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Honing Our Tea Tasting Skills in... Las Vegas?

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We're always trying to "raise the bar" in all aspects of our business - environmental performance, customer service, and certainly tea quality.  To that end, I recently attended an advanced training session on tea evaluation (called "cupping") in Las Vegas, NV, presented by the Specialty Tea Institute.  Yes, they have institutes for this sort of thing.  You might think that Las Vegas would be an unlikely place for such an event - and you would be right.  Strangely, a vast majority of tea-related events seem to occur in Las Vegas, amid the flashing lights, cigarette smoke, and "pling-pling-pling-pling-pling-pling" of the slot machines.  Wierd.

The cupping session explored - often in substantial detail - a variety of topics, including:

- The physiological differences between people with different tasting abilities - mainly the size, shape and (most importantly) density of taste buds on the tongue;

- The effect that steeping time and temperature have on tea, as well as the effect of multiple successive steepings;

- Considerations for matching or replacing one tea with another (such as matching the flavor profile, leaf grade, or other relevant factors);

- Detecting taints or flaws in the manufacture and/or storage of tea.

Over the course of the day, we sampled roughly 40 teas at a variety of temperatures, steeping times and number of steepings.  We were very thoughtfully provided a vessel in which to spit (called a "gaboon" in the tea industry), but as usual, I failed to take advantage (what can I say, I'm a glutton for punishment).  So by the end of the day I found myself with totally worn-out taste buds, well-caffeinated, and desperately in need of a restroom... a typical day in the tea business!

Once I was comfortably at home, away from Sin City's flash and noise, I was able to reflect on some of the key lessons that the session had to offer.  These included:

- Although different people may have varying sensory capabilities (more or less taste buds, for instance), anyone can be good at sampling and evaluating tea.  It sounds cliche, but it just takes practice.  With enough practice, you can figure out what approach works best for you, and then you're off to the races.

- Steeping time and temperature really, REALLY makes a difference (but of course, you already knew this, right?)

- Different teas - even within the same category (green, oolong, black, etc.) - will respond differently to variations in steeping time and temperature.  Some may work best at lower temperatures, while some made benefit from a bit hotter or longer infusion to coax out the most flavor.  While rules of thumb for a particular variety are a good start, it's really worth experimenting to find the "optimal" brewing method to suit the particular to you're drinking, as well as your personal taste.

- You're missing a big part of the picture if you're infusing your tea - particularly oolongs - only once.  We sampled different oolongs steeped for several successive infusions, and were amazed by the different "slices" of the tea's flavor profile you got as the tea leaves unfurled more with each infusion.

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