Tea drinkers don’t always realize what an asset their nose is for selecting and savoring tea. Your sense of smell is probably 70% of your enjoyment of foods and beverages, especially tea. With thousands of blends, those aromas can tell you a lot about how well you’ll like the taste of the steeped tea.
Sometimes, though, your nose can be fooled. An aroma evident in the dry tea will seem to fade or disappear altogether in the steeped tea. This can be good when the aroma (we’re talking about something added to the tea, such as oil of Bergamot or vanilla, not the natural scent of the processed tea) of the dry tea is very strong, but it’s bad when the aroma is already subtle.
Naturally occurring aromas (not the added-on kind) common to teas:
- Sweet: cotton candy, honey, caramel, key lime pie, and lemon taffy, chocolate, lightly sweetened cocoa
- Floral: honeysuckle, jasmine, violets, gardenia, lilac, and orange blossoms
- Vegetal (also called planty): wet hay glazed with sugar, spinach, seaweed, and bell peppers
- Fruity: oranges, lemons, honeydew melon, apricot, guava, mango, passion fruit, peach, dried dates, grapes, and red grapefruit rind
- Smoky, burnt wood, ashes, charred, piney
- Roasted/toasted: pecans, walnuts, macadamia nuts, rice, coffee, onions, or just plain roasted
- Steamed vegetables: green beans, bok choy, artichoke hearts, celery, and cabbage
- Brown sugar (the lightly roasted kind, not the molasses kind)
- Butter and buttered toast
- Spiciness (ginger, cardamom, cloves), as opposed to teas that have these spices added, such as chais and Bigelow’s Constant Comment
- Earthiness, maltiness, grassy, dry leaves
- Meaty: beef and bacon
These fragrances come from the chemistry of the tea leaf and how it is affected by withering, rolling, roasting, and other processing. Then, there are the steeping effects where the molecules in the tea leaves are broken loose by hot molecules of water bouncing around and knocking into them. How long we let this go on determines which of the fragrances get to carry over into the tea “liquor.” How often we subject the same batch of tea leaves to this hot water treatment (how many infusions or steepings we do) can make a big difference, too, bringing out different fragrances with each successive infusion.
Some scents or fragrances commonly added to teas:
- Oil of Bergamot (a type of orange), the main ingredient giving Earl Grey tea its distinctive aroma.
- Spices added in: cinnamon, cloves, ginger, cardamom, anise
- Florals added in: jasmine, orange blossoms, honeysuckles, lilacs
- Fruits added in: strawberries, lemon, orange, blueberries
These added-on fragrances often are used to mask inferior teas. However, some have just become so darn popular that they are added even to quality teas. Chais are a prime example. Fine black teas blended with a variety of spices have loyal followers. Teas blended with dried fruits, especially strawberries, are also popular. They mix the natural fruitiness of some teas with the fragrance and taste of actual fruit.
I recently heard that someone was going to make a peanut-butter-and-jelly flavored tea. Imagine what the aroma must be like.
Whatever tea you choose, take time to let your “tea nose” do the talking. Smell the dry tea leaves. You’ll give your tastebuds a bit of a “heads up” on what to expect. Enjoy!
Follow your nose over to A.C.’s blog, Tea Time with A.C. Cargill, where she’s always “steeping” up the quality of her posts!