Like savouring a fine wine, tasting premium tea is similar. Tea masters around the world use standardised cupping procedures where measurements determine the amount of leaf, the temperature of water, and infusion time. There is also a time-honoured set of rules to assess the flavour of tea and this can differ across cultures and include slurping, sipping, swallowing, or spitting. The most frequently used is the “slurp-and-sip” method and this involved slurping tea from a spoon and spitting the tea rather than swallowing. Recently, tea experts have suggested that swallowing is an important part of the process to assess the flavour of tea and the “slurp-and-swallow” method is now being adopted. This is because the key is the movement of tea within the oral cavity to ensure all taste buds become involved including those in the rear of the nasal pharynx, back of tongue and throat. These receptors cannot be reached without swallowing.
Without getting into too much detail, we have listed a few simple steps for you, so that you can develop your tea tasting experience at home, and appreciate the many nuances that quality teas have to offer.
1. Appearance of the Tea Leaves
The appearance of the tea leaves gives you a hint at the quality of the tea. Full leaves tend to be better than broken leaves and a high number of golden tips is also a sign of quality.
Shape - are the leaves full or broken?
Colour - is it just one colour or does it vary? If it varies it may be a blend of two tea types.
Tea Buds - Are there any golden tips or buds?
Texture - Is it crumbly or sticky? A good quality loose tea should be crunchy, indicating that it hasn’t absorbed any moisture from the air around it.
2. Brew the Tea
Brew the teas as per the instructions. Different tea types require varying amounts of tea, brewing temperatures and brewing times. For black tea and herbal teas boiling water is required to extract the components of the leaf to make a flavourful brew. When it comes to the more delicate oriental teas, we require near-to-boiling water because if it is too hot it can scorch the tea leaf and make a really bitter brew. We suggest that you use a white tea cup so that you can assess its appearance easily when brewed.
The colour, physical appearance and clarity of the brew is what we look for here. Using a teacup with a white interior or a clear teacup will help you to observe these characteristics. A darker brew may indicate a fuller flavour, and murkiness or sediment may indicate a lower quality tea (although there are exceptions to this, notably with Japanese green teas).
Looking at the tea leaves will also tell you a lot about the tea itself, especially in the case of rolled oolongs and other shaped teas. A close inspection can tell you if it is made from tea buds only, leaves only, or a specific proportion of buds and leaves. Sometimes, you can see more clearly how broken the leaves are after they have been brewed.
4. Smell the Brew and Leaves
The aroma of a tea is just as important as its flavour. Fully appreciating the aroma of a tea adds a new dimension to tea tasting. Using a narrow cup and closing your eyes as you sniff may help you to smell the brew better.
5. Taste the Tea - Slurp and Sip!
Finally, it’s time to taste the tea! To get the full taste of the tea, slurp it as you would slurp wine in a wine tasting. The goal is to spray a fine mist of tea over the entire palate and even the back of the throat. Once you have slurped the tea, roll it over your tongue in a swishing motion. If you’d like, you can aerate it more by sucking more air into your mouth and through the tea. This activates the flavours more. Once you have tasted the tea you can swallow it.
6. Note the Flavours
There can be many complex layers of flavours- the head note, the body note and the after taste. The head note is the first impression; the body note is overall lasting impression and character; and, the after taste lingers long on the palate and stays with you after the tea has been swallowed.
6. Observe the Mouthfeel
“Mouthfeel” is an important part of the tea tasting process. It’s the connection between taste and smell- it’s what makes us want to taste the tea again.After you have sipped the tea, does it leave your mouth feeling dry, moist or coated? All of these feelings are part of the mouthfeel.
8. Observe the Mental or Physical Effects
Many tea drinkers report that different teas have completely different mental and physical effects on them. Generally speaking, people associate the tea leaf (Green, Black, Oolong and White) with mental clarity, physical energy and a sense of feeling quite calm- but it’s different for everyone. The Byron Bay Tea Company blended organic herbal teas have been designed to have various health benefits- with Detox reported to make people feel clearer in the head, Calming to reduce stress, anxiety and insomnia; Energy to increase mental alertness and energy; and Digest to reduce bloating and flatulence- just to name a few of these reported benefits.