A consistent conflict I hear about in the tea world is that tea retailers have difficulty attracting people to true tea and tea education. The US market has fallen in love with blended teas that provide fruity refreshment. As a result, the traditional culture of true tea is overlooked: pure processed Camellia sinensis leaf. A strategy that is working for many tea retailers is hosting tea pairing events. They are a hip way to introduce true tea to new tea lovers by combining connoisseur products such as chocolate, specialty sweets, and cheese, with tea. Arranging a pairing event is a simple and engaging way to bring people into your tea shop and coming back for more.
Earlier this year Tealet hosted a tea and chocolate pairing event with Madre Chocolate, an Oahu-based bean-to-bar chocolate maker that has mastered the art of chocolate pairings. I learned that the methods of Madre’s pairing selection are not much different from what I learned during my food science/flavor chemistry days. The goal is to discover pairs that complement each other and provide a fuller and more balanced palate.
The science of the palate is not hard to understand. There are three main factors that make up our palate; taste, flavor, and texture. Taste is what is perceived by our taste buds; consisting of sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami (savory). Certain preceptors are more sensitive in different locations on the palate. Based on where on your palate you are experiencing a taste sensation, you can confirm the level of each taste in the tea or pairing item. This is not 100% accurate, but a good general practice.
Perhaps one of the most important factors of the palate is flavor, as there are thousands of volatile compounds (aromas) that the human nose can detect, versus only five taste receptors. In order to develop a strong palate, one must be in touch with their olfactory receptors, which can be trained, or “calibrated,” with tasting vials. This method is often used in the food science world in qualitative sensory analysis to understand the human perception of food products; results are compared to quantitative analysis using expensive equipment like gas chromatography mass spectrometry.
The final element of the palate is texture. This is mouth feel and should be evaluated not just as the feel, but also the location in the mouth (or throat) it is perceived and the duration of the texture. The goal of a successful pairing event is to provide products which, when consumed simultaneously, provide a full palate, encompassing all three elements.
Although there is some heavy science behind creating a great tea pairing event, the best way to get people engaged is to make it fun. Prior to the event, create and document what you believe are great pairings and provide these as recommendations to attendees of your event. There is no right answer – everyone’s palate is unique – so encourage your attendees to try out their own pairings and make their own evaluations. A more casual event will provide a more accessible true tea experience for your attendee (and future loyal customer). Let them know that a sophisticated palate is only relative; it just must be exercised. You can see an example of a tea and sweet pairing we recently launched with Amsterdam Stroopwafel maker Rip van Wafels. Feel free to use this as inspiration for your next tea pairing event.
Images courtesy of the contributor.