Training your palate?

45 Replies
K S said

There has been a lot of great advice here so far. Let me add that most of what we call taste is really smell. Flavor is the combination of smell and taste. Let the nose do more of your tasting. Also involve the sense of touch. How does the tea feel as you sip. Do your tasting in as quiet a place as possible. Sip slowly and experience each sip. As others mentioned keep notes on each sip and at each temperature change in the cup.

One of the first revelations to come to me was malt. Everyone keep talking about it and I couldn’t detect it. Then I hit upon an especially malty tea. It was so obvious even I couldn’t miss it. Once I made the connection I knew I detected it before without realizing it. I also started picking it up easily in new teas.

Same with many of the other flavors like cocoa, chocolate, and honey. Peppery I am only beginning to grasp. Nutty is very hit or miss for me. That may be because I don’t eat a lot of nuts. Nuts to me means peanuts and cashews.

Do your tasting without reading the company description or Steepster reviews. Write down your notes and then compare. Sometimes your notes will agree, sometimes they are way different. Its all good. Sometmes reading the notes afterwards brings to mind things you did taste without noting.

If you still think all you are tasting is fairly standard tea, then get a truly standard tea and do a side by side. You will be amazed at the difference.

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This is a great topic and the responses so far have been really informative.

I struggle with the same thing, it’s frustrating to me not to be able to taste all the varying subtle nuances of tea. Particularly straight up unflavored teas.

Sometimes I feel like the whole world and everyone on Steepster got together to play a joke on me. Like, “CHOCOLATE? In this plain regular tea? What kind of chocolate do you eat because my chocolate does not taste like this!!”

I think the problem is my expectation of how something should taste, and that i don’t pick up on anything subtle. I love chocolate (will stick with this example), so therefore I feel like I will never get the creamy, rich, mouth filling delicious sensation of eating chocolate from drinking hot flavored water.

It sucks. I want to experience what everyone else is, but I’m not getting very far with that.

Perfect example of not tasting chocolate or baked goods in a tea that everyone raves about – Laoshan Black.

I thought it was pretty good, definitely amazing that a regular plain black tea can have so many interesting flavors within it. I can tell it is a quality tea and that it is special, but no way in hell was I getting any baked goods or chocolatey tastes out of it. I did order the sampler pack so I’m looking forward to round 2!

Therefore I still prefer flavored teas over non, but my tastes are adapting as the sickingly sweet ones I used to love are starting to scream “CHEMICALS!” to me and I am beginning to prefer subtler, more delicate flavors that don’t punch me in the face. Also I have been swayed by some of Butiki’s straight teas, and I enjoy a creamy oolong for sure.

Again, great topic and I will try some of these tips. Unfortunately I fear I just might not be refined enough to catch the subtleties. Subtle-teas.

Dinosara said

Honestly, your experiences are basically what I went through. A year and a half ago if you told me I would taste chocolate and caramel in an unflavored black tea I would have laughed in your face. I really, honestly, never thought I would ever be able to even enjoy a straight black tea, much less love them (so you’re further along than I was). I don’t really know where it came from, but over time I am now able to pick those out and more. Flavors I never would have tasted now smack me in the face LOL. Now my taste buds are expanding to taste the subtleties in Wuyi oolongs and puerhs, although I am still learning there.

I also experienced what you are starting to… you suddenly become picky about your flavored teas. There are teas I rated low when I was starting out because they didn’t have “enough flavor”, that I tried later and loved for precisely that reason, that they didn’t cover up the base tea.

Uniquity said

+1. At first I drank primarily flavoured teas, and they needed to be a POW of flavour. Now, I drink very few flavoured teas and am extremely selective about them. Now and then I come across one with lasting appeal but it is rare. For me, unflavoured blacks and roasty oolongs are where it is at although I am noticing another change (three years in) and now I seem to need more leaf/temp/time than I did before to get a solid tasting. My version of gong fu is time consuming and messy but my preferred way to drink lately.

I’m in the same boat as you right now, whatshesaid. I’m really appreciating this thread because I’d like to be able to taste more of what’s going on in the tea.

