What’s the best way to enjoy a cup of tea? Finding the best way to drink a cup of tea is truly a personal experience. No two people are going to agree on every aspect of which tea, which cup or pot, time of day, whether it is shared with others or enjoyed quietly with a good book or a beautiful view of nature. In developing Dominion Tea and most recently in opening our first retail space, David and I had to grapple with answering that question while allowing for the education of new and experienced tea drinkers alike. We borrowed the idea of a flight of tea from the local Virginia wineries, who offer flights of their wines when you visit them.
How Many Teas in a Flight?
In designing flights, we have opted for three teas. Why three? Well, even though these flights are not full cups of tea but just two ounces of each, there is only so much tasting and distinguishing a person can really do with tea, or wine for that matter, before the flavors blend together. It also helps to minimize the wait time for people as the tea steeps. Some days five minutes feels like an eternity when you really want that cup of tea. Also, by trying more than one there is an opportunity to practice real consciousness when tasting and comparing teas together. Don’t forget there is a lot to tasting that we humans have managed to take for granted.
Get To Know Your Tea
Tea flights also give us an opportunity to educate people about the places these teas come from and the care given to them from the farmers and manufacturers of the tea. As we all know, good tea requires just the right terroir, handling during plucking and manufacturing and proper storage to make it as good as possible. There are a lot of people out there who have no idea where tea comes from and how to make a proper cup of tea, so we seek to make use of this opportunity to help educate those who come into the tasting room.
I will also admit that it is fun to think up all the possible combinations of tea. So while it might be a little unorthodox to think of drinking teas in flight, we hope this new experience excites our fellow tea drinkers while recruiting new ones. Do you have any thoughts on the perfect pairing of three teas you would like to share?
Visit our Purcellville Tasting Room
Are you in the Northern Virginia area? We are located in Western Loudoun County in the heart of Northern Virginia Wine Country. Stop by and visit before heading off on your wine country excursion. Our Purcellville Tasting Room is located at 148 N. 21st St, Purcellville, VA 20132.
Neural Pathways in the Brain Delivering the Full Tea Experience – by NICHD/P. Basser (CC BY 2.0)
When David and I started to really build Dominion Tea, we sampled a lot of different teas with experienced and inexperienced tea drinkers alike and found out how little we knew about what it means to adequately describe the experience of drinking one tea versus another. Taste is so much more than just the five senses that our tongue gets (sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami). It also includes touch, smell, and sight. To say that you taste something ignores that fact that it really does require all five senses to register what is in your mouth. To savor tea acknowledges that it requires more than taste to truly enjoy a cup.
It is a testament to the complexity of the human body that all five senses can so quickly execute when we consume beverages or food that it often leaves us lost for words about what we just experienced. To help me figure out how to better describe tea, I went hunting through books on food, brain neurology and what scientists have learned about our mouths. Below are five tips on how to better understand what you are experiencing with your next cup of tea. These take time, patience and practice, but are well worth it.
Play when you drink the tea. Smell the tea before you put it in your mouth and try to describe the smell. Then slurp the tea when you drink it. Yes, slurp. It allows the aroma to travel up the back of your mouth into your nose again. Smell is actually what gives you the complexities of what you taste, not your tongue. Then try to describe what you just drank. How is your second description different from the first? Then sip the same tea while you pinch your nose closed and you will realize what you are missing when your sense of smell is taken out of the process.
Drink with others. No two people have the same tasting experience. Our genetics effect how strongly we taste bitter, salty and sour. There is no wrong way to describe what you taste but having someone else around to compare your experience with helps you get better in finding the right words for what you are experiencing.
Swish the tea around in your mouth. After you have had fun slurping, try swishing. As you swish the tea around in your mouth, what do you feel? Does your tongue feel dry around the sides or does the tea feel creamy down the middle of your tongue?
Know your biases around taste. Our experiences with food are written back into our brains, so if you associate a smell or taste with something bad, even unconsciously, it will affect your future experience. The same holds true for good experiences. Knowing your biases helps to guide you on what to try and may also help you explain why something doesn’t work for you.
Practice describing the what, how, where and when around the cup of tea. What refers to the five tastes. How refers to the intensity of the taste – low, medium or high. Where refers to where in your mouth you taste the tea and when refers usually to the start, middle or end (finish). Practice being precise as possible with these as that will ultimately help you understand what types of teas are pleasing. Often a tea can be pleasing not for its smell or taste but for how it feels in your mouth (think smooth).
Practice these five tips and you will become better on describing your tea experience and learn to appreciate the flavor of more than just your favorite cup of tea.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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