A background / basics post, on using combined or multiple-sample tastings as a tool for evaluating teas; and also just for experiencing them differently.
This relates to intention: If a resale vendor is visiting a plantation to choose a black tea (or any type) from among a dozen or more versions, then of course they are going to taste them together. For drinking tea with friends — Gongfu style or Western brewed — it would probably make more sense to drink one after another. But drinking two or more teas together can help you identify much more subtle character differences in relation to each other; eg. one might feel thicker, taste slightly more complex (even though similar in range), or a difference in length of aftertaste might stand out. It’s a good way to help determine how aspects combine to build up the overall effect of a tea.
Until it’s familiar to drink two or more teas together, the experience can be a bit much – a lot to take in. That’s counter-intuitive because if you can taste and notice aspects beyond flavor for one tea, it should be simple to extend that to two or three. It’s also odd that background noise volume significantly affects how much detail you notice in tasting a tea; but experientially that becomes very clear – that it makes a lot of difference. In typical combined tasting practice, it’s natural to narrow down evaluation form to consider less detail: For example to focus more on flavor but not consider mouthfeel and aftertaste aspects as much. With a bit more crowding of input stimulus, only the primary flavors would stand out: The main tastes or aromas.
To some extent, flavor and other effect builds across time when drinking some tea types, and combining drinking two versions can limit that. Drinking cool but not cold water can “clear” your palate in between tasting samples or rounds, but it can’t completely adjust for experiencing the tea in a different form for the lack of continuity.
For some, giving up noticing the “cha qi” — or feel effect — of a single tea type is a crucial limitation. Not everyone notices this to the same degree or values it in the same way; but combined tasting does rule out being able to distinguish this from either as a single source. At some point, the amount of tea drank also becomes a limitation: Taking in too much caffeine. It is possible to spit the tea back out while tasting it — effectively countering this issue — but for many that wouldn’t be a preferred option. For a professional tea taster it would probably be necessary – just a given.
A much finer level of detail can be detected, especially in relation to differences between versions. With enough practice and appropriate taste-memory gauging a broad range of aspect types (beyond flavor) against a central baseline would be possible, but it requires relatively little practice to drink two teas of the same type together and notice the common ground and differences. In the longer run, combined tasting can help someone self-train to be more familiar with these types of ranges, or establish what is typical or best in a specific type.
The more similar the two or more tea examples are, the better it works. Once the approach becomes more familiar, a contrast-themed tasting could also work — experiencing substantial differences — but until then, sticking to at least similar versions would work better. It’s just too much ground to cover if teas differ a lot, and parallel brewing process concerns complicate things more if versions aren’t similar.
To be continued in Combined Tea Sample – Part 2
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