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Tea Tasting Vocabulary: Learn How to Describe & Taste Tea Like a Pro

tea tasting vocabulary

In this article, you will learn new tea tasting vocabulary to describe the complex flavors and aromas of tea. This new tea language will enable to explain the sensorial experience of having a sip of a warm cup of tea. 

Then we will give you 3 ideas to use your new tea vocabulary right away so keep going!

Tea Types: what different types of tea are there?

At the beginning of my tea journey, I thought the types of tea were pretty straightforward. I thought white tea had white leaves while green tea had green ones… Some of you are probably already shaking your head about that assumption, and you would be right to do so. There are actually seven different types of tea leaves and, no, the differences between them are not solely related to color.


White teas are extremely delicate. So delicate, in fact, that a lot of white tea leaves are still hand-picked and processed to preserve their light nature. Since white teas do not spend much time being oxidized, they provide subtle sweet and floral flavors with minimal brewing times.


Green teas can be a little scary to brew compared to other types of teas. Green teas are fired moments after they are plucked from the bush, so they are easier to over brew than other types of tea. Brewing a green tea too long or at too high of a heat can replace its gentle earthy flavor with a bitter, lingering dryness.


Yellow teas brew into a stunning golden color that speaks of their rarity. Yellow teas are delicate in the same ways that white and green teas are, but are made more luxurious by their multi-step oxidation process. After firing, yellow teas are wrapped in a damp cloth and steamed. This produces not only their stunning hue but also a smooth, mellow flavor with hints of sweetness.


Oolong teas are a bit more difficult to describe due to the wide range of varieties that exist. Oolong teas are considered only partially oxidized, which usually puts them somewhere between green and black teas in flavor profiles. Depending on the region that prepared it, oolong tea can be sweet and floral or strong and smokey.


Black and red teas are difficult to over brew or burn, so they’re safer than most teas for experimentation. These tea leaves are fully oxidized before being fired, which leads to relatively bold flavors. Rooibos, black, and hibiscus teas all fall into this flavorful category.


Puerh–pronounced POO-are, if you’re curious–is a type of tea with deep historical roots. Unlike the previous teas that are fired, Puerh is fermented. If you’re thinking, “Whoa, pickled tea?!”, it’s not quite like that. Puerh is fermented by tiny microbes that preserve the leaves for centuries to come. In fact, Puerh is a lot like fine wine–the longer it remains wrapped, the more wild and rich it tastes!


You’ve probably heard of tisane (tee-ZAHN) teas even if you don’t recognize the name. Tisane is the correct name for herbal teas, as they are a blend of ingredients rather than pure tea leaves. These teas can be created from a variety of leaves, berries, barks, and spices and are extremely versatile in terms of flavor.

General Tea tasting terminology

Now that you have a solid foundation of tea knowledge, let’s take a look at the words you’ll run across while purchasing or reading about different tea leaves and blends. Trust me–it will be a lot easier to pick out the kinds of tea you enjoy if you can speak the language of a tea connoisseur.

Type: the seven broad categories of tea including white, green, yellow, oolong, black/red, Puerh, and tisane

Origin: the location or area of the world a tea leaf came from or was historically crafted

Dry leaf: tea leaves that are dried out using a variety of methods including dehydration and firing

Infused leaf: tea leaves that have begun to grow and bloom through being soaked in liquid

Liquor: the liquid that is poured over and infused with tea leaves

Aroma: the way a tea smells before and after it is brewed

Texture: the physical feeling of a tea on the tongue and in the throat

Flavor profile: descriptive words for the flavors and aromatics tasted in a tea

Tea tasting wheel: a wheel designed to help create flavor profiles, with the middle describing the base flavors of a tea and following circles offering more detailed descriptions

Dry Tea Leaves Description

So you’ve bought your first loose leaf tea and aren’t sure how to start describing it. You might be staring at the open container and the only thought coming to mind is, that’s loose leaf tea, alright. No problem; we’ve all been there.

