Thursday, March 2, 2017

Why review tea? Part 1: comparison with wine tasting

my friend, drinking on the job

An online friend recently brought up an interesting question:  why review tea?  Of course my response was that because it’s a general activity different people in different contexts would have different reasons.  But still there’s something to this question; it leads in some interesting directions.

She was thinking along the lines of why people review wine, which leads directly onto how they go about it, about approach and specific goals.  It’s a natural comparison, reviewing aspects of wine tasting or appreciation to tea, something I've written a little about in the past.  It might work better to start back at who is reviewing tea and why, before going into that comparison.  Tea vendors review tea, but what about others?

After thinking it through the deeper question seemed to be why people that aren't industry professionals feel so attached to tea that they want to go beyond just drinking what they like, and research related to that.  A good example:  why am I writing a blog about tea?  It's complicated, really.  The rest, about approach and specific goals, is more about how reviews are conducted.

Even though it’s backwards I’m mostly going to cover more of that “how” range here, about process, starting with overlap with wine tasting.  Part 2, another later post, will cover more of that other underlying “why,” about what drives tea bloggers to express anything.

But lets do a rough start on that first set of ideas anyway, on who reviews tea:

Vendors:  for marketing, sales-related description.

Other professionals:  as a function of doing whatever they do (consulting, training, to a limited extent also journalism).  The term sommelier is also used for tea, as with wine perhaps related more to passing on individual advice related to teas than write-ups, but both could come up.  Tea subject-area trainers would deal more in general background content but reviewing might come up there too.  All of these are cases of people employed related to tea, paid to do those activities.

Novices / bloggers:  of course there is some overlap here with the other categories but this is an odd twist.  I and others review tea for no clear reason, just out of interest to do so.  It’s essentially similar to travel or lifestyle blogging.  A limited commercial angle comes up (free tea samples, traded for the writing promotion function) but it’s probably more an extension of an usual level of interest than a means to save on purchasing costs.  I suppose there are some patterns among people that write blogs about tea but it seems as well to not make too much of that.

Lets leave all that for the follow-up post and get back to goals in reviewing tea.  A good starting point is why it makes any sense to compare wine and tea review.

random picture of teas

Wine review / tasting:

The initial introduction to Wine Tasting:  A Professional Handbook gives us a start on why to taste and review wine, but it’s a bit general:

As befits one of life’s finest pleasures, wine deserves serious attention.  Nevertheless, no wine tasting procedure has achieved universal acceptance.  Most experienced wine tasters have their own sequence of steps they follow.  Although essential for critical tasting, these steps are too detailed for the dinner table.  The difference is equivalent to the gulf that separates the analysis and enjoyment of music.  Critical tasting compares one or several wines against a real or theoretical standard.

This is the introduction to the work, and it moves on to lots more on methodology, and later onto scoring.  It was interesting, related to reviewing teas myself, how at the start it was more about just passing on what I thought of a tea, or notes about reading up on a subject, and it became more and more formalized from there.  Methodology shifted to adjust brewing for review, and to changing the environment, the description format and writing process, a number of things.  If I'd had more experience with wine I could say more about that progression related to wine but I really was a casual drinker that happened to join some introduction classes.

Related to saying more about wine tasting, the main reference I’ll cite further is Wikipedia, with the obvious limitations for that source (it’s not authoritative, and generally not complete).  For general subjects, eg. the American Revolution, it’s not a bad reference for broad strokes, but when you read about a specialized subject in more detail (like specialty tea) it can be a bit odd.  It's not typically wrong as much as limited, and the range of scope that's included can vary.  That reference will work for this limited purpose.

blind tasting (photo credit)

Related to the original suggestion, purposes for tea review versus wine review, my friend mentioned some of these ideas (with this version from Wikipedia):

Vertical and horizontal wine tastings are wine tasting events that are arranged to highlight differences between similar wines.

In a vertical tasting, different vintages of the same wine type from the same winery are tasted. This emphasizes differences between various vintages.

In a horizontal tasting, the wines are all from the same vintage but are from different wineries.  Keeping wine variety or type and wine region the same helps emphasize differences in winery styles.

