6 Reasons Your Tea Tastes Different from the Vendor’s Description

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.

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7 thoughts on “6 Reasons Your Tea Tastes Different from the Vendor’s Description

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  5. Every point on this list is absolutely true. I have found that water quality is the biggest factor, really changing the flavor of a tea. When I would buy tea in China sometimes I could not recognize the flavor once I steeped it in North America. Even making tea in Canada and then in the United States, depending on the tea, I have found that it can taste very different. And yes, flavors are really difficult to describe!! Excellent list!

  6. Judy Trapp

    I am sorry I am writting this on this post but I wanted to let you know there is a very shinny, shapely “little yellow teapot” on another website! I was just wondering if your “little yellow teapot” is aware of her?? She is on [link removed per blog policy] Judy

    1. A.C. Cargill

      Just saw her. She is much fancier and shinier than Little Yellow Teapot! She is definitely NOT a stunt double teapot, but the star of the show! 🙂

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