It’s really nice to know I’m not alone, and also that there may be a glimmer of hope for my tasting abilities in the future! I am slowly beginning to appreciate the taste of tea as a base in flavored blends, so I hope eventually I will get to the point of pulling raisins out of a straight black tea (for example)

I guess we all start somewhere! Davidstea blends were like the gateway teas for me as I started with all the crazy flavors, but now am more appreciating tea for what it is (rather, what it can be, when it’s the good stuff!) and not as quick to jump on the really fake ones. My new faves are flavored ones where the base plays an equal role. :)

yyz said

Sometimes to pick out scents and flavours I have to do things in particular order ie. I have to smell the tea before I taste it. If I smell it after I can’t pick out as many flavours. Also if I am tasting a tea for reviews I tend to use a cup that has a fluted lip vs a mug. It tends to allow more air to interact with the tea before I drink it and tends to bring out more flavours. Kind of like the flat metal dishes that wine sommeliers use helps to aerate wine before tasting it. I also find I pick out different notes depending on how hot the tea is and how much I have drunk of it. And even the aftertaste an leave distinct notes well after drinking the cup. I like to drink the first sips slowly and hold them in my mouth for a while as well. As for chocolate I get your point its rare that I find milk chocolate in a straight black tea but I often get hints of cocoa or various grades of dark chocolate. I find some teas can taste completely different depending on the amount of leaf you use, the temperature, steep time and sometimes even the vessel you use.

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What do you eat? Try upgrading the quality and freshness of the food you consume for a week — and try going for more subtle, natural flavors, i.e. put down those “real fruit-flavored” jelly beans and have an actual piece of fruit in season — and then go back to tasting tea. I bet you’ll appreciate the subtle flavors of tea better!

Ugh, jelly beans. XD And I don’t really eat that much processed foods. I’ve been trying to phase out as much as possible since I’ve been trying to lose weight.
I would love to eat more seasonal fruit, but unfortunately I developed allergies when I hit 20-something which make that nearly impossible even with medicine. Now I’m pretty much allergic to every fruit minus citrus and some berries. Just recently I found that I can’t even have some teas if they have some of the fruits in them. I was drinking the Pom Tango from DavidsTea and apparently either the mango or the pomegranate seeds disagreed with my allergies. /sigh/
But it’s definitely good advice otherwise. Lol.

I’m sorry to hear about your allergy. I hope that it goes away with time; a lot of allergies do.

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I was just lamenting to myself about not having a sophisticated taste for tea (I attempted to describe Twinings Lady Grey Decaf in a review and just got completely derailed). I couldn’t tell you the difference between black teas, so I decided to sample a handful of standard grocery-store black teas all at once. I picked up Lipton, Tetley, Builder’s, Ty-Phoo and PG Tips, plus a couple other odd brands, and tasted them all at the same time. It definitely became clear that each of them had a completely different character. Although my tea understanding is still murky, I did come away from that experiment with a favorite go-to black tea that never disappoints. (It’s Make Mine a Builder’s, in case you were wondering.)

There are so many good ideas here—and, unfortunately, more tea companies I need to check out! It makes me think that I should refrain from posting reviews until I’ve developed a more sensitive palate, and vocabulary, for tea. Thanks everyone!

Angrboda said

It makes me think that I should refrain from posting reviews until I’ve developed a more sensitive palate, and vocabulary, for tea.

Rubbish. Post about whichever tea you like whenever you like and use whichever words you’ve got. There really is no wrong way of doing this and nobody is expecting you to conform to some sort of standard when posting. I can understand that it might seem a little intimidating, because it was for me as well when I first started using the site, but the only way forward is to just jump into it. Just try to describe your experience in the words that you feel are best for the purpose, and you’ll be fine. :)

Uniquity said

I like hearing whatever people have to say about a tea, even if it’s some seemingly unconnected story. Not every review is meant to teach others about the tea. Heck, most of them aren’t. Sometimes I taste a tea, review it, then read others and say “Oh, that is what I was trying to say, but couldn’t!” and change mine. Other times I disagree with the crowd or agree completely. It’s all valid and lovely to see everything.

Anyanka said

And the way the site is set up, it can be your personal log, or written for an audience. A lot of my tasting notes are kind of bloggy and others are a reasonable effort to describe the tea. Both are right. I also don’t know much about how to ‘properly’ describe things, so even my best efforts are far from sommelier’s notes. And sometimes I just kvetch about hibiscus.

I like reading everything from detailed, precise reviews to silly stories.

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tperez said

I’d say just enjoy the tea and taste what you taste!

