středa 17. července 2013

Writing about tea

Writing about tea is definitely fun, as well as reading such notes (for me so, at least). However, there is some criticism of too deep/thorough analysis of tastes due to subjectivity.

I myself sometimes write about small tastes occuring in teas (though, I hope, not too much to bore you). Why? I think that even very detailed taste description may be useful, but one needs to have a reference. If you have a teachum who sent you samples and you read his notes, when you read what he writes about other teas, you might have a pretty good idea what the tea is like. Without that, however, it may leave you completely clueless. From my own experience, I know that there are many ways of describing a taste - with the likenings may be quite far from one another in reality. 

Why do I write about tastes? Well, I have an almost-perfect reference, which is myself. I think that it is good to write notes about tea in detail, as when I read my notes two years after I wrote them, I still might get a good idea what the tea was like. However, the use of such notes to others is largely questionable, I'm afraid.

When I read about people's disagreement with too detailed tasting notes, I thought "wait, it works in wine". Actually, that is why I think it might work in puerh too, sort of. There are several obstacles to this though. The wine tasting conventions were not summonned by a french wizard, but they sort of evolved into their current state, via sharing and tasting together. This process may be a bit more difficult in puerh for the following reasons:

a) Water: Two people may come to different conclusions about a single tea because of different water used. The same tea with different waters used may be more different than when two teas (different, but, e.g., from the same mountain range) are prepared with the same water. Therefore, various tasters may come to different conclusions about a tea.

b) Storage: Again, difference in storage can make a huge difference. If you compare a tea stored for 10 years in HK and in Kunming, I doubt you'd have guessed it was the same tea. Besides, it also depends on how far in the aging process the tea is. When a wine is drank, it still usually resembles itself when young. In puerh, that may not be true at all.

c) Preparation: While wine performance does rely heavily on the glass used, there are not really any steeping times to play with (all right, there is temperature, decantation, etc...).

d) More fakes: self-explanatory

e) Subjectivity outside-taste components: Different people feel qi/mouthfeel/bodyfeel differently. There may be a sort of population coding, but it will still hamper the evolutionary process.

f) Personal bias. That is partly relevant in wine too, but it seems stronger to me in puerh. People tend to deduct properties of teas they drink from their actual properties. I.e., one person nearby drinks mostly Xiaguan stuff, which means that you have to translate his "tastes of overripe fruit with hints of flowers" into "80% smoke, 15% overripe fruit, 5% flowers" - but because he drinks mostly Xiaguan, he ignores the smoke entirely.

In my opinion, there are basically three levels (interleaved) of detail:
1) Top-level: E.g., sweet/sour, thick/thin, smoky/not-smoky, bitter/not, astringent/not - most people can agree about that and these features do approach some sort of objectivity.

2) Mid-level: E.g. overripe fruit, dried fruit, apples, longan, camphor, dry wood,... I think that these can work locally - be it in a tasting group or a set of bloggers exchanging samples. I think that this level of detail is probably still worth pursuing/standardizing and it can be useful to wider public. But outside its locality, it may fall apart. That may not be a problem though. I think that if you gave Hermitage to a Bordeaux drinker and Burgundy drinker, you might end up with quite different answers too.

3) Low-level: Burning walnut leaves, clay under freshly sprinkled dwarwen bamboo, sunday tobacco of uncle Jim, etc. While these will be hardly useful to anyone but the writer, it may be still worthwhile for him and therefore I would not dismiss even this sort of notes.

By the way, I thought this resource quite good. It may be about wine and in french, but it seems like a good reading to me, even though my french is abysmal.

3 komentáře:

  1. Hi Jakub,

    I think there is something like a tasting vocabulary developing for pu'er tastes. If you read someone's notes on teas long enough, you start to know what they mean when they say a tea is woody, fruity or grassy. That is, of course, if they are being consistent with their notes. I've noticed myself starting to use the same words for some tastes that I have seen others use. Slowly, connnected hobbyists start to know based on tasting the same teas what the others mean when they use a certain word. At the same time, it seems to be true that the vocabulary can seen rather odd to someone not familiar with it. Just because some aroma is tobacco-like, doesn't mean a random person would think it really resembles tobacco. I've found myself explaining to people new to pu'er that this is what is often called X but, of course, it isn't identical to X. The words used to describe tastes and aromas are sometimes no more than handy conventions.

    Thanks for a great blog!

  2. Hello Matti!
    Thank you for your commment - precisely my thoughts. Even in wine, there are some tastes which are quite similar to the "real thing", while some are more distant. E.g., in Czech, it is often said that Sauvignon Blanc (e.g., from Marlborough) tastes of nettle... now, I do not think that anyone would taste nettle - and even when one smells it, it is quite different. Yet people know what the others mean. Or, another case, "red fruit" - that term makes little sense, as strawberies, raspberries, cherries, peaches and all that can be red, yet being completely different. But again, "red fruit" is quite well understood taste.

    I think that when one describes taste using real world things, it has three components at least - what the thing really tastes like, what it smells like and what it "feels" like overall. When I say that a tea tastes of manure, it's not that I tasted manure, obviously, but the smell and feeling may be there.

    Just as you say - not much more than handy conventions.

    You seem to have a nice blog yourself! I hope there will be more posts in english too :)

  3. Thanks Jakub,

    Another interesting aspect of describing tastes by comparison is that you hardly see the chinese doing it. They tend to just talk about the texture of the liquid, say something very generic about the taste like that it's "soft", perhaps talk about the development of the taste in a generic way and mention if there is a huigan. The closest I remember they have come to describing the taste has been that it is orchid-like. Using your levels of detail, they tend to stay firmly at 1, or below.

    It seems to me that describing tastes by comparing to other things is a very western thing. I think I personally get lots of extra information from taste descriptions. But at the same time, there seems to be something very chinese or East Asian about not trying to be very analytical about the taste of a tea. I think there is much to learn from this view as well.