Tea and its sensory interactions

Tea tasting is a specialized art. People pay steeply for tea tasting workshops. Large tea companies employ professional tea tasters in order to maintain the consistency of their blends, which combine different teas whose characteristics vary seasonally. Connoisseurs of rare and speciality teas may taste dozens of teas in one day. We at the Asian school of tea understand the art of tea tasting in its most authentic form. A new way to taste tea?

But there is also a different way to approach tea tasting–one that is accessible to anyone, requires no training, and has health benefits that are often missed by other approaches to tea tasting. To understand this approach we must understand the purpose of our senses of taste and smell.

What is the purpose of our senses of taste and smell?

Humans have a sense of taste and smell to ensure that we eat foods that are healthy and avoid substances that are poisonous or harmful to our health. On a basic level, things that are edible and nutritious taste good and things that are toxic or harmful taste bad. However, anyone living in our modern society knows that there is more to taste than this oversimplification. Some foods initially taste good but are not good for us, and on the other hand, a lot of healthy foods and drinks, including many teas, are described as having an acquired taste. Something with an acquired taste often tastes unappealing when you first try it but begins to taste better over time as you consume more of it.   “Acquired tastes” help humans recognize healthy food and drinks:

The phenomenon of acquired tastes serves to reduce the risk of poisoning by ensuring that when we encounter something unfamiliar, we only try it in small quantities. The human body and mind employ complex feedback mechanisms linking our digestive tract and other biological systems to our memories of taste and smell. If something gives us a feeling of well-being and nourishment after eating or drinking it, we gradually become more comfortable with its flavour and aroma and develop a liking for it. If it makes us sick or unwell, we become averse to its flavour and aroma. These issues are relevant to tea tasting both because many teas have an acquired taste, and also because tea has both positive and negative health effects. Tea, especially green tea, is often touted for its health benefits, including antioxidant activity, cancer prevention, stress reduction, antimicrobial activity, and promotion of a healthy immune system and healthy intestinal flora, among a myriad of other benefits. But these benefits vary greatly from one variety of tea to the next, and tea can also have negative effects on health.

What are the health benefits of a variety of tea and how it varies from tea to tea?

Darker teas contain tannins, which can interfere with the absorption of iron and other nutrients. Tea contains caffeine, which in excess can cause or contribute to sleep disruption, addiction, anxiety, and other negative effects. Some teas are acidic, which can be rough on the stomach, especially for those suffering from acid reflux. Flavoured and herbal teas are even more diverse in terms of both their positive and negative health impacts. Furthermore, different people vary widely in their susceptibility to these health effects.

How does tasting tea help us maximize health benefits: Tea tasting, and in particular, developing acquired tastes for teas over time, gives us a tool to solve this problem. By tasting teas over time, we allow our taste to adapt based on how the tea makes us feel. Teas that make us feel balanced and healthy will come to taste better to us, and we will come to dislike (and thus avoid) those that make us feel unwell.

Here is how one can taste teas so as to develop your tastes to reflect the health effects of the tea:

We should taste tea only one at a time and leave sometime between the tasting of different teas. – Focus on how you feel after drinking the tea. -Taste each new tea multiple times, and on different days. -Pay attention to how your impression of the tea changes over time. -Reflect on the time of day at which you enjoy the tea most, and what foods or moods the tea complements. -Experiment with brewing the tea in different ways, varying the temperature of the water, the quantity of leaf used and steeping time, to find which way of brewing leads to the most enjoyable cup. The recommendation to taste only one tea at a time runs contrary to most approaches to tea tasting, which emphasize comparing many teas at once. It is a very critical approach. If you drink two cups of tea at once, and one makes you feel unwell sometime later, your mind and body will not be able to determine which one was the culprit, and you may come away with an aversion to a healthful tea.  Allow yourself time to acquire tastes for teas you may dislike at first:   Tasting each tea several times is crucial if you are to allow yourself to develop an acquired taste for new teas, especially those with unfamiliar aromas. Many of my favourite teas are ones that I did not love upon the first sip but only came to appreciate over time. If you buy samples of loose teas, make sure to order enough to make several cups. If you reject every tea that you dislike upon the first sip, you may cut yourself off from some of the teas that you would most appreciate in the long-run.   If you follow these recommendations, you may never become a connoisseur of tea, and indeed, your approach may be frowned upon by some “experts”. But you will find your taste develops in such a way that it helps guide you towards teas that enhance your well-being and overall health. Since each person has a unique diet, lifestyle, and genetic makeup, we all have different needs that cannot be summed up in broad generalizations about one type of tea being universally healthier than another. While science can guide us to understand which teas are healthy for most people, the only taste can guide each person to understand which teas are best for them. Tea tasting can thus be an integral part of promoting good health through the drinking of teas that are best suited for you an individual. Enjoy!

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