Chinese Tea Quality Versus Taste
Is it possible to tell the quality and taste of a tea without actually tasting it?
In the previous The Chinese Tea Shop’s Blog post (“Welcome to the World of Engineered Teas“) I commented that there is a way to tell the quality and taste of a tea (like Oolong Tea, Puerh Tea (Pu-erh), or White Tea) without tasting it.
If you’ve ever watched professional tea tasters at work or have seen the Chinese method of tea-making called Gong Fu Cha (Tea With Great Skill), you may have noticed tall and slender cups being used.
These are smelling cups and they can tell you a lot about the quality of a tea and how it will taste – without even tasting it.
The aromatic compounds in tea dissolve in water at different rates. This is the basis for Gong Fu Cha where a small amount of leaves is brewed many times to concentrate the flavour. Each brew reveals a different taste as the different compounds dissolve. A similar thing happens when tea oils are exposed to air. As tea oils oxidize, the aroma changes. This is the same thing that happens with perfumes. This oxidization of oils approximates what will happen when the leaves are brewed in water.
A tea that may start with a spicy aroma and ends up with a flowery aroma will taste spicy in the early brews and flowery in the later brews. Using a smelling cup allows the tea maker to know what to expect from a new tea they have not made before and how to brew the leaves to get the best taste.
When you rinse your tea leaves (see Gong Fu Cha), pour out the tea into a smelling cup and then empty the cup and smell. You will smell the “top notes” of the tea which are the most delicate compounds that oxidize quickly. These notes are what you will taste on the first brews. After a minute, smell again and you will notice the aroma has changed. And a few minutes after that, still more changing.
A low quality tea will cease to have an aroma after a few minutes because the oils are of poor quality. They oxidize quickly and will dissolve quickly in water and you will get fewer brews from that tea. The aroma from a high quality tea will last many minutes showing that you will get many good tasting brews from it.
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