Detecting complex aromas can be difficult when we first get into tea. I know this issue was something I struggled with and it is probably one of the things that I get asked about the most. So first things first, you are not alone! Although some people might be naturally better at tasting food and drinks the truth is that you absolutely can get better at it by training your palate.
I don’t mean the board artists put their paint on or the wooden flats used for shipping. Your palate is located on the roof of your mouth where it separates the oral cavity from the nasal cavity. In most cases when we say palate we really mean sense of taste. For the record, that is what I’m referring to here. Although I am not a professional tea taster, I have written over nine hundred tea reviews over the last eight years of blogging. These are some pointers that I feel have helped me along the way.
Drink as Much Tea as Possible
The only way to get better at something is to practice, practice, practice. I learned this early on during very screechy childhood violin lessons but the same mentality applies to tea. If you want to get better at tasting tea you have to do it a lot. Drink every tea that you can get your hands on, even if they aren’t the highest quality. Even a bad tea can teach you something (as well as make you appreciate the ones that are sublimely good).
When I first got started I was writing for Teaviews.com so I had the good fortune of being exposed to a lot of tea in a short frame. For those that don’t have that option, I highly recommend ordering samples sizes from a variety of vendors. Not every company offers this option but it can be a great way to try a variety of teas without going broke.
Try New Things
I also strongly recommend that you keep on trying even if your first few experiences with a particular type of tea were less than stellar. Your taste buds just might not have been ready for it yet. It’s also possible that the one you tried was a spectacularly bad example. When I first tried puerh I absolutely hated it. In fact, I refused to drink it for years. +JalamTeas changed my mind much farther down the road and I now drink more puerh than any other kind of tea.
Not sure what a 1st Flush Darjeeling should taste like? Compare several from different estates. Curious about the differences between the different types of Wuyi oolongs? Line up some gaiwans full of Rou Gui, Da Hong Pao and Qi Lan. Tasting different vintages of puerh can also be extremely educational.
If you really want to test your abilities, trying doing the same tasting blind. You’ll be amazed at what your senses can pick up when you remove certain biases from the equation!
Taste (and Smell) Everything
It’s hard to describe what you experience in tea without reference points. Consciously tasting and smelling as many things as possible really helps to broaden your mental Rolodex of sensory experiences. Flowers, fruits, and veggies are the ones you’ll see used most often but try to go deeper than that. Old books, damp earth, and wet river rocks are all tastes you’ll find in tea if you look deeply enough.
I was a picky eater for most of my life and because of that, my exposure to certain smells and tastes was very limited. Exploring tea has really changed my approach to food and drinks. I’ve definitely noticed myself becoming a more adventurous eater since starting this journey. The girl who never ate vegetables now lives for spinach.
I asked the tea community on Twitter for tips on this topic. The responses ranged from helpful to humorous and everything in between. These are some of my favorites:
@teaformeplease Practice, practice, practice (drink, drink, drink)
— twodog (@TwoDogTeaBlog) September 19, 2016
@teaformeplease Taste everything that you can, not just tea.
— David Pasieka (@DavPasTweets) September 19, 2016
.@teaformeplease two lions, a whip, and a chair
— JosephWesleyTea (@JosephWesleyTea) September 19, 2016
@teaformeplease Try as many different teas as possible. You’ll definitely find the one that was wondering where you’ve been all their life.
— Mona Peters 莫娜 (@mrpd44) September 19, 2016
@teaformeplease We avoid overpowering flavors, such as too much sugar, salt and spice. We also try different things to expand our palate.
— ZhenTea (@ZhenTea2014) September 19, 2016
The next podcast episode will be on my tasting process so make sure to keep an eye out for that. What have you done to help train your palate for tea? I’d love to hear about it the comments!