Tea Blog

Understanding Tea Tasting and Processing Terms

Abi Cowell
Posted on
January 18, 2023

As you grown in your love of tea, you’ll come across terms that are unfamiliar. Understanding these tea tasting and tea processing terms will help you deepen your love of tea. Don’t let it hold you back. Forge ahead and become a tea connoisseur!

List of tea terms and their definitions


Assam: A black tea grown in the Northeast section of India. A strong full-bodied tea with a rich robust flavor. Considered by many tea lovers to be a wake-up tea to be consumed in the morning. Often used in blends because of its strong taste.

Aroma: An important consideration in cupping teas is the smell which is given off. A favorable aroma often = flavorful taste.

Astringent: A tea tasting term which describes a liquor which is pungent but inclined to be acidic.

Autumnal: Describes the liquor from teas grown in Autumn, in cool weather. Often applied to teas from Northern India.

Baggy: Describes an undesirable taint sometimes found in teas withered on inferior hessian or stored in sacks.

Bakey: An unpleasant characteristic in the liquors of teas which have been subjected to higher than desirable temps during processing.

Bancha: A Japanese tea made from coarse leaves, usually from the last plucking. This tea is generally consumed domestically.

Biscuity: A desirable trait usually referring to a well fired Assam.

Bite: A very brisk and “alive” tea liquor. A desirable trait.

Bitter: An unpleasant taste usually found in under-processed or raw teas, as well as teas that have been infused for too long.

Black: A black leaf color is most desirable for black teas. A term used in connection with Orthodox teas, that is, teas produced by a machine that rolls the withered leaves to release the enzymes.

Black Tea: The most commonly consumed tea in the world accounting for approximately 80% of all consumption. In the United States well over 90% of the tea consumed is black. Black teas are the most processed of all teas in that they are oxidized or fermented.

Blend: A mixture of teas from several different origins to achieve a certain flavor profile.

Bloom: A tea that has been properly manufactured and sorted and retains its sheen is said to have bloom.

Bold: A tea with pieces of leaf that are larger than they should be for the grade. In some teas, such as some oolongs, a bold leaf is desirable.

Body: Describes a tea liquor possessing fullness and strength.

Bouquet: The aroma coming from a fragrant leaf. An old or very poor quality tea may not have much of a bouquet.

Brassy: An unpleasant metallic taste from teas that have not been properly withered.

Bright: A lively tea, usually with a red liquor.

Brisk: Describes a live taste as opposed to flat or soft.

Broken Orange Pekoe: A size of tea leaf comprising the smaller leaves and tips.

Bud: The top leaf of the tea stem that has not yet opened. A very young unopened leaf which is golden in color in black teas, a pale whitish green with peach-like down. Teas with a high percentage of the young leaves are called tippy or golden.

Burnt: A degree worse than bakey.

Caffeine: A component of tea which stimulates the nervous system. A cup of tea averages 40 milligrams of caffeine versus approximately 110 in a cup of coffee.

Ceylon Tea: The common name of teas grown in Sri Lanka.

Ceylon Breakfast: A blend of fine teas grown on the hillsides of Sri Lanka producing a rich golden liquor with superb flavor.

Chai: A blend of black tea with various spices and steamed milk as commonly drunk in India.

Character: An interesting, intriguing or complex taste when describing high grown teas, although can be applied to any tea with depth of character. It is distinct in different teas, e.g., Darjeeling has a distinct muscatel wine character.

Chest: Traditional way of packaging bulk teas. Usually made of wood with an aluminum lining.

Chesty: Tea which has been contaminated by improperly seasoned or inferior chest panels.

China Oolong: A select blend of large leaf teas from China.

Chunky: A broken grade of tea that also contains large leaf particles.

Clean: A leaf term meaning that the leaf sizes are even and appropriate to the grade. Also indicates the leaf is free from stalk and other debris.

Common: Describes the liquor of inferior tea having little character.

Chop: From the Hindi; means to stamp. A chop of tea means a certain number of chests all carrying the same brand.

Coloury: A tea that has good depth of color, usually indicating good body & strength…not necessarily good taste.

Complexity: A tea is said to have complexity when it gives a complex & harmonious experience from pleasing aroma to intriguing tastes, & leaves one with an appealing aftertaste.

Coppery: Refers to color of the tea liquor, like a new penny. A good trait resulting from good manufacturing processes.

