How I read tea
Over time I have learnt to rely less on the senses - home of the fleeting and the irrational - and more on reason - home of necessity - to understand tea.
Small, thumb-sized vials sit side by side on the table. Most vials are filled halfway through with a clear liquid, a few had yellowish tints. A tall glass packed with thin paper stips stands towering over them in one corner. An empty bowl is kept on the other. I sit holding a pen and a notepad in front of this set-up. Finally, I am handed a paper strip dipped in one of the vials. “Pay attention and tell me what you smell?”, our instructor questions. I, along with seven others who have gathered in the room, have to guess the scent. One by one we comment out loud: grass, fern, sap, fruit rind, green of the watermelon. I said leaf. It was almond. And just one person got it right.
This live-action event was held some years back when I worked with a tea company. We were getting a crash course in tea aromas from a perfume expert. The point of this exercise was to stimulate the brain to connect a smell with something - food, a flower, or objects from around. If we got it wrong, which I did, and a lot, we could, noted the instructor, ‘attempt to memorise the correct scent’ by describing it. For example, bitter-sweet, cherry-like, and on the warm side are all characteristics of almonds. This way, next time I pick up bitter-sweet, cherry-like but warm hints in a cup of tea, I will know to tag it as a ‘note of almond’.
In the tea industry, there is a standard shorthand for describing tea - you zero in on the dominant flavours - scents and/or tastes - and mark their coordinates and relative weight. Medium honey and cedarwood in the nose and finish, Top notes of melon and peach in the middle, Light with hints of jasmine and cut grass throughout.
To identify dominant flavours, memories of food help because smell and taste register bypassing logical/teachable parts of the brain, parking directly in the limbic system - the seat of memory. So, chances are that if you’ve grown up smelling and tasting, say, kumquats, you are likely to pick it up in a cup without a lot of effort - the scent will automatically trigger the memory of kumquat and signal the language.
Compared to my peers in that tasting room that day, my food memories, while personally significant, felt relatively slim. For, they struggled to guide me to the exact flavours. I found it incredibly difficult to break down the specific nature of, say, citrus. Or the kind of nuttiness that existed in the cup - I couldn’t tell hazelnut from walnut because I had never tasted a hazelnut in my life. It was maddening to not be able to describe the tea’s characters as specifically as some of my colleagues could. And it wasn’t that my olfactories were at fault. It was really my ability to describe the experience unfolding across my olfactories that was lacking.
Applying common language to describe a scent or a flavour is naturally hard. Partly because this is hardly the stuff you are taught in school or at home. But to believe that you need to have knowledge of flavours beforehand to read and review a tea is a very tall ask, and a discouraging one.
The problem with reading tea this way is that it puts enormously disproportionate importance on your past experiences. Only if you’ve grown up in a house with an orange tree, you are likely familiar with the scent of citrus blossom. If you have been a city dweller like me, living on mass-produced, plastic-packed supermarket essentials, the chances of you having that knowledge are about as slim as they can be. And then there’s the matter of general human idiosyncrasies. How we experience flavour in our lives - the context - deeply affects our memory of it. I love, for instance, the flavour of aubergines not just for the materiality of it but because the first time I ever tried it it was in a gorgeous Turkish restaurant, in the heart of Paris, with my sister on what turned out to be a great summer vacation. But I still cannot stand the taste of cucumber for all the times it turned out bitter on the first bite.
Because matters of taste are highly personal, to only rely on prior knowledge and memories of food to evaluate tea is to run the risk of poor judgment, or worse, no judgment.
I am not saying that you must dismiss your memories or olfactories, but I am, instead, asking that you also look beyond them. This, by stepping away, briefly, from the creed of recollection. Expand the mind with humility and patience. Give consideration to a vast range of observable and learnable truths - source, make, style, shape, and colour - to fully and objectively read a tea. To paraphrase Chekhov, one of my favourite writers, there is a great deal that is interesting in tea even if you look at it from a detached point of view.
Anton Chekhov is the master of detachment. He could find a great number of things interesting even in situations like death and disease. He sketched dauntingly detailed characters but the thing I love most about them is their humanity. Chekhov’s characters come from all walks of life - cabbies, farmers, government officials. None is perfect, but each is individual. None is simply good or bad. Instead, they reek of all sorts of emotions: sad, happy, disgusted, embarrassed, fearful - you name it. Their reality pans across this range and suddenly the whole of human is exposed - warts, wishes, wisdom, and all.
As best as I can, I try to bring the same humanity to my teas.
Applying Chekhovian ways to reading tea is essentially me wrapping myself to the tea’s reality instead of fitting it around mine. Often this means stopping at accepting the tea for exactly what it is, instead of forcing the experience down a path of judgment. It’s a way of reconciling my biases with reason and truth. A way of reminding myself that the tea, in its own right, has followed a perfect form and path to get to where it is now, even if it’s a form that doesn’t settle perfectly with me, my preferences.
