What Gives Tea Its Aroma?

Black Tea - full of aroma-makers! (stock image)
Black Tea – full of aroma-makers! (stock image)

Given the close connections between taste and smell, it’s pretty hard to separate the two when it comes to experiencing tea. For many of us the aroma of tea is significant before we even have a chance to prepare it. I’ve found that you can’t always make a direct correlation between the aroma of dry leaves and the quality of the tea, but they often go hand in, and getting a strong whoosh of that tea leaf aroma is a nice prelude to the tea drinking experience.

But exactly what is it about tea that gives this aroma? Well, it seems that there’s been no shortage of research on this topic, so much so that I’ll have to limit myself to sharing a few studies that seemed interesting. If you’re looking for more detail about this subject, it’s there in abundance.

For whatever reason it seems that there a lot of the studies I ran across took place in the early to mid-Seventies. Here’s oneOn the Formation of Black Tea Aroma – that came out in 1973. You’ll have to pay to get all of the nitty gritty details but the short summary that kicks things off should suffice for most of us. To summarize that even further, let’s say that much of black tea’s aroma comes about during the first 24 hours of processing when volatile compounds are formed that contribute to tea’s aroma. New Volatile Constituents of Black Tea Aroma, from two years later, takes a closer look at the 56 aroma components that study identified. Here’s even more on black tea and aroma.

Lest one accuse us of weighting the article in favor of black tea I’ll point that green tea is well treated in this field of research and other types of tea are represented as well. But if you’re looking for a more down to earth explanation of what gives tea its aroma that won’t cost you anything take a look at this overview from a Japanese tea company.

As they note, tea contains hundreds of fragrance components, with more of them found in black tea than green. But the “essence” that makes up the actual aroma is found in rather minute quantities. The process that creates fragrance in tea leaves begins when they are harvested. Because this process is interrupted during the actual processing phase for green tea those leaves tend to develop less fragrance than teas such as black and oolong. Although, if you’ve ever caught a good whiff of a high quality green tea it’s obvious that this process is not quite as cut and dried as this explanation would suggest.

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

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