Tea Tasting Terms

Among the connoisseurs and seasoned tea aficionados, tea has a wide and varied language.  For the beginner, the enjoyment comes from developing your own language to describe the aroma, flavor and physical characteristics of the dry and infused leaves and liquor.  To assist you on your tea journey, we have broken our tea tasting terms into descriptive categories for the dry leaf, infused leaf and liquor. These terms will help you understand the mysteriously complex and subtle nuances of tea.

Dry Leaf Terms

Aroma- The scent which reveals a tea’s innate character. Dry leaves, infused leaves and the tea liquor itself all have distinctive aromas peculiar to their region and even to their estates. Aromas are usually described by making analogies with flowers or fruits. For instance, fine Formosa oolong’s aroma may be said to be peach-like.

Black– Not just a type of tea, but also the color of dry leaf, sometimes appropriate, sometimes not.

Blackish– As compared to brownish, a satisfactory appearance for CTC type teas. Denotes careful sorting.

Bloom– A live, as opposed to a dull-looking, surface appearance of made tea leaf. Bloom is usually a sign of good quality created by a varnish-like film and the fine down on the outside of the leaf. Excessive staleness or excessive drying destroys bloom.

Bold – Describes the appearance of the tea to indicate that the pieces of the leaf are big for the grade and should be smaller.

Bouquet- Odors from the type of leaf are called aromas and these you can learn to recognize and expect. Bouquet is the combination of these with other odors which come from the processing, or aging, or preparation of teas. It is a term usually reserved for fragrant teas with superlative flavor.

Brown– With certain exceptions, this color is not a desirable characteristic in black teas.  Some fine teas inevitably have a brownish appearance due to a very slow growth of the green leaf or manufacturing methods, however, brownness may sometimes be due to abundance of golden tip.

Choppy– The appearance of leaf which has been through a breaker or a cutter.

Chunky – The appearance of leaf meaning broken grades which include large sized particles.

Clean– Describes the leaf appearance when an evenly sorted grade of tea is free from other grades and devoid of stalk.

Curly– The appearance of some whole leaf grades.

Dull Tip– The color of the tip which was unfortunately spoiled by abrasion during manufacture.

Even– Describes the leaf size. “Even” means fairly regular, uniform. Also used for leaf color to mean regular, when it is often combined with the qualifying adjectives like “bright” and “coppery.”

Fibery– Denote the presence of excessive fiber, i.e. stalk.

Finesse– An elusive indescribable quality which distinguishes a fine tea from one of lesser quality.

Flaky– A flat poorly made tea.

Grainy– Hard leaf fannings and dust grades which are small, clean and granular.  Also used for primary grades of well-made CTC teas such as pekoe dust.

Gray– An extremely undesirable color of dry leaf, usually a result of over-sorting and cutting to that “bloom”, the outer leaf varnish, is scratched and broken.

Large – Describes leaf which is bigger then normal for its grade.

Leafy – Used for tea containing leaf larger than would be normal for its grade.  When this term is coupled with “useful” it indicates that size of leaf is in good demand.

Leggy – Describes the appearance of a tea consisting of long, thin leaf. Also known as wiry.

Light – Abnormally light-weight tea which has nevertheless been very carefully manufactured.

Make– Tea that has been carefully manufactured with due attention to withering, rolling and sorting.

Musty– Moldy off-odors resulting form improper storage.

Neat– Appearance of a good, even-looking leaf.

Nosing the tea– The act of smelling the tea for its aroma, flavor and freshness.

Open – Appearance of whole leaf which is loosely rolled and untwisted. Formosa oolong was traditionally “open” Souchong leaf.

Pale tip–  The color of the tip in dry leaf in contrast to “golden tip.” Pale tip is often the result of under-withering during manufacture and is less desirable than Golden Tip.

Powdery– The very fine light dust, the particles of which tend to cohere.

Pulverized– Dusts containing milled or pulverized fiber, also called unclean dust.

Ragged –  Used to describe a rough, shaggy and uneven leaf.

Rough– Term for a leaf having a very irregular appearanc

Shotty – Term used to describe a well-made very tightly rolled leaf such as Gunpowder and many oolongs.

Silver Tip–  A color of tip in black tea as opposed to a golden tip.

Small– Any leaf which is of a lesser size than normal for the grade indicated.

Stalk and Fiber– Bits of tea bush other than leaf. This is minimal in superior grades, but is unavoidable in lower-grade teas. Not a defect in oolongs, whose stalk is necessarily included.

Stalky– Any tea containing an abnormal amount of stalk

Stylish– The leaf of a tea which has been well manufactured and is of superior appearance. Keemun Mao Feng is a stylish tea.

Tippy– Manufactured tea containing the unopened bud, or leaflet, also known as Pekoe tip, of the new growing shoot of the tea plant. Abundance in tip is visual proof of fine plucking, “two leaves and a bud,” and promises a sweetness of flavor.

