In the fast-paced world we are living in, where we are constantly on the run, the experience of eating and drinking does not get the time it deserves. We experience the taste of what we eat and drink either as a thumbs up or thumbs down.
Slow down the time
A sommelier slows down time and breaks down the taste experience into several components. Tasting is the most essential skill for a sommelier, it is both art and science. That skill is built on a lot of practice, a sense of curiosity and a way of memorizing the different experiences into different categories.
When I started as a tea sommelier with the World Tea Academy, just to keep up with the programme I had to spend hours in the kitchen tasting and describing tastes. It involved all senses, the look of the tea leaf, the smell of the dry and wet leaves, even the sound of the processed leave and the crispness when you roll it through the fingers.
I still remember my times during the summer in Swansea,Massachusetts. While the family would happily make their way to the beach, I would stay from morning to evening, preparing, tasting and describing one tea after the other. Tasting is providing your mind with a memory, an experience linked to a product. It is that process of constant repeating, one tea spoon slurped into the mouth which makes for a better sommelier.
Tasting water is similar but also a special experience on its own. While most people agree that tea has different tastes and it becomes easier when the tea also has a different color, convincing and inspiring people, that the same colorless and mostly odorless liquid can have different tastes, can be a challenge.
But a challenge I am willing to take on thanks to my studies with the Fine Water Academy.
The smile on a face of a person that ‘gets it’ , that sees the difference in the taste and the value that the experience has brought to them, is reward enough.
To start tasting as a non-taster, you best break down the process into 4 parts:
- The prep work
Not mandatory but very useful, trust me on this one.
The first part of tasting happens without even having a single drop in your mouth. Research. Look at the label of the bottle. Find the TDS (Total Dissolved Solids) number, if high, your tasting experience will be much more complex than a low number, where your taste buds will get a different vibe. Read the minerals description and see if any of the numbers jumps out and is higher than the others. In most waters the mineral content is small , measured in milligrams so a fraction of a gram compared to the 1,000 grams of a big water bottle. Try to research where the water is coming from, the terroir we had in the previous blog entry. It will help you later to categorize your taste experience, when it comes full circle and helps you to compare to waters from other regions.
- The arrival
Now take a big sip of the water.
We will leave the slurping for another blog entry, for now just take a nice, juicy sip. Feel how the water enters into your mouth, feel the sensation. Some waters will come with a big entrance, with a big weight on the tongue, while others will be light as a feather and will sneak their weight in. I love the way Aqua Morelli from Italy, a low TDS water, enters, almost unnoticed without any attraction. Other waters want to be noticed, take Perrier from France with loud, bold bubbles it wants to be the star of the event. Sip after Sip you will experience the difference between a quiet and loud entrance or something in between. The water makes its way to the taste buds and they can sense its arrival. Just notice the sensation and link it to the water brand. Check.
- The mouthfeel
Once the water has arrived, your taste buds will go to work.They will examine on what their guest has to offer. This will be the most complex step in the tasting process where many different events can occur. It will be a combination of different taste sensations. Some waters will be light,they will be salty, some might have a slight bitterness, and some will have a sweetness to them. And here comes the most interesting part of tasting. Your collective taste memory will come together, almost as a grand jury and will present the verdict, if you as the person likes that taste or not. All of your taste experiences in your life, all the foods and drinks you like or hate, will contribute to this decision. I like this sip of water or I do not like it.
Ask yourself : Why do I not like this taste? Do I not like the small or large bubbles? Is it the sweetness? Is it the saltiness? That reflection and description of the taste experience will help you to find the taste you like better. And as sommeliers we can help you with this. Every person tastes different, because of our taste bud composition and sensitivity but also because of our taste journey through our life. That dislike of lemons might play a role or that like of apples. When you can be descriptive to a sommelier on what you like or dislike in a restaurant, we can help you to find a water that fits your taste preference and the structure your taste buds will enjoy. Like the embracement of our diversity, our different tastes make us unique and our job as a sommelier so interesting.
- The Finish
Once you explored the sip of water, it is time to actually drink it. It will lead to another important experience in the taste journey-the finish. How you will experience the drinking of the water will have a huge impact if you want another sip of that brand or not. For me the best example is always Cottorella, a low TDS water from Italy. After every sip and the tasting experience my brain sends me another signal : “I want another sip of that!”.
So next time you are in a supermarket, pick up a water you have never tasted again and a bottle which is very familiar to you. Try the 4 steps and reflect after each step. Describe the impressions, best write them down as tasting note next to the name of that water. You are on your way on becoming a taste expert. And next time you are in a restaurant, describe your impressions to the wait staff or the sommelier of the house, they will be hugely impressed and will make sure that your water experience will be the best you ever had in a restaurant.