Tea Cupping Standards

This document is a proposed standard for evaluating tea quality in hopes to get people serious about evaluating their tea on the same page. Updated December 31, 2013.

Goals:

  1. Provide a standard preparation method for tea evaluation.

  2. Provide a standard for measuring leaf quality for both dry and steeped leaf.

  3. Provide a hierarchical standard nomenclature for describing tea flavors.

  4. Provide a standard nomenclature for describing the color of steeped tea (coming soon).

Before You Begin

Make sure you have clear testing goals in mind and be sure you have cleared your palate.

Section 1: Standard Preparation Methods for Tea Evaluation

It is advisable to prepare each tea to be evaluated using two methods, the first is a veritable “trial-by-fire” that is commonly used in tea evaluations in the tea industry and is based on the ISO-3103 specifications for tea evaluation. The second is an attempt to simulate the preparation methods subjected to each tea by average consumers.

Trial-by-fire Preparation

This method involves a long steep time in near-boiling water, however the ratio of water to dry leaf is very low compared to many other suggested steeping parameters. The idea here is to steep the leaves long and hot in hopes of bringing out as many characteristics as possible for evaluation. If evaluating many teas or setting up a tea tasting room or program, use the same water across all of your tests. As with any tests like this, the object is to have only one variable changing between tests and in our case, it’s the tea that will be changing.

Parameters:

- 2 grams (0.07 oz) of tea per 100ml (3.38 fl oz) boiling water in steeping vessel

- brewing time: 6 minutes

- steeped tea is then strained into a separate vessel

It is important that the same type of vessel be used for all tests. ISO3103 also covers specifications for a standardized tasting vessel (seen below). If test results will be compared to others in another location, it is advisable that everyone be using the same vessel for preparation.

Tea Cupping Set ISO
[Standard ISO Cupping Set]

What to note:

1.What color is the liquor?

2. What does the liquor smell like?

3. What does the liquor taste like?

Standard Preparation

While the trial-by-fire method is useful for evaluating the quality of a tea, it is also helpful to emulate the preparation methods that are most likely to be used by consumers. For this preparation method, we’ll use different parameters for each tea type.

Parameters:

Tea Type

Temperature

Time for First Steeping

Green Tea

160F/ C

1min

Yellow Tea

160F/ 71C

1min

White Tea

180F/ 82C

2min

Oolong Tea

190F/ 88C

1.5min

Black Tea

205F/ 96C

1min

Post-Fermented Tea

212F/ 100C

30sec

- 3g (0.11 oz) of tea for 235ml water (8fl oz)

Again, it is important to use the same vessel and water across multiple tests.

What to note:

1.What color is the liquor?

2. What does the liquor smell like? (How does it change from steep to steep?)

3. What does the liquor taste like? (How does it change from steep to steep?)

4. How many steepings can the tea withstand and still produce acceptable flavor?

Section 2: Leaf Quality

When evaluating leaf quality, it is important to look at both the dry leaves and the steeped leaves. Each will provide clues to the overall quality of the tea.

What to note about dry leaf:

What color are the dry leaves? 
Recognizing quality by color will come with experience. Once you have cupped many teas, you will begin to recognize patterns in tea types and eventually tea styles. For example, if a farmer/merchant tells you that a tea is a green tea but the color is more yellow or brown, you should note this as the off color could mean an insufficient fixing phase for the green tea, improper storage, or it could just mean that the tea is old.

What shape are the dry leaves?
Recognizing quality by shape will also come with experience. Once you have cupped many teas, you will begin to recognize patterns in tea types and eventually tea styles. For example, if a farmer/merchant tells you that a tea is a half ball-style oolong yet it is loosely rolled and looks more like a strip style oolong, you would associate this tea as a low-quality oolong.

What size is each dry leaf? (length of longest side in mm)
Leaf particle size is a sign of quality. I say particles here because we are dealing with all teas, those that may be ground into the tiniest of particles to those that are full leaves. When evaluating many teas, it is often helpful to group them by particle size as a CTC tea will not easily compare to a full-leaf tea. For your records, it is helpful to measure the length of the longest size of a few tea particles in mm for comparisons year to year or batch to batch.

