Ever want to know how the tea tasters tell ambrosia from swill? The lore and allure of wine tasting is well known to anyone who has stepped into the cool haven of a vineyard tasting room whether it’s in the Valley of Napa or Loire. Like wine, tea involves evaluating for both aroma and taste with an added visual spin: How do the dry leaf and infused leaf compare? How does the aroma differ when the leaves open? Just getting the procedure down requires nose, taste and a lot of smooth wrist action.
At the Specialty Tea Institute – which gives classes during tea expos around the country — students learn the art of cupping from experts in the tea world. Here’s an example of guidelines for Sri Lanka teas. Note that the teas are labeled only by type and processing method. Steep time and water temperature differ according to the tea tasted.
Equipment: A professional cupping set consists of a serrated cup and lid with pinhole to let steam escape and a bowl to decant tea. You also need a scale to measure tea and a spoon to slurp tea in your mouth for tasting. (When tea is tasted, there is no talking in the room: only the sound of intense slurping.). Here, the teas in the paper boats are from Yunnan Province. They are weighed on the scale and put in the cup. The usual measurement is 3-3.5 grams. Looks can be deceiving: A tightly rolled oolong, for example, might weigh as much as a Darjeeling but look like much less.
The dry leaf is then evaluated for color, size, feel, and aroma. Use your imagination, but not too much. Do you really think that black tea smells like chocolate chips or maple syrup? (We’re not talking about blended teas here.) Then again, if you can relate to flights of fancy wine lingo, live it up.
When the tea is ready to be decanted into the bowl, first lift the lid just enough to inhale the aroma, careful not to scald your face. Note how different it smells from the dry leaf. Some oolongs from Taiwan might smell like gardenias; some pu-erhs like freshly turned earth after a rain. Don’t take too long with this. Use evaluation sheets to write down impressions.
Now comes wrist action: With one hand and in one motion, keep one hand on the lid and decant liquid into bowl, pouring through the serrated edge. Don’t make a mess. Skilled tasters can do this without spilling a drop. But less dexterous leave their marks on the table. This is from a black tea class LTR took a few months ago.
When time is up, still keeping the lid on with your hand, firmly turn the cup upside down and give the bottom of the cup a few decisive whacks to dislodge the tea leaves into the lid. Remove lid: tea leaves should be a neat pile. Place upside down lid on right-side cup.
Look at the infused leaves: how do the differ from the dry leaves in size and aroma?
Taste: With a spoon, slurp tea to spray throughout your mouth. Make a lot of noise, and get into the tea zone. What is the color of the liquor? Does it taste smooth? Astringent? Write down your impressions. Compare aroma to taste. Compare different teas during the tasting.
Finally, tea, like any opinion, is subjective. Stand by your impressions and your likes and dislikes. And work on your wrist action.