Friday, June 26, 2015

Objectivity and subjectivity in tea tasting

The question keeps occurring to me:  to what extent is the experience of tea tasting subjective versus objective?  Probably just to me, right?  Do you ever get the feeling that maybe you've stopped making sense?  To start lets get the framing out of the way:

-of course there is a subjective element:  preference for specific characteristics and final enjoyment of the tea are mostly related to individual likes, personal preference, taken along with the qualities in the tea.

-to some extent there must be an objective element:  if an experienced and skilled taster says the tea tastes like raisin instead of grape (or leather instead of tobacco, etc.) to some extent that must be true that it does.

So why do I bother myself over the balance of ideas in the middle, getting it sorted?  It's because I review teas, granted only for a hobby, and both the teas and the process are interesting to me.

I've read reviews that provide very little information about how teas taste, just a few vague details.  That approach could make perfect sense for different reasons, for example to avoid overstepping the subjective element of describing the experience.  I've read other reviews that  identify a dozen different specific flavor elements, and the transitions over different infusions, and then I can't help but wonder to what extent another skilled taster would identify the exact same things.

To be clear, I generally trust those reviewers, so I'm not writing this as an any type of condemnation.  Most are careful to restrict the personal judgment component, to never say a tea is "good," only describing aspects.  I think people have varying abilities to identify flavor components, tastes, which are really present, and although there is still room for relatively outright error in general I accept that most of what one runs across is mostly accurate.  Most bloggers would try to err on the side of not saying much. 

I guess that doesn't work as well when different reviews say relatively different things about the same tea, but my point here isn't so much about error.  It's about to what extent the characteristics of a tea are fixed, separate from a person's individual purely emotional reaction, and truly describable.  It's a question of whether tea tasting is objective or subjective, and separate from preference.

I've asked my former wine guru about this.  He seems to not want to get caught up in the general context the questions imply.  To him the experience of tasting wine is primarily subjective, about preference and appreciation, and starting in on analyzing to what degree it isn't that way isn't fruitful.  Surely someone else with a different role in wine might have a very different perspective since he's a wine maker, not a critic or seller.  Those rating numbers must mean something very specific, and there is a reality behind the tasting requirements put on sommeliers to make very specific evaluations prior to being identified as trained to that level.  Or maybe some of it doesn't hold up, and reducing a wine to a single score or even a list of detailed attributes isn't justified at all.

I've probably said as much as I'll say that's interesting on the subject already but before moving on I wanted to add some background.  As it turns out I was a philosopher before, and all this echoes part of a long and more general debate about objectivity and subjectivity.

Objectivity in philosophy (realism versus relativism):


objectivity [in philosophy] means the state or quality of being true even outside of a subject's individual biases, interpretations, feelings, and imaginings (Wikipedia)

deep thoughts about tea!  (picture attribution)

This subject has so much related background I won't do it justice, but here goes.  In the branch of philosophy I studied under, analytic philosophy, one main assumption was that reality is objectively real, that facts and truths are a real, impersonal thing.  Truth was defined as justifiable, accurate belief.  It was a given that the generally opposite viewpoint, relativism--that all ideas are only relative to the context of a personal point of view and framework of understanding--was clearly wrong.  Arguing against it wasn't so easy, of course, because it would be hard to separate the assumption of either perspective from the discussion itself.

There is another main branch of philosophy where relativism might seem a bit less clearly wrong, the "continental" branch, but since I sort of didn't study under that it would be hard for me to say to what degree.  Things got messy because the two branches weren't necessarily divided into two separate sets of past philosophers, although to some degree they were. 

Make no mistake among students it was common enough to hate the premises of analytic philosophy, a field of study name that deserves no capital letters.  The scope of what was to be discussed was narrowly limited, and there were restrictions on how to treat ideas.  Most of human nature and human experience were considered out of bounds, related to wisdom instead of knowledge, so that in the end all the rest that was treated was relatively meaningless.

How could this context, stripped of so much personal experience, relate to a subject like aesthetics, the evaluation of art, and beauty?  For logic we might see how reason as a version of Boolean algebra might never completely map back onto ordinary, experienced reason but surely objectivity couldn't get that same degree of foothold on these other subjects, right?  Art must just be subjective.  Things got strange at this point.  Art is assessed per the norms of inter-subjective evaluation, so what art critics say is art, or define as good art, constitutes the fact of the matter.  Kind of a dodge, right?  It sort of works though.  Some of the same must be happening for tea, a final resort to inter-subjective agreement.