Are the leaf particles pristine?
Consistent leaf particle size is a marker of quality. Consistent leaf particles will steep at a similar rate as they have a comparable surface area exposed to water while steeping. Consistent leaf particles may also indicate hand plucked tea and careful, delicate processing methods. Broken, inconsistent leaf particles and the presence of crumbs can indicate machine plucking and handling during processing and is a sign of a lower quality tea.

What to note about steeped leaf:

What color are the steeped leaves?

Can you discern the plucking standard from the steeped leaves? (how many leaves? bud included? only buds?)

How many leaves are there in each “piece” of steeped finished tea?

Are any of them broken? Can you discern machine vs. hand plucked?

Are any of the leaves bitten by insects?

Is the color of the leaves consistent?

How much of the leaves have been oxidized? If an oolong, are the edges red?

Section 3: Standard Nomenclature of Tea Flavors

It is important when more than one individual is describing the flavor of a tea that they use a standard nomenclature for their descriptions and note the intensity of each term on a scale from 1-5.. This standard nomenclature is presented hierarchically and should represented as such in final descriptions. Here is the recommended notation:

Top level::Second Level::Third Level (Intensity)

Example for a First Flush Castleton Estate Darjeeling tea:

Fruit :: Dry Fruit :: Raisin (3)
Animal::Leather (4)
Mouthfeel::Astringent (2)

Here are the top level terms in the nomenclature:

Vegetal / Animal / Sea / Mineral / Char / Sweet / Fruit / Dried Fruit / Floral / Spice / Earthy / Nutty

Here is the expanded list of terms in the nomenclature:

Animal
Animal::Game
Animal::Leather
Animal::Manure
Animal::Musk
Animal::Wet Fur

Char
Char::Ash
Char::Burnt Food
Char::Burnt Toast
Char::Fireplace
Char::Grilled Food
Char::Roast Nuts
Char::Smoke
Char::Tar
Char::Toast
Char::Tobacco

Earthy
Earthy::Earth
Earthy::Earth::Barnyard
Earthy::Earth::Compost
Earthy::Earth::Decaying Wood
Earthy::Earth::Dirt
Earthy::Earth::Forest Floor
Earthy::Earth::Moss
Earthy::Earth::Mushroom
Earthy::Earth::Musty
Earthy::Earth::Peat
Earthy::Earth::Wet Earth
Earthy::Earth::Wet Leaves

Earthy::Wood
Earthy::Wood::Bark
Earthy::Wood::Camphor
Earthy::Wood::Cedar
Earthy::Wood::Cherry Wood
Earthy::Wood::Fresh Cut Wood
Earthy::Wood::Green Wood
Earthy::Wood::Hard Wood
Earthy::Wood::Maple
Earthy::Wood::Pine
Earthy::Wood::Resin/Sap
Earthy::Wood::Sawdust
Earthy::Wood::Wet Wood

Floral
Floral::Cherry Blossom
Floral::Dandelion
Floral::Gardenia
Floral::Geranium
Floral::Honeysuckle
Floral::Hops
Floral::Jasmine
Floral::Lavender
Floral::Lilac
Floral::Orange Blossom
Floral::Orchid
Floral::Osmanthus
Floral::Perfume
Floral::Rose

Fruit
Fruit::Berry
Fruit::Berry::Black Currant
Fruit::Berry::Blackberry
Fruit::Berry::Raspberry
Fruit::Berry::Strawberry

Fruit::Citrus
Fruit::Citrus::Citrus Zest
Fruit::Citrus::Grapefruit
Fruit::Citrus::Lemon
Fruit::Citrus::Lime
Fruit::Citrus::Orange

Fruit::Dried Fruit
Fruit::Dried Fruit::Fig
Fruit::Dried Fruit::Prune
Fruit::Dried Fruit::Raisin

