What does the nose know? Scented teas done kumikoh-style

Intro

Tea and incense share a long history. So for this tasting of scented teas, I’d like to run with a conceit from the incense world – kumikoh, Japanese incense games. 

There is a formalized incense tradition in Japan that in some ways parallels tea ceremony. This practice (called 香道 kohdo) involves the preparation and appreciation of precious fragrant woods. Practitioners hold gatherings and enjoy incense in a variety of ways including incense games called kumikoh (組香, lit. a set of incense).  There are many styles and themes of kumikoh, but in general guests attempt to guess the order in which various incenses are presented.

The more difficult kumikoh are played with a larger number of incense types.  For example, the host might prepare five pieces of incense. After the guests observe and smell each piece, they must deduce which pieces, if any, are the same. This particular kumikoh is called Genjikoh (after The Tale of Genji).

While the details of incense ceremony are beyond the scope of this post (and indeed, my knowledge!), if this peaks your interest I recommended reading more at the Yamadamatsu website. I visited Yamadamatsu in Kyoto just last year, which is where most of my brief knowledge of kohdo comes from (detailed information is woefully hard to find – please drop me a line if you have any books or websites to recommend).

So, in the spirit of kumikoh, I’ve set up a five tea blind tasting of scented teas from Mountain Stream Teas. Since I’m playing both the host and guest, I’m hoping that I’ll have an easier time guessing which tea is which!

Meet the Teas

Four of the teas were part of the June subscription box from Mountain Stream Teas. I’d like to note that I performed this tasting way back in October 2019 and am just getting to the write up now (better late than never)! I note this because scented tea is best consumed fresh – the scent fades quite quickly with time.

But because I need to test my own advice, the fifth tea is a 2018 version of one of the 2019 teas, as seen below:

Jasmine milk oolong:

elevation: 400m;  cultivar: jinxuan;  harvest: May 2019

Osmanthus baozhong oolong:

elevation: 400m;  cultivar: qingxin;  harvest: Winter 2019

2019 pomelo fragrance oolong:

elevation: 300m;  cultivar: big leaf oolong;  harvest: May 2019

2018 pomelo fragrance oolong:

elevation: 300m;  cultivar: big leaf oolong;  harvest: 2018

Mystery tea:

???  What’s the fun in knowing beforehand?

The Test

I’ve designed this page so that you can follow along with the tasting using pictures and graphics to represent aspects of each tea. Some graphics have extra information in a drop down box underneath. You’ll have to trust my judgement when it comes to relaying this information correctly. But even with that caveat, I hope there’s enough information that you can form your own opinion.

The parameters for this tasting were:

– 2.5g of each tea in an identical 100ml porcelain tasting set. The tasting sets were marked on the bottom with the grade of the tea, and the tea was placed into the corresponding set. These sets were blindly mixed and filled with water, and then marked with a letter on top. The tea liquor was poured out into a cup marked with the same letter.

– each tea steeped for two mins with 98C reverse osmosis water with pink rock salt added (TDS of 62 ppm)

Follow along with me on this kumikoh-inspired tasting! Can you match the teas above with the tasting notes below? My guesses and the actual answers are in a couple of drop down boxes near the bottom of this page. No early peeking 😉

LIQUOR

A

liquor_A

Bright light yellow. Clear. Jasmine scent?

B

liquor_B

A shade darker than A. Very clean. Ginger scent?

C

liquor_C

Darkest color of the five. Hazy. Grainy floral scent.

D

liquor_D

Bright yellow. Very clear. Osmanthus scent?

E

liquor_E

Bright green yellow. Very clear. No doubt about it – that’s a citrusy pomelo flower scent.

AROMA

A

jasmine aroma

Strong jasmine aroma up front that lingers.

B

banana_bread_ginger_aroma

Now this is something different! Banana bread forefront with a sugared ginger aftertaste.

C

grains_then_pomelo_flower_aroma

Grains, then later and weaker pomelo flower aromas.

D

cashew_osmanthus_aroma

Sweet nutty flavor (cashews, perhaps?) followed by an osmanthus scent, but just barely.

