Indulging your chemoreceptors

A couple of weeks ago, Daoli, NjamiSushi, and Flaviar joined their forces and organized a sampling event that included excellent sushi, amazing tea, and selected alcoholic beverages. It was a lot of fun, and we all learned something new about tasting food&drinks. During tasting sessions like that, it is particularly important to use the nose, the tongue, and the brain. Below we list a few facts that can come in handy when sampling tea and other beverages.

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The smell is a matter of nose and …

Specific smells occur when particles of different substances are scattered in the air. The perception of smell is a combination of physical and psychological interpretations. First, smell is detected by chemoreceptors or olfactory nerves in the nostrils. The gathered information is then interpreted by the brain. This makes smell a very individual experience, so it is safe to say that it is impossible to describe smells objectively. Our perception of smells is determined by a wide range of factors: experience, health, sex, and age to name a few.

The natural smell of tea leaves is derived from the essential oils that they contain. As fresh leaves undergo various stages of processing (drying, chilling, steaming, roasting, etc.), the smell of resulting tea can change dramatically, not only in its intensity, but also in its nature (the so-called bouquet). For example, the smell of green tea may be reminiscent of freshly mown grass; some wulongs smell of chestnuts; in black teas one can often detect a hint of chocolate or dried fruit… There’s even tea that smells like smoked salmon. It’s called lapsang, and its aroma is attributed to the tradition of drying the tea over smoldering fishing nets or firewood.

Ideally, that is if you are buying tea in a proper tea shop, you should be able to taste the tea that you are interested in. While this is common practice in China and other tea-producing countries, not many shops in the West are willing to do that. However, you can usually take a good look at your tea and, more importantly, smell it! To get a better understanding of the tea’s potential try smelling it in the following way: bring your nose close to it, exhale through the nostrils, and inhale right away. The hot air containing some moisture will enter the leaves and make them release some of their fragrance. Naturally, you should not do that with teas that will scatter in the air like dust, e.g. matcha, mate, or powdery nuomixiang.

Telling others what your cuppa tastes like

When people make judgement about the taste of their food, they first appraise it through smell. Then the food stimulates the receptors of the tongue, the palate, and finally the pharynx. The taste is also influenced by the texture and temperature of our food and drinks. All of that data is collected and shipped off to the brain for processing. The result is our overall impression about the food’s palatability and nutritious value. The main types of taste are: sweet, salty, sour, and bitter, with hundreds of shades in between.

Not only the smell, but also the taste of tea greatly depends on how the leaves are processed. In any given language, thousands of words can be used to describe the complex flavor overlays that are characteristic of many different kinds of tea. Chinese green teas have delicate semi-sweet flavors reminiscent of anything from pine kernels and flowers to bamboo leaves and freshly cut grass. Wulongs are known for complex flavors and sometimes have notes of fruit, honey, milk, or caramel in the background. Black teas have more pronounced flavors, ranging from the toffee and prune of dianhongs to the oily, bittersweet taste of keemuns. As for puer, there are great many variations too. The shu (cooked) puers can taste like earth and scratch your throat or leave a pleasant aftertaste of walnuts – it all depends on their quality and the mastery of the people who made them. The taste variations of sheng (raw) puers are even more difficult to describe, since these teas are famous for their hougan – the Chinese term used to describe the taste that develops gradually in the mouth, minutes after you took your last sip.

To make the most of your tea, i.e. to fully uncover its flavor and fragrance, it is important to understand the basics of tea preparation. The rules and methods of tea making vary from country to country. For the purpose of convenience, we are describing the traditional Chinese way. Here are a few useful hints before you begin: feel free to experiment with tea quantity, water temperature, and steeping time; if your tea tastes bitter, just use less leaves and/or shorten the steeping time; do not keep the leaves soaking in water between brews; if you have any wulong that seems to have lost its taste, just roast it in a pan quickly to release its hidden goodness. Don’t forget that tea sampling can be a great social experience, so bring a few friends. If you are lucky, you might catch the moment of tea-induced resonance – the state of unanimous appreciation of one or several effects that tea can produce on people who can keep an open mind and like to observe how cha qi (the qi of tea) affects their body and mind.

Tea tasting in a few steps

Make you sure that you have enough time and find some place quiet and peaceful. It’s best to abstain from savory foods during the tea tasting process in order to keep the taste and smell of tea unaffected. If you are planning to sample several teas in a row, it is a good idea to start with greens, then move to wulongs, and finish with black tea and shu puers.

  1. Observe the dry tea (color, shape, structure).
  2. Smell dry tea leaves (in different words describe the perceived aroma and share your description with others. What do your friends think? Remember, perceptions are subjective).
  3. Pour hot water over the leaves.
  4. Note how the tea leaves open (compare the speed and the extent of leaf opening to similar teas from other suppliers).
  5. Observe the color of the tea liquor (compare it with the color gradients of similar teas that you’ve brewed before).
  6. Smell the gaiwan’s lid first – it’s a good way to appreciate the smell of tea if the leaves are still too hot to be smelled directly (with different words describe the perceived aroma and share your thoughts with friends).
  7. Take a sip and and let the tea linger in your mouth for a few seconds (in different words describe the perceived sensations in the mouth, taste and aftertaste; share your thoughts with friends).
  8. Observe the effects that tea has on the body (heat, heart rate, reassurance, increased vigor, etc).

Flaviar guys say that tasting is believing and they are right!


Gregor Harih was with us and he took some great photos.

This post was written by Miha. Translated into English and supplemented by Roman. Slovenian version is also available (Vonj in okus – razvajanje kemoreceptorjev). Did you like this? You should follow us on twitter.

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