As a writer for Seattle Coffee Gear I have participated in coffee cuppings with Seattle-area roasters. It is not a preparation that highlights the coffee best. It is strictly an apples-to-apples comparison method for coffee buyers and coffee roasters to evaluate product. The same goes for the international standards for tea cupping. Breville and Rishi Tea have produced an informative video that shows International Standard Organization (ISO) recommended dosage, water temperature and steeping requirements. Both tea and coffee cuppings have a certain protocol and evaluation standards, and both can be tweaked to offer a tastier translation for the home hobbyist.
In order to enjoy a tea tasting at home, my best advice is to take inspiration from a formal cupping but focus on the preparation and have fun with the presentation. Your teacups don’t need to match or be the same size. I found it helpful to use glassware to see the brew color. The ISO dictates white porcelain only. At home we can honor the “spirit” of a tea cupping without having to follow the letter of the law.
To start, find three quality teas that you would like to try. They can be similar varieties of tea or very different ones like a black, a green and a white tea so the contrast is easier to detect and describe. It is critical that the water temperature and dosage is tailored to your tea selection. Follow the package instructions or consult a knowledgeable website.
Now the party begins! Pre-warm your teacups and teapots. Use fresh filtered water in your kettle. Have your measured doses ready. I chose a selection of Rishi Teas: China Breakfast black tea, Jasmine Pearl green tea and Silver Needle white tea. The fine leaf composition of the China Breakfast fits in a measuring spoon differently than a long leaf tea like Silver Needle. This is why a kitchen scale is handy. I measured out 3 grams of each tea for my solo taste test–your dosage will vary depending on your guest count. For fun you can put a sample of the leaves on a small saucer and pass it around so that guests can see, smell and even chew one (!) prior to brewing.
The Rishi Tea brewing guide suggests 212F water for China Breakfast, which is just off the boil for any kettle. However, Silver Needle is recommended to brew at 185F and Jasmine Pearl is recommended to brew at 175F. This is where a variable temperature kettle is really helpful to have. Even one degree can bring about flavor changes for better or worse.
I set my first teapot on the kitchen scale, zeroed the tare and added 8 ounces of water. The gooseneck pour spout offered excellent manual control of the water flow and made it very easy to add just the right amount of water. Use the stopwatch function on your watch or phone to ensure the tea is not over-extracted.
Next, pour a small glass of each tea for each guest. Audience participation time! Ask your guests if there is a noticeable difference in color, aroma and taste between the tea before brewing and the steeped tea. Some may want to poke their nose directly into the teapot if their cup aroma is too subtle. It is okay to be nosey among friends!
Invite guests to settle in with full cups and debate the merits of why they think their favorite tea is “better’” than the other teas presented. Sometimes we lack the words to describe the complicated aroma and flavors. As novices our challenge is to convey what we find in the cup, while expert tasters work towards grading each cup against what they already know should or should not be present.
A tea tasting is a good place to share your love of tea with friends and family who might be new to the world of tea. It won’t replace tea cupping, which is an important part of the business of tea, but as you can see there is a time and a place for both.
What’s In Your Cup?
Consider printing out tasting note cards. Here are adjectives shared by Rishi Tea:
Vegetal Seaweed Grassy Herbal Floral Honey Citrus Apple/Pear
Stone Fruit Grape Melon Tropical Woody Mineral Earthy
Leather Tobacco Mushroom Nutty Toasted Baked/Bready Malty/Grainy
Warm Spice Peppercorn Cocoa Warmed Sugar Caramelized Roasted/Smoky
Images provided by the author.