The term cupping is used to describe the tasting of different teas to determine quality, taste or color. Cupping similar teas against each other will enable you to determine quality vs. price when making a purchase. Cupping a tea by itself will help you understand the characteristics of that particular tea.
Professional tasters use similar methods in cupping teas. Consistency is the most important part of cupping. If you begin to develop a certain way of cupping teas, it is important to maintain your method for all teas.
Your cup of tea is 99.9% water. The taste of the water will affect the flavor of any tea. Use fresh, filtered water when preparing your tea for tasting. Your filter system should help remove only contaminants, even fresh, clean water contains minerals. Fill a kettle with water and bring to a boil.
Tea is measured per cup by weight not volume. One teaspoon of a Fancy Oolong is considerably less tea than one teaspoon of a China BOP. To prepare your tea for cupping, pour two grams (approximately the same weight as a U.S. dime) into a six to eight ounce cup and pour the fresh boiling water directly onto the leaves.
The steeping process which releases the flavor from the tea leaves has a certain time limit. After five minutes of steeping, the acids in the leaf begin to steep into the cup creating a bitter taste. Please note that some teas require a longer steeping time (seven minutes for Oolongs) and some teas require a shorter steeping time (three to four minutes for green teas and Darjeelings). At the end of the prescribed time, pour off the tea from the leaves to halt the steeping.
As with any rule, there are exceptions. The instructions listed above will be used for nearly every black tea you taste. However, some teas require a different process to bring out the true flavor of the leaf.
Green and White Teas: Green and white teas do not require you to fully boil the water. Pour the water from the kettle just before the water comes to a rolling boil (175° to 185° F). Also these teas usually take less time to steep. Three to four minutes should be plenty.
Oolong Teas: Finer oolongs have a very large, unbroken leaf. As a result, they usually need more time in the hot water to fully release the flavanols or catechins, which give the tea its flavor.
One of the great things about tea is its ability to be something different to every one who tries it. These suggestions for cupping teas are just that, suggestions. No one way will ever be considered the only way to taste teas. Experiment, try teas with different amounts and different steeping times. You never know if you’re going to like it unless you try it. Truly, the most important part of cupping teas is consistency. If there is one thing for sure, it is that teas will change flavor when you change the way you brew them.