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So, you’re going to try some new teas or you are going to a tea tasting event. How do you prepare your palate for this experience? Yes, you need to prepare or your time and effort (and the cost of the event) will be wasted. That delicate aroma, that initial flavor hit and lingering aftertaste, that wonderful mouthfeel — it will all be lost without being prepared.

Baked squash with butter and garlic is NOT good before a tea tasting. (Photo by A.C. Cargill, all rights reserved)

Baked squash with butter and garlic is NOT good before a tea tasting. (Photo by A.C. Cargill, all rights reserved)

In a recent article on this blog, tea pro and cook Janet Sanchez gave us some foods to use to cleanse the palate. This is very important so the flavor of one tea does not carry over to the next tea being tried. But there are other factors to keep in mind, such as the following:

1 Avoid Strong-Tasting Food

From curry that can set your mouth on fire to chili that sets not only your mouth but your esophagus and stomach and the rest of the digestive track on fire, spicy foods are certainly an issue when you are trying to prepare your palate for a tea tasting. But don’t forget other strong flavors. Very sweet foods can be just as problematic. Cinnamon rolls are a good example, with their gooey caramel and tons of cinnamon and icing. Things like maple syrup can also throw tastebuds out of whack. When we eat sweets, other flavors come across stronger, so lemons taste more sour, etc.

2 Avoid Strong Fragrances

Since taste and smell are closely related, you will want to forego perfumes, colognes, etc. This is good whenever you are in a location where people are eating, not just doing tea tastings. Hubby and I were in a restaurant not long ago when someone wearing sandalwood fragrance walked by, spoiling our dinner. Normally a very pleasant fragrance, sandalwood didn’t quite go with the items on our plates and in our cups. And it lasted long after that person had left the area.

3 Avoid Allergens When Possible

This may sound impossible, but you can avoid the things that stir up your hayfever or throw you into some kind of allergic reaction, at least for about 24 hours before the tea tasting. You can stay indoors, take allergy medication ahead of symptoms (if the directions on the package say it’s okay to do so), and generally stay clear of those allergens. If you do have to venture out and the pollen count is high, be sure to change your clothes and even take a shower and wash your hair when you get back in to get rid of as much pollen as possible (even if you don’t see any).

4 Do Your Homework

Learn about the various flavor profiles in the teas you will be tasting. You don’t need to memorize them or even make up a cheat sheet. Just have a basic idea: fruity, floral, nutty, etc. You may also want to know a bit about the teas before trying them. It can make a difference to know just how rare and/or labor-intensive a tea is. On the other hand, you do want to approach each tea with a fairly open mind.

5 Clear Your Head

We’re talking about your state of mind, not your nasal passages, here. A basically positive attitude that is focused on the tea is needed. So set aside that quarrel you had with a co-worker, the file that got deleted off your computer and you had no back-up copy, and the umpteenth spat you broke up between the kids. This is pure “me time” where you can give full attention to your senses.

Follow these five and have a great tea tasting time!

See more of A.C. Cargill’s articles here.

© Online Stores, Inc., and The English Tea Store Blog, 2009-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this article’s author and/or the blog’s owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Online Stores, Inc., and The English Tea Store Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Gyokuro Japanese Green Tea (Photo source: The English Tea Store)

Gyokuro Japanese Green Tea (Photo source: The English Tea Store)

Forget for the moment that it sounds like something from a playground joke (umami’s so fat…). If you’re like me, you probably weren’t aware until relatively recently that umami is one of the five major taste types, along with sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. But it’s nothing new, as a matter of fact, having been first proposed more than one hundred years ago.

Given the name, you probably won’t be too surprised to learn that umami was a concept first proposed in Japan, by a Japanese professor named Kikunae Ikeda. There are a number of ideas on what the word umami actually translates to, but my personal favorite is “yummy.” Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems that the notion of umami wasn’t really that widespread here in the West, at least not to us average Joes, until just a few years ago. Perhaps I just wasn’t paying attention.

