Flavor – Describing Your Cup of Tea

Popcorn

Flavorful spiced popcorn by Flickr jayneandd – CC BY 2.0

As we talked about last week, the tongue brings a human the taste of a food or beverage, but to get to the flavor we have to focus on the sense of smell.  Smell is what allows humans to describe flavors of what we consume, like floral or grassy. Interestingly, smell is tied directly into the involuntary nervous system as a defense mechanism for us, which explains why some rotting odors induce nausea. It is the brain’s not to subtle way of saying danger, get away from that. Scientists have also linked the ability to smell certain scents, like the fragrance from violets directly to individual genes (Howgego, 2013). If that gene is not turned on, you will not get the same smell as the person who has that gene turned on. This makes smell and flavor a very personal experience, which translates into a challenging dilemma on how to describe a cup of tea to another human.

Flavor and Your Cup of Tea

Smells do not come in nice categories like taste, but that has not stopped scientists from trying to build categories around smell. In 1985 Dr. Andrew Dravniek created an Atlas of Odor Character profiles, which contains a rather long list of descriptors of odor or flavor. Just last year, another team of scientists took that database and, using the results of how volunteers ranked the applicability of those characteristics to certain odors, developed 10 broad categories of smell: fragrant, woody, fruity (non-citrus), lemon (citrus fruit), sweet, minty, popcorn, chemical, pungent, and decayed (Howgego, 2013).  These same scientists are now trying to predict the descriptions of certain chemicals using these categories, something that has not be accomplished successfully before.

For us tea drinkers, these categories help to start to describe what we smell. Inside each of these categories are a whole list of other words that can be used to describe what is coming from your cup. Often these words describe other food items or things found in nature, which is totally fine. It is much easier to describe one thing in comparison to another.

  • Fragrant: Floral – think roses, violets and other flowers. Herbal – think basil, lavender, cilantro, and other herbs.Cut fresh grass as well as spices like nutmeg and anise seed fall into this category.
  • Woody: Hickory, maple, mulch, etc.
  • Fruit (non-citus): Stone fruit like plums, peaches, pear, berries.
  • Lemon (citrus fruit): Lemon, lime, oranges, etc.
  • Sweet: Honey, cocoa butter, almond, vanilla, sweet egg, etc.
  • Minty: Mint and spearmint.
  • Popcorn: Nuts, dried grass, hay, milky, butter, cream, etc.
  • Chemical: Metallic, chalky, sulfur, etc.
  • Pungent: Smoked, leather, tobacco, dung, etc.
  • Decayed: Mold, mossy, damp, dusty attic, etc.
Violets have a floral aroma.

Tea is often noted as having a floral aroma or flavor. Violets by Flickr slgckgc – CC BY 2.0

Be Mindful of Flavor

There are many more words and experiences than I could make room for on this blog and not have it be overwhelming. To help improve your vocabulary in describing your cup of tea, be mindful when you eat and notice the flavors. They may appear in a cup of tea later. Also, drink tea with friends and loved ones and take some time to talk about what you are tasting. There is no wrong answer and it is helpful to know what other people notice about the tea as it will help you better understand what you may be tasting. Lastly, don’t be hard on yourself if you cannot pick up the same flavors as others. There are many logical explanations like genetics, a stuffed up nose, old age (this one is a bummer but true, we lose our sense of smell and taste with age), or prescription medications.

As you sit down with your next cup of tea, enjoy its fragrance and taste and make a mental note of them so in the future you have a comparison point for a new cup of tea. It is much more fun when you can express in words what it is that you are smelling and tasting, not to mention those smells bring back all sorts of wonderful memories.

Works Cited
Howgego, J. (2013, August 1). Sense for scents traced down to genes. Retrieved from Nature, International Weekly Journal of Science: http://www.nature.com/news/sense-for-scents-traced-down-to-genes-1.13493

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Umami, Taste, and the Brain

When you find yourself really engrossed in tea, wine, cheese or other culinary item its not long before you’re searching for the right words to describe the taste and the differences between those items. Smell, texture, and appearance have a large impact on the overall experience and enjoyment of a food, though they impact the overall flavor experience. Taste comes from signals sent to the brain from the tongue itself. A recent article in the BBC reminded us of the role these receptors play, illuminates a bit more about how the brain interprets tastes, and discusses why we loose our sense of taste as we age.

Taste map of old showing sweet, salty, sour, and bitter.

Many of us were taught that there were only four tastes and they were detected in very specific places on the tongue.

Conventional Thinking on Taste

In the early 1900′s the German scientist D.P. Hanig developed the taste map which other scientists later endorsed, though in a form which appeared to show that vast parts of the tongue didn’t taste anything (Dowdy). According to the map the tip of the tip of the tongue could detect sweetness, the front sides detected salty, farther back on the sides the tongue could detect sour tastes, and finally the rear of the tongue detected bitterness. This was the way many of us were taught about taste in school and is still used when teaching taste in many books and on-line references. However, over the past 10-15 years there has been significant work to understand taste.  Among other things, scientists have discovered (or perhaps just begun to acknowledge) that taste can be sensed from receptors all over the tongue.

The Five Tastes: Introducing Umami

Despite what we learned in school, it is generally accepted today that there are actually five tastes; sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami. While the first four are quite familiar to us all, it is umami that needs a bit of explanation for many. Also known as savory, umami is much more subtle than the other four tastes. Its is the other taste in foods that we often can’t quite put a finger on. Technically it is the taste of glutamate and ribonucleotides in foods. Umami is often found in meats and fish as well as some vegetables and dairy, notably tomatoes and shitake mushrooms. The term itself means “pleasant savory taste” and was coined back in the early 1900′s by Professor Kikunae Ikeda of Tokyo Imperial University.

