A Curious Approach To Tea
Tea invites us to focus our senses and reconnect with our minds, bodies, and souls.
Here are some ways to practice cultivating your awareness and refine your senses when preparing, drinking and sharing tea. I routinely use these methods to evaluate teas, either when sourcing new teas or tasting one that delights again and again.
When preparing and tasting tea, observe its aroma, energy, taste, returning sweetness, and characteristics of the soup. Being observant of these characteristics is a great place to start when developing the skills to judge the quality of a tea. The more tea you drink, the more opportunities you have to practice mindfulness by observing the changes within the tea, on the palate, and in your body.
Each of us has a unique perspective; drinking tea with friends is a great way to connect with people around you and can help refine your sensibilities when it comes to defining your preferences and refining your observational skills. The Chinese character for “to taste” (pinyin: pǐn; mandarin: 品) is comprised of three mouths (pinyin: kou; mandarin: 口), indicating in the character itself that “to taste” is a kind of team effort.
See also: How to make “good tea”
What makes a “good” tea?
When evaluating a tea’s aroma (pinyin: xiāng; mandarin: 香), there are many dimensions aside from the scent of the tea soup, each with their own characteristics: the dry tea, the wet tea leaves, the gaiwan lid, the fairness cup, and the tasting cup all have an aroma. Observe the different aromas each time you get a chance to drink tea. Observing the same tea at different times of the day is also a helpful practice.
A strong indication of a “good” tea is the presence of aroma in both the dry leaves and the tea soup. Tea-masters spend years developing the crafting skills needed to nurture the aromatic potential from the tea soup. The phrase describing a “good” tea’s aroma can be loosely translated to, “the aroma enters into the water. One can taste it.” (pinyin: xiāng rù shuǐ; mandarin: 香入水) Even in the levels of “Aroma in the water”, there are several divisions. Some aromas are drifting on the surface (of the tea soup) - which means it’s probably very aromatic, but the aroma is not very stable. Comparatively, the ones that the aromas are perfectly melted into teas (the water) are superior, which can also be called, “united into one; oneism” (pinyin: hé yī; mandarin: 合一).
入 (means to enter)
The aroma of a “good” tea’s dry leaves should be clean or clear. Above that, fragrant, milky, fruity or grassy qualities may be observed.
Tea “soup” refers to the water after being infused with tea leaves — what most people simply call “tea”. A well-crafted tea yields a semi-translucent soup that is uniform in color and free of particles. In a lower quality tea, you may notice a dusty appearance, as though the tea is mixed with small particles and/or dullness in color. One exception: the soup of some high-quality, hairy white (i.e. silver needle) and green teas (i.e. Xin Yang Mao Jian ) may not be clear. The quality of the water used to infuse the leaves will greatly impact your tea.
See also: Why water is important
The six categories of teas are named after their tea soup. In the United Kingdom, people mistake red tea for black tea, observing the dry leaves instead of the soup. Varietal and craft will produce more variation within each category. The strength of tea soup colors (lighter, darker) can be used to tell the different qualities, different aging, or different crafting techniques of the teas. For example, high-quality white or green tea usually has a very light, nearly transparent soup. Aged teas have stronger/deeper colors. Cliff teas, which are roasted under varying levels of fire will vary in darkness depending on the roast level. Lightly roasted teas appear light orange and darker roasted teas range from deep reds to dark brown.
See also: The six categories of tea
The taste characteristics of the tea soup are a main indicator of quality. Tastes will vary depending on which category and varietal of tea you’re drinking.
For new tea drinkers, the taste of the soup is a great place to start refining your observance skills. To begin, be mindful of the texture the soup creates (when drinking) and leaves (after swallowing) on your tongue and in your mouth — smooth, rough, etc. Then observe the taste: sweet, sour, spicy, bitter, smoky, etc. Take your practice further by observing how long these tastes remain with you and the layers of complexity (or lack of). Some teas are very plain. Others are full of changes in one Pao of tea.
See also: Tea terminology
Something common in all the “good” teas is that the taste of the soup is very concentrated. This might seem abstract at first but bear with me.
In China, people will often praise “good” tea by saying the tea is very powerful and has a very powerful energy (pinyin: chá qì hěn zú; mandarin: 茶气很足).
茶（Cha) is tea
气（Qi or Chi) means the energy
很 (Hen) means “very”
足（zu) means “enough”. In this context, it means “strong and powerful”.
Here, energy isn’t a quality observed in the taste of the soup, rather a comment on the strength or lingering of a tea. Cha Qi is something “old tea ghosts” (pinyin: lǎo chá guǐ; mandarin: 老茶鬼) look for in a good tea. Teas with strong cha qi have tremendous longevity, withstanding far more brews than other teas all while maintaining the significant characteristics of the tea throughout multiple infusions.
Another quality to observe is returning sweetness (pinyin: huí gān; mandarin: 回甘). Returning sweetness describes a kind of naturally sweet taste that occurs in your mouth after swallowing the tea soup, and usually arrives after a short, but strong hit of astringency or bitterness on the palate. A “good” tea’s returning sweetness usually comes very fast and will last a long time. Others might take several brews before occurring or may not occur at all.
Old Tea Ghosts (老茶鬼): a phrase used to describe people who drink a lot of teas. Tea fans.
Pao (泡): this character first means the sound of the water, in tea world can be understand one making/serving of tea making. Or the measured word for the times of tea making; for example, the hot water put into the gaiwan, from Gaiwan to fairness cup, - one brew of tea, which can also be called one Pao of tea. One Pao of tea can also mean one sample/serving of tea.
Returning sweetness (回甘): used to describe the taste of a tea after swallowing.
Pin (品): “to taste”, which is combined with three mouths (口 Kou).
Kou (口): mouth.
Written by Rong Gao for Shifing Senses.