Criteria for tasting teas

Over the past couple of weeks we’ve been tasting some puerh samples from a producer in Yunnan. The samples were from teas he has pressed over the past 5 years and the quality has been outstanding in general. The quality of the teas and my satisfaction in drinking them has made me think about what it is exactly that makes a good tea. This is a personal thing and not everyone shares the same list of criteria, or with the same weighting, but I thought it might be useful to write a little about some of those that affect our selection of teas.

  • 1. Agrochemicals

    – This is the number one and is the make or break for any given tea. It makes really very little sense to drink it if it’s going to harm your body. Once you get a feeling for identifying them in a tea and recognising the effects, it’s not very comfortable to drink that tea any more anyway. Signs to look for are a tingling or numbing sensation on the tip of the tongue or the lips. Also paying attention to the throat is a useful habit – notice how the throat feels before beginning to drink the tea, notice how easy it is to swallow some saliva in the mouth. After drinking a tea with agro-chemicals, the throat will often constrict, making it more difficult to swallow or even painful to swallow in more extreme cases. Unfortunately once you’ve got a feeling for this it makes the vast majority of teas in the market almost totally undrinkable.

  • 2. Body Feel

    – It should leave the body feeling comfortable upon drinking it. It should not make the mouth, throat or stomach uncomfortable, rough or with a scratchy feeling.

  • 3. Cleanliness

    – It should have no off flavours from storage, processing etc. It should be pure and not tainted with any foreign matter. The flavour should be pure and clean and the natural flavours of the tea should be able to shine through.

  • 4. Mouth feel/Throat Feel

    – The tea should be full and rich in the mouth. It should be satisfying to drink in the same way that a good mushroom or chicken soup will be full bodied and rich in the mouth. It should coat the mouth and throat with an oily layer, leaving a lasting flavour and full sensation.

  • 5. Qi

    – This is more subtle, but an important factor in our choosing of teas. It is also related to body feel, but also affects the mind. It should leave the body and mind feeling comfortable and relaxed or energised in a pleasant way, quite different from the effects of caffeine.

  • 6. Flavour & Aroma

    – the most obvious aspects of a tea. It is important that it has a nice flavour and aroma. This is fairly easy to understand and quite shallow in one way. On a more complex level, one can pay attention to how the flavour transforms in the mouth and throat, how any bitter notes change and leave a lasting sweetness, also how long the flavour lasts and whether it induces saliva, bringing a long sweetness into the mouth.

All of these aspects are important and I’d weight them in roughly the order that I listed them. For many people, at beginning their tea journey, and even for some people who have been drinking tea for many years, some of these criteria are not obvious.

The agrochemicals for one is a big thing. Many people think that the tingling they’re experiencing in their mouth or the numbing of their tongue is a good thing. This is only too obvious from a quick scan of many of the tea review blogs on the internet. Paying attention more and more in this area will really open up a new awareness, not only in your tea drinking, but also in everyday life. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately for your body) it’s going to make enjoying a lot of things more and more difficult – you’ll begin to notice it in lots of non-organic fruit and vegetables, chocolate, coffee and a whole host of other foods and drinks. If one tends to eat a lot of non-organic food, your mouth and body can become numb to it, so it might be worth buying some organic veg and having a few days off the pesticides, fertilisers and weed-killers to give your body a chance to normalise. The difference then becomes all the more obvious.

It’s not really a choice between choosing organic or non-organic, it’s more about gaining the ability to differentiate tea (or food) that is contaminated with chemicals from those that are grown naturally. Some ingestion of chemicals is unavoidable in this modern world, especially if one wishes to have a balanced life, but minimising this and gaining an awareness of it can only be a good thing.

The presence or absence of agro-chemicals is the first one, and the big one for us. The others cascade roughly in order of importance. It’s interesting when looking at this list and thinking about my priorities for a tea – I think towards the beginning of my tea journey my intuitive list would almost have been in the opposite order. As a newcomer to tea, the aroma and flavour were the most obvious and the most important aspects. Although it’s not the case for everyone, in the beginning I found it relatively easy to be aware of the qi of good teas, though it takes a while to appreciate them in a more balanced way. Mouth feel and moreso throat feel were less apparent – in Asia these characteristics of good food and drink seem to be more highly prized and explicitly thought about than in the West, but once you begin to pay attention to these more and more, you’ll notice these characteristics in good food/drink/tea everywhere. Cleanliness is apparent, but one really has to get to know a tea or type of teas before able to accurately pinpoint what is a natural flavour of the tea and what is a storage problem or processing problem. With bodyfeel I look back at the teas that I was drinking when I started and am pretty shocked. Some of them are pretty terrible really & they must have been making me very uncomfortable. Nevertheless, through inexperience or lack of understanding or attention, I carried on, not realising that it didn’t need to be like that.

These are just a few of the major points that are important for us, but when tasting teas they are some points which might be helpful to keep in mind.

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