The smell of tea leaves is delightful. Holding dry tea leaves to the nose or smelling the freshly brewed leaves .. it is hard to get enough of it! But often the tea does smell better than it tastes.
When the aromatic and delightful tea has been steeped and you take the first sip of the cup you may be disappointed with the result. The taste of your tea is not the same as the smell!
Specialty stores often let you choose your teas based on smell even though there is a major difference between the compounds in tea responsible for taste and smell.
SHORT ANSWER – Why Tea Smells Better Than It Tastes
The smell of tea is caused by volatile compounds. These aroma compounds accumulate in tea jars and are released faster when the tea leaves are heated. Volatile compounds are not primarily responsible for the taste of a tea. The taste of tea is caused by water-soluble compounds that are extracted.
This answer is very technical. To properly explain the cause for the difference in smell and taste of teas you will need more information on the way that both of these are created.
Below I want to share what causes the smell and taste of tea and what the difference is. Further, I provide some tips and tricks on brewing more aromatic teas, and how you can capture that delightful smell in the brew.
Why The Smell And Taste Of Tea Are Different From Each Other
There are major differences in the properties and characteristics of the compounds responsible for the taste and smell of tea respectively. Knowing this difference is necessary to understand why smell and taste differ.
Why Does Tea Smell So Good
The smell and aroma of tea is commonly perceived as good and pleasant. Aroma and smell of tea is primarily caused by volatile compounds. The release of these compounds largely depends on the temperature as tea will smell more when warm and far less when cooled.
The smell of your tea will be most intense when smelling shortly after the first infusion. The high temperature of the tea leaves causes the volatile compounds to be released into the air quickly.
Over time, the compounds responsible for smell and aroma will completely disappear which is why aromatic teas with light and floral smell should be stored in an air-tight container and consumed short-term.
This means that the intensity of the smell of any tea is very dependent on the storage methods and time. But also many compounds responsible for smell will be lost with prolonged heating or oxidation processes.
That is the reason why darker oolong tea, Pu Erh tea and black tea are less floral and have a less intensive fresh or grassy aroma. The smell of highly oxidized and heavily roasted teas comes from newly created compounds.
What Makes Tea Taste?
Tea taste of tea is caused by chemical compounds contained in the tea leaves. These compounds are extracted into the hot water and give the resulting infusion its characteristic taste. Caffeine and tannins are compounds that cause the tea to taste bitter while acids in the tea will cause a sour taste.
The number of compounds in tea that takes part in creating the unique taste can not be counted. There are simply too many compounds in tea and many are only found in very small concentrations. (Source)
Some compounds are much more common than others and will have a greater influence on the smell because of that. Primary examples of this are caffeine and tannins. Both of these are found in every tea made from Camellia Sinensis, the tea plant.
DID YOU KNOW
Tannins are bitter compounds that cause a dark reddish-brown color of the infusion of tea. This is part of the reason why green tea that is steeped with boiling water will be brown and bitter.
Influencing The Taste Of Tea Through Temperature
What is important to know about the process of extracting the taste from tea leaves is that the water temperature is extremely important. The water temperature determines which compounds are extracted.
Tannins are a perfect example of this. Tannins are a desired part of black tea and darker oolong teas as the robust flavors go well with the bitterness of tannins. But that is not true for delicate teas.
Lighter teas and especially Chinese and Japanese green teas should not be brewed with boiling water but rather at about 160 °F (70 °C) or lower. Why? Because tannins are not extracted well at these lower temperatures.
Brewing tea at lower temperatures will prevent the intense bitterness and brown color that is very common when you over-steep green tea and choose too high water temperatures.
Why Does Tea Not Taste Like It Smells?
The smell of tea is primarily caused by volatile compounds. Water-soluble compounds are extracted from the tea leaves and responsible for the taste. Only a few volatile compounds are soluble in water and most water-soluble compounds are not volatile. Because of this, taste and smell are not the same.
As stated before, there is a difference between the compounds responsible for taste and those responsible for the smell. But there is at least some overlap to them.
The smell of a tea gives some hint at the taste. Many smells go hand in hand with compounds that are only perceived through tasting the infusion. For example, highly oxidized or roasted teas have a characteristic smell.
Grassy smell and sometimes aromas like seaweed of Japanese green teas will also translate into the brewed teas taste. There is definitely a correlation and overlap with the aroma and taste.
The compounds responsible for the delightful aroma of a tea may not be soluble in water but by adjusting the brewing technique and teaware, the aroma can be captured in the tea-drinking experience.
How To Make Tea Taste Like It Smells
Once you are disappointed with the taste of a tea than smells really good, you should be interested in learning some tips and tricks on how you can capture the smell in the tea you drink.
There are two major points I want to get into. For one, you can adjust your brewing methods to not lose the aroma of the tea you are making. Secondly, the cups you are using do have a noticeable influence on the taste of your tea.
Aromatic Tea With Brewing Techniques
Capturing insoluble volatile compounds in your tea can only be done through some tricks. The water itself may be able to hold those compounds at high temperatures, but that comes with problems.
Delicate teas, which are usually those that are most aromatic, will get bitter and won’t be enjoyable when brewed with boiling water. Further, a high water temperature will cause more aroma to escape into the air.
The method that I have made good experiences with is grandpa style tea brewing. You may have heard of this method as it does not require anything other than a glass, warm to hot water and tea leaves.
Because the tea leaves are inside the drinking glass, the aroma is not separated from the infusion. This way, the aroma will reach your nose while you sip the tea and allow for a fuller and more rounded experience.
To clarify how this method works, I have included a quick run-down of grandpa style brewing:
- Start by adding 1-2 teaspoons of tea leaves into an empty glass
- Next, fill the glass to 2/3 with warm to hot water (130-140°F / 55-60°C)
- Wait a while for the flavor to be extracted
- Drink and enjoy the tea!
- Be sure to add water if the tea gets too bitter or intense
- Always refill as soon as only 1/3 is left in the glass
Not filling the glass completely enable you to add some more water if the tea gets too intense or bitter. Don’t drink all the tea, as the next fill would be far less intense otherwise.
Choosing The Right Cups For Better Aroma
Another thing that I want to add is that the choice of teacups has a major impact on the way you perceive the tea you drink. One teacup will enhance the body and absorb all high notes while others will help you preserve the aroma.
I would recommend you to use a tall and narrow cup that allows the aroma and smell released from the brew to reach your nose properly. If you want your tea to taste more like it smells, that’s what you’d need to do.
A wide teacup made from course material will absorb some of the high notes and enhance bitter and umami flavors. The tea will gain more body, but lose the aroma you want it to have.
I have written an extensive guide on the influence that teacups can have on your tea-drinking experience which I highly recommend you to read.
There’s a lot more to learn about tea! If you are looking for a good place to start, I highly recommend the book Tea: History, Terroirs, Varieties. You can check its current price on Amazon here.