Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Imagination and subjectivity in tea tasting, with blogger and expert input

I've been considering a crazy idea about how internal mental processing of tea tasting goes, and decided to ask some favorite bloggers for input on tasting process.  The following is where that led.

Starting point, request for input, and some crazy initial ideas of my own

I'll start with a description I passed on to one of them with the request for input, a mix of some odd ideas that never did summarize particularly well:

I'm working on a blog post that is based on input about tea tasting, one very narrow and unusual aspect, and I'm asking you for help with that.  It's about something I've been considering for awhile, the possible role of imagination as an interface between more raw sensory input and description, analysis.

The standard take, per my understanding, is that flavor description for tea is essentially a memory function supported by practice and training, so no mental function related to imagination needs to be invoked.  Of course taste is only one aspect of tea, but this limitation--considering only flavor descriptions--seemed a good way to narrow scope for discussion and input.

Even if imagination does play a role that function should be subconscious, I shouldn't be able to notice it, but I could swear I seem to. Of course I'm still talking about objective experience, picking up flavor elements others would be likely to agree are there, although variations in perceptions related to this are interesting, people noticing relatively different aspects.

So the initial question wasn't really if tea tasting and evaluation is subjective, but rather if it's possible to say more about how it works, the internal mental processing of taste into description.  Actually liking tea aspects has to be subjective, and to some extent comparisons of flavor aspects must be objective, with more coming up about that in the input.

Geoffrey Norman:  author of one of my favorite blogs, Steep Stories

Most discussion input I'm citing from him here isn't about internal tasting process but it does work for a nice intro to a standard review approach, along with a description of how he deviates from that:

When I first got into tea reviewing back in 2008, I was contributing to another website - Teaviews. When I was on there, I tried to stick to the typical review format, but I tried to add my own flare to the introduction. Of course, I always began with a background about the tea, about the company selling it, a personal anecdote of some sort. 

Then this was followed by tea leaf descriptions - size of leaf, aroma, color, etc. 

That was then followed by brewing instructions.  Next after that, taster notes,  And lastly, closing anecdote. 

For the most part, I still stick to that sort of format, but I've now structured the narrative to be more story-like. It's what I prefer, aesthetically. What few readers I have seem to appreciate it, too. 

As for how my taster notes evolved . . . they really haven't. To tell you the truth, I deviate from the standard taster practices almost as a personal mandate. Sure, some standard notes are in my lexicon - floral, chewy, herbaceous, etc. - but for the most part, I like to record what my sensations are in real-time. What you see on the page is EXACTLY how I'm feeling about that tea - right that moment. 

Really that's what I like about his writing, the story-based aspect, and also the non-standard use of descriptions that enable you to share in his experience by any means necessary.  He doesn't push the flavor-list style of reviewing, and sometimes will rely on comparing a tea as in between two other styles, which is unconventional, but it can really work.

I'll add a bit more he passed on about the subject I had described as a starting point, about an internal process:

Taste, like a person's memory and imagination, are purely subjective. 

I think [the ideas about the role of imagination] also has something to do with what I heard about from a Taiwanese tea seller.  It's not just about the taste, it's also about the sensation.  And that triggers the imagination.

Interesting, right?  He is either saying that taste preference is subjective (most likely, or at least including that), or that there could even be variances in what is tasted, with completely different aspects described.

In truth we see in reviews that people experience teas in vastly different ways, not just related to preference but in how they describe teas in terms of basic flavor components. Of course the experience itself isn't just about a list of individual aspects, it relates to the feeling the experience invokes, the last part mentioned.  More on all that follows.

Amanda Wilson; another favorite blogger (My Thoughts are Like Butterflies)

Amanda writes very detailed blog post tea reviews, with a good bit of rambling about whatever else comes up in them, to me an interesting mix.  She talks about one thing that might help her write reviews in a different way:

I think due in part to the way having autism wired my brain, I perceive the world primarily through taste (this gets me into trouble at times) my memories of tastes are significantly stronger than any other sense. Not sure how much help I will be since I am 'special.'

I get asked a lot how to train to make taste as strong as mine, so to speak, and I never really know what to say other than go experience a lot of things. It comes off better than 'be born with a broken brain.'  

The exact term for it is Sensory Processing Disorder, I go on the 'over stimulated' end of the spectrum.  It is a comorbidity with Aspergers.  Autism is an annoyingly complex spectrum.

