There is a phrase used by motorcycle and scooter riders called ATGATT. It is an acronym for “All The Gear, All The Time.” It is a reminder for the rider to gear up for a safe, successful ride. Like so many examples in life, the right tools increase the success of the task completion. There are similar rules of engagement in professional cupping tea. Professional tea tasters utilize specifically designated tools in order to maintain tasting consistency, leading to a successful cupping session.
Professional tea tasters utilize a cupping set to taste teas. The set is comprised of a small handled cup, a lid for the cup, and a bowl. The cup has a ridge, groove, or jagged edge on the top lip of one side of the cup. The jagged edge traps tea leaves in the cup while pouring out the liquor. The professional cupping sets are white so that the color of the leaves and liqueur can be seen.
A scale is used for measuring out tea leaves. The scale measures to grams, and often has a removable tray that sits on top of the scale for placing the tea leaves in. Other cupping equipage include a water temperature gauge to check the correct water temperature for the type of tea that is being steeped. A tasting spoon is used to dip into the tea liquor; drinking from the actual tasting cup is to be avoided. A spittoon is used for disposing of the tea when the professional tea taster is done tasting the tea.
The Road Map
A motorcycle rider will often have a route planned mapped out before they start a long ride. This same concept applies to tasting teas. The professional tea taster will decide what types of teas to taste. They may taste a specific category of tea. For example, they may steep Long Ching green teas from different suppliers. Or the taster may decide to taste teas that have an Earl Grey flavor profile. The professional cupper may choose to taste teas from specific regions, gardens, or manufacturing processes. The main rule for cupping tea is to taste the tea from the lightest to darkest, in that order, because a delicate white tea would be overshadowed by a strong flavored dark tea.
Motorcycle riders have a nomenclature for their riding experience. A motorcyclist would not say they going to drive their motorized two wheeled vehicle. They would state that they are going to ride their bike. A professional tea taster likewise would not say that the tea tastes yummy, or good. They have a language to describe the tea they are tasting. Some of the words used to describe the tea may include baked, tarry, floral, oaky, vegetal, mineral, roasted, citrusy.
A bike ride has a start, a middle, and an ending. The tasting of tea also has beginning flavor notes, middle flavor notes, and a finish. The finish is the flavor notes that linger after the first round of flavor profiles are detected. Tea tasting professionals write down their experiences into words to aid in remembering the flavor profiles.
Gear….. check. Map….. check. Inspection…...check. Motorcyclists inspect their bikes before, possibly during, and even after a ride. Tea cupping has three inspection parts: the dry leaf, the wet leaf, and the tea liquor inspection.
The dry leaf inspection is a time to really look at the leaves and smell the aroma. What do the leaves look like? Are they broken, are there stems, does the aroma conjure up feelings, and memories? A professional tea taster can discern if a tea has been over baked, left to wither too long, was high grown, or even what time of year the tea was plucked. All of this information can be gathered simply from inspecting and smelling the aroma of the tea leaves.
The wet leaf inspection is important. Are there brown edges on the leaves? Are the leaves uniform in color? Do the wet leaves have a strong odor, or stale odor? The tea taster inspects the leaf for impurities, they also look for broken pieces of leaves and/or stems. The wet leaves are also inspected for color variations that can possibly denote too hot of heat applied to the leaves, disease, bud configurations.
Tea liquor is sniffed, tasted and the color of the liquor is noted. Is the aroma pleasing and reminiscent of a specific memory or emotion? Is the taste sweet, bitter, or vegetal? Frequently an aroma of the liquor can be a telling point for the taster regarding the processing of the leaf, the terroir of the growing region, or the climate that the tea was grown in. The taste of the liquor can build a summary of the tea’s history for the professional taster. The taste of the tea is the consummate grading point for the taster. If the tea taster detects any flaws or conversely notes any superior quality in the leaf inspection, then the tea’s fate is set.
Consistency and Uniformity on the Journey
Motorcycle classes teach consistency during riding. For example, when getting on to a bike, approach the bike consistently from the same side. Or when stopping the bike, always put your right foot down onto the pavement first. The consistency in developing safe riding habits in turn increases the safety and success of the ride. Professional cupping has a consistency and uniformity unto itself. Whether the tea is a dark, black, green, or white tea, the amount tested needs to be consistent. If a tea taster uses two grams or two and a half grams of tea is inconsequential to the fact that the amount needs to be consistent throughout tasting. In addition, the amount of time steeped needs to be uniform as well. If a taster uses a five minute steeping time to push the leaves and draw out possible defects in the tea, along with complex flavor notes, then across the tea tasting table, the steep time needs to be consistent. The water temperature needs to be variable for the type of tea being cupped.
The time of tasting ideally needs to be uniform daily. A consistent time to taste tea daily helps train the brain. The brain is a muscle and tea tasting utilizes the right side of the brain to appreciate the aroma, and the left side of the brain to recall or recognize the aroma and give it a name.
Clear Mind For The Journey
A clear and focused mind is crucial for the motorcycle ride. Concentration, alertness, critical thinking are utilized to aide in a safe, enjoyable ride. Cupping tea is focused work. It takes clearing the mind of problems, to-do lists, anticipation of future events, whatever the case may be, to have intentional mindfulness and focus on what is tasted in the cup. Professional tea tasters also need to ignore external noise as much as possible to help taste tea. Tea tasting is a reflective, mindful, and critically engaged time to focus on the tea aromas and flavor profiles.
Your Own Tasting Journey
You can create your own unique tasting session. Just remember the rules of the road, take your map, and grab your gear. Inspect the leaves and liquor, be consistent, focused, mindful, and write down what you taste. With consistent practice, you can develop your sense of taste, smell, and increase your vocabulary relating to the sensations of tea tasting.
Happy mindful sipping,
About the Author
Leslie Sundberg is a World Tea Academy Certified Tea Specialist, a World Tea Academy Apprentice Tea Sommelier, a Specialty Tea Institute Level IV trained Tea Specialist, and a Tea and Business Etiquette Specialist. On any given day, Leslie can be found teaching, speaking or sharing in the joys of a cup of tea. No matter what Leslie is doing or where she is, one thing remains constant: 4:00 in the afternoon is tea time!