Friday, March 13, 2020

Tea flavor / aroma wheels reconsidered (with a Spanish version)

Early on in my blog history I considered the use of tea flavor or aroma wheels in tea tasting.  My main critique of those related to noticing that the flavor or aroma examples were all from temperate climate or "Western" examples, when that doesn't necessarily reflect a complete range of experienced flavors.

That was back at the end of 2013; what did I know of tasting tea then?  Or now, really.  Some tea reviewers tend to draw on Asian flavor references quite a bit instead (eg. jujube or Chinese date, tropical fruits, herbs more common to Asia or tropical regions), but those are still an exception.

a cool wheel version from a vendor who is no longer active

All the same it's more a starting point reference, a way to break flavor / aroma experience into categories (fruity, floral, earthy, mineral intensive, vegetal, etc.), with examples of what one might experience.  Both of the wheels I cited as an example then contained limited tropical fruit references, to be clear; that one issue wasn't completely one-sided.  It's odd that I'm not seeing bergamot or muscatel on those, now that I think of it.  "Citrus" makes it; maybe it just has to be broken out from that, in the case of the first.

I just ran across a reference of a wheel translated into Spanish by a tea enthusiast and blogger in Mexico, in the "Life Sip by Sip" blog (by Dennis Diaz, a translated version of the Tea Master's original, but as that earlier and unrelated Temple Mountain version shows the forms tend to repeat).  I talked to that blog author three years ago, when working on a post about tea culture in Mexico, but don't remember noticing that.  Or maybe I did; that was three years ago.  I'll add her impression here (automatically translated from a blog post):

Knowing the origin of the tea, infusing it correctly and without haste, as well as drinking it, enjoying the sensations, emotions and feelings that it causes us, leads us to conscious consumption.

When we drink a cup of tea, our senses receive information that is transmitted to the brain in order to be interpreted and translated into unique images about what we are tasting and feelings that, most of the time, are very pleasant.

Regardless of whether you are an expert tea consumer or someone who is just taking their first steps in the exquisite and wonderful world of Camellia Sinensis, the identification of the aromatic notes and the interpretation of these images and feelings generated will enrich the experience.

Maybe it is read [interpreted as?] complicated, but the secret is to be able to look within ourselves for what we feel and remember when having tea...

Limitations and reservations about this approach

I can't settle for myself if it makes a lot of difference, or is even better, to describe the aspects in a tea or not.  I do that in writing reviews, or course, but I enjoy just experiencing a tea without adding any analysis when I'm not reviewing.  Also I tend to appreciate the overall balance of aspects in any given tea, without necessarily focusing on the flavor as a singular main input.  I don't "get" cha qi or body feel aspects to the same extent many describe but a tea that is thin in feel or lacks aftertaste experience range also loses some appeal.

A recurring theme in this blog has been how different people would naturally interpret the same flavors in different ways.  It's hard to pin that down to one clear, representative example.  Another theme I've been noticing (not really related) is how some tea reviewers (bloggers, of course) tend to mention transitions between rounds in teas that sound as if they are really describing a dozen different versions of tea, while others assert that the main flavors remain consistent, with more shift in relative balance than new flavors joining in, with other range continually dropping out.

What to make of all that?  I'm really not sure.  I can't conclude that "it's all subjective," or guess that some people can accurately identify an objectively correct interpretation better.  Maybe it's somewhere in the middle; the patterns really are there, but interpretation plays a significant role.  In one of my favorite posts I asked a few blogger contacts and a tea maker friend for input about how that works out, in this post: "Imagination and subjectivity in tea tasting, with blogger and expert input."

There's probably no need to repeat ideas from there or try to capture patterns described; input on all that varied.  My wine maker friend leaned towards the take that variations in descriptions is not a problem, running counter to what I take to be the more standard general consensus in that field.  But then I took up and quit wine interest a long time ago (and never had got far) maybe that mainstream stance has shifted since.

Input on subjective interpretation from a favorite chocolate blogger in that post was interesting (I've only ever talked to one chocolate blogger; just being weird in that part):

Lisabeth's answer:  Certainly chocolate tasting is subjective to some extent. Everyone tastes food differently, and so will relate the flavours they taste in chocolate to different foods. In the case of Madagascar-origin chocolate, for instance, the chocolate is so clearly fruity that most people will identify that as a flavour in chocolate made from cocoa beans grown in Madagascar. But whether they taste raspberry versus grape or lemon, is a whole other thing. 

