The Struggle of Making Content Interesting & A Few Unhelpful Phrases

As someone that has done a fair amount of content on tea, I have a lot of mixed thoughts on the way information is passed. With tea reviews or discussing a specific tea I have struggled with the question: how to talk about an individual tea or tea in general in an interesting or useful way.. Whether you like or dislike TeaDB episodes largely depends on whether you enjoy watching two particular people drink and banter. This is fine enough and it is certainly fun for Denny & I to create, but I’ll also agree with the sentiment that it’s not necessarily the most substantive way to review a tea in depth. There’s some signal but there’s also a lot of noise. Writing about a specific tea also isn’t easy and I think is actually very difficult to execute in a way that is actually consistently interesting or useful for people. Most people just want to know if you liked or didn’t like a specific tea. Making something that piques interest beyond that is a challenge and even if you don’t like them a place like Mei Leaf has succeeded in creating content that really does engage their viewers. You also have to consider that the majority of people have not had the tea or are even unfamiliar with the basic taste profile (i.e. Denny & I describing a traditionally stored pu’erh, when the audience has never had one).. Here are some phrases I dislike and hear frequently enough that I find them unhelpful and sometimes even counter-productive when given to beginners as advice.

Tea Session

Tea Session.

Age the Tea You Like to Drink Now

I think the best thing to do is to just choose tea that you enjoy drinking now. If it’s good now, it’s probably only going to get better. I’d much rather have something nice to drink than something that’s too rough to drink now, hoping that it becomes good later.

This sounds great and is probably comforting for those struggling over a growing list of eight teas trying to figure out what to buy. Find a tea you like and age it! This advice works much better if you change the “age” to “drink. And sure of course a lot of tea that you think tastes good can age well.

But in my opinion, this is too reductionist and lacks any real substantive backing. Why? Tea that tastes good to you now may not age well.. For instance if you like soft, floral young shengs brewed at 175F, should that be the tea you buy a tong to age for a decade? No way.. Most tea producers are well-aware that many of their products are consumed young. This creates an incentive to sell something that tastes and smells great now. Will it be better later? Maybe?

Conversely, there are a lot of characteristics in tea that will may allow it to age well that don’t necessarily make it pleasant to drink. Much of what we know about famous teas also tells us that people certainly weren’t raving about drinking the 1950s Hongyin or 1980s/1990s 7542 when they were young and those turned out pretty OK. Enjoying a tea now is good (it is nice to drink things that taste good!), but is also no guarantee that you will enjoy the tea as much in the future. This advice sounds great, but in my opinion is an annoyingly overly generalized and in many ways more counter-productive than productive.

Correct Storage?

There is no right storage. Make your own.

I think this falls into a similar category as the previous advice. Of course people will argue endlessly and inconclusively about what storage is optimal. But this advice makes it seem like anything will work. Storage is a spectrum and while there is subjectivity to it we also know more than a few things. You can  absolutely mess up the tea permanently with poor storage.

Storage makes a difference and is a major factor in how semi-aged and aged teas taste. While there’s no consensus on the best way to home store in the west, put thought into how you are storing your tea.

Gross/Disgusting Taste

You can tell if a tea is poorly stored if it has a disgusting/gross earthy taste.

I find far too many foods delicious that are construed by some as gross or disgusting to let this one slide. This one is usually applied to some sort of fermented tea, heicha, ripe pu’erh, traditionally stored pu’erh, etc. This saying can actually be kind of helpful under the right context or with proper reference points, X tea tastes cleaner than Y tea. It relies a lot on an intuitive grasp when there may not be any reference points of good or bad examples..

There is no universal disgusting taste. Gross & disgusting are subjective terms. Fermented shrimp paste or fermented fish or kimchi might be disgusting for one person, but it is delicious for another. When this sort of phrase is used in more absolute terms for newer drinkers, I take exception and it can be very counter-productive if the new drinker reads too much into it.

Most people are coming into pu’erh with a reference point of zero.. Asking a new drinker to identify what is clean & normal vs. abnormal & disgusting with a unfamiliar taste profile is extremely difficult. Sure, drinking something that is clean and well-aged is a good thing! But this takes experience, reference points, and isn’t intuitive; at least not for the majority of drinkers. There’s a reason pu’erh is frequently referred to as an acquired taste.

