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Tea Tasting Terminology Explained

Demystifying the Odd World of Describing Tea Taste

Anyone new to drinking tea, or for that matter anyone who hasn't ventured into some of the other tea review blogs on the Internet, probably haven't come across the odd and frequently strange terminology used to describe a teas taste.

And guess what. When you do finally stumble across these sites or other tea reviews that describe the "body" of the tea, more than a few tea drinkers will be left wondering what the heck that means.

So, as my site is more a "Average Joe" tea drinkers site, not a high end tea site (think...tea snobbery), I've put this helpful list together to define what the terms you might come across mean....both in the mystifying and plain english versions.

Tea Tasting Terms

Aroma/Fragrance - Standard stuff here. Just how does the tea smell to you? Many "professional" tea drinkers say this IS the most important part of the tea drinking experience. Now, no doubt it's important...who wants to drink a foul smelling tea? But really...it's the MOST important? Sorry...if the tea doesn't taste good, who really cares what the thing smells like?

Astringency: Let me share how Wikipedia explains this. "Astringency is the dry, puckering mouthfeel caused by tannins found in many fruits such as blackthorn, bird cherry and persimmon fruits. The tannins denature the salivary proteins, causing a rough "sandpapery" sensation in the mouth. Astringency tastes unpleasant to many mammals (including humans), which tend to avoid eating astringent fruit; conversely, birds do not taste astringency and readily eat these fruit."

So, what does this mean. Have you ever tasted a black tea that made your eyes bulge out and your lips pucker? If so, congratulations, you have met astringency. Astringency produces bitterness. And this bitterness is common in black/oolong/green tea, particularly if not brewed properly.

Thus, when you see a tea that is labelled "astringent," think BITTER. And who wants to drink a bitter tea???

Body : This has to be the most popular term I come across in reading the descriptions of various teas. Basically, if this makes sense, "body" refers to the strength and fullness of the teas flavor. In plain english, what this means is that a tea with a lot of body will have a strong flavor. And a tea with little body will have a weaker flavor. An example of a strong body tea...most black teas, peppermint tea, Tazo's Wild Sweet Orange Herbal Tea (really good example), and any other tea that "makes you sit up and take notice" of the teas flavor.

Conversely, a "weak body" tea could best be characterized by many white teas, many green teas and, the ultimate, Bigelow's Sweet Dreams Herbal Tea.

Bright : Technically speaking, and rather confusing, "bright" means whether the surface of the tea can reflect light, with varying degrees being total mirror reflection to total lack of reflection. If the tea "reflects a lot of light," then it's bright. If it doesn't reflect any light, then it isn't. In reality, what this means is that if you can see through the tea, it's bright. If you can't see through the tea (think coffee), it isn't. Simple, huh?

Brisk : A lively taste in the tea, as opposed to having a flat or soft taste. Best way to remember this is like with body (above). If you remember what the tea tastes like and the tea's flavor make you notice it, it's brisk. If you barely remember what the tea tastes like or find little flavor, it isn't.

Burnt : This term applies to tea during the firing process. Burnt obviously means the tea was subjected to too high of heat. Who wants to drink a burnt tea? Not me, as I've already had plenty. Additionally, I frequently use the term "burnt" in describing a teas flavor or aroma on this site. Basically, the leaves of the tea are so poor quality (or are actually supposed to be "burnt" - think Japanese Popcorn Tea), that simply adding boiling water to the tea causes a aroma that indeed smells like something burning, with a taste to match.

Character : This is one of the most sough after "things" in the professional tea tasting world. What character means is that by simply drinking the tea you can tell the origins of the leaves. Is that important to you? It isn't to me. Long as the thing tastes good is all I care about. But I guess if you spend $50 an ounce on a rare white tea, I can see where it might be nice to be able to identify the tea as coming from some hill in some province in China.

Clean : One would think that this would be a good term, but it isn't entirely. What "clean" means is that you can't tell the origin of the tea (the character if you just forgot), but the tea also lacks any thing "unpleasant" about it. To me at least, a "clean tea" means any tea I like, as teas I like don't have anything "unpleasant" about them.

Contamination : Oops. Something pesky got in those tea leaves during processing or shipping or whatever, ruining things.

Coppery : You'll see this term a lot in descriptions of straight black and oolong teas. And for good reason. A quality black tea or oolong tea SHOULD have a strong copper color. Sort of the color of your grandmothers old copper tea kettle, although you can see through it obviously. A tea that should be coppery, but isn't, is one that isn't high quality. Thus, the flavor of the tea will be off...or at least not what is expected.

Earthy Flavor : You see this a lot in many reviews of teas. To me, a Earthy Flavor, which usually references green teas, means the tea has a "grassy flavor" to it. In other words, it's like drinking hot water that tastes like grass. An earthy flavor does NOT mean it's organic.

Fine : A "fine" tea is one that is considered to have exceptional quality OR flavor. Thus, just because a tea is labelled as "fine" doesn't mean the thing will taste good, although usually they do assuming you like the tea type to begin with.

Flat : A tea lacking in briskness (see above). Or another way to look at it, a tea that SHOULD have a lot of flavor but doesn't due to the use of poor quality tea leaves (think generic supermarket bagged teas that use the tea leaf leftovers). Using crappy tea leaves will ruin even the most strongly flavored of teas.

