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Specialty Tea: An Introduction to Tea Cupping

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Drinking specialty tea is an adventure in flavors, origins, aromas, and more. And there’s no better way to appreciate the complexities of a high-quality tea than through tea cupping.

Whether you’re a café owner looking to improve your menu or simply a tea-lover wanting to better understand your favorite beverage, learning how to cup is a valuable experience.

To find out more about the basic tea cupping process, I reached out to Nathan Johnston, Coffee and Tea Specialist with the Australian Tea Masters and Founder of Australia’s Cartel Roasters. He’ll be part of a team conducting workshops on the Basics of Tea Cupping, Hands on Tea Blending, and Advanced Tea Cupping at the upcoming Tea & Coffee World Cup 2017 in Singapore on the 26th–28th September – so if anyone can explain tea cupping, it’s him.

Spanish Version: Introducción a la Catación de Té

teaWorkers harvest tea.

What Is Tea Cupping?

Tea cupping is how industry professionals measure tea quality and determine flavor characteristics. It helps them to ensure products are of a satisfactory standard for consumers – and also to identify those samples that are of the highest quality or have the most distinctive tastes.

The process begins with an analysis of dry samples, followed by steeping and sampling. Notes are made on many attributes, from aroma to body and tea leaf texture.

SEE ALSO: How to Cup Coffee & Improve Your Palate

teaGreen tea (Japanese Bancha), yellow tea (Chinese Kekecha), wulong/oolong tea (Chinese Kwai flower) and black tea (Indian Assam Sonitpur), from left to right. Credit: Hermann Hammer via Wikimedia Commons  

Nathan tells me that tea cupping is more than just a skill: it is also an art and a science that helps to determine, set, and maintain tea standards and ensure consumers’ satisfaction.

It is an essential stage in tea production and selling, because there is so much variety in quality and flavor profile. Nathan emphasises that – much like with coffee – one tea can differ in quality across different farms, regions, and countries.

Some teas will be more fruity; others more floral. The most complex teas have delicate, intricate nuances that cannot be detected from the name alone.

What’s more, a tea’s flavor attributes can change when exposed to different temperatures or even over time. The cupping process helps professionals to map this, giving them insight into how a sample’s flavor profile can evolve and mature.

SEE ALSO: How to Cup Cascara & Evaluate Quality

teaFour different green teas, ready for analysis. Credit: A Girl With Tea via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

How to Do a Tea Cupping

So now you know what a tea cupping is, it’s time to look at how to do one. Unlike in coffee, where the Specialty Coffee Association and Coffee Quality Institute have created guidelines and standards, there is no standard method for cupping tea. However, there are several widely used and accepted practices.

1. Visual Inspection

Nathan explains that a tea cupping should always start with a visual inspection. You want to analyze the quality, colour, size, and texture of the leaves. He gives me the example of a Keemun black tea: the leaves should be a dark blackish-brown, and they should be well-twisted. Twisting facilitates a process called withering, wilting, or oxidation. It browns the leaves and adds specific aromas and flavors. Different types of tea will have different levels of oxidation, with black teas experiencing the most wilting.

On the other hand, old or faded-looking leaves tend to make lower-quality tea. Professionals should watch out for these in a sample.

teaBlack tea leaves, dark in color and well twisted. Credit: A Girl With Tea via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

2. Steeping

When preparing tea samples, it’s best to use pure oxygenated water. Nathan emphasises the importance of removing contaminants and minerals, and also introducing added oxygen. This will ensure a clean taste, as even the freshest water contains minerals that can impact flavor.

He advises that cuppers pour 8 oz/227 ml of boiling water directly over 2 g of tea leaves. He also warns against over-steeping. Excess acids caused by over-extraction will create an overall bitter cup. For this reason, timing is crucial.

It’s worth remembering that consumers will brew teas at different temperatures and steep times. Typically, darker teas are steeped for longer and at higher temperatures. Green and white teas, on the other hand, are more delicate and so require lower temperatures.

But no matter your steeping parameters, Nathan tells me that the most important thing is to be consistent. This will ensure that you’re tasting the differences in the tea – not the differences in your brewing.

teaBamboo Pu’erh tea sample before and after steeping. Credit: A Girl With Tea via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

3. Sensory Evaluation

Now that your tea has been steeped, it’s time for the most exciting part: the sensory evaluation! You should first pay attention to the colour, depth, and brightness of the brewed tea. Quality tea leaves will result in a rich and bold tone in freshly brewed teas. Brightness – as opposed to dullness – is also often appreciated.

Faded leaves, on the other hand, tend to infuse inconsistently and produce a weaker, lighter, and more variable flavor.

If you observe the already brewed tea leaves, you can gain insight into your cup quality: high-quality teas tend to have soft and tender leaves after brewing.

Next, breathe in the tea’s aroma. What notes can you detect?

And finally, it’s time to taste it. Pay attention to the body and briskness. Both of these refer to mouthfeel, but they are slightly different. Briskness, Nathan explains, is the effect a tea has in your mouth and how lingering the aftertaste is. A “lively” tea can be described as brisk; lack of liveliness could mean the tea is old and stale. Both briskness and body are desirable.

What flavors can you detect? The more you cup tea, the easier identifying different notes will become.

Remember to record your observations. There’s no official tea cupping sheet. However, if you cup a lot of teas and wish to compare them, you could download an unofficial one or create your own.

teaBlack tea steeps in a teapot; the rich, bold colour suggests quality leaves. Credit: A Girl With Tea via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

The world of tea is vast. From delicate floral brews to brisk, bold ones, there are many flavors, origins, and tea types to explore. And what better way to begin exploring tea than with a cupping?

You can experience a tea cupping class with Nathan himself at this year’s Tea & Coffee World Cup, which will be  held in Singapore on the 26th–28th September. Limited spaces available. Email info@tcworldcup.com to book your space now.

Written by Sam Koh.

Please note: This article has been sponsored by Tea & Coffee World Cup.  

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