tea tasting: a step by step guide
Cupping is the quickest way to get acquainted with the characters of different teas and to compare different quality selections of the same tea variety. It is also the trade’s main gate in quality control.
tools and materials
As a hobbyist or a connoisseur, you do not need to line up your kitchen table with 50 taster’s mugs and slurp from them all day long. 5 or 6 is a good number to start with. In fine teas, where aroma and taste are critically associated with temperature, one really cannot do more than 10 at a time anyway. Party up with your tea friends so you have more teas to play with in each session, if you want.
- A few selections of tea that you want to study and compare (it is wise to compare selections from the same category each round, esp in the beginning, before you are really very confident in the process)
- Taster’s Mugs, 150 ml capacity, coupled with tea bowls for holding the infused liquor (see photos)
- Tasting Spoons
- Bowl for warming the spoons
- Bowl for used spoons
- Tea Holders
- Water Kettle, preferably electric ones with 2000W heating capability or above, 1 litre capacity or above, or Instant Tankless Water Boiler
- Kitchen thermometer
- Electroic Scale, 0 ~ 20 g
- Electronic Timer
- White bread
- (optional) Warm milk, cheese, or soda crackers just in case there is a little stomach un-comfort for over-drinking
- Measure 3 grams of each tea and put inside the leaf-holders in a line ready for use (note the sequence so you know which tea is which)
- Preheat mugs in a steamer, oven, or by filling with boiling water for a couple of minutes
- Line the mugs in a straight line, with enough hand space in between, say 4 inches (10 cm)
- Put the measured tea in the mug, in the same sequence as the line up
- Set the timer to the required infusion time
- Fill the mug, to the rim, consecutively with water at the temperature designated for the specific tea, timing the intervals between the filling of each mug
- Cover the lid immediately after filling of each mug
- Let steep for the required time, 5 or 6 minutes, but have to be the same for each mug
- While steeping, put a tea bowl in front of each mug
- Warm the tasting spoons in a separate bowl of hot water
- When the first mug is infused to the needed time, decant by holding tight the lid and letting the liquor drain through the slits into the bowl. Time the decanting for the next mug to the exact time lapse during step 05, such that each mug is infused for the same amount of time. Go through the line to decant all the mugs
- (optional step) After decanting each mug, invert the mug so the infused leaves fall onto, and piled on the mug lid. Place the lid upside down, with tealeaves showing, back onto the mug. This is done so you can study the infused leaves
- Make sure your palate is clean.
- Starting from the tea which you think will be the lightest taste (not necessarily the lightest colour), sniff the tea bowl. (or sniff the inside of the mug lid, if you have not chosen to perform step 12)
- Scoop a spoonful to slurp in (with air, please don’t mind the manner) and let it roll in your tongue. Let the liquid rest a second and roll it again before swallowing.
- Feel your palate, tongue, throat and stomach for their reactions with the drink.
- Halt for 5 to 10 seconds before you go for the next mug, after taking a small bite of bread to clean your palate and clear the lingers of the previous tea. Remember to clear the palate every time when you go back to cross compare different selections
- When the infused leaves are a bit cooler, sniff them. Compare the appearance and smells
Keep notes for each selection for later reference.
There are professionals in the trade who rather spit out the tea in each slurp so they do not have to intake a vast amount of tea, because some really do this whole day long. For people in the fine tea business, however, the differences a tea can make at the throat and after swallowing are quite important in judging a tea. Sometimes it makes a really big difference. Therefore, I suggest people who care to give up mass market quality to experience the complete process of drinking a fine tea.
- How does the liquor smell?
- How does the inside of the mug lid smell?
- Does the aroma linger? Which part of it lingers longer? Which shorter?
- Does any part of the aroma remind you of another substance?
- How does the liquor taste?
- Does any part of the taste come first and some other later?
- What do the different parts of the taste remind you of?
- Which part of your tongue gives you the sensation of the taste?
- How does the taste stay?
- Does the taste change during the process of tasting?
- What is the texture of the tea liquor?
- Do you feel any taste at the throat? Or elsewhere?
- How do the infused leaves smell? Same as the liquor? Or different?
- What are the characteristic differences between different selections?
- How does your stomach feel a few seconds after drinking? A few minutes?
- Do you feel any other thing?
After a couple of sessions and a number of selections, you’ll begin to appreciate which are the finer teas and teas that you personally prefer. However, since your taste buds and your body needs time to adjust to fine tea, and each individual can be very different in this, do give yourself some time and more opportunities.
Remember, price really should not interfere with your judgment of a selection. As a trader myself, I give all my samples serial numbers and hide all other information such as growers or price, so I do not have any prejudice when tasting a tea.
The ISO standard for professional tasting advises 2 g to each 100 ml of liquor. That means roughly 3 g in a 150 ml mug. (How much is 3 g of tea? Click here to find out.) However, when dealing with very delicate fine greens, like those that are only tiny shoots, I put 4 grams.
The same ISO standard sets the infusion water temperature at 100°C. This is quite useless for most varieties other than BOP grades or under, or other older whole leaf black teas, or post-fermented teas. The temperature basically destroys some of the amino acids that give finer teas their unique gastronomical values. It also calls out too much bitter tasting gallocatechinsin green teas, which are lacking in black teas. I do not believe there are any tasters who can detect from the scalded teas how they could have tasted when infused properly. Click here for a general guideline for infusion temperature for various tea categories.
Infusion time is recommended at 6 minutes by the ISO. This is a good for using bigger pots. For infusing a small pot of traditional fine tea, 5 to 5.5 minutes is good enough.
Click here for some parameters that I recommend for you to start with. Please note that they are for whole-leaf finer teas. Broken leaves and lower grades may need to be adjusted accordingly.
Those who are not used to drinking a few different teas at a time would easily be taken away by the process and over drink. Tea-drunk can have as nasty a hangover like alcohol-drunk. It is advisable for beginners to have taken a good hot meal, no alcohol and not too tired when cupping. Keeping to one category of tea also help to ease you into the process. Crossing tea categories and making tea stronger than recommended are two factors for tea drunk sometimes even for experienced tea people. <what to do when you got tea-drunk…>
However, tea is a very easy substance for the body to get accustomed to and normally by the third session, you will have a great capacity and not easy to get drunk unless you get really abusive. Some people do not get tea drunk at all.
There have been some scientific attempts to explain tea drunk but I find them unconvincing because they contradict with my experience and cannot explain most of my doubts. I am not explaining them in here.
Normally a person can drink as many cups as she wants in a day without problem, when we are dealing with fine teas. Tea drunk happens mostly only with chain drinking strong infusions in a very short time, and paticularly when involving different categories of tea.