So here’s how I read my tea now
1. Start with tangible cues
“Evening twilight. Large flakes of wet snow are circling lazily about the street lamps which have just been lighted, settling in a thin soft layer on roofs, horses’ backs, peoples’ shoulders, caps. Iona Potapov, the cabby, is all white like a ghost. As hunched as a living body can be, he sits on the box without stirring. - from Heartache
Start with the shape, colour, size, composition and texture of the tea leaves.
If the leaves are wiry and tightly rolled, you know that the flavours are sufficiently locked in and a good steep will release them. If they are open and lightly curled, it’s a delicate pluck that could not withstand a machine roll. This also means the flavour is delicate and you need to handle this tea with care, just like the maker did. If the tea is long and slender, it’s likely a clonal - a perfumy kind of tea. If the leaves are short and stumpy, it’s possibly tea from an old, legacy plant and may not release as strong a perfume. Are the leaves dark brown? Then it is likely a highly oxidized tea, and the amino acids have had time to break down and release caffeine. If the leaves are still greenish, they were not subjected to a high level of oxidation and will have a tinge of chlorophyll in the flavour. Also, less caffeine. Are there silver or golden specks in the leaf mix? This indicates the presence of tips - the topmost part of a tea plant and the seat of fragrant flavours. Expect intensity from this tea. Are the leaves of different lengths? It’s possibly a blended tea or one that’s not been graded properly. Does the tea feel bone-dry to the touch? Now that’s a tea where flavours are bound to be rife, not stale.
Tangible cues not only tell you a lot about the quality of the tea but also why it tastes/feels the way it does.
2. Resist the urge to stop at one quality
“It was warm and still. The whole world smelt of heliotropes, mignonette, and tobacco plant which had not yet shed their blooms. Around shrubs and tree trunks flowed a sea of thin, moonlight-soaked mist; and - what long remained in Ogniov’s memory - wisps of vapour, white as ghosts, floated with motion imperceptibly slow across the garden path. Near the moon, shining high in heaven, swam transparent patches of cloud.” - from Vierochka
Keep moving around and interact with all facets of the tea. Try to keep your evaluation within human range.
See bright silver speaks in the leaf mix? Great. Now, are they accompanied by dark brown leaves or greenish ones? Dark brown leaves indicate a mid or late-season tea when high levels of oxidation are necessary to cull out the flavour. Expect more robust notes in this cup. Green leaves in the mix indicate a spring or early season tea when the flavours are concentrated and oxidizing/browning the leaves can result in flavour loss. This will be the reason for the raw green notes in the cup. Now go on to look at the distribution of tips to leaves. Is it even? That’s a high-grade tea right there, most likely high in floral-fruity fragrance. Steep this tea in tepid water for best results. Steep it more than once to see what happens the second time around. Is it just as intense and fragrant? If yes, that just made this tea a great value buy.
If you find an interesting thing in a tea, go the extra mile to reveal its underpinnings. Stretch it - explore its edges. This is a good way to estimate the potential as well as limitations of the quality you see.
3. Explore with enthusiasm and compassion
“Tell me, what is Ninochka supposed to do now? Should she go on living with me, or do you think it would be better if she moved in with you? Having deliberated briefly, we left it at this: Ninochka would continue to live at Vikhlyenev’s; I would go to her whenever I liked, and he would take the corner room, which formerly had been the storeroom, for himself. This room was rather dark and damp, the entrance to it was through the kitchen, but, on the other hand, he could perfectly well shut himself up in it and not be a nuisance to anyone.”- from Ninochka.
Instincts are all well and good. But it’s better to evaluate a tea from a place of enthusiasm than criticism. It’s liberating for the tea and the tea drinker.
When I first started tasting tea, I assumed my job was to produce a review - a thumbs up or a thumbs down to the taste of the tea. But over the years I learned that this hardly serves the buyer well. Mostly because it’s severely biased towards my tastes and preferences, and not the person purchasing the tea. Also, I did not realize how much conditions and context affect the experience of tea. A high-grown autumnal tea from Darjeeling made using spring water releases intense amounts of Jasmine in the cup, while the same tea made using tap water in my urban kitchen is barely floral but almost fully flat. If I were to write about this tea solely based on my experience in the kitchen, I’d probably dismiss it as a below-average tea.
This is why I no longer stop at taste and aroma. I make it a point to insist on the objective, universally true qualities of tea - the shape of the leaves, their size, the colour, the composition, the freshness, and the season of production. I then combine this with information about the land, the maker, and their legacy. This is far more useful knowledge and a more reliable indicator of the quality as well as the potential of the tea. Of course, I support these notes with mentions of dominant flavours - parent flavours that can confidently be discerned - but it’s hardly the thing I focus on anymore. For, notes of leather, overripe fruit, and wet earth, by themselves, hardly evoke pleasure or beauty. But when it’s supported by information about the soil, the season, the tea’s cultivar, the production technique and more, you can see the tea’s “why”. Suddenly you see your prison of preferences loosen and the circle of compassion widens.
At this point, I will pay heed to the fact that drinking tea is, first, a private, personal experience. And there is ample place for emotions to live and occupy that experience. But know that your own reactions to a tea while true are not necessarily the tea’s truth. Keep this in mind, and you will have made room for tea - any tea - to surprise and delight you, not limit you.
“Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
- Anton Chekhov
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