A simple guide for discussing the qualities of tea
By Mel Hattie
Maybe you’ve been out with your friends, when one of you orders a fresh green tea. “Wow! I really like how this mellow tea has little astringency. It’s almost buttery, with hints of seaweed, wet rocks, and asparagus!” They exclaim—meanwhile, you look into their cup, seeing neither seawood, nor wet rocks, nor asparagus.
What are these crazy tea people talking about?
Much like how in the world of wine sommeliers there are hundreds—if not thousands—of ways to describe the taste and character of wines, in the world of tea sommeliers, there’s an established vocabulary and accepted amount of improvisation that goes along with describing what it is we’re experiencing when we drink tea.
In this guide we’re going to get beyond the five primary taste sensations—salty, sour, sweet, bitter, and umami. We’ll introduce you to some basic tea tasting terms as well as show you how you can get creative when talking tea. Follow this and you’ll be talking like a tea sommelier in no time. Your tea will also taste better—sometimes all you need are the right words to open up your palette.
Basic Tea Tasting Terms
Before we even let that tea touch the tip of our tongues, let’s look at how we can describe how the tea leaves look.
Bold: Has big pieces of tea leaf.
Tip: The very end of the baby young buds that give golden flecks to the processed leaf.
Wiry: Twisted leaves, as opposed to open pieces.
Even: Leaf pieces of roughly the same size.
Irregular or Ragged: Uneven and non uniform pieces of leaf.
Choppy: Tea leaf that has been chopped or cut up, instead of rolled.
Now, as we begin to sip the tea, we can think about the aroma, body, and character. Think of it like the ABCs of tea.
Aroma: the odour of the tea liquor, also called the nose or fragrance. If the aroma is complex, it’s sometimes called a ‘bouquet.’ Think of it like smelling a bunch of flowers vs. a single rose.
Body: The weight and substance of the tea in your mouth. Is it light, viscous, thick? Sometimes people describe tea as being round—that is, having a full body that hugs your cheeks. It might be full—indicating a tea of good quality with colour, strength, and substance.
Character: A tea’s hallmark attributes, often depending on the country or region of origin, unique to its very own tea story.
Similar to wine, astringency is an important characteristic in tea. Astringency is that mouth-drying effect on the tongue—not to be confused with bitter. Astringency is a clean and refreshing quality, caused by a reaction between the tannins in tea and the protein in our saliva. Some teas are very astringent, and others—not so much. Astringency isn’t good or bad, but it’s important to take note of.
As you finish swallowing your tea, what happens next? The lasting taste on your tongue is called the finish. Is it smooth? Is there an aftertaste? Take a second to slow down, exhale, and really experience the end of the tea’s journey. Then go in for another sip, of course.
There’s also ways to talk about tea’s undesirable qualities. Tea that has gone off because of too much moisture is flat, while tea that has been through damp conditions during transportation or seen pollution is tainted.
Sometimes even if the tea survives transportation, it might have some other less desirable qualities. It might be brassy—bitter, coarse—strong but low quality, dull (like it sounds), or harsh—bitter and raw with little strength.
On the other hand, you might have an awesome cup of tea that is bright—a lively, clean tea that refreshes the palate; clean—has a focused, pure flavour;
It might have floral characteristics, have a muscatel aspect—just like the wine, reminiscent of grapes. Teas from the Darjeeling region are famous for this. Or, it might be malty—like a good whiskey. Teas from Assam are famous for this characteristic.
How your tea is processed has a big impact on its characteristics, too. For example, green teas from China are often pan-fried, while green teas from Japan are steamed.
This means green teas from Japan (sencha, gyokuro, genmaicha, etc.) are often described similar to steamed greens. Think asparagus, brussel sprouts, spinach. Green teas from China (gunpowder, dragonwell, etc.) are more often described with a sweet, toasty words. Think chestnuts over a fire, or roasted corn.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Both of those teas, for example, could include a number of other ‘vegetal’ descriptors. Next is where we really break out our creativity.
Descriptive Vocabulary for Different Characteristics of Tea
Here are some starting points. Feel free to get as creative as you want. The sky’s the limit. I once heard a wine sommelier describe a white wine like, ‘opening a fresh can of tennis balls.’ These words are meant to evoke a sense of taste and place with your fellow tea-lovers.
Vegetal: Earthy, herby, vegetable, and marine qualities
Tastes like sea air, sea weed, garden peas, green peppers, asparagus, wet rocks, musty, compost, old wet wood, leather, turning over a log, peat moss, bark, resin, camphor, sawdust, cherry wood, mahogany, pine, fresh cut grass.
Smokey: Like a cigar
Ash, tar, smoke, smoked wood, burning leaves, beef jerky, bonfire, whiskey.
Spicy: Open the spice drawer
Cloves, cinnamon, cocoa, thyme, parsley, oregano, black pepper, vanilla, coriander, liquorice, eucalyptus, saffron, fennel.
Sweet: Nuances of sweetness
Honey, maple syrup, malt, nectar, caramel, molasses, burnt sugar, cotton candy, bubble gum.
Nutty: That chewy, often toasty taste
Almond, peanut, chestnut, hazelnut, roasted nuts, nougat, peanut butter.
Floral: When your nose feels like it’s walking into a greenhouse, or mountain meadow
Hints of jasmine, lilac, orchid, honeysuckle, wildflowers, cherry blossoms, orange blossoms, rose, dandelion, violet, geranium, hops, perfume.
Fruity: From stone fruits to bush berries, all your jammy concerns
Jammy, peach, apricot, strawberry, raspberry, blueberry, lychee, pineapple, banana, citrus, lemon, black currant, rhubarb.
Build Your Tea Taste Buds
As you can see from the list above, the best way to describe tea is using other foods! Therefore, the best way to learn how to taste tea is by trying other flavour sensations. Really pay attention when you put food in your mouth. Pay attention to smells. Lick rocks if you have to. Learn what the world tastes like.
If you enjoyed this, you’d probably enjoy Tea 103: Sensory Development, where we build your tea palate, learn more about how we taste tea, and dive into developing our taste buds by practicing on some other tasty things—chocolate, olive oil, and coffee too.
By taste alone, TAC Certified Tea Sommeliers can tell the difference between a pan-fried and a steamed green tea, a light and long-oxidized oolong, and whether a tea comes from Assam or Darjeeling (amongst their many other talents). Here’s where you can find out more about what it takes to become an accredited TAC TEA SOMMELIER® professional.