Getting to Know Your Tea Terms: Taste Descriptors

Taste descriptors are just terms commonly used to describe flavors. There are ones that are very specific to tea. The list is not definite, though, and has undergone several attempts to make it more exact. Regardless, certain factors remain the same.



Some flavors you might encounter. (photo by A.C. Cargill, used with permission)

Basic taste descriptors and their meanings:

These terms cover both aroma and taste. Both are intertwined. Just ask anyone who’s ever had a head cold. In my experience, though, a tea can smell good and taste bad or vice versa. That is, a good aroma does not guarantee a good taste nor does a good taste insure a good aroma.

  • Astringency — A rough, sandpaper-like feeling in the mouth due to tannins that denature the salivary proteins. This is virtually the same as bitterness.
  • Body — The strength and fullness of a tea’s flavor, where a strong tasting tea has good body and a weaker tasting tea has little body. A term that tends to stem from people accustomed to those stronger teas getting a let down from the weaker/lighter tasting teas.
  • Bright — This has to do with how well you can see through the liquid, whether it is very dark (like coffee) or very light (like lightly colored water). The term refers to the liquid being able to reflect light, with the more lightly colored teas do better than the darker ones.
  • Brisk — A memorable and very noticeable tea.
  • Burnt — See “Toasty”.
  • Char — A tea flavor like something burnt up, like ash, smoke, tar.
  • Character — The flavor can tell you where the leaves came from, how grown, when harvested, how processed, etc. Great for expensive teas, not so important is your everyday teas.
  • Clean — Lacking character but not tasting bad.
  • Contamination — Something in with the tea leaves that doesn’t belong there.
  • Coppery — The liquid color of some great black and oolong teas. If you are having a tea that should have this color and doesn’t, beware! The flavor could be off, too.
  • Earthy Flavor — To some tea people, this term is used for green teas to mean a grassy-like flavor. To others, it means that distinct soil-like flavor in many pu-erh teas. Some more descriptive terms are: barnyard, compost, dirt, forest floor, moss, mushroom, peat, wet leaves.
  • Fine — An indication of exceptional quality or flavor as assessed by the person labeling the tea. Your perceptions may differ, though.
  • Flat — A tea made of poor quality tea leaves that does not have the flavor it should.
  • Floral — Having the aroma and/or flavor of certain flowers such as orchids and gardenias.
  • Fruity — Having the aroma and/or flavor of certain fruits, including berries, citrus, dried fruits, tree fruits, stone fruits, and tropical fruits.
  • Full — A tea that has substance, color, and strength. Used mainly with “body.”
  • Grassy — Just what you think it means: a tea that tastes like grass.
  • Hard — A tea with a desirable and expected flavor that is memorable.
  • Harshness — A bitter tea as a result of bad processing.
  • Heavy — A tea with an unmemorable flavor that can also be bad on your stomach.
  • Light — A tea that goes down easy and sits well on your stomach.
  • Malty — Supposedly flavor that lingers after you swallow. Most often used with Assams.
  • Marine — Having the aroma and/or flavor of fish, salty sea air, or kelp.
  • Mellow — A matured tea, not a raw one.
  • Metallic — As the word implies, a tea that tastes like metal.
  • Nutty — Having the aroma and/or flavor of various nuts like almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, and peanuts.
  • Pale — A very light color of the liquid — good for some teas but not for others.
  • Point — A flavor that is brisk, acidic, and sparkles on the tongue, lingering.
  • Pungent — The ideal tea, according to professionals, combining the perfect flavor, color, briskness, brightness, and aroma.
  • Quality — Relative to the quality of the leaves.
  • Soft — Subdued flavor, usually that is supposed to be like that.
  • Spicy — Having the natural flavors usually found in various spices (pepper, licorice, cocoa, nutmeg, etc.).
  • Sweet — Having the flavors of sweet items from chocolate and honey to sugar and toffee.
  • Thickness — The viscosity of the tea liquid. Not to be thought of as thick like buttermilk or eggnog, but feeling a little thicker than just water would.
  • Thin — A fairly tasteless and forgettable tea, nothing special, but also one that has a weak mouthfeel.
  • Tired — Stale, flat tea leaves that do not release much flavor into the water during steeping.
  • Toasty — Refers to a tea that has been over-fired during that final stage of processing. Normal folks call it “burnt” like a piece of bread in the toaster too long. • Vegetal — Like various vegetables (cabbage, broccoli, etc.).
  • Wild — Usually means a flavor that is very off from the flavor the tea normally has. That malty Assam tasting like melon or something really bad even.

The biggest issue with describing a flavor, especially in tea, is connecting that flavor to something you have experienced already. If a tea is said to have a “watermelon” quality but you have never tasted watermelon, how do you then identify that flavor in the tea? You are also dealing with other sensations such as the mouthfeel which can distract. And speaking of distractions, just trying to think of the right taste descriptor is a distraction from enjoying the tea.

Whether these terms help or hinder your tea enjoyment will be determined by you alone. Focus on the tea, not the terms, and all will go well.

About Janice and Stephen Shelton

Purveyors of Premium Teas
This entry was posted in Tea Info for Newbies and Up and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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