Tea Aroma as a Standard for Specialty Tea
This post is part of a continuing series of writings by Seven Cups founder, Austin Hodge, for the International Specialty Tea Association. The aim of this series is to detail twelve elements that can be used to authenticate and value specialty tea. The previous post on tea color as a signal for quality tea can be found here.
Element 11 — Aroma
Aroma is the most complex and subjective element in evaluating a tea. Not only are the chemical elements in tea complex, the olfactory senses are more complex still and neurologically have the most intense and direct pathway to the brain.
Before we get to judging the tea, aroma already has played a significant role in the tea’s processing. Changes in the aroma during processing traditionally determine when the tea should move from one point in processing to another.
There is also a balance, as in wulong tea, of the intensity of aroma versus the intensity of taste. For example, a Tie Guan Yin style wulong tea could have a very strong aroma with very little flavor. Conversely, a Rock Wulong’s aroma may be dimmed by roasting to concentrate its flavor. There is a balance between fragrance and roasting.
The freshness of the tea is also apparent in the aroma. Over time, surface moisture on leaves evaporates and volatile aromatics diffuse, muting the richness of a tea’s dry aroma.
As with the spectrum for color, the spectrum for aroma is also very large. Not only is the dry leaf examined through smell but also the brewed leaf, the infusion, and the cooled empty cup. Each of these stages will have characteristically distinct aromas, making so that judging a tea by aroma is a complex skill. While the spectrum for the novice is “smells good” or “smells bad,” the spectrum understood by an expert requires an experienced nose for the type of tea being evaluated and knowing when aroma suits the style or carries defects. Defects in aroma are usually the result of the dry leaves absorbing a stray smell in storage. In this way, the smell of a tea also indicates the care in which a tea has been stored.
There are words in Chinese that are specific to a tea’s smell that are not directly translatable. For example Qimen boasts its own Chinese character for its aroma.
The manipulation of aroma by the tea maker can be used to fool the buyer. For example, leaving too much moisture in a green tea will significantly increase the fragrance of the dry leaf, while at the same time will increase its weight and decrease its shelf life.
As with color, meaningful examination of aroma requires an experienced professional evaluator.