Full : You see this term a LOT with body. Thus, a tea will have "Full Body". What "full" means is that the tea has substance, color and strength. So, a FULL BODY tea will have a powerful flavor or be very colorful, while a not so full body tea won't. As for the "substance" part of "full"...truthfully, I have no clue what they are talking about.

Grassy : You don't see this term that much. And for a reason. Technically speaking, it means someone screwed up in the processing of the green tea leaves. What this means in the tea cup is that the damn tea tastes like grass. And who wants to drink "grass?"

Hard : This means the tea has a penetrating and desirable flavor. In english, it means the flavor is good and memorable and the tea tastes like what it should (a peppermint tea that actually tastes like peppermint, for example).

Harshness : The tea is astringent due to the way it was processed. In other words, a harsh tea is bitter and isn't especially enjoyable.

Heavy : A tea that is heavy and which is not brisk. One way to look at a heavy tea...a tea with a not so memorable flavor and which does little for your palette or your stomach, as the tea once swallowed just "sort of sits there" and makes you feel not so terribly great. In a way, a heavy tea is like bad Mexican food, if that analogy helps any.

Light : This term isn't meant to refer to how "light" a tea is in terms of how it glides down and sits in your stomach (although I frequently refer to this trait in the reviews on this site). Instead, professionally speaking, it refers to the teas color. A "light tea" is one that has little color. Why they simply don't use "clear" I have no idea.

Malty : This means the tea is thick or it can mean the tea leaves "something behind" in your mouth of your tongue (also known as Reamy Flavor). In terms of thickness, I have no clue how a tea can be "thick." I've had over 250 different types of teas as of this writing, and not a single one of them could ever be thought of as "thick." Short of adding corn starch or flour to your tea, how do you make a tea "thick?"

Now, the part about the "tea leaving something behind" is easy to understand, and has happened to me many times before. Basically, what this means is that something in the tea (such as Bergamont Oil) stays behind in your mouth. This is NOT referring to after-taste. Instead, it is referring to a, how to phrase it, a change of FEELING inside your mouth or on your tongue.

Mellow : A mellow tea is one that is "matured" and isn't "raw." When I think of this, I think in terms of flavor. So try this analogy....a mellow tea has a sedate flavor, one that won't jerk you wide awake or make you really take notice of it. This can be a good trait or a bad trait, all depending on your mood and what you are hoping for in your tea. For example, a "mellow peppermint tea" would NOT be a good thing, but a "mellow green tea" certainly could be.

Metallic : Finally, a tea term that everyone can understand. Ever chew on a nail? Well, that's a metallic taste. And not a really great trait for a tea!

Pale : A tea that lacks color. For professionals, this isn't a desireable thing except for green teas which usually are pale. But for black teas, a "pale tea" isn't a good thing, as it says the quality of the leaves isn't so great...a black tea should have a strong, coppery color to it.

Point : The tea has a desirable briskness and acidity that creates a "sparkle" on the tongue, as I read somewhere. So what in the world is this "sparkle" on the tongue? Think memorable flavor with a lingering after-taste...it's the easy way to try to get your head around the strange term "point."

Pungent : In the world of professional tea tasters, a pungent tea is the ideal tea. It has the perfect combination of flavor, color, aroma, briskness and brightness. In plain english, the tea is good, memorable and one you can drink over and over again. Why they use this term I have no idea, as whenever I think of "pungent" I think of something I really don't like which has a very nasty smell to it. But whatever.

Quality : Considered an essential ingredient of any good tea. No kidding, gee....What this means is that the flavor of a tea is effected by the quality of the leaves that go into it. This is why so many supermarket brand teas are so bad...the leaves are nothing more than chopped up "left overs" of tea leaves. Poor quality = Poor Flavor = Poor Tasting Tea Experience.

Soft : The opposite of brisk. A tea with a soft, subdued flavor. This does NOT mean the tea is bad. The tea itself may be supposed to be that way. Just don't expect to stand up and take notice of a powerful flavor in the tea that is considered "soft."

Thickness : Yes, there is a term for a teas thickness. It is the measure of "viscosity" of a tea. Like I said under malt, I've yet to have a "thick tea", and short of adding flour to it, I don't know how you could. The FLAVOR of a tea can seem thick, but at the end of the day, all a tea is is flavored water. And when was the last time you had "thick water"?

Thin : Technically speaking, this means a tea lacks in body. In the real world, it lacks flavor and any sort of a memorable characteristic.

Tired : A tea that is flat. Thus, a "tired tea" is a bad tea, not one that needs to catch up on it's sleep. In plain english, the leaves are stale. And so, once brewed, the leaves don't provide the flavor/aroma that they should. So, a "tired tea" is a very bad tea.

Toasty : This term refers to the firing of the tea. An over-fired tea is described as toasty. To me, it means BURNT. And burnt teas aren't especially pleasant to drink.

Wild : This basically means that a tea has a taste to it that it shouldn't have. It doesn't mean that tea has a powerful flavor. Instead, it is sort of like drinking your black tea in the morning like you have for the last 10 years, only to make it today and discover that the flavor resembles bubble gum instead of the traditional flavor you are used to. Wild = Something Totally Unexpected.


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