Cool!  And definitely different, a line of thought I had never considered.  Really there is too much there to go deeper in this type of post so I'll just leave it as some interesting input about the way people's minds and sensations really can and do differ.  Leaving objectivity and subjectivity aside, with the basic experience varying the description and response to that experience would naturally also vary.

Micheal Coffey (Tea Geek blog, and he's got other things going on); input from an unusually well informed tea enthusiast

After some initial discussion of that background Michael recommended looking into a great resource:  "Taste What You're Missing" by Barb Stuckey.

Taste is influenced by all kinds of things.  One example that Stuckey uses is that of airplane food.  It sucks, right?  Well that has more to do with how loud the engines are than with how cheap the company is.  If you tasted airplane food with the engines quiet it would have a totally different flavor.

And that's the big difference.  You don't experience "taste" (the raw sensory input), you experience "flavor" (a mental construct that blends multiple sensory inputs into whatever you experience).  This may be where your idea of imagination comes in.  

Also, the need to "refresh the palate" because you've been tasting too much tea, or one flavor is bleeding into the next is a similar effect.  It doesn't have anything to do with your actual taste organs, but with how the mind is putting them together.  When you smell a funny smell but eventually it fades?  That's your brain just ignoring that input, not a change in your olfactory nerves.

I've heard that first point before, and have considered it related to trying to taste tea with the sounds of Legos crashing together in the background at home.  It seems to not just relate to noise but stimulus in general, so that the more engaged I am in whatever is causing the problems (like two kids fighting versus them just breaking toys) the further I get from a full experience of tasting.

All in all some great input, some connections one might not normally make, really what I'd hoped to get out of this sort of input process.  This digs a little deeper into how if the basic experience of tasting varies with environment and related to factors in individual processing even any one person might experience a tea differently at different times, beyond differences that could relate to different people having varied impressions.

Citing a chocolate blogger on subjectivity in tasting (Lisabeth of Ultimate Chocolate Blog)

A chocolate blogger gave some great input on an earlier blog post that is worth considering here, that fits in with some other ideas, presented in that earlier blog post in a Q & A format:

my question:  To what extent do these seem like subjective judgments to you, that different people would cite different taste elements for the same chocolate?

Lisabeth's answer:  Certainly chocolate tasting is subjective to some extent. Everyone tastes food differently, and so will relate the flavours they taste in chocolate to different foods. In the case of Madagascar-origin chocolate, for instance, the chocolate is so clearly fruity that most people will identify that as a flavour in chocolate made from cocoa beans grown in Madagascar. But whether they taste raspberry versus grape or lemon, is a whole other thing. 

What we taste is also dependent on what we eat prior to tasting. It is important to give yourself one-to-two hours without eating or drinking (other than water), prior to tasting chocolate.

More on subjectivity and yet another input; our sense of taste will vary based on what we are eating, not just then but for hours prior.  This is probably a good place to mention that Lisabeth is not just a veteran chocolate blogger but also a chocolatier, a chocolate maker, so her experience with tasting extends beyond review blogging into daily experience.

Time of day seems to make some difference to me too.  That haziness some people experience in early mornings seems to extend to my sense of taste as well.  All the same I tend to write notes for tea reviews when it comes up, not by tuning my sense of taste based on optimum time of day and eating patterns.  I try to compensate by tasting teas more than once for reviews, and often different aspects will come up, but I really see my review role as providing an informed impression of a tea, not laying out an objective last word.

My wine guru input; advise on tasting from a wine maker

looks like, but not him

My friend Dan, a very experienced professional wine maker, independently mentioned a point that overlaps with Lisabeth's, that prior personal history is a factor in tasting.   Related to his wine making resume, I could mention some wineries and then you would be impressed, but only if you follow higher end wines.  According to Dan people taste what they expect to taste, to some extent, which depends on lots of factors.  Preconceptions and the other senses' input come into play, and their history of tasting other things.  This ties in to a common idea cited in taste-testing process articles, of even experts getting attributes completely wrong when white wines or pale beers are dyed to look like a different type.

