Tea Tasting Language : Aroma

by Arina on August 20, 2010

in Tea Basics,Tea Language

When Jean-Baptiste did finally learn to talk, he soon found the everyday language proved inadequate for all the olfactory experiences accumulated within himself“, – Perfume :  The Story of a Murderer.

The Powerful Sense

Most of us do not have a fraction of the extraordinary superpowers of the vicious Monsieur Grenouille from Süskind’s novel. But the fact is, the most important sensorial stimuli that make us like or dislike a particular food or beverage, or simply recognize them, come from smell. Sometimes we just do not realize that. I once conducted a “young mom” version of a well-known sensory experience. When blending some fruit or vegetable purées for my baby I closed my eyes, squeezed the nostrils and than tasted a spoonful of each. All purées were similar in texture, so I could not get any helpful hint from that. The result? Every time I just could not tell what it was! Leave out the aromas, and the food becomes tasteless.

the power of smell

The smell helps newborns find their way to their mom’s breast, and the smell (consciously or subconsciously) can even determine the choice of your lifetime partner! So why, if the sense of smell is so crucially important, are we often dazed and confused when it comes to describe particular aromas?

There can be multiple answers to that question.

Unspoken Memories

The first answer is that many aromas can be extraordinarily complex. But human brain is usually geared to distinguish no more than 3-5 single aromas in an aromatic bouquet. Peynaud and Blouin mention an experience conducted among the experts-parfumeurs, the bad asses, or more appropriately said, the Noses of the olfactory profession. 96-98% easily identified single reference aromas. The number of correct identifications slashed by half when two single aromas were mixed together. And when presented with cocktails of four single aromas, just 10% of the experts gave correct responses. Good news : only 10% of those perfume geeks are superhuman and that gives hope to us, ordinary people. Another good news is, you do not always need to break down a particular bouquet into the smallest aroma components to enjoy tea drinking – leave this  detective job to the chemists (and it may lead to surprising results, as I’ll mention later).

Perfume is the most important form of memory, said Jean-Paul Guerlain. Inversely, the memory is probably the most important factor in being able to recognize and analyze different perfumes. When we taste something new, we try to search among the olfactory references recorded in our brain to find the closest approximation to the new aroma. But our mental “reference library” can be the size of Library of Congress or as humble as a tiny bookshelf. And similar to speaking a foreign language, our olfactory references can be either active or passive, not coming out easily. And here comes the second answer to the question. Most of us have not given a sufficient training to our sense of smell and do not possess an adequate olfactory “reference vocabulary”. I have encountered the numerous complaints of the renowned wine experts that even in the professional sommelier schools the olfactory training is rarely systematic or intensive. As a parent of young children, I myself admit to pay too little attention this part of sensory education. But experiences with recognising different aromas can actually be very fun! Montessori schools are hugely popular in Beijing. I know that this system incorporates the development of the sense of smell in its approach. (By the way, if you know of any good resources on the web that describe funny olfactory experiences for young kids, please give a shout – I would be so grateful!)

Although language can be inadequate in describing aromas, we still need a certain vocabulary to provide an approximate description. The known aromas can be classified in groups, and the classification approach can be twofold.

Poetry or Chemistry?

The first classification is rather intuitive and  combines odors into families based on their natural origin.  I am pleased every time I find similarities between tea and wine, and here they are very important. Most of the olfactory “families” used to describe wine and tea are actually the same. For the aromatic families used to describe tea, I will follow (almost) to the letter the classification proposed in Delmas / Minet / Brabaste “Tea Drinker’s Handbook”, my absolute favorite to date as far as the comprehensive approach to tea tasting is concerned. The following families are common for tea and wine:

