Some Accounting for Tea Tastes

by Jason on October 18, 2012

in Member Content

Whether you are in the tea business or simply an avid tea drinker, chances are you have tried to introduce someone to a new tea. Sometimes these adventures work, and a conversion takes place. Other times it doesn’t. When it doesn’t, the only joy you may get is a wee dram of sadistic pleasure from seeing a person screw their face into that silly “yuck!” expression.

There are so many tea choices. How can anyone expect to find the right new teas that will radiate delight and elevate someone to tea-gasm? Some people say they drink tea mainly for health benefits. But they will only swallow so much of a bitter pill. Taste is a critical component for longer term satisfaction with tea. Yet taste is only one component. Tea can have astringency, bitterness, texture, and aftertaste. So anticipating what teas a person will like goes way beyond simply selecting for flavor components.

Research: Describing and Liking Tea Flavors

Some research has been done on tea flavors and taste preferences. I and others looked at some of this research a few years ago because we found it potentially useful in building a common vocabulary and experience base for describing tea tastes. Looking back at 2 subsequent papers on the subject provides further illumination.  Lee’s 2007 paper develops the definitions and distinctions between flavors. The 2009 paper takes the next step by asking people to try teas, use the flavor definitions to describe them, and rate their preferences for those teas.

While much of the 2009 study is focused on taste components, there are other useful insights. On page 179, the author notes that for US drinkers, there were negative correlations between bitterness and liking the tea. Tea flavor, bitterness, and other characteristics may not be related in the ways expected.

The study also suggests that drinkers sought familiar and bland tastes. As if the drinkers subconsciously looked for familiar flavors (not necessarily familiar flavors they liked), and when those could not be found, they preferred neutral characteristics. Some of the flavor characteristics that were more often associated with preferred teas may be the most familiar from black teas:

  • ashy
  • nutty
  • straw-like
  • tobacco

Using the Research: A Better Approach to Tea Flavors and Introducing Teas

Several conclusions came to mind from these studies:

1. Create a familiar and useful vocabulary for describing taste experience. So much green tea is described as “grassy” or “vegetal.” How many people have actually tasted grass? A more helpful distinction can be made by using familiar vegetables to express differences. Parsley, asparagus, and Brussels sprouts are different. These are tastes that are distinguishable and related to many people’s eating experience. The person who says he doesn’t like vegetal teas may actually be trying to express a dislike for spinach tastes but not necessarily celery tastes. Thus a person can better communicate what she likes and doesn’t like.

2. Re-discover the familiar. The study invites us all to reacquaint ourselves with things that have long been part of our lives. Different vegetable tastes are useful reference points to the extent of a person’s awareness of that taste experience. Even if a person cannot verbalize the difference in tastes between green bean, lima bean, and asparagus, they can learn to identify the tastes when blindfolded.

3. Bridge the unfamiliar with the familiar. If people prefer familiar tastes even if they don’t like them, help them find familiar tastes within new teas. A tea may have multiple taste components. If a person can pull out one or more recognizable components, they may be more able to accept the unfamiliar components.

4. Cultivate an appreciation of tea grades. The study used a range of teas from different sources. Some were off the shelf of grocery stores, and others were from specialty tea retailers. It is possible that the tea drinkers in the study could have changed their preference for the same tea depending on the grade of the tea. A higher grade tea can be smoother, have less bitterness, and variations in flavor intensity (and possibly flavor components).

With a little inventiveness, perhaps we can all be better guides on a new, yet familiar path to tea tastes.


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