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Tasting tea: taste

Taste is different from flavor. Taste is experienced on the tongue, while flavor is experienced in the nose. We can detect six tastes but only three are relevant to discussion of tea: sweet, sour, bitter. Too little of a taste will be disappointing. Too much of any taste will make a tea unpleasant, but how much is too much is a matter of personal preference.

For a discussion of sweetness, it is useful to know that sweetness is a taste that helps to unlock desirable flavors in tea. Sometimes adding some sweetener to brewed tea can bring out sweet flavors. Floral or fruity flavors come forward with a small amount of sweet taste is present. Some other flavors associated with sweet taste in tea include malty, caramel, toffee, vanilla.

Obvious sourness, associated with acidity, is often undesirable, but a total lack of sourness may leave the tea tasting flat.

Astringency and bitterness are qualities that require special attention because these are often the elements that cause people to reject tea. However, when these in good balance, they become highly desirable. Generally, beginning tea drinkers prefer to avoid bitterness and astringency, but more experienced drinkers like them in small amounts. 

Bitterness and astringency are often confused. It is necessary to separate them in order to understand what they contribute to tea.

Bitterness is a taste. It is experienced mainly at the back of the mouth. Bite into the peel of a lime, or a green banana, or a persimmon, and you will find examples of bitter taste. Astringency, though, is technically not a taste; it has to do with the way the mouth feels. So, what is the experience of astringency? Mix a little alum with water and sip it (Be careful. It will not take much). Alum has low bitterness and sourness, but is strongly astringent. Tea does not contain alum, but it is the tannins in the tea that contribute most to astringency. 

Astringency is the drying or rough mouth feel that results when tannins in tea bind with the saliva, and it is related to the sense of the body the tea has. In tea, the term “brisk” describes its astringency. A brisk tea will be more astringent. The physical sensation of the tea in the mouth and as it goes down the throat is important: a great tea will feel full and thick in the mouth, and that is the sensation created by astringency. Individual preferences with respect to astringency arise for a lot of solid reasons. A tea expert can give you a standard as a starting place but your preferences may vary because people differ physically. Following the exploration of astringency, how much astringency is desirable for you is likely to depend on how much saliva you produce: if you have a low flow of saliva, you will probably experience astringency more intensely. No tea expert blending tea a thousand miles away can know that detail about you. Find out for yourself. Drink tea the way you like it.

Because tannins are bitter in addition to being astringent, it is easy to confuse bitterness and astringency. However, the bitterness is what one notices first. It is immediately noticeable. Brew some strong, green tea and bring a little onto your tongue. Before you bring your tongue back into your mouth, you can taste the bitterness. When you close your mouth and the liquid touches the rest of the inside of your mouth, then you can notice the astringency. It takes over 15 seconds to notice the astringency but it can become more intense with repeated exposure.

Controlling bitterness and astringency by adjusting the way it is brewed is simple. Over-extraction of tannin may be caused by brewing the tea too hot, so if the tea is too bitter or astringent, try reducing the water temperature. The other control is simply to vary the brewing time. Bitter elements come out later in the brewing. Longer extraction leads to greater bitterness. Note that green tea is naturally more bitter and astringent than black tea. That is why the recommendation for brewing green tea starts with somewhat cooler water and a shorter brewing time.

Adding amendments to adjust the balance of tastes

It is possible to amend tea for minor imbalances in taste. Sometimes even properly brewed tea will not have the taste you want. In many cases, simple amendments can be just the thing.

If a tea seems too bitter (or rarely, too sour), a bit of sugar can help. 

A tea that seems flat can be brightened with addition of a few drops of lemon. 

Adding a splash of milk to tea is a simple way amend bitterness and astringency. Many people like it, and the English often drink black tea with milk.

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