When tasting teas with people, I often find them at a loss on how to describe what they are tasting. I know the feeling. Is it okay to say this tastes like dirt? or grass? or a lemon jolly rancher? I give a big yes to all of that. Tasting is memory after all. The chemicals in tea overlap with many things we have smelled and tasted in our past. Taste often triggers distant memories of the good, the bad and the bizarre. One of my favorite scotch’s reminds me of “hotel lobby”. Some great wines taste like “vitamins” and even “barnyard”.
The key to tasting, in my opinion, is having as much memory to draw from as possible. Trying to understand minerality? Suck on a pebble. Not sure what to look for when someone says “umami”? Put a piece of Kombu (Japanese seaweed) on your tongue. Compare the taste of balsamic and sherry vinegar side by side.The more flavors we encounter the broader our vocabulary of taste will be and the more we can draw out from whatever tea (or whisky, wine, soup etc.) we are tasting. It’s a fun game. And you cannot be wrong. If someone tells you what you are tasting is wrong, be suspicious of them. Of course there a varying degree of sophistication when it comes to the palate, but you taste what you taste. That’s a fact.
Taste consists of sweetness, sourness, saltiness, bitterness and umami. But aroma, or the marriage of taste and smell, is limitless. Have fun, take notes, and compare with your friends. Don’t be shy, even if what you taste reminds you of “dank basement”. Puerh anyone?