Do you ever 'sniff' your (green) tea or brew by scent?

I am grateful to an unnamed fellow blogger who’s question on how to brew green tea, and subsequent actions related to some responses, inspired—not only this conversation but—my choice to give this topic it’s own space (which it probably deserves, anyway); thank you!

This is a more-or-less unedited ‘transcript’ of a conversation that discusses using our nose to help guide us as to when the tea is finished brewing, rather than relying on a timer to tell us (I put the edited parts in { }, and I left off the time-stamps).

Invader Zim said
I typically {brew my green tea} with 175F water in a 12 oz Italian mug with 1-2 tsp of tea and let it steep until I can smell it’s ready, which can take as little as 20 seconds and up to a minute and a half. For lighter green teas I can usually get at least two good steepings out of the leaves. For heavier greens I can get up to five good steepings. For each additional steeping I will add a little extra time, but again I go by smell.

For Japanese green teas I typically use an even cooler water temp, 160-170F and steep for 30 seconds (again going by smell) but no more than 1 minute, since Japanese green teas seem much more sensitive and get bitter really quickly. Hope that helps you and good luck on your journey with green teas!

SimpliciTEA said
I never thought of going by the smell. I love that idea! The difficulty with that, as I see it, is that I usually keep my brewing vessel lidded. So, do you keep your Italian mug lidded and briefly lift the lid to check, or do you simply keep the lid off (making it easier to continually smell)? And, how often do you check it: every 20 seconds?

Invader Zim said
Usually I just leave the lid off entirely. If you prefer to keep the lid on I would see no problem in leaving it on with a little sliver open. As for smelling the tea, I will check about every five seconds. This may seem problematic for some people who steep and walk away, but I find better results with smelling for when the tea is ready rather than leaving it on a timer.

SimpliciTEA said
Thanks! Yeah, I’m a timer guy, but I think I’m going to try your method the next time I brew my green tea.

I know this may be hard to answer, but, what exactly are you looking for in the aroma (i.e. when do you know when it’s ‘done’)?

Invader Zim said
I learned this trick from a tea club on campus and it’s something that you just learn from experience. I know that’s probably not what you’re looking for but you can smell the high notes. It’s like learning to taste the different notes in teas, it just takes some time.

My best advice so you don’t ruin your tea while learning is to brew a cup and set your timer to what you usually set it for. Put the lid on a little crooked so there is a little slot for you to smell the tea from. Let the tea steep until your timer goes off but during that time smell the tea every couple of seconds. This will help you learn without burning your tea.

When you start finding spots that you think your tea smells wonderful or more aromatic you can pour a little bit into a smaller cup and taste it and compare it to your timed steep. This will help you gain experience in smelling when the tea is ready without ruining vast amounts of tea in the process.

SimpliciTEA said
I can see how it can take awhile to learn. I think, as you said, I will still set the timer, and simply see if I can even discern a change in the aroma as it steeps, and then takes it from there. I may also try pouring off some tea at intervals and tasting it, but that definitely sounds like more work.

SimpliciTEA said
I just ‘sniffed’ my pot of morning green while it was steeping (LiT’s Tong Cheng Small Orchid) and I realized it might be best to, uh, this may sound a little weird but, ‘clear out my nose passages’ after each sniff so I could feel confident enough that I could discern any change in the aroma (since, my understanding is that the changes will be subtle from sniff to sniff). It was a two-step process of inhaling right over the teapot to take in the aroma, and then forcefully exhaling away from the pot to clear out the passages; repeat as needed (as, eventually, my timer began to beep). I don’t think I could actually discern any difference in the aroma in the short period of time while it steeped (I only steeped the tea for a minute, and I didn’t remember to start sniffing until about half-way through); but, hopefully with practice, I will (this is probably NOT something you would want to let anyone else see you doing; I can hear the newsflash: Man caught sniffing pot; news at 10).

Missy said
Haha I’ll be watching for that report SimpliciTEA. :D

SimpliciTEA said
Great! And, better yet it may sound a little more controversial (or sensational) if it was changed to, Local kindergarten teacher caught sniffing pot; news at 10. Fun! After-all, teacher’s are people, too!

