A great tea session is like a truly delicious meal. There’s a deep satisfaction and afterglow. It could have been a restaurant where every dish was thoughtfully and skillfully prepared, or the feeling of taking a bite of grandma’s cooking, and you feel like you’re smiling inside your belly. But what path leads to this destination? The ingredients and flavors are the building blocks, but a good meal is more than a sum of its parts. It’s the same thing with a good book, it’s not merely the words themselves that take the reader on a trip, but the structure with which they fit together. In tea, there’s a structure as well. There’s a beginning, middle and end that come together to create something deeply satisfying.
When we are listening to a tea we can listen with our whole body, but it’s fundamental to use our mouths to listen for texture. You sup a hot tea broth, and it makes an impact where it lands; the broth hits and immediately stimulates the taste buds. The impact of a tea begins the story of texture in the mouth. It might be light and gentle, or it might be heavy with a strong attack. I’ve had teas that I’d describe as ethereal in their impact, where I’ll barely notice that they touched my mouth at all. I’ve also had teas that punch like Bruce Lee’s one inch punch, immediately and profoundly ‘right there’. Then the broth starts to move.
With better teas we look for spreading of some kind, and within that spreading sensation there can be all different sorts of textures : mineral, metallic, satin, silk, edgy, fuzzy, fluffy, etc. The broth can spread in different shapes, and to different places. How fast does it spread? What does it feel like? When I sit still and start to deeply listen to the broth move, I feel that tea can present in as limitless permutations as the human face.
Then, the broth starts to slow down, and it rests where it lays. This is the finish of the tea. It might land on the middle of the tongue, but it might reach to the cheeks, or puff up to the roof of the mouth, or even rest close to the bottom of the ears. At this point, when the broth has left the mouth, a good oolong tea will show off its aftertaste. Aftertaste is not only ‘taste’ per se, it’s also texture.
Tea is a drying herb and the dryness left by the tea broth will stimulate the mouth to water. We use the uniquely appetizing word salivation, and again, there are unlimited styles, textures and shapes. I like using water’s movement in nature as a metaphor for salivation. Maybe it’s more like a rushing river, or a tumbling stream, or maybe more of a mountain spring bubbling up from the earth. And, like the life cycle of water, the finish is not the end.
Beginning, middle and end in this way build the foundation of structure as it presents in the mouth. Along with balance of flavors, it’s a good starting place to notice if something is ‘broken’ or off when tasting. If you trust that the tea is good, but something feels broken, then checking the clarity of impact, movement and finish is useful as a touchstone when watching your brewing.
If you used way too many leaves, or forgot an infusion so that it overbrewed, the structure might feel sharp and jagged. The angles that define the structure will bend out of shape, oversized like Alice in Wonderland when she grows so big that can’t fit into the small house, her neck bent and elbows sticking out the window. The movement of the broth can get uncomfortable at this point, like it’s running through a tunnel and chafing the walls as it bores through.
Alternatively, if the water is not hot enough or infusion time too short, there will be no impact at all; a weak brew. At the very least, it will be muted. Like whiskey left at the bottom of the bottle for the alcohol to evaporate away, the tea will feel like it has no spirit. The movement will not have a chance to develop, and it will run out of steam long before aftertaste can assert itself. I think this is why most seasoned tea drinkers drink their tea strong. In Taiwan, the average gaiwan packs a lot more leaves. I’ve heard that it’s even stronger in Chaozhou. Even if the brew is a bit uncomfortable, at least something happened!
Structure in the mouth is the FIRST thing we want to impress on curious tea drinkers. When I’m tasting with a new client, and she says the tea has notes of apple, I ask “is it a good apple or a bad apple?” What makes a good or bad apple? It’s probably not that it tastes more like an apple. It might be more flavorful or sweeter, but what if it’s meally, or unripe and starchy. Texture, and more specifically structure in the mouth, is the next step to understanding what makes up a good tea (and probably has a big impact on your apple choices).
And there’s more. There’s a LOT more. For example, do you think that you can taste with your throat, or feel texture with your nose? But first, the foundation of tea is built on feeling in the mouth. Already, tea can take you further than you may have imagined, even if it’s just speaking to you through your mouth.