Traditionally Stored Tea

Traditionally Stored Tea.

Good, Clean, Natural Tea

How to tell if a tea is any good? Well if it is good, clean, natural of course. With a healthy effect of course! I’m sure whoever told you this is a nice person and these can be moderately helpful, but without proper context, those can also be overly generalized terms..

Big, Whole Leaves

Good tea always has big, whole leaves.
Tea leaves homogeneity (average size of tea leaves is the same)

This totally depends on the tea type. Sure they’re nice to have, but check out some of those old factory blends.. Those old factory teas use a variety of different sized leaves to achieve a more layered taste. And again they’ve aged petty well. There’s other exceptions.. For instance autumn pu’erh has generally bigger leaves than spring tea, but spring tea is more prized..

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16 Responses to The Struggle of Making Content Interesting & A Few Unhelpful Phrases

  1. shah8 says:

    On the “age the tea that you like to drink now” I’d like to make a couple of comments…

    First, while many factory teas could be tough to drink when new, *good* puerh tea in general, you can always figure out a way to brew it to taste good, even when young. There are altogether too many vendors that pass off terrible tea as something that will improve. What you should seek in the more…brisk teas is something like a taste version of the opening blasts of a metal band’s ballad. There should be a lot there, and well as overwhelming green, or smoke, etc, plenty of things within that appeals too. Now, gotta realize that there are few good factory teas productions today as “gushu” sucks up the best material.

    Second, in general, the one failsafe of picking new tea is whether it has a strong aftertaste, especially in the throat. Of course, there are very few affordable (something under a dollar a gram for new teas) that are like this today. And I’m not talking about whether it does that a little bit. I mean a lot.

    By and large, for the teas that within most people’s budgets, being concerned with whether it will age well just doesn’t matter much. Ever since around 2012 everyone has moved towards best practices when it comes to their puerh tea process. And while gushu style teas does age differently than factory teas, I just don’t think that broadly speaking, most teas (intended for Western markets. Plenty of green tea puerh in Mainland) will age badly. More of a danger that you might not like your teas of a certain age.

  2. Karl says:

    James, It is difficult to create entertainment on a regular basis and I think that you and Denny do so. This is not driven by any specific content at any one time ( though there is that) but because of the enjoyment that you show in the teas and in the company of your friend. These interactions help make the show as much as what you are covering on anything specific video. You referenced Mei Leaf and I think that is their secret. The are very engaging people. I have not purchased any of their tea or teaware but I have watched some of their videos and they are personable and clearly enjoy tea and tea related subject matter. They are definitely not the fount of truth for all tea subjects, but they appear sincere.

    I started my Pu’erh tea adventure on older teas and still drink that regularly but I most often drink mid aged (15

  3. MattCha says:

    James,

    I guess I should address the “age the tea you like to drink now” advice because you might have actually copied that one right off one of my posts… hahaha

    I think it is quite good advice and was especially good advice in the earlier days of puerh drinking when no one knew what aging puerh would look like.

    Of course, its imperfect advice for specific situations but I actually think it’s more applicable to those who are looking to store young puerh long term in North America due to how dry the storage is here.

    Sha8 is also generally right on this issue of quality, even if it’s intense, if it’s of some quality you can still enjoy drinking it and have some sense it will store good.

    Peace

    • James says:

      Hi Matt,

      Nope wasn’t referencing you at all. If you’ve made that point I missed it. This came from reddit.

      The reason why I’m fairly negative on this as conventional wisdom comes down to.

      (a) Enough people brew young pu’erh at lower temperatures that I think it can really impact people’s perception of the tea.

      (b) There are a lot of people that don’t even have experience with even somewhat aged tea!

      (c) Young tea changes a lot even in a dry climate. For instance, a 8 year old to 10 year old changes a lot less than from 0 to 2 years old. I think this could be decent advice for something that is a bit more settled or semi-aged. But I do think there’s a real danger in buying something and not liking how it changes.