Just did my second round of sniffing, and I remembered to start sniffing right away this time. Boy, even at 185F, that steam will burn your nose like there’s no tomorrow (I know, I know; I admit I was feeling a little sheepish when it dawned on me that sticking my nose that close to almost-boiling water can be hazardous)! Joking aside, I am not certain, but I think I did detect a slight change right before my timer went off (at 1.5 minutes); still, the change was so subtle that it may have been my imagination (you know how tricky the mind can be), but it seemed as though the fresh aroma very slightly degraded. Interesting.

I’ve come to realize I’m a persistent little bugger, so scorched nose or no, I will be pressing on with the next sniffing!

Invader Zim said
I love the newsflash updates! I’m over here laughing and sifting through my new tea package that just arrived and my husband doesn’t even bother asking, just shakes his head at me.

Yeah, you probably shouldn’t stick your nose quite that close! I don’t know what tea you’re drinking but I have noticed that some teas don’t have a large variation in their steeping smells, while others have a large variation.

I’m trying to think off the top of my head which ones are easier to tell the difference. I know that there’s quite a few Japanese green teas, like Sencha, that you can tell a little bit easier simply because they get bitter quickly and require shorter steepings.

I hope you become more successful as you keep pressing on.

SimpliciTEA said
New tea package? How exciting! Who’s it from? And what did you get?

I just did the third (I love watching these leaves steep in my glass Bodum), and waited for the first minute to pass (I normally do a two minute steeping on the third for my greens), then, I positioned my nose a little higher above the pot this time, and walked through the routine: inhale and sniff over the pot, turn away from the pot and strongly exhale (having done some yoga breathing in the past may be helping me here), then inhale … And, I got about the same results as the first time (with the exception that, PARENTS COVER YOUR KIDS EARS, my nose hairs are a little happier this time), in that about 15 seconds before the timer went off (an approximation) I think it actually changed from smelling fresh, to being, almost stale.

Again, I don’t really trust my observations here too much until I do this over and over again (preferably without knowing where I am within the timeline during the steeping; you know, to keep my confirmation bias in check), and get the same results.

As you state, I can see how some teas will have a larger variation than others; I guess it’s about trial and error as far as that goes. I makes sense that teas that have a really short steep time (like Japaneses teas) would be easier to distinguish.

Soon, the forth!

Invader Zim said
New package from Verdant, mostly the white teas, with a few extra pu-erh samples thrown in. Definitely a white tea weekend! I’ll be saving the pu-erhs for next weekend though.

I’ve never done yoga, I would like to try it some day. Probably would help lower the stress, unfortunately (or fortunately, depends on how you look at it) money is going elsewhere…like Verdant!

Glad you’re learning to sparing your nose hairs! One of the biggest scent changes that happens is the one that you are picking up. Towards the end of a steep the tea goes from a nice fresh scent to bitter or stale. Eventually you should be able to scent a difference in the middle of the steep when it still has a nice fresh quality to it but it seems a little brighter and better. That’s what I always look for.

SimpliciTEA said
Verdant? Awesome! I also saw your reviews of the teas you got from Shang Tea.

In my opinion, you don’t need to spend any money at all to become familiar with and practice yoga. I never paid for a single class (I went to one ‘free’ class); I learned about yoga mostly from videos, and a little from a couple of books. Many videos and book on yoga are available at my library, so you probably have some at yours, too. You can PM me if you are interested in more info about yoga (I have a few books and videos I could recommend, but I don’t want to do that on this ‘tea’ discussion thread!)

I recently did the forth; it’s taking me some time to get the right distance from my nose to the top of the pot: too close, and OUCH!, too far, and I can’t really smell anything. This time, and I felt nervous about doing this (since I like clearly defined boundaries), I decided NOT to set the timer at all and let my nose tell me when it’s done. So, I let the tea steep for ‘a bit’ with the lid on, then I moved the lid just enough do allow some of the aroma to waft up to my nose (with very nervous innards, btw), and then I proceeded with my sniffing routine.

