Tea is much more than just a hot drink. If you love tea, a proper tea tasting may allow you to experience flavors and scents you never knew could exist. It could bring out the fond memories or make you smile.
Loose Leaf vs. Tea Bags
If you recently switched from tea bags to pure loose leaf tea, you may have noticed there is a big difference between flavor and strength. In fact, some teas are never available in tea bags. Why? Because tea bags, unless filled with loose leaf tea, contain mostly tea dust and fannings–small leaf particles. Those particles may come from high quality teas too–but they will also deteriorate much faster than loose leaf tea. Remember matcha tea powder? Matcha should be used within a month of opening, exactly because it’s ground into a very small powder.
Next, small particles will probably be unsuitable for multiple-steepings, and will release all their flavor in that first and only infusion. But loose leaf tea is different. It offers numerous infusions, numerous ways it can be steeped and experienced, and can give a very different flavor depending on how you brew it. Want to get the most out of your favorite tea leaves? Learn how to taste tea properly! In fact, if you are a serious tea drinker, once you learn how to taste it properly, you may never want to go back to simple regular brewing.
10 things to pay attention when brewing tea
1. Leaf appearance
Leaf appearance is extremely important when tasting the tea. It can tell you a lot about the flavor, quality, cultivar and what to expect. Take a look at the color, texture and shape of the leaves. Smaller broken leaves are likely to give stronger flavor, while unbroken leaves will probably be lighter. Are there any tea buds in your tea? Tea buds are always welcomed. They are a sign of earlier harvests and teas that may have more caffeine.
2. Dry leaf scent
The scent of dry leaves is the first thing we notice upon opening a bag/box of new tea, even before seeing it. With flavored tea, scent is very likely to be stronger than with the pure unflavored one. However, some pure teas may have a very strong scent too. For example, Guangdong dan cong teas, Yunnan blacks, Japanese sencha and Taiwanese oriental beauty may surprise you with the strong natural scent. Unfortunately, that scent is very likely to be gone after a few weeks, especially if the tea was not stored properly. That doesn’t mean the tea will be bad. It’s time to move to the next step.
Scent the tea by long inhalation or fast short sniffs. Longer inhalation is more suitable for dry leaves, while the short sniffs may be great for the tea liquor and wet leaves.
3. Choose the right teapot and measure the amount of leaves
Choosing the right teapot for your tea is extremely important, especially if you want to indulge in a real tea tasting session. Choose smaller teapots and arrange all your utensils in front of you. Wash them first. Measure the right amount of tea leaves. If you are used to making a regular cup of tea with one teaspoon of leaves, double the amount per cup of water or aim to use at least 2-3 grams per 100 ml of water. The amount will be different for every tea type. However, whichever type you are using, covering a bottom of your teapot is usually a good start.
Example: For making gyokuro you will need 1-2 grams of tea per 30 ml of water! For a regular cup of tea that would be at least 15 grams of tea per cup! That means a regular 4 oz package would be enough for barely 8 cups of tea. But gyokuro is always made in special small teapots and served in very small cups. Brewing teas so special like gyokuro requires both time, practice and attention.
4. The scent of tea leaves in a pre-heated teapot
It’s important to always pre-heat your teapot. Bring water to a boil, then pour it into your teapot. Leave it for a couple of seconds and pour it out. Now you are ready to place the tea leaves into a teapot and smell them one more time. They should release a lot of scent. Only if you can’t scent anything, or the scent is not attractive, your leaves may not be good anymore.
5. Brewing and opening the leaves
If you want to experience the whole beauty of tea leaves, multiple steeping technique is a way to go, and a must if you are using more tea leaves than usually. Let the water cool down to a suitable temperature and gently pour it over the leaves in circular movements. Cover the pot and let it steep for 20-60 seconds, depending on the type.
Tip: Some tea leaves require an additional „washing the leaves“ step. Do this by pouring water in and out of your teapot with leaves inside. This step will clean any potential dust and help the leaves open up. It’s used mostly for teas such as pu’erh and rolled oolongs.
6. The tea liquor
Slowly pour tea into a pitcher and/or preheated cups. Pay attention to the color and texture. Is it transparent? Lively? Or deep and dark? Light colors usually hide light flavor. For example, dark yellow green tea will be much stronger than a lighter yellow to greenish tea.
7. The scent
There are four ways to enjoy the scent – by scenting the lid of your teapot, by scenting the empty cup after drinking, by scenting the wet leaves and by scenting the tea itself. Deeply inhale the scent and breath out through your nose. Repeat this a few times.
8. The flavor and mouthfeel
The actual flavor of the tea comes very far in the tea tasting experience. In fact, it’s one of the final steps. Every good tea will have top notes, body and background notes. The first one will be noticeable instantly, while the body is the overall feeling you will get. Your taste buds will notice some of the 5 different tastes – sweet, bitter, sour, salty and umami. But tea can have hundreds of different flavor notes – from chocolate and whiskey to dry hay and honey.
Although teas are never salty, they can be savory and very give an impression of saltiness – like the umami flavor. They may have some light sour notes too.
Take a slurp of tea while still hot, but not too hot to prevent burning yourself. Taste the tea by holding and swirling it into your mouth closed for a few seconds. Take time to taste the flavor, enjoy the mouthfeel, then swallow the tea.
How does it feel? Buttery? Or light? Heavy and thick? Is it causing a tingling sensation on your tongue? Some teas may feel like a light spring rain, the others will have a full buttery texture.
The background notes will be noticeable after drinking the tea. For example, Japanese sencha has a unique sweetness that comes after the drinking. Sometimes that sweetness can last for a long time after your tea is all gone. On the other hand, black teas may cause dryness in the mouth. Every tea feels different so take time to enjoy every single feeling and flavor.
9. The appearance of wet leaves
Take a look at the wet leaves. You will get a better impression of the leaves and will be able to see the actual buds. Some teas like Taiwanese high mountain oolong will unfurl into beautiful branches with a few leaves, the others will be small and chopped.
10. Repeat the steps
Once you are done with your first infusion, repeat the steps 5-9 until the leaves lose all their flavor. Make every subsequent steep longer. Some teas will offer a whole different experience with each steep, the others will not change significantly. Allow yourself to save those with a complex character to enjoy slowly and properly, while the ones that are consistent in each steep and have many chopped leaves are more suitable for everyday faster simple brewing.