The astute reader will notice that I have yet to describe what umami actually tastes like. Given the difficulty of describing what anything tastes like without comparing it to something else, I’ll solve this one by listing a few of the foods said to be high in this particular taste. Foods such as seaweed and certain types of seafood and tomatoes, soy beans and certain mushrooms. For more foods that are high in umami content, check out this page from the Umami Information Centre (yes, Virginia, there is an Umami Information Centre).

Then there’s tea. Green tea, in particular, which is said to have an especially high concentration of umami flavors. You can go back to the Umami Information Centre for The Umami of Green Tea, an article that explains this angle in a little more detail and more or less in layman’s terms. Not so much – as far as the layman’s terms go – for various other studies that look at the connection between umami and tea.

But if you’re of a scholarly bent you might find a couple of these studies to be of some interest. Here’s one in which Japanese researchers studied a Japanese variety of green tea and came to conclusion that “glutamic acid, theanine and citric acid are important for umami taste of Gyokuro.” Here’s a 2006 study by Japanese and German researchers which took a look at the powdered Japanese green tea called matcha and which was titled Molecular and Sensory Studies on the Umami Taste of Japanese Green Tea.

Umami in green tea (Photo source: screen capture from site)

Umami in green tea (Photo source: screen capture from site)

© Online Stores, Inc., and The English Tea Store Blog, 2009-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this article’s author and/or the blog’s owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Online Stores, Inc., and The English Tea Store Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Ever buy a tea based on the description on the vendor’s site only to have the flavor come out very different (and not in a good way) when you steeped it at home? Me, too. Same goes for tea review sites. There are about five main reasons I can think of that could account for the difference in flavor perception.

First, a few of the more “out there” tea flavor descriptions I’ve seen on vendor’s sites:

  • “…tilled earth, minerals,…and, of course, malt.”
  • “…with notes of pepper, tobacco,…”
  • “…notes of sautéed scallops, steamed clams and kale soup…”

One site claims that steamed green tea natural flavors include: spinach/watercress/sorrel, cut grass/wheatgrass, seaweed/ocean breeze/iodine, lemon zest, asparagus, leeks, bok choy/kale, corn husks/maize, mushrooms, roasted chicken skin, fish broth, field peas, fruit tree flowers, pine, and nuts (especially pine nuts and hazelnuts). Corn husks? Roasted chicken skin? Not quite what I expect from my tea. And not very appealing descriptions.

All water is not created equal. You can’t see whether it’s hard or soft or if it has chlorine in it. (Photo source: A.C. Cargill, all rights reserved)

All water is not created equal. You can’t see whether it’s hard or soft or if it has chlorine in it. (Photo source: A.C. Cargill, all rights reserved)

And now for reasons why you may not have this same taste experience:

1 Water Quality

A key factor in the taste of tea has been acknowledged by many tea experts to be the quality of the water. Soft water (with a minimum of minerals in it) will steep tea up differently than hard water. Local tap water often has some purifier (common ones used in the U.S. are chloramine and chlorine) added to it. This will also affect the taste of your tea.

Tea_Blog_Water.jpg

2 Tea Form

The tea taster who wrote the description was very likely using a loose form, not a bagged form of the tea. My personal experience has shown that tea bags, especially the papery kind, can make a difference in flavor. The tea in those bags is often in a more finely ground form than what you buy loose, meaning that it will steep up faster and possibly stronger. You lose out on the flavor subtleties that way, especially for higher grades of whites, greens, and oolongs.

The same tea, one steeped loose and the other in the bag. The difference was unmistakable. (Photo source: A.C. Cargill, all rights reserved)

The same tea, one steeped loose and the other in the bag. The difference was unmistakable. (Photo source: A.C. Cargill, all rights reserved)

3 Steeping Method

Tea vendors (especially the big ones that have their own tasting staff) steep in a very prescribed manner. They may even use special tea tasting sets. The loose tea leaves are loaded into the cup, the hot water is added, and then the lid put on top. The tea steeps and then is strained out into the tasting bowl and is sipped from there. Another infusion may be done from the leaves.

