Taste is a key element of tea and remains the number one reason for drinking it. Taste is also why tea is proclaimed as the number 2 beverage world-wide after water. So, the question then is “What makes tea taste like it does?” Gee, that’s a big question. To pare it down a bit, we’ll start by looking at green tea.
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Let’s set aside for now the whole eating tea leaves thing that was addressed in an earlier article on this blog. We’re dealing strictly with the taste of the tea liquid. And when it comes to the sense of taste, we have to keep in mind that about 90% of what we taste is due to our sense of smell, according to sensory experts.
A panel of dedicated tea experts put together this lexicon of tastes descriptors for various green teas. One issue is that you may have no experience with some of the comparable aromatics, such as cured tobacco or citrus, so it could be hard to relate. Some can even sound a bit unappetizing but are actually rather intriguing.
- Almond — Slightly cherry-pit like.
- Animalic — Like animals and their habitation.
- Ashy/Sooty — Light smokey/ashy aroma.
- Asparagus — Slightly brown, slightly earthy.
- Astringent — A drying, puckering sensation on surfaces in the mouth.
- Beany — Somewhat musty earthy.
- Bitter — A basic taste factor of which caffeine in water is typical.
- Brown Spice — Cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice.
- Brussels Sprouts — Sharp, slightly sour, pungent.
- Burnt/Scorched — Sharp, acrid notes like burned or scorched vegetables or grains.
- Celery — Sweet, green, brown, slightly bitter.
- Citrus — Aromatics associated with lemons, limes, oranges, etc.; could also contain a rindy note.
- Fermented — Yeasty notes that may be sweet, sour, slightly brown, and overripe.
- Fruity — Sweet, floral blend, like ripe apricots, peaches, etc.
- Grain — An overall grain impression possibly accompanied by specific grain identities.
- Green Beans — Viney, green, slightly brown, woody.
- Green Herb-like — Like dry green herbs such as bay leaves, thyme, basil.
- Medicinal — Antiseptic-like products.
- Mint — Sweet, green, earthy, pungent, sharp, menthol.
- Musty- New Leather — Like new shoes or purses.
- Nutty — Sweet, oily, light brown, slightly musty and/or buttery, earthy, woody, astringent, bitter, etc.
- Parsley — Clean, fresh green, bitter, pungent.
- Seaweed — Like shellfish, fresh fish, and ocean vegetation.
- Spinach — Green, slightly musty, earthy.
- Straw-Like — Dry, slightly dusty aromatics like dry grain stems.
- Sweet Aromatics — Aromatics associated with sweet substances.
- Tobacco — Slightly sweet, slightly pungent like cured tobacco.
- Tooth-etch — A feeling like dragging the tongue over the back of your teeth.
Ingredients in Green Tea Taste
An item has a smell due to the release of volatile molecules that float through the air to your nose. A study done in 2009 by Jeehyun Lee identified and quantified 14 aroma volatile compounds in samples of a variety of green teas:
- (z)-4-hexen-1-ol (an aliphatic alcohol)
- 2-ethyl-1-hexanol (an aliphatic alcohol)
- 4-methyl-3-penten-2-one (a ketone)
- β-ionone (a ketone)
- Benzaldehyde (an aromatic aldehyde)
- Benzenemethanol (an aromatic alcohol)
- Benzeneethanol (an aromatic alcohol)
- Geraniol (a terpene alcohol)
- Jasmone (a ketone)
- Linalool (a terpene alcohol)
- Linalool oxide (a furan)
- Nonanal (an aliphatic aldehyde)
- Phenylacetaldehyde (an aromatic aldehyde)
These volatiles react with chemoreceptors in your nose and tastants (dissolved molecules and ions) in the liquid impact taste buds, each containing 50-100 taste cells, in your mouth. Both work together to enhance the sensory experience. There are five primary tastes: bitter, salty, sour, sweet, and umami (a response to glutimac acids or MSG). The volatiles and tastants in tea tend to stimulate all of them at one point or another. (Water impacts the taste, too, but will be addressed in a later article.)
Try out a green tea and see which of these taste sensations you experience.