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Training your palate?

So I guess this might be a strange question, and searching for ‘tea palate’ in the discussions didn’t come up with anything that answered my question, so I’m sorry if this is already out there somewhere. I’d appreciate being redirected if that’s the case.

Is there any way to train or refine your palate to be able to pick up the various nuances of a tea? I read the reviews other Steepsterites have posted, or the descriptions that a company has written and think ‘Hey! That sounds wonderful!’ and usually end up buying some.

But when the tea arrives and I’ve made a cup, more often than not while drinking it I’m thinking it’s just a fairly standard tasting cup of black. And then I add some sweetener of some sort to see if that brings out flavors and now I just have a sweeter cup of fairly standard tasting black tea.
I only mention black teas here ‘cause I haven’t had any straight/plain oolongs yet, I don’t care for the few greens I’ve had, and my one experience with a white tea was flavored and not really worth mentioning. Lol!

I don’t taste any of these notes of honey, or pepper, or nuttiness or what-have-you. This has been happening mostly with straight/plain teas and not so much on the strongly flavored, though with some of those I might only get one note strongly and the rest is lost.

I wouldn’t say I’m new to tea, I’ve been drinking it for at least over a year. And I really really want to be able to experience all of these wonderful flavors. But is my palate just doomed to taste everything as average? It makes me terribly sad to say such a thing, so I hope there’s help out there somewhere. Lol.

So any advice for this desperate tea drinker? Thanks!

45 Replies
Lala said

Check out www.handmadetea.com

Caleb does a tea of the month club and also provides info on how to train your palate for each specific component in the tea.

I am no expert taster, but for me, it is just lots of practice and trying a lot of different foods/teas. Trying things separately and together. A lot of time it is not about the taste but more about the texture. And take your time. Hold the liquor in your mouth for a few seconds before swallowing to make sure you get all the tastes. Think about the taste beginning, middle, and end of sip and the aftertaste.

Hikari said

+1 for the holding liquor in mouth method. You might not get all the tastes, but you certainly get more than if you just downed it in a gulp.

I like the idea of that tea of the month, though honestly there’s alot of past blends that have stuff that I know I don’t like so I’m pretty certain that I wouldn’t like the tea. XD; But I’ll keep it in mind for when I’m not spending so much on new tea companies to try.
And I’ll try thinking about the full sip when I’m drinking it. Maybe I’ll start a notebook or something.

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I don’t have as sophisticated a palate as some people on here, but I’ve also noticed my sense of smell is not as good as the average human’s and I think the two may be related. Have you ever heard of “super tasters”? I think some people on here are probably super tasters. Even if you don’t learn to taste these fancy teas, at least you won’t have to spend as much to be satisfied! :)

Super tasters is an interesting concept but I have read it can be as much of a detriment as an aid. Most regular folks have a good enough set of taste buds to develop a quality palate. I bet if you give yourself enough practice time, you will see improvement in your palate too.

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Cavocorax said

I think that’s a great question. Some times I can taste what people are describing but not always and I have to really pay attention to the tea. It makes me wonder sometimes if I’m just being suggestable, or something.

With that said, I’ve noticed that it’s harder to drink bagged tea so it’s not just in my head that some teas are more amazing than others.

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Dinosara said

Drink a ton of tea. But seriously, it’s been about 2.5 years since I started really drinking tea and it took a long time to build up to being able to appreciate the subtleties of unflavored teas. I used to dislike pretty much any unflavored black tea and I never in a million years thought I would be able to appreciate them. Now I love them! I remember the first time I really had an unflavored black tea that I loved and it was a revelation.

My advice for speeding up the process is to seek out the highest quality versions of the teas you are interested in, because often those high quality versions have more of the flavors and can be less subtle. If you taste them and are underwhelmed, put them aside for a little while and come back to them later after you’ve been drinking other things for the next few months.

