Mona Jhunjhnuwala is a tea educator and founder of Teawala, a Hong Kong-based tea brand dedicated to sourcing authentic, loose leaf teas direct from the farm. She is passionate about bringing farm-fresh teas made by experienced tea artisans to more people. We talk to her about what tea tasting actually involves, and why slowing down for a tea session is a great way to find some peace of mind.
A Little Background
After working in the tea industry for several years, Mona decided to go on an adventure: she was to visit tea farms in mainland China, Taiwan and India for herself. Wanting a space to share her journey, she launched her instagram page @teawala in 2016.
And that’s where everything began: people loved her tea journey, and she started a tea mail subscription to share teas she encountered along the way, which was what inspired her to start her own business Teawala in 2019. Earlier this year, Mona created an online course “Taste Tea Like A Professional” to help people get more out of their tea even more.
5 Things You Should Know About Tea Tasting
1. Travelling is one way to explore — another is through your taste buds
The main thing that drew me into tea was that there were so many different types of tea — green tea, oolong tea, white tea, pu’er, black tea. All these types of tea offer different flavor profiles. And they all come from the same plant! The Camellia Sinensis, which is the tea plant. I enjoyed exploring and venturing through all those taste profiles, and discovering where those teas come from and the stories behind them.
Travelling is one way to explore, but another is just through your taste buds, right? You can taste the flavors and appreciate the culture of all the different regions without having to travel at all. It’s just like tasting different food and drinking different wine. It gives you a sense of discovery.
2. Appreciating the aroma is as important as tasting the tea
For tea, tasting with your tongue is important, but smell is just as important. Sometimes the smell can even be more enjoyable than the taste. In a tea tasting session, you see people smelling the tea leaves and the lids, and you may be like, “what are they doing?” It’s because you need to appreciate the aroma of the tea, as that is a very essential component of the tea itself.
When it comes to aroma, you’re generally looking for certain notes. Maybe it’s got a floral or fruity aroma. It could be vegetal or seaweedy — those can be common for Japanese green teas. Or there could be strong roasted or baked notes, which is common for roasted oolongs. So you’re looking for those general aroma notes. Also important is the intensity of aroma. Is it light, mild or very strong? Usually you want quite an obvious but not artificial aroma.
In the course, I go more in-depth into the five-step tea tasting method, which consists of looking at the dry leaves, smelling the dry leaves, brewing the tea, smelling the wet leaves, and, finally, tasting the tea. There’s a lot more in the course about what you should look out for in each step, in order to better appreciate and evaluate the quality of the tea leaves.
3. Tea brewing is a great mindfulness practice
For times like when I feel like I can’t get myself to work very hard and I need a little caffeine boost, I’ll set aside 20 minutes for a gongfu tea session (a Chinese-style brewing technique with a smaller teapot or gaiwan). It requires your full presence, as a gongfu tea session uses a larger amount of tea leaves and very little water. The infusion time for each brew is relatively quick. If you’re trying to multi-task, you’ll often forget about the tea. It’ll oversteep and taste horrible.
Gongfu brewing requires both your hands, and there’s more teaware involved, like the gaiwan, the pitcher, the tea cup, and the kettle. You need to go through a process before you can even brew the tea. You need to set up the teaware, rinse out the teaware with hot water, place the tea leaves in the gaiwan, Then you need to pour a certain way over the tea leaves, either circular or with a stronger force depending on the tea type. You need to pay attention to the color of the infusion, the smell and the water temperature. It’s a very involved process. You get to take a break from the screen, and just focus on the physical act of brewing.
It’s a great mindfulness practice. If you just want to be mindful of the present moment, I really recommend brewing tea gongfu-style. In our modern-day society, you don’t have too many practices like this that require all of your senses. I think it’s also why people enjoy things like yoga, hiking, running, painting. Gongfu tea brewing is on par with all of those activities.
4. Experiment! For instance, make a tea cocktail
Tea is approachable and fun! And it’s something everyone can enjoy. Sometimes, tea comes off as snobbish. You have the expensive afternoon high tea, and, historically, tea in Britain was for the higher-class.
A way to bring attention to tea in a more modern light is to mix it with other things. For example, top up your cold brew with some soda! Recently, I cold-brewed white peony tea and topped it up with some soda for a bit of fizz. And it just gives it a bit more pizzazz.
Tea cocktails is also really fun. Of course, you need some foundational understanding of tea before you can make a tea cocktail. For Thanksgiving, I made a pear, thyme, and oolong tea-infused champagne drink. It’s fresh pear, thyme herb, apple juice and a little bit of orange liqueur, infused in the fridge for a couple hours, some Wenshan Baozhong cold brew, topped up with champagne.
5. Tea teaches you to be patient
When you start with tea, you’re never going to know everything. You’re never going to be able to brew all the teas perfectly. I still can’t, and I probably will never be able to. Studying and appreciating tea teaches you a lot of patience. It’s a problem our generation has, where we seek instant gratification. But tea is not like that. You need to invest a lot of time and a lot of care to understand and to prepare it properly. I have benefited a lot in that aspect. I’ve learned to slow down, let myself make mistakes, and to not expect results right away. It’s made me more calm.
Want to get started with tea and tea tasting?
Try out Mona’s online course Taste Tea Like A Professional, which can be accessed from anywhere around the world. If you’re from Hong Kong, you have the option of getting the course bundle, which includes the online course, Teawala’s six tea sampler as well as an introductory book about Chinese tea Tea is For Everyone. Enrollment is open until December 25th, 2020. The course teaches you how to identify major tea types, differentiate between quality levels, and evaluate tea. There’re over 150 minutes of video tutorials and more than 20 downloadable PDFs included in the course.
*The book is published by Man Mo Media, also the publisher of The Loop HK