If you’ve ever watched a wine tasting competition, you will most likely have experienced two emotions: first, a sense of total admiration for the wine sommeliers who effortlessly describe a wine’s characteristics, right down to its name and vintage after a few sips.
Once this feeling of sheer admiration wanes, a slightly less positive feeling of intimidation often kicks in. Suddenly, one is overwhelmed and left feeling sheepish for only knowing the difference between a Sauvignon Blanc and a Chardonnay.
Tea tasting is not too dissimilar from wine tasting. Professionals train for years to be able to taste the differences between the teas. On any given day, tea tasters working for major tea brands can taste up to 700 teas. Now that’s a lot of tasting! Pen and paper are essential to remember the taste of each cup, as are highly developed taste buds and a capacity to turn fine flavour nuances into precise words.
I’ve been lucky to taste tea with professional tasters a few times and loved the experience. I’m amazed by how they can tell the flush of a tea just from looking at the dry leaves, and can quickly remark on the quality of a tea just by its colour and wet leaves. They can guess the flavour of a tea before even taking a sip – an impressive skill! And then of course there’s the rest, the extra-loud slurping; being able to tell whether a tea is grown at high altitude and in which part of the world; and ultimately, being able to pinpoint in exact detail the unique characteristics of a tea. All this is undoubtedly fascinating!
When I tried my hand a tea tasting, I must admit I felt pretty useless; I couldn’t even get the basics down right. I smelled jasmine when others smelled fennel, and what tasted like rose to me was in fact sandalwood. My notes made me wince and, if they were to be graded, I reckon I would only get a humble ‘D’ at most.
I’ve often debated with myself about the merits of tasting tea as it seemed difficult. Sometimes after a session, I wondered why bother at all? Ultimately, I just want to enjoy my cup of tea without having to worry about complicated flavour wheels and having to guess some obscure flavours.
After a while it hit me. It’s exactly because I want to enjoy my cup of tea that I should bother. Tea tasting turns a routine into an adventure. How? Because it gets you to truly engage with the tea you’re drinking. It’s an incredible sensory experience involving not just the palate but also our eyes and nose. Through tea tasting we take the time to truly enjoy our tea. We connect with the tea growers – we acknowledge their immense physical efforts when handpicking the leaves. We learn to appreciate the wonderful skills that artisans apply during the manufacturing process to extract a particular flavour from the tea leaves.
This is ultimately what tea tasting is all about and it doesn’t matter whether we can accurately identify a tea’s exact aroma and palate. Tea tasting is about taking the time to engage with tea at a deeper level, about savouring tea with all our senses.
Tea tasting has many benefits: it allows us to try many new and interesting teas; it enhances our understanding for the quality of a tea to determine its worth; it increases our awareness levels and helps us develop a sense of calm and mental wellbeing.
But even if we were to dismiss all the above for a moment, there is still a very valid reason for tea tasting, and that is that without it, all tea would ultimately taste the same.
That alone is a good enough reason to get into tea tasting.
If you would like to become a certified tea professional, the UK Tea Academy is the only body in the UK to offer such certified programmes.
Or, if you’d like to try your hand at tea tasting but want to keep things lighthearted and fun, you can test your taste buds by signing up for our own tea tasting subscription programme. Simply leave us your email address so we can let you know when we’ve launched.