Tasting flight is a term used by wine tasters to describe a selection of wines, usually between three and eight glasses, but sometimes as many as fifty, presented for the purpose of sampling and comparison.

wine making processing, completely off the subject

In those introductory wine class settings a good long time ago I don’t remember using either approach, vertical or horizontal.  That was all general stuff, or else tasting some different wines from one winery, or based on other mixed-type themes.  I’d expect this approach didn’t crop up in the last twenty years, I just wasn’t exactly doing that type of training.

There’s no reason why both spatially described approaches couldn’t apply to tea, they just don’t, at least not as well.  Related to the first, comparing years, wine ages, as tea does, but tea ages fast enough that separating yearly version distinctions in character from the aging effect would be problematic.  Comparing production years (vintages, for wines) could still apply, but in general that makes less sense related to tea.

Some teas actually improve when held a year (eg. more heavily roasted Wuyi Yancha, or shou pu’er), and of course it’s not typical to keep green teas around for that long.  More gradual aging and improvement of sheng pu’er may be more comparable to wine but the tasting would still identify changes related to both aging and year variations, maybe with too much input from the aging for it to be as informative about production year differences.  I did taste three consecutive years of shou pu’er at one point but it just happened to work out that way, it wasn't designed.  I was so new to tea then (three years ago) that I didn’t have much shou experience to compare it to.  For what it's worth they seemed to vary a good bit, within a limited range.

Teas also vary by a lot more than main production runs.  In a purchasing context one might compare lots of a producer's batches from small growing areas instead.  Related to the second idea, comparing one representative product per producer from different makers, this is a typical theme for tea competitions.  The practice is common in Taiwan, developed as a basis for how teas are sold, and they have an annual Wuyishan area tasting competition to do just that, and it must also occur in other places.

Here’s a bit more of the basics of wine tasting while still on that subject (again from Wikipedia):

The results of the four recognized stages to wine tasting:

Appearance;  "in glass" the aroma of the wine; "in mouth" sensations; "finish" (aftertaste)
– are combined in order to establish the following properties of a wine:
complexity and character; potential (suitability for aging or drinking); possible faults

All interesting enough.  Again these speak directly to “why” to review in the sense of what they are judging the wine related to, the categories.  Of course all of this eventually lands on a numerical scoring system, with a good bit of centralization of that set up for wine.  That one main set of ranking numbers rates wines out of 100, with numbers representing an added rating of different categories.  Altogether it objectively evaluates how close the wine is to an ideal, or at least that's the intention.  When a wine is rated near 100 that’s exciting stuff, I guess, but in my wine drinking days it wasn’t a subject that came up a lot.

Lets move back to tea then.

Tea tasting versus wine, subjectivity versus objectivity

old-school tea tasting (photo credit Dilmah)

A theoretical standard for ideal tea version characteristics may make a lot more sense to some people in some limited contexts than it does to me.  It does make sense to refer to trueness to an ideal type, I suppose more sense for some tea types than for others.

I stay stuck on this subject of objectivity versus subjectivity, the potential for there being right answers in evaluation.  I’m curious if reviewing can determine objective characteristics of a tea at all, basically what the wine review methodology implied as a starting point.  It’s not a given that assumption completely holds for wine, necessarily, but it is more developed and better accepted for that subject.  It’s more justifiable for wine because they test people trained to taste wine to determine they can identify characteristics and even origin of wine from blind tasting, so to some extent it does work, there just must still be a lot of role for subjectivity, for preferences.

a small scale tea tasting

Really, why couldn’t a tea be completely objectively evaluated?  To me it’s a more interesting question than how that would work if they could be.  If a tea is astringent, or tastes like peach, or a certain flower, then any experienced taster should agree on that, even the degree to which it occurs, given very similar storage and brewing processes.  Those last factors are not really a given, especially since the varying minerals in water impact tea aspects, beyond the rougher level of inputs, eg. related proportions and temperature.

Beyond those variables, variations in reviews of the same teas are interesting.  Preference would always vary, but the question I'm asking is how similar evaluations could or should be.

It’s not hard to test how this would play out in practice, real variations in assessment.  Pick a relatively better known tea source, and a tea version good enough for reviewing it to be of interest, and then read multiple reviews of the same tea.  They vary.  The obvious question:  is that error in evaluation, and to what extent are real variables a factor (the storage and brewing differences again, or others).

