HOW TEA EXPERTS TASTE TEA
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There are several points along the route that tea takes from bush to grocer’s shelf where some assessment of its quality is called for. It spite of the rapid growth of technological improvements in the production of tea, no scientific analysis yet devised can replace the judgement of an expert tea taster after cup sampling.
In the district of origin, cup sampling is primarily a means a quality control over the processing; when the tea is purchased, it is a way of establishing the tea’s character, quality, and relative value. Brokers and agents cup-sample on the spot at major markets, and samples are also flown airmail to buyers and brokers all over the world.
Governments in importing countries where legislation provides for control over the quality of tea that is imported-as in the United States-cup-samples all imports. In brief, at any point in the tea market where there is some need to describe the tea and put a value upon it, cup-sampling is the method of evaluation.
There are two basic methods of tasting in common use; the British and the American . Actually there is little difference between the two except in the equipment used, so we’ll simply describe the American method. American tea buyers and tasters use equipment quite similar to that used for coffee cup-sampling, except that there is no need, of course, for sample roasters.
The necessary equipments consists of a long, waist-high countertop or a round wood or marble table four feet in diameter with a revolving top (the outside edge is slightly lower than the rest of the top, creating a sort of shelf): thin, white, handle-less cups ranged around this shelf; a shallow pan or tray to held the sample tea behind each cup; bright light from window (ideally north light): a scale to weigh out samples; a source of filtered water; two or three kettles and stove to boil the water and a spittoon ( or ‘gaboon’ as it called in the trade), a stool, and a spoon. Most tea tasters find tap water piped through a charcoal filter satisfactory.
A tea taster examines the tea before the after preparation in order to determine, as much as possible, its character, quality, and value; in each state-dry leaf, infused leaf and liquor-the tea reveals a good deal to the expert eye, hand, and palate. As previously explained, and dry leaf is simply the processed tea in the state in which the consumer purchases it. The ‘infused leaf’ is the wet mass of leaves left after preparation of the beverage. (Confusingly, tealeaves in this state are called the ‘infusion’ by tasters, whereas tea drinkers commonly call the brew or beverage itself the infusion. In the interest of clarity, we will use the phrase ‘INFUSED LEAF’ whenever possible, and save the term ‘INFUSION’ for the entire process or method of brewing.) The ‘LIQUOR’ is the liquid part of the brew that results from pouring boiling water over tealeaves and allowing the mixture to steep for a number of minutes.
A tasting season begins with selecting the tea to be sampled. It is possible to evaluate several hundred samples a day, but since the nose and palate tire quickly, only two or three dozen should be tasted at a given time. A portion of each tea selected is placed on a sample tray and appropriately labeled.
First the dry leaf is examined simply by appearance. Black tea’s fully withered leaves look black, obviously, green-tea leaves look green, whereas oolong leaves look partially withered. The ‘VARNISH’ of dried tea juices that cover the leaf in black teas is called the bloom or complexion; its evenness is a sign of good quality, shortcomings in the manufacture of the tea can be detected by the practiced eye: brown leaf in orthodox teas may indicate under withering; blistered leaves and grayness are caused by over rapid firing; well-twisted leaves indicate full withering, and so on.
HOW TEA EXPERTS TASTE TEA
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The presence or absence of fiber, dust and stalk is noted, as well as the care that has been taken in sorting and grading; whether the leaf choppy, flaky and uneven, or bold (big for the grade size) will affect the quality of the tea. None of the experts tend to be unduly impressed with ‘STYLISH’ teas, particularly those containing a high proportion of white or golden ‘TIPS’ (buds). Whether or not a tea has ‘tip’ has nothing to do with cup quality. The presence of tip usually – but not invariably – indicates careful handling of the leaf during manufacture. It is primarily a cosmetic attraction. Some of the best second flush Darjeelings – the ones with the highest cup quality are entirely black in appearance.
A rough test of the freshness of the tea is made by gently pressing some in the hand; new teas are somewhat springier than old teas and less likely to crumble easily. Finally, the dry leaves may be smelled, usually by warming some in the hand, exhaling into them to moisten them, and then inhaling. By appearance Oolong, Ceylon’s, Java’s, Africans, Indians, and in fact most black teas are difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish, but the aroma detected from them in the hand is sufficiently distinct to permit the expert to tell them apart and even to give a reasonably accurate assessment of their probable quality.
This entire dry-leaf analysis, it should be understood, in practice takes only a few seconds while the taster mentally compares his impression of the leaf with his knowledge and experience with that type of tea and that particular garden.
Next, a small amount of each tea (Usually thirty-five grains, one-tenth to one-quarter ounce, or two to three grams – about the weight of a well-worn dime) is carefully weighed out and put in a cup. (Thirty – five grains is considered the standard measure for a cup, and also a tea bag; on this basis one pound of tea yields a standard two hundred cups) The sample tray with the corresponding tea is placed behind it to allow comparison of the dry leaf with its infusion. The cups hold five to six ounces when filled to just below the brim. When all the samples are in the cups, water is brought to a rolling boil and the cups are filled in order. The taster pulls up a stool, positions a tall spittoon between his legs, and hovers over each cup in turn with his tasting spoon.
