To talk about tasting tea, first we have to answer this question : Why do we drink tea?
WE drink tea because a cup of good tea is a cup of happiness. When the land, grower, maker and then the brewer come together in one moment with love and care, the result is a cup overflowing with happiness. However, when, for expediency or profits, the grower or maker takes shortcuts, or the land is unsuitable or polluted, that cup of tea will have less of the ‘good stuff’, or can even be harmful. That’s why it’s so imperative that we learn to taste quality in tea. It’s a way of asking the tea ‘are you happy?’. That way you can get more joy out of your good cup of tea, and be a smart shopper to boot.
So, how do we approach tasting tea? What is there to learn? Many of our friends start off with identifying a taste memory, or tasting note.
In our tea classes, a student may identify a plum note, and Shiuwen will respond ‘Is it a good plum?’ Some begin to accumulate information like tea styles, place names, famous makers, cultivars etc. We discourage this type of learning at first, because knowledge without foundation is like a tree without roots. Perhaps a very knowledgeable person can respond that this plum note comes from theaflavins, but can this person taste the tea and tell if the farmer was careful and skillful while making the tea?
When knowledge becomes real, it becomes really powerful. A few years ago, I went to a farmer’s house and asked for tea fermented underneath the sun. I knew, because someone told me, that sun fermented tea was preferable, but I couldn’t taste it if you put it in front of me. In other words, it didn’t matter what I said, the farmer could tell in a few short infusions of tea exactly where I was at, and I made myself out to be a fool. I had the knowledge in my head, but not in my mouth. When I could finally taste the flavor of the sun, I linked the knowledge to the experience of tasting. That’s the point where knowledge becomes real.
Early on in Shiuwen’s journey, she asked our Dong Ding farmer Mr. Su about cultivars, and the exchange went like this :
Shiuwen : "It looks like [these tea plants] are different varietals. Can you teach me how to identify them?"
Mr Su : "Why do you want to learn that?"
Shiuwen : "Well, I own a tea business. I want to learn as much about tea as possible"
Mr. Su : "That's garbage. Now answer me a question. When you drink a tea, can you tell if it's good?"
"Some people come and tell me they have been drinking tea for 20 years. The moment we share a pot of tea, I realize some of them can't taste tea at all, and that's very pathetic to drink bad tea for 20 years. I don't care how much one knows about tea. If one can't taste tea, what's the point of learning all the facts about tea?"
Later on, Shiuwen said “I was amazed by how that question hit me, ‘do you know when you’re drinking a good tea’. It rang like a bell in my head.”
So how do we understand quality in tea? We propose to come back to the body. The simplest way is to just drink good tea every day. In that case, you need to have a vendor you can trust. When Noah started out at Floating Leaves he realized he really didn’t understand tea at all, so he brewed Dong Ding Traditional every day for a year to get acquainted with what a good tea can do. The process is slow and organic, but it’s also fool proof. The effect is that once you’re used to good tea, a lesser tea will come out and bite you before you have time to think.
However, it’s easy to get lost in our thoughts, get bored or otherwise feel in need of guidance. So we developed a methodical tea tasting guide to help drinkers return to their body while tasting. We may think the best scientific instrument to understand tea is a microscope or some sort of spectrometer to identify chemical components. But the spectrometer is not the one drinking the tea. The tea plant has a profound relationship with humans, the Chinese character for tea is “the man among the trees and grasses’. It speaks to us through the language of aroma, mouthfeel and other bodily sensations that only the human body can resonate with, and it has grown with us for thousands of years. The human body is the only tool that can pick up on those complex signals. Therefore we believe our bodies are not only the most suitable, but also the most scientific instruments for understanding tea. We just need to utilize some special technologies to tune this instrument : primarily awareness of the body.
Start with flavors. There’s a misconception that tasting notes are isolatable notes that occur outside of our bodies. However, if you think about it, they are really just taste memories that we recall when tasting a new food. Like the name of an obscure color, looking at it is much more meaningful than the name. When we eat at a new restaurant, we don’t ask ‘what does this asparagus taste like?’, we just eat it. So why should we be so focused on what the tea ‘tastes like’?
We try to be cautious with too specific of notes. The note in itself is not an issue -- it's actually really fun, and can be helpful for communicating with others about a taste profile -- but I’ve seen many times that a newcomer will be made to feel uncomfortable expressing themselves because they can’t name the exact taste. For example they can’t identify a taste that some more ‘knowledgeable’ person has laid out before them. I don’t know how many times a new customer has reached out and said, ‘I can’t taste the XXX that you mentioned in your description, can you tell me if I’m doing something wrong?’. Some other times, a more experienced drinker will play gatekeeper, and the newbie will be made to feel inferior for not identifying the ‘right notes’. That's not fun, and not what tea is all about. We hope all tasters trust themselves and come back to their own taste. You taste what you taste, and nobody can tell you what you’re feeling.
However, flavor notes don't tell us much about the overall picture and quality of tea. That’s why we encourage our tea friends to go one step further. Coming back to our felt experience in the mouth and nose, we can identify how our bodies feel as they interact with the tea. This is what we call body based tea appreciation. The realm of textures, movement, development, structure and aftertaste are the bones of tea, the architecture that flavor sits upon.
For example, when the tea broth is in the mouth, it has a weight. As the broth is held on the flat of the tongue, you will be able to feel the gravity of it. Although it’s all infused in the same water some will be very light and some heavy. Feeling the density and mass of tea broth can tell you a lot about its quality. After swallowing, some will leave an impression and some will just disappear.
Then there's texture. While there are many light bodied teas, a lesser tea will be watery and forgettable, while a higher performing tea may be light and fluffy like a cloud. Even scent has a structure and texture. The aroma notes have to ride on some kind of wave to get up into our nostrils in the first place. That’s the structure of the scent, and observing it we have an incredible look into the nature and personality of a tea. Then we may notice how deep the scent can reach into our bodies, or to say it another way, how willing our body is to accept the tea deeper inside. Our body knows the quality of the tea before our mind knows.
We humbly offer these thoughts and concepts in the hope that they can open you to a deeper realm of experience with your tea. Above all, at the end of the day you’ll have to experiment with your own objective experience with tea. It’s a deeply personal journey, and listening to your own body is the key.
Just please don't let anyone tell you your experience is wrong. There’s boundless information stored in a good tea, and endless exploration as we come to trust our bodies and feel the sensations in our mouth, nose, throat and beyond. With the prerequisite that we’re humble and honest with ourselves, we can hear the tea speak to us. The love from the plant, the love from the Earth, and the love from the makers becomes palpable.
[We go much further on this subject in our Tea Class video series]