Maybe the differences are just error, or maybe not.  It seems at least possible that objective evaluation is a stretch, given the subtlety of what is being identified.  Identifying primary characteristics and minor aspects, eg. a flavors list approach, are sort of two different things.  At the very least subjectivity comes into play related to the scope of how well the same identified aspects work out, how positive most characteristics are, or how well they work together.  Consensus agreement--versus getting it all right--could potentially narrow down range of "right answers" even within such subjective judgment scope.

tasting for a regional competition in China

It’s interesting how approach varies so much within bloggers.  Most will follow producer or vendor instructions for preparation (not that these always exist, or that I always do, but most will).  This drops out one variable, for the most part.  I suppose proportions could vary within the Gongfu and Western paradigms, unless vendor instructions included measured amounts to really narrow that down.

Beyond all that, tasting approaches and descriptions vary a good bit.  Some bloggers will identify a list of flavors as the primary output, and others will really describe a much more basic set.  Some pass on one general description and others emphasize transitions over infusions.  Some reviewers rely on comparisons based on other types, or separate the experience into parts more (initial taste versus slightly later, while held in the mouth, then aftertaste), or focus on feel aspects, etc.  It's not as common to see “qi” descriptions in most reviews, related to reviewing effects, but for pu’er this can be seen as relevant as taste, or even more so.

One of my favorite blog authors, in the Steep Stories blog, often compares tea as positioned in a hypothetical space between other styles, usually related to a particular aspect, not so much in general.  Coupled with taste and other aspect descriptions this supporting information can be very effective at conveying an impression.

Another type of review take strips aspects mentioned down to bare bones, only covering the most pronounced characteristics.  This isn't just related to laziness or uncertainty on the part of the authors; that really is probably the level at which everyone could agree those aspects are present, and judge the teas in the same way.  Per this read it's limiting description to what would most likely be objective.

One assumed higher-level “why” is to communicate a general impression of the tea, isn’t it?  In that respect the different approaches might sensibly refer back to what interested readers or viewers are interested in.  If a reader / viewer is drinking pu’er primarily for effect, or if they appreciate feel-related aspects most, then a flavors-list review is of limited value to them.

It seems unconventional to reference it, but it may be helpful to describe my own limited experience with observing my own error, or what could be error.  From starting into reviewing tea and being slightly more acquainted with it now--still very far from an expert, towards the beginner end--I’ve changed approach and perspective quite a bit.  It’s possible for a reviewer to not “get” something that’s there, and interesting how that works out.  Sometimes I notice different aspects when tasting teas over multiple sessions.  I can offset that to some degree by paying more attention the first time.

Lately I’m turning up more confirmation of similar opinion on teas with vendors, even at the level of detailed aspect descriptions, but it’s not always like that.  I just reviewed a tea--a Rou Gui, from Cindy, if that means anything--that she described as fruity, which really didn’t seem that fruity to me.  Odd, since that’s a fairly rough level of analysis to vary.

I’m still not really informed enough to say exactly how good a tea is in relation to a “99” score for wine, which is more or less also related to the trueness to type issue.  Of course even experienced tasters vary in opinion on particular teas, quite a bit, and it makes sense to stop short of evaluating exactly how good teas are in that sort of objective sense.

all tea drinking is tasting, just not review, unless it's pretend tea

It’s funny how taste and tasting works out.  It seems quite plausible that variations in background that would go unnoticed could potentially factor in, for example, the temperature and relative humidity where the person is tasting.  I keep saying noise level drops off taste identification sensitivity, which is back to the general category of error.  Oddly a lot of these ideas came up in an online group discussion recently, just after I wrote some of them in the draft version of this.  I hadn’t mentioned natural palate shifts, which a chocolate blogger mentioned in an interview post, which can occur based on eating strong flavored or spicy foods, even earlier in the day.

All this rambling doesn’t fill out the parallels between wine and tea tasting so much, or exhaust issues related to the latter scope, but it seems like one post worth of discussion, if a bit unfocused.  The next related post will cover the deeper “why:” why are people compelled to get into these types of subjects so deeply.  If it's not for commercial reasons there has to be more going on for motivation.

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