The Black Art: Tea Tasting

Looked at superficially, the cultivation and manufacture of tea does not seem to be a complex process. Bushes grow on a hillside; every day, the tenderest new leaves and buds are carefully picked off or ‘plucked’ and carried to a nearby factory. Here they are withered, rolled until the leaf cells rupture, left for some time to aerate, then dried in hot air; after which the tea is sorted according to leaf particle size and packed for sale.

Though managing the process clearly takes considerable experience and judgment if a product that is even palatable is to result from it, the steps themselves are relatively straightforward. However, the products of this apparently simple process vary enormously in their flavour and character. No surprise that teas from different countries, or different regions of a single country, should differ from one another;

But among the tea-growing districts of Ceylon, small subdivisions within a district and even individual estates often show a recognized character, and a well-trained Tea Taster can even detect differences between teas picked from one hillside or another on a single estate! In addition, seasonal and weather-related variations can also be detected – in the case of districts like Dimbula and Uva, such variations can greatly alter the character (though not necessarily the quality) of the tea.

The primary source of this variation is climate, both that generally prevailing in the district and the weather over the weeks prior to plucking. Altitude, the orientation of the hill slope and the soil in which the bush grows all has their effects. Also, a good deal of variation can occur during the process of manufacture. Drinkers of blended and non-single-origin teas never experience the incredible variety these factors can produce. Such teas are homogenized to produce a constant, predictable character that does not change from shipment to shipment or from month to month. It is rarely very subtle or complex, for it must be re-created week after week by blending whatever teas fall within the firm’s budget at that week’s auctions – a selection which is sure to be somewhat different from last week’s selection and that of the week before.

But even such mass-market teas are products of the Tea Taster’s art. All parties engaged in the tea ‘trade’ – manufacturers, merchants, brokers and buyers – employ Tea Tasters to assess the quality and value of the products in which they deal. Tea-tasting is a highly skilled job, requiring as much as five years’ training to build reliable expertise in judging the subtlest of variations between leaf and leaf, infusion and infusion. And although the training, procedure and vocabulary of tea-tasting do not vary much among professionals, it remains something of a black art, one in which decisions are often made on the basis of distinctions imperceptible to the untrained onlooker. The skills of the best Tasters appear to be at least partly innate, and such skills are highly prized.

Pure Ceylon, Regional and Single-Origin Teas

Those wishing to experience the full depth and variety of the experience of fine tea, no blended mass-market product will do. To be sure of a high minimum standard of quality, there is no better choice than pure Ceylon Tea. All tea produced in Sri Lanka has been assessed by expert Tasters; further assurance is provided by the ISO 3720 standard to which all Ceylon Tea must conform; without this certification, no tea can be exported from Sri Lanka. Ceylon Tea also has a recognizable national character, a result not only of geography but of the highly refined orthodox black tea process of which its tea-makers are the custodians.

It takes only a little time and experience to be able to distinguish the signature attributes of the different tea-growing districts of Sri Lanka. But dedicated connoisseurs will wish to go farther, discovering the subtleties of sub-district variations and the unique taste of tea from a particular, highly reputed estate. For the professional tea-Taster, such details are the stuff of his art; for the lover of fine Ceylon Tea, they are part of what makes life worth living.

The Method of the Professional Tea-Taster 

  • Tea is tasted standing up, at a table on which samples of dry leaf are placed for the Tasters to inspect. The dry leaf is visually inspected and sometimes touched. The Taster is looking for leaf appearance, size, colour and various other characteristics such as the presence of ‘tips’ or buds.
  • Each sample is infused in boiling water. The usual proportion is 2 gm. (about 1/2 a teaspoonful) of tea to 150 ml. (1/2 cup) of water. The container is covered and left to stand for about 4-5 minutes. The infused infusion is then poured into special white porcelain tasting-cups and some of the infused leaf is displayed on a white porcelain saucer or lid. This infused leaf is again inspected visually; in addition to colour and ‘brightness’, the Taster may also assess the aroma and colour consistency of the leaf.
  • Next, the infusion is inspected. The quality judgment to which the Taster will decide is critically affected by this step. Aroma, of course, is a key criterion, but colour as well as clarity and thickness (or ‘body’) of the infusion are also very important. These are the attributes by which tea is identified.
  • Finally, the Taster takes some of the infusion in his mouth, making a loud sucking sound as he does so. This is to mix the infusion with plenty of oxygen and let it travel over all parts of the tongue and palate. He is now assessing a wide variety of attributes: freshness, sharpness, bouquet, fullness, and so on. The terminology of tea-tasting includes a long list of such characteristics, though not all Tasters use the terms consistently.