I don’t like to admit this—as I like to think of myself as someone who lives in the ‘slow lane’ now­—but it took a few breaths for me to realize I wasn’t really taking in the aroma of the tea at first; my mind was racing and I was analyzing the situation the whole time rather than letting go and taking it all in. Once I did let it go I pretty quickly became acquainted with the aroma, and found that it was pleasant and fresh, but I didn’t notice much of a change at all after many breaths (or sniffs). So then, having noticed that there has been quite a bit of leaf movement in the pot during the previous steepings, I decided to look for some change in the leaves as well. Once I did that I noticed that there was very little movement and—remembering reading that one way to know the tea is ‘done’ is when the leave are ‘all lying on the bottom’—decided that little movement was likely an indicator that the tea ‘was done’.

Overall the flavor of this tea has been good (the forth is surprisingly still tasty). I still have lots of work to do to get this down. I probably won’t normally steep my teas this way (it takes a lot of focus), but I hope to do at least one ‘sniffing’ session with the higher quality fresh spring green teas I have. If I have any more experiences worth mentioning while ‘sniffing my pot’ (I love the play on words), I hope to report back here.

I spontaneously decided to do a fifth (I rarely seem to be able to get five good steepings from a green), sniffing pretty much the entire time while it was steeping (I set the timer this time for 3.5 mins), and one slight change in the aroma came to me at the end: it started to smell ‘sour’. I think there is something real there, because I would not have consciously thought of describing the aroma of this tea as sour (I just read your reply after composing this, and I feel that ‘sour’ is pretty close to ‘bitter or stale’). Still, it was faint. What you wrote here helps, too: “Eventually you should be able to scent a difference in the middle of the steep when it still has a nice fresh quality to it but it seems a little brighter and better.”

Thanks Invader Zim, and Missy, for following this and for your encouragement!

(said in a sing-song, game-show-host voice) See you next time, oooooooon, the Sniff is right!
; – )

Kudos to Invader Zim for introducing me to the concept of smelling the tea—while steeping—to help determine when it’s ready! If you hadn’t responded as you did in the original green tea thread, this conversation probably would never have transpired!

How about all of you? Have you ever used your nose to tell you when the tea is finished brewing? (even if you are new to ‘tea sniffing’, please feel free to post your successes and failures here so you can gift the rest of us with you own unique approach!)

22 Replies
Azzrian said

Great convo – don’t know how I missed it!
I absolutely smell my tea as it steeps!
While parameters are usually quite fine they are not always!
I find this especially with greens as noted, as well as blended teas that have two types of teas in them such as green with black or rooibos with black or green. Also on some flavored and herbal teas, really any tea can have its ultimate steeping time AND temp and going by the traditional methods do not always suffice.

Thanks for your reply.

So I was the one in the dark about the smelling of the tea as it steeps. I’m glad to hear others like you have success with it too.

And with the blended ones, yeah, I can see how that would really help (for, what time do you shoot for with a green and a black tea blend).

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MegWesley said

That was a fun convo to read. After thinking about it, I kinda have been brewing by smell. I have been playing with how long I brew and while I don’t sniff my tea while it is brewing, I do smell it after it is done. I lowered my steep time on my yunnan today and noticed that it smelled better and the second steep smelled stronger. Then I tasted it and thought that it tasted better too.

I might have to start paying attention to how I prepare my other teas too. I might do it more than I think I do.

I’m glad you, as well as Azzrian, enjoyed it. :)

That’s cool that, with the yunnan, you made an adjustment on the steep time based on smell that made a better smelling and tasting tea.

The more I read of the successes, the more determined I am to make an effort to do it more often. Part of my resistance to smelling it is that after I pour the water I like to walk away and do something else until the timer goes off (I know, not the best way to steep tea). I’m one of those likes-to-get-as-many-things-done-as-possible-with-the-time-I-have kind of people. I am naturally a do-er; I strive to be a be-er (haha, funny huh? beer?). Staying by the tea so I can sniff it while it steeps forces me to ‘be’ a little more. So, ‘sniffing my pot’ is definitely a good thing for me (I just had to go and put that play on words in their again, didn’t I).

Seeing the comments on here I’m starting to realize that there are quite a few people who do sniff their tea.

That’s awesome how you can adjust the steeping parameters a little bit and get a different taste, it always amazes me, and I’m glad it worked out well for you Meg.

