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It is the taster who describes and values tea. His description of the liquor is based on taste. In its widest sense, which includes aroma, taste is a very complex property that has so far not been assessed chemically. A taster may deal with several hundred tea samples in a day. In making his evaluation, he brings his knowledge and experience of the outturn of a particular estate to bear upon his conclusions.

Principles of Tasting

Tea tasting has its own distinct routines. The taster takes the tea into his mouth with a loud sucking noise. He swirls the liquor round his tongue and gums, drawing the aroma back into his mouth and up into the olfactory nerves. The taster, thereby, tastes feels and smells the liquid.

While it is mainly the tongue that experiences taste, other surfaces of the mouth also play a role here. There are four kinds of tastes - salt, sour, sweet and bitter. Sweetness is tasted at the tip of the tongue, and bitterness at the back. Saltines too are tasted at the tip, but also at the sides of the front of the tongue. Sourness is experienced at the back edges. A stringency or pungency is a sensation, not a taste, that is felt on the gums and part of the cheek. When the liquor is swirled round the mouth, the thickness, body or viscosity is felt and judged.

Tea tasting is a precise skill and one that can be performed only with a good natural palate and active olfactory nerve. Apart from tasting and describing tea, the ability to value a tea calls for long experience and knowledge.

The Taster's Infusion

The taster's infusion is made of 6 grams of tea. The tea is placed in a mug fitted with a lid. Boiling water is poured onto the leaves, the lid is replaced and the infusion is allowed to stand for five minutes. The tea is then decanted into a handle-less cup of somewhat bigger capacity than the mug. The infused leaf is shaken from the mug on to the inverted lid, which is placed on top of the mug.

For tasters, "infused" leaf refers to the wet leaf left over after the liquor is drained out; "infusion" refers to the liquor.

A number of mugs are set up at a time. When the taster steps up to a table with a number of such mugs, set behind each will be set a sample of the dry tea leaf too.

Tea Tasting Terms
 

Autumnal Tea manufactured during autumn is known as autumnal tea. The leaf obtained after final firing in that period is reddish in colour, but with varying degrees of flavour and aroma, for which customer prefers it.
Bakey This is an undesirable characteristic developed due to high temperatures during drying.
Black This is a desirable characteristic of tea, which indicates the colour of the particles. The particles are black as opposed to brown, red or green. Black tea can be produced only through fine plucking and careful manufacture.
Bloom Bloom indicates the outward look of the particles. This characteristic if found when a varnish-like film develops on individual particles during manufacture. This can easily be lost through faulty sorting and breaking.
Bold When leaf particles are larger than standard size, they are called bold.
Bright Bright refers to a bright appearance o both liquor and infused leaf, as opposed to a dull look. Brightness indicates that the manufacture is free from bacterial action and has been carried out carefully.
Brisk A live character of liquor that is not flat or soft.
Brown This describes the colour of dry leaf. Normally, under-withered leaf gives brown tea. But second flush tea that is brownish in colour is valuable.
Burnt Like all things, tea subjected to extreme high temperatures gets burnt. Obviously, an undesirable characteristic.
Chesty A undesirable resinous smell in both dry leaf and liquor that develops from inferior quality packing chests.
Clean A clean and uniform classified tea should be free from stalk and fibre.
Coarse when the liquor is harsh, it is classified as a coarse tea. This feature is not desirable and is probably developed through coarse plucking.
Cream This hot water soluble combination of condensation compounds and caffeine separates out as a 'cream' on cooling. A bright cream indicates good quality tea whereas dull or muddy cream is indicative inferior liquor. 
Dull The term 'dull' is used to describe infused leaf, liquor and the appearance of made tea. When the colour of the infused liquor or the made tea is dull, it is considered to be poor tea. dullness is infused leaf and liquor develops from over-fermentation or bacterial infection. Dullness in made tea is mainly due to faulty sorting procedures.
Even The term 'even' describe the condition of the infused leaf. It is usually combined with 'bright' or 'coppery' as qualifying adjectives.
Fibrous It denotes the presence of fibre in some grades, particularly in fanning and dusts. This is due to coarse plucking or application of heavy pressure during rolling.
Flakey In orthodox manufacture, tea that is not properly twisted is termed 'flakey'. Flakiness develops from insufficient withering or rolling.
Flavour One of the most desirable characteristics of liquor, largely indicated by a pleasing aroma of the made tea.
Fruity This is descriptive of a defective taste in liquor developed through excessive fermentation and subsequent bacterial infection.
Green This a defective colour in infused leaf. This defect may be caused by coarse plucking, insufficient fermentation, as also poor and inadequate rolling and insufficient withering.
Grey Grey coloured leaf is highly undesirable. Grayness develops due to faulty sorting and breaking procedures.
High fired This describes liquor from tea which has had prolonged exposure to fire.
Irregular When the whole grade is not even in size, the batch is called irregular. It indicates improper sorting.
Leafy A grade that consists of larger leaves is called leafy.
Light This describes liquor that is lacking in depth of colour, but may have desirable flavour.
Mixed This describes infused leaf with varying colour, which is indicative of insufficient rolling and withering, coarse plucking, etc.
Plain This refers to poor quality tea produced during the monsoons. Plain tea is a result of soft withering, excessive heating, or excessive moisture in the leaf during withering.
Pungent A desirable characteristic of the liquor. It manifests as extreme briskness and has an astringent effect on the palate.
Quality The most desirable characteristic of tea liquor, indicating correct and efficient manufacture.
Raw This describes liquor produced from insufficiently fermented leaf.
Smokey This is a defect of tea liquor caused by a faulty direct heater or leakage in the pipes of an indirect heater.
Soft This describes liquor lacking in briskness and brightness. This is caused by bacterial action and over-fermentation.
Stalky This denotes tea with a high concentration of stalks.
Stewed This is a defect that develops during faulty frying procedures. When the exhaust temperature is kept low and fermentation exceeds the required period, the leaf gets 'stewed'.
Strength A desirable characteristic of Assam tea denoting adequate 'substance' in the liquor.
Tippy Tea that contains large number of tips is termed tippy.
Twist This indicates the style of the leaf created during rolling.
Wiry This describes the well-twisted, thin orange pekoe grade.
Woody This describes liquor from tea manufactured late in the autumn.

Source: Tea Technology, Gokul C. Sarma, P. Eng.

 

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