Do you really need to take tea tasting notes?
This post is sponsored by Teawala, a small business whose mission resonates with me deeply. Thank you for supporting the brands that I trust and that support my small business!
When I started the Tea Squirrel back in 2016, I started blogging about the teas I was drinking. I had been drinking tea my whole life but at that point in time, I wanted to really focus on tea and learn as much as I could about it. I needed a place where I could record my own tea tasting notes in a consistent way so that I could refer back to them whenever necessary and this blog became that place. More recently though, after 5 years of tea blogging and countless other tea-related topics to research and write about, I had felt a bit of fatigue and lack of inspiration when taking tasting notes. Luckily, I was determined to dig deeper into the process and found a better way, as well as a much needed creative spark.
The benefits of tea tasting notes
What is the end goal of taking tasting notes, you ask? Great question.
First and foremost, to be able to take notes, you have to pay close attention to what is in front of you. This is very helpful if you are trying to be present in the moment, which is also known as mindfulness, a great exercise to practice if you want to slow down and enjoy the little things in life.
Moreover, taking tasting notes is a powerful tool to learn about tea. The more you taste, the more notes you take, the easier it will be to identify a specific tea again and to link specific appearance, aroma and taste characteristics to its origin, soil, processing and so on. You are training your nose and palate to turn multi-sensory experiences into memories, linking perception coming from your five senses to emotions and past experiences. Taste and smell are subjective, so there is no right or wrong description when taking tasting notes. For example, if you’ve never tasted a pineapple, you wouldn’t taste or smell pineapple in a tea tasting but the same naturally occurring taste or aroma compounds present in a pineapple would be present in other fruits or flowers or plants, some of which might be familiar to you and you would be able to identify those instead in that same tea.
Finally, taking tasting notes is a powerful tool of self discovery. When you take tasting notes, you find out what you like and what you don’t and when you look back at your tasting notes from the past, you can clearly see the evolution of your palate and nose. It’s fascinating, isn’t it? Almost like journaling.
Taking my tea tasting notes to the next level
Whether you’re just starting out or are in a rut, I recommend finding guidance and a consistent, easy-to-use format. I found both in Teawala’s Tea Tasting Journal. Teawala is a small online tea shop based in Hong Kong. Mona, the founder, who was born and raised in Hong Kong and spent some time in Los Angeles for college, spent 2018 traveling through tea farms in China, Taiwan, Sri Lanka and India. Her mission is to source authentic, handcrafted teas directly from farms and to share the story behind each cup because (in her words) ‘there is such beauty, such history, and such culture behind each cup of tea’. She offers tea education too, including an online course, virtual tea tastings and the beautifully designed tea tasting journal I’m using in this post.
I had a mind-blowing tasting experience with all the teas Mona sent me from the Teawala collection. I credit that to the exceptional quality and freshness of her teas but also to the fact that the tea tasting journal deepened and improved my experience by taking the guesswork out of recording tasting notes. I took my time to sit down and follow the flow and the prompts of the journal, which freed up mental space so that I could fully enjoy the experience! Additionally, having all tasting notes in one place is very convenient.
Before I show you how I used the journal, I’d like to share with you some tips and tricks that make my tea tastings easier.
My tips and tricks for easier tea tastings
Here’s a list of tips and tricks that work for me. Feel free to recommend your own tips and tricks in the comments below.
I found that airing out the room where I’m tasting tea creates a clean slate for my nose. Along the same lines, I don't wear cologne or perfumed lotions when I taste tea and write tasting notes.
I don’t eat spicy food or intensely aromatic food (like garlic) right before tasting tea. It’s hard to taste tea if you have other lingering flavors in your mouth or if your mouth is numb from hot chili peppers.
For the same reason, I don’t use a strongly flavored toothpaste, mouthwash or chewing gum right before tasting tea.
I wash my teaware with unscented dish soap.
If I can, I don’t read the tasting notes provided by the tea purveyor beforehand. It’s hard not to be influenced and form expectations based on those. You want to give each tea a fair chance.
Sometimes I like to taste tea blindfolded and while wearing noise canceling headphones. The temporary and partial sensory deprivation might help make your sense of smell and taste more receptive.
I record a stream of consciousness while tasting tea, letting words, emotions and memories flow as they come up.
Once I taste a tea on my own and take my own tasting notes, I will share it with someone else and compare notes or discuss. It can be very insightful and inspiring.
How I used Teawala’s Tea Tasting Journal
Teawala’s Tea Tasting Journal is a beautiful sage green hardcover journal with a spiral binding, which allows it to lie completely flat on a desk. The front cover features stylized tea leaf drawings, while the back cover has Teawala’s logo on it. It has 70 double-sided pages, a flavor bank with useful terminology at the beginning, some blank pages at the end and a sample journal entry as a reference. Each tasting page includes (among other cool features) a flavor wheel (see photo below), two boxes to draw dry tea leaves and wet tea leaves and a color spectrum for the infusion color. The flavor wheel diagram was a game changer for me. I decided to use it by drawing two separate lines for aroma and taste in two different colors instead of combining the two in one single line (which is another great way to use it, find what works for you). It was very exciting to visualize and compare aroma and taste for the same tea on the same wheel and it made a huge difference for me in terms of better understanding the tea I was tasting and making the experience memorable.
