Day 26. What it means to evaluate tea #2.
In post #1 I spoke about the factors affecting the quality of tea prior to it ending up in your possession. Today I will discuss a bit about what you can do to understand it’s quality once you actually have it in front of you.
Start with smelling. Much of teas complexity and depth are in fact part of it’s aroma. Make a list. Remember, smells are much more subjective than tastes…use vivid imagery. If you’ve ever read wine or whisky descriptions you know how fun this can be (band aid with some tic tac overtones). Really, have fun. Think about comparisons to other things: foods, drinks, nature, textiles, medicines, weather…its all relevant. Be as detailed as you can.
Second, pick up the tea. Feel the weight. Light? Heavy? Slippery? Coarse? Smell it some more. Keep smelling. Handling tea is important to give you insight into it’s water content (drier teas are lighter, teas with more moisture content are heavier). Your sense of touch can also be developed to sense the consistency of the leaf. If the tea is simultaneously soft and poking you, that shows some inconsistency.
Next, visually inspect the tea: Green tea is best viewed against a matte black surface, near a window with indirect light (north is best). Look again for consistency, width of leaf and surface texture (rough, glossy, etc).
At this point an expert knows more about the tea than is imaginable. Smell not only indicates freshness, but varietal. It can reveal whether the tea was picked early, on time, or late. Handling the tea gives insight into the drying process, length of firing and whether it was machine rolled or hand rolled.
All teas are somehow unique and contain both mother nature’s and the maker’s influences, both big and small.
Tasting comes next. The important thing when comparing teas is to brew each consistently. What you do to one, do exactly to another. The standard in Japan is 4 grams of tea, 5oz of water at about 90° C and brew for 1 minute 30 seconds. Remove brewed leaves. Smell those too. Smell everything!
With a spoon, taste the teas. The 4 overarching tastes of Japanese teas are: sweetness, bitterness, astringency (think dry wine) and umami (think seaweed and dashi broth). Continue to note aroma. Balanced? Way to bitter? Salty? Sweet? write it down.
Our tea manager sketched out how he envisions the complex and often hard to quantify qualities of green tea: music. He thinks in wave forms representing music. Suddenly he can quantify very subtle differences by thinking in concrete terms. Maybe sweet is the low end of the piano, and bitter the high end. I must also mention he was awarded 1st prize in the Nationwide Japanese Sencha Evaluation Contest. I must also mention he scored a flawless 40/40. Only the 2nd time in the history of the contest. I took notes!
So before we talk about what signifies good or bad, just have fun. Taste as much as you can.
A list of some often noted tastes and aromas of Japanese green tea (found in both good and bad teas):
Fresh grass, hay, artichoke, flower blossoms, sea salt, ocean, edamame, hazelnut, tobacco, dust, fruits, dashi, miso, sea weed, spinach.