Also philosophy keeps shifting, so the responses for one decade are morphed or rejected the next.  One might wonder how that maps back onto ordinary thought, but one could keep wondering--people just don't make sense on either level, per theory or practice.  The arguments are just something to give professors something to teach and write about, forgotten later and abandoned for others.

Back to tea tasting:

Seems a bit of a gap to jump to get back to tea tasting, doesn't it?  I guess a long look back might question if it's possible for a tea to taste like raisin to one person and grape to another, and for both to be right.  "Better" is never part of the question; obviously that's under the scope of preference.  Some might want to assert that if a person likes a certain set of characteristics in a tea then it should be possible to say which specific tea is objectively better given those preferences as assumptions, but there would be problems with the last step.  It's all too subjective, with too many factors.  You could express something is a great example of a type but probably not map likes to teas so directly, or to the extent you could it would be general, with other factors not so well defined.

Someone might want chemistry to step in and save the day.  In the world of wine there is the understanding that the same flavor compounds in raisins, grapes, leather, and tobacco are really also found in the wine itself (or tea), so objectivity is restored, validated, essentially proven, if only to a limited extent.  As everyone knows there are a range of very basic taste elements and beyond that complex compounds make up both smell and taste, right.  Alas it's not as if there is one compound or element per each of these as "atomic" taste elements, so we resume a slide back to vagueness and personal judgment.

never mentioned in tea reviews:  lychee, longkong, mangosteen, rambutan

As a little more background, I wrote a blog post once on the use of tea flavor wheels.  I guess it's an assumption in the structure that the divisions of flavors or aromas really are objective, and somewhat distinct.  Of course any grouped list of flavors would be limited; there would always be others. 

No need to even drag mouthfeel and cha qi and the rest into this; better to stick with flavors.  The Temple Mountain wheel mentions the aspect of  mouthfeel / body (not really starting on aftertaste / finish), but it's hard to do much with that on such a chart. 

Bottles of smells, very cool!  (from here)

The obvious prior starting point for all this is wine related palate training, and the use of scent training kits (here is one example source, including kits for wine, beer and coffee, just not tea yet, at least for sale by this vendor or that I've yet to hear of).

Online research isn't going to help a lot with how to taste tea and palate development.  It won't grapple with the extent to which the process might actually be subjective, but some references talk around the background of tasting a little (like here, or here). 

Beyond trying to be consistent most of it is up to the person tasting the tea.  Even some of the most basic guidance doesn't seem to make it to these sorts of references though, like the idea that your sense of taste isn't optimum when tasting liquids close to boiling point, so another temperature would be better.  I've read that 60 C is optimum but I have no opinion on that; seems as likely there isn't really an optimum.  I ran across a cool idea recently that relative humidity affects sense of taste, so variance in a taster may not be due to inconsistencies one would normally identify as subjectivity, not isolated within the person at all.

I've already said that I accept that detailed tasting probably works to the degree a person has that developed skill, and that it's probably objective, as much as it could be, separate from the final evaluation relating to preference.  I get a bit hung up on one particular aspect of that tasting process, but it's not really related to all of this.  There is an underlying assumption, and not a clearly defined one, that simple flavors are being described (as examples, grape and raisin, leather and tobacco).  But as two pairs those components share individual flavor range, which varies for each.  Raisins taste a good bit like grapes, they're not completely distinct, and there are different kinds of both. 

It would be easier for me to relate to the first pair because I only smell and taste foods, and tasting leather and tobacco is only going to help so much.  Of course leather might taste good; what child doesn't give in to checking on that?  As for taste memory, maybe not so clear; I'd probably benefit from at least smelling a baseball glove again.  But pipe tobacco, cigarettes, cigars, snuff, chewing tobacco--these are all different things, made from one primary ingredient prepared in different ways.

Is it possible that for two people one could identify grape, and the other raisin, and both could still be right?  I don't see why not.  It does introduce a bit more of a grey area.  Of course number scoring related to overall quality in light of personal preference assessment is all grey area; no way that could ever standardize.

To me this is part of the beauty of tea:  we learn about ourselves along with the teas.  Foodies and wine geeks have their own journeys of self-exploration but tea is a purer experience, just dried leaves in water, and tea drinkers barely ever taste the leaves.  Of course I'm probably overthinking it.  For me that aspect of considering context and details is a bit separate from actually drinking and enjoying the tea.  For me there are sort of two different types of experiences related to whether I intend to describe the tea or not, but that difference is a tangent I'll save for another day.

My wine guru offered a take on where all this probably leaves off:  "John we think we can possess the truth and then it slips away."

No comments:

Post a Comment