Tips on tea tasting

A scene in the movie "Sideways" has the two main characters sidling up to the bar in a winery's tasting room. Miles is describing tasting wine to his friend. "Mmmm ... a little citrus, maybe some strawberry ... passion fruit ... oh, and there's just like the faintest soupcon of like asparagus and just a flutter of like a nutty, Edam cheese ..."

The Art of Tea Tasting

I think of that scene whenever it's time to taste tea around here, because having such a finely-tuned palate is a trait that's revered among the food and beverage crowd. But alas, that'll never be me. A lot of people out there think they're cursed with a poor palate and tastebuds without much memory, so I approached our Founder/CEO, Richard Rosenfeld, about learning the art of tasting tea.

"The best tea tasters spend their entire day tasting hundreds of cups of tea, and they can probably tell you which estate some tea comes from, and during which week of the year it was plucked," he said.

But Richard doesn't have any desire to be like those guys, just tasting tea all day. Instead, he thinks he knows what qualities he's looking for in each cup of tea — for example, in a cup of our Organic Assam Breakfast he wants a rich cup with maltiness, body and sweetness, but no bitterness or woodiness.

So of course I wanted to see Richard in action. On this day he happened to be preparing to taste some versions of Organic Earl Grey and of our Alpine Berry tea that's a blend of hibiscus and fruit.

The First Rule of Tea Tasting is Consistency

Our in-office tasting equipment consists of a standard tea "cupping" set of identical cups in which tea is steeped and then tasted. Good news for all of us tasting neophytes: You don't have to have a similar set at home to hold a proper tea tasting. The first rule of tasting tea is consistency, according to Richard, so what you really need is some cups that are the same for steeping, and hopefully you'll have enough of those cups to taste teas side by side.

A few other things to be consistent about: the amount of tea you steep, the water temperature and the water itself.

Once you've got those things the same, Richard recommends brewing the tea strong — approximately double-strength. Note that this doesn't mean steeping it longer, because "stewing" your tea for a long time just brings out flavors you wouldn't normally get from your cuppa'. Instead, use more tea so you can really taste each cup, and steep each tea for four or five minutes.

Bad Can Be Good When Cupping Tea

Incidentally, when you brew your tea super strong like this, sometimes flavors don't taste that good. For example, the double-strength Alpine Berry we were slurping (loudly) was over the top with the flavor of hibiscus. But at regular strength, they are quite palatable and the hibiscus taste stands out just enough. Which is the reasoning behind one Richardism on tasting: "Bad can be good."

Tasting tea is best when the tea has cooled so it's easier to taste, and Richard says unlike wine, no clearing of the palate is needed between teas ... although he's been known to sip some water when his tastebuds feel a bit numb.

The results of our tea tasting on this day were something even I could detect with my less-than-enviable palate: the new Alpine Berry blend was rejected because it didn't have as much depth of flavor as our existing blend, and the Earl Greys, although close to our existing blends, were lacking the correct balance of bergamot oil that we prefer.

And finally, the secret to tasting extra-strong black and green teas and not worrying about caffeine consumption? Spit, people. Spit.

With this knowledge, what teas will you try tasting in your own home?

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