A study shows that humans can be trained to track smells. The important finding about the study is probably not the potential use of man's nose to detect bombs (the authors probably thought of Rob Schneider, in 'the Animal', sniffing drugs in somebody's butt at the airport).
What I found interesting, for us tea drinkers, is that people trained to follow a track of smell were performing this task twice as fast after just 2 weeks of training. This shows that a little training for our nose can result in big improvements.
So, next time someone wonders what you're doing when sniffing the lid of the gaiwan, the tea leaves, the (full or empty) tea cup, just say you're training your nose like people go to the gym to train their muscles! The more often you do that, the more your brain will learn to analyze and differentiate the tea fragrances.
What happens when you have done that for 30 years? Then, maybe, you will be like my tea professor, Teaparker and have a foolproof nose. Here is one of my many experiences that he has well trained his nose:
Last month, a tea merchant in Taipei gave me a sample of Oriental Beauty for Teaparker to test. He told me this tea's little secret: it is the highest quality, organic Oriental Beauty (Fall 2006) that he has made from his tea plantation in ... Mainland China. He showed me other grades of Chinese Oriental Beauty. Some were really cheap, but the one he gave me to test was just slightly cheaper than Formosa Oriental Beauty. At the next tea class, I gave Teaparker the tea and just said 'Here is a tea I found recently'. He had a quick look at the leaves, then smelled my sample and said: "This is Oriental Beauty, but -a short pause, thinking- this one does not come from Taiwan. Besides, it doesn't smell right."
Just smelling the tea was enough to tell him the origin! And he was also right that this tea was not good, despite its high price.
I brewed these 3 Oriental Beauties at home, from left to right: Mao Ho OB from Pinglin (Summer 2005), this China OB (Fall 2006), Hsin Chu OB (Summer 2005) the one I had previously in my selection.
Brewing parameters: 4 grams for 5 minutes (a testing parameter).
The Mao Ho OB made a pretty orange. The smells are a little wild like in a wet forest, lightly smoked and only then comes the more characteristic OB sweet and a little sour smell. I felt some closeness to Ai Jiao and Shui Xian Oolong. Contrary to other Wenshan OB I tasted before, it was not thin and fragrant. This one has a quite long aftertaste.
The China OB was a little brown and a little less clear. The fragrance was what one expects of a very concentrated OB, but actually almost too much. Something artificial, like sweet-sour candies. Bad. From a taste point of view, the sweetness in the beginning transforms into a metallic astringency. The tongue feels heavy and uncomfortable.
The Hsin Chu OB remained my clear favorite. A shiny red color in the cup. In its second year, new spices like cinnamon are emerging and add complexity to a tea that seems never ending. Excellent. This is how OB should taste. (Too bad my stock is depleted!)
Conclusion: Train your nose and you will be able to tell between good and bad teas! (Hat tip to Lewis Perin for the article.)