Twisted– Leaf that has received thorough withering and rolling and which has become curled as a result.

Well Twisted– The appearance of the well “made” or “rolled” whole leaf orthodox tea, typically thin, long leaf.

Well-made– The appearance of leaf uniform in color, size and texture.

Whiskery– Leaf containing a high percentage of fine hairy fiber.

Wiry – Very well twisted, thin-looking, whole leaf grades of black tea.

 

Infused Leaf Terms

Aroma- The scent which reveals a tea’s innate character. Dry leaves, infused leaves and the tea liquor itself all have distinctive aromas peculiar to their region and even to their estates. Aromas are usually described by making analogies with flowers or fruits. For instance, fine Formosa oolong’s aroma may be said to be peach-like.

Bouquet- Odors from the type of leaf are called aromas and these you can learn to recognize and expect. Bouquet is the combination of these with other odors which come from the processing, or aging, or preparation of teas. It is a term usually reserved for fragrant teas with superlative flavor.

Bright- Lively-looking infused leaf or tea liquor as opposed to dull-looking. Brightness usually indicated careful manufacture.

Coppery– Term often used of Darjeeling to describe the color of the infused leaf. It almost invariably denotes a good quality tea which has been carefully manufactured during the second flush or autumnals. “New penny” coppery is the quintessence of infusion and liquor color.

Dull – Neither clear nor bright.

Infusion–   A term for the liquor, as tea infusion is most often called, but also denoting the infused leaf, the color of which gives an indication of the nature of the liquor. A bright, even color is desirable.

 

Liquor Terms

Aroma- The scent which reveals a tea’s innate character. Dry leaves, infused leaves and the tea liquor itself all have distinctive aromas peculiar to their region and even to their estates. Aromas are usually described by making analogies with flowers or fruits. For instance, fine Formosa oolong’s aroma may be said to be peach-like.

Astringency- A lively puckery sensation on the tongue and gums. Astringency is not to be confused with bitterness, which is undesirable. Astringency is a component of tea body and gives tea its refreshing quality. For instance Darjeeling First Flush is noticeably astringent.

Bouquet- Odors from the type of leaf are called aromas and these you can learn to recognize and expect. Bouquet is the combination of these with other odors which come from the processing, or aging, or preparation of teas. It is a term usually reserved for fragrant teas with superlative flavor.

Biscuity- Quaint tasting term for a black tea aroma and flavor reminiscent of (English) biscuits; a pleasant characteristic.

Bite-Not associated with taste, but the astringency or “puckeriness” that gives green and black tea a characteristic mouth feel and refreshing quality.  Bite tends to make flavor “peak”. An oolong is praised for having “no peaks, no bites.”

Bitterness- A not-necessarily unpleasant effect on the palate from any tea: also, a result of over-steeping.

Body- The impression of a tea’s weight in the mouth, its viscosity and mouthfeel.

Brassy- The unpleasant metallic taste usually associated with un-withered or poorly withered teas.

Brisk- A flavor characteristic of liveliness, that is with a light, pleasurably dry taste in th enough. This term is widely known today because of Sir Thomas Lipton.

Burnt - An unpleasant taste of burnt organic matter in the liquor and a similar smell in the infused leaf is a characteristic of teas that have been fired at too high a temperature.

Character– This denotes the most desirable quality, the heart, of the liquor and flavor of a tea. It is character that allows us to recognize country of origin and a particular district within the country.

Color-  Brightness of a liquor is vastly preferable to dullness. The colors of liquors vary considerably from district to district and country to country.

Coloury – Liquor possessing depth of color and, to all appearances, body and strength, although not necessarily so, since some teas may be coloury to the eye but weak on the palate.

Complexity– An harmonious mélange of various flavors, in layers and at interludes, characteristic of the very finest teas, which present their aroma first and leave behind an aftertaste with much going on in between. Complexity describes this whole experience.

Crisp– Term used for a lively tea with good body and bite, yielding a clean, refreshing taste. The opposite of “flabby” and “dull.”

Dry – Denotes the effect on the palate caused by a slight bakiness, i.e. a very slightly high fired or scorched character.

Earthy–  Often used for taste resulting from tea being stored under damp conditions. “ Earth” describes the complex aroma of farm or forest soil after a rain.

Empty – Liquor lacking any substance, i.e. lacking fullness.  Leaf withered over-long in hot weather or insufficiently rolled leaf sometimes acquire this disappointing characteristic.

Flavour – Tongue sensations of taste, i.e. desirable and very apparent aroma perceived through the mouth and not via the nose. Pronounced flavour is oftenest found in high grown teas.

Fleshy– A term for tea with plenty of flavor and fruitiness above and underlying firmness.