Cream: A desirable precipitate on black teas, especially Assams, obtained after cooling, & an indication of the thickness of the liquor.

Creaming Down: A high quality tea which turns cloudy generally believed to be caused by the precipitation of tannins.

Crepy: A crinkled texture of the leaf usually seen in larger broken grades.

Croppy: Describes a bright, strong creamy liquor with distinctive character. Usually found in some second flush Assams and Dooars of Orthodox manufacture.

Curly: Seen in some whole leaf grades, leaves that curl up, unlike in other whole leaves which have a wiry configuration.

Darjeeling: A very high quality black tea grown in the Himalayan Mountains in Northern India. Called the champagne of teas.

Dooar: Tea grown in the Dooar district located in Central India.

Dry: Denotes a slight bakiness due to some over-firing.

Dull: Tea liquor which is not clear or bright.

Dust: A term which has been used to describe the smallest particles of tea leaf.

Earthy: An unfavorable characteristic generally caused by storing tea under damp conditions.

Empty: A tasting term for a tea with disappointing character that lacks substance & has little body.

English Breakfast: A blend of China Keemums, Ceylon and/or India teas to produce a full bodied brew.

Estate: A term used to describe a plantation or garden where tea is grown.

Even: Leaves that are uniform, fairly regular in size and are appropriate for the grade given.

Fannings: A very small size of tea leaf, although larger than dust.

Fermentation: A term used to describe the processing of Oolong and Black teas. The actual chemical transformation which takes place is actually oxidation.

Fibrous: A term used to identify pieces of stem in tea.

Fibery: Teas that contain an inordinate amount of stalk. A very small amount of stalk is not uncommon, excessive stalk is undesirable.

Fine: Teas of exceptional quality and flavor.

Flakey: Leaves that are flat as opposed to nicely curled or wiry leaves. Leaves that seem fluffy and are without proper density and texture.

Flat: Not fresh, usually due to age, causing a dull taste the opposite of brisk.

Flavour: Very characteristic taste and aroma of fine teas, usually associated with high grown teas.

Flowery Orange Pekoe: A large leaf size containing an abundance of tip.

Flush: The new growth on a tea plant consisting of a full complement of leaves. It takes about 40 days for a new bud to blossom into a flush.

Formosa: Tea grown on the island of Taiwan.

Fruity: An over-ripe taste due to over-fermentation, undesirable in most teas but desirable in Keemun & most oolongs.

Full: A strong tea with good color and no bitterness.

Fully-fired: Referring to a taste of the liquor equated with being slightly over fired.

Garden: Refers to a plantation or estate where tea is grown.

Golden Tip: A desirable feature resulting from good harvesting practices.

Gone off: Tea which is not good because it is old, mouldy, or otherwise tainted.

Grainy: Refers to well-made fannings and dust.

Grassy: A typical description of the flavor of some green teas that have an aroma of freshly mowed hay & grassy taste.

Green: Describes an unpleasant astringency which may be due to inadequate withering or fermentation.

Green tea: Tea which undergoes minimal processing and most resembles the original green leaf.

Gunpowder: A type of Green tea which has been rolled into pellets.

Gyokuro: A prized Japanese Green Tea which is rich to the taste and pleasing to the eye. The tea undergoes special handling at every stage of its growth (shaded) and processing (hand-fired).

Hard: A desirable quality suggesting pungency, particularly applied to Assam teas.

Harsh: Refers to a tea which is bitter which could result from picking (plucking) tea before it is ready.

Heavy: A tea which is not brisk and overly strong.

Herbaceous: The fresh, grassy flavor & character in green teas, most often applied to Japanese green tea.

High-fired: A tea that has remained in a dryer for a longer period than necessary, but not considered to be burnt.

Hungry: Describes the liquor of a tea which is lacking in cup quality.

Hyson, Young Hys: A Chinese Green Tea named for the East India merchant who first sold it in England.

I-Chiban Cha: A Japanese term referring to the first flush or first plucking of tea. Generally a very delicate tasting tea.

Imperial Tea: A rolled Green Tea from Ceylon, China, or India made from older leaves. It has a good aroma and is refreshing.

Instant Tea: Developed in 1930’s & commercialized in 50’s, instant tea sacrifices nuances in fragrance/flavor for convenience.

Jasmine: The Chinese use Green Tea as the base to which Jasmine flowers are used to scent the tea.

