Carine Baudry is an ISIPCA-certified flavor, expert-taster specializing in the field of tea and infusions for more than fifteen years, President of the Jury of the AVPA "Les Thés du Monde" Competition -Paris.
Tasting is a magical exercise that can sometimes be difficult because all the senses are solicited. Understanding how the senses work, and knowing how to recognize the information perceived allows you to make the most of this moment.
The objective of the tasting guides the way we approach it.
Indeed, whether you taste it for pleasure, to analyze or evaluate a tea, the posture will be different each time, while using the same senses.
I invite you to follow me for this beautiful tea-tasting exercise...
The first contact with the tea leaves, with your tea liqueur, is good thanks to sight. You see, look, admire! 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 impact on the color of the leaves and also of the liqueur), but also the quality of the preparation (a cloudy liqueur, for example, gives us indications on the minerality of the water used and does not bode well for the tasting)…
Sight allows us to admire tea, but also to understand it.
Beware, however, of presuppositions that can bias the tasting. Since sight is the first contact with tea, visual information can lead us on the wrong track and create presuppositions. The most frequent example is the idea that a tea would be weak because it is too light in color.
Then comes the turn of smell. The sense of smell is very complex, arguably the most complex of our five senses. It can transport us to our deepest and most distant memories.
We first solicit the sense of smell by direct olfaction when 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.
When we inhale, 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 appeal to the olfactory receptors and send information to our brain allowing us to smell and analyze all odors. The purpose of this article is not to go into the details of the odor perception mechanism, but rather to make you aware of how it works.
In tea, olfactory solicitations are very numerous, because the number of odorous compounds can be very large. 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 to infuse it...
The moment comes when we put the tea liqueur in our mouths. There, 3 senses are simultaneously in action: taste, touch, and again smell.
Once again the sense of smell, but this time via another path, retro-olfaction. When the tea liquor is in the mouth, the same odorous compounds also pass into the gaseous state and follow the path of the air at the time of breathing. It is this time the expiration that will be important to perceive the odors. Indeed, at the time of expiration, the air rises by depression at the level of the nasal cavity and reaches the same olfactory receptors. The compounds are the same, the receptors are the same, the analysis is the same and 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 odors retro nasally, 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 today designates an overall perception in the mouth often including olfactory, taste, and even tactile perception. On a more technical axis, the perception of taste refers to a much more reduced perception since it normally only addresses taste perception.
Taste perceptions are mainly located on the tongue. Our tongue is made up of taste buds which there are taste buds equipped with taste receptors. To solicit these taste receptors, the compounds in the food must dissolve in the saliva. In The Physiology of Taste, the French gourmet, Brillat-Savarin, tells us that "the number of flavors is infinite". But, for educational reasons and to allow better verbalization, similar perceptions, even if they are not identical, are grouped into five main families of flavors associated with a descriptor: sweet, salty, bitter, acid, 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 sheet, and its suppleness 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 the mouth than by the fingertips. Tea contains a large number of compounds, some of which, tannins for example, as with wine, come into action with saliva. This reaction causes a dry mouth, called astringency. Depending on the intensity and location of this phenomenon, we obtain different tactile perceptions often called textures.
Each sense is perceived individually, of course, but alchemy operates with synergy. Indeed, even if the richness of the flavors and aromas of a tea is the most sought-after point, these flavors will be all the more interesting if they are carried by the flavors and the texture. A tea that is too smooth or even watery, without any texture, will be shot in the mouth, whereas if a slight astringency accompanies the perception, it will take on a completely different dimension.
Perceiving is important, and so is naming. Nothing is more frustrating than not being able to put a word to a feeling. So frustrating that it sometimes prevents us from perceiving the multitudes of things to perceive. Particularly in professional tasting, knowledge, and mastery of sensory vocabulary are necessary. The sensory vocabulary makes it possible to distinguish all the nuances of each sense. It allows us to evaluate and above all to describe in the most analytical way possible with a vocabulary that must be common to be shared. If you want to know more about vocabulary, consult the La QuintEssence sensory box – email@example.com
So you realize that it is essential to use our five senses (especially the four: sight, smell, taste, and touch) when tasting tea. Experience, knowledge of tea, and mastery of sensory vocabulary are major points for evaluating tea.
As part of the AVPA competition on teas from around the world, I had the pleasure and honor of working in collaboration with the AVPA on the establishment of the most complete and as fair as possible. The tea can thus be judged and classified from the other teas in the competition according to specific sensory criteria by a jury of experts. This AVPA approach also makes it possible, on request, to transmit a sensory evaluation of the tea. The detailed sensory evaluation allows producers to know how their tea is judged and described by a jury of Western experts.