It may seem a little arrogant to try to teach people how to taste tea. We all know how to taste right?
Actually, from my experience, tasting is something that a lot of people (including myself) can find challenging and the skill of a taster begins with the decision to take on that challenge with passion and confidence.
In my opinion, the goal of any tasting session is to find out what a tea means to you. It's not about coming up with obscure or fancy flavour notes but instead to find a sensorial attachment to the tea.
Every taste or aroma that you recognise is attached to memory or a collection of memories. They are not hardwired in your brain at birth.
Of course we know that we have some instinctive likes and dislikes hardwired to protect us. Bitter things could be a poison or a medicine but as a baby we are not experienced enough to know if it is one or the other and so we instinctively avoid bitterness. As we become adults we learn that some bitterness is medicinal and can lead to enjoyable physiological sensations. So we begin to tolerate and then actually enjoy the hoppy bitters of beer or herbal bitters of tea.
But overall, the taste/aroma coming from a tea is turned into words by passing them through your rich bank of memories. In this way everybody will assess taste differently.
To become good tasters I believe that we should embrace this very personal approach to tasting and not be concerned about if the notes sound strange or pretentious. This serves much more of a purpose to the taster (and other tasters) than speaking in very generic terms like 'fruity' or 'earthy'.
Push yourself into your memories. Ask yourself questions until you find an answer that resonates with you.
Fruity. What kind of fruit? Apple. What kind of apple? Green apple. Unripe or overipe? Very unripe. Apple flesh or apple skin? The smell of the stem freshly plucked from a green cooking apple. Aah there's the tasting note that means something to you. It brings you to a memory.
If you taste in this way then two things will happen.
- You will form a very personal relationship with tea. You may not fall in love with every tea but you will have found what each one means to you.
- The tea tasting experience will transport you out of your day to day stresses and command your attention in a free but disciplined way. There is a buzzword for that already - mindfulness.
So, make tea drinking a focussed event and train yourself to dive into your memories to tease out the personal meaning in the leaf. It takes a little discipline but I guarantee that the experience will be much more exciting and fulfilling.
This is Gong Fu Tasting!