Tea Sensory Analysis: From Aroma to Aftertaste

Tea Sensory Analysis: From Aroma to Aftertaste

Fully appreciating a tea is an analytical process that takes a lot of practice. When you take a sip of tea, you receive a huge amount of sensory information, and that sensory information can tell you a lot about the tea itself. A tea’s cultivar, terroir, and processing impart to it its unique character, and in turn, a tea’s taste contains clues about cultivar, terroir, and processing (you can read more about the meaning and significance of those terms here). An advanced, experienced palate can identify the cause of each aspect of a tea’s taste. Uncovering and decoding that information through your senses is a daunting task!

While tea evaluation involves more than just tasting, having a discerning palate is a crucial part of determining what makes one tea better than another. Today, we are going to focus on tasting, which is just one part—although a big part—of the entire sensory evaluation of a tea. More specifically, here we’re focusing on the hierarchy of taste, comparing the quantity vs. quality of taste, and some tasting techniques for identifying a tea’s properties.


The Hierarchy of Taste

The hierarchy of taste (pictured in the graphic below) is helpful for describing the character of a tea by distinguishing four parts of the tasting process. The hierarchy consists of aroma, taste, mouthfeel, and aftertaste. These four components are present in every sip of tea. Learning what each of these is and how to identify them is a crucial foundation for evaluating tea.

When we taste tea, we experience a lot of sensations at once. Many people intuitively start naming flavor notes as they taste tea (e.g., “I’m getting… stone fruit, chocolate, and biscuits!”). Flavor notes are certainly part of the tea-tasting process; Where a note shows up in the hierarchy of taste says a lot about whether it is a good note or a bad note, and the overall quality of a tea.

Take florality, for example. A tea can be “floral” in many different way; it could have a floral aroma, a floral taste, or a floral aftertaste. Florality means something different based on where it shows up, though. Many teas have a floral aroma, and this isn’t such a special trait. However, a floral aftertaste is a special quality in a tea, and indicates that the tea is higher quality. We’ll discuss these kinds of cases in greater detail in a future blog post on tea evaluation. For today, we’re focusing on establishing the tasting framework that makes serious tea evaluation possible.

The hierarchy of taste is a hierarchy for a reason. As one moves up the pyramid, the qualities are more indicative of a fine tea. In tea making, aroma is the easiest quality to impart a tea with and aftertaste is the hardest. In other words, think of it this way: many teas have a nice aroma, but few teas have a complex, elegant and long aftertaste.

As we’ve already mentioned, aroma, taste, mouthfeel, and aftertaste are all present in every sip of tea. And in a fine tea, each of these elements will be complex in its own right! So, as you’re practicing identifying each element of the hierarchy of taste in a tea, we recommend focusing on one at a time. As you get more comfortable describing each one, you can begin to string them together. Before you know it, analytical tea-tasting will become second nature, and you’ll notice properties about each element of the hierarchy all in the same sip.

Aroma and Taste

Tasting tea involves both your sense of taste and smell. By aroma and taste, however, we don’t mean the physiological separation of what we smell and taste, but the combined mechanism of taste buds and olfactory sensors to tell us information about the tea. In simpler terms, your senses of taste and smell together can tell you about both aroma and taste. A tea’s aroma and taste are highly interrelated; it is very difficult (if not impossible) for us to tell where one ends and the other begins. In general, though, a tea’s aroma is the more fleeting sensation in taste, and the “taste” proper is the more substantial part.

The easiest way to tell the difference between aroma and taste is to compare the rinse brew of a tea and the first brew of the wet leaf. In the rinse brew—which is not actually rinsing the tea in the sense of cleaning it but is instead a short brew that wakes up the leaves from their dried state—the tea’s aroma is present, but the taste is comparatively muted and diluted. In the next brew, the tea’s taste is much more pronounced and has greater depth together with the aroma.