Standard tea tasting set in white ceramic. Note the notches in the cup edge (left photo) for straining tea liquid into the sipping cup (2nd to left). (Photo source: stock image)

Standard tea tasting set in white ceramic. Note the notches in the cup edge (left photo) for straining tea liquid into the sipping cup (2nd to left). (Photo source: stock image)

4 Tasting Method

You don’t have to slurp and spit like a pro to get true tea enjoyment. Try sipping from a little cup like this one. (Photo source: A.C. Cargill, all rights reserved)

You don’t have to slurp and spit like a pro to get true tea enjoyment. Try sipping from a little cup like this one. (Photo source: A.C. Cargill, all rights reserved)

Both tea vendors and many tea reviews base their tea flavors description on fairly controlled conditions. The description is usually written by someone using a professional tasting method, slurping in the tea to get as much air as possible with it and therefore supposedly getting a heightened sense of the tea’s flavor. Then, they swish it around a bit and spit it out. Who drinks like that? Not me. Nor would I want to. A little slurping at tea time is fine (unless you are taking tea with a very refined bunch of folks) but mastering the professional tasting method takes practice and does not lead to real enjoyment of your cuppa. Since you are drinking the tea in a more normal manner, therefore, your taste experience is bound to be different.

5 Flavors are very tricky to describe

Not making excuses here, but it’s very true, so to be on the safe side, some vendors go by the descriptions put out there by professional tea tasters. No harm in that. It’s the accepted practice for a lot of things, including wines, cheeses, chocolates, and coffees. The pros’ extensive experiences are handy references and can be fairly impartial. It’s only natural, though, that your taste experience should differ, which could be a very good thing. A tea that the pro says tastes like sea scallops may not taste like sea scallops to you, which could be a very good thing, so go ahead and try it.

Pai Mu Tan (White Peony) is a tea not always appreciated at the first trying. (Photo source: A.C. Cargill, all rights reserved)

Pai Mu Tan (White Peony) is a tea not always appreciated at the first trying. (Photo source: A.C. Cargill, all rights reserved)

6 Time and Tastebuds

There’s an old saying that “time and tide wait for no one,” meaning basically that time is precious so don’t waste it. Well, time and tastebuds wait for no one. We all have our own unique set of tastebuds that change over time. Plus, as time goes by and you experience more teas, you will detect more of the flavor nuances in them. Quite frankly, there are teas that were of high quality that hubby and I tried a few years ago but did not appreciate to their fullest. As we have learned more about tea, we have gone back and tried some of these disappointments and found that, even though they are older now (we made sure to store them properly), they had a range of flavors in each sip that we had not perceived before. It’s a spiral of knowledge. Any subject that you are gaining knowledge of on a continuous basis, when you go back to your early experiences, you see more and differently. Try going back to your elementary school, for example, after being away a few years and now being all grown up. The building will seem smaller and the teachers shorter and less imposing. Retrying a tea could make it seem a lot closer to the vendor’s (or the pro’s) description.

Go ahead and retry a tea that you had been disappointed by in the past. Who knows, you may find that the vendor’s description was closer to reality than you thought.

© Online Stores, Inc., and The English Tea Store Blog, 2009-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this article’s author and/or the blog’s owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Online Stores, Inc., and The English Tea Store Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

I decided to take the opportunity to revisit my tea cupboard and whilst there were some teas that had kept well despite years of storage (one of which I had written about in a previous post), there were other teas that were not as fortunate.

