How do experts judge teas? By “cupping”. That’s what it is called when experts line up a series of white porcelain cups, drop a standardized amount of tea (usually 3 grams) into each of them, then pour boiling hot water over the tea and let it sit for exactly five minutes.
Yes, five minutes each–whether a green, black, oolong or white tea. For most teas, this standardized infusion will render the leaves steeped to or beyond their full potential, drawing out both the strengths and the weaknesses of the teas.
Following this, the tea buyer will submerge a white porcelain spoon into an infused tea, then sniff the spoon to take in the aroma of the tea. After that, the spoon is used to allocate a small amount of tea into his or her personal tea cup for tasting. The spoon is then rinsed in hot water before sampling the next tea in line to ensure that no residue of the previously tested tea will influence the taste of the next.
On a recent trip to Taiwan, I found it at first quite difficult to judge teas this way. They all tasted terrible to me when steeped for five minutes in boiling water. But watching expert tea buyers cupping teas and asking them many questions helped me to understand what they were looking for in the sample brews.
As in other areas of life, one generally must make compromises when selecting teas. One infusion might have a floral aroma to knock your socks off, but a bit of a harsh bite to the taste buds. Another might have a very full-bodied flavor but not have as great an aroma. Still others have their strengths and weaknesses. It must be very rare indeed that a tea expert has that “ah ha!” sentiment when finding the “perfect” tea.
What many tea buyers look for in a tea is balance. The various notes of the tea harmonize with eachother, without any particular aspect of the tea overpowering the others. They might also be looking for the archetypal qualities of certain tea varietals to be present. It might be a great tasting Phoenix oolong, but does it have that honey finish for which it is famous? Does the Lishan have that buttery, light mouth feel that is so sought after by connoisseurs of tea? Does the Ti Kuan Yin offer that “whoosh” that comes off one’s face with the delicate, almost ethereal finish?
What you finally receive in your cup as a customer is a bit of the palate of the tea buyer, the gifts of the tea farmer and craftspeople, and ultimately, the character of the tea.