Tea has been grown and appreciated for more than 5,000 years!
Tea tasters are employed by both the sellers (brokers selling on behalf of the producers) and the buyers of tea (mainly packers).
The career tea taster has a 5 to 7 year apprenticeship often spread over several producing countries. He (for they are almost always male) has a very sensitive palate and is able to identify a tea’s country and the season when it was harvested, and often the name of the plantation. He can tell if the manufacture was done with care or if mistakes were made. He can judge quality and value. His tasting speed is legendary: sipping, slurping, and spitting up to 300 teas an hour!
Here at home, we can develop some of the taster’s skills by following some simple techniques as outlined in the next pages.
Ninety-nine per cent of a cup of tea is water. If your water is poor quality then your cup of tea will be too. So starting with good quality water is key to a great drink of tea.
Hard water doesn’t do tea any good. It gives it a grey colour and a surface scum. Although some people say that a level of minerals is essential for tea taste, obviously if you can smell chlorine in your water then this will affect the taste of your tea.
- Try a cartridge water filter, which will reduce excess hardness and remove chlorine. But do read the instructions about soaking new cartridges, and change the cartridge in good time.
- Install an in-line ceramic water filter at your sink which will remove bacteria, particulates, chlorine, flourine and many pesticides. While it will not soften the water it will certainly improve the taste.
- Use bottled water for tea making, but be aware that bottled waters vary greatly between brands, so find one that’s good for you and stick to it.
Different teas require different water temperatures to bring out their best character. Check the recommendations in our brewing guide to get the right temperature for your tea.
If you have a friend who doesn’t like green tea, and says that it is always bitter – the chances are that he or she is making it with boiling water. The water temperature can make that much difference between a horrible and a great cup of tea!
The simple rule is:
- Boiling water at 100°C straight from the kettle with your black teas, pu erhs and tisanes.
- Water at 75 – 85°C for green and oolong teas.
- Water at 60 – 70°C for white teas.
It pays to experiment and find the right temperatures for your own taste.
Until you are expert at ‘listening’ to your kettle – Japanese tea masters claim that you can hear the temperature – we recommend using a digital thermometer.
Around the world, from Argentina to Zimbabwe, professional tea tasters use the same shape and size of tasting crockery.
The design is derived from the ancient Chinese tea drinking vessels and is now standardised internationally. Thus wherever tea is tasted the methodology is consistent.
To complete your brewing equipment use a standard size teaspoon (or for really accurate tasting use a digital weighing scale).
Brewing time can be measured using a clock or watch, or a digital countdown timer.
For every tea we sell Nothing But Tea always suggests the amount of tea to use, the water temperature, and the brewing time. These are based on our own tastings and set out in our handy Brewing Guide. This is found on the back of our pouches, or in the printed instructions sent with your tea. These recommendations are just to get you started; much of the fun of tea tasting is to find how teas subtly change in taste under a range of conditions.
Generally brewing time is for 2-5 minutes, though oolongs and tisanes can be brewed for longer.
Many people use multiple brewing with green, oolong and white teas, repeatedly brewing the same leaves for short periods. This makes quite a difference to the taste.
The professional taster uses all his senses when checking a tea (this is called organoleptic assessment).
He looks at the dry leaf, feels its density, and crushes some and listens to the crackle to assess the moisture content.
He sniffs the wet leaves for aroma and checks them for colour and consistency.
Only then he turns to the liquor. Using a silver spoon, he lifts lukewarm tea to his lips and sucks in air through the tea causing some of it to vaporise into his throat. This allows the aroma to be sensed by the back of his nasal cavity, whilst the remaining liquid is squeezed along the sides of his tongue to sense the taste and thickness.
Finally he spits the tea into a spittoon – swallowing 300 spoonfuls an hour would just be too much tea!
The home tea taster should also use all their senses.
First examine the dry leaf
Visual – look at the colour of the leaf. Is the grade even? Is it true to type? Is there ‘tip’ present? Is it pleasing to the eye? A good tea has all these factors.
Smell – sniff the dry leaf. Does it smell as you expect or is there any taint, smokiness or hay aroma? (These are indications of poor manufacture and/or long keeping) or is it musty? (This indicates high moisture) or oily? (This indicates oxidation). While there are many different typical aromas a good tea should always smell sweet and fresh.
Then on to the liquor
Look – with the eyes
Brightness – for black and white teas the liquor should be clear without cloudiness – you should be able to see the bottom of your mug or tasting bowl – and the surface should be reflective. This is called brightness. Green teas are allowed a little cloudiness in the cup.
Colour – black teas will have a colour typical for their type. Assams are reddish brown. Kenyans and low grown Ceylons a golden orange. High grown Ceylon is more yellow. Darjeelings are golden yellow. Green teas will be yellow if they are from China, pale green from Japan. Oolongs are generally a pale orange brown.
Smell – with the nose
Aroma – there are more than 200 aromatic compounds in tea and every tea type has a different balance. When you recognise a tea from its aroma you are comparing it with a remembered aroma picture. With time and practice you will build up a memory store of good (and not so good) aroma pictures. The aroma will generally tie in with the tasted flavour.
Taste – with the palate
Astringency – most good teas show a little astringency (a puckery effect on the tongue and mouth). It gives tea its refreshing character and, at higher levels (required if milk is to be used) it is called pungency.
Body – the thickness or heaviness of a liquor is called the body – it is a useful characteristic. Without it a tea is termed thin.
Bitter – a little bitterness is a good character but it can be overdone.
Flavour – a combination of the above characters with tasted aroma. Flavour should be typical of the tea type and should be balanced and may be complex – combining several characters with no one dominating. A good tea will have brightness, clear colour, strength and thickness. A poor tea may be thin, cloudy and brown. An over-fired or burnt tea will have the acrid taste of burnt toast – it is a common fault in tea.
If you make a written note of your tea tastings it will improve your technique and help to develop your skills. Over time, it becomes a fascinating record of your developing palate and preferences. You can download our tasting evaluation template.