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Tea and the Taster are One

It is something we had always noticed: everybody has a different experience of the same tea. (Me and my wife no longer squabble over our different opinions about tea).  Our tea tasting notes that we publish are nothing more than rough sketchs, which you could entirely disagree with. We can only assure you that our teas will be the freshest and among the best that you can get.

The following interview with an expert from Cornell University by World Tea News suggests why the subject of taste is personal.

The Nose Knows Tea... And So Do the Tongue and Brain  
Wednesday, 05 May 2010 

Virginia Utermohlen knows a thing or two about the senses – not only how they determine someone’s tastes, but also they relate to his or her personality. The Associate Professor in the Division of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell University has done extensive work on taste and personality in the wine industry, and now she’s turning her unique skill set on tea.

WTN Editor Heidi Kyser spoke with her recently to find out about the taste experiments she’ll be doing on the show floor of World Tea Expo, the results she’ll be presenting at the conference and what it all means to the specialty tea industry.

WTN: How did you get involved with the wine industry?
Utermohlen: I’ve been working with Tim Hanni, and the people at the Lodi International Wine Awards. They’ve been putting forth various data, and I’ve been doing data analysis for them, helping them figure out which people like which wines. They have a survey I’ve analyzed for them, and they’ve had various wine-judging events, so it’s been really interesting helping them with that.

WTN: What was interesting about it?
Utermohlen: No two people judge the same wine the same way. What we’re trying to figure out at the moment is, what it is about certain people that makes them like certain wines, and not others. There seem to be not only certain taste preferences, but also personality – it’s how you take on experience.

WTN: How do you determine that?
Utermohlen: By asking personality-related questions. For example, one of the things we ask is, “Are you deeply moved by a sunset?” Some people are and some people just think it’s pretty. The two tend to have very different taste profiles. What we want to see now is whether what we’ve found with respect to wine and other foods also holds true for tea.

WTN: How did you get interested in tea?
Utermohlen: I got interested in it when I gave a talk at a Slow Food event. I was talking with a tea expert there, and I started thinking, “I don’t really know a thing about tea.” Then I went to Vancouver, where my daughter introduced me to Mariage Frères teas, and it blew my mind. I bought books on tea and realized I’d been missing a whole segment of this taste universe. I’m interested in all these tastes and smells.

I’m not a complete novice – my favorite tea in the past has been lapsang souchong. I’ve been to Japan and had green tea there. I’m a highly sensitive taster, so things that are really flavorful are nice, because they give me so much of a kick.

WTN: How did you find out about World Tea Expo?
Utermohlen: Scott Svihula (Teasmith for China Mist Brands) e-mailed me because of my Web site. He had seen what I was doing with wine. He contacted me for some information about tea, and it blossomed into having a booth at the expo.

WTN: So, what are you planning to do at the Expo?
Utermohlen: I have a questionnaire that I’ve prepared that is very short and sweet for people to fill in, then I’ll have them taste a lovely array of six iced teas that Scott has selected. I’m very, very interested in knowing what people will choose to taste and what they’ll think of it when they taste it.

WTN: What are you hoping to see?
Utermohlen: I’m very curious about something I noticed with wine tastings locally here in Ithaca. It’s very interesting to see who picks which wine to taste. When you go to a winery for a tasting, you pay two bucks and you can pick six wines out of the 20 or so they have to offer. People differ considerably in the wines they choose, and it’s based on the way they view the world.

WTN: How do you document that?
Utermohlen: They’ll give me a scale from 0 to 5 or 6, and they’ll say they love it or hate it, or somewhere in between. I’ve tried it here (in Ithaca, N.Y.), among people I know, with the teas that Scott has to offer, and it’s very interesting to see what they choose. They have very different reactions to the same substance.

WTN: How can this information be used?
Utermohlen: It matters when you’re deciding, for instance, how to advertise something. If you have an ad that’s highly visually evocative, you’ll grab one type of person. And if you have something that’s more sensual, you’ll grab a different type of person. It will interesting to see what kinds of flavors go with what kinds of people.

WTN: How and when will you present your results?
Utermohlen: I’m helping Scott with the class he’s giving on Sunday (Becoming a Better Cupper). From everything we collect on Saturday, we will probably have some preliminary results by the time of the class Sunday morning (8 a.m.). Then, I’ll be collecting data in the class as well.

WTN: What’s the class about?
Utermohlen: It’s sort of taste 101. We’ll talk about what the different tastes are and the role of smell in taste. The piece I consider critical here – and I gave Scott a whole bunch of slides on this – is the fact that tea activates, because of its astringency, the trigeminal nerve.

WTN: Why is that critical?
Utermohlen: The name of the trigeminal nerve comes from the fact it has three branches, to the mouth, the nose area and the eye area. It detects texture, astringency, hot and cold, and certain chemicals activate it. … The trigeminal nerve is also sensitive to temperature and pain. There’s some degree of detection of sweetness as well. Understanding the trigeminal nerve is just in its infancy.

The dryness or astringency you feel with tea is a function of the trigeminal nerve, and the prickle of carbonated beverages.

WTN: How will that information be useful?
Utermohlen: That’s the open question. That’s why it’s of such interest to me. One thing that happens with these nerves is a little cross-talk and a little inhibition. So, if you have something sour and you put sugar in it, the sugar masks the sourness. You haven’t changed the chemical composition, but your brain doesn’t pick up the sour because of the sweet.

One of the reasons sweet iced tea is so popular may be because it masks the astringency. Some people are very, very sensitive to astringency. It’s an open question as to how much people’s dislike of tea, if they should dislike it, is based on its astringency.

WTN: Is there a pre-existing body of work on this subject?
Utermohlen: There’s very little out there about tea that’s relevant to this discussion. There’s a set of data on liking or disliking green tea, but it’s looking at overall taste sensitivity, rather than any specific aspect of taste.

My connection is to the psychological side. They’re asking, how sensitive are your taste buds? I find it very interesting to see where the connection to other things in one’s life are made. Part of taste is what you experience in the world.

WTN: What are you hoping to find?
Utermohlen: My secret hope is that at this Expo I can have a few interesting experiences, for my own tasting pleasure.

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