I realized recently that I can quickly and pretty accurately explain the difference between light steamed and deep steamed sencha. It’s not too difficult to express to a customer what you should expect in terms of profile when it comes to Matcha from Fukuoka vs Matcha from Uji. And explaining how roast level affects the caffeine in Houjicha is something that can be achieved in under a minute. But there is one question I get often and I realized it in itself is worthy of a post on the Kettl blog: What does green tea taste like?
An endless spectrum of profiles
Describing the taste of green tea may appear straightforward. But it is as challenging a question to answer as any I get. Try to answer this: What does an apple taste like? Like an apple! But almost everyone has some experience with an apple and can imagine pretty quickly what general flavor, aroma, and texture they can expect. But with green tea the pool of experience becomes smaller and the vernacular to describe it dwindles pretty quickly. Overwhelmingly, an adjective used to describe tea we hear most often is: earthy. As in from the earth. The planet. Something carbon based. This is about as broad a term imaginable and speaks to the fact that we have a lot of room for parsing out the finer points of teas profile and translating it into terms we can actually use. And how do we do this? The answer is simple: drink more green tea and consume more of everything: fruit, spices, vegetables, etc. More on that later.
Wine and coffee both present great points of comparison when thinking about how to “build your palate” when it comes to tea. Tim Gaiser, a Master Sommelier, outlines on his site how he tastes wine using the Deductive tasting technique which can be used to pinpoint a wines grape variety, origin and even vintage. While this level of evaluation certainly isn’t necessary for the simple enjoyment of tea, it does show you that like most things, tasting and describing the flavor of wine - or tea, coffee or just about anything else - can be learned with practice.
The 5 distinct tastes of green tea
In reality, much of what we are tasting when we “taste” tea is a combination of flavor and aroma. Japanese green tea has many distinct flavors, thousands of variations in aroma but if we close our nose and take a sip, we have only 5 categories of taste: Sweetness, Saltiness, Sourness, Bitterness and Umami – which can be loosely translated as “savoriness”.
While identifying the 5 categories of taste may seem straight forward, some complexity is involved when trying to establish the degree in which each taste category is present in a particular tea: when thinking about sweetness, Saemidori Cultivar comes to mind. Some Gyokuro teas have a distinct saline quality. If talking about sourness, then Goishicha, a fermented bancha from Shikoku is downright sour. For bitterness, Uji sencha and Shizuoka light steamed sencha can both have an elegant bitterness. And if what we are looking for is Umami then Gyokuro might as well be the textbook example for Umami taste.
5 tastes, multiple aromas
But if we are to describe teas with aroma - the possibilities are endless. This for example is a comparison between two matcha from Uji, both from the same cultivar:
Matcha A : Sweet grass, Cashew, Green straw (tatami)
Matcha B : Nori Seaweed, raspberry, tomato vine, flowers
The aromas are so different while the teas have so much in common. They share style of tea (matcha), origin (Uji) and cultivar (asahi) and therefore could be almost described as the same thing. But of course, like wine - the micro terroir and both the point of view and skill of the farmer has an incredible impact.
Building your palate
So how does any of the above help to answer the question: What does green tea taste like? Well, before we can say - we must have a pool of flavor and aroma “experience” to draw from. People will always describe flavors and aromas with things that are personal to them. Japanese tea for example is often compared to Spinach - and yes it does share some of the “green” chlorophyll characteristic of Spinach - but not sorrel, arugula or mustard greens? Of course those too! But most people have a lot of direct experience eating spinach and therefore draw that comparison. We love to set up sessions where we taste - spices, herbs, fruits, etc - just to become familiar with the range of flavors that exist. It is really helpful in developing a vocabulary for describing green tea..
An exercise we love to do to work on tasting is take two teas, brew them side by side and taste. Make sure to note what flavors, aromas, and textures you get from each. And taste them when the liquid is hot, beginning to cool, and again cool. You may find that things you didn’t notice when the tea was hot will become more apparent once the liquid cools as bit, and vice versa. This is a simple exercise but can be truly challenging. But use your creativity and write down WHATEVER it is that you experience - even if it seems strange (Wet basement, fresh mowed lawn, red skittle) - there are (pretty much) no wrong answers.
Savoring all flavors helps build a catalog of taste that you can reference when drinking tea
What do we taste when we drink green tea?
Here are just a few of the notes for various types teas in our Collection of Japanese Green Tea
Sencha - Grassy, spinach, sorrel, nori, cashew, hazelnuts, white flower, “marine”, hay, savory
Gyokuro - Dashi, mushroom, corn, peas, “protein”, “umami”, richness, flowers
Houjicha - Toasty, Spun sugar, roasted nuts, chocolate, sea breeze, popcorn, brown rice
Matcha - Sweet grass, hazelnut, pea shoots, “meaty”, tatami, cream, tomato vine, berries
Tasting and describing tea is a muscle that needs to be built up. The more experience you give yourself, the easier it will become. Grab a notebook and jot down at least 5 things everytime you drink your green tea for a week and see how you feel one week later. And drinking tea together in a group can be really enlightening. Someone who approaches the tea with a different palate may surprise you with what they notice. And before long, you may be picking up on their notes too. Have fun.