Tea Tasting: Sniffing and Slurping

What does it mean to enjoy a cup of tea? For one thing there’s the moment of pause, the self-care, the ritual. A hot cup of tea can warm your hands and your insides; a glass of iced tea provides refreshment and hydration. Enjoying a cup of tea is so much more than the scientific perception of the sensory receptors inside your nose and mouth. But from a technical perspective what exactly are those receptors doing when we smell and taste a cup of tea?

We’ve all heard that taste is 90% smell. I could tell you how true this is, but I think it’s far more effective if you can experience it yourself: take 30 seconds and try The Jellybean Experiment (watch me walk you through it here). You won’t regret it!

Jelly Bean Experiment

The Jellybean Experiment

  1. Close your eyes and plug your nose. Don’t let go!
  2. Put a jellybean in your mouth. Chew and describe what you taste. Don’t swallow it.
  3. When you’re ready, release your nostrils, chew the jellybean again, describe what you perceive now. THAT’s what they mean when they say that taste is 90% smell!

Seriously, try it. Jellybeans work great for this demonstration because you are blind to which flavour you’re tasting when you put it in your mouth, but if you don’t have a jellybean try with a piece of fruit or chocolate.

The flood of sensation you get when you unplug your nose is from all of the nasal cavities filling up with aroma compounds. Your nose has the two nostrils out front, but there are also channels leading from the back of your throat into your nasal cavity. We smell our food (or tea) as it moves through the palate, not just when we’re sniffing before we take the first sip. Things we do to break down, warm up and aerate what’s in our mouth help to release more of those flavour molecules so that we can more fully experience what we are consuming.

If you’ve learned about wine tasting you’ve probably seen some entertaining swishing, bubbling, and so on. It’s the same idea – putting air into the wine so that those olfactory sensors in the back of your throat can pick up on them, and then spreading the liquid all over your tongue.

In tea we have the added aspect of heat. Tea is best tasted when it’s hot, because the heat releases more aroma compounds. However, if you’re not careful, you can burn your tongue. Therefore, in official tea tasting methodology we do “The Slurp”.

Slurping tea off a spoon has 3 goals:

  1. cooling the tea so you don’t burn your tongue
  2. adding air so more aroma compounds can be perceived through our olfactory system
  3. spraying the tea across the palate so that all of the tastebuds get activated.

As a Tea Sommelier certified by the Tea & Herbal Association of Canada, I learned to slurp at 125 miles (200km) per hour. It takes some practice! To see what spoon to use and watch a demonstration of me slurping tea check out this video.