It's odd how much Dan restated Barb Stuckey's ideas about how tasting works in general, but I guess that makes sense since they're both working from the same current awareness.  If you don't get around to reading her books there is a nice Google Videos reference of her presenting a summary of some ideas.  In particular he essentially repeated the parts about the role of taste versus other sense elements, and the description of what astringency is.  The main point is that astringency is not a taste element, definitely not the same as bitterness, and not even a flavor aspect, it's a "feel."  She described astringency as an irritant that can be pleasant in moderation (towards the last parts of that Google Videos reference).  Of course Dan took that same line of thought in the direction of this element adding body and structure to a wine or tea. This is familiar in the world of wine and to a lesser extent common in tea description.  Even if the description is typically not clearly defined people are noticing the same effects, that feel and taste are two different things, of course with some relation in the final overall impression.

In discussion with him I never did get to the point of breaking tasting process analysis down to some manageable defined subset.  His approach to wine tasting is intentionally holistic, leaving space for subjectivity in the tasting process, and he sees enjoyment as the main goal and condition.  In discussing objectivity, or the limitations of that, Dan wouldn't say that people generally taste things that aren't there, although he said that can happen.  Instead he said that judgment and experience are based on past experience and preferences, so that different people won't prefer or even notice exactly the same things.  The issue that identified lists of flavors can vary--whether or not there is a "right answer" for taste analysis--seemed essentially separate from the main point to him, the experience of subjective preference.

Dan!  I'll leave in his stand-in picture for comparison though

Of course I'm coming to the problem from a tasting and review writing background, so in the end written description has to occur in some form.  It serves as an assumed goal to make the review as objective and descriptive as possible, although people go about that in different ways.  

Dan didn't seem to see a relatively complete and objective description as a workable goal, but then we didn't extend discussion to the number scoring system for wines, the natural place that would lead.  I would expect that his feedback about that gets a bit complicated, not completely rejecting objective analysis, but likely limiting how relevant such a thing can be to pinning down subjective preference.

To clarify all this he drew an analogy to physical beauty:  what defines a beautiful woman or man for one person is not the same as that preferred by another.  This did lead to an interesting related point; beauty in people does relate to one absolute, to preference for symmetry.  He compared this to the balance that people seek in wine, or tea.  Their preference for type and characteristics could vary widely, and certainly does, but in some sense the different elements coming together in a balanced form is a general underlying preference.

Of course the physical symmetry is a bit more clearly defined, the left eye looking like the right eye, and so on, whereas taste balance is about things like sweetness existing in proper proportion to level of astringency, which all lead back to a more subjective realm.  But it's a nice analogy, the kind of input only a guru would end up bringing up.

Kevin Craig; former author of the Tea Journeyman (a great review blog)

Kevin isn't actively reviewing these days, but when he was his reviews were so detailed and clear and flavor-description oriented that they really got the sense of the teas across, even the feel, to some extent, which is not so easy to do.  He gave some good input on the process:

I would be able to separate the tastes, and individually identify that there were a certain number of tastes that I was experiencing. Yet, some of the tastes I could not specifically define. For example, was the taste lemon, or another citrus fruit? Was it papaya, or another tropical fruit? Is that wet stone, or another mineral?

I agree with you that when you are familiar with specific tastes more than others, you tend to identify those familiar tastes, perhaps even when they are not truly there. Case in point, the cherry taste, which is easily identifiable. I swore I was able to taste cherry in so many teas that I began to intentionally leave it out of reviews just to avoid redundancy. Like you, I began to question if I really was tasting cherry, or just convincing myself that I was.

Additionally, I recall tasting the same tea months separated from writing the original review, and I experienced totally different tastes. Same steeping parameters, same exact tea kept in proper storage, but my taste had evolved.

I have this experience from time to time, catching something that I had missed, sometimes even something that seemed obvious.  But I could never be sure it related to my taste evolving, or somehow really "getting" the tea after more introduction, or exactly what variation led to it.  This almost seems to supercede the idea that objectivity may or may not be available across multiple reviewer inputs, if tasting can vary according to an individual at different times.


me!  that really should be tea, not ramen

There is too much here to really wrap up.  I had planned to include more on research of the initial subject, how internal taste evaluation actually works, a bit about brain functions and such, and there is a little out there as references on that, but this is already a bit much.  I'm much indebted to these people, who have each been my teachers in different ways, for that previous help and for helping bring these unusual observations together.

If more turns up I'll continue this review, perhaps further in that original direction, or to wherever else it leads.

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