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 train your palate for tea.
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 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 can help train your palate for tea.
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 sublimely good ones).
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
Humans are creatures of habit and we tend to want to stay in our lane. Having a favorite tea is perfectly OK. There’s a comfort in the familiar that keeps us coming back. That being said, there are thousands of varieties of tea out there to explore. Don’t be afraid to drink a tea that might not be the kind of taste you normally drink. You just might be surprised by how much you enjoy something like a cooked puerh or matcha.
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 hated it. In fact, I refused to drink it for years. Jalam Teas changed my mind much farther down the road and I now drink more puerh than any other kind of tea.
One of the most efficient ways to train your palate for tea is to comparatively taste two or more teas at once. Comparing and contrasting teas that have something in common. The fun of it is that you can let your imagination run wild. For just about every question you might have about tea, there’s a tasting that can help you to discover the answer. I find that this is always better than simply reading about something in a book.
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.
Here are some comparative tastings that I’ve written about here on the blog:
- A Look at Black Tea Leaf Grades with Emrok Tea Factory
- Blind Tasting: Dragonwell – Organic vs Organic Supreme
- Tasting Puerh Storage Methods with White2Tea
If you 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 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 changed my approach to food and drinks. I’ve noticed myself becoming a more adventurous eater since starting this journey. The girl who never ate vegetables now lives for spinach.
Taking notes on your experiences is an incredibly important way to train your palate for tea, especially when you are first getting started. This blog was started for exactly this reason. No two tea drinkers will experience tea in the same way and everyone has their own methods. I tend to jot down whatever comes to mind in a sort of stream of consciousness. Afterward, I’ll refer to those notes while writing about the tea. Some tea lovers I know keep stacks of notebooks with handwritten jabberings. Others use spreadsheets or note-keeping apps to organize their thoughts. Do whatever works best for you and your tea journey.
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:
Practice, practice, practice (drink, drink, drink)— white2tea (@white2tea) September 19, 2016
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
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
I hope that you found these tips on how to train your palate for tea helpful. 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 in the comments!