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.
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.
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