You’ve just come back from an amazing experience at a tea shop at your local Chinatown. Not only did you strike up an engaging conversation with the tea shop owner but you got to drink through several different teas and eventually pick out your favorite of the bunch. Eager to recreate the experience, you dump $40-100 on a 150g bag of tea (not saying it was cheap). Except there’s one problem. You can’t make the tea taste the same. It’s not necessarily bad or worse, just different. You’ve tried using a lot of leaf, a little leaf, brewing for a long time, brewing for a short time, different water, lower temperature, higher temperature, yixing, no yixing, etc.. Other than adding cream & sugar (because you have a soul), you’ve pretty much tried everything. Disregarding the possibility of being duped (bait & switch) or other sorts of foul play, what’s going on here?
There’s alot that goes on in perception. Taste is a fickle thing that is heavily influenced by a number of factors. The fact of the matter is in dramatically different settings, the cup even if it is identical can taste totally different. It’s not even necessarily environmental. Disregarding social context and brewing, one important factor is the current state of the person drinking. Scott in his interview with us (embedded below) talks specifically about the body. He mentions the sleep, the food you ate, mindspace, well-being and the general importance of taking care of your body to enjoy teas and really life.
Similarly, there’s also the matter of the palate. Most good teas will be about lingering mouthfeel and the aftertaste. Scott details a tea shop technique of brewing something strong and powerful (i.e. a good raw pu’erh) that will have a lingering effect and aftertaste in the mouth and throat. The second tea (something they are trying to push) will then be lighter. The issue? You’ll attribute the lingering aftertaste and mouthfeel to the second tea. Then when you come back to brew it at home, you’ll unfortunately be surprised by the thinness that directly contradicts your memory and experience when you actually bought it.. It’s also an illustration of some of the flaws of drinking several teas in succession and trying to evaluate each one individually. Marshaln also details a few other factors/tactics (the ABA) on buying tea in China. Similarly, qi can also be an incredibly difficult quality to evaluate if you are drinking a whole ton of teas, which is only exacerbated if you aren’t used to consuming so much. Perhaps that ripe pu’erh isn’t loaded with the energy of ancient trees and you just hit the wall from too much caffeine? It’s a bit brutal to suggest when someone is ranting and raving about their experiences, but it’s often a very real possibility.
Approximately 35 minutes into the interview, Scott talks about the importance of having a consistent space when evaluating and buying teas. He goes on to detail bringing the tea back to a comfortable and familiar space where he’s free to really drink and evaluate the tea.. It’s a good way to impulsively avoid accidentally buying a subpar tea. Once he’s back at his familiar space, he’s free to brew under his normal parameters with water he’s used to. Most importantly it’s also a comfortable space, free of social pressure. Alas.. Scott’s a prolific buyer and seller of teas and bringing samples home (for free or otherwise) isn’t a possibility for many of us tea hobbyists
Note: Of course, another factor affecting your palate could be the food you consumed. I generally wouldn’t recommend pounding Indian Curry or Kimchi Jjigae immediately before seriously sessioning teas.
Note #2: Immediately after the filming of the video. Scott locked Denny and I in a room and stared at us until we each bought a tong of Yunnan Sourcing teas. He wouldn’t even let me use my loyalty points. I’m kidding.
Is this your only chance to buy? Are you at a teashop? Is the person brewing you the tea the one selling it? There’s nothing wrong with that, but the social pressure associated with the proprietor or salesmen sitting and chatting with you is huge. Even if they’re not pressure selling or trying one of the sneaky brewing techniques it’s still a potentially huge source of bias. Something that should certainly be taken into account when deciding whether to buy or not. Buying to not offend is alas quite common. Maybe you can buy a sample and make the decision later? If you’re thinking of buying multiple cakes, maybe buy one and ask for samples of the others. It’s important to not make an unnecessarily overexcited and impulsive buy.
Well, that’s alot to think/worry about. In addition to the lack of teashops, it’s no wonder so many western drinkers gravitate towards buying online! The process is much longer, but it can be conducted entirely in our secluded little tea caves, with just a short interface with the postman. Shopping in person, it’s really quite impossible for most tea-heads to avoid any/all situations outside of your tea comfort zone. And in these scenarios, it’s important to be aware of what might be affecting your perceptions, especially when $$ are on the line.
Note to self: Follow this advice.
Note #2: What about blind tastings? This isn’t really covered in this post, but it sets up a whole new set of artifical parameters that can also dramatically affect perception of the tea. See:Tasting Blind (Marshaln), Tasting Wine Blind (Reuters).
Note #3: Samples are no good. You don’t like to buy tea from real people. You really just are a grinch… Meh… A cake all to yourself sometimes is the best sample.