On the Fine Art of Describing Tea

I’ll bet I’m not the first person to remark that the spectacle of someone describing wine in flowery, high-falutin’ language can be just the tiniest bit ridiculous. In fact, I know I’m not. I can’t recall any specific instances, but I know it’s the sort of thing that I’ve seen mined for comic effect on more than one occasion.

Darjeeling White Tips White Tea (Photo source: The English Tea Store)
Darjeeling White Tips White Tea (Photo source: The English Tea Store)

Then there’s tea. I’m also going to bet that the tradition of using fancy language to describe tea is not nearly as well-established as it is for wine, but it does exist. I’d wager that professional tea tasters have a set of terms that they use while plying their trade and I’ve seen plenty of “civilian” reviewers do this sort of thing. You can find a forum discussion on this topic here and a list of some of the terms often used to describe dry leaf and steeped tea here, as well as at various other points around the Internet.

I have to admit that I don’t go in for much of this sort of thing when I’m reviewing tea. Which is not to say that I object to the practice or feel that there’s anything wrong with it, and I’m sure some of these descriptors creep into my reviews from time to time.

But for the most part I can’t help feeling that trying to describe how something tastes is kind of an exercise in futility. Unless you take the shortcut of comparing it to something else that people are likely to have tasted. Of course that only works if you’re using common comparisons that your audience is likely to be familiar with.

On the other hand, to be perfectly open-minded and evenhanded about the whole thing I can see where there might be some use for some of the terms used on the list mentioned above. Terms like grassy, mellow, metallic, scorched, and thin seem like they would work pretty well to describe tea and even toasty and woody are likely to evoke pretty definite impressions in most people’s minds. On the flip side, however, if you were to tell me that a tea was pointy, dry, clean or bright I’d be inclined to wonder exactly what you were trying to say.

But enough of this. I’m off to sample some more of this fine, full, rich, round, soft, mellow Assam that I’ve been drinking so much of lately.

See more of William I. Lengeman’s articles here.

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One thought on “On the Fine Art of Describing Tea

  1. Taste and flavour are unique and personal things, and sometimes in my tea store I do not go into long descriptions when selling a tea, for the good and simple reason that what I am tasting may not be what other people taste. I paint broad strokes when describing a tea (green, smoky, floral…) but unless I am comparing Earl Greys from two different tea companies, I find that over describing a tea to someone can almost diminish the tasting experience. I love to hear what customers think, but sometimes I am so surprised by what they are tasting, I am happy I kept my mouth shut. 80% of my clients tell me that Wuyi Shan tea smells and tastes like pot, something I cannot bring myself to say when selling it, especially since I don’t think that Wuyi Shan tastes anything like pot!

    Main point is: don’t over-think it, just enjoy tea!

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