Tea taster’s best tips on identifying flavors

Have you difficulties in finding tastes in teas? Would you like to develop your sensory skills? Here’s expert tips on how to better at tasting tea! 

Here is Alfred Mwase, the production manager and tea taster at Satemwa, Malawi. Photo taken by Anette Kay.

That is the only tea farm in Malawi producing orthodox teas and that meant developing a whole new skill set in tasting teas and identifying the elegant flavors.

Previously his experience was in tasting CTC (mass-produced tea, short for Crush, Tear, Curl, which focuses on creating a strong and consistent flavor by processing the tea leaves with machines) teas, where the tasting differs quite a lot: ”Industrial tea tasting is very different from tasting for the specialty market. When I taste tea, I am mainly focusing on identifying processing defects and selecting the best judicious cup of tea, respectively.”

The less established, quality way of producing teas is called orthodox teas (where the focus on creating taste lies in highlighting the innate flavors of the tea plant, origin and seasons, changing processing styles according to each tea).

Alfred finds joy in tasting orthodox teas: ”We experiment with different tea cultivars, withering times, rolling techniques, oxidation times, and drying cycles. We developed our own processing equipment for some teas, so this is even more heavenly for a mechanical engineer! It is incredible to see the effects of processing on leaf appearance, aroma, and of course, taste!”

Here’s a picture of rolled orthodox tea leaves from Malawi (picture Anette Kay):

Handrolled tea

Here’s Alfred’s tips on how to widen the vocabulary and start finding differences in tea:

During my free time, I would go on the internet to search for some tea tasting terminologies for the sake of expanding and refining my vocabulary.

Tea tasting becomes interesting and adventurous if you apply all your effort to it. Take time to discover new and non-traditional origins. Take time to compare four different steamed green teas, for example (you can find our Steamed Green tasting set here). Explore the differences in smoked tea from different origins (here’s a smoked tea that took years for him to create) and go out of your comfort zone by trying a post-fermented (Pu’er type) tea from Malawi…. Try to get as much information as possible about the teas so you can see what could influence the taste. Think out of the box. Do not be mislead by adhering to specific harvest dates, techniques, or famous tea names. Try different brewing techniques to arrive at a final judgment of taste. Remember to use the correct water and try out higher or lower brewing temperatures. Then write your finding in a little notebook.  Enjoy the tasting adventure — warm greetings from Malawi!”

And finally, I’ll give you my personal favorite, which I’ve been using A LOT in my tea sommelier training: the tea flavor wheel. It looks something like this, just google it and find your favorite! Courtesy of International Tea Master’s Association, where I got my certification. 

All the quotes have been borrowed from Tea Journey’s interview with Alfred. Read the full article here.