Friday, September 13, 2013

Tea tastes like memories

I like taking ‘notes’ about my tea, even when I don’t necessarily write them down I’m paying enough attention to it and describe it to myself in my head. I felt that often several teas didn’t exactly tasted like they were advertised to taste or how I expected based on recommendations. Usually because the way they are described is by using direct comparisons to foods/tastes that generalize taste that most can relate to. And frankly even though tea can resemble many flavors, it does it in its peculiar way. 

 I’m usually a sucker for ‘nutty’, ‘roasted’, ‘caramel’, ‘honey’, ’chocolate’, ‘cocoa’, etc. I’ve tried my share that claimed to taste like some sort of chocolate. In the end, they all tasted very different from each other and only a handful tasted somewhat like ‘chocolate’ to me. Is it false advertisement!? No, at least not necessarily. ‘Taste’ is a subjective thing. Specific tastes/notes are subject to your past experiences with the thing that is being described. There's an unlimited amount of examples to better explain it, but I’ll take what I believe to be the most common.

32% chocolate, 71% cacao, 85% cacao and Cocoa beans
Chocolate (milk vs. dark) and  Cocoa, are used interchangeably to describe similar but not equal tastes. If you love chocolate you know that you can grab two bars of different brands with the ‘same’ percentage of cocoa and have them taste completely different. The way that chocolate classifications are done it leaves LOTS of space for different experiences even if they are equal in the label. If you grew up with a particular brand, type or even country of origin, chocolate taste will mean something somewhat different to you. To make things more complex we each choose traits that we pay the most attention to, that’s why sometimes sharing something you like can bring a new perspective on it. 

Peanuts, Almonds and Pistachios

The same goes for ‘smoky’ or ‘tobacco’. Most people interchange the two but they are not that closely tied, tobacco imparts complexity and a sort or heaviness in taste, smoky is a more general term that seems more fitting in most cases. The same thing happens with nutty, the term on its own holds up pretty well but when someone uses specific nuts to describe something and I try the tea I end up being let down (Pistachio is the main culprit here). 

Himalayan rock salt, Yunnan Clay, River stones and a rock.
The most interesting taste to me is mineral/rocks. This is the hardest to get used to because there is a limited number of minerals you can try in  unadulterated form. And well rocks… what shocks me, is how I can easily agree with the taste when I drink a high quality Phoenix Oolong and yet I haven’t stopped to lick a rock… or so I thought. A few years ago I bought Whiskey rocks, and well they taste like rocks lol. In fact, if you ever feel like you want to know what 'rock' taste is like, I'd recommend Whiskey rocks; as for mineral, rock salt is a good place to go.

After some time, I realized that tea notes come from each person’s experience with life rather than with tea alone. Tea triggers the memories in your mind and looks for similarities. Tea tastes of memories! The more you have in your ‘arsenal’ the more you will enjoy your tea. Try new things, revisit old ones. Things will taste different when you pay attention to them and tea in turn will more enjoyable.


  1. Taste and memory, that's a very interesting thought! I often feel that taste and smell could make me recall things that I hadn't thought existing in my memory charged by other parts of the brain. In this sense, tea appreciation "synergizes" with other life experience.

    1. "Synergizes" works perfectly! I love recalling something from the smell or taste of tea, specially when it seemed it was something I had long forgotten.

  2. It can be tricky to describe the aroma and flavors by using analogies to other foods and drinks...I often find that an analogy that seems obvious or straightforward to me isn't always obvious to someone else.

    I definitely like many teas with chocolate or cocoa-like tones. I have a Ceylon OPA in my cupboard, sold by Ahmad Tea, which seems pretty strongly cocoa-y to me, and last year I tried a tea, Panyang Golden Tips, from Harney and Sons, that was even more chocolatey...both pure (unflavored) teas.

    But I do think it's a very personal question of whether or not a given person will recognize or perceive these or other teas as being "chocolatey" or having any other characteristic that can be described by analogy to something else.

    1. I agree that perceiving/recognizing a taste is very personal. I think it is even harder to pinpoint 'why?'. I think that it has to do a lot with what we notice right away from a taste and/or a scent. We learn and remember by classifying and grouping so general terms are easier to agree with. And when we find something 'weird' or new we are confused or make a new group for it. But taste and smell are subjective, so those classification are not standardized. But the more you have experienced the more chances you have to be able to find the 'proper' descriptors to taste/smell.

      I used my friends like guinea pigs for an experiment a while ago. I gave them all Rambutans, which they have never tried before and asked them what it tasted like to them. Very interesting descriptions! I laughed and learned from it. I also tried it with Longan.

      And thanks for naming some of the teas! I'll give them a try :)