That definitely works.  I suppose grape could come across as similar to raspberry in the context of chocolate flavors, and since there really probably are a lot of complex aromatic compounds in the chocolate (as in tea versions) maybe the range of what is being interpreted really is broad.  This subject reminds me of considering what it would take for a machine to be able to "taste" tea in a post.  It does drift into how testing can identify compounds that map to known aromas (or flavors, in one sense of that term), with half that post was about mapping function projects relying on a human taster instead.

a Wikipedia aromatic compounds table; some degree of objective aroma interpretation is justified

Tasting practice and indirect reference of aroma wheels can help.  Scent training kits seem like the next natural step in that progression, but really one might naturally consider what the goals are prior to taking any of those experiential steps.  Or trying out a new approach with no clear goal could still be valid.

the Australian Tea Master's version, from here

Guidance on use of flavor determination in reviews or analysis

In the first draft version of this post it stopped there, with more about why it might not make sense to break out flavors (/ aromas) than about how it could be useful.  If someone wanted to review teas or just write down their own impressions it could make plenty of sense.  I'll add some thoughts on how that might go based on a half dozen years of doing it, broken up by range of what is typically experienced, those standard sections on those wheel.

Floral character:  a lot of tea is floral in flavor, it's just not simple to break that down to distinct flower types, at least for me.  I tend to specify if a floral aspect is light and sweet, like a wildflower, or slightly richer but still light in tone and sweet, like an orchid, or a bit heavier and richer, like lavendar or rose.  Jasmine I'm familiar with since it's around a lot here; that's distinctive.  Beyond that I'm more or less just guessing, or keeping that range of interpretation general.

Fruit:  this can be trickier than it would seem, since this is a really common food range.  Citrus comes up a lot in varying forms, and berry, raisin, and grape can be distinct, but lots of flavors tend to stay a bit vague.  Dried fruit tones are just as common as fresh fruit; dried pear and fresh pear are two different things, for example.  I think I do notice a lot more tropical fruits for eating a lot of them; seems normal enough.  Sun-dried tomato and related savory range can be very pleasant in teas (and I'll get into basic tastes versus aromas in the vegetal part following, since that's really about umami).

Spice:  cinnamon isn't so uncommon, but beyond that these can be hard to identify.  Aromatic spices reminding me of incense tones come up a good bit, or mild, earthy, subtle spices closer to root spices (like ginseng or sassafras).

Vegetal range:  this is probably the easiest range to identify.  Wood tones can vary a lot (cedar versus redwood or fresh hardwood, dark tropical hardwood versus mild coffee or leather tones), but those are all typically placed under "earthy" category instead.  Seaweed can apply almost as a default for Japanese green teas, but really umami is a taste picked up by your tongue, and not a scent based aroma.  It's interesting how the "super-taster" theme would seem to apply more to that scope, since it is usually used in relation to sensor count and sensitivity to tastes versus aromas, and having problems with tastes like bitterness, but the two themes get combined.

Mineral:  this often acts as a base for other flavor range, as I experience it.  It can be very hard to describe because it relates to how different rocks might taste or smell--not necessarily  familiar ground.  I did some desert hiking and rock climbing in earlier life phases and I do end up referring back to that, the smell of different rocks.  Artesian wells (naturally flowing versions) tend to express a specific range that can come up, a sweeter mineral taste.  I sometimes wonder if this isn't more typically a taste versus an aroma, even though it's not exactly within the sodium chloride (table salt) experience of salt range.

Earthy:  it's interesting tasting range outside of food scope, and trying out just about any shu pu'er leads straight there.  Tar or petroleum can actually be pleasant, although fresh asphalt not so much.  Peat can be a more neutral flavor range than it sounds.  Geosmin (like beet or dirt) comes up a lot related to one type of storage conditions environment for aged sheng pu'er.  Forest floor is a useful and common description, but to me it helps to narrow that to a wetter Spring or dryer Fall forest scent range.  That scent would also vary by the type of trees dropping leaves, and descriptions can be more or less detailed and poetic.  I'm not seeing coffee on either of those wheels, and that can come up, either as a light-roasted flavor aspect or closer to the char found in French Roast.

