In high school I began drinking. Hold back your judgments for the time being—I’m sure that I’m not the only one who got an early start, and besides, I’m not here to talk about what was in the bottle nor what came out of it, but rather what was on it.
I remember sitting in the backseat of a friend’s car as we aimlessly circled the rural roads of our neighborhood. We did a lot of destinationless driving in those days to pass the time. In this particular memory I held a bottle of red wine, rolled over to the back label where I could read the description to those in the front. “Yields a bold Zinfandel with rich black cherry and raspberry fruit complimented by hints of earth and spice that add to its complexity.” We each took a sip and searched for those subtle notes.
“I taste blueberries,” said the one, and “What about chocolate?” from the other. We chatted on about the flavors that we considered to be or not be in the bottle, until one of us looked up and said, “I wonder who writes these?” “It’s got to be somebody’s job—” I agreed. All of a sudden, I wanted that job.
That drive was not so different in form from the countless others that have long since been forgotten in my youth. I am twenty-six and have seen ten years of roadside and ten years of bottles, and very few of them hold any special significance to me. But that particular car ride, that particular bottle, surfaces in my memory every time we develop a new tea blend and the task of describing it comes to me. Never would I have guessed that someday I would be that somebody.
Several months ago I attended a tea tasting with a few coworkers and other big-wigs of the tea industry. There were seven teas to try, and each was served separately and in small sipping glasses with water to cleanse the palate between samples. I took diligent notes: color, aroma, taste, the look of the dry leaves and the look of them after having been steeped. I intended to write a blog describing each of the seven. How boring that would have been.
Instead, this blog is about wine descriptions and, subsequently, the act of writing tea descriptions. It is a part of my job—I look at the loose tea, take note of its color and smell, and then turn to the brewed liquid to see how those aspects present themselves in the cup. I try to think of the things that the liquid reminds me of: “summer strolls in berry patches,” or perhaps “campfires and burning pine.” I give the flavors personalities, moods, and action verbs. I try to give those subtle notes life, to show that they are doing something to the tea, and that the tea in turn does something to us.
Several months ago, I ignored the murmurs of those around me at that tea tasting and frantically scribbled notes into my log. Before long I began to notice the repetition of a particular word over the microphone: “whiskey.” I hadn’t been listening, and couldn’t understand why anyone would be talking about liquor at a tea convention. (Can you imagine it, talking of tea and booze in the same breath?) After the event I asked an affiliate: why did they keep mentioning whiskey?
Whiskey, as it turns out, was a descriptive term they were using to describe the color of the liquid. It had a whiskey-color. Ahhh… this made sense. In my own notes, I had run out of new and exciting ways to describe color. Amber, gold, pale yellow—these all had been used countlessly and fell flat on the page. While I was ignoring my fellows, I had been inventing comparative color observations of my own: añejo, extra añejo, resposado…
Tea: it is whiskey to some, tequila to others.
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The first time I tried chai was in the kitchen of my parent’s house, and served by my younger sister. “You have to taste this—” she insisted, pushing a mug across the countertop to me. She refused to elaborate on its contents. The flavors, she said, would speak for themselves.
The quality of water affects the taste of your tea; this is beyond dispute. The relative quantities of mineral salts, oxygen and trace elements determine the relative "liveliness" or "flatness" of a particular cup. To that simple substance we add the basic flavor of the leaf itself or an herbal substitute.