Tea Terms: The Natural Language of Tea Tasters

 

An extensive glossary of terms is available to the taster to define the many subtleties of sight, smell and taste. Many of the definitions can be confusing to the uninitiated, due in part Meandering paths through tea plantations of Munnar, India. Photo © Niraj Kedar, iStockphoto

to the fact that some of the words overlap in meaning, while others have taken on a new significance, peculiar to the jargon of the trade. Furthermore, there are different sets of terms to describe black teas, green teas and oolong teas and these are further subdivided into lexical sets that differentiate the characteristics of dry leaf, infused leaf and liquor. Tasting is chiefly concerned with comparing teas. The value of knowing the language of the industry lies in the need not only to compare teas in a single tasting session, but also to be able to refer back to earlier flushes or crops.

The following is a selection of terms used in the qualitative assessment of teas by tea tasters and producers. It is in no way exhaustive.

 

General Terms

 

Before the tea reaches the cupper’s table, certain processes, growing areas or seasons have already begun to affect the flavor of the made tea. Knowing how these can alter the flavor of the finished product is important in evaluation to determine similar quality to expected standards.

 

Assam
lazy placeholderA tea district in northeastern India known for teas with heavy liquors.
Autumnal
lazy placeholderA seasonal term applied to teas grown during the period possessing varying degrees of flavor.
Black Tea
lazy placeholderTea that has been allowed to oxidize as opposed to green tea; also describes color.
Ceylon
lazy placeholderFormer name of Sri Lanka. Still used when referring to tea grown on the island.
Congou
lazy placeholderA general term used to describe all whole leaf black teas from northern China.
Darjeeling
lazy placeholderDelicately flavored teas grown in the district of the same name in northern India. Elevations are 2,500 to 6,500 feet.
Earl Grey
lazy placeholderA black tea scented with oil of bergamot.
English Breakfast
lazy placeholderA blend of tea usually from Assam, Sri Lanka, Yunnan or Keemun which produces a hearty taste and holds up well to milk.
Estate
lazy placeholderLand or property holding, perhaps made up of more than one garden under the same management or ownership.
Firing
lazy placeholderThe method of drying or removing moisture in tea. Firing also heats the enzymes in the leaf and halts the oxidation. Pan-fired, basket-fired and oven drying are all examples of this process.
Flush
lazy placeholderYoung tea leaf shoots, new growth that appears at the tip of each branch or shoot. There can be several flushes in a season. The term can also refer to the various harvests – thus first flush is the early, spring plucking. Second flush is plucked in late spring/early summer and so on.
Formosa
lazy placeholderFormer name of Taiwan. Still used when referring to tea grown on the island.
Garden
lazy placeholderUsed interchangeably with “plantation” in some tea growing countries but usually referring to an estate.
Green Tea
lazy placeholderTea that has not been allowed to oxidize during production.
Gyokuro
lazy placeholderJapanese for “Pearl Dew.” A high-quality tea made by a special process from shaded bushes in the district around Uji, Japan.
High Tea
lazy placeholderA traditional mid-day service which includes light snacks, typically cookies and small pastries.
Hyson
lazy placeholderChinese for “flourishing spring.” A make of China green tea in the eighteenth century, the name was also applied to the tea drink. “Young Hyson” is a type of China tea made from an early spring picking.
Nilgiri
lazy placeholderA tea district in south India.
Nuwara Eliya
lazy placeholderA tea district in Sri Lanka.
Oolong Tea
lazy placeholderType of manufacture with some oxidation. Falls between green and black teas.
Oxidation
lazy placeholderThe process of enzymes naturally found in tea in the production of oolong and black teas.
Self-drinking
lazy placeholderA tea of good balance or flavor not requiring blending.
Tea Taster
lazy placeholderA judge of the cup quality and the leaf, this expert tests for quality at all stages of production, brokerage and shipping.
Tisane
lazy placeholderAn infusion of dried herbs or fruit pieces.
Uva
lazy placeholderA tea district in Sri Lanka.

