There are many aspects to tea and one of the main ones is tea tasting. After all, if the teas were not tasted by experts before hitting the shelves in the markets, most of the teas out there would probably not taste the same without their skills and judgement. Tea tasting is truly an art and one of the chief reasons why so many people around the world get to enjoy a warm and delicious cuppa of their favourite brew.
Here, we take a look at some of the most common terms that are used to describe the 3 parameters which are looked at when tasting tea- the dry leaf, the infusion and last but definitely not least, the liquor.
The dry leaf
This is arguably the first indicator, among others, of whether the tea has undergone correct manufacturing. Often, a lot of teas are also included in blends more because of the appearance of the leaf rather than what is being produced in the cup. This has led most manufacturers around the world to sharpen up the appearance of the tea that they producing. Aesthetics plays a much greater role in selecting a part of the larger tea blends these days as compared to before.
Black: this is the most desirable appearance for any black tea and portrays a good standard of manufacture.
Blackish: it is a satisfactory appearance for black teas and means that the tea could have a richer colour.
Bloom: a sign of good manufacture and sorting (where the reduction of leaf has already taken place before firing). This is a sort of shine on the leaf which is caused due to the highest levels of manufacture, handling and leaf quality.
Bold: bits of leaf which are too large for the particular grade and will not be readily accepted.
Brown: a brownish appearance which is normally a reflection of hard treatment of the leaf.
Chesty: inferior or unseasoned packing materials cause this taint which comes through in the leaf.
Crepy: a crimped appearance that is generally associated with some of the larger broken grades from orthodox manufacture such as BOP.
Curly: the leaf appearance of some whole leaf grades such as Orange Pekoe as compared to quite a few others.
Choppy: orthodox (or Rotorvane) manufactured leaf which has to be cut by a “breaker” during sorting as opposed to the traditional method of manufacture in a roller.
Chunky: a very large broken from orthodox manufacture.
Clean: leaf which is free from fibre, dust or any irrelevant matter. This is one of the most desirable types of leaf appearance.
Even: the tea leaves will all mostly be in line with its grading and it mostly consists of pieces of leaf that are quite similar in size. It is a sign of good manufacture.
Flakey: flat, open and often light in texture. Bears a sort of resemblance to chilli flakes.
Grey: caused by too much abrasion during sorting and is not of the colour that is desired from tea leaves.
Grainy: the shape of tea leaves would be uniform and grainy in nature.
Leafy: orthodox manufacture leaf tending to be on the large or long side which makes the leaves less desirable compared to others teas which have undergone better production.
Light: a tea that is less in terms of weight and density. Sometimes flakey teas can also be called light teas due to the nature of these teas.
Make: well made (or not) and must be true to the grade.
Mushy: a tea which has been packed or kept in such a manner that it has got high moisture content.
Musty: a tea that has been affected by mildew- a type of surface fungi that is gray or white in colour.
Nose: the aroma or smell that the dry leaf gives off. Leaf teas grown in high elevation are generally famous for the different smells and flavours that they emanate from them.
Powdery: fine, dust like particles which are only desirable in certain grades of tea.
Ragged: an irregular tea that has been badly manufactured and graded and will probably be an eyesore for any true tea lover.
Stalk & fibre: should be minimal or not present in the primary or top grades. It is generally unavoidable in the lower grades of an assortment.
Tip: a sign of fine plucking and quite prevalent in the tea that is manufactured by the best gardens around.
Uneven and mixed: uneven pieces of leaf are usually a sign of poor sorting and means that the tea leaves are not able to be true to the particular grade.
Well twisted: applicable to orthodox manufacture. Often referred to as “well made” or” “rolled” and used for describing whole leaf grades and is a desirable characteristic for the larger grades.
Wiry: a well twisted, thin leaf orthodox tea which is well suited for certain grades.
The infusion or infused leaf
A lot of people may wonder why the infusion of the tea is one of the parameters that are judged. The thing with the infusion is that it gives off an indication of whether the tea in question would have a short, normal or long shelf life. For certain categories of tea, the aroma from the infusion also allows the taster to determine some of the characteristics of the tea which would be determined later while tasting the cup. Much like the leaf, a bright and lively looking infusion is the key to long term (literally) success.
Aroma: smell or scent of the tea leaves which give off the intrinsic characteristics of the tea leaves and is predominant in ones grown at higher elevations.
Biscuit (y): a pleasurable aroma that can be found in a well fired Assam
Bright: a lively bright appearance. This is usually the sign of a tea that has been made well and is one that can be kept in storage for a considerable period of time.
Dark: a dark or dull colour which usually indicates that the leaf is of inferior quality and such teas will not be able to withstand long periods of storage.
Dull: the infusion lacks brightness and usual denotes a poor tea. This could be due to faulty manufacture and firing, or even high amount of moisture.
Green: caused by under fermentation or a major characteristic of leaf from immature bushes (liquors often raw or light). This also occurs when poor rolling standards are in place.