Green Tea and Essential Oils

Green Tea and Essential Oils

Having enjoyed a sample of Dragonwell green tea I went online and purchased some from the vendor.  Unfortunately, upon arrival, the tea had already faded in colour and in aroma.  I should really have informed the vendor, but as a typical Brit I don’t like to complain, preferring instead to keep it in the cupboard.  I couldn’t bear the thought of throwing away the tea despite the fact that it wasn’t at its best.

I looked at the faded tea and after several conversations with a Twitter friend of mine, we decided to spruce up the tea by adding essential oils.  We started by adding a quarter of a drop of peppermint oil to the dragonwell.  As I have had very little experience with essential oils, it was felt that one full drop might be too much for me to ingest hence the quarter drop (which we controlled through the use of a tooth pick).  The peppermint cut through the astringency of the green tea yet lifted the tea’s natural nutty sweetness.  The tea and oil blend was extremely pepperminty on the nose but didn’t come through in the taste of the tea.  It was an amazing combination.

We then decided to add a quarter of a drop of lemon essential oil and I felt like Violet Beauregarde (the girl who chews gum all day in Roald Dahl’s children’s books Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) as the taste of the Dragonwell was followed closely by the peppermint and the lemon came through on the taste right at the end.  One flavour didn’t overwhelm the other but were equally complimentary to each other: tea-licious!

So the next time you open up your tea cupboard and find some tea that is past its best, why not spruce up the tea with some essential oils? You may be amazed with your tea-search :o)

© Online Stores, Inc., and The English Tea Store Blog, 2009-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this article’s author and/or the blog’s owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Online Stores, Inc., and The English Tea Store Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

White sipping cups are perfect for trying this Green Chai

White sipping cups are perfect for trying this Green Chai

Tea tasting pros have some specialized equipment. Photos show up online all the time of long rows of white tasting sets, making them the most well-known. Long have I been salivating (no, not literally!) over these photos showing “tasting set troops” lined up and ready for inspection (of the teas) and for steeping and tasting (of the teas).

These pro tea tasting sets consist of a handled cup where a portion of the lip opposite the cup handle is serrated to serve as a strainer, a lid that can be turned upside down and set on the cup with the tea leaves piled on it after steeping, and a tasting bowl for inhaling the aroma of and sipping the tea. These sets are almost always in white so you can really see the color of the tea. You put tea leaves in the cup, add water heated to the appropriate temperature for the tea you are tasting, put the lid on the cup, and let the tea steep. When it’s done, you can pour the tea into the tasting bowl through the serrated part of the cup rim, put the spent leaves on the lid (enjoying the sight of them before and after steeping is part of the fun), and then enjoy the tea liquid.

My equipment is a bit less professional, meaning that I experience the tea more like a regular tea drinker would. It’s also what I am used to at this time, but someday…aahh!

I have a special 2-cup teapot for steeping (known to many of you as that Little Yellow Teapot) and two little sipping cups for hubby and me to taste the liquid. I also  use two small white bowls to photograph both the dry and the spent tea leaves, the difference being quite remarkable on some teas such as Spring Pouchong (my review).

Small white bowls to show before and after steeping

Small white bowls to show before and after steeping

Other options exist, too, for equipping your tea tasting adventure. You can go the gaiwan or kyusu route especially for green teas, or some teas like oolongs seem to infuse best in a yixing teapot. If the tea you’re tasting is a British or American favorite like a breakfast blend, a Kenyan blend, or an Assam, you can stick with a tried and true ceramic or bone china teapot to steep in and enjoying in a nice teacup and saucer, always in style.

Whatever your choice, you can have a wonderful tea tasting experience even without those professional tasting sets. Enjoy!

© Online Stores, Inc., and The English Tea Store Blog, 2009-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this article’s author and/or the blog’s owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Online Stores, Inc., and The English Tea Store Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Taylors of Harrogate

Taylors of Harrogate

If you’ve ever had the misfortune to drink tea while you have a cold, you’ve probably discovered a simple truth: even the best tea in the world is no good unless you can taste it properly. Professional tea tasters use a strict set of procedures to make sure that they can do their job effectively, and it may take years for these pros to train the palate to appreciate all the many and varied nuances of tea. If you doubt that this is serious business, then consider that South African researchers have isolated a total of 27 descriptive attributes just for rooibos, a tea-like herbal beverage produced in that country.