Dry tea leaves descriptors are typically used to pinpoint the overall quality of a tea. The purer and more natural the leaf the better manufactured the tea. That isn’t always the case, but it’s a good starting point when discussing tea origins and manufacturing practices.

Let’s dive right into some of the most common words used when discussing dry tea leaf quality. 

Choppy: tea leaves that are not cut uniformly and differ in size

Chunky: large pieces of tea leaf

Tarry: a smoky scent and blackish color caused by firing of leaves

Clean: tea leaves that are pure without any additional dust or leaf fibers

Curly: a whole leaf of tea that has been pressed and curled to maintain quality

Black: a blackish color of leaves desired for most teas rather than an over processed brown

Even: tea leaves that are all relatively the same size

Flakey: leaves that are fairly light, open, and lack curling

Powdery: a super fine dust that may an accompaniment to or the actual tea blend

Tip: the edge of a leaf that remains after plucking, which indicates carefully sourced teas

Musty: an old smell left behind by teas that are stored or manufactured poorly

Rolled: leaves that have been tightly rolled to better release flavors

Dull: tea leaves that have no noticeable color or brightness

Tea Terms to describe taste of brewed tea.

You’ve given your tea a very loving once over, inhaled its delicious aroma, and now you’re ready to taste it. You take a big gulp and…um, what exactly is that flavor, again? 

Tea liquor isn’t as simple as sweet or unsweet. After all, sweetened green tea isn’t going to taste like a sweet, iced chai. I know, I know–you’re wondering how on Earth you’re supposed to

describe your tea when there’s so many different sensations related to it. I would like to say the process is simple, but there’s a little bit of an art to describing flavors.

Luckily, I did all of the grunt work for you so that you can continue to sip at your favorite brew. Let’s get down to it, shall we?

Ample: full of different flavors or strong in one flavor profile

Astringent: a drying feeling left in the mouth and throat after drinking some types of black tea

Bite: a sharp or strong flavor; usually paired with astringency

Body: how a tea feels on the tongue; often paired with words like light and full

Bold: a rich, aromatic flavor that tends to linger

Burnt: a typically unpleasant flavor caused by over-firing or other too hot temperatures

Brisk: a bright tasting flavor that lacks bitterness

Character: a flavor profile that typically identifies a tea

Delicate: soft and subtle flavors that can be lost when steeped improperly

Fresh: light and bright flavors typically associated with fruit and citrus notes

Full: a dense flavor that is relatively strong in both flavor and color

Light: gentle flavors that are soft and smooth on the palette

Long: flavors that tend to linger in the mouth

Mild: quiet flavors that do not possess a strong smell, flavor, or presence

Pungent: dry and intense flavors typically associated with spicy and aromatic teas

Tannic: bitter and drying, but not sour

Raw: a usually disliked flavor that is reminiscent of bitter, tart, and strong grasses

Robust: an extremely rich, recognizable flavor

Rough: a harsh, unrefined, not-so-pleasant taste indicative of manufacturing error

Earthy: a natural, soil-like flavor that lacks both floral and sweet notes

Smokey: a flavor similar to campfire smoke or gunpowder

Weedy: a flavor similar to raw grasses or hay; frequently a sign of manufacturing error

Tea Words to Describe Infused Leaf

Did you think describing the flavor of the tea liquor would be the end of it? I certainly did. However, it’s amazing how much you can learn about the overall quality of a tea by how the leaves look after brewing. 

Whether you brew in a teapot with a strainer or use a tea ball, take a good look at your tea leaves after they have been brewed. Are you really getting the quality of tea promised to you? 

Let’s take a moment and review what infused leaves should (and shouldn’t) look like.