The only problem with the idea of seeking out the highest quality versions is mainly trying to figure out which companies have the highest versions. The fact that they can be potentially pretty pricey is a factor too. Lol.
Do you have any suggestions on companies with consistently high quality teas?

Cavocorax said

I don’t know for sure, but I think Verdant is one that is thought of as pretty high quality, and they have that $5 sample deal for new customers as an introduction: http://verdanttea.com/teas/5-for-5-tea-samples/

(hopefully someone will correct me if I’m wrong. I’ve only had the Laoshan Black but it was great. I’m hoping my samples arrive soon)

Cavocorax – I got that sampler. Pretty excited about it though they’re kinda far down on my list of stuff to try. Lol. Trying to taste the swaps I’ve been getting ‘cause most are in ziplock bags while the Verdant samples are in nifty heat sealed packages so they’ll keep longer. Though I’ve heard such good things about Verdant, esp their Laoshan Black, that those samples may be booted up the list. XD

ifjuly said

Verdant is amazing, and that sampler’s awesome (says the girl on her 8th steep of the Laoshan Black as she types). Butiki is also really good for green and white blends where the quality of the leaves is superhigh. And if you get curious about more Indian-ish teas like darjeelings and blacks from Nepal, Upton offers a broad array of very decent quality stuff in that regard, and you can order samples of anything they have for generally $2-4 each.

All this “X is good for this tea, and Y for that” reminds…my experience so far has been that there isn’t really a one-size-fits-all “highest quality” tea distributor, but rather certain shops focus more on certain types of tea, and focusing on different places’ strengths helps up the quality of your cupboard considerably. It’s a pain in the butt I know, esp. accounting for any possible shipping costs, but there it is.

It might also be helpful, when you’ve decided “I want to really find the ultimate version of, say, Earl Grey, or genmaicha, or [XYZ]” to do a search of the Steepster boards for stuff like “best earl grey” or “favorite earl grey” and get a sense of what brands seem most commonly raved about for that particular type of tea.

As for the initial question, a general tip for tasting is to really set aside the proper time and setting to fully devote to taste testing—so rushing before going to work not so good , 4:30 in the afternoon when you’re less distracted by work, chores, or dinner, better. Avoid distractions when it really matters, right down to closing your eyes when you smell and swallow, say. And to reboot your sense of smell, an old wine tasting trick involves having a baggie or bowl of fresh coffee beans on hand and sniffing them once your nose is oversaturated and numb. It really works!

Also, how’s the quality of the water you use? If you only have access to very hard water, you might want to consider using filtered only, or even bottled. I used to live somewhere with extremely hard water (NY) and now I’m in Memphis which is known for its special artesian well water, where straight from the tap tastes better than most bottled, and it’s made a huge difference in what I can detect in tea. Before I could only really enjoy heavily flavored stuff, and now I can pick up a lot more subtle flavors. I found personally too that using an electric kettle to boil my tea water—it works FAST—makes better tasting tea than a stove top boil. Probably has to do with something something blah blah blah oxygen…

Dunno if it’s been addressed upthread and forgive me if this is obvious to you, but keep in mind too best steeping practices vary wildly depending on tea. Follow Verdant’s and Butiki’s website instructions for steeping in particular, it makes a big difference.

Dinosara said

I will second Verdant for Chinese teas. But also, for high quality Chinese teas without breaking the bank, I have to recommend Teavivre. They offer samples on all of their teas that are very reasonably price, and also have a free sample for reviews program: http://www.teavivre.com/contacts/free_tea_tasting/
A lot of my unflavored tea “revelations” came from drinking their teas.

And yeah I would second Upton as a good place to get an introduction; although I never did it myself, I know numerous people who ordered a whole bunch of different unflavored samples from them to explore different varietals.

Another vendor recommendation for Japanese green tea’s is Den’s. They also have a free sampler (just pay $3 shipping, which you get back in your first order) for newbies.