I was so inspired by the tasting journal that I took my tasting notes a step further. When we write tasting notes, we translate sensory perception into words. Starting from my written notes, I translated my sensory perception of tea into a visual board including colors, objects, texture and so on. I’ll explain how I created each visual board as we discuss each tea.
My tasting notes
I decided to test out the journal with two teas from the Teawala collection, Milk Oolong and Ruby Red.
Date: July 1, 2021
Tea name: Teawala Milk Oolong (Jin Xuan cultivar)
Tea type: oolong
Origin: Shanlinxi, Taiwan
Harvest: November 2020
Brew method: gaiwan, 4 gr tea, 5 fl oz (150 ml) water, 203F (95C), 1 minute steep time + 20 seconds each additional steep.
Appearance: tightly rolled in balls, some have the stem sticking out, dark forest green with light hues, some white fuzz on the buds.
Aroma: fragrant even before warming them up in the empty, pre-heated gaiwan. Freshly harvested zucchini, savory notes, buttered popcorn, freshly baked multi-grain bread.
Appearance: dark and bright forest green, large leaves, one bud and 2-3 leaves.
Aroma: vegetal, unripe pear (also in the liquor scent), papaya.
Liquor infusion color: I recorded it on the color spectrum.
Flavor: intense savory notes, umami, reminds me of a Japanese sencha slathered in butter, floral notes in later steeps, but still buttery at the forefront, mellow miso paste.
Mouthfeel: medium to full bodied, brothy, buttery, a bit of dry feeling on the sides of the tongue in later steeps.
Aftertaste: returning and persistent floral notes at the back of the nose and throat, notes of pittosporum (white flowers).
Gaiwan lid aroma: floral and fruity (gardenia and pineapple), intense fresh and floral notes (jasmine, gardenia), developing a toasted bread quality, fruity (lychee, guava and papaya), buttery notes, fennel seeds.
Empty tasting cup aroma: insanely floral, buttered popcorn.
Overall score: 9.75/10
This tea makes me happy. It makes me want to explore the world. It’s spellbinding. At the same time, it feels very grounding. It’s like stumbling upon a secret garden in full bloom. Here’s how I created the visual board for this tea. I started with a terrazzo background in shades of green, pink and red. The green reminds me of the color of this tea but also of its vegetal notes. The pink and red shards point to its fruity notes. Around the gaiwan, I arranged an abalone shell I found on a beach in Northern California. It represents wanderlust but also the umami (savory) notes in this tea. I found the blue feather on a hike in the forest in Austria and it represents the childlike curiosity of looking at the world with marvel. Pineapple, corn, popcorn, butter, green pear and fennel seeds all point to the tasting notes, as well as the gardenia blossom, which I photographed in a real-life secret garden.
If you want to know more about this tea, I recommend further reading on Teawala’s website. I was positively surprised to find extensive information about each tea, cultivar, tea farm, and more, which is possible because Mona sources her teas personally and has a direct relationship with the farms she sources from.
Date: July 12, 2021
Tea name: Teawala Ruby Red (Hongyu #18 Cultivar)
Tea type: black
Origin: Puli, Nantou, Taiwan
Harvest: November 2020
Brew method: gaiwan, 5 gr tea, 5 fl oz (150 ml) water, 194F (90C), 40 seconds steep time + 10 seconds each additional steep.
Appearance: wiry, thin, long, some buds with fuzz, dark grey with rusty hues.
Aroma: fresh aroma, stewed blackberries, spicy, menthol, clove allspice berries, mulled wine.
Appearance: orange, bright copper with dark brown hues, one bud and 2-3 leaves, some single leaves.
Aroma: menthol, clove and allspice in your face, vegetal, malty, red currants, smoky, spicy.
Liquor infusion color: I recorded it on the color spectrum.
Flavor: sweet, intensely clove, menthol in the finish, freshness, eucalyptus, woodsy, fruity, juicy, spicy.
Mouthfeel: full bodied. Slightly oily, bright, bold, slightly drying on the tongue in later steeps, tannic/astringent as it cools down.
Aftertaste: cooling, minty, spicy, gingery sensation, pine resin, warming.
Gaiwan lid aroma: stewed apples, menthol, sweet, clove.
Liquor aroma: fruity and sweet, slightly smoky, stewed berries, peppermint.
Overall score: 9.75/10
It reminds me of a full-bodied, bold red wine like a Barolo from Italy. It is so complex and unexpected, cooling and warming at the same time. It feels like a walk in a eucalyptus grove, but it also feels like sipping mulled wine in front of a fireplace. For my visual board, I started with a crimson terrazzo background to capture the mood of the experience. The trivet (copper color), the glass of wine (similarities to red wine), the round ice cube (cooling sensation), the pencil shavings (woodsy notes), the blackberries, apple, cloves and ginger (tasting notes), the photos of eucalyptus and pine branches (more tasting notes). I love everything about this visual board, because this tea is so captivating.
Do you really need to take tea tasting notes? I think so. Perhaps you could give them a try or if you’re already taking them and not feeling particularly inspired, maybe you just need to switch things up. You might discover a few things about tea or you might learn a few things about yourself.
A heartfelt thank you to Teawala for partnering with me on this post. Opinions are my own. The links in this post are NOT affiliate links.