While taste becomes more obvious from the rinse to the next brew, neither taste nor aroma progress in a linear way with tea. It works more like a bell curve, with certain notes emerging after a brew or two, then fading away in successive brews. How long-lasting aroma and taste are is indicative of a tea’s quality; better teas will hold their taste and aroma for more brews. As you drink, notice the way the tea’s taste changes from brew to brew—which flavors emerge, and when? Are the changes subtle or dramatic?


So far, we’ve discussed the ways you can use your senses of smell and taste to describe a tea. Your sense of touch also provides useful information! Touch is involved in detecting mouthfeel, the third level of the hierarchy of taste. Mouthfeel refers to the way a tea feels as it flows though your mouth. Many factors of a tea contribute to its mouthfeel, like its body, texture, contour, and tannic quality.

A tea’s body refers to the feeling of viscosity in its liquor. The body of a tea can be full, medium, thin, thick, or anywhere in between. It bears noting that a tea’s body is relative to the kind of tea it is; a full-bodied yellow tea will feel very different than a full-bodied black tea. When we’re identifying a tea’s body, it is important to compare it to its peers (i.e., teas in the same category).

A tea’s texture is the quality of its body. While body refers specifically to viscosity and fullness (or lack thereof) in a tea’s liquor, texture describes the specific way in which a tea is full or thin. The texture of a tea can be syrupy, bubbly, chalky, velvety, or creamy, among many other textures.

As you practice detecting these different elements of mouthfeel, you’ll start to notice the different degrees of these qualities, and the endless ways they can be combined in a tea. For instance, you might find a certain tea to be chalky, but find another tea has a thicker sense of chalkiness (or a fuller body) by comparison. Or, in two teas with similar viscosity, you might find that one is syrupy while another is creamy.

Contour or shape is another aspect of mouthfeel. This refers to the way a tea moves through your mouth and leaves an impression on your tongue. Contour can be abstract and difficult to quantify, so here are a few tips for approaching it: first, consider the border of a tea. When you take a sip, does it feel like the liquor has a defined boundary? Or does it quickly permeate across your tongue? This is a difference in contour. A contour can range from round to rigid to triangular. Another way of thinking about contour is like making a map of the tea in your mouth as it makes an impression.

Technically, tea contains catechins—not tannins—but “tannic” is still an adjective we can use to describe teas when they create a grainy, grippy, or sandpaper-y feeling on the tongue. The tannic quality of a tea can be fine or coarse. Consider the difference between fine and coarse sandpaper. Tea with a fine tannic quality will feel like a light, fine sandpaper brushing your tongue (in a good way!), while a coarse one feels more like rough sandpaper on the tongue. Tannic quality can also create a tightening, stimulating sensation on the tongue.


Aftertaste is a frequently overlooked quality in tea. It finds its place at the top of the hierarchy of taste because it is the most difficult quality for a tea maker to impart into a tea. A tea almost always has to come from higher quality of raw leaves (i.e., great terroir and tea tree) in order for it to have impressive aftertaste. A strong aroma, on the other hand, can be achieved by processing alone, especially at the cost of other factors in a tea.

The Chinese word, ‘Yun’, is a helpful description for aftertaste—while it doesn’t literally translate to ‘aftertaste’, it originally means “the music you hear after the music has ended”. In tea, we can say it’s the taste after the taste has ended. Aftertaste can be pleasant or unpleasant, long or short, and transforming or simple. We always desire aftertaste that is elegant and alluring.

Here’s a tip for identifying aftertaste: after you pour all of a tea’s liquor from your fairness pitcher into cups, smell the empty fairness pitcher. The lingering aroma here resembles the tea’s aftertaste and can aid in your ability to detect notes in the aftertaste.

