When first exploring the world of tea, exposure to new styles and flavors can feel exciting, yet at the same time, overwhelming. With such a vast world to uncover, including thousands of tea types each with their own distinct flavor profile, it's easy to feel lost. But I've come to find that, like anything else, building simple, consistent and structured learning habits can help you overcome these hurdles and thrive.
Through conversations with tea friends and students, and reflecting on my own tea journey, I've put together my top 5 tips on how to get better at tasting and familiarizing yourself with different teas. I hope they can help propel growth in your tea journey as they've done for me.
1. Expose yourself to tea types and flavors systematically
Similar to wine, there are thousands of teas learn about. As a beginner, it might be better to approach it one wine region or type at a time. I recommend the same for tea.
For example, perhaps you wanted to familiarize yourself with the taste of Darjeeling. The best way to do this would be to set aside a couple weeks to only taste teas from Darjeeling. Each tea will of course differ in taste, but those differences will be subtle. Doing this will help you familiarize your palate with the terroir over time, and it will enable your mind to start building flavor associations, so that in the future you'll be able to recognize a Darjeeling when you taste one.
Another example I can draw upon from my personal experience is navigating through the world of pu'er. Throughout most of my tea journey, I had mostly been a white tea and oolong drinker, and was always a little intimidated by pu'er. Admittedly, it was a taste I wasn't initially drawn to. However, by dedicating a couple weeks to only drinking raw pu'er (from various regions within Yunnan), I started to gain an appreciation for the taste, differentiating between pu'er flavor profiles, and I learned which suited my taste preferences more. Now I have a stronger grasp on the category, and have come to enjoy the spectrum of tastes offered - I'm gongfu brewing pu'er as I write this blog post :)
By following this method of introducing your palate to one tea category or region at a time, you should experience quicker growth in your learning and I also find it quite rewarding!
Note: When purchasing new teas for learning purposes, make sure to always sample or purchase in small quantities, so that you're not breaking the bank.
2. Write everything down
Secondly, and I really can't emphasize this enough, take notes whenever you taste a new tea. Besides the obvious details, like the tea name, where it's from, harvest date (if known), and brewing method, recording your sensory experience with the tea, such as the taste, visuals, and smells can help you immensely in your learning.
I have always been a firm believer in note-taking as a student of any subject, and I find two main reasons for this:
First, the process of writing itself allows us to hone in on and pay attention to subtleties in a tea that we may not notice otherwise: When describing a tea in note form, I often find myself finding small details in the leaf or infusion that I hadn't before. Writing also further ingrains the taste experience into the memory.
Secondly, having notes to reference back to is incredibly helpful. If you're tasting dozens of teas each month, it can be difficult to remember each tea in detail. Once you start the habit, it will come more naturally to you and, if you're like me, you will come to enjoy and treasure that quiet journaling time!
3. Taste tea mindfully - No distractions
Next one is for all my multi-taskers: Have you ever tried to brew tea while working on another task only to over-steep and find it horribly bitter? Don't worry - We've all been there. Yes, we live in a fast-paced world, but if you can set aside 15-30 minutes to just brew tea (and nothing else) regularly, you'll find your learning much more effective, and your experience much more enjoyable.
The key here is to engage all your senses when tasting. Find a quiet environment to brew, keeping your phones and devices out of sight, and place your full presence on the act of brewing and tasting. For tips on how to fully engage your senses and what aspects to focus on while tasting, check out our Beginner's Guide to Tasting Tea.
4. Side-by-side comparisons!
For those looking to differentiate subtle nuances between teas, I highly recommend this practice. In addition to tasting teas separately, taste them together at the same time using the same amount of leaves, water temperature, and steep time. Having a cupping set will help, but using two or more tea vessels of the same size (like two 150ml gaiwans) will work too.
Not only does this remove circumstantial variables (maybe the water I used last time was hotter and that's why it tasted a certain way), but it also highlights very subtle taste differences that may be hard to notice on their own. For example, if I drink two Silver Needle teas on separate occasions, I may remember them tasting fairly similar (both delicate and floral, with springtime aromas). Once I taste them together in one sitting, however, I assure you the taste differences will become much clearer (Actually, the first one tastes more grassy-fresh, while the second is more mellow-sweet). Only by bringing them together can you confirm these differences. If you haven't tried this before, I really recommend it!
5. Add terms to your personal descriptor library over time
Finally, tasting tea is highly individual and no two tasters will have the same accumulated experiences of flavors in their lifetime. Yes, flavor wheels are a great starting point, but they are also based on the cuisines and flavors accessible to those who created them. Once you've established a foundational understanding, adding your own individual descriptor terms can be both empowering and integral to advancing yourself as a tea taster.
To sum up, I recommend: Navigating through tea one region or type at a time, writing your experiences down, tasting with presence, comparing side-by-side, and accumulating your own flavor notes!
And that's it! I hope these insights can help you find your way and equip you with a stronger grasp in the world of tea.
Further Educational Resources
For a structured guide through the vast world of tea, consider joining our Online Course - Taste Tea like a Professional.
If you'd like a tool for documenting your tea explorations, check out our Tea Tasting Journal.
Do you have any experience with the above practices, or additional tips you'd like to share? Any questions?
As always, feel free to comment in the section below! ♥