Is Fishy Tea Fishy?
October 15, 2021 9:07 AM   Subscribe

New tea drinker here. I ordered PG Tips online and it smelled strongly fishy when it arrived, so I threw it out. Then I went to the corner store and bought Lipton Decaf Black Tea. It's got a similar fishy smell and taste. With milk and sugar it's not as bad, and I'm trying to imagine it's made of a leaf and not a fish. Do I just need to acclimatize? What might that smell / taste be? There's no aftertaste. Tea tips appreciated.
posted by circular to Food & Drink (27 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I both eat fish and drink PG Tips. I've honestly never had a box of PG Tips (or any tea, and I drink a lot of tea) that I would've described as fishy. Have you tried green tea?
posted by wondermouse at 9:13 AM on October 15, 2021 [5 favorites]

Best answer: My partner is a hard core black tea drinker, and says he has had the fishy smell experience before but can't remember the brand. He thinks it was a fluke in that case, not consistent across black teas. He drinks PG Tips regularly, and has not had the fishy thing with that brand.
posted by kimdog at 9:14 AM on October 15, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I found this article that suggests some reasons why tea might smell or taste fishy.
posted by mezzanayne at 9:18 AM on October 15, 2021 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for the responses so far.

> Have you tried green tea?

Do green tea Kit Kats and cookies count? Sorry, not really I guess. I'm kind of afraid to try the real thing now though! PG Tips hit so hard and I'm afraid I might just be sensitive to it.

I also just remembered had a certain type of test done and it confirmed that things like cilantro tasting like soap is normal / expected for me, even if not for others. I wonder if this might somehow be related.

The tea smell has seemed to improve as the tea cooled down and I reached the bottom of the mug.
posted by circular at 9:28 AM on October 15, 2021

Best answer: *waves at elephant in room* Everything else smells and tastes normal to you still, right? It's just the tea that's odd?

I've never had ordinary black tea smell or taste remotely fishy. (Lapsang Souchong, yes, in that it's smoky and the smell reminds me of smoked fish.)

Is it fishy as soon as you open the box, or only once you've brewed the tea?

I see anecdotal evidence online of pregnancy causing tea to taste fishy, if that's a possibility.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 9:30 AM on October 15, 2021 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I drink a LOT of tea.

The only 'fishy" ones I had were some high quality Taiwanese Oolongs, after the 3rd infusion or so. It brought out an 'ocean/seaweed' taste, which I found pleasant. But the smell was definitely stronger than the taste, and my non tea drinking friend who was with me? They found the smell revolting.
posted by spinifex23 at 9:37 AM on October 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: > Everything else smells and tastes normal to you still, right?

Yes, things smell otherwise normal.

> Is it fishy as soon as you open the box, or only once you've brewed the tea?

Both...the box is worse and I won't be smelling it again, even if I do drink the tea. Sigh

> I see anecdotal evidence online of pregnancy causing tea to taste fishy

Now you got me thinkin', but it ain't about whether I'm carrying a baby... (Sam Elliott voice)
posted by circular at 9:42 AM on October 15, 2021

Does it make a difference if you use filtered or bottled water?
posted by chocotaco at 9:44 AM on October 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: This question is fascinating to me. I drink a lot, a lot of black tea - but only better-quality looseleaf tea, IMO all the bagged stuff like PG Tips tastes bad to me, but just weak and acidic, never of fish.

Have you tried other kinds of black tea? Does all tea taste like fish to you? If you vary the cup you make it in, the kettle, the water, does that change it?
posted by epanalepsis at 9:46 AM on October 15, 2021 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Also, do you have a coffeeshop with a snobby tea selection in your town? If you get tea that they brew there, does that taste fishy?
posted by epanalepsis at 9:47 AM on October 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

Shouting out kimdog for the excellent "fluke" pun.
posted by Dr. Wu at 9:57 AM on October 15, 2021 [4 favorites]

I think perhaps you just don't like black tea! It does have quite a strong smell; to me it's leafy and malty, but to you it's fishy. Cilantro does not taste of soap to me, FWIW.

