Meeting a New Tea
Updated: May 18, 2022
When I have a new tea, particularly a single estate tea, I like to get to know it over two or three sessions. If I can be patient enough, I start with a formal cupping so I can explore everything the tea can do while controlling all the variables of weight, temperature, and steeping time.
First, I spread out the leaves on a piece of white paper and examine them. I try to identify the visible colors and name them based on my own reference points: French roast coffee, dark chocolate, morgan horse, Buffalo sauce, pine needles, dry grass or hay, spruce, sage, palm leaves, asparagus. I measure the length of the leaves in millimeters and take note of broken edges as well as the degree and quality of the twist. This is how I develop an opinion about how strong a cup the size and twist of the leaves will produce and levels of heat and time that might be suitable for future brews. Generally, I expect smaller pieces of leaves to generate a stronger brew and a tighter twist to indicate more infusions, and a darker color to mean a higher temperature is required.
Not all dry leaves present a strong aroma to me, but it is something to which I pay close attention. Especially with black teas, the aroma of the dry leaves gives me clues about what to look for in the flavor. I associate a cocoa aroma with visible orange tips that will often yield a dark fruit and malty flavor, but making assumptions about taste based on the aroma of the leaves is definitely not a fool-proof strategy. Taking time with the leaves and considering their scent helps to get me in the right headspace for evaluating the tea’s liquor.
Once the steeping is complete, I evaluate the liquor before turning to the wet leaves. If I start the other way around I find the tea has cooled too much for me to get an accurate read on it. I look closely at the color, including a possible ring around the edge of the cup and any tiny specks that may have landed at the bottom. I look for bubbles, clarity, and brightness. Bubbles tend to indicate thickness and sometimes brightness will mean the tea has a sharpness.
With my first few sips I evaluate mouth-feel and weight of the body of the tea. Does the flavor feel like a punch in the tongue no matter what else I’m doing or do I need to sip quietly and breathe in the taste?
In a cupping session the idea is to get the tea to show you everything it has to offer. The overall flavor is likely to be more exaggerated and less nuanced than in an intuitive brewing session. I get all the sweetness, bitterness, maltiness, and astringency, but they are competing with each other so I have to take my time and sort them out. This gives me a sense of what I might find in separate tastings and how I might play with time and temperature.
I follow the cupping with a few additional tasting sessions using a Gaiwan and brewing a few different ways. Sometimes I repeat the formal cupping bringing in two or three other teas for contrast. This helps me to get a sense of where the tea fitis in the spectrum of my experience thus far.
As I grow in my practice and learn more about the factors that influence aroma, taste, mouth-feel and overall experience, I am sure this routine will evolve. The time I spend with a new tea is a mindful exercise very different than when I am brewing an old favorite. Focusing on how the tea feels in my mouth while tuning out its taste takes a level of concentration that most of my life does not require. At the same time, the physical act of tasting the tea helps me focus and gives me clarity of mind that is hard for me to achieve otherwise.