      Most of the above is centered around the western audience’s heavy consumption of young pu’erh. As far as the processing goes, I don’t really have a strong opinion. Probably more of a risk in a tea becoming more monotone, than the processing totally screwing it up, but I don’t really know for sure.

      As far as factory tea goes.. I think that’s something that isn’t necessarily great tasting when young especially to a novice palate, but some certainly turn out decent in the long run.

      -James

  4. John says:

    I think it is the “noise” that keeps most people coming back. If video tea reviews were very formulaic and only the facts, it would be useful but not as entertaining and people may lose interest over time. That’s what the spreadsheet is for. 🙂 If you’ve ever heard Car Talk on NPR, a show with two MIT grads discussing car repair…on NPR of all places…nothing about that show should have worked. It’s amazing it ever got a green light, but it worked because of the brothers banter, the comedy, the callers, the games (Stump the Chump), etc. The actual useful car repair information was in short supply, but no one cared. I think blind tastings, special guest appearances, and recurring segments work great. Maybe you could ad a person on the street segment where you film random people trying pu-erh for the first time and describing the taste. I imagine it most often would end up being comedic, but occasionally you’d get an enlightened person. It would be similar to late night shows asking people on the street to name their congressperson or name the continents (most can’t). People like the familiar, so recurring themes are good. As for Mei Leaf, I enjoyed the episode he did with Alex, because it brought in a non-tea-centric guest, and probably introduced a lot of Alex’s followers to something new and many tea drinkers to Alex’s French cooking. Having Celine and her smile and expressive eyes continually in movement adds to Mei Leaf’s segments, as well. Have you ever considered having your wife on the show? I really enjoy TeaDB and appreciate all the work you and Denny have done over the years and continue to do.

    • James says:

      Thanks John. I suspect you’re not alone on following us for “the noise” :). That’s an interesting comparison re: Car Talk. I’ll have to think about that one!

      I’m not sure if we’ll ever approach people outside with cups of pu’erh. But there’s honestly probably a better chance of that than my wife ever making an appearance.

      Appreciate you following John. And cheers!

      -James

  5. Jon says:

    “You can absolutely mess up the tea permanently with poor storage”

    Can you provide more information on this? Are we certain it’s messed up permanently? What exactly is poor storage? While we may argue endlessly about optimal storage – is it relatively more easy to say “this is poor storage – it will mess up your tea”. If so, would be a handy PSA. 🙂

    • James says:

      Well on one extreme you can have moldy tea which can definitely permanently impact the tea.

      There’s more dispute on whether you can permanently mess up the tea with overly dry storage. But overly dried out tea can taste thinner, flatter, and harsher when compared to something that’s been better stored. It is not an extreme example but my storage episode with the Lingya a few months ago, shows what I interpret as a slow and steady drying out.

  6. lUKA.V says:

    I really like what you do and I think it is necessary for show like this to exist as a lot of discussion “tea points” are slowly but inevitably dying. Having said that I must admit that I did find teadb boring — no offense — when I was getting into tea. I hadn’t had enough background to understand what were you talking and the static presentation didn’t help. But I started appreciating your show while I was becoming more fond about tea and I still believe teadb is a show for more experienced drinkers per se. Although I enjoy tea tasting videos I saw the biggest value proposition when you had vendors in your show as I knew a more constructive debate could come out of it. But I totally get the point that it is not easy talking about tea. Otherwise the two main things that changed in mei leaf videos over time and made them even more watchable were the value of production and improvement in rhetoric. Teadb stayed the same for the most part fall these years. And that is why I am taking you guys that way as well. I listen to you guys while I am preparing a meal or Ironing. I look at you as two buddies I am spending time once per week. And I like that. you two still have a lot of unexploited potential — yes even after all these years — but it is up to you if you wanna exploit it or keep the show running as it is. Either way is fine with me. Just don’t end it 😀

  7. Ignoramus says:

    The recent wave of comments has me pulling my hair out. I often don’t actually watch the tasting episodes in entirety because there is already much “noise” and cuteness. The articles (like this one!) and especially the constructive and insightful comment discussions* that your content initiates is where teadb really shines IMHO.

