One of the frequently asked questions I get is about the words to use to talk or write about tea, which I really think is a question how to taste tea. After all, how can you talk about what you can't describe? In this guide, I'm going to show you how to describe the physical characteristics of tea, and taste sensations beyond salty, sour, sweet, bitter, and umami. Then we'll talk about how to get creative when describing tea, and how I make my tea tasting notes. Follow along and you’ll be talking like a tea sommelier in no time.
Maybe you’ve been out with your friends, when one of you orders a green tea. “Wow! I really like how this mellow tea has little astringency. It’s almost buttery, with hints of seaweed, wet rocks, and asparagus!”
Meanwhile, you look into their cup, seeing neither seaweed, nor wet rocks, nor asparagus. In fact, you're pretty sure you're just looking at hot leaf juice.
What are these crazy tea people talking about?
Much like how in the world of wine sommeliers there are hundreds—if not thousands—of ways to describe the taste and character of wines, in the world of tea sommeliers, there’s an established vocabulary and accepted amount of improvisation that goes along with describing what it is we’re experiencing when we drink tea.
Having a vocabulary to get into something can also make that thing richer too. Wine fanatics are a perfect example, or people who love baseball. To really get into something, you've got to know the lingo—shop talk—slang.
Describing Tea's Physical Appearance
Before we even let that tea touch the tip of our tongues, let’s look at how we can describe how the tea leaves look.
- Bold: Has big pieces of tea leaf.
- Tip: The very end of the baby young buds that give golden flecks to the processed leaf.
- Wiry: Twisted leaves, as opposed to open pieces.
- Even: Leaf pieces of roughly the same size.
- Irregular or Ragged: Uneven and non uniform pieces of leaf.
- Choppy: Tea leaf that has been chopped or cut up, instead of rolled.
- CTC: Tea processed using the cut, tear, curl method. It appears as small pellets.
Describing How Tea Tastes
Now, as we begin to sip the tea, we can think about the aroma, body, and character. Think of it like the ABCs of tea.
Aroma: the odour of the tea liquor, also called the nose or fragrance. If the aroma is complex, it’s sometimes called a ‘bouquet.’ Think of it like smelling a bunch of flowers vs. a single rose.
Body: The weight and substance of the tea in your mouth. Is it light, viscous, thick? Sometimes people describe tea as being round—having a full body that hugs your cheeks. It might be full—indicating a tea of good quality with colour, strength, and substance.
Character: A tea’s hallmark attributes, often depending on the country or region of origin, unique to its very own tea story.
Similar to wine, astringency is an important characteristic in tea. Astringency is that mouth-drying effect on the tongue—not to be confused with bitter. Astringency is a clean and refreshing quality, caused by a reaction between the tannins in tea and the protein in our saliva. Some teas are very astringent, and others—not so much. Astringency isn’t good or bad, but it’s important to take note of.
As you finish swallowing your tea, what happens next? The lasting taste on your tongue is called the finish. Is it smooth? Is there an aftertaste? Take a second to slow down, exhale, and really experience the end of the tea’s journey. Then go in for another sip, of course.
There’s also ways to talk about tea’s undesirable qualities. Tea that has gone off because of too much moisture is flat, while tea that has been through damp conditions during transportation or seen pollution is tainted.
Sometimes even if the tea survives transportation, it might have some other less desirable qualities. It might be brassy—bitter, coarse—strong but low quality, dull (like it sounds), or harsh—bitter and raw with little strength.
On the other hand, you might have an awesome cup of tea that is bright—a lively, clean tea that refreshes the palate; clean—has a focused, pure flavour;
It might have floral characteristics, have a muscatel aspect—just like the wine, reminiscent of grapes. Teas from the Darjeeling region are famous for this. Or, it might be malty—like a good whiskey. Teas from Assam are famous for this characteristic.
A Tea's Story Affects its Flavour
How your tea is processed and where it comes from has a big impact on its characteristics, too. Everything from terroir to shipping methods can affect this delicate leaf.
As an easy example, during the kill green stage of tea production, green teas from China are often pan-fried, while Japanese green tea producers steam their green tea.
This means green teas from Japan (sencha, gyokuro, genmaicha, etc.) are often described like steamed green vegetables—asparagus, Brussel sprouts, spinach, etc. Green teas from China (gunpowder, dragonwell, etc.) are more often described with a sweet, toasty word—chestnuts, roasted corn, etc.
To make things even more confusing, both of those teas, could include a number of other ‘vegetal’ descriptors that overlap. Next we're going to break down descriptors to use for different sensations. Here's where things really get creative.
Spring brings new tea to the market—this is a great time to try experimenting with something new. Keep your eyes open for the 'first flush' (aka first harvest of the season) teas making their way into North American stores in May and June.
Descriptive Vocabulary for Different Characteristics of Tea
Here are some starting points. Feel free to get as creative as you want. The sky’s the limit. I once heard a wine sommelier describe a white wine like, ‘opening a fresh can of tennis balls.’ These words are meant to evoke a sense of taste and place with your fellow tea-lovers. Obviously this tea won't contain actually seaweed, tennis balls, or leather, but using descriptors like this in sequence can help evoke a sensation to give your fellow tea lovers a literary taste of what's to come when they imbibe.
- Vegetal: Earthy, herby, vegetable, and marine qualities
Tastes like sea air, sea weed, garden peas, green peppers, asparagus, wet rocks, musty, compost, old wet wood, leather, turning over a log, peat moss, bark, resin, camphor, sawdust, cherry wood, mahogany, pine, fresh-cut grass.
- Smokey: Like a cigar
Ash, tar, smoke, smoked wood, burning leaves, beef jerky, bonfire, whiskey.
- Spicy: Open the spice drawer
Cloves, cinnamon, cocoa, thyme, parsley, oregano, black pepper, vanilla, coriander, liquorice, eucalyptus, saffron, fennel.
- Sweet: Nuances of sweetness
Honey, maple syrup, malt, nectar, caramel, molasses, burnt sugar, cotton candy, bubble gum.
- Nutty: That chewy, often toasty taste
Almond, peanut, chestnut, hazelnut, roasted nuts, nougat, peanut butter.
- Floral: When your nose feels like it’s walking into a greenhouse, or mountain meadow
Hints of jasmine, lilac, orchid, honeysuckle, wildflowers, cherry blossoms, orange blossoms, rose, dandelion, violet, geranium, hops, perfume.
- Fruity: From stone fruits to bush berries, all your jammy concerns
Jammy, peach, apricot, strawberry, raspberry, blueberry, lychee, pineapple, banana, citrus, lemon, black currant, rhubarb.
How I Do Tea Tasting Notes
To try and keep my tea tasting notes consistent, I use the same formula every time: tea name, harvest location, harvest date, company, dry leaf appearance, wet leaf appearance, liquor, aroma, taste, steeping method, additional notes.
It may sound pretty obvious and straightforward, but having a consistent method for evaluating your teas keeps you honest, and makes it easy to get into a practice of writing about teas.
Pro Tip: Build Your Tea Taste Buds
As you can see from the list above, the best way to describe tea is using other foods! Therefore, the best way to learn how to taste tea is by trying other flavour sensations. Really pay attention when you put food in your mouth. Pay attention to smells. Lick rocks if you have to. Learn what the world tastes like. The wider your taste buds blossom, the richer your tea writing will become.
During my tea sommelier training, we practiced tasting all kinds of chocolate, olive oil, and even coffee.
Did I miss your favourite descriptor to use when talking about tea? Any more fun ones? Let me know!
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