Butiki does have a lot of high quality teas, and a few bundled sampler packs, though I do wish they sold sample sizes of individual teas.

Finally, I actually got a lot of my high quality teas through swaps with generous Steepsterites. It’s a great way to try things without committing to a purchase. And there’s nothing wrong with asking someone if they’d be willing to send a sample of something your way.

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Nitoo6of6 said

I don’t seem to have a sophisticated palate either. I find it interesting how teas are described. I notice only major differences but can’t seem to tell subtle differences apart. I am going to try to do side by side comparisons of the same type of tea but from different sources and see if I can even detect any differences.

I’ve been wanting to do that, though with flavored teas not plain. Haven’t actually gotten around to it yet, though I now have separate pots to use and a few teas to compare.

A couple of things that have helped me better draw out the subtle differences of tea are:
1. Use a larger amount of tea leaves than the recommended amount. (this will help give you a chance of smelling or tasting the more subtle flavors).
2. Allow the tea, 2 or 3 minutes to cool down after steeping. Otherwise, you tend to just taste the hot. I have found it is easier to detect the flavors after a few minutes of cooling.

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ashmanra said

Mike Harney said that when they go to China to taste the teas, everyone slurps to aerate the tea and make the scents travel through the nasal passages! He said the Chinese used to laugh when he slurped as hard as they did! And the good tasters always end up with tea leaves on the end of their noses from sniffing the wet leaves. :)

I tasted something years ago and couldn’t put my finger on what I was tasting, but Sandy said it was smokey, and I realized that was what I was getting – a hint of smoke. I have found it helpful to make a mental list (that I really should put on paper) on what to look for in tea: smoke, vegetables, butter, woodsy, earthy, mineral, nutty, and so on. I really don’t think I am a super taster, and until I started paying attention to tea there were tons of spices I never tried. Tea has opened up a whole world of taste to me. Sometimes I will be cooking carrots and think about a tea that reminded of carrots, something that never would have happened three years ago!

I am amazed by the foodies in here who have tried so many things that I had never even heard of, but I am trying to catch up!

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I’ve noticed that I’m able to taste some of the nuances in tea if I brew it Gongfu style. Seems to break out all the individual flavors a little more. Tasting them individually has helped me be able to recognize the flavors when I brew them western style as well.

I wouldn’t even know where to start with Gongfu style steeping. But if it’ll help, I’ll defintely have to poke around here and see what I can learn about it.

I didn’t know anything either, but it’s actually super easy. verdanttea.com has some good videos that explain it.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=uAtLVDXp9-w

Good luck!

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Angrboda said

Patience is key. This sort of stuff takes lots of practice and it comes to you very gradually. When I first started getting really into tea, I had the same experience as you. I couldn’t find all these nuances. For me it was a question of learning the characteristics of the different teas. Like Lapsang Souchong is smoky and fruity, Keemun and Fujian blacks are grain-y, Darjeeling is sort of grass-y and so on and so forth. Once I started noticing these differences, the more subtle ones slowly started to show up as well.

A lot of the time I feel like I’ve picked out a few notes from a tea, like for example cocoa and grain, and it’s like there are still a bunch of other notes in there that I can’t identify. I can sort of sense that they’re there, but I can’t really grasp them. I’m still learning. I don’t think this is something that you ever finish learning.

If you want a short-cut, this is my suggestion. Pick a tea and brew a cup, using whichever brewing method you like best. Sit down with it somewhere with no distraction. No Steepster, no television, no games, no conversation, no books, no nothing. Just you, the cup, and perhaps pen and paper. Then, drink your tea. Try to pay attention to each sip. Hold it on the tongue for a bit before swallowing. Write down any thought that comes to you, anything that the flavour reminds you of. No thought is too wacky, just write it down. It’s a brainstorm, really. Make sure you also take a couple of minutes to pay attention to how the tea smells. Aroma is an important part of flavour. Just think, when you have a cold and your nose is all stuffed up, how everything tastes sort of weird. Remember that tea is ‘living’ and it keeps developing even after the steeping process is stopped. Some teas change a LOT just from cooling down a little bit, and it’s difficult to really taste much of anything at all when it’s piping hot anyway. Keep doing this until you’ve finished your cup and then have a look at what you’ve written. Maybe you wrote a lot more than you thought you would. Or maybe you didn’t really get a lot of stuff down on paper, but even so, it’s not a loss. You’ve still had a quiet meditative moment with a cup of tea. :)