Keemun: A fine grade of Black Tea from China. It has a dark amber color and unique “sappy liquor.

Lacking/Plain: Tea with clean tasting liquor, but lacking in normally desired characters.

Lapsang Souchong: A fine grade of China Black tea with a distinctive smoky flavor which results from a unique drying process. Tea drinkers either love or hate the taste of this unusual tea.

Leafy: Leaves that are larger than normal for the leaf grade.

Leggy: Leaves that are long and thin.

Light: Describes a liquor which is rather thin and lacking depth of color but which may be flavoury or pungent or both.

Liquor: The proper term for prepared liquid of tea, having nothing to do with alcohol.

Lot: Describes all of the teas offered under a single mark or serial number at any tea auction.

Mature: A well rounded tea with good depth of flavor & little bitterness.

Metallic: An undesirable trait which imparts a metallic taste.

Mouldy: An undesirable trait characterized by a mouldy taste and odor resulting from improper storage.

Mouthfeel: The overall general sensations you get from contact with a tea in your mouth. Not so much flavors like fruity or smoky, but the other characteristics of tea such as astringency, body & strength.

Muddy: A term which describes a dull or lifeless liquor.

Muscatel: Describes a characteristic reminiscent of grapes. An exceptional characteristic found in the liquors of the finest second flush Darjeelings.

Mushy: A tea which may have been packed too moist.

Musty; Fusty: A tea liquor in which there is suspicion of mold.

New: Describes a tea which has not had adequate time to mellow.

Nose: A term used to connote a good aroma of tea.

Old: Describes liquor from tea which has lost through age those attributes which it possessed originally.

Oolong: Partially “fermented” tea which is allowed to wither, then is partially oxidized and dried. The term is of Chinese origins and means Black Dragon.

Orange Pekoe: Is used to identify a large leaf size. The tea is characterized by long, thin, wiry leaves which sometimes contain the white or yellow tip of the leaf bud.

Organoleptic: The process used by most tea tasters to evaluate the quality of a tea using all the senses.

Pale: A term indicating black or oolong tea liquor that is lacking in the normal rich color. It is a normal & desirable character of green & white tea liquors.

Pale Tip: In black or oolong teas, a less desirable tip color than golden tip, usually due to under withering of the leaf. In white teas and very high quality greens, the tip is naturally very pale green or whitish in color.

Pan-fired: A Japanese tea which is steamed and then rolled in iron pans to halt further oxidation.

Peak: The moment in tasting in which all of the tea’s characteristics: body, flavor, & astringency are fully realized. Black teas have pronounced peak where these characters all come together, oolongs characters are usually revealed immediately, & then are followed by a finish.

Pekoe: A size of tea leaf characterized by leaves which are shorter and not as wiry as Orange Pekoe.

Pekoe Souchong: A tea which may have been packed too moist.

Pingsuey: In Chinese, the term means ice water. A Black Tea from the Hangchow district of Zhejiang Province. An excellent mild tasting tea.

Plain: Describes teas which are clean and innocuous but lacking character.

Point; pointy: A most desirable brisk pungent characteristic.

Pouchong: Some of the finest quality and high priced teas. A very fragrant tea which is also used as a base for making Jasmine Tea.

PU-Er / PU-Erh: Fermented black or green tea, the best of which is aged for decades before use. The base may be green tea or black, and its tastes and aromas can range from earthy to elegant. In China, this fermented tea has been customarily drunk with or after meals as a digestif.

Pungent: Describes a tea liquor having marked briskness and an astringent effect on the palate without bitterness.

Quality: Describes a preponderance of desirable attributes which are the essential characteristics of a good tea.

Ragged: Uneven, rough or raggedly shaped tea leaves.

Rains; rainy: Describes liquor of a dull plain tea manufactured during the rainy season.

Raw: An unpleasant, bitter taste.

Red Tea: Often used to describe a South African Herbal plant called Rooibos or Red Bush from which an herbal tea is made.

Rich: A mellow liquor which is abounding in quality and thickness.

Rosy: A very desirable rosy colored liquor.

Rough: Leaf that is very irregular in appearance.

Roughness: A term used to connote harshness.

Round: A tea tasting term indicating desirably smooth liquor.

Russian Caravan: A blend of China Black Teas.

Sappy: Describes a tea liquor which has a full juicy flavor.