I also find that sniffing the tea while it steeps helps me enjoy it a little better by putting more senses into the experience of tea SimpliciTEA.

MegWesley said

Reading this thread has also inspired me to pay more attention to how I make my tea. My jasmine green tea is always the hardest for me to make for some reason, but I love smelling how the floral gets when it is brewed just right. I’m working more on getting the second steep right than the first steep.

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I love sniffing the tea! :-D Not only the sniffing throughout brewing is enjoyable, I also enjoy sniffing at the beginning of brewing. Usually I would put some hot water to fill the glass/cup/mug to 1/4 or 1/3, and then throw dry leaves on the water. Then it’s my favorite sniffing moment :-) The heat below the leaves would cause some aroma of the leaves to rise up.

That’s how I started, I used to enjoy smelling the tea as it was brewing. Then, from the club on campus, I learned that there was actually something to sniffing the tea while it’s brewing!

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Missy said

I was watching that conversation above because I realized that I do much better brewing with my gaiwan on instinct rather than trying to time it out and such. I assume that I must be smelling some thing that indicates that the tea is done.

It would seem that you are tapping into something, whether it be smell or sight or another sense or perhaps a few senses together, I don’t know, but I’m glad that it works out well for you. It’s surprising me how many people actually do this!

Missy said

You are quite correct. Now that I think on it more it may be more than just my sense of smell. I know I didn’t get any thing right in my gaiwan until I got distracted talking one day and that tea came out right. lol funny how things work out like that.

I see tea people!

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Raritea said

Thank you so much for positing this! I am always looking for better ways to infuse my leaves. I guess that I’m still relatively new to tea and am currently trying to figure out the right amount of dry leaf in combination with infusion time works best for me for certain kinds of teas. I know how finicky the greens can be! I’m going to start trying out brewing by scent. Once I get the hang of it it’ll be another check point I can use to ensure I get the best cup of tea possible!

It may take a while to get the hang of it, but I hope you don’t get discouraged and just keep trying. I find it to be very rewarding going off of scent than timed parameters. Good lick in your adventures of tea sniffing!

Raritea said

It really helps when there’s a whole community of encouragement backing me up! Thanks everyone- and good luck with the refining of your own tea-sniffing skills!!

Encouragement never hurts, that for sure. : )

And, please, if you are interested, share your successes (and failures) in tea sniffing with us on this thread!

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I appreciate all of the responses. : )

To me, this is one example of blogs at their best: connecting people of similar interests with passion and ideas in ways that would not be possible if not for some kind of an online forum.

And, it demonstrates how a simple little ‘tangent’ from one discussion can lead to another meaningful discussion (that’s why, with some exceptions, I subscribe to the ’don’t hold back no matter how small it seems at first’ philosophy).

I am also wondering if there could be some way to create a link in one conversation to a new and yet related ‘spin-off’ conversation to keep the ‘integrity’ of the original one intact. I think that’s possible by using a simple link in the original conversation.

Kddos go out to Invader Zim for introducing me to the concept of smelling a tea to know when it’s ready! If you hadn’t responded as you did in the original green tea thread, this conversation probably would never have transpired, Invader Zim!

Missy said

Great point SimpliciTEA. It is pretty awesome of Invader Zim to mention that idea.

It takes at least two (most of the time) to make a conversation happen, and while my initial response to the green tea thread may have sparked interest, it’s also your response(s) to that which has kept this ball rolling.

Thank you SimpliciTEA for helping expand the idea of sniffing tea, something common place to me, and sharing it and your own experiences with the rest of the communiTEA :)

You’re welcome! Here’s hoping the tea sniffing newbies like myself will post here in the future.
: – )

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Yes, all the time. There is one tea in particular that when its done its almost like my eyes roll back into my head. It just smells so amazing that its almost euphoric. I also check the color of the tea very often. This is especially true of puerhs that can handle a lot of steepings.

Good to hear others like yourself do it all the time.

I’m … v e r y … s l o w l y … starting to get in the habit of smelling the steeped tea.

Checking the color? Interesting. So, what exactly do you look for in the color? Is it one of those things that over time you realize what the best color is and is not for a particular tea?

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