Tea tasting in itself is an invigorating and engaging pursuit. Taking the time to focus entirely on the making and drinking of fine tea often reveals qualities and nuances that would otherwise go unnoticed even to the most experienced of tea drinkers. In effect, tea tasting is placing the entire tea experience under a microscope; magnifying the minute details in the aroma, taste, texture, and even the appearance of the leaves being used to brew the tea. The details that either make or break a tea are made clear to the drinker that engages with the tea experience and gives themselves over to the process of making and enjoying it. Here at Herbal Republic, we are huge advocates for tea tasting on a regular and frequent basis as we wholeheartedly believe that it helps people to learn more about their own preferences and desires in the world of tea. In my own tea tasting, there is one practice that I have found to be more fulfilling and more educational than pretty much all others. That is the practice of side by side tea tasting comparisons.
In essence, side by side comparisons are simply drinking two teas together while alternating sips between them to analyze both their differences and similarities. Comparative tea drinking is beneficial to those involved in the tea hobby because it teaches us about tea’s many nuances and variables, how different brewing methods affect the finished product, and how a tea’s flavour profile can seem to change when it is simply put against another tea for comparison.
The vast array of tastes, aromas, and textures manifest in the world of tea can make it difficult to keep in mind that all “true” tea is derived from only one species of plant; the Camellia sinensis. One plant species is the origin for the vast diversity of tea found on the market today and for the tea drinker, this can understandably be a difficult fact to remember. After the tea is plucked from it’s respective Camellia sinensis plant, it begins the processing that will turn it into what it will become. Black teas, puerh teas, green teas, white teas, and oolong teas are only differentiated from each other by the way in which they were processed. As such, each tea brings with it it’s own story of the meticulous and careful process through which it was put and tells its story in the finished cup.
A tea’s processing can be examined by the nuances that it presents in the finished cup and acts in many ways as the tea’s fingerprint. Those who are particularly talented at picking out and analyzing the nuances in aroma, texture, and flavour of a tea will be able to tell where in the world the tea was grown, how the leaves were processed, and what time of year the leaves were plucked. Needless to say, these people are the minority in the tea community. While it may sound like a mystical (and frankly impossible) ability to distinguish between tea regions and seasons from each other simply through tasting, through practice it is more than possible. Many who possess this amazing talent are able to distinguish the nuances of teas with relative ease. With that said, the experience that lead them to be able to do so is what defines the skills they have. Comparative tea tasting is an excellent method to use in order to acquire these skills. By brewing two black teas from different regions together in a side by side comparative tasting session, you will quickly learn the difference that tea regions can make in the finished cup of tea. By removing other variables and brewing the two teas in the same manner, you will quickly learn the effects that certain individual nuances and variables have on the tea itself. The best thing about comparative tasting is that it is essentially a workout for your mind. As you continue to brew teas together and compare their qualities against each other, your skills at noticing their subtle nuances will continue to develop and evolve.
When comparative tasting was first suggested to me, I have to admit the idea sounded far from appealing. What I had imagined it being in my head was essentially an overly complex scientific process involving precise measuring equipment, beakers, and even a white lab coat. Even though I knew my imagination had run away with me, I could not shake the idea that comparative tasting was a scientific, laboratory based activity. I could not have been further from the truth. The fact of the matter is that comparative tasting is actually a very flexible endeavor without any hard or fast rules to adhere to. You can make the practice your own and shape it to your needs and wishes as a tea drinker.
In my own tasting practice, I will choose a tea I enjoy and brew it in two different ways. Brewing the same tea through two different methods and comparing the results gives you an astounding level of insight into the various ways that brewing method can change the qualities a tea gives off in the cup. It also helps you to maximize the potential of your own tea collection through trial and error. As you brew your favourite teas in different methods, you will inevitably find a method that works best with each tea in your rotation and allow you to brew it to the tea’s full potential and maximize your own enjoyment.
The mind works in mysterious ways. Unfortunately, those ways are not always accurate. Often when strolling down the street or out and about, we see complete strangers who remind us of someone we know. We might think “doesn’t that look like so and so?” While isolated and random, the person may appear to be quite similar to someone we know, it is likely that if we were to compare them with the person we know side by side and have both people in the same place at the same time, we might be shocked at how dissimilar they actually are. We might begin to wonder what made us think they were similar to each other in the first place. The same experience can often come up in the world of tea.
On it’s own, a tea could remind you of another tea and by themselves you may not even be able to tell the difference. However, if you brewed the two teas together side by side you might come to realize that the two had many more differences than you had previously imagined. This trains the palate to be more discerning when it comes to noticing the differences and similarities between teas and trains you not to take tea at face value. Comparative tea tasting allows those who practice it the opportunity to examine the highlighted differences between the teas in their own collection and helps them to learn more about themselves and the teas they own.
Comparative tea drinking is easy for anyone to do at home. If you have two individual brewing devices (preferably identical), tea, and a means to heat water (chances are that if you are reading this article you can heat water), you can give comparative tasting a shot. Doing so will give you a deeper understanding of the nuances that are given to teas by their region of cultivation and processing method, it will give you a deeper understanding of the effects of various processing methods and it will show you the differences and similarities between the teas in your own collection.