One of the reasons tea is so fascinating to me is because of its complexity. Chemically speaking, we know now that a cup of tea contains several hundred different volatile compounds (600 different ones have been identified so far). This is a lot of information to sort through. Every time you sip, your brain is basically bombarded with information. How do we sort through it?
This article is the second of a two-part series on how to best describe the taste of tea. While I discussed in the first part how I like to present my teas and approach description in general, here I'll focus on tea vocabulary and how to build up your reference library. I hope you'll enjoy the reading and perhaps find here and there a few tips to better navigate the labyrinth of tea language yourself.
Most of it happens in the nose
Surely you've experience that annoying feeling of sipping tea an picking up a specific aroma that you can't quite name, an evasive taste that seems very familiar but nonetheless eludes you. We all know the struggle. I've been there. And I still am. Identifying the aromas present in the cup is not exactly an easy task. But we'll try to help.
The real struggle with tea tasting is not to pick up aromas, it is to sort and classify them. When drinking tea, most of the volatile molecules released in your infusion will reach the olfactory receptors located at the back of your nose. Their work is almost mechanical. Once contact is made with an aromatic compound, these sensors send signals to your brain which translates it into smell. That's where things can get lost. This translation job isn't simple. There is often so much information reaching your brain that separating the noisy impulse into its different elements can prove difficult. Moreover, how do you translate anything if you don't have the vocabulary for it?
The first thing to do when trying to get better at detecting and identifying aromas is to build and organize your olfactory memory. The information sent by your senses is treated and translated in your olfactory bulb, the little part of the brain located right behind the nose dedicated to the interpretation of smell. I like to compare this bulb to some sort of library. That would be what your olfactory memory is: a reference library. Each time an impulse is sent to your olfactory bulb, your brain runs through your stored references looking for adequate interpretation. The more elaborate and organized your library is, the more likely you are to find an interpretation for your sensory signals.
How to build up your library
Whether you are drinking tea, drinking wine, eating pie, or taking in the scent of a blooming tree on your morning walk, the sensory interpretation happening in your olfactory bulb doesn't really change. The process is essentially the same no matter what you are tasting or smelling. This means, you can build up your aromatic library even when you're not drinking tea. If you actually consider how much your brain works interpreting scents throughout the day (think about the food you eat, about the odors of your house, of your lawn in summer, of the city after rain, of the lunchroom at work...) you'll probably realize that the part exclusively dedicated to tea interpretation only amounts to a small portion of the work. In fact, most professional tasters, whether they work with wine, spirits, coffee, or anything else, will tell you that they spent their lives tasting things. Any things. Whatever gets sorted out in their olfactory bulb, if consciously observed, counts as tasting. So whenever you take a bite in an apple next time, think this is the taste of apples. And if you can, push it further. This is the taste of a Granny Smith. It is different from that of a MacIntosh or a Spartan. Get tasting!
The other important aspect of building an efficient reference library is to understand how to best organize it. The various aromatic compounds found in tea, although individually different from one another, do present similitude, making it possible to group them in broader, more generic categories. Notes of asparagus, spinach, zucchini, and cucumber can all be grouped under the "vegetable" category. Much in the same way, the vegetable, aromatic herbs, fresh grass, and dried grass sub-categories all belong to the "vegetal/herbaceous" family. Reversely, the "fruity" aromatic family can be divided into many subcategories. Exotic fruits, candied fruits, dried fruits, stone fruits, fresh fruits, citrus, berries... which can then be further subdivided into more precise aromatic notes like pineapple, raisin, bergamot, plum, strawberry, and so on. If you dig a bit on the internet, you'll find a great many flavour wheels that will help you schematize this organization.
So, yes, a lot of it happens in the nose. But not all of it. And not all at the same time. Tasting always gives you time to look around, to throw your attention in a few directions other than your nose. Again, things might be easier to grasp when organized, when you know where to look at. To help us structure and analyze taste, I try to systematically focus on three main aspects of its sensory experience: aromas, texture, and structure.
As I've discussed above, the subject of aromas is quite complex and, looking further ahead, probably the one that needs the most training and exercising. There are so many different aromatic compounds involved with tea that the process of experiencing and sorting them out has no real end. Put them together in a cup and their possible combinations are truly limitless.
Texture, on the other hand, has to do with the much less developed sense of touch in our mouth. Texture is the interpretation of signals sent by our stimulated taste buds and other buccal receptors. In this way, while we can count five specific interpretations of taste (sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami) and a plethora of non-specific ones (hot, cold, mellow, oily, astringent, brisk, acidic, sticky, etc.), the number of possible interpretations is still much more limited than that of aromas.
Lastly, structure is perhaps the least instinctive aspect of a tea to identify during tasting. The term itself might seem a little less familiar as it requires some degree of acquaintance to be fully grasped. Basically, structure has to do with expression, with the way the aromatic experience presents itself to our senses. Here, we also take into consideration the development of taste over time.
The point when trying to describe structure is to try and give a general idea of the tasting experience as a whole, something that would describe not one aspect of the tea separately, but that would actually fill the space between all the different perceptions. Does the tea seem light to your senses or does it leave a bold overall impression? Does it pack a punch and dissipates quickly or does it whispers and lingers on forever in the mouth? The experience of structure is very closely related to tannin in tea. Most people know how tannin molecules affect bitterness and astringency, but fewer know how they also affect the development and perception of aromas. Tannins are largely responsible for the rhythm of the tasting experience (as discussed in PART 1 of this article). They can be sharp and quick, overshadowing your aromatic perception, or they can be soft and lengthy, allowing the aromas to sit in your mouth (or nose or throat) for a very long time after each sip. Looking at the evolution of taste over a period of time, I can try and present the structure of a tea much like I would sketch a picture, suggesting the final image by showing how different parts assemble together.
A good way to practice identifying structure is to observe changes in your sensory experience. Look into the different phases of tasting (foremouth, development, finish, aftertaste) and note down what's happening. Can you feel bitterness in your mouth? If yes, when? In the foremouth? In the aftertaste? All along? Is this bitterness somewhat linked to a specific group of aromatics such as grassy or fruity? Can you identify sweetness somewhere? Does the tea affects only your mouth or is it also present in your nose, your throat, your stomach? If structure might seem somewhat abstract when trying to describe tea, it nonetheless often gives the clearest idea of its taste.
Put together, these different sensory interpretations make what I like to call a taste profile. In a way, they gather everything I know about a tea's taste and try to assemble the information in a cohesive picture that would accurately describe the experience. Hopefully, these ideas on the subject will help you better enjoy and describe your teas.