Green leaves, blue skies

  • Herbaceous, vegetal: fresh herbaceous, dried herbaceous, aromatic herbs, cooked vegetables. For wine this characteristic is often pejorative – grape leaves are better suited to make dolma, not wine, after all. But for tea it’s a different story. Many teas, especially green and yellow, possess voluptuous herbal or vegetal aromas.
  • Floral: fresh floral, white flowers, exotic flowers. Young wines, especially white or rosé, can often be described as floral. Some teas are additionally perfumed with flowers (jasmine, osmanthus, chrisantemum), but some exhibit natural floral aromas. Contrary to Delmas et al. book, I would add to this family the aroma of honey and pollen. The authors describe them as “sweet, vanilla” family. But sweet is a taste, and vanilla – hard to believe, is actually bitter. Our mental association of vanilla with sweet desserts plays a trick on us. I would rather put vanilla in the “rich” family (see further). Floral notes are present in many types of tea, including blacks, greens, whites and oolongs.
  • Fruity: orchard fruits, berries, exotic fruit, citrus fruit, cooked fruit, nuts. Young wines are often fruity, and become less so with age. You can often find fruityand nutty aromas in green teas.
  • Woody: the woody notes can be as numerous as Woody Allen’s masterpieces. Let’s just mention waxed wood, dry wood, sandalwood, pine, arnica. In wine nice woody notes are provided by oak barrels in which the wine is aged. Nice woody notes are often found in the oolongs and dark teas.
  • Spicy: mild spices (cinnamon, licorice, anise, nutmeg etc), hot spices (clove, ginger, cardamom, pepper etc).
  • Burnt: roasting coffee, brioche, toasted nuts, popcorn. The best example of a tea with powereful burnt notes is Da Hong Pao, a Big Red Robe oolong tea. But other green, yellow and oolong teas can also possess burtn notes.
  • Animal, gamy: leather, musk, wool, sweat, manure (I know, I know, this sounds disgusting, but what would you say about some French cheeses or so beloved in Beijing stinky tofu then?). In teas, you are likely to encounter these notes in black and dark teas.
  • Mineral: metallic, silica, flint. Can be found in some oolongs, as well as green teas.

For wines, additional families would be ethereal and chemical – you’d hardly find those aromas in teas. Otherwise, for teas we can add the following families of odors, as proposed by Delmas et al.:

Somewhere beyond the sea

  • Marine: shellfish, crustaceans, fish, iodine, seaweed, kelp. These surprising notes can be found in green, yellow, oolong and even dark teas. A nice hint for food and tea pairing!
  • Undergrowth: humus, damp leaves, patchouli, moss. True, it does not sound very appetising, but such notes can add unique character to some black, yellow and dark teas.
  • Earthy: damp soil, wet earth after a storm, cellar, mushroom, mold, dust etc. Classical example of a tea with earthy notes is Pu Er that has undergone some post-fermentation.
  • Rich: chocolate, cocoa, caramel, jam. I’d also add vanilla here. These notes go hand in hand with many black teas, but can also occur in green teas, Long Jing being a good example.
  • Buttery: fresh butter, melted butter, cream, milk, condensed milk

The second classification approach is to describe the aromas based on their distinguishing chemical substances. Forget about everyday language, we are in the jungle (at least for me!) of the organic chemistry. Luckily or not, this approach is out of reach for non-chemists and impossible within the frame of an ordinary tea tasting. Still, the chemical analysis of the aromas of different food and beverages can lead to wonderful culinary discoveries and surprising food and wine / tea pairings, because they often break stereotypes and transgress the boundaries of the conventional groups of aromas. The most exciting resource I have found to date on the subject is the work of the renowned Canadian sommelier François Chartier (the website www.francoischartier.ca recently nicely redesigned, and his books “Papilles et Molecules”, its freshly-baked English translation “Taste Buds and Molecules”, and “Les Recettes Papilles et Molecules”).

From Theory to Practice

In tea tasting, we’ll have to adopt a multidimensional approach to describe our olfactory sensations.

We will be sniffing many times to appreciate the aromas of the

  • Dry leaves
  • Liquor. We can appreciate the aroma / scent of the liquor, just with the nose, or its flavour (aroma + taste) when the aroma gets to your nose from your mouth, “retronasally”.
  • Infusion (a term for wet leaves after you’ve made your tea)

The exciting news is that the three aromas can be all different! Which makes the whole experience more challenging, but more fun as well.

All three times, it will be useful to describe the following:

  • Intensity. The aroma can be intense, strong, well-developed, or, inversely, neutral, weak, insipid, lacking character.
  • Bouquet. My approach would be to start with the overall impression. Then I’d try to detect if some notes in the bouquet tend to belong to one of the mentioned aromatic families. Sometimes, if the particular aromatic component is very strong or it just speaks to your olfactory universe, you will be able to be more concrete. Try not to read the descriptions of the tea in the book before tasting it, or you will be biased by someone else’s sensations. For the same reason, when several people participate in a tasting, do not tell your sensations immediately so that others are not influenced by your judgement.
  • Evolution. Here you will observe how long the aroma persists and if it changes with time for one particular infusion. Moreover, if you adopt Chinese way of tasting (multiple infusions), you may notice if and how the aroma of the liquor changes with every new infusion. It can gain or lose in intensity, or show important changes of the bouquet.
  • Clarity. This generally refers to the absence of foul smells.

It all looks rather intimidating, but I am sure the key here is practice. With practice, we’ll feel more and more at ease when describing our sensations.

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