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Image by Aga Putra


Specialty tea tasting is one of the most rewarding experiences a person can have. It is not only perceptually satisfying, but also fun to play around with different brewing, aging, and roasting techniques. Similar to coffee, there are various methods and equipment for brewing and roasting. Similar to wine, tobacco, and whiskey, aging tea is a fascinating transformation process of flavors and mouthfeel. The combination of these dimensions makes tea tasting an endless journey to explore for both tea enthusiasts and professionals.

At the most general level, tea tasting can and should be split up into two dimensions: perception and evaluation. Perception refers to what one perceives exclusively through senses: appearance, odor, taste, and mouthfeel. Evaluation refers to the judgment one makes regarding the aesthetic property of the tea, such as the balance and style of the tea. Perception without evaluation gives an unorganized list of sensations, while evaluation without perceptive descriptions gives vague and abstract assessment at best.

We here offer a very brief introduction to Taiwanese specialty tea tasting, from brewing methods, and equipment, to facts about tea cultivars, plantations, and culture. Taiwan is one of the most well-known oolong-producing countries. Two main developments in oolong processing techniques set Taiwan apart from other oolong-producing regions around the world: the lightly oxidized PaoTsiong 包種茶 and insect-bitten tea 著蜒/蜜香茶. Also, the tea roasting technique in Taiwan was inherited from south-east China more than 150 years, and it has developed into its own style and has become an important part of Taiwanese tea culture. Tea brewing methods, teawares, and tea tasting methods co-evolved with the development of tea, leading to the unique tea tasting culture in Taiwan which needs to be introduced in its own right. Therefore, here we will focus exclusively on tasting Taiwanese specialty tea, especially types of semi-oxidized tea.

There are two general ways one tastes tea: tea tasting in a tea ceremony, and systemized analytic tasting. One might be tempted to think that analytic tasting is more scientific and therefore more valuable than tasting in a tea ceremony. In our opinion, this is not entirely true. In an analytic tasting, the aim is to figure out how a tea actually tastes; in a tea ceremony, the aim is to construct a context, such as choosing the right teawares and setting up the right environment, to make the taste of tea as good as possible. While analytic tea tasting is in a way more static, tea tasting in the tea ceremony is more dynamic. Both can be very rigorous and helpful for our understanding of the tea we taste.

We will start in Section One with the taxonomy of semi-oxidized teas in Taiwan in order to give a rough picture of what kinds of tea will be covered by this article. As will be apparent, semi-oxidized teas are a very large category of tea, and the generalization of the taste of oolong should always be made with caution. Some semi-oxidized teas may taste very much like Green Tea, while some may taste like Black Tea or PuEr 普洱茶.

In Section Two, tea tasting in a tea ceremony will be introduced. This section will be mainly about our personal procedure of tea making in a tea ceremony. Our procedure is surely not the orthodox way, if such a thing exists, of tea making in Taiwan. However, we find such a procedure very helpful in the way that one can fully appreciate the potential of a tea following such guidelines. In Taiwan, it is very common to see that a large number of considerations not directly relevant to tea tasting have been fabricated into the procedure of the tea ceremony. These additional aesthetics, philosophical, or mythical considerations of tea usually distract us from tea tasting than helping us to understand the tea we taste.

Since the discussions of sensation and evaluation of tea work for both ceremonial and analytic tea tastings, such discussions will be presented in Sections Three and Four in the hope that readers can follow the discussion more easily. Such an arrangement, therefore, should not be seen as the advocation for the separation of ceremonial tea tasting from the perceptive and evaluative aspects of tea. In fact, knowledge of analytic tea tasting can be helpful for ceremonial tea tasting.

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