Scented: Any tea that has been enhanced with the addition of flowers, essential oils or fruits.

Scorched: Liquor lacking in flavor from leaf that has been fired at too high temperature & becomes too dry.

Self-drinking: Describes an original tea which is palatable in itself and does not necessarily require blending.

Sencha: These are teas which Japan exports and comprise about 75% of Japan’s total production.

Short in the Mouth: A tasting term for tea that leaves little aftertaste or whose flavor leaves very quickly after tasting.

Shotty: Term for a tightly rolled and well-made leaf.

Silky: Tea liquor, especially green tea, that has a silky, soft & smooth mouthfeel.

Silver Tip Pekoe: A very costly tea from China made from full-grown buds of a special tea bush. AKA White Tea.

Silvery Oolong: Another costly tea which utilizes the delicate whitish leaf from the first flush.

Slaty: Liquor that has an undesirable slate gray color.

Small: Leaves that are smaller than they should be for the grade.

Smokey: This term describes an odor or taste of smoke, often caused by a defect in the drier.

Soft: A tea which is under fermented or oxidized.

Sour: This describes an undesirable acid odor and taste.

Spicy: A liquor having character, suggestive of cinnamon or cloves.

Stale: A tea which is not fresh or has faded in its flavor due to age. Strength: Good substance to the liquor.

Stalk: Used to describe a tea with visible stalk.

Stalky: Tea that has a significant amount of stalk. There should be very little in most teas, but a minute amount of stalk is not abnormal.

Standing up: A tea which holds its original color and flavor is described in this manner.

Stand-out: No surprises here. A tea liquor which is above average.

Stewed; stewy: Describes certain thick liquoring teas, having undesirable characteristics as a result of incorrect firing.

Strength; strong: Describes a liquor with powerful tea characteristics, but not necessarily thick. A very desirable characteristic, but not essential in certain flavoury teas.

Stylish: A tea leaf with an exceptional appearance that has been properly manufactured.

Sumatra: Tea grown on the island of Sumatra. Gradings and characteristics are similar to Java teas.

Tainted: An undesirable characteristic with a taste and odor foreign to the tea.

Tannin: The chemical component of tea thought to be responsible for its presumed health benefits. One of the major components which contributes to the taste and pungency of tea.

Tarry: A tea which has a smokey aroma.

Tea: The leaf and extracted liquor of the shrub Camellia sinensis. No other beverages merit the unqualified term tea.

Tea Taster: An expert judge of the beverage. A person who uses organoleptic means to discern various characteristics and qualities of tea.

Tip: The leaf bud of the Camellia sinensis plant.

Tippy: The bud or unopened leaf at the tip of each stem. The youngest growth leaves which are not yet fully opened and are very light in color, and may contain furry down as is typical in young leaves. Generally, the greater percentage of tips in a blend, the higher the grade of tea.

Thick: Describes tea liquor having substance, but not necessarily strength.

Thin; weak: Tea liquor which lacks thickness or strength.

Tisane: A term which describes an herbal infusion.

Toasty: A tea which has been slightly overfired during processing. May be a desirable characteristic in some Darjeelings.

Twisted: Leaf that is properly curled or twisted after processing which includes withering and rolling.

Vegetal: The aroma & flavor attributed to green teas, mostly Chinese, which encompass flavors from grassy & herbaceous to certain vegetables, such as asparagus or squash.

Weathery: Describes soft, unpleasant characteristic, occasionally evident in liquors of teas processed during very wet weather.

Weak: Teas which have a thin liquor.

White Tea: To date, “genuine” white tea is the first flush buds of the tea bush and grown exclusively in the Fujian Province of China. The name of ‘white tea’ refers to the silver-colored (white) hairs on the picked tea bud. The least processed of all teas. It isn’t rolled first but is immediately fired.

Weedy: An unwanted grassy taste in black teas resulting from under-withering, sometimes called woody. In green teas, weedy may refer to the pleasantly herbaceous character or the aroma of freshly mowed hay.

Well twisted: A tea leaf which is tightly rolled or twisted, indicative of good withering.

Wiry: Another term which means well twisted.

Woody: A characteristic reminiscent of freshly-cut timber. This trait is usually associated with teas processed very late in the season.

This content has been adapted from the book Your Path of Tea for Health of Body, Mind and Spirit by the late Thia McKann, Tea Master and Owner of The Path of Tea.

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