If someone asked you what green tea tastes like, what would you say? Simply, green? Or strong? Vegetal? Or maybe savory and slightly salty with deep underlying sweetness and vegetal green body filled with cooked asparagus notes? There are many words you can use to talk about your favorite tea.
What determines a tea’s taste and flavor?
Taste of tea is determined by many factors – from a tea cultivar and chemical composition to production technique and freshness of tea leaves, and last, the way you brew it. Keep your tea on the sun and it will change its flavor. Store it unsealed in the fried and it will collect odors. Brew it with distilled water and it will taste flat. Even if you store it properly, each and every tea will taste different. That’s exactly why understanding flavors is very important when choosing the best tea for your preferences.
Tea can also be scented or flavored. Both will change, cover or enhance the taste of original tea leaves. For example, one of the most popular flavored teas is Earl Grey. It has a bold and smooth black tea base with a spicy and citrusy bergamot note. One of the most popular scented teas is Jasmine green tea. Jasmine green tea has a sophisticated jasmine note infused into, usually, a stronger, slightly smoky and bold green tea base. With flavored and scented teas, the flavor of tea base is usually less promounced than the flavor of scenting or flavoring ingredient.
When talking about pure unflavored and unscented teas, flavors come from many taste-active compounds . For example, bitterness comes from caffeine and catechins, while astringency is caused by flavonols and theaflavins . Green tea contains catechins while black tea contains theaflavins. That’s why you may experience mouth-drying astringency, rather than bitterness in many black teas. Sweet and savory flavors in tea comes from amino-acids, such as L-theanine responsible for umami flavor and alanine for sweetness . Loose leaf teas will usually have a more complex flavor than tea bags.
How to describe tea taste?
We can describe tea taste in many ways. Firstly, we need to understand tea categories – the first category is real or true tea made from Camellia sinensis plant and the second is herbal infusions made from herbal teas or tisanes.
We usually describe flavors of real teas because one plant can have hundreds of different flavors. That’s because there are many different cultivars that may be processed in many different ways. On the other hand, most herbal teas will always taste the same. For example, chamomile may taste more sweet or more bitter, with more or less pronounced honey not, but it will always taste like chamomile. Same is true for mint. Depending on the type of mint, it will more or less sharp and fresh flavor, but it will never have woody or nutty notes. Real tea may have all of those.
Real teas are more complicated. There are 6 main types of teas – white, yellow, green, oolong, black and dark. Each category may include thousands of different teas, each with a different flavor profile. That’s where tea taste descriptions come in handy.
For example, you want to buy Assam black tea. You either tried Assam before or you want to try it for the first time. In both cases, description will be important. Why? Because each Assam tea, and there are a few hundred thousand of them, will have at least a slightly different flavor. For example, you may have a full-bodied Assam with intense chocolate notes and less maltiness, or you may have Assam with strong maltiness and light smokiness but no chocolate notes. Green tea may have woody, nutty, vegetal, fresh, sweet, astringent, savory and many other flavors. Same is true for oolong tea.
The main groups of tea flavors are:
Vegetal, green or herbaceous flavor is often attributed to green tea. However, although these words are used interchangeably, they describe different flavors. The word vegetal is mostly used for green tea, herbaceous mostly for herbal teas, while green may be used for green oolongs, yellow or white tea too. They may be divided even more – your tea may have notes of cooked spinach or asparagus, green brussels sprouts or freshly cut grass.
Tea may be savory as well. Savory or umami flavor is mostly reserved for shaded and steamed green teas such as gyokuro. Umami flavor is similar to the flavor of salty seaweed. To extract umami flavor from your steamed green teas (even from Japanese sencha), use cooler water.
Nutty flavors are common for pan-fried green teas and oolong tea. For example, baked bread notes in pan-fired Chinese green tea, buttery, almost milky notes in lighter Taiwanese oolong teas or stronger chestnut notes in darker oolongs.
Many teas have lighter or stronger floral notes. They are most common in oolong teas. For example, popular green Ti Kwan Yin has light floral notes, but dan cong teas have a very intense floral aroma. Black teas from Sri Lanka are famous for its floral character too.
Earthy notes are mostly found in dark fermented teas, some herbal teas like red rooibos, and some black teas. For example, pu erh tea may have a strong earth or moss note, while black tea could have pine wood flavor.
Real teas may have a natural fruity flavor too. For example, some black teas may have ripe plum or ripe peach flavor, grape or passion fruit notes. Ripe fruit flavors are often found in darker teas, either darker oolongs or black teas.
Many teas have a naturally sweet flavor. For example, black teas can have intense malty, cocoa or chocolate notes, oolong tea can have a very pronounced honey flavor. Many teas may have a sweet aftertaste too.
Some oolong teas, such as Wuyi rock tea, are famous for its mineral notes. Mineral notes are likely to be less strong than, for example, sweet notes.
Some teas may have natural spicy notes. They are sometimes present in oolong teas, especially bug-bitter teas such as Oriental Beauty. Natural spicy note in tea is lighter than the spicy flavor of masala chai tea, blended with spices.
Flavor of each tea will be a sum of different flavor notes. Some teas may have a very complex flavor, while other will only have two or three notes. If you want to extract the best flavor, always follow brewing suggestions. If possible, use smaller teaware and more tea leaves. Using multiple-steeping technique and a gaiwan will allow you to explore even the tiniest flavor nuances.