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How to Judge Tea

1. Leaf Shape 2. Aroma 3. Color 4. Taste

tea tasting cups

Have you ever brought home a new tea because the sales person told you how delicious it was? Did you feel a little suspicious that their description may have clouded your taste perception? The best way to decide the quality of tea is to judge it yourself. While drinking it in your favorite mug might tell you some qualities about the tea, it is not the best way to avoid subjective feelings. This guide forms the basis of how we judge tea quality at CC Fine Tea every day.

Mis En Place

Just like cooking, the best way to begin a serious tea tasting is to prepare your environment. The area should be clean and organized. No distractions should be before you.

You will need hot water. Generally the water should be at the upper range for the type of tea you are drinking (green: 185F, scented/white: 190F, oolong: 200F, black 205F) but more important is that each sample is made at the same temperature.

You will need brewing vessels. Gaiwans are not recommended since they are difficult to keep very consistent. What we use are simple thick porcelain bowls and a strainer.

our tasting brewers

Important to an accurate judgement of tea is something to judge it against. Create a matching set up for your new tea and another tea in the same category. It is much easier to taste the differences between teas than find traits in just one. Use 2g of green/black/white tea or 3g of oolong for 6oz of water. I highly recommend a $15 scale to measure tea, but if that is not your thing, try half a tablespoon of leaves.

Finally, you will need to measure the time. A cell phone works well for this, we will need five minutes.

Once you have everything set up and ready to go, you can focus on trying to relax and be in the moment. Proper attitude is also important to tasting.

Tasting

close up tea tasting

Tea Tasting can be as simple or complex as you want it to be. The essentials for judging tea are 1. The leaf shape. 2 The aroma. 3. The color. 4. The taste.

First, you will want to look at the dry leaves. Smell them. It helps to know something about how a particular tea is graded, but more important is that the tea smells pleasant and looks clean.

Now place the tea in the brewing vessels, add the water, and put on the timer. After five minutes, pour the tea through the strainer and place the wet leaves where you can see them.

tea drytea liquidwet leaves

Smell the wet leaves. Good aromas are rich, saturating a range of related pleasant smells in a rounded way. Related smells are not always pleasant. For example, green tea should taste ‘fresh’, whether fresh orchids, chestnuts, or vegetables. Green tea can also taste like wilted flowers, old chestnuts, spoiled vegetables. Related sure, but very unpleasant. Higher quality teas will have the wet leaves retain their aroma for longer than lower quality tea.

Look at the color of the liquid. It should look clear and rich. Particles at the bottom are ok, cloudy tea is not. The liquid should look rich, like watercolor paint. Chinese green tea should look faintly yellow/green, but shiny not dull. White tea should look a light gold. Black should range from bronze to dark red, and oolongs in between green and black.

Taste the liquid by dipping a large spoon into the hot tea and either filling a very tiny cup or drinking directly from the spoon. Remember that ideal tasting temperature is lower than ideal brewing temperature. Spitting the liquid back out into a different cup or the sink allows the tea to aerate better on your tongue, but I find that simply concentrating on drinking the tea is less distracting to me. Try to form your opinion on the first taste or two, it is easy to overthink.

These are questions I ask myself when tasting:

  • Is this tea unpleasantly bitter?
  • Is this tea unpleasantly astringent (makes your tongue feel dry)?
  • What is the main flavor of this tea?
  • Is the tea even (balanced) or sharp (one flavor is unpleasantly strong)?
  • If the tea is complex (many flavors), does this add depth to the tea, or simply make it taste muddy (the flavors blend into an indecipherable mess)
  • If the tea is straightforward, is there one or two strong pleasant flavors that make the tea enjoyable, or is it lackluster and shallow?
  • Is there a pleasant lingering flavor that slowly tapers off, or does it end quickly? Or worse, does it morph into a lingering unpleasant taste?

Lastly

Usually when comparing similar teas for sight, smell, and taste, it is not so difficult to decide which tea you like more. Bitterness may be difficult to quantify, but comparing bitterness side by side is much easier.

We encourage you to taste all of the tea you get and form your own opinions. We go through this same process when we are quality controlling at our gardens and sourcing from our partners. The more that people pay attention to what they are drinking, the more the demand for higher quality will increase. And that means better tea for everyone.