A Tea Addict's Journal

It’s not about the flavours

February 25, 2011 · 10 Comments

Not really, anyway.

I think flavours in tea are the sort of thing that initially attract us.  The beany taste of Longjing, the high fragrance of a gaoshan oolong, or the camphor of a puerh are the sort of things that are immediate and satisfying.  Teas often have flavours that you can’t find anywhere else, or they can come in combinations that are unexpected, surprising, or fascinating.  A friend of mine tried one of my aged oolongs and commented that it tasted of ginseng-vanilla.  Perhaps that’s a new flavour for ginseng that health food makers should consider.

Having said that, I think focusing too much on the flavour of a tea is almost missing the point.  From observations and discussions with other tea drinkers, I think after a while, we all move, slowly, towards a deeper and more subtle appreciation of tea, and that means that we start moving away from just looking at what the tea taste like, and put more emphasis on what the tea feels like. Good (and usually expensive) teas invariably feel good in a way that inferior teas do not.  They don’t always taste all that different, however.

The best example I can think of is teas from a store in Hong Kong that specializes in aged puerh of various kinds.  They have their own storage unit, and the storage unit has a very distinctive and unmistakable smell that leaves a strong imprint on all their teas.  I can probably pick out teas from this particular store from a lineup of different traditionally stored teas, just because I’ve had a number of them over the years.  All of their teas, by and large, display a similar taste profile — a slightly ricey, musty taste that is short on camphor but long on medicine.  It’s a distinctive profile, and it’s there in every one of their own teas.  There are of course subtle variations, but they are not all that obvious.  Yet, these teas don’t all sell for the same price — some are quite expensive, others are quite cheap.

The chief difference among them is the feeling you get from the tea.  What I mean by that is not that it makes you high or your head spin or what not (although I suppose it could do that).  Rather, it is the physical sensations that you have in reaction to, first, having the tea in your mouth, down your throat, and then the reaction that your body has towards it that distinguishes the better from the not so good.  A nice one is full, thick, smooth, hits all corners of the mouth, leaves a strong, lasting aftertaste, stimulates the tongue and throat, and gives you a feeling of qi.  Bad ones are just a beverage — you taste it, it goes down, it’s over.

Vendors, though, are quite unhelpful in this regard.  This is especially true of mainstream vendors, who overwhelmingly talk about flavours, flavours, flavours.  It’s all about the raisin note or the ripe fruit or the earthy flavours.  It is almost never, ever about how the tea feels in your mouