Tasting Notes and The Tasting Wheel – A little homemade experiment

Jin Xuan - Red Guan Yin - Wuyi Black

For a while now I’ve been fascinated about tasting notes. And the weirdness of it. Describing the flavors of tea with words as earthy, muddy, autumn forest floors, hay, asparagus… People who are not into tea yet must think you are insane.

And maybe it is a little insane indeed, deciphering teas to the point that you start comparing it with the aroma of a forest right after a summer rain. For a while I have been trying to stick to the basics when it comes to tasting notes by not comparing it with any food but describing it by the amount of bitterness, sourness, sweetness and so on. It was hard and when I saw for the first time in my life a Tea Tasting Wheel, it hypnotized me and stayed with me ever since.

The Tasting Wheel found in the tea house of Mei Leaf, London.

An example of the Tea Tasting Wheel in the tea house of Mei Leaf, London.

The Tea Tasting Wheel is build out of two circles, the first circle being the more standard description of a tea flavor, the second going into more detail. In some cases, and this one is for the geeks, there is even a third circle. A route you can follow for instance is ‘Vegetal – Grassy’ or even ‘Vegetal – Grassy – Freshly Cut Grass’. Tasting like this is a lot of fun and actually gives you the feeling you can explore and name every single element in the flavor of your tea. However, it can also restrict you. Sticking to these descriptions every time stops you from thinking a bit out of the box.

I’m a Tea Tasting Wheel kind of guy. And I wanted to compare my tasting notes with someone who is not controlled by the Tasting Wheel and see what he or she comes up with when drinking the exact same tea. Luckily, my girlfriend Janne was willing to work with me on this blog. We decided to do some unboxing of a box of samples that Thomas from Tea in the City UK kindly sent me a month ago for sampling purposes. We opened 2 Chinese and 1 Taiwanese tea and started a long afternoon session. We kept our tasting notes to ourselves, only to exchange them after we were done drinking all the teas.  

That packaging is pure class.

That packaging is pure class.

Now this is by no means a waterproof experiment or something that will change the world of tea forever. It’s no more than a fun way to see different perspectives on the same tea from two different people who taste teas in a different way.

Now, introducing to you, in the left corner: Janne! A tea drinker with a strong preference for a big mug, who, when the boyfriend is not around, illegally sneaks tea bags into the house. She accepts the fact that her boyfriend is crazy about Gong Fu Cha brewing and can be stunned by some exquisite teas, but still spills some tea on the couch once a while just to make a statement that big mugs are better.

'What on earthy am I smelling?'

‘What on earthy am I smelling?’

And, in the right corner: Jelmer! Yep, that’s me. Tea Geek on the way to becoming a Tea Freak, who can get so lost into his tasting notes that he once said the following when drinking a Liu Bao: ‘It gives me an anise feeling on the tip of my tongue. Yeah, a feeling. No it doesn’t taste like anise. It’s just the feeling. Of anise. On the tip of your tongue.’ Ridiculous snob.

You see. Snob. Ridiculous.

You see. Snob. Ridiculous.

First tea from Tea in the City UK up on the tea tray:
A Jin Xuan from Nantou in Taiwan, picked in March 2016. Usually a very creamy and floral tea.

Janne: This one is salty and feels full and round, maybe even a bit ‘rubbery’..? It reminds me of nori and oysters. I like it. The leaves are superfragrant and smell like a nice bouquet of flowers.

Jelmer: This tea for me definitely tastes more towards a Tie Guan Yin than a Jin Xuan. A lighter body, missing a bit of that milky creaminess. More vegetal with a very pleasant sweetness rather than floralness. Added note: I definitely feel the Japanese notes Janne describes in this tea as the vegetal and sweet combination makes it, weirdly enough, a bit like a Sencha in taste.

Jin Xuan

Jin Xuan

Second on the tea tray:
Red Guan Yin from Shouning in Fujian Province, China. April 2016 pluck and a special one. According to Tea in the City, Red Guan Yin is an ‘ingenious twist on the classic oolong, Tie Guan Yin’. It looks a bit like a half strip, half rolled oolong, much darker in leaf than the green Tie Guan Yin but lighter than the traditional Tie Guan Yin.

Janne: This tea seems to make an entire journey in the mouth. It starts off slightly bitter, but becomes sweeter after a few seconds. I can taste wood, and maybe a smoky hint of licorice. I also wrote down ‘coastal town in the sun’ in my notes, but I can’t really explain what that tastes like.

Jelmer: My absolute favorite. Aroma of grapefruit, buttery and creamy texture and taste. I’m getting citrusy and floral notes. Roses. Woody at the same time. The aroma when steeped is like fried raisins. It reminds me a bit of Oriental Beauty.

Red Guan Yin

Red Guan Yin

Third and last on the tea tray:
Wuyi Black. April 2016 tea from Wuyishan in Fujian. Special because it’s not an oolong but a black tea and it has none of the characteristics of the rock oolongs. Please read below our tasting notes for an explanation on why this tea didn’t work out for us.

Janne: The third and last tea is bitter. The second brew brings up some fresh notes, but it’s still not good enough to try a third cup. 

Jelmer: Turns bitter fast and has a dry finish. Overwhelming candy notes in combination with bitterness, not my favourite.

Last minute added note: I’ve been in contact with Thomas from Tea in the City about this tea after this session and he advised me to either brew it Western Style or flash brew it Gong Fu Cha style because it’s tea consisting out of tips only. When doing this tasting I’ve been brewing it Gong Fu Cha style starting with a 10-15 second steep.
I’ve had another go for it flash brewing this tea and the bitterness was gone. The candy notes were still there and are, I quote Thomas, for the real sweet tooth. Although we did mess up this tea a bit, I thought it had still some value for this blog as it was all about tasting, good or bad. But I need to emphasize that the bitterness is not one of the main characteristics of this tea. When flash brewed, it has floral, cherry and candy notes and is smooth. Have a go yourself, but pay attention on the steeping time.
It's getting late. Wuyi Black.

It’s getting late. Wuyi Black.

You’ve come all the way to this point, so you want a conclusion. But is there any? Hmm, I myself was surprised by the fact that Janne, a non-Tea Tasting Wheel-person, still mentioned a lot of the Tasting Wheel notes. Meaning it’s maybe a more natural way of tasting than I had expected. And of course I loved the fact that a tea can give you a Coastal Town in the Sun feeling, that’s stepping out of the box!

Next to that, the only and most important conclusion that you can draw from this homemade experiment is that there is no right or wrong when it comes to tasting notes. Example: I missed a bit of the creamy and floral notes in the Jin Xuan while Janne tasted a boquet of flowers. Of course some knowledge or experience in tasting can come in handy, but mostly it’s your perspective on a tea and yours only. Your experience, the feeling a tea gives you. It’s quite a cheesy conclusion, I know, but a true one for tea lovers (I’m excluding professional tea tasters here).

I want to thank Thomas for providing samples and advise you to have a look at the website of Tea in the City to see what they have to offer. I personally recommend the Red Guan Yin as it was the most complex and surprising one for me. Coastal Town in the Sun, I’m still thinking on that! For your information: Janne had the Jin Xuan as her top favourite. Enjoy!



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