    * OK, yes, I enjoy the vendor-to-vendor mud-slinging too 😉

  8. J says:

    I don’t know if this addresses the difficulty of making interesting content, but I would love to see a bit more informative content in tasting videos, such as including the price per gram, whether you consider the tea “worth” the price, whether you would buy a cake (or why not), how well you think it performs relative to what it is purported to be, or relative to expectations for the characteristics of the region or producer or price range, if you would recommend specific alternatives as very similar but preferable due to cost consideration or other preferences, et cetera.

  9. John says:

    Revisiting this…

    I think it’s interesting how diverse the opinions are on content. Some, like me, enjoy your banter. You seem approachable, fun, and guys I’d want to hang out with and try tea. Others don’t seem to appreciate the social aspect and want it more like a nightly news report. And then I saw that one comment elsewhere where you were asked if you ever just enjoy the tea without the analysis. So, please, please, do an episode where you don’t speak. No jokes, No comments. Just James and Denny drinking tea with some elevator music in the background savoring tea, shaking your head and saying ummmm, ohhh, ummm, delicious. 🙂

    But after that, what I’d LOVE to see is how confident you are in your assessments. If you’ve studied the wine tasting world, you know there have been huge embarrassments where experts couldn’t even tell the difference between red and white wines when the same wine was colored with red food coloring. Cheap wines put into expensive bottles got good reviews. Expensive wines put into cheap bottles got bad reviews. It seems like price, labeling, color, and expectation are what influenced taste in those studies. However, there are a few wine experts that usually get it right, so it isn’t impossible. Well, let’s see if it is the same with tea. How about if one of you chooses a number of similar teas (same region, age, type, etc, but different costs). Ideally, it would be teas you already have tasting notes recorded. Transfer samples of those teas into envelopes labeled A, B, C, D, E, etc. and record the brand, year, etc. Now, have the other take those lettered teas, and randomly mix their order, then assign them a number. (e.g. A = 5, B = 1, etc) and record those. Transfer the teas into numbered envelopes. Now, neither of you know which tea is which. Try the teas, record the tasting notes, and rate the teas on the numeric scale. Then decode the teas and see how you did.

    It would also be interesting if vendors would send their best raw puerh samples to a third party that then re-packages and labels the tea as A, B, C, D, etc. and then the third party sends the samples to you. This way, you would have zero prior knowledge of the teas. The teas would be judged purely on their own merits. The ratings would be revealed for each lettered tea, then the third party would reveal the teas. I’d be happy to be the third party. 🙂

    Scary, huh?

    • shah8 says:

      It’s been years, man. Done to death. Known not a good way to evaluate. Read old blog posts with blind taste test reviews if you want that kind of stuff.

      • John says:

        Shah, fair enough. I’ve read some of those blogs and seen the episodes here. I’ve also seen YS’s blind guessing within their own line. Those I think can be fun videos, but that isn’t really what piques my interest. What I truly would like to see is several vendors with as close to the same listed teas from the same year, same area, but where some price discrepancy exists and have three or four of those put together in a blind tasting package and sampled back to back and compared then revealed. It is still subjective, though, so more for entertainment.

  10. John B says:

    This raises an interesting higher order level concern that sort of works here but doesn’t get completely unpacked: who is your intended audience? This context of writing about scope and phrases that could be misinterpreted by beginners seems to assume that you hope to be accessible to a broad range of perspectives, while correcting for potential mis-interpretation. But it would seem problematic to do live video review commentary that explains a lot of context beyond mostly passing on immediate impressions.

    The written posts here seem to explain the context for the ideas relatively well. It also works dropping most of that out in video reviews, which may or may not make nearly as much sense to someone with limited prior exposure for that reason. I tend to check in more on the written posts here, often on other subjects or even more mindless video content when I get around to that, but both types seem to strike a decent balance, just a different type of one in each.

    As far as writing about tea myself goes I have no idea who is probably interested in reading any of it, and can only guess that quite a bit of the meaning is probably clear. Ideas being repetitive or inaccurate are probably more relevant concerns.

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