Tag Archives: Umami

Five Tips to Help You Savor Tea

Experiencing tea involves all of the five senses.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

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