More recently, researchers in France have suggested there might also be receptors for fat on the tongue, and according to an article in the New York Times there are researchers trying to isolate up to 20 other tastes that can be detected by our tongue (Smith).

New Research on Taste

On November 8, 2014 the BBC published the story “Brain’s taste secrets uncovered” which turned conventional thinking about taste on its head a bit and inspired this blog. The story in the BBC outlines the results of a new study in the US, and published in the journal Nature. In it, we learn that there are roughly 8,000 taste buds on the typical human tongue, some animals have evolved without the ability to identify certain tastes, and we get new taste cells every forty days or so thanks to stem cells on the tongue.

The meat of the article illustrates how scientists took a close look at taste buds noting that all taste buds can sense the range of the five (at least) tastes, yet specialized receptors within each taste bud pick out the chemical compounds relating to sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami. These receptors, in turn, signal specific parts of the brain for each of the different tastes. The rejuvenation process for creating new taste cells every 40 days or so becomes less efficient as we age impacting our taste and raising interesting questions about how we could improve this experience in the coming years.

Implications for Tasting Tea

Loose Leaf Japanese Sencha is Known for its Umami Taste

Japanese Sencha Green Tea Illustrates the Umami Taste

So how do we boil this back down to tea? Well, first of all, we need to dispel with the notion that certain areas of the tongue “own” the identification of sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. These tastes can be detected all over the tongue, yet some parts may be more attuned than others to each of them. Its also important to start to recognize umami. We can do this through practice with tea as well as by eating and noting the umami taste in other foods like meats, broth, and certain vegetables.

One of the teas most noted for its umami taste is loose leaf Japanese sencha tea. Take care to steep this with cooler water, around 170° to 185°. This will bring out the sweetness and umami of the tea without causing it to be bitter tasting. As you develop a taste for sencha you may wish to pickup a Kyusu instead of using an infuser or single serve tea bag. The slightly larger holes in a Kyusu allows some of the fine particles to pass through which serves to enhance the texture and mouth feel of this wonderful tea. Through practice you will be able to pick out the different taste components and move on to more in-depth descriptions of flavor.

Sources Cited

Brain’s taste secrets uncovered, by James Gallagher, BBC, November 8, 2014, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-29912877

How Taste Works, Susan Dowdy, howstuffworks, http://health.howstuffworks.com/mental-health/human-nature/perception/taste3.htm

Beyond Salty and Sweet:  A Budding Club of Tastes, by Peter Andrey Smith, The New York Times, July 21, 2014, http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/07/21/a-budding-club-of-tastes

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Gunpowder Tea

Gunpowder Tea looks much like real gunpowder.

Actual Gunpowder (not tea) by Wikimedia Commons User Hustvedt, CC BY SA 3.0

Gunpowder tea (also called Zhu Cha) is believed to have been first produced during the Tang dynasty (618-907 C.E.) in Zhejiang provenience of China. The withered and steamed green tea leaves were balled by hand into small pellets before being dried. Its English name came from its appearance as the tea pellets after drying look like shiny greenish-black pellets, much like gunpowder. This is truly an art form given that they are balling a whole tea leaf into a very small pellet. It makes me wonder why they would go to the trouble to do such a thing. This is a case where necessity really does prove to be the mother of invention.

Gunpowder Tea and the Tang Dynasty

Gunpowder Green Tea

Rolled gunpowder tea.

The capital of the Tang Dynasty was in what is now present day Xian, in the Shaanxi provenience almost 1,400 kilometers (869 miles) inland from Zhejiang province. Trying to get your tea to the emperor was not going to be easy. It is thought that the tea was balled to allow it to make the trip to the capital, as something unique for the emperor, while maintaining its flavor. One of the most famous Gunpowder teas, Hui Bai, or tribute tea, was made exclusively for the emperor. It is made with small young leaves that are rolled into loose pellets that, when brewed, release a pale yellow liquor with a sweet herbal flavor.

Balled Teas (Gunpowder and Oolong)

The art of rolling tea leaves into balls came into being almost a thousand years before the partial oxidation that makes Oolong tea possible. Most modern drinkers of tea think of Oolongs when presented with balled tea leaves, but those were far from the first teas prepared in this fashion. Taiwan, which has the most famous balled Oolongs, did not apply this technique to commercial tea until well into the 1800s. Today Gunpowder Tea is not simply the domain of China as other countries, like Sri Lanka, also produce their own variations.

Modern Gunpowder is rolled with machines with only the finest quality teas still being rolled by hand. These hand rolled Gunpowder teas rarely leave Zhejiang provenience due to the high demand for the tea locally.

Tuareg Tea
Don’t turn your nose up at a machine rolled tea. Here is a fun recipe for Tuareg tea, which is a Middle Eastern mint tea drink that has been around for centuries whose base is Gunpowder tea. (Four 8 oz Cups)


  • 4 teaspoons of Gunpowder Tea
  • 4 cups of water
  • 40-50 fresh mint leaves*
  • 4 Tablespoons of sugar

In a pitcher, mix the tea leaves and sugar. In a pan crush the mint leaves and pour in the water. Heat the mint leaves and water until the water boils. Pour the water over the tea and sugar and allow to steep for 5 minutes. Pour the mixture through a strainer and serve.

Note: This is a based on a green Gunpowder tea, so you can feel free to allow the water to cool down to 180-190 degrees Fahrenheit before pouring it over the tea. It is not necessary to do this as the mint and sugar would hide any bitterness caused by the boiling water, but worth considering.

*There is a special type of mint that grows in the Middle East (cultivar Mentha Spicata) that does not taste like the mint that we typically have in the grocery stores in the US. That is not to say you shouldn’t use regular mint, but if you find it overwhelming you may have better luck with spearmint or apple mint or any other varieties of the mint family that you might come across.

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