Describing taste - part I
Describing a tea's aromas can be quite challenging at times. From trying to illustrate a generic taste profile for someone who's unfamiliar with the beverage, to pinpointing every note and nuances developing over the course of a tasting session, words often seem to fall short at conveying the sensory experience a tea can produce. But they are nonetheless hardly avoidable if we're trying to make tea a shared experience. And whether you are buying, selling, or simply discussing tea, words still probably are your best bet for mutual understanding.
This article is the first in a two-part series. It presents a few guidelines I like to keep in mind when trying to talk or write about tea. I hope you'll enjoy the reading and perhaps find here and there a few tips to better navigate the labyrinth of tea language yourself.
Choosing the right language
The first thing to consider here, of course, is whom you are talking to/with. Words only convey meaning as long as they are understood, so choosing the right language will be crucial. And finding the common grounds to build understanding implies taking your interlocutor into consideration. Using technical terms can work pretty well when addressing a fellow tea geek or someone from the industry, but they aren't exactly adapted for the neophyte.
It's important to keep in mind that each situation has its appropriate level of language. Easy enough to understand that the simpler the vocabulary, the easiest things are to picture and imagine. Ever asked a simple question at the hardware store and felt like the answer given was overly complicated and unnecessarily filled with incomprehensible words? That's the feeling we're trying to avoid here. That, and using overly generic terms when addressing connoisseurs or people from the industry, as this can lead to them feeling rightly misjudged, their level of comprehension poorly evaluated.
When I write descriptions, I always try to include definitions from both primary and secondary aromas of each tea. This is quite easy to overlook as primary aromas tend to repeat themselves across most teas of a given family and pointing out that a sencha is herbaceous or grassy might seem redundant or even unnecessary to anybody familiar with Japanese green tea. But describing a sencha as fruity or flowery might end up confusing the less familiar amateurs. Worst, they might end up judging a description wildly inaccurate since it doesn't relate to what their tastebuds identified. This can easily lead to mistrust between seller and client, and we certainly want to avoid that.
As a general rule of thumb, it is safe to say that addressing less experimented drinkers with a more generic language focusing on primary aromas is better, while a more complex language geared towards secondary aromas would rather suit the teaheads of this world. By using a mix of both, I hope my descriptions might be picked up by a broader range of readers.
Discussing tea is all about sharing experiences. Sure, tasting is the focus here, but there is plenty more than just tasting to share. Cultural experiences, travel experiences, special encounters, rare discoveries, little epiphanies perhaps... Establishing context lays the necessary grounds for such exchanges.
Think of it as setting the stage for a movie or a book: the context serves as a reference frame to better understand and communicate ideas. It ties together the subject, the author, and the spectator by giving them common grounds to build their experience upon.
Context can be educational and entertaining in it itself. By sharing a tea's origin, by talking about its cultural value, or the specificity of its terroir, we deepen the understanding of a specific product, while also building a better understanding for future exchanges.
Sharing context is also a way for me to meet with my readers. By presenting my teas, I somehow present myself. My descriptions tell about my choices, about who I am as importer and what I like as a drinker. They reveal my agricultural preferences and why I favor specific producers. There's always so much to say about each tea because their experience stretches way beyond taste.
Unfortunately for us, there is never one precise term that would accurately describe a tea's aromatic profile. No single word exists to name the complex taste of this sencha or this pu-erh tea. Always, we have to refer to other established terms to frame and suggest the idea of its taste. We say this tea tastes like apples and hay and seaweed. Or we use broader categories that encompass more of these simpler ideas at once, like fruity or earthy. But all in all, tea never really tastes just that.
By lack of better means, we have no choice but to try and define a tea's complex taste by using associations, by pointing out to other aromatic references in hope of creating some sort of semantic network that would appropriately describe our experience. Of course, tea doesn't taste the same as seaweed or melon but putting those two ideas next to each other might just create between and around them the space that would suggest the tea's specific taste.
The real problem with associations is they build up like an imaginary puzzle. Each piece comes separated and you have to put them together to form an image. And just because you lay them out on the table doesn't mean you get the picture. The fewer pieces you have, the easier they are to put together, and the simpler the picture in the end. The more pieces you have on the other hand, the harder the puzzle and, more often than not, the more blurry the image. Too many words is like not enough. Overdescribing makes taste impossible to imagine.
In many ways, it is important for me to leave space in my descriptions for readers to fill in. Communicating through language, we can only suggest what we experienced and describe. Using the puzzle metaphor again, the only way for people to see the picture is by actually imagining it. Might as well leave them enough room to do it. Stacking the pieces on top of each other makes solving the puzzle much harder than if you lay them down with ample space between them. This space, in a way, invites people to assume their role in putting together the pieces and drawing the final picture.
A good way to create space in a description is by using images. Verbal images, I mean. Describing a Darjeeling First Flush tea as fresh and floral, with aromas of hay, dandelions, and clover honey is somewhat less intuitive than describing it as tasting like a wild meadow. Mentally picturing the meadow in your mind not only brings forth the key elements of this description, but it also provides the necessary breathing room to put together the aromatic picture. Images often appear more vividly and more clearly than disjointed elements of a description as they suggest the space that binds them together.
Not everything happens all at once when tasting tea. The whole experience unfolds over time and we can easily identify a few moments that deserve separate attention. There are times before and after the actual tasting that might be relevant to a description. To give an example, seasonal precisions can have quite an impact on how readers imagine freshness or warmth. You can think about context here, giving your tea a little background or setting up the stage for the session can go a long way into breathing life into your descriptions. Take a look at the tea's packaging, talk about the dry leaves, their visual, what type of harvest is the material from. Mention what type of impressions the tea left on you, say if it woke you up or calmed you down... tasting is never only a matter of tastebuds.
But even with it becomes a matter of tastebuds, remember that not everything unfolds at once. Piling up aromatic notes often makes less sense than simply pointing out their structure, how they present themselves and evolve over time. This becomes clearer with the practice of brewing techniques like gong fu cha or senchado that rhythm the tea session in a succession of repetitive steepings, but even within a single slurp, taste unfolds progressively. I like to separate taste into three phases: the foremouth, the development, and the finish (or aftertaste). Aromas with a strong presence early on in the mouth might not necessarily carry on to the aftertaste. Similarly, subtle floral notes might be waiting for the thunderous roar of tannins to fade before quietly revealing themselves. The aromatic dance of tea can be quite difficult to follow step by step. Sometimes, the best description will be the one that simply observes the general movement, tracing the flowing motion and letting it draw its impression on your mind.