The analysis of the infused leaf begins shortly after all the cups are filled, since the open cups permit the taster to watch “The agony of the leaves” – as the unfolding of the tea leaves in boiling water is called. Open, flat leaves infuse quickly; well-twisted leaves take longer to yield their full flavor. (Generally speaking, smaller leaves will yield more body in the brew than the larger leaves from the same plant.).
In practice, the taster may wait a few minutes for the cups to cool and the teas to release their color and aroma. Then he scoops up a large portion of the infused leaf from the bottom of the cup for a close look and sniff. The aroma released by the infused leaf is as powerful and revealing, if not more so, than that released by the liquor. Along with the all-revealing sniff, the taster looks at the infused leaf for color, evenness, and brightness. Quality black teas (Congoes are an exception) have a bright, penny-coppery-colored infused leaf; a dull-brown color warns of poor liquor, mixed, uneven, and green color in the infused leaf of black teas indicates that the liquor is apt to be raw or thin in taste.
HOW TEA EXPERTS TASTE TEA
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Now the taster looks at the appearance of the liquor itself, although, of course, he has been noticing it all along. He is primarily concerned with its brightness and color, and again compares it mentally with his experience of previous teas of this type. The possible shades of tea colors are many and varied; in order to facilitate comparisons the light must be both bright and consistent, and anything that might influence judgement is eliminated from the tasting. This is why the cups are white and of uniform size (and are handless, because the slight shadow a handle might throw on the inside of the cup hampers objective judgement).
Strength of color does not necessarily indicate strength of flavor. A light, bright greenish-yellow liquor is a sign of quality in a green tea, and the liquor will have body, strength, and pungency; a dull, dark or brownish-yellow color, on the other hand, often indicates old or poor leaf. Young green teas yield very light liquors. The finest oolongs have a much paler amber color than those of poorer quality, and some of the finest Darjeeling yield a light coloured liquor compared to the dark cups of many black blends, the amateur is often subconsciously tricked into thinking a dark, rich-looking cup of tea is more flavorful than in fact it is (Since it takes a minimum of three minutes for all the flavor and aroma characteristics to be infused from the leaf, the quality of the finished brew must be judged according to the length of infusion not by color.)
The taster is now ready to confirm or supplement his impressions so far by tasting the liquid. All the previous steps take very little time in actual practice, and so does the tasting. The taste is the final test and the final determiner of quality. All the other tests have been signs or portents of cup quality; the taste confirms or denies these signs. While the tea can be sampled directly from the cup, it is far faster and more efficient to use a spoon. The ideal temperature for tasting the liquor is said to be 106 degree to 110 degree Fahrenheit. Much above that temperature and the palate may be scalded and the taste buds desensitized. Many tasters examine the dry samples and infused leaves while waiting for the liquor to cool to around the temperature.
The taster sucks the liquid – about a tablespoonful – off the spoon with considerable force, enough, anyway, to make a loud sucking noise. The noise just accompanies the proper technique, which is to create enough suction with the mouth and lips to spray the liquor over the entire palate and carry its aroma into the nasal passages.
A swish around the mouth, and the liquid is spat into the gaboon. Often a taster will take at least two slurps from each cup, the purpose of the first slurp being to clear the palate of the impression of the previous cup tasted. The mechanics of the slurping method allow all the senses of the mouth and nose to experience the tea liquor. By sucking the liquor into the back of the mouth the olfactory nerves in the nasal passages are strongly stimulated and the entire tongue is bathed in the liquid.
Of the four dimensions of taste (Salt, sour, sweet, and bitter), sweetness and saltiness are tasted on the tip of the tongue, bitterness at the back, and sourness at the back edges. Astringency or pungency of tea is not a taste per so, but a sensation felt on the gums and cheeks. The body, or thickness, of the tea is the impression of weight or viscosity experienced when the liquor is swirled around in the mouth. A good deal of the sensation of taste is actually experienced by the nose, not the mouth, as anyone with a head cold can attest; for this reason, most of the tea taster’s efforts are aimed at accentuating the olfactory sensations.
Perhaps not surprisingly, there are considerable similarities among the descriptive terms tea tasters, wine tasters and coffee tasters employ. Each has its own particular and sometimes peculiar terminology, however and although the vocabulary used by tea tasters is close to that of coffee tasters, it is not identical. Certain key terms, such as ‘flavor’ have meanings that only partially overlap. The following list covers most of the tea tasting terms in common use; it covers only terms used to describe the general characteristics of tea, the liquor, and some common tea terms. It does not include terms that apply only to the appearance of the dry leaf and the infused leaf. In compiling the list, we have been guided by contemporary usage in the U.S Tea trade and by the list given by Harler and, to some extent, Ukers. Some of the descriptions are not the technical ones used in the trade, but are our own attempt to explain terms in a non-technical fashion.