Tea Taste Terms Circus

The lexicon of tea terms keeps growing, sort of like when the Ringling Brothers Circus joined with Barnum & Bailey. The vital question, though, is if these terms have any real meaning.

There are lots of claims about how teas taste and a host of terms that have “cropped up” (pun intended) to describe those tastes. But, just as with wine, cheese, and similar items, the taste is more often than not on the tongue of the taster.

Even with my sensitive nose and palate, I cannot detect what some tea drinkers claim to perceive. Are they just proclaiming the magnificence of the Emperor’s non-existent wardrobe? Or is there a lot of poetic license at work here? That is, are they just using language to evoke images? After all, taste is not something that usually translates well into words, just as describing paintings (very visual) and music (very audial) can be difficult. We who are trying to verbalize what we experience when drinking tea can end up using those terms without really meaning them. We’re just slapping them on to a taste sensation for which we don’t have a proper term.

Not that I’ve ever done this.

A few examples of questionable taste term meanings with a few comments from me:

  • Bakey — not quite burnt, but still unpleasant taste in the “liquor” made from tea leaves that were cooked/roasted at too high of temperatures and are, therefore, too dry. To me, bakey is a good thing, sort of like the smell of bread baking in the oven.
  • Biscuity — kind of the opposite of bakey; very desirable, mostly in Assam teas, describing that they were roasted just right. Again, Assam tea is nothing like the scent or taste of fresh baked biscuits. The scent is very rich and malty. Sigh!
  • Chesty — no, not a well-endowed female; this refers to teas shipped in chests that have taken on strange flavors from the packing material or the chests themselves.
  • Coarse — has lots of meanings, but applying it to tea would never be my first choice; it is supposed to mean a harsh taste.
  • Common — out in the real world, this means something usual, but in the world of tea it means a tea that has little character.
  • Creaming Down — has nothing to do with adding milk to your tea; this refers to a high quality tea turning cloudy due to tannins.
  • Earthy — caused by storing tea damp. This isn’t at all what I would think the term meant. To me, earthy teas are ones that are heavy tasting, in a very good way.
  • Hungry — as the saying goes, give me a break. Tea is hungry? This just means a tea that isn’t anything special. We normal folks just call it bland.
  • Planty — tasting more like various plants, especially grass, than a tea.
  • Ragged — has nothing to do with rips or tears, just uneven or badly manufactured and graded tea.
  • Stewed or Stewy — tea that’s bad tasting or has no specific taste qualities, usually because of poor processing. No, there’s no meaty taste or other “stewed” characteristics (such as how you might feel after too much imbibing in alcohol).
  • Sweaty — not an indication that your tea has been exercising, just that it’s of poor quality.
  • Weedy / Woody — bad for black teas, good for green teas (also called “vegetal”), so now you have to know which tea is being talked about. The “vegetal” taste can be one similar to new-mown hay or a simple herbaceousness.

Recently, a challenge was sent out to tea bloggers to compare what a green tea was supposed to taste like with the actual item. For example, comparing a green tea that was supposed to taste like asparagus with actual asparagus (based on a study done by Lee and Delores H. Chambers and published in 2006). Several tea devotees took up the challenge. Bravo! A great way to advance our knowledge, understanding, and appreciation for this ancient beverage: tea! At least you’re not obfuscating the world of tea with misleading or downright meaningless tea terms like those above.

I would encourage a more clear and precise set of tea terms that avoids references to things that are more picturesque than descriptive. If a tea tastes like grass, then let’s just say it’s grassy. Very simple.

Meanwhile, it’s time to go have a malty, biscuity cuppa Assam tea with a little of that moo-juice and some of that stuff that makes my sweet-sensing tastebuds tingle. Enjoy!

If you’re sick of reading tea reviews that are full of jabberwock written by ragmatical tea tasters, head over to A.C.’s blog, Little Yellow Teapot Tea Reviews, where you’ll find toman tea reviews that are full of clarity and tigerism.

5 thoughts on “Tea Taste Terms Circus

  1. Pingback: Archaic Tea Terms « Tea Blog

  2. I use the word woody to describe a number of teas because they have an aroma that directly resembles wood. I find this is mainly true of medium-oxidized oolongs with some degree of roast, including amber oolong, some tie guan yin, and some se chung.

    I use the word earthy to describe teas that have aspects of their aroma resembling fresh soil. I find pu-erh to often have some of these qualities…as well as some oolongs and some black teas.

    Maybe it’s what we’re familiar with? I garden a lot so the aroma of soil is always in the front of my mind…it makes sense to compare things to it. Also, wood is a pretty familiar aroma to me. By contrast, “muscatel” (which people always seem to use to describe Darjeeling teas) is basically meaningless to me…I’m not a wine person, and the only grapes I eat are what I buy at the store, or the occasional concord grape if I’m lucky enough to find a vine.

    I think it’s great for people to use different descriptive terms…it’s not good to let self-proclaimed experts monopolize the language and tell you that you “should” or “shouldn’t” use certain terms…just use what works for you, what makes the most sense based on your own experiences! Some people will always find it descriptive, and if they don’t, they might at least find it interesting or amusing.


  3. I remember the first time I had oolong tea, in China, I described it as tasting like broccoli! Still feel that way about some of them, but I tend to use “vegetal” to describe it now.

    Best tea description I’ve ever heard was that an oolong tasted like “an orange studded with capers”. I’m still trying to figure that one out!

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