What Am I Looking For?

5 small glass cups and saucers lined up in a row on a white tablecloth. Each one is filled three quarters full with green tea. Behind them is a white teapot and a glass fairness cup halfway full of tea.

I previously wrote a blog about the nuts and bolts of taste testing tea, or cupping tea. The uniformity, consistency and the science behind the taste testing of tea. This blog is about the additional aspect of cupping tea; the creative, and additionally subjective side of cupping or taste testing tea.

My Environment Or Head In The Game

Before I can even think about taste testing tea, I need to stop thinking. Let me explain. I will frequently have numerous teas to taste in a single cupping session. I try to limit the amount of tea to cup because my senses can be overwhelmed and my senses can meld all the subtle flavor profiles into one. I have found that cupping tea is work to keep the senses from becoming dull, overwhelmed, and convoluted. I need to focus and be in the moment, be in the “here and now” when cupping tea. My mind needs to be clear of my perpetual to-do list, a text I might need to answer, and what items to put on my shopping list. I need to put all of those thoughts aside, focus, and be present while I am cupping tea. I am a thinker, planner, and active “to-do lister”. It is mental work to compartmentalize my interruptive thoughts and truly focus on what I am doing at the present time. There are times that I will have a pad of paper and a pen near where I am tasting tea, so that I can write down an action point I need to add to my to-do list, or a grocery store item I will need to later transfer to my shopping list. Taking this step, writing down the thoughts, aids in keeping my focus on the tea I am tasting.

Consistent Cupping Is Key

6 small white cups and saucers lined up in a row on a white tablecloth. Steam is rising from the cups. The focus is placed on the cups nearest the viewer.

A specific time each day to cup tea, for flavor profile analysis, is preferred. It trains the taste buds and the sensory signals in the brain to be alert to new sensory input. I also feel that consistent cupping rituals help me set the stage to focus on the tea flavor profiles. I try to keep my tea cupping area minimalistic and consistent each time I cup. By doing this, it alerts me to the fact that I will need to focus on the tastes, not my environment around me. My focus is not interrupted by a decorative cup and saucer I may have placed in the cupping area. My mind can focus on the task at hand and not the matcha whisk and how artfully it was created, drying next to the cupping set.

Making A Playlist Of Teas To Be Tested

A playlist of teas is important for me, to help me stay focused on the teas in a seamless order. I cluster similar teas together for cupping. When I am cupping tea, I find it very distracting to have teas randomly placed in the line up, or que, for tasting. I may be cupping all green teas and if there is a random black tea in the line up, it distracts my focus and thinking regarding green teas. The taste palate will be affected and skewed for the next green tea cupping after having been coated and covered in the black tea. The rhythm and cadence of the flow of the green tea cupping will be abruptly stopped and the like comparisons will end. Shifting intense focus in the middle of a tea cupping is like jumping into a cold lake after lounging in the sun. Your body and brain are calibrated for one paradigm and the abrupt shift to another experience is abrupt, and pulls focus away from the previous experience to register, and interpret the new sensory inputs. 

I Am Looking For…

A view of six open mason jars filled with tea from above. The upper-left is a rooibos, the upper middle is an orthodox rolled black tea, the upper right is an herbal blend, the lower left is a flavored black tea, the lower middle is chamomile, and the lower right is a CTC black tea.

The aspects that I look for while cupping tea are both subjective and analytical. The analytical flavor profiles are qualitative and readily discernible. A few of the flavor profile sensory details that I am looking for are: is the tea tasting bitter, sweet, or is it a broth, umami, tasting, is it a vegetal taste or a fruity flavor? Does the tea have an earthy aroma, a floral or spicy aroma? Does the tea have a thick mouthfeel or a thin mouth feel? These are sensory details that are easier for me to register and categorize than the subjective aspects of the tea. 

The subjective elements of a tea require great focus on my part to categorize and catalogue. I am looking for how the tea makes me feel when I smell and taste the tea. Is it a pleasant sensation? Does the anticipatory excitement of tasting the tea, in my mind, match the flavor of the tea, or was I let down by the taste of the tea? Does the taste pleasantly pair with the aroma of the tea? The tea does not need to be equal in positive sensory inputs with regards to taste and aroma. For example, the aroma can be unusual, hard to determine, but the taste can be sublime and wonderful. The converse is usually not a good thing though. If the aroma is foul, moldy, musty or rancid, no amount of positive flavor attributes will negate the putrid aroma. There is a saying in the tea world that plainly emphasizes “ if a tea does not pass the nose, it won’t pass the lips.” When the aroma is heady, intoxicating, often there is an expectation the tea will taste equally fantastic, yet when the tea is actually cupped and is moldy tasting, or thin, and weak, flat, or gone off (old tasting tea) that tea will be overlooked, deemed unsalable. Flavor profiles and aroma of a tea can work against each other at times, causing a tea to be incongruent in taste and smell of the tea.

I also subjectively decide if this is a tea I could see myself enjoying during a relaxing moment as well as a moment that is riddled with stress. Is the tea relaxing for me to drink? Are there any sharp, harsh aromas or flavors that are not relaxing for me? Cupping the teas frequently stir up memories. Does this tea remind me of anything, a moment in time? Does the aroma of this tea remind me of pleasant memories or memories that I wish to avoid. Memory recall is highly subjective and individualistic. The tea that I cup and have positive, happy, serene memories is going to be a tea I am biased towards, as opposed to a tea’s aroma and flavor that is subjectively associated with a negative memory.

Subjective and Scientific

To me, the cupping of tea is both a subjective and scientific event. A happy marriage between the creative and the concrete. The focus required while I am cupping tea needs to be laser sharp. Cupping tea, for me, utilizes both the right and left sides of my brain. I need to keep a consistent and quiet environment so that I am free to taste and feel sensory experiences and memory recall moments that cupping tea provides. Often tea transports me to a clam, happy place in mind and body.

Here is to the happy tea drinking moments. Enjoy your tea,

Leslie

About The Author

A photo of Leslie on the patio wearing a pink cardiganLeslie 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!

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