Everybody has the same basic tasting equipment – eyes, tongue, nose – but it’s how you use them that determines whether you’re good enough to taste tea for a living. After a year of tasting over 500 cups of tea a day I had memorised enough individual characteristics to have only a very basic knowledge of the different colours, flavours and styles of tea – but perhaps more importantly, I was now able to spit without dribbling on either myself or my boss! It was only after years of training and visiting over 120 tea estates around the world that I could legitimately call myself a master taster. Such intensive training is not for the faint hearted, but meant that I could identify the region and often the particular estate a tea originated from in the world – with a blindfold on…
Each tea and herb from every estate has its own flavour, shape, colour, and style characteristics. In order to classify these for the purpose of blending a whole language of terms are used by tasters and blenders the world over. Some of the terms are very simple and self-explanatory, but various other more quirky terms have evolved (much like any other language) that may mean nothing to others – sometimes even other tea tasters! Below is a glossary of a few of the more common, and some of the more quirky and customised terms used by the experts.
Astringent – so harsh that it strips all the moisture out of your mouth
Bold – a leaf characteristic denoting big round uniform balls of “cut, tear, curl” leaf
Bright – when the tea almost acts like a mirror in the cup – a good property
Burnt – if it’s been dried for slightly too long in the manufacturing process it tastes as if it is slightly burnt
Cabbage Water – a flavour characteristic of some green teas – literally tasting like cabbage soup
Cloudy – denotes the lack of transparency in an iced tea – contrary to popular belief, a more cloudy tea is better quality Coarse – not necessarily a bad thing, when all the levels of flavour can be felt in the mouth – opposite of soft
Coloury – the “red-ness” of a tea – Malawi tea is often so red in liquor it’s almost purple
Cooked – quite literally tastes over-cooked if it has been left in the drier for far too long.
Dull – when the tea in the cup reflects little light – not normally associated with a good tea
Fishy – an un-explicable taste of fish sometimes found in green teas – not normally a good thing!
Flapcatcher – strange colloquial term for a tea that tastes better than it looks
Flowery – if the tea tastes like the delicate smell of flowers
Fung – if the tea has been stored badly and got very wet, it begins to taste as if fungus is growing in it – not good!
Fusty – when the tea has got slightly damp at some point and tastes as though it’s going slightly mouldy
Goaty – a horrible, almost “cheesy” flavour – funnily enough, not desirable!
Golden – when the liquor looks very yellow in appearance
Grapenutty – “cut, tear, curl” style leaf when it looks like small balls
Green – can be found in bot green and black tea when the leaf is either slightly under-fermented or very fresh
Malty – a desirable flavour characteristic that’s often found in Assam tea – almost like malted milk
Medicinal – when the tea has a strong germoline like flavour – often found in the very best Sri Lankan teas.
Mixed – when the leaf has many different sizes of leaf in it from dusts to fannings to brokens – not well sorted
Neat – a good-looking leaf that is all the same size and shape
Nutty – another one of those inexplicable flavours on certain teas – particularly Brazilian tea
Off-grade – sometimes known as “Secondary grade”, when there is some stalk present in the leaf – not necessarily bad
Oily – when the driers in the factory are not well maintained the tea can pick up the flavour of the fuel oil
Open – a characteristic of Orthodox tea whereby the leaf is not well rolled and looks flat
Papery – if the tea has been sitting in paper sacks for too long it can sometimes pick up the flavour slightly
Perfumed – where the tea has a very strong flavour or aroma much like perfume
Pissy – a colloquial term use in the trade to suggest the tea is lacking in flavour
Pungent – when the flavour of the tea is so strong you can taste it before it’s even touched your lips
Raspberry jam – strangely only found in some of the very best Assam teas – can’t be explained!
Rubbery – a flavour characteristic that can be found in both green and black teas – literally the taste of rubber
Slimy – as you’d imagine, not a good trait – when it feels like you’ve got some greasy slime in your mouth rather than tea
Soft – when the tea is slurped into the mouth and it feels as though there’s nothing there
Stalky – if the level of large pieces of leaf and stalk is high
Tart’s Bathwater – a variation on the “perfumed” theme – speaks for itself really!
Thick – opposite of thin, feels really heavy in your mouth when slurped in off the tasting spoon – a desirable trait
Thin – almost watery mouth feel when slurped into the mouth during tasting
Well made – an all round good tea
Wild – the end of a season’s tea when the bushes grow a little less uniform and the liquors follow suit
Wiry – when the leaf is very fine and well rolled
The Art of Blending
The one golden rule of blending is this: Every blend must taste the same as the previous one. This is of course even more fundamental to blendsforfriends as each blend is totally individual.
What happens if drought, shipping problems, price, etc means the blender is unable to get the same tea to put into the previous blend I hear you ask? Well, that’s when the skill of the blender is truly required. As it is, even a tea from one particular bush on a tea estate will taste different from day to day, month to month, year to year as a result of different climatic conditions, so this is a challenge a blender will have to deal with on a daily basis anyway.
Even if the same teas are not available, the blenders knowledge of the product will mean he or she is able to source a whole new set of teas to gain the same characteristics of the tea that is unobtainable. As a result, no matter what tea is put into the blend, the consumer will should never know the difference. Only a tea taster with years of experience is able to do this successfully.
Most commercial blends are compiled on a computer and physically mixed in batches of thousands of kilograms by machine. However, only the very finest blends will be mixed by hand in order not to break the delicate leaves – at blendsforfriends I take pride in only hand blending every single order.
With blendsforfriends I have taken the art of blending one step further. Even the very largest tea company will only have a few dozen different blends in their portfolio to draw from with the hope that there is something for everyone. However, at blendsforfriends I create a new combination of teas for every order so that everyone will have their own bespoke blend specifically made for them. I will also ensure that every time a particular blendsforfriends blend is re-ordered it will taste exactly the same as the previous one I made…