Thursday, 18 March 2010

Learning to Taste Tea

I bought a copy of the wonderful Harney & Sons Guide to Tea a couple of months ago, and I have enjoyed reading it very much. It takes you step by step through the tasting process for a wide range of teas, from white to green to oolong to black and pu'er. It also contains some fascinating information about the ways in which these teas are manufactured, which actually also helps to understand why particular teas exhibit particular flavour characteristics. For example, it's the fast withering process that is partially responsible for the brisk astringency of Assam teas, while the slower, steamier withering of Keemun brings out the smoother mouthfeel and chocolatey notes commonly found in this kind of tea.

Books like this, and also the excellent New Tea Companion by Jane Pettigrew (which  contains tasting notes as well as handy pictures of a huge selection of teas), are extremely useful for learning about tea. I can't help wondering, though, about the limits to their usefulness (these in no particular order) -

- seasonal variations may produce different flavours, not to mention quality, of a given tea;
- the risk of setting up a stringent standard: 'This is the way this tea is supposed to taste, and if you can't taste the same things, you're wrong';
- conversely, the risk of relativism: 'Everyone's tastebuds are different so there's no standard you can actually apply at all, any given tea can taste like anything and there's no 'better' or 'worse'';
- variations in brewing parameters (water, temperature, length of steep, amount of leaf, etc) which can produce a radically different cup;
- (perhaps most importantly) the risk of frustration and (ironically) lack of appreciation for the tea because of being too caught up in trying to 'work out' what it tastes like... rather than just experiencing what it tastes like.

For all these potential problems I think that these tasting note type books - and the tasting notes you find in other sources such as the TeaMail group - remain useful because they can open your eyes to different ways of interpreting the tea you are tasting. For example, it would never have occurred to me to even imagine tropical fruit flavours in an Autumnal Darjeeling... and I haven't specifically noticed any in the Castleton Estate Autumnal I enjoyed so much, but I have identified berries.

It is also an encouragement to pay attention more closely to the other foods and drinks that I consume. Noticing more about their flavours broadens the palate I can bring to my teas. Every little bit of mindfulness helps.

In the end I think that is what it's really all about.


  1. I really like the Harney & Sons Guide to was one of the first tea-related books that I read when I was in the process of creating, and I've used it as a source/reference for a few of the pages on styles of tea.

    It's interesting though, it omits several of my favorite styles of tea, with in my opinion the biggest omission being shou mei, the oolong-like large-leaf white tea that's the darkest of white teas (and from what I've read, lowest in caffeine, which makes intuitive sense due to larger leaf size and fewer tips/buds, but I haven't found a good source establishing this).

    But...everyone has their own focus and preferences, there are so many varieties of tea that no one book or tea company can cover it all! That's one thing that makes the tea world so fascinating and exciting to me.

  2. that is so interesting and has opened my eyes a little more - thank you so much for sharing that with us !

  3. Alex, you're right - there has to be some kind of selection process, it would be impossible to cover everything! I think I read somewhere (probably in The Story of Tea) that there are something like at least three thousand different kinds of tea produced in China alone (because of all the small farmers who make tea in regional variations I think). Incredible isn't it?

    Samara - my pleasure, thanks for reading! :)


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