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Tea Flavors by Country

by Lainie Petersen

While it’s important to judge individual teas by their own merits, teas made in certain regions often share certain flavor characteristics. If you like certain taste aspects of tea but prefer an unflavored tea, you can use tea regions as a rough guide find teas that meet your preferred flavor profile. While nothing beats actually cupping (i.e. tasting) a tea prior to making a purchase, tea buyers who can’t try teas before they buy them can often make good selections by thinking about the flavors that they want in a tea and seeking teas from a particular area. Below are five tea regions and some of the flavor characteristics that I’ve observed in their teas:

China: It’s hard to pinpoint flavor characteristics of Chinese teas because China produces so many different types of tea and they certainly don’t all resemble each other. Chinese black teas, for example, run the gamut from smoky, winey Keemun to soft, cocoa flavored Golden Monkey. The nifty things about China blacks is that they taste great without additives, such as milk or sugar, making them good go-to teas for those who want to avoid extra calories. Similarly, Chinese greens vary considerably, though the Chinese custom of pan-firing green teas to stop oxidization often imparts a nutty, toasty flavor to the teas. Chinese white teas range from the delicate herbal notes of silver needle to the positively juicy qualities of a good white peony.

Chinese oolongs are something else again: Perhaps the best known Chinese oolong is Ti Kuan Yin, a green, floral oolong that often has the scent and flavor of lilacs. Yet this tea can also be roasted, treatment that assigns the floral notes to the background while giving the tea a wonderfully nutty quality. Other Chinese oolongs have very specific flavor qualities, such as Dan Cong oolongs, which often closely resemble the flavors of particular flowers, fruits or even nuts. Chinese rock oolongs (from the WuYi mountains), on the other hand, often have incredibly deep, very complex flavors that require multiple infusions to fully unveil.

Like complex oolongs, pu’erh teas, from China’s Yunnan province, require a bit of time to become fully acquainted with their flavors. Still, I am often surprised and delighted when I offer a pu’erh tea to a customer and they find that they like it, even though it may be a very different tea than what they are used to! Cooked or “shu” pu’erhs undergo an accelerated fermentation process that results in a smooth, earthy and sometimes chocolaty brew, while raw or “sheng” pu’erh goes through a natural and extended aging process. Young sheng pu’erh can be extremely pungent, with woody and potent herbal notes. However, when brewed with great care, a certain sweetness can emerge, making it a refreshing tea indeed.

Japan: One of the interesting things about selling tea is that you discover the importance of customer perception. Some customers actually prefer Japanese green tea because the tea is steamed, not pan fired, like Chinese teas. With the exception of roasted Japanese teas (such as hojicha), Japanese greens brew to a beautiful bright green in the cup, a contrast to Chinese greens, which are often more muted in color. The flavor profile of Japanese green teas is often more purely vegetal than Chinese greens as well, often resembling spinach, artichoke or seaweed.

Taiwan: Taiwan is best known for its oolongs, though I’ve tried some very unusual (yet tasty) Taiwanese black teas as well. Taiwanese oolongs range from light, green and floral Alishan to dark, spicy and fruity Bai Hao. While the teas themselves may vary in flavor profile, I’ve found that good Taiwanese oolongs resemble good Italian wines: There is an “engineered” quality to them, allowing you to taste and easily identify the different flavor notes in the teas.

Sri Lanka: Sri Lankan teas, better known as Ceylon teas (Sri Lanka was previously known as “Ceylon”) are what I often recommend to people who want to drink a “regular cup of black tea,” similar to what they may have got from their mom or grandmother (along with a generous dollop of honey) when they had a sore throat. Ceylon black teas are often quite neutral in flavor making them an ideal base for flavored teas, though they often have a slight lemony flavor as well. This citrusy characteristic also makes for a wonderful iced tea.

India: India has numerous tea regions and each region’s tea offers different flavor profiles. While much of the tea produced in India is black tea, some interesting green and oolong teas are also being produced in the area. Two of the best-known tea regions, Assam and Darjeeling, produce teas that are significantly different. Black teas from Assam are often quite bold in flavor and are often characterized as “malty” in flavor. They may also have notes of tobacco or cooked fruits, such as peaches or apricots. Darjeelings, on the other hand, are often much lighter, particularly the first and second flush Darjeeling black teas that many prize so thoroughly. First flush Darjeelings sometimes remind me more of green teas than black, making them good options for people who aren’t yet sure about green tea, but want to try something different from traditional black teas. While the flavor of Darjeeling teas is traditionally compared to the muscatel grape, their flavor profiles can often be more complex, including some green herbal notes (particularly in first flush Darjeelings) as well as nutty flavors (not unheard of in fall-picked leaves).

Exploring different flavors in tea is part of what makes it so interesting. Whether you prefer bold, malty black teas or delicately floral oolongs, there's certainly a tea out there to suit your taste.