Fruit::Tree Fruit
Fruit::Tree Fruit::Apricot
Fruit::Tree Fruit::Cherry
Fruit::Tree Fruit::Fig
Fruit::Tree Fruit::Green Apple
Fruit::Tree Fruit::Muscatel/Grape
Fruit::Tree Fruit::Peach
Fruit::Tree Fruit::Pear
Fruit::Tree Fruit::Plum
Fruit::Tree Fruit::Red Apple

Fruit::Tropical
Fruit::Tropical::Banana
Fruit::Tropical::Lychee
Fruit::Tropical::Mango
Fruit::Tropical::Melon
Fruit::Tropical::Pineapple

Marine
Marine::Fish
Marine::Sea Air
Marine::Seaweed

Mineral
Mineral::Brass
Mineral::Flint
Mineral::Metallic
Mineral::Salt
Mineral::Wet Stones

Nutty
Nutty::Almond
Nutty::Chestnut
Nutty::Grain
Nutty::Hazelnut
Nutty::Peanut
Nutty::Roast Nuts
Nutty::Walnut
Nutty::Rice

Spice
Spice::Cinnamon
Spice::Clove
Spice::Cocoa
Spice::Licorice
Spice::Nutmeg
Spice::Pepper
Spice::Vanilla

Sweet
Sweet::Burnt Sugar
Sweet::Candy
Sweet::Caramel
Sweet::Chocolate
Sweet::Honey
Sweet::Malt
Sweet::Maple Syrup
Sweet::Molasses
Sweet::Nectar
Sweet::Toffee

Soap
Soap::Bar soap

Vegetal
Vegetal::Brassica
Vegetal::Brassica::Broccoli
Vegetal::Brassica::Brussels Sprouts
Vegetal::Brassica::Cabbage
Vegetal::Brassica::Cauliflower

Vegetal::Grass
Vegetal::Grass::
Vegetal::Grass::Bamboo
Vegetal::Grass::Barnyard
Vegetal::Grass::Fresh Cut Grass
Vegetal::Grass::Grass Seed
Vegetal::Grass::Stems
Vegetal::Grass::Straw / Hay

Vegetal::Leafy Green
Vegetal::Leafy Green::Chard
Vegetal::Leafy Green::Kale
Vegetal::Leafy Green::Lettuce
Vegetal::Leafy Green::Spinach

Vegetal::Root Vegetable
Vegetal::Root Vegetable::Carrot
Vegetal::Root Vegetable::Daikon
Vegetal::Root Vegetable::Radish
Vegetal::Root Vegetable::Yam

Vegetal::Stem Vegetable
Vegetal::Stem Vegetable::Asparagus
Vegetal::Stem Vegetable::Celery
Vegetal::Stem Vegetable::Kohlrabi
Vegetal::Stem Vegetable::Rhubarb

Vegetal::Herbal
Vegetal::Herbal::Cardamom
Vegetal::Herbal::Coriander
Vegetal::Herbal::Dill
Vegetal::Herbal::Eucalyptus
Vegetal::Herbal::Fennel Seed
Vegetal::Herbal::Mint
Vegetal::Herbal::Parsley
Vegetal::Herbal::Saffron
Vegetal:;Herbal::Thyme

Vegetal::Bitter
Vegetal::Bitter::Arugula
Vegetal::Bitter::Endive
Vegetal::Bitter::Chard
Vegetal::Bitter::Collard Greens

Here is a list of modifiers for terms in the above nomenclature:
Cooked, fresh, rotten, old, stale, burnt.

Here is a list of terms used to describe mouthfeel / body / texture:
Smooth, buttery, flowing thick, watery, oily, astringent, robust, unctuous, structured, silky, mouth-filling, supple, rounded, powdery, velvety, creamy, flat, dull, bright, brisk.

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4 comments

  1. Judy Duncan

    Excellent, very comprehensive! I appreciate all the effort you have done . People who are new and those who deeply appreciate tea are looking for this type of info. Wish you the best on your book!

    -1
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