Every style of Japanese green tea boasts unique, complex flavor profiles and nuances that excite our feelings and senses. Astringency and bitterness are two sensations in Japanese green tea that are often difficult to separate by a novice tea drinker. Each is an important quality attribute that plays into the flavor complexity of tea, yet each has its controversies. Many of us are familiar with the taste of bitterness. But exactly what is astringency, and how does it affect how you enjoy your tea moments?
Bitterness is a taste, while astringency is feeling or sensation caused by tannins in certain foods. Some characterize the feeling as drying or sharp. Of course you can experience varying levels of this feeling. In Japan, Astringency is often thought of as “a pleasing bitterness,” and is a prized component that contributes to balancing the flavor of Japanese green tea. On the contrary, bitterness is less desirable and can be a marker of mass-produced, low-quality tea. Both are influenced by factors like growing conditions, cultivation practices, and growing techniques.
You can decipher the notes and flavors you enjoy the most and enhance your tea experience by learning the difference between bitterness and astringency.
Separating bitterness from astringency in tea can be difficult at first. However, the way they each interact with our receptors and nerves is quite different. To get a better grasp on bitter flavors without astringency, think of the taste of very dark chocolate or the sharpness of mustard.
As one of the five basic tastes along with saltiness, sweetness, umami, and sourness, bitter foods were warning signs of potentially poisonous or toxic foods for hunter-gatherers. Some green teas produce a bitter flavor from high levels of substances called polyphenols, particularly tannins, as a defense mechanism against insects and pests.
Bitterness in green tea is often misunderstood. Generally speaking, intense bitterness is a marker of low-quality tea, but slight bitterness is not always a bad thing. Different levels of bitterness are desirable depending on the style of tea as well as your taste preferences.
For centuries Japanese tea growers have centered tea cultivation and processing methods around making tea less bitter. Approaches like growing tea in higher elevations and harvesting young leaves during the spring can mitigate the bitterness.
Along with processes, the quality of your leaves and how you brew your tea also greatly affects bitterness. Whole, intact tea leaves slowly release tannins, while crushed or broken leaves release them quicker, heightening your chances of an overly bitter brew. By manipulating water temperature and time and choosing high-quality tea leaves, you can determine what level of bitterness (if any) is most desirable to you in your brew.
Probably the largest misconception when describing astringency is assuming it has to do with taste. In reality, astringency is actually a drying feeling in your mouth. When you feel astringency, polyphenols like EGCG and tannins react with your saliva and nerves in your mouth, tongue, cheeks, and throat, producing a drying physical sensation. To experience astringency without bitterness, try eating a green apple or any unripe fruit and pay attention to your mouthfeel after.
The beauty of astringency is its ability to hold the power of flavors on your palate. Astringency intensifies with each brew, extending the perceived duration of each flavor. Similar to bitterness, various factors influence the formation and level of astringency in different styles of green tea.
Astringency is a subjective feeling that is similar to an acquired taste. Teas of all grades and qualities come with diverse levels of astringency. High astringency teas can leave a texture in your mouth that many find unpleasant. But just like flavor and aroma, a desire for astringency is really up to your preference and what tastes best to you.
There are many astringency categories, but most teas fall into one of these four:
Several essential factors influence and control the formation of astringency and bitterness in Japanese green tea. A few include:
Japanese tea growers have mastered the art of cultivating green tea that exudes desirable qualities through growth strategies, brewing methods, and processing techniques. Astringency can balance the complex flavors of many styles of teas, but too much can leave an unpleasant mouthfeel. Bitterness, on the other hand, might be welcomed by some but is generally undesirable.
At the end of the day, the level of astringency and bitterness you enjoy comes down to your preference for feelings and flavors, and your mood might change depending on the time of day. You migh love a sunny sencha in the morning, or a smooth and deep matcha in the afternoon. Try a variety and see what you enjoy!
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