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Tea tasting

The act of tasting is far more complex than you might imagine, calling on all five of our senses to various degrees. When we taste tea, a series of micro-events unfolds, each associated with a different sense

When tasting, sensations are perceived in three phases: 

  • Our first contact with the tea is olfactory, as we breathe it in. We begin by smelling the tea, deliberately or otherwise, as we lift the cup to our mouth. 

    This type of direct olfactory input does not provide much information about the beverage we are going to drink. In fact, when we inhale, only 10% of the odor molecules reach the nerve cells responsible for detecting scent. We can improve the percentage by drawing air into the nose in short, sharp bursts—a process that tasting specialists call "sniffing". 
  • The next phase takes place in the mouth when we take a sip and involves two senses, taste and touch. 

    Tea can have three possible tastes—bitter, sour, and sweet—each of which is sensed by a relatively specific area in the mouth. Touch is involved when the tea comes into contact with our teeth and mucous membranes, allowing us to assess the temperature and texture of the brew. This is also our opportunity to evaluate the tea’s astringency, body, and smoothness. In terms of taste, this second phase still provides very limited information, and we have not yet perceived the tea’s flavors. 
  • Finally, when we swallow, we experience retro-olfaction.

    As we exhale through our nose, air is drawn into the mouth, sweeping across the entire region of olfactory receptors and allowing us to perceive 100% of the odor molecules. To experience the importance of this phase for yourself, try pinching your nose as you swallow: this blocks retro-olfaction and limits your perceptions to just the three taste sensations mentioned above.

Ultimately, our sense of smell is what allows us to perceive most of what we "taste" and experience the aromatic complexity of a beverage like tea.

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