Tips, Tricks & Tales from the SESA Beverage Lab
Cupping - an Introduction
Did you know there's such a thing as cupping tea?
Cupping is designed to test the quality of a given pure tea leaf immediately after it's harvested. The most important thing about cupping is consistency. Since the ingredient tested varies, one must control the environment and testing process as much as possible to ensure a consistent and honest result.
The process of cupping is repetitive. A drinker must train her mind and senses to unearth the subtleties of the pure tea leaf much more than during a regular tasting. Cupping also pushes the limits of the tea, testing how they hold up under different circumstances to truly understand the tea.
In assessment, we consider quality and characteristics of the tea for a more comprehensive analysis of the natural compounds in a given leaf. We test for color, flavor, aroma, and the chemistry of the steep, in addition to evaluating the tea at each stage of the steep.
How is Tea Cupping Different than Tea Tasting?
There's a difference between cupping tea and tasting teas. At its core, one is more controlled and the other is more flexible and casual. The purpose for cupping teas is evaluation and quality control, while tea tastings can vary greatly in structure and are designed more for the enjoyment of the tea. Tastings are designed to find the process and to share specific types of tea. Tasting methods vary from tea to tea and culture to culture, and can be applied to tea blends and herbals as well as pure leaf teas.
Cupping traditionally only explores the essence of a pure leaf tea in order to determine its quality. At Sesa Pure, we follow international standardized guidelines for cupping processes to test pure botanicals in addition to testing our pure tea leaves. In cupping, we assess characteristics of the leaves to understand the imperfections and subtleties of a given tea harvest.
Before the Steep
Before beginning to steep the tea, we examine the dry leaves, considering their size, color and shape. We even examine the texture and aroma of the leaves. In this way, each aspect of the leaf is analyzed.
We often separate some leaves to be touched in order to get a better sense of the texture of the leaf, but we never steep these same leaves as they will have been contaminated by the oils on our hands.
During the Steep
We watch closely during the steep to see how the tea expresses itself over the course of the steep. What does the tea look like and smell like early in the process? How about during the middle of the process versus at the end? How long does it take for the tea to express itself within the hot water?
Often during cupping, one will taste the tea at various intervals while the tea is steeping. This helps determine what the best steeping time for that tea is and allows the palate to explore how the tea transforms while steeping. The aromas and infusion slowly shift as the tea releases throughout the steep, so we pay close attention to these changes as the leaves react with the heated water.
After the Steep
The timer goes off and it is finally time to truly taste the tea! We now take time to observe the color and characteristics of the brewed concoction. Analysis of the flavors and aroma follows. Then comes deeper research and review, often done by cupping scientists to assess the chemical components released and the enzymatic processes created.
Each region, tea processing variation and season's harvest varies. This is why we ensure a consistent process for cupping. By objectively comparing teas in a controlled setting, we are able to assess and understand the qualities of an individual harvest or type of tea and to better understand the factors that influence the subtle shifts in flavor, color and aroma.
Just as we take precautions to ensure the process of cupping is standardized, we, too, must ensure that as cuppers we do make individual preparations for the experience, such as not wearing perfume or eating overly flavorful foods that day, as these may hinder our ability to asses the tea with a neutral palate.
We are constantly amazed by tea's complexity. Despite each person's unique palate, we often respond similarly to the colors, flavors, and aromas of a given tea.