If you’ve ever tasted tea after eating spicy food, you’ll also understand why tea tasters tend to refrain from eating these foods, smoking, or doing anything else that might dull their sensitive taste buds. What you may not realize is that there are some other, less known factors that can have an effect on your ability to taste effectively.

According to a study by British researchers at the University of Manchester, background noise can have a significant effect on our taste buds. In their tests with 48 volunteers they piped white noise at different levels through headphones while feeding the test subjects various types of foods. Qualities like saltiness or sweetness were affected negatively by louder noise levels but crunchiness was enhanced. Read more about this research here and here.

If all of this doesn’t give you enough to keep track of while drinking your tea, then consider some findings by a group of German researchers. Their test subjects rated wines higher when the drinkers were exposed to red or blue ambient light while drinking than if they were exposed to green or white light.

While neither of these studies relate specifically to tea, it’s probably safe to say that, if you want the best tea drinking experience, it wouldn’t hurt to eliminate as much background noise as possible and infuse the room with a nice, relaxing red or blue light. Which sounds like a great idea even if you’re not going to be exercising your taste buds.

© Online Stores, Inc., and The English Tea Store Blog, 2009-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this article’s author and/or the blog’s owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Online Stores, Inc., and The English Tea Store Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Wondering why your tea is tasting strange all of a sudden? Here are some common tea taste-killers along with suggestions for their elimination:

1. Your Palate: If your tea is suddenly tasting funny or “off,” it may be that something is affecting your palate. Oftentimes this can be something as simple as toothpaste residue, mouthwash, mints, gum, or breath fresheners. Wait 30-60 minutes after using these products before drinking your tea, and you will likely find that the problem goes away. Medications, particularly antibiotics, can also affect your palate, so you may need to experiment with different teas to find some that are less affected by your palate changes.

On a more serious note, a funny or strange taste in your mouth can also be a sign of dental problems, such as gum disease or tooth decay or a medical issue such as acid reflux. Be sure to contact your doctor and/or dentist if you have ongoing palate issues.

2.Your Water: Water for your tea should be fresh and cold. Warm water from the tap doesn’t have as much oxygen and can result in flat-tasting tea. If you don’t have good tap water at home, invest in a decent water filter pitcher.  Also, remember that water temperature matters. Too-hot water can destroy the flavor of delicate teas, while water that is too-cool can utterly fail to extract tea flavors.

3. Your Teaware: Do you dry your teaware with a dishtowel that reeks of fabric softener? This can affect the taste of your tea. Also, before you brew or serve some tea, give your teapot, teacup or infuser a sniff. If it smells stale, give it a good rinse in hot water before using.

4. Your Tea: Tea leaves are very good at absorbing scent. If you are storing your tea near other strongly scented products, your tea’s aroma and flavor will be affected. Be sure to store your tea in air-tight containers and away from household cleaners or spices. Keep in mind that tea can go stale, and that most tea does not age well. Drink your tea while it is fresh.

5. Your Measurements: If you drink bagged tea, check the package instructions for the correct amount of water to use. Too much water can result in a bland, insipid cup of tea. If you enjoy loose leaf teas, use a gram scale for the most accurate measurement: Larger leaf teas don’t fit into teaspoons well, making it difficult to get the right amount of tea needed for best flavor.

[Editor's note: Our blog is chock full of great articles on this topic. Use our search feature to find them!]

© Online Stores, Inc., and The English Tea Store Blog, 2009-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this article’s author and/or the blog’s owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Online Stores, Inc., and The English Tea Store Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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© Online Stores, Inc., and The English Tea Store Blog, 2009-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Online Stores, Inc., and The English Tea Store Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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