Tea Tasting: Is There A Right Way?

Beverly Wainright, Amba Estate, Sri Lanka, meticulously cups each batch of tea from her garden.

Beverly Wainright, Amba Estate, Sri Lanka, meticulously cups each batch of tea from her garden.

In lab-like conditions at tea companies around the world, teas are being tasted. Standardized cupping procedures are regularly followed. Measurements determine amount of leaf, temperature of water, and infusion time.

Leaving the equipment and steeping parameters aside, there is also a time-honored set of behaviors to assess the flavor of tea. These frequently include slurping tea from a spoon and spitting the tea rather than swallowing.

[Example of tea tasting]

When teas are tasted “in the field,” a variety of techniques may be used. These include slurping, sipping, swallowing, or spitting. Beth Johnston of Teas Etc. has encountered several different tasting protocols in her travels. “Among tea professionals in areas of Taiwan, the ability to create a loud slurping sound is the mark of a true professional,” she said. “However, slurping tea is not the standard in parts of China. There, teas are sipped and swallowed.”

The question then arises: Is there a best way to taste tea?

Dr. Richard Doty, Director of The Smell and Taste Center at the University of Pennsylvania, has been researching and exploring human capacities for smell and taste for over 40 years.

When asked about optimal ways to taste tea, Dr. Doty explained: “The key is movement [of tea] within the oral cavity to ensure all of the taste buds become involved.” He also noted: “Much of the tea tasting experience is dependent upon swallowing, since swallowing increases the pressures to move volatile molecules from the oral cavity into the rear of the nasal pharynx to the receptors. The rear of the tongue and sectors of the throat also have taste receptors which often go unstimulated without actually swallowing.”

Does The Tea Matter?

Elyse Petersen and the Tealet team recently completed their Amazing Tea Race, tasting teas in multiple countries. From Sri Lanka to China to India and beyond, Petersen observed some of the strictest cupping procedures being followed in Darjeeling, including the slurp-and-spit method of tasting.

Older firms like Lipton were using the slurp-and-spit method for tasting many teas from Sri Lanka and India. Historically, teas of India and Sri Lanka were known for brisk, astringent characteristics.

One conclusion that could be drawn from these examples is that the slurp-and-spit method gained popularity among tea tasters who were evaluating teas from traditional regions producing brisker black teas. The logic of slurp-and-spit may be related to the drying effects of traditional black teas and their potential to dull the tasting receptors. In the case of these teas, slurping may make more sense as it relies on the nose without overtaxing the tongue.

Compared to earlier decades when the slurp-and-spit method became the standardized method of tasting brisker black teas, Dr.Doty’s recommendations of swishing and swallowing may make more sense with other kinds of tea. Many green and wulong teas, for example, do not have taste profiles built upon so much inherent astringency.

The aroma captured through slurping reveals only part of the story of a tea’s taste. Mouthfeel and aftertaste are examples of highly desirable characteristics that may go undetected when the traditional slurp-and-spit method is employed. Interestingly, Dr. Virginia Utermohlen’s research conducted at the 2010 World Tea Expo reveals that more knowledgeable tea drinkers were more likely to cite aftertaste as a reason for a tea being their favorite.  As a method, slurp-and-spit may fail to reveal these tea traits.

Until more conclusive research appears confirming which tasting methods, if any, may be superior for different types of tea, tea tasters are left to their own devices. It will be up to them to determine what components of the tea tasting experience (e. g. taste, aroma, mouthfeel, or aftertaste) are most critical to the evaluation process, and what methods best facilitate the sensation of those components. More tea drinking is still in order.

Photo Credit: Tealet

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