Tea tasting is often viewed as a specialized art. People pay steeply for tea tasting workshops. Large tea companies such as Lipton employ professional tea tasters in order to maintain the consistency of their blends, which combine different teas whose characteristics vary seasonally. Connoisseurs of rare and specialty teas may taste dozens of teas in one day. Michael Harney of Harney and Sons boasts tasting an average of 80 teas a day.
A new way to taste tea?
But there is also a different way to approach professional tea tasting–one that is accessible to anyone, requires no training, and has health benefits that are often missed by other approaches to tea tasting. To understand this approach we must understand the purpose of our senses of taste and smell.
What is the purpose of our senses of taste and smell?
Humans have a sense of taste and smell to ensure that we eat foods that are healthy and avoid substances that are poisonous or harmful to our health. On a basic level, things that are edible and nutritious taste good and things that are toxic or harmful taste bad. However, anyone living in our modern society knows that there is more to taste than this oversimplification. Some foods initially taste good but are not good for us, and on the other hand, a great deal of healthful foods and drinks, including many teas, are described as having an acquired taste. Something with an acquired taste often tastes unappealing when you first try it, but begins to taste better over time as you consume more of it.
“Acquired tastes” help humans locate healthy food and drink:
The phenomenon of acquired tastes serves to reduce the risk of poisoning by ensuring that when we encounter something unfamiliar, we only try it in small quantities. The human body and mind employ complex feedback mechanisms linking our digestive tract and other biological systems to our memories of taste and smell. If something gives us a feeling of well-being and nourishment after eating or drinking it, we gradually become more comfortable with its flavor and aroma and develop a liking for it. If it makes us sick or unwell, we become averse to its flavor and aroma.
These issues are relevant to tea tasting both because many teas have an acquired taste, and also because tea has both positive and negative health effects. Tea, especially green tea, is often touted for its health benefits, including antioxidant activity, cancer prevention, stress reduction, antimicrobial activity, and promotion of a healthy immune system and healthy intestinal flora, among a myriad of other benefits. But these benefits vary greatly from one variety of tea to the next, and tea can also have negative effects on health.
How do health benefits of tea vary from tea to tea?
Darker teas contain tannins, which can interfere with the absorption of iron and other nutrients. Tea contains caffeine, which in excess can cause or contribute to sleep disruption, addiction, anxiety, and other negative effects. Some teas are acidic, which can be rough on the stomach, especially for those suffering from acid reflux. Flavored and herbal teas are even more diverse in terms of both their positive and negative health impacts. Furthermore, different people vary widely in their susceptibility to these health effects.
Tasting teas so as to maximize your health benefits:
Tea tasting, and in particular, developing acquired tastes for teas over time, gives us a tool to solve this problem. By tasting teas over time, we allow our taste to adapt based on how the tea makes us feel. Teas that make us feel balanced and healthy will come to taste better to us, and we will come to dislike (and thus avoid) those that make us feel unwell.
Tasting each tea several times is crucial if you are to allow yourself to develop an acquired taste for new teas, especially those with unfamiliar aromas. Many of my favorite teas are ones that I did not love upon the first sip but only came to appreciate over time. If you buy samples of loose teas, make sure to order enough to make several cups. If you reject every tea that you dislike upon the first sip, you may cut yourself off from some of the teas that you would most appreciate in the long-run.