Not really, anyway.
I think flavours in tea are the sort of thing that initially attract us.Â The beany taste of Longjing, the high fragrance of a gaoshan oolong, or the camphor of a puerh are the sort of things that are immediate and satisfying.Â Teas often have flavours that you can’t find anywhere else, or they can come in combinations that are unexpected, surprising, or fascinating.Â A friend of mine tried one of my aged oolongs and commented that it tasted of ginseng-vanilla.Â Perhaps that’s a new flavour for ginseng that health food makers should consider.
Having said that, I think focusing too much on the flavour of a tea is almost missing the point.Â From observations and discussions with other tea drinkers, I think after a while, we all move, slowly, towards a deeper and more subtle appreciation of tea, and that means that we start moving away from just looking at what the tea taste like, and put more emphasis on what the tea feels like. Good (and usually expensive) teas invariably feel good in a way that inferior teas do not.Â They don’t always taste all that different, however.
The best example I can think of is teas from a store in Hong Kong that specializes in aged puerh of various kinds.Â They have their own storage unit, and the storage unit has a very distinctive and unmistakable smell that leaves a strong imprint on all their teas.Â I can probably pick out teas from this particular store from a lineup of different traditionally stored teas, just because I’ve had a number of them over the years.Â All of their teas, by and large, display a similar taste profile — a slightly ricey, musty taste that is short on camphor but long on medicine.Â It’s a distinctive profile, and it’s there in every one of their own teas.Â There are of course subtle variations, but they are not all that obvious.Â Yet, these teas don’t all sell for the same price — some are quite expensive, others are quite cheap.
The chief difference among them is the feeling you get from the tea.Â What I mean by that is not that it makes you high or your head spin or what not (although I suppose it could do that).Â Rather, it is the physical sensations that you have in reaction to, first, having the tea in your mouth, down your throat, and then the reaction that your body has towards it that distinguishes the better from the not so good.Â A nice one is full, thick, smooth, hits all corners of the mouth, leaves a strong, lasting aftertaste, stimulates the tongue and throat, and gives you a feeling of qi.Â Bad ones are just a beverage — you taste it, it goes down, it’s over.
Vendors, though, are quite unhelpful in this regard.Â This is especially true of mainstream vendors, who overwhelmingly talk about flavours, flavours, flavours.Â It’s all about the raisin note or the ripe fruit or the earthy flavours.Â It is almost never, ever about how the tea feels in your mouth — the most is some mention of astringency, perhaps, in some cases, of huigan, but that’s already getting into specialized territory.Â I think this is due, partly, to other beverage cultures, especially the wine community, where (for most people reading those tasting notes anyway) it’s all about the blackcurrants and what not.Â Tea, though, is not like that.Â It really shouldn’t be just about the flavours, but rather how it activates and excites the sensory nodes in your mouth — not just the tongue, but the entire mouth, perhaps even your body.Â I don’t know how we can change that, but I think we should at least try, in our own discussions, to incorporate these unique qualities of tea as much as we can.