Brown: leaves that have been over-processed or poorly stored

Dark: leaves that are dark, but not black; usually leads to a poor-quality tea

Green: young leaves that can cause pale or transparent tea liquor

Black: pure, coal-like color that is signature of high-grade black teas

Bright: brilliantly colored leaves that lead to equally vibrant tea liquors

Coppery: a brilliant, orange color seen in exquisitely crafted teas

Words to describe scents and aromas

Similar to the world of fine wines and cuisine, the aroma and scents associated with particular teas are a key part of tea drinking. Think about it: some of our strongest memories are attached to smell. 

My fondest memory from traveling in Turkey is the earthy aroma of sage tea clinging to people’s clothes as they passed, so soft and herbaceous that it seemed to make a home for itself in my chest. I think back on those days fondly and remember how much of the tea world I hadn’t experienced or begun to understand.

Aroma was certainly a huge part of that. I knew the basics of this tea smells good and this tea smells like herbs, but I couldn’t clearly describe my experiences to my friends and family back home. How was I supposed to convince them to try the teas I fell in love with without the right words?

As it turns out, there are six key ways that tea aromas are described, and each of them gives a clear, distinct impression.

Hesperian notes

Don’t let the unique name fool you. Hesperian notes are bright and pleasant scents, typically associated with citrus. When you’re sipping tea that reminds you of your favorite lemonade mingling with the tangy bite of a lime, know that you’re experiencing something entirely hesperian.

Fruity notes

Fruity notes are exactly how they sound: fruity! Not to be confused with the bright scent of citrus blends, fruity teas have a sweet, refreshing aroma. This scent is also used to describe professionally processed teas such as oolong, which smells fruity with light oxidation even when it has no fruit at all blended with it!

Floral notes

Think way back to when you were a little kid and stepped outside to breathe in the sweet scent of flowers in spring. Got that scent in mind? That’s exactly what you’re experiencing when you smell a floral tea. Floral notes in a tea mimic those of a newly cut flower. Especially popular aromas include those of rose, lavender, and–my personal favorite–chamomile. 

Spicy notes

Spicy notes in a tea don’t necessarily mean that someone tossed in a jalapeno and called it a day. Well, maybe it does. Tea leaves don’t naturally have spicy notes, so hints of cinnamon and cardamom in a tea are added later in the manufacturing process. If you find that your tea has spicy notes and it shouldn’t, it could also be due to improper storage or contamination.

Vegetable and woodland notes

Vegetable and woodland notes in a tea can either be perfectly pleasant or brutally bitter depending on processing. Grassy and woody scents are frequently purposefully removed from teas through crafting because so many people find them unpleasant. This is partially because these scents can be indicative of mildew and improper storage. Still, purer green, matcha, and puerh teas are actually hailed for their earthy aromas. 

Empyreal notes

Empyreal notes refer to those aromas that bring up memories of sitting around a campfire or grilling that perfect piece of steak. These scents are usually created by the firing process used when curing the tea leaves and can evoke sensations of smoke, caramel, gunpowder, and charcoal.

The Tea Taster’s Flavor Wheel

What is the tea flavor wheel?

Maybe you’ve stumbled upon this complex wheel of  tea flavors before, or maybe it’s your first time seeing what looks like a primary school’s color wheel being used to describe food. Either way, we’re asking the same question: what is the tea flavor wheel?

The tea flavor wheel was created by the International Tea and Coffee Society to help customers describe their experiences with tea. It is reminiscent of the flavor wheels used for wine and fine cigars  and can be extremely helpful when looking for the right words to use when describing tea.

How to use the tea-tasting flavor wheel?

To use the tea taster’s flavor wheel, start from the middle and work your way outwards toward the edges. 

For example, let’s say that I take a sip of a new tea and decide that it tastes a little plant-like. I would find the “plant/herbaceous” section on the wheel, and then decide what kind of plant or herb I was tasting. There are four options in that section. I decide that my drink tastes a bit like an herb. After that, I take my final step to look at the furthermost ring and identify which type of herb it is.

 And that’s it! It’s really that simple. The use of a tea-tasting wheel can remedy those times when a flavor profile is really stumping you, so don’t hesitate to give it a try.

