Carine Baudry is specialist in aroma/flavor (aromaticienne) who graduated from ISIPCA, an expert taster expert in the field of tea and infusions for more than fifteen years, AVPA 2020 Jury President for Herbal teas
Tasting is a magic exercise which can sometimes be challenging because all the senses are called upon. Understanding how the senses work, realizing how to recognize perceived information allows you to make the most of this moment.
The objective of the tasting guides how it is approached.
Indeed, that we taste for pleasure, to examine or evaluate a tea, the posture will be different each time, while making work the same senses.
I suggest you follow me for this delightful tea tasting exercise ...
The first contact with tea leaves, with your tea liquor, is good thanks to the view. You see, look, appreciate! The view gives us a lot of information: quality of the leaf, quality of the harvest (presence of buds, young shoots), type of process (the chemical reactions that take place in the tea leaf during the process, such as oxidation, roasting or even fermentation have an impression on the colour of the leaves and also of the liquor), but also the quality of the preparation (a cloudy liquor, for example, gives us indications on the minerality of the water used and does not augur well for tasting) ...
The view allows us to admire the tea, but also to appreciate it.
Beware, however, of the presuppositions that can bias the tasting. Sight being the first contact with tea, visual information can lead us on the wrong tracks and create presuppositions. The most common example is the idea that tea would be mild because it is too light in colour.
Next comes the smell. The smell is very complex, probably the most complex of our five senses. It is capable of transporting us to our deepest and most distant memories.
We, first of all, seek smell by direct olfaction as we approach the cup of tea to our nose. The odorous compounds present in the liquor pass partly into the air and follow the gaseous torrent of respiration.
As we breathe in, the air and odorous compounds pass through the nasal cavity to reach the very top of the nose, at the level of the olfactory epithelium. These odorous compounds solicit the olfactory receptors and send information to our brain allowing us to smell and analyze all odours. The objective of this article is not to go into the details of the odour perception mechanism, but more to make you aware of how it works.
In tea, the olfactory solicitations are very numerous, because the number of odorous compounds can be very important. More than 500 odorous molecules have been counted in teas. The number and nature of these compounds are of course linked to the type of tea, the cultivar, the terroir, the process and also the way of brewing it…
The time comes when we put the tea liquor in the mouth. There, 3 senses are simultaneously in action: taste, touch, and again smell.
Again the sense of smell indeed, but this time via another path, retro olfaction. When the tea liquor is in the mouth, the same odorous compounds also pass to the gaseous state and follow the path of the air at the time of breathing. It is this time the expiration which will be important to perceive the odours. Indeed, at the time of expiration, the air rises by depression in the nasal cavity and reaches the same olfactory receptors. The compounds are the same, the receptors are the same, the analysis is the same, only the path changes. While we filter the air in direct olfaction to avoid being attacked by olfactory pollution, we perceive in a more complete and concentrated way in retronasal olfaction, because after having passed the filter of the mouth, 100% of the compounds can reach the receivers.
We are therefore more sensitive to retronasal odours, but the presence of other senses, such as taste and touch, make perceptions more complex.
Let's continue our sensory journey and now talk about taste. The term taste nowadays designates a global perception in the mouth, often including olfactory, gustatory and even tactile perception. On a more technical axis, the perception of taste designates a much-reduced perception since it is normally addressed only to taste perception.
Taste perceptions are mainly located on the tongue. Our tongue is made up of taste buds in which there are taste buds equipped with taste receptors. To apply these taste receptors, the food components must dissolve in saliva.
In the Physiology of taste, the French gastronomer, Brillat-Savarin, tells us that "the number of flavours is infinite". But, for educational reasons and to allow better verbalization, close perceptions, even if they are not identical, are grouped into five major families of flavours associated with a descriptor: sweet, salty, bitter, sour and umami. Each taste perception is different and recognizable.
When we talk about the sense of touch, we often think of the tactile perceptions we have thanks to the sensitivity of our fingers. This sensation is effectively used to evaluate the texture of the dry leaf, its flexibility which indicates its treatment and its age. But this is a small glimpse of what tactile perception can bring us in tea tasting. Indeed, the tongue and the mucous membranes of the mouth contain many tactile receptors. We are even more sensitive to tactile information received by mouth than on the fingertips. Tea contains many compounds, some of which, tannins for example, as in wine, come into play with saliva. This reaction causes dry mouth, called astringency. Depending on the intensity and location of this phenomenon, we get different tactile perceptions often called textures.
Each sense is perceived individually, of course, but alchemy works with synergy. Even if the richness of the flavours and aromas of a tea is the most sought-after point, these perfumes will be all the more interesting if they are carried by the flavours and the texture. A tea that is too smooth or watery, without any texture, will be short in the mouth, whereas if a fine astringency accompanies perception, it will take on a completely different dimension.
Perceiving is essential, so is naming. Nothing is more infuriating than not being able to put a word on a sensation. So exasperating that it every so often prevents us from perceiving the multitudes of things to perceive. Particularly in the professional tasting, expertise, and mastery of sensory vocabulary is crucial. The sensory vocabulary makes it possible to distinguish all the nuances of each sense. It makes it possible to evaluate and above all to illustrate in the most analytical way possible with a vocabulary that must be common to be shared. If you want to know more about the vocabulary, consult the La QuintEssence sensory box - firstname.lastname@example.org
So you realize that it is vital to use our five senses (especially the four: sight, smell, taste, and touch) when tasting a tea. Experience, expertise of tea, and mastery of sensory vocabulary are major points for evaluating a tea.
As part of the AVPA contest on teas from around the world, I had the pleasure and honour of working in collaboration with AVPA on the implementation of the most complete evaluation grid possible and as fair as possible. Tea can thus be judged and classified about the other teas in the contest according to precise sensory criteria by a jury of experts. This approach of AVPA also allows, on-demand, to transmit a sensory evaluation of tea. The detailed sensory evaluation lets producers know how their tea is judged and described by a jury of Western experts.