Quantity and Quality of Taste

So far, we have been focusing on the hierarchy of taste as a framework for categorizing a tea’s sensory information. Now, let’s introduce a new dimension of the hierarchy of taste: quantity and quality. For each level of the hierarchy of taste—aroma, taste, mouthfeel, and aftertaste—we can describe a quantity and a quality. Take aftertaste, for instance: if a tea’s aftertaste is floral, we can describe that florality in terms of its quantity and its quality. Quantity would be the amount of the property: is the floral aftertaste pronounced/obvious? Is it long lasting? On the other hand, quality refers to aesthetic sophistication. For example, is the floral aftertaste an overly-perfume-y “floral”, or an elegant floral? Does it appear natural or artificial? Balanced or unbalanced?

Photography provides a helpful analogy for understanding quantity and quality. Consider two aspects of a photo: resolution and composition. Resolution refers to the precision of the image, or how easy it is to see it. High-resolution images are much easier to see— this is like a tea’s taste having high quantity. If the quantity of a taste is high, it is stronger, more pronounced, or more obvious. Quality is more like composition. A photo can be well-composed or poorly-composed. Like a well-composed photo, a high quality tea is sophisticated, complex, and balanced; overall more aesthetically pleasing.

The quantity and quality of a tea’s properties are independent of another. Just as a photograph can be high-resolution but very poorly composed (or vice versa), a tea could have very clear, pronounced qualities, but those properties might be simple, unbalanced, or unpleasant (i.e., undesirable, or poor-quality). You can use the concepts of quantity and quality—visualized in the graphic below—to add further dimension to your practice of analytical tea-tasting.

Beginners often ask: “is it better for a tea to be strong or mild?”—and the concepts of quantity and quality show us that this question doesn’t have a simple answer. Ideally, a tea would have good quality and quantity; it would be complex and balanced, and its character would be easy to identify. If a tea is strong in quantity but poor in quality, it is missing something important. The same goes for tea that is high quality but low quantity.

Tasting Techniques

Finally, we’d like to offer a few techniques for tasting tea that will help accentuate its characteristics as you practice tasting. Here, we’ll discuss slurping, chewing, and retronasal technique.

Try these at home…

  1. Slurping affects a drinker’s perception of tea by introducing oxygen and disturbing (literally, jostling or moving around) the liquor. Introducing oxygen has the practical benefit of cooling a tea down so that it is a more drinkable temperature. This is crucial—burning your tongue inhibits your ability to taste or feel a tea in your mouth. Additionally, the added oxygen from slurping can make it easier to detect notes. Slurping also makes tea appear more tannic. When you over-slurp, your perception of the tea can become distorted. Both disturbance and time affect your perception of a tea. When you hold the tea in your mouth and move it around for a long time, the tea will start to taste much more tannic than it actually is. It’s worth experimenting with this at home to see how mouthfeel changes For optimal results, we recommend one of two brief slurps, and not to hold the tea in your mouth for too long.
  2. Chewing your tea is another way to lightly disturb the liquor and enhances your ability to detect mouthfeel. To chew the tea, put some tea in your mouth, and move your teeth as if you were chewing on a solid food. Experiment with chewing in big, slow bites and small, quick ones. Chewing tea can further amplify notes in tea without having to have the tea linger in our mouth for too long.
  3. The final method we’ll discuss is retronasal technique. This involves using the pathway between your nose and the back of your throat to further uncover the character of a tea. To access it, try this: first, take a sip of tea, and swallow. Next, with your mouth closed, breathe out of your nose. This technique helps us discover notes we might have otherwise missed.

Sensory evaluation is a crucial part of tea studies. We can think of our senses as an apparatus for data-collection, and this article has been an introductory training in getting to know our apparatus, “operating” it beyond the obvious (intuition/habits), and knowing how to categorize the information collected for further useful analysis.

In the future, we’ll be sharing techniques for evaluating tea. We’ll show you how to observe the quality of a tea from its dry leaves, to its liquor, to the spent leaves, as well as brewing techniques for evaluation (which differ significantly from brewing for enjoyment). If you can’t wait—or if you want to go even deeper than we can in these blogs—enroll in one of our Tea Drunk Academy courses here.

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