 
 

Terms describing dry leaf

The dry leaves with their great variety of style and color can be smelled to assess the “nose” of the tea, namely the presence of any pleasing aroma or distinctive fragrance. However, the emphasis on the evaluation of the dry leaf is predominantly on appearance. The degree of rolling, the texture of the made leaf and the presence of stalks, fiber, dust and tips all provide important clues to the tea taster as to the quality of the tea being examined.

Attractive
lazy placeholderWell made, uniform color and size.
Bloom
lazy placeholderIndicates good manufacture and sorting. Good color with a sheen.
Bold
lazy placeholderPieces of leaf that are too big for a grade.
Broken
lazy placeholderBroken by rolling or passing through a cutter.
Choppy
lazy placeholderChopped in a breaker mill or cutter rather than in the roller.
Chunky
lazy placeholderUsually applied to large-sized tip. Desirable.
Clean
lazy placeholderEvenly sorted grade, free from quantities of other grades, stalk and fiber.
Common
lazy placeholderLeaf with no style.
Curly
lazy placeholderOpposite to wiry.
Cut
lazy placeholderSynonymous with choppy.
Dusty
lazy placeholderLeaf tea containing smaller particles.
Even
lazy placeholderConsisting of pieces of roughly equal size.
Fibrous
lazy placeholderPresence of excessive fiber.
Flaky
lazy placeholderFlat, open leaf, poorly made tea.
Golden Tip
lazy placeholderHighly desirable feature in Orthodox teas. Obtained by good withering and rolling.
Grainy
lazy placeholderWell-made hard leaf.
Grey
lazy placeholderCan indicate age or over-handling.
Irregular
lazy placeholderUneven blend of leaf grades.
Leafy
lazy placeholderTea containing larger leaves than normal.
Large
lazy placeholderDescribing size of a grade, implying it is too large for market requirements.
Make
lazy placeholderA tea having “make” is carefully manufactured.
Milled
lazy placeholderTea leaf put through a cutter and ground.
Mixed
lazy placeholderDenotes presence of other grades in a particular grade.
Musty
lazy placeholderExcessive moisture content leading to formation of mold.
Neat
lazy placeholderWell-made teas of even appearance, conforming to relevant grade.
Ragged
lazy placeholderPoor grading and manufacture, rough and uneven appearance of leaf.
Shotty
lazy placeholderWell-made and rolled, particularly of Orthodox BPS.
Small
lazy placeholderA grade of lesser size than is normal for it.
Stalky
lazy placeholderIndicating undue presence of stems among leaf, the result of coarse plucking. Should be minimal in primary grades.
Stylish
lazy placeholderNeat and of superior leaf appearance.
Twist
lazy placeholderWell rolled, imparted during rolling, particular reference to whole leaf.
Uneven
lazy placeholderA blend containing uneven pieces.
Useful
lazy placeholderPossessing good blending qualities.
Well-made
lazy placeholderUniform in color, size and texture.
Wiry
lazy placeholderStylish, thin, well-twisted whole leaf.

 

Terms describing infused leaf

Aroma
lazy placeholderPleasing “nose” or “bouquet” given off from the rising steam, allowing the taster to assessquality and flavor. The “perfume” of the wet leaf expresses the freshness of the leaf. Premium teas have a thoroughly pronounced aroma.
Black Currant
lazy placeholderAn aroma emitted by black currants found in some Darjeelings.
Bright
lazy placeholderLively, as opposed to dull-looking infusion.
Coppery
lazy placeholderDesirably bright, copper colored leaf, denoting a well manufactured tea of good quality.
Dark
lazy placeholderResulting from either poor quality leaf or bad manufacture often at firing stage.
Dull
lazy placeholderOpposed to bright.
Green
lazy placeholderGenerally undesirable. Typical of first flush.
Even
lazy placeholderThe term is usually combined with “bright” or “coppery.” No irregularity in color.
Mixed
lazy placeholderLeaf particles showing color variations from uneven treatment during withering and oxidation.
Old
lazy placeholderHaving lost most original attributes through age.