Frivolous– A tea which is rich in aroma, but insubstantial, very short in the mouth, leaving only a fleeting impression.

Fruity – Certain characteristics resulting from good leaf and careful manufacture. Often found in oolongs.

Full– Applied to body, approvingly, as in “full-bodied” Assam or Ceyloon, for liquor with strength, but little briskness.

Gone off–  A tea gone stale. Tea spoiled by improper storage or packing or simply past its prime and stale.

Gutty– Thick, full bodied liquor that holds color despite milk being added.

Harshness– A raw and unpleasant strength in a tea liquor which is usually the result of immature tea or tea made from inferior leaf. In non-professional usage, harshness usually means tea that has been over-steeped and grown bitter and astringent. 

Heavy– A term applied to black teas with thick, strong and colory liquors, but with very little briskness. This usually results from over-long oxidation, but is not necessarily a defect since heavy teas with little briskness take milk well.

Herbaceous– The green leafy or “grassy” flavor often found in Japan green teas among others.  Herbaceous can be usefully contrasted with the “vegetative” flavor often characteristic of China greens.

Invigorating– A characteristic of young, green tea, where there is a pronounced sour note.

Iodized– A note found in certain teas such as Japan green teas.

Lacking– A clean liquor devoid of any pronounced characteristics.

Malty– A pleasant taste in Assam and Yunnan black teas which closely resembles the malty flavor derived from germinating barley, corn or oat grains used in beer-making.

Metallic– The unpleasant or brassy taste usually associated with un-withered or poorly withered teas.

Muscatel– Derived from a flavor and aroma peculiar to grapes of the Muscat family. Muscat grapes have a character all their own and usually are used for sweet dessert wines. In tea, it denotes a unique Muscat-like fruitiness in aroma and flavor found exclusively in the most highly prized Darjeelings – usually Second Flush – when it is found at all.  It is an extremely rare taste characteristic.

Mushy– A flat, “soggy, “ uninteresting liquor which is a result of packing or sorting tea with a high moisture content.

Nutty– Variously used of a desirable taste. Nutty is a flavor also used to describe different flavors in green teas, like Genmaicha.

Opulent – A term for tea aromas and flavors so very rich they seem luxurious.

Peak – This term described the high point of the tasting experience when, instants after the liquor enters the mouth, its body, flavors and astringency make themselves fully felt. Only black teas have pronounced peaks.  Green and oolongs do not peak, but stand immediately and fully revealed and then show a finish.

Plummy– A term for an elegant juiciness to a tea’s flavor and texture which suggests the fleshiness of plums.

Pungent– Meaning full of flavor, freshness and bite, generally applied only to black teas.

Rich – Opposite to poor, for a liquor with abundant flavor and body.

Robust–  Milder than “aggressive”, for a strong flavored full-bodied tea. Assam is famously “robust.”

Round– Denotes a desirable characteristic of smoothness and an absence of “edge” from bitterness.

Sappy– Full, juicy liquor.

Short in the mouth–  A tea that leaves little trace in the mouth and the back of the mouth after being swallowed. A tea with no finish is said to “cuts short its taste.”

Silky– Describes the mouth feel, used in connection with green tea. Also used for a smooth and soft leaf texture – Japan’s Sencha.

Smoky – Denotes a taste of smoke. May be deliberate as in Lapsang Souchong.

Soggy– Heavy dull liquor.

Sour – An undesirable acidic odor and taste.

Spicy – Liquors with flavor notes suggestive of cinnamon, pepper or clove, sometimes results from spices growing near the tea bushes.

Standing up–Tea that holds it original color when milk is added. Such tea is said to “stand up” to milk.

Stewed – Describes an undesirable liquor character, denotes a dull tea, often resulting from too low an exhaust temperature in the dryer.

Tainted –  Tea that is contaminated.  May result from infection by microorganisms during manufacture or storage, but usually refers to a flavor entirely foreign to tea such as oil, petrol, onion, etc.

Thick– Liquor with substance, but not necessarily strength.

Thin – Liquor lacking strength or body.

Toasty-  The taste of liquor caused by high-firing during manufacture or prolonged baking after manufacture in oolongs. 

Vegetative – Most often applied to China green teas, in contrast to “herbaceous,” which better describe the grassy aroma and flavor of Japan green teas. Green vegetative flavors include a range of more or less earthy notes from suggestions of asparagus to snap beans, zucchini and others.

Vigorous– Tea that is both astringent and lively and immediately felt in the mouth.  Darjeeling First Flush is a vigorous tea.

Wild – A taste sometimes found in end of season teas, often accompanied by the term woody.

Winey– A mellow and harmonious complexity of flavor in certain black teas which develops as the tea matures in the unopened chest. It is usually restricted to Keemuns and Assams, more often found in some clonal Assams than Keemuns.

 

 SOURCE:  Pratt, James Norwood, Tea Dictionary