David Epstein’s book Range makes the case for generalization in a world that has become increasingly specialized. One of the ways the book categorizes areas of interest are as wicked and kind environments. Kind environments are where information and feedback is very available, patterns repeat, and situations are more constrained. Examples of mostly kind learning environments are golf or classical music. Wicked environments are inherently trickier, noisier and typically involve situations where not all information is available. Conditions are dynamic and involve other people and judgement where feedback is not automatic. And when feedback is given it may be partial or inaccurate.
Epstein argues that very early specialization in something can be quite effective in kind scenarios whereas a more general background, drawing from different fields equips people better for the more volatile and also more numerous wicked environments.
Kind Scenarios & Brewing Tea
I think there are aspects of tea regularly discussed online that can fit into kind learning environments and others that are more wicked.. Think about the topic of steeping tea, not a particularly wicked scenario. The feedback is fast. It is possible to make corrections and adjustments in brewing time and temperature on the fly. We are commonly infusing each tea 5-15 times each in a single sessions. The main parameters are easily adjustable. It is possible to watch a youtube video and approximately mimic what you see, all within 15-30 minutes.
There are of course all kinds of different preferences to the outcome of the brew, but getting a lot of repetitions brewing tea will make a person competent in producing a brew that they desire. You’d also expect giving someone enough experience with different types of tea, they’d be able to brew an unknown tea competently. Getting repetitions is also a very reasonable way to learn about the different types of tea. Noone I’ve heard of recommends reading a Chinese book on the history of tea in Fujian in before trying a Wuyi Oolong. It isn’t necessary. The easier way to understand the appeal for the tea is to drink it.. And ideally multiple times, especially since getting repetitions are not difficult to get for many teas. If you are in east Asia in a location with more tea culture you can learn much of tea brewing in person, making it even easier!
You can argue that brewing takes skill and to be really an expert or a master, it takes more than just repetition. This is true and it’s important to remember that kind environments don’t mean it is easy. Golf is a kind environment but it is still incredibly difficult to be great. In the case of classical music it takes thousands of hours of focused practice to become very good. Given the right environment it is possible to focus on it and improve incrementally to a level of decent quality playing.
If a person starts from ground zero at brewing and is willing to devote some focused learning… They should improve their brewing relatively quickly given a bit of reading, plenty of repetitions and sufficient time, even if they aren’t going to win any tea sommelier competitions. There’s only a handful of major parameters to control and feedback comes quick in the form of a hot cup.
Wicked Scenarios & Pu’erh Storage
There’s other aspects towards tea that I believe are considerably more wicked. Wicked learning environments are those where feedback in outcomes is poor, misleading, or missing. Intuition is often right for kind environments, but can be more frequently incorrect for wicked ones.
A couple aspects of tea that I think are wicked.. Pu’erh storage and selecting teas that will age. This isn’t to suggest that these are totally unknowable and to not bother.. Just that they have complex and confusing attributes that make it hard to tell what information to trust and difficult to learn.
A few reasons why I believe pu’erh storage is wicked (especially in the west):
- Feedback is very slow with storage. For pu’erh to change significantly it takes years. For it to be considered actually aged (without traditional storage) it takes decades, especially in drier climates. If we take a moderate climate like Kunming as an example. Despite being an important city for pu’erh for a couple decades.. The amount of 25+ year aged pu’erh being sold from there is still very limited. We can find plenty of 10+ year old stored Kunming teas but not a lot that is from the 1980s or earlier.
- Feedback is impartial. Pu’erh does not necessarily improve linearly with age. A well-known phase for pu’erh is the awkward phase where it has not developed interesting aged characteristics but lacks the high notes and allure of fresh pu’erh. Let’s say we tried a tea fresh and then again at 3 years old. If the tea tastes worse after 3 years that doesn’t mean it will taste better or worse again after 10 years.. It is quite possible that the tea will get worst and then improve again once it develops enough interesting more aged flavors. Or a once tasty and dynamic tea fresh or at 3 years old could age to be monotone and uninteresting.