E

pomelo_flower_aroma

Intense pomelo flower aroma!

FLAVOR

A

sweet and bitter flavor

Sweet with a touch of bitterness underneath.

B

sweet

Straightforward sweetness.

C

sweet_then_sour

Sweet then sour, that very distinctive qing xin cultivar sourness.

D

sweet

Sweet.

E

bitter sweet flavors

Slightly bitter at first like grapefruit, fades to sweetness.

TEXTURE

A

dry texture

Some drying astringency.

B

oily_texture

Oily smooth.

C

soft drying texture

Soft but drying.

D

smooth-silky

Smooth, silky.

E

sappy dry texture

An interesting sappy green texture followed by some drying astringency.

BODY

A

medium body

B

medium body

C

medium body

D

medium body

E

medium body

BALANCE

A

Balance is shifted almost all the way to aroma, with some slight texture from astringency.

B

Aroma stands out, but this is otherwise a well-balanced tea.

C

Some noticeable texture and aroma.

D

Balance is good, with a bit more emphasis on aroma and flavor.

E

This is an aroma bomb! The texture stands out as well but the aroma is intense.

The Reveal

Spoiler alert! Don’t click the buttons below until you have finalized your guesses about which tea is which.

A – Jasmine oolong. There’s an unmistakable forward jasmine scent that persists. I find different jasmine plants (and teas) have unique nuances to the jasmine scent: on one end there’s light, elegant florals; in the middle, a sweet banana-tinged jasmine; on the far other end – the scent of mothballs. The tea is firmly in the sweet banana jasmine middle group.

B – Mystery tea. I’m having a tough time guessing what flower scented this tea. Based on the pervasive sweet/spicy ginger note, I’ll wildly guess this is some kind of ginger flower tea.

C – 2018 pomelo oolong. After the tea cools, the bright pomelo flower note comes through strong in the aftertaste. The forefront is all sweet grain notes.

D – Osmanthus baozhong. The soft, barely there floral scent with a sweet backbone leads me to believe this is the osmanthus baozhong. This tea is the most mellow of the five by far – its aroma is almost completely drowned out by the strength of jasmine and pomelo flower.

E – 2019 pomelo oolong. The pomelo flower scent is so intense that I almost feel like I’m drinking a floral citrus juice, not tea!

A – Jasmine oolong

B – Mystery tea – Gardenia flower oolong

C – Osmanthus baozhong

D – 2018 pomelo oolong

E – 2019 pomelo oolong

Conclusion: Fooled ya?!

Did you end up with the same conclusions as I did after following along with my tasting notes? If you did, I promise it was unintentional – I tricked myself as much as you!

It just goes to show how difficult it is to overwrite first impressions. After I observed and smelled the liquor before tasting, I became set in my conviction that there were hints of osmanthus in tea D, and pomelo flower in C. And after I got that stuck in my head, everything I sensed fit into those expectations and showed up in my tasting notes. It’s frustratingly hard to beat bias!

Had I known beforehand that the osmanthus oolong was the only one made from the distinctive sweet/sour qingxin cultivar, perhaps I would have been able to see past my expectations of the aroma (I don’t read anything about a tea before doing a tasting). But perhaps not! And that’s because:

Addendum - smell is a tricky thing

It’s hard to be objective when it comes to scents. I’m sure I’m not speaking only for myself when I say my sense of smell is my least-trained sense. Scents are ephemeral and the task of firmly embedding a specific scent into memory can feel like attempting to drive a nail into a ghost.

Less than a month before doing this tasting, I was enjoy the scent of blooming osmanthus as I walked through Kyoto. And yet, I couldn’t recognize it in an osmanthus scented tea! This is certainly frustrating.

As solace, the words of one of the staff members at Yamadamatsu incense in Kyoto come to mind. When talking about the difficulty of kumikoh, she said (roughly paraphrased): the way you perceive scent changes based on the time of day, what you eat, your mood, etc. Even pieces of wood chipped from the same tree will carry slightly different scents. But therein lies the joy and challenge of kumikoh – and tea as well!

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