As you try more straight teas you’ll probably begin to notice more of the subtle differences. I think a large part of it is comparing the taste of the tea to other teas you’ve tried, and the more you’ve tried the more differences you can find

I think it’s sort of about the thought process as well. For me its sort of analytical thing. I like trying to break down the flavor to it’s smallest/basic parts, which I guess is something that I tend to do (for better or for worse) with everything in life.

I don’t really think that you can intentionally train your pallet, you more just let it train itself. Also, you don’t want to force yourself to taste flavors. If you don’t notice a taste naturally, you may not actually be tasting it. :)

(Sorry for all the “I think”s and rambling sentences) haha

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Chizakura said

If you want to refine your palate, I recommend drinking mostly — if not only — unflavored teas for a little while. Let the sip sit on your tongue for a moment before swallowing.

It also takes some time. I remember I tried a certain tea several months ago and was disappointed — thinking it tasted rather standard — a few months later I tried it again and it was like a whole new tea! I suddenly tasted more than ever.

If you have flavored too often, you grow accustomed to having tastes shoved at you, so tone them down — or cut them out entirely — for a little while and then start introducing them again. You’ll start picking out more things from the base tea than you do now.

Another thing about the time, is I find you pick more flavor out of each time if you drink them a lot. You’ll taste more from cup 20 than you did from cup 1. (not suggesting drinking all 20 in one day though… heh)

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Roland said

Lots and lots of great comments already :) I’d say that one of the most important things is the mind set – you’ve got to be open and go in with as little in the way of expectations as you can. Knowing to look for caramel (say) can be helpful in finding it, but expecting it to taste Like caramel can just disappoint and lead to you missing other flavours. There aren’t rights and wrongs with flavour – if you get a flavour, it’s there, doesn’t matter whether other people get it or not. Describing flavours is also very tied in with memory, experience and so on – and the more you try to describe a flavour to yourself, the more you’ll explore whether a particular description works for you or not.

I’d also say that it can be helpful to have a tasting method for yourself. Break the flavour experience down into components – say sweetness, acidity/sourness, bitterness, saltiness, savoury/umami, astringency and texture/mouthfeel.Try and think about each of these in turn, decide if there is a lot or a little of each, and if you can find something it’s similar too in that respect.

Oh, and once you start focusing on tasting with tea, chances are you’ll start doing the same with everything else ;) I got into tasting (rather than just consuming) with coffee, which I now do for a job. But that’s lead me to start tasting and appreciating the nuances in tea, in beer, etc.

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alarickc said

A lot of great ideas on here. I would add though that you might try starting out with the very basics of flavor in tea. Taste the tea carfully, pay attention for: sweet, sour, and bitter. Consentrate on their amounts and the relation of one to the others. Then consider mouth-feel: how viscous does the tea seem compared to plain water? How astringent is the tea(the quality of tea, coffee, and some wines that makes your mouth feel dry)? Now, how does the mouth-feel of the tea relate to it’s sweetness, bitterness, and sourness? Finally keeping all that in mind, does it remind you of anything else you’ve eaten or drunk before? Doing this repeatedly can strengthen your palate over time.

I’m personally just staring out in tea(I developed my palate elsewhere), but one of the best places I’ve run across for Chinese teas is Imperial Tea Court in San Fransisco. Their descriptions have been some of the more strait forward and helpful I’ve come across and their blog(linked to from their site) has amazing insights into the Chinese tea industry if you read the backlog. They owner of the place Roy goes to China every year to source his teas; heck, he even owns a facility or two over there. Top-notch tea, though it can be a bit pricy at times. I’d look elsewhere for Indian or Japanese tea.(Though they do have what looks like one of the higher quality Hojicha’s I’ve been able to find; made from plants from Gyokuro production instead of regular Sencha.)

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Wow, tons of great advice!

I would just agree that you need to keep drinking! I feel like my palate has changed A LOT in the years I’ve been drinking tea, but it has been slow…and I started from a “dead tongue” place of drinking virtually nothing but soda pop and anything else with comparable amounts of sugar. It took an exceedingly long time to be able to even stand to drink a tea clear, let alone enjoy it. I also had a lot of trouble picking out anything but the most obvious flavours, but that is developing, too.

It does take some effort and concentration though, it is less like a natural talent (although some people definitely do have extra talent for it!) and more like learning a skill.

Something that might help. With each tea you try, do this:

1) Breathe out.
2) Take a sip.
3) Hold it on your tongue.
4) Breathe in through your nose and aerate the sip.
5) Check out the difference in how flavourful the taste is!

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