remember what you tasted.
4. Brew side-by-side
I often brew teas side-by-side and compare. It could be a single type of tea with different price points, from different farms or using slightly different production methods; sometimes it's useful to compare last years harvest with this years, just to notice any differences in the leaves. I find that side-by-side brewing actually helps me understand more about what each tea should be like, because it makes the differences so much more obvious than brewing single teas weeks apart.
5. Trust your nose
My last tip, and probably a controversial one, is this - taste really isn't that important.
The problem is, a lot of our impressions about tasting are borrowed from the wine world. We imagine big nosed snobs waxing lyrical about some obscure African berry aroma they picked out from deep within the brew, and it's quite scary. In reality, it just isn't like that.
Pay attention to the colour and shape/condition of the leaves (both before and after brewing), the "mouth-feel" (口感, kou gan) or texture, and whether the character changes over each brew. Think also about how the liquor reacts in different parts of your mouth - the front, back and sides, and also in the nose. Is it an easy tea to brew, or does it easily become bitter. Is it a simple tea with just one taste, or is it complex? Are the leaves beautiful? Do they lose their colour? Does the production method give any hints as to why the leaves look the way they do?
I hope that helps a little bit to improve your tea tasting - please leave a comment telling us how you taste your teas!
This was written by Chris West
Tea for me is all about that "aha" moment when you try a truly great tea for the first time. I live in Fuzhou, China and enjoy anything that helps me appreciate Chinese culture more (currently tea, martial arts and history books!). Contact me on email@example.com