 

Terms describing liquor

Aroma
lazy placeholderDenotes the presence of one of a range of desirable fragrant smells. The analysis of aroma is the most vital aspect of tasting or enjoying tea.
Astringency
lazy placeholderThe pallet registers a dry, harshness or coarseness compared to a soft mellowness. The unoxidized or natural polyphenols present in tea account for the “puckering” sensation which in turn activate the salivary glands, giving tea its reputation as a thirst quencher; they also account for the bitterness.
Bakey
lazy placeholderUnpleasant taste usually caused by very high temperatures and driving out of too much moisture during firing.
Biscuity
lazy placeholderPleasant characteristic. Toasty or taste of fresh baked bread.
Body
lazy placeholderDenotes heaviness, fullness and strength of the liquor on the tongue. Similar to thickness. Ascribable to the presence of thearubigins.
Bright
lazy placeholderThe ability of the liquor to reflect light from the surface, varying from mirror-like to total lack of reflection. Reflective quality is imparted to tea by the presence of theaflavins.
Brisk
lazy placeholderA lively taste in the liquor, as opposed to flat or soft.
Burnt
lazy placeholderTea that has been subjected to high temperatures during firing. Undesirable.
Character
lazy placeholderA most desirable quality which also permits recognition of the origin of growth of the tea.
Clean
lazy placeholderLacking in character but no unpleasant taint or taste.
Color
lazy placeholderDenoting depth of color. Different growths/grades possess varying depths of color.
Contamination
lazy placeholderForeign taste.
Cream
lazy placeholderPrecipitate obtained on cooling of tea. A bright cream indicates a good tea.
Dry
lazy placeholderSlighty bakey or over-fired.
Dull
lazy placeholderA liquor that is neither clear nor bright/brisk. Caused by several factors such as faulty firing or excessive moisture.
Fine
lazy placeholderExceptional quality or flavor.
Flat
lazy placeholderLacking in briskness. Caused by age.
Full
lazy placeholderA liquor possessing color, strength and substance.
Fully Fired
lazy placeholderSlightly over-fired.
Grassy
lazy placeholderTeas without physical or chemical wither.
Green/Greenish
lazy placeholderRaw almost vegetive taste. Can refer to early first flush in black teas.
Hard
lazy placeholderPenetrating and desirable strength.
Harshness
lazy placeholderRaw characteristic – high firing or under-withering creates an astringent taste.
Heavy
lazy placeholderThick without briskness.
Light
lazy placeholderLacking depth of color.
Malty
lazy placeholderDesirable character; a thick, creamy mouth-feel.
Mellow
lazy placeholderWell matured; opposed to raw.
Metallic
lazy placeholderBitter metallic taste.
Moldy
lazy placeholderTea gone off through age, or damaged by water.
Muscatel
lazy placeholderReminiscent of vineyards; characteristic found in exceptional Darjeelings.
Pale
lazy placeholderLacking color except in “green” teas where liquors should be pale.
Papery
lazy placeholderPaper taint with dry, flat character. Sometimes associated with age.
Point
lazy placeholderMost desirable brightness and acidity creating a fresh “sparkle” on the tongue.
Pointy
lazy placeholderHaving good point.
Pungent
lazy placeholderIdeal combination of briskness, brightness, strength and flavor; highly desirable.
Quality
lazy placeholderEssential characteristic of good tea.
Rich
lazy placeholderMellow liquor, abundant in quality and thickness.
Round
lazy placeholderFull smooth liquor.
Scorched
lazy placeholderAssociated with dryness.
Smoky
lazy placeholderA sharp, acrid or smoky taste.
Soft
lazy placeholderOpposite of brisk.
Spicy
lazy placeholderCharacter suggestive of spices.
Strong
lazy placeholderCan be a bold, heavy cup or sharp, powerful character.
Taint
lazy placeholderForeign characteristic.
Thickness
lazy placeholderA description of viscosity, ranging from light, almost water to a heavy, juice consistency.
Thin
lazy placeholderLacking in body — often due to over withering or inadequate fermentation.
Tired
lazy placeholderFlat through age. Stale.
Toasty
lazy placeholderCaused by over-firing.
Wild
lazy placeholderLiquor character found in end-of-season teas.
Woody
lazy placeholderSawdust-like character. Usually associated with old tea.