- Feedback/storage preference has a large subjective component to it. Most people agree it’s possible to store a tea too wet or too dry. Where that line is depends a lot on preference. The same goes for whether a tea has been well-stored or not. Terms like wet or dry storage can mean different things depending on who is saying it.
- Many people with experience storing are vendors with significant financial incentives to prefer and promote their own relative storage environments. Taiwan-based vendors have an incentive to say Taiwanese storage is good, Malaysian vendors and collectors can say the same for Malaysian storage, Kunming-based prefer Kunming storage. There’s also an incentive to trash other locations.. This muddles the information we get.
- Individual climates and inside/home storage mean that certain storage setups are more plausible in areas of the globe. For storage in the west, I’ve found that a lot of the conventional wisdom or what is passed down in the east isn’t always applicable in North America or Europe in the same way it might be in Taiwan or southern China.
- (This is related to 3.) Lots of opinions and no obvious consensus on tactics. No plastic! Airflow is a must! Seasonal variation is required! Talk to your tea or it will become depressed! I’ve even seen some throw up their hands and argue that storage doesn’t really matter as much as people make it out to be. (I disagree. Storage matters and has a significant impact on the final outcome and character of the tea.)
Dry/Home Storage & Keeping an Open Mind
One famous example of discovery and change in storage is dry storage. It has surpassed traditional storage as the default type of pu’erh storage, but it has only been widely practiced since around the turn of the century. In the scheme of pu’erh history this is not long at all..
An early and well known proponent of dry storage often cited is Hong Kong Merchant, Vesper Chan. Chan stored several batches of 1989-1992 7542 dryly in Hong Kong that became famously known as the 1988 Qing Bing. Vesper Chan describes why he stored the tea this way as basically being partly troubled and partly repulsed by traditional storage setups when he visited them (he also has a financial incentive to be publicly repulsed by them). He didn’t need the 1988 Qing Bing to be sold very quickly and so he put it in a drier and less treated setting. At the time this was a pretty unproven method of storage. The story is almost unremarkable in its simplicity.
Dry storage takes a longer time than traditional storage and the 1988 Qing Bing was far from an overnight success. Only after the tea had been stored for over a decade did it start to taste somewhat promising and gain a bit of popularity, in turn raising the popularity of dry and also home storage. Is Vesper Chan’s the optimal dry storage? Considering this was one of the very early attempts at dry storage and the overall range of possibilities is very wide, this is highly unlikely.. Pu’erh storage is far from a solved topic and attempts like Chan’s dry storage encourage an open mind towards storage and the different possibilities and setups that have not been fully explored.
Epstein’s thesis is that for wicked learning environments those who can draw from diverse situations including even unrelated ones are better equipped to tackle them. In these wicked environments, we can draw from those with past experience. But we should keep in mind that it’s not always intuitive what the actual key to success is. How important is seasonal change? Or temperature? Or airflow? It isn’t obvious. And even a multi-year test will yield only partial answers. Epstein cites a psychologist, Jonathan Baron, who profiled the best forecasters (a diverse groups) and termed a common trait as “active open-mindedness.” This is where the forecasters look at concepts they are pursuing as to be tested rather than written in stone.
To me the most interesting storage experiments build upon what we think we know and push the limits and test our assumptions with the supposed important parameters. In the pu’erh storage world these ideas aren’t always coming from those most seasoned pu’erh experts in Hong Kong, but from less conventional sources. Newish ideas include sealed storage and a clever metaphor (from an expert in Kyara) where we think of pu’erh more like a sponge with the right water content. Or a Math professor in Toronto experimenting with heated and sealed storage. Even things that have become commonplace in the west like crock storage or pumidors, are primarily outside of the inside domain thinking. Pu’erh storage may be pretty wicked, but as these teas age from their varied setups and we slowly build our informal database of feedback, even if it is controversial and sometimes unreliable, we’ll be collectively better off for it.