3 Ways to start using your new tea tasting vocabulary

Start a tea journal

Have you ever tasted a tea that touched your very soul and then immediately forgot the name of the blend or even what type of tea it was? If you have, we’ve shared the same boat more than once. That’s why starting and maintaining a tea journal is so beneficial to both remembering the teas you’ve tried in the past and practicing new tea vocabulary. 

Whenever you try a new tea, take the time to write down the name, the origin, the type, and any words that describe the tea. Many tea journals include tea tasting wheels you can fill out while you reflect, as well. Purchase a premade journal with tasting wheels online or draw your own!

Write a review for your favorite teas

The first time I sipped a tea that captured my heart, I wanted to shout it to the world. The rich chocolatey aroma! The hints of cinnamon! I didn’t really have all of the words that you might see scrawled on the back of a tea’s packaging, but I did have my personal experience and a lot of feelings about it. Those experiences are vital for new–and veteran–tea drinkers when they are looking to sample a new tea. 

Maybe you aren’t confident enough to post your review online yet, but try commemorating your experience by jotting down a quick review that persuades others to sample your favorite tea. After all, you might be the person who changes the entire course of a stranger’s tea journey.

Exchange opinions with other tea lovers

First rule of tea drinking: you are not alone. There are hundreds of thousands of tea drinkers in the world, and many of them are excited to share in your experiences or answer your most pressing questions.

I found that out the hard way after burning my fifth or sixth cup of green tea. I finally admitted to myself that I hadn’t a clue what I was doing and started browsing the web to find people who were willing to help a tea newbie like me. 

I eventually stumbled upon a forum that has been around for years known as TeaChat, which became my go-to spot for help, hints, and research. If you aren’t sure where to start or maybe all of your friends are coffee lovers like my own, try reaching out to other tea lovers either in person or online. You may find your next big obsession!

How to taste the tea properly step by step.

I like to think of myself as someone who has a general idea of how to brew and taste a beverage. At least, I thought I understood it in the past. After my travels, I realized that brewing and tasting tea is so much more than haphazardly tossing leaves into a fancy pot. 

I learned the hard way that the beginnings of a beautiful cup of tea start with several small steps. If I had paid attention to those from the start, I would have realized that I hadn’t brewed my tea incorrectly, but instead was using tea that was long past its expiration date.

I would like to take a moment to say rest in peace to the several bags of rose chamomile tea I purchased years ago and allowed to wither to nothing in my top kitchen cabinet. They never stood a chance.

Regardless of your experience (or lack thereof) with tasting teas, I’ve put together a helpful crash course in the process. Grab your favorite tea and infuser! We have some tastings to do.

1. Look at the dry leaf

Take a moment to look at your tea leaves as you add them to your infuser. What color are they? Are they tightly curled or chopped and loose? 

2. Brew the Tea

Using the instructions provided with your tea, add the correct temperature water to your leaves and watch them bloom. Are they uncurling and expanding, or do they remain stagnant? Do they begin to release color or does the water remain clear?

3. Look at the brew & wet leafs

Look at the brew and I mean really, really look at it. Is the liquid thin and transparent or is it dark and thick? What about the damp leaves? Are they discolored? Are they floating at the top of the water or sinking to the bottom?  

4. Smell the brew and the leaves

Bring the cup of tea to your nose and inhale deeply. Can you pick out any particular aroma notes? Is it sweet and light or strong and spicy? Is the scent pungent or faded?

5. Taste the tea

Now for the best part: take a sip of your tea. Not a gulp, mind you. We aren’t trying to choke down our morning coffee before running out the door. Sip the tea and let it linger on your tongue for a few moments. Focus on the way it reacts with your senses.

6. Note the flavors

Ready to put your tea knowledge to the test? Using a tea flavor wheel or your own experiences, take note of what you’re tasting. How strong is the flavor? Does it remind you more of fruit or of the earth? Does it taste old and stale? 

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