When it comes to flavour and aroma we are most of us pretty susceptible to suggestion, so when you do this, I would recommend avoiding looking too closely at company description or other people’s posts before doing this. Wait until afterwards and compare with what you’ve written down. Maybe you find you noticed some of the same notes. Maybe you didn’t find any of them at all. Maybe you thought it tasted like something completely different that nobody else seemed to notice. That’s okay too. It’s your experience that counts for you. This is one of those things that you absolutely can’t get wrong, because there’s nothing wrong or right about it. Only individual, subjective experiences.

Lala said

I agree with not looking at company description or other notes, until after you have tasted the tea. Sometimes you can get hung up on trying to taste what others have tasted.

Nxtdoor said

Wow. Nicely articulated, angrboda!

Angrboda said

Thank you. :)

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cteresa said

First: before tasting, smell.

Smell the dry leaves, smell the tea, smell the steeped leaves. Complex tastes are extremely related to how things smell. And smelling the leaves some notes are more concentrated, it can help you figure out other notes in the liquor – if a tea tastes malty or grassy or minty, or caramel-ey. Once your brain has identified those, it will then look for those and find them.

The notes in tea often change with temperature, or are more noticeable when cold. Even if you do not like tea cold, try a couple sips of it as it cools(though preferrably not the dregs, those are never nice) and see if you notice other things.

Second – notes of this or that often is a metaphor. It is never, unless it is a flavoured tea really that strong. It is just a way of trying to explain what the brain things something tastes like. A scent is all sorts of different chemicals. There is not a “lemon” smell, or a “verbena” smell. Even on naming things, we try to use those comparisons. I sent some teabags of lemon balm in a swap and person receiving it was expecting it had lemon and no, it´s just the name of a plant. Somebody, probably in Britain where they do not grow lemons thought it smelled a bit like lemon.

Third – Sometimes the notes other people find are great, because your brain recognizes it as some sort of similar (yes, chestnut notes on yunnan, pineapple like notes on this oolong, etc..). Sometimes I just scratch my head.

ifjuly said

Super agree about notes as metaphor, or evocation (I tend to describe notes based on what the aromas and flavors I’m taking in take me back to memory-wise…the first time I drank Laoshan Black suddenly I thought of my father’s barley soup, something I hadn’t had or remembered in over 10 years…it doesn’t actually taste like barley soup but the aroma or something evokes it), not “this tastes just like a bar of chocolate” 1 to 1 comparison. I think part of the problem might be foiled unrealistic expectations.

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Anyanka said

Googling tea tasting terms gives a lot of results that at least help characterize what is being tasted. I didn’t know what people meant by different terms and reading helped- a little bit. Here’s one example but there are oodles: http://www.teaosophy.com/education/tasting.aspx

I’m able to taste a lot of things in tea, keeping in mind that, unless the tea is flavored, I’m tasting characteristics of the tea itself and quantifying them against something that I know. I tend to rate teas low and find flavors in them that I dislike, but this is true of much of what I eat or drink. I’m a hyper smeller too, and it is annoying. I’m sitting at work right now getting barfy because a coworker across the room switched to a cologne with a component that bothers me.

So, being able to taste a lot of nuances, if you don’t necessarily appreciate said nuances, is more a curse than a blessing. The up side for me though, is that it has made me into quite a good cook. (And when I’m out eating with friends or family, they know they can give me a dish to taste and I’ll tell them how to make it.)

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