165 million cups of tea are consumed every day in Britain but, as a nation of tea lovers, how much do we really know about the perfect brew? Dananjaya Silva, Managing Director of P.M.D Teas, whose exquisite blends are served at The Milestone Hotel, gives us an education in how to taste tea and how we can make a better brew at home.
Most of us drink tea everyday but rarely ‘taste’ it. Tell us your how to taste tea properly to appreciate the actual tea flavour?
Brew your tea! In the UK, especially we don’t brew our tea properly. We tend to pop in the bag, pour the water and pull it out of our mug within less than 30 seconds. The only thing present at this point in the cup is just a bit of colour and caffeine. The flavour of the tea, the aroma of the tea is all still in the bag. If you really want to taste tea, first boil freshly-drawn water. Add the water to your tea, whether bagged or loose. Stir the tea into the water, and cover the pot or mug with a lid. By covering the tea with a lid you trap the tea’s aroma in your cup instead of letting it escape into the atmosphere. Leave to brew for at least three minutes, or five minutes if you prefer it strong. Once brewed remove the leaves or the tea bag and then taste. Of course, it helps to buy good tea as it will have a lot more flavour!
What are the key factors that create the taste of tea?
There are two main areas where taste and flavour are created. Firstly, flavour profile will occur in the field. Rather like a wine’s terroir, where a particular tea bush is grown, its elevation, the soil, the flora and fauna that surrounds the bush will all have a bearing on the type of flavour that the tea exhibits. For example, teas that are grown at higher elevation, like teas from Lover’s Leap Tea Estate in Sri Lanka at 6,000ft above sea level, produce a lighter cup. If you come down in elevation to sea level you get a much darker cup of tea that is a lot bolder.
The other area where taste is created is during the manufacture process. As a general rule, cold nights will always help you make good tea as the temperature in the factory can kill the flavour of the tea. The wither will play a huge roll in the final taste of the cup (a wither is how much you let the tea dry out). Wither too hard and you will kill the flavour, wither too little and you will leave too much water in the leaf and dilute the flavour. Getting the wither just right, takes a lot of skill from the factory team and requires constant attention over its 6-12 hour cycle. We also have to take into account the final fermentation and drying stages as they can be make and break points in creating the taste of tea. There are a lot of small details that really go into making a cup of tea!
What are your favourite teas? Do you drink different teas at different times of day?
My favourite tea is our Breakfast Tea or any seasonal grown Dimbula Tea. The Dimbula season occurs traditionally in late February to early March. The teas that are produced at this time of year contain a unique level of intensified flavour that you cannot get outside of the season. Aside from the seasonal teas, I enjoy a variety of teas right across the day, like a nice first or second flush Darjeeling in the afternoon, Silver or Golden Tips on the weekends while reading a book, or a green tea after dinner as a pallet cleanser and digestive aid.
P.M.D is famous for its Ceylon tea. Tell us about how to taste tea from the different regions of Sri Lanka.
Within Ceylon, there are seven different agro climatic regions each with its own unique flavour. So, based on region this is a snap shot from three regions that a drinker can expect:
Nuwareliya (6,000ft) – the infusion in the cup is light, with a golden hue and a delicately fragrant flavour.
Dimbula (4,000ft) – the complex topography of the region produces a variety of microclimates, which produce differences in flavour, for example, jasmine mixed with cypress. All, however, share the Dimbula character: a tea that produces a fine golden-orange hue in the cup, and which is refreshingly mellow.
Ruhuna (2,000ft) – teas in this region grow at a much lower elevation. The soil conditions found here helps produce a faster growing bush. The grades produced by the factories in these areas is the larger leaf style. The taste in cup is of a fuller flavour compared to the teas that grow at a higher elevation.
What kind of equipment is required for a tea tasting?
If you want to taste tea professionally then a tasting set, a tasting mug, bowl and lid are essential. The reason for this is that once the tea is brewed a taster will invert the lid of the mug to see the infused leaf. The shape of the bowl will also reveal the character of the tea.
Why is it important to be able to examine the dry tea at the start of a tasting?
Looking and smelling the aroma of the dry leaf will reveal a lot about a tea. We will look at the colour of tea and it’s a case of the blacker the tea the better, a tea that is brown and open will mean that it has gone through a poor manufacture process. We also look at the uniformity of the particle size. Finally, we will touch the dry leaf to feel the density of the leaf. Each of these factors added together will give the taster an idea about what the flavour and character of a particular tea will be like.
What are the most underrated teas that we should all be drinking more of?
For me, single estate teas are very underrated. Buying tea that has not been blended straight from the garden is always a joy. Each tea garden has its own unique flavour profile. The topography of the garden and the skill and knowledge of the workers from that particular garden contribute to the flavour of its tea. I would encourage everyone to try more single estate tea. This for me is the truest and purest form of tea drinking.
Is it possible to pair different teas with different foods? If so, could you provide some examples of good matches?
Absolutely tea can be paired much like wine. A few excellent pairings with afternoon tea would be a smoked salmon sandwich and Souchong tea. Souchong teas are teas that are traditionally smoked over pine wood. Our Souchong is made on a single estate in southern Sri Lanka, where cinnamon wood grows, which is what we use to smoke our tea. The spicy notes of the cinnamon wood are captured in the tea and pair beautifully with smoked salmon sandwiches. Alternatively, try fruit cake with Chai Cinnamon tea, our chai cinnamon is a high-grown black tea with cinnamon and other traditionally Asian spices. It pairs well with a fruit cake or Christmas cake.
We’ve heard that during tea tasting its acceptable, even encouraged, to loudly slurp your tea. Why is this?
As tasters, we slurp the tea into the mouth as the receptors for where we pick up bitterness, sweetness, sourness and salt are all located in different parts of our mouth. The loud slurping is also so that we can draw in air. By doing so we enhance the taste, as the air we draw in allows the aroma in the tea to hit the olfactory receptor.
Talk us through how to taste tea like a professional?
We begin with the dry leaf. We’re looking for a well-made tea with equal particle size. The leaf must be black and free of stalk and fibre, which should have been removed in the manufacturing process. We’ll then examine the feel of the leaf before the taster runs the tea across his nose to see the aroma.
Next, we’ll come to the infusion. A visual assessment of infusion is important. Once brewed a taster will look at the infusion of the leaf. Here one is looking for a bright coppery-coloured infused leaf. The brighter the colour of the leaf, once brewed, also indicates the quality of the tea. A smell of the infuser will also show any aroma that is present in a tea, which is a great indication as to what might be present in the final cup that one tastes.
Before any tea is tasted, tasters will look at the colour of the infusion in cup. Is it bright? Is there a golden rim present around a cup? Is there any aroma coming of the cup? Finally, the taster will taste the tea. The points that we have picked on from the dry leaf to the infusion and visual inspection of the cup will be confirmed when the tea is tasted.