Char / fire:  closer to that last point, some variation of this is primary in many roasted teas, and some that aren't roasted.  Liu Bao tends to taste a little like Chinese barbecue pork, which is in between charcoal, slate, and a savory range flavor.  Tobacco isn't so uncommon, but I tend to think of that as earthy range, not so far from leather.

Sweet:  malt is under "Sweet" in that Temple Mountain wheel (and in the Tea Master's version; that's a good functional approach for that range).  Really malt seems to relate to a soft, sweet flavor like ovaltine or else a more mineral intensive related version in Assam (Indian black tea).

All that is just a starting point; people's experiences and interpretations would vary.   That last category of sweetness, and the umami and mineral cases, bring up the idea that part of flavor experience is taste picked up by the tongue.  It's easy to not notice that distinction in tasting experience, but it can be identified quite clearly by just plugging your nose while tasting.  Trying to review teas with a cold brings up the same theme; all of aroma drops out.

To me sweetness stands out as critical for helping some teas balance properly.  Other flavor range may or may not "work" if a compensating, balanced mix of experience isn't present, and in general more sweetness works better for supporting the rest.  Or maybe that just relates to my own sugar addiction.

Bitterness is an odd special case as tastes go, most common in young (new) sheng pu'er.  Per my own experience almost any presence of that aspect is negative, until you acclimate to it, and then after that it can be perceived as positive.  Experience would definitely vary tied to personal subjective preference related to that, even more so than for any other aspect range, even though it's really all a bit subjective.

One last point:  if I keep saying that taste / flavor / overall effect preferences are subjective why does it continually come up that reviews or descriptions are presented as objective?  I think there are multiple parts to that.

Common convention could lead to a form of objectivity; shared subjective agreement.  I just went through a long discussion of how Dan Cong versions are most typically lightly oxidized (relatively speaking, in relation to other oolong range), and low to medium level roasted, less so than Wuyi Yancha versions tend to be, because that's widely regarded as an optimum for the tea type potential.  I'll skip the rest of that discussion and leave off here as if that's actually made the point it barely brings up: a 'best" range can be established by convention.

Trueness-to-type is really related but slightly different; matching a style for a specific tea version and positive aspects for that type isn't exactly about personal likes, or those shared by a group.  As an example, high mountain Taiwanese oolong really should be intense in flavor, with pronounced floral range and underlying mineral (a specific form of that), rich in feel, with an extended aftertaste experience.  Someone might love or not like creaminess comparable to milk or butter in Jin Xuan (cultivar) based versions, but it's typical for that tea plant type.

Neither of these scopes are going to be clear based on just trying a single tea; identifying them would require exposure to group norms (in the first case) or other tea-type examples regarded as ideal versions.  Individual preferences can still vary in any number of ways but both these contexts set up groundwork for more objective forms of interpretation.

Postscript addition, related to coffee:

Peter Jones, a manager at the Boulder Trident Bookesellers and Cafe (coffee and tea shop), and a tea and coffee enthusiast, mentioned how this relates to coffee tasting and terminology development in a Facebook group post comment.  He only scratched the surface there, but as one might expect coffee is a bit further ahead related to use of standard terminology, tasting approach, tasting process documentation, etc.  Wine tasting surely is further along too; tea enthusiasts and professionals get it that some parts of the tea tradition are very old and developed and others, the more Western-facing aspects, are younger, still being worked out.

I won't run through a long tangent about coffee tasting here, or how that related background goes.  I'll mention an interesting article on that (A Guide to the Coffee Taster's Flavor Wheel), and include an image of a more recent version of one, what I take to be the current standard version:

According to a Specialty Coffee Association background reference use of images of that wheel is open but also restricted:

The Coffee Taster's Flavor Wheel by SCA and WCR (©2016) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License

Anyway, that file version was from here, with a little more background in that article.  The previous wheel version, discussed in that guide to wheel use article cited earlier, included a separate wheel that added a second complete version covering common flaws in coffee.  Just great! 

There's no short take on how these references are more developed and functional than the tea versions; it seems a terribly long and involved subject.  This World Coffee Research link (the other organization that developed that new version) leads to more background, if it is of interest.  Or this SCA article says just a little about use, which might be general enough that it's still of interest to people tasting other things, like wine, or tea.

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