Why your Tea Smells Like Fish and How to Avoid It

Why your Tea Smells Like Fish and How to Avoid It

If you’re unlucky you might have had a fishy smelling tea before, which almost stopped you from drinking tea. There are two kinds of tea that could have a fishy smell or taste: pu erh tea and green tea. Both are discussed separately below.

Fishy Smell in Pu Erh

Before we dig deeper in the reason for a fishy taste, let’s first discuss a bit of related history of ripe pu erh tea production.

The Discovery of Ripe Pu Erh

In the 70’s, the famous Menghai tea factory invented a way to speed up the fermentation process by piling tea leaves in a controlled environment. By controlling the humidity and temperature the factory attempted to mimic natural fermentation of sheng (or 'raw') pu erh tea. While you can question whether this mimicking process was successful or not, we can at least say that the result was a very smooth drinking tea that is referred to as 'ripe pu erh tea'.

As a result of this success, other smaller factories started to use this fermentation process and some were unfortunately unsanitary. With very little regulation, this ‘Wild Wild West’ of pu erh tea led to some unexpected outcomes…

Reason 1: Sanitary Conditions

As you can guess, the unsanitary conditions of some smaller factories can lead to this fishy smell (also known as 'xing wei' in China). If your tea cake is older than 3 years but still has a fishy smell then most likely this is the problem. You should definitely just throw it away.

Reason 2: Low Quality & Young

For some less good quality pu erhs the reason for the fishy smell might be that it’s still relatively young (1-2 years). If that’s the case, try to loosen the leaves and let it air out for a day. It can also be a good idea break the pu erh in chunk and store it in an Yixing tea caddy. The porous nature of Yixing clay allows some air circulation inside, allowing the tea to release unpleasant flavours.

If that doesn't work, then simply store it away for another year and revisit. If it's still fishy then just leave it for another year. When it comes to pu erh, aging is your friend.

Green tea with Fishy Taste

Another tea type that can have a fishy taste is green tea. Most likely you got your hands on a Japanese green tea with a seaweed like flavor. In such, case you can conclude that such flavor just isn’t your thing. Seaweed like flavors are very common in certain Japanese greens. However, it shouldn't taste like very strong seaweed, but rather a vegetable flavor with a hint of seaweed. If it has a strong seaweed flavor then most likely quality isn't great.

Another reason could be that you've steeped green tea at too high temperatures. Sometimes this could draw out a fishy flavor. If so, try to steep it again at 80 C and see if it makes any difference.

At last, another explanation is that you could have stored you green tea in the fridge without sealing it away from other odors. Because green tea leaves are dry, they easily absorb odors from inside the fridge. So if you’ve some seafood stored in the fridge the most likely that’s what you’re tasting. There’s nothing wrong with storing green tea in the fridge, but make sure seal it away from other odors!

Does Matcha Taste Like Fish?

No, matcha shouldn't taste fishy at all, unless you're referring seaweed flavour (also called 'umami' flavor). A fishy matcha taste usually means it's denatured due to humidity or heat. Or it could mean a lower quality matcha. A good one should taste grassy, smooth and creamy. If it's really fishy, there's something wrong.

Because matcha is in powder form, it's even easier for matcha to absorb odors and humidity from the air compared to dry leaf tea. Storing powder sealed is therefore very important to keep it fresh and away from smells.

Can Black Tea Taste Like Fish?

While in most cases people might notice a fishy smell in green and pu erhs, this isn't often the case for black tea.

What's important to understand is that people often use the word 'fishy' to describe aroma's that are 'off'. So instead of describing something that is fishy, seaweed-like or oceanic, it's used to describe that something is smelling spoiled.

A good black tea that is well processed and stored well, shouldn't have a fishy flavour at all. The fact is that most of the black teas out there aren't. Tea connoisseurs would mostly describe them as tasting 'flat' or 'cardboard-like' because most of the aroma's are lost due to bad shipping and packing conditions.

Fishy Iced Black Tea

With an iced black tea, there's a possibility that the ice cubes have a fishy smell. This is especially possible when there's seafood stored in the freezer. The odors released by the seafood can easily be absorbed by the cubes. When they're used to make ice tea, those flavours will be released.

Other Reasons

The above reasons are the most probably, but below we would like to mention a few more reasons that could be the cause.

  1. It's in your mind: we are lucky to have many friends that visit our office. And over the years, we find that some people taste things that we've indicated before they taste. So let's say we tell someone that a certain tea tastes like 'honey', that's what their brain will focus on and recognise. It could be that you've read about this fishy topic which is a bit 'sticky', and tested this on your pu erh teas. The result could be that you will even recognise the very very slight fishiness in any of your pu erhs.
  2. Water quality: sometimes it's not the tea, but the water you use that can result in a fishy taste. This can happen with tap water from certain regions. In addition, you never use water from the previous day, as this could also could case a fishy flavor. This is because water can easily draw odors from the air. At last, as we mentioned above, when making iced tea, do not use ice cubes made in a freezer where seafood is stored. It absorbs the odors and releases then in the tea when used.
  3. Bad storage conditions: As we discussed already with green tea, bad storage conditions for pu erh could also lead to a fishy taste. Make sure it's stored in a dark, cool and well ventilated environment.

One way to get rid of the fishy flavor is to break the pu erh in pieces and store it for several weeks in an Yixing Tea Caddy. Yixing is porous and it allows for air circulation inside the caddy. This will help to let the pu erh release unpleasant aroma. Some tea drinkers love caddies so much, that they always store their pu erh in caddies before drinking.

How To Avoid

For fishy green teas, make sure to read the flavor descriptions by vendors and avoid those with seaweed flavors. Also make sure to steep it at the right temperature.

For Pu erh tea, we've got a few tips below:

  1. Vendor choice: Buy it from a reliable vendor. A vendor specialized in pu erh is often better, but that's not a guarantee. Another indication of reliableness is if there's a lot of information about the tea such as year of production, ripe/raw etc. Good vendors know what they're selling.
  2. Brand: To play it safe, you can buy a branded pu erh from for example Dayi and Xiaguan. The quality of branded teas are not always the best, but but there's less room for surprises.
  3. Taste first: In an ideal situation, it would be great if you could try out the teas first before you buy. That's the advantage of buying from a local tea house, if there's one nearby you.
  4. Avoid certain teas: often mini tuo chas are made from less good quality leaves. Try to avoid those to be on the safe side.
  5. Get a Sheng: Sheng (raw) pu erh normally don't have any fishiness as they're aged naturally without the piling process described above. However, they have their own distinctive taste though.
  6. Go loose: loose leaf pu erh teas often air out better and won't easily taste fishy. The downside is that it's less convenient to store compared to compressed cakes. When it comes to compressed cakes, the less tightly compressed ones also air out better than very tight ones.
  7. Rinse: there might be any impurities on the surface of the pu erh. This can be easily avoided by rinsing the tea once before your first brew, which is common practice for steeping pu erh.
March 17, 2016
Jessica Kern
January 22, 2019 at 3:30 AM
So many amazing details! You can tell that a very intelligent brain wrote this article. A gift for thought and detail. I enjoyed this article a ton
March 22, 2019 at 2:56 AM
Love the article! This is the art of knowing your teas!!