There are many levels of enjoyment that one can obtain from tea. You can find satisfaction in its warmth on a cold day or be refreshed by a cool cup on a hot day. Tea can give you a good boost of energy on sluggish mornings, or help you break through the midday lull. Tea can lead you to those tranquil moments, elevate your mood, or help you unwind. Then there is Zen and the Tao, the cultural and spiritual facets of tea ripe with wisdom, stories and parables. Heck, sometimes tea is also nothing more than something to wash down your dim sum or sushi. However, today I want to talk about appreciating tea through the palette.
To appreciate your pallet for tea, you must rely on the whole of your senses. Of course taste and smell are the major components of appreciating the nuances of a particular tea, but all the senses play a part in the final “taste” of a tea. We give a visual assessment of the tea liquor as well as the leaves themselves. How a tea makes you feel also plays a big part in evaluating the quality of a new tea. Hearing plays the least critical role, but it still has its influences. Are you listening to music? Is it silent or noisy where you are? However subtle, all of the senses play their part, and combining them leads to a complex overall impression. With all of this in mind, here are four basic, yet ultimately complex, ways of a developing your tea palette.
The first criteria I like to evaluate is the visual appearance of the dry leaf. How intact is it, are the leaves large, small, buds, etc. How have they been processed? Just by looking at a tea one can tell right away if it was pan-fried, steamed, twisted, rolled, pressed, and so on. The more you look at the the dry and wet leaves the more associations you will build between the leafs appearance and its quality. Over time these visual indicators will give you a decent idea of what to expect. You can even begin to appreciate the innate beauty of the leaf itself. I also highly recommend examining the liquor of the steeped tea. You’ll want examine things like clarity and opacity, color and body. Tea can be clear or dark, cloudy or transparent and everything in between. This may tell you about how strong or lightly brewed the tea is. In the case of Japanese sencha it can tell quite a lot about the processing. For example light and clear tea is almost always lightly steamed while a dark green cloudy tea is almost always deep steamed. Pu-erh can also have a thin body or a thick almost gelatinous body. All of these qualities tell us something interesting about the tea.
Next comes the smell. I like to examine the smell of both the wet and dried leaf. This can be an adventure in itself. Some teas like Green tea can have a lot of fresh grassy and vegetal aromas. On the other hand, Oolongs can smell fruity sweet or roasty. Still, other teas have elusive fragrances with almost no scent in their dry form. Certain old Pu-erh and red teas have very little scents until they get into the teapot. Have you ever experienced the smell of tea in a freshly heated tea pot? This is a great step in appreciating your tea on a deeper level, I recommend to always smell the leaves right after you have put them into a pre-warmed pot. The gentle fragrance that will arise is much more layered and nuanced than the dry leaf will ever be. At this stage, how you want to proceed depends on the type of tea you are brewing, and the initial step may be a rinse. If you are brewing tea that does not require a rinse, go for your first steep. After the leaves have either been rinsed or gone through the first step, give them another deep inhalation. This breath can now offer you an even deeper impression of their character and qualities. Hopefully smelling the tea fully awakens your olfactory senses as well.
Now you have your cup of tea in front of you, finally it’s time to do the tasting! This is what you have been waiting for. I recommend you pull in (sip) a generous amount of tea, but not an excessive amount (and not too hot of course). Let the tea really spread out through your mouth, maybe even pull in some air to oxygenate it just like a sip of wine. Try to be completely open to whatever impressions are coming forward. So many times when someone tastes tea they immediately find it takes them back to another part of their life. It’s a magical feeling when you raise a cup to you lips and it transports you to another time and place. Some tea produces memories so vivid they feel like yesterday. See if you can experience the texture of the tea. Some tea is dry and astringent, some is slippery and wet. Good tea is nearly always very smooth, while lesser grades of tea often leave a roughness on the palate and throat. Take note if it feels thick and brothy or thin like flavored water. Just take stock of the overall impression and viscosity of the liquid.
Now you must center on the actual taste. The beauty of tea is that it covers a range of tastes that could never be limited to a single discussion. Tea seems to have a limitless spectrum of flavors; grassy, earthy, woody, musty, musky, citrus, floral, fruity, nutty, aniline, umami, vegetal, oceanic, and the list goes on. Sometimes when you go to a tasting or are reading tasting notes you may be scratching your head as to where this vocabulary comes from. If you are not getting the notes of stewed stone fruits, Chinese dates, fall leaves and citrus rind, don’t feel bad. Your palette is like a muscle. Many of us have had little experience in exercising it, and like any muscle it may have atrophied. The good news is you can train your palate and exercise it.
Training the palette first starts with awareness and observation. The more in tune you become with your senses the more you will notice the subtleties. A big part of this is slowing down and moving from your thoughts to your feelings. The faster you go through life the fewer your opportunities are to notice the details, and tea tasting is all about the details. The good news is you can practice this every time you eat or drink anything! Just take a few moments to truly appreciate the taste and texture of whatever you eat next. If you eat a piece of fruit, notice the complexities and the sugars, if it has a tart quality or a sour quality. Try to identify what makes it unique, what separates it from any other fruit, in other words what makes a banana taste so much like a banana? Just a warning this can be deceptively simple.
The next step in growing your palette is exposure. The more you are exposed to, the more you can reference. Tasting new foods is the obvious and most direct route here. Next time you go to the grocery store, pick out three different types of apples, taste them all and try to point out what makes them different from one another. If you live in area that offers any wine or beer tasting this is a great way to pick up some tasting experience and deepen your catalog of tasting notes. Don’t stop with food either; flowers, plants, and earth all posses their own unique scent that can be referenced as a tasting note. Every time you encounter any new scent for that matter, try and make a mental note and remember the essence of it. The bottom line is the more scents and tastes you pay attention to, the more you will be able to “taste” in a tea.
By developing your palate you are learning the language of the tea, and increasing your ability to hear its song. With practice you may find old teas suddenly have a new voice. You may find new exciting subtleties you never noticed before. You may even find that some teas no longer measure up and you can now taste the defects and impurities in a less well crafted tea.
We can always continue to develop our palate and continue to find greater and greater clarity with what we are tasting. For example, you might be tasting a lightly roasted Oolong and pick out notes of stone fruits and flowers, followed with a general sweetness. I find it exciting to see if I can break these more general notes down into more specific ones. What kind of stone fruit do I taste? Peach, apricot, plum? Is it ripe? What type of flower do you taste? Roses, geraniums, hyacinth? What kind of sweetness? White sugar, brown sugar, honey? This process of seeking clarity through our palette offers a much more exciting a rich picture of the stories embedded in the tea. By honing our senses we go from a more general evaluation of stone fruit, floral, and sweet, to a more dynamic and colorful assessment of stewed ripe plums, gardenias, and wild honey. With practice what else can you taste, the region or terroir? The soil and the weather? What about the personality and philosophy of the farmer?
Of course this is just an introduction to creating palette awareness, and though the principals are ultimately simple, you can spend a lifetime developing them. I hope you take upon yourself to challenge your palate to grow. Leave us any questions or comments. What ways do you like to expand your palette?
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