Mixed or uneven: the infusion shows a couple of different shades of copper and the most inferior teas and even some borderline teas (in terms of being fit for consumption) tend to have infusions which range from blackish to black.
Tarry: a smokey aroma.
Without doubt, the liquor is the thing that everyone really wants to see- whether it is the producer or the shop owner or the end customer. So whether it is a nice cup of Darjeeling with a muscatel flavour or a strong cup of Assam with malty notes, this is where the game ends or begins for any tea that is being tasted. If there are some minor modifications to be made, the tea undergoes those processes before they are put in bags or chests and shipped off to the next destination.
Baggy: a taint normally resulting from the bags in which the teas are stored. The thing to keep in mind is the fact that tea is one commodity which gets contaminated quickly by a number of different elements.
Body: one of the most desired characteristics as far as the liquor is concerned. This means that the cup is quite full in terms of thickness rather than being a thin watery cup.
Bakey: this is a term used for an over fired liquor or a tea which contains much less moisture than the required amount.
Bright: also one of the more desired characteristics of a cup of tea and this is generally seen in the gardens with the best quality of leaf and manufacture.
Brisk: this is one of the hallmarks of a top quality black tea from places like assam.
Burnt: as the name suggests. This is a result of severe over firing and the standard of the tea will not be accepted by most if not all.
Character: an attractive taste when describing better high elevation growth, and particular to origin. An example of this is the clonal character that some of the teas display.
Coloury: indicates useful depth of colour and strength and is usually the sign of a good cup of tea.
Course: this is because of a high amount of fibre content and the mouth feel is a bit rough.
Common: a term used for liquors which are without and flavour and have a thin and light body.
Cream: a precipitate obtained after cooling and often associated with the quality teas.
Dry: is an indicator of slight over firing and a lower level of moisture content in the tea.
Dull: not clear, and lacking any brightness or briskness. Not to be confused with common liquors.
Earthy: normally caused due to storing in damp places and is a taste which can, at times, be “climatically inborn” in leaf from some origins.
Flat: unfresh, (usually due to age) and at times due to the manner in which they have been kept.
Flavour: a most desirable extension of “character” caused by slow growth at high elevations and comparatively rare in teas which are generally grown in the lower elevation.
Fruity: this can be caused due to over fermenting and/or because of a bacterial infection before firing. Is usually like an over-ripe taste.
Full: a good combination of strength and colour and one of the more sought after combinations in a top cup of tea.
Gone off: a flat or very old tea and this is often happens a result of high moisture content in the tea.
Green: an immature “raw” character which generally occurs because of under- fermentation and sometimes due to lower levels of withering.
Hard: a very pungent liquor and is usually much less desired as compared to a brisk cup.
Harsh: a taste which is quite bitter in nature and generally related to leaf which has not been withered for the required period of time.
Heavy: a thick, strong and coloury liquor but with limited amount of briskness.
High-fired: over-fired but not bakey (or burnt) and is usually accepted in a lot of cases.
Light: a cup which is lacking strength and any depth of colour and will probably sell based on the appearance of the leaf.
Mature: is neither bitter nor flat.
Mellow: this is said of a tea that is both round in the mouth and slightly sour as well.
Metallic: a sharp coppery flavour and there are times when a metallic taint can be picked up from things like staple pins and other metal objects.
Muddy: a dull opaque liquor which is not completely cloudy and yet not clear as well. Not the desired characteristics.
Plain: a liquor which is clean but lacking in the desirable characteristics of a good cup of tea.
Point: a bright, acidy and penetrating characteristic which may not be desired by everyone.
Pungent: astringent with a good combination of briskness, brightness and strength. It is generally associated with the best cups of black tea that is produced in india.
quality: refers to “cup quality” and denotes a combination of the most desirable liquoring properties for a good to best cup of tea.
Rasping: terminology used for a very course and harsh liquor that does not display the desirable characteristics of tea.
Raw: bitter and unpleasant liquor which is caused due to inferior standards of leaf due to things like faulty production or plucking.
Smokey: this is mainly caused by leaks around the dryer heating tubes which give a smokey taste to the tea.
Soft: the opposite of briskness and lacking any “live” characteristic caused by unproductive fermentation and/or firing.
Strength: the substance in cup and what people look forward to when they want their senses to be given a kickstart or get the feeling of being refreshed.
Stewed: a soft liquor with an undesirable taste caused by faulty firing at low temperatures and often occurs as a result of underprovided air flow.
Taints: characteristic or tastes which are “foreign” to tea. Such as petrol, garlic etc. Often due to being stored next to foreign commodities with strong characteristics of their own. At times, the taint can also come from the very bag or chest in which the tea is stored.
Thin: an insipid light liquor which lacks any desirable characteristics and is similar to water in texture.
Weedy: a grass or hay taste related to under withering. Sometimes, this is also referred to as woody.
These were some of the general terms that are used to describe teas and its various parameters while professional tea tasters give their thoughts and judgement. Let’s hope that the next time you are sipping on your favourite cuppa, you get to understand and associate with some of the terms which have been mentioned above for the various characteristics that tea display.