You could try Earl Grey (black tea with bergamot), or see how you go with green tea (it's got a very different flavour profile).
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 10:01 AM on October 15, 2021 [4 favorites]

Best answer: One other thing I'll suggest is trying flavored black tea. Check your local grocery store's tea aisle for any flavored black tea that sounds good. The flavors tend to mask any tea smell or taste.
Inexpensive brands like Bigelow and Celestial Seasoning tend to have some of the more "fun" flavors, and the holiday flavors are starting to come out now too.
posted by wondermouse at 10:02 AM on October 15, 2021 [2 favorites]

It sounds like you don't know what black tea normally tastes like? If that's right, then we have no way of telling whether this tea was bad somehow or you just don't like black tea and are describing normal tea in a way that seems weird to people who like black tea.

There's nothing to it but to try a few other kinds. Or just don't drink tea if it's not pleasant for you; it's not a requirement.
posted by SaltySalticid at 10:05 AM on October 15, 2021 [7 favorites]

Best answer: Sometimes oolong tastes fishy for me too! And we got some green tea from Thailand that I found undrinkably fishy. I find smoked teas fishy as well, as someone else mentioned. Most black teas are fine, though.

I'm a daily tea drinker. Earl Gray is a safe bet if you want to stay away from fishy. So are teas with mint. When I have the time, I like to brew a simple chai: loose leaf black tea, cardamom, cinnamon, and cloves with milk and sugar that has zero chance of being fishy (assuming you like those spices).

Oh, another thing. How long are you steeping it for? I can imagine over-steeping being a factor.
posted by redlines at 10:08 AM on October 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I drink a lot of tea, and have never experienced anything I would describe as fishy, but it is certainly possible to get stale tea. (I think Lipton is pretty nasty, by the way.)

If I were you, I would grab a Twinings variety pack box, available at most grocery stores or online. The tea bags in those are individually wrapped/sealed, so stay fresher, and you can try English Breakfast, Irish Breakfast, Earl Grey and Lady Grey (a more citrussy Early Grey). If you find one of those types to your liking, then look for a slightly more upscale version, from some place like Harney. Note that I'm a tea snob, but I still happily drink Twinings Lady Grey as well.
posted by gudrun at 10:33 AM on October 15, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I've had pu'erh teabags (black fermented tea) that have definitely had something fishy about them. Exception rather than the rule though.
posted by bifter at 10:41 AM on October 15, 2021

Best answer: Fishy smells are generally due to amines, and amines are present in some teas.

Acidic compounds such as vinegar and lemon juice inhibit amines from volatilizing and suppress the smell by making them more soluble however, and I wonder whether that’s at the root of the common practice of putting lemon juice in tea.
posted by jamjam at 11:29 AM on October 15, 2021 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Following on jamjam's comment - my guess was that you may be sensitive to the smells of amines. Black tea does contain various types of amines per the link above, although it's far from being one of the primary components of scent/taste in tea.

Also agree with the other comments that perhaps you just don't like black tea (or maybe just this kind of black tea)! Some green tea tastes like ashtrays to me, but I've never had anyone agree with me on that. I just assume it's my taste perception not playing nice with the compounds there.
posted by Paper rabies at 11:38 AM on October 15, 2021

Best answer: Frequent tea-drinker here.

I've never had a tea that I would describe as "fishy", so I suspect that one of the following is going on:

a) you happened to get two bad boxes by coincidence.
b) you might be steeping it too long.
c) those particular brands just don't appeal to you.
d) those particular blends of tea just don't appeal to you.
e) you're using the word "fishy" to describe the flavor you're tasting when most people would use a different word entirely, like "bitter" or something.
f) something is weird about your water.

My recommendations for each one are:

a) Maybe try just one more time, but look for a fancy-ass tea shop and get your tea there just this once. The reason I suggest this is that they would have a HUGE variety of teas and tea blends for you to choose from, and a staff that can help you figure out what might appeal to you. They might also have some pots of some of their teas available to sample, so you can try things and find a non-"fishy" blend. They will send you away with more information about kinds of teas you can explore.

b) Tea should only be steeped for about 3 minutes or so, five minutes TOPS. Once you've done that, ditch the tea bag or the tea leaves or whatever. Some people let it go longer, but they tend to use a lot of milk and sugar.

c) PG Tips and Lipton are FAR from the only tea brand in the world, and maybe Twinings or Celestial Seasonings is how you roll.

d) And there is way more than black tea - maybe you are into herbal teas, or maybe try green tea. They make tea that smells like campfires, tea with different herbs mixed in, tea with different spices mixed in - I even once had a tea that was a blend of black tea leaves, some different other herbs, and PINE NEEDLES. A variety of green tea I also really like has puffed rice mixed in with the tea leaves, and it smells a little like popcorn (which for me is part of the appeal).

e) I admit this is a stretch, but... maybe your brain is associating that flavor with "fishy", but most other people wouldn't, and that is getting in the way of your trying to figure out the problem. That's another reason why going to a tea shop might be the way to go - you can taste the tea sample they've got with a tea barista standing there, and if you say something tastes "fishy" they may know the follow-up questions to ask that will help sort out what you're actually tasting. (Please note - I'm not saying that you're WRONG to say that, because that's your lived experience. I just have the feeling that your experience has maybe picked up some slightly different language on the way and it's creating some confusion.)

f) There's always the possibility something weird is going on with your water supply or your teamaking stuff that's reacting to the tea in a weird way. If you're just putting a teabag in a mug and pouring boiling water out of a kettle, first try cleaning the kettle pretty good; then have a glass of plain water out of the tap to see if anything tastes weird about it. Maybe you live in a district that uses some particular chemical at its water treatment plant that reacts in an unusual way with tea.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:51 AM on October 15, 2021 [5 favorites]

Both PG Tips and Lipton are bog-standard not very good blended tea brands. Cheap tea, I find, often has odd scents, quite often from the adhesive used in the bags.

Twinings are decent middle of the road teabags. I drink Yorkshire Gold, which is great.
posted by Happy Dave at 1:42 PM on October 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

I have that "ugh cilantro tastes like soap" genetic thing (I insisted a whole batch of something at the restaurant I worked at was contaminated with soap, before I knew!)

But I love drinking tea. (Splash of milk, no sugar, not over brewed. Loose leaf over bagged.) So I don't think it's the same thing?

Dilmah is my preferred brand at the moment.
posted by freethefeet at 3:10 PM on October 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

I've noticed fishiness and also general marine life/seaweed from certain black teas. I've noticed it mostly in bags and it's also not consistent, like it won't be the entire box, just a bag or two. I do get acclimated to the scent as I'm drinking but the next time it happens it's fish all over again.
I'm also genetically likely to experience cilantro as soapy. I hate cilantro but I don't know if I'd describe it as soapy. it's more like fresh, green poison that explodes on my tongue.
posted by simplethings at 3:18 PM on October 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

Any chance this could be parosmia? I know a person who had COVID who says many things now smell like maple syrup has been added to them.
posted by soylent00FF00 at 3:52 PM on October 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I've absolutely had this happen with a package of lipton black tea a few years ago. The only thing I could compare it to was the smell of those dogfish they dissect for biology classes. I don't normally get lipton and just assumed that was it normally tasted like and never got it again. Haven't had this happen with any other tea since.
posted by ockmockbock at 8:28 PM on October 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Cilantro is the one everyone knows about but it's a easy jump to conclude that a LOT of compounds are going to be detected differently across the population, and if it doesn't do something as extreme as "make you horrified by salsa and the entire Vietnamese cuisine" it wouldn't really get much attention. (I am a cilantro hater, and it was so good learning I could just ask the pho shops to leave it off...)

Since it sounds like the smell of the leaves themselves is the trigger here, how about going to a tea shop and just smell a bunch of the teas? Many places that sell loose leaf will have canisters or sample tins you can smell dry, no purchase or waste required since they don't have to be brewed. Might help you narrow down what you do and don't like.
posted by Lady Li at 12:33 AM on October 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks to everyone who replied. I have some homework to do here and I'm looking forward to learning & trying more.

As far as steeping goes, it was just under 2 minutes, though again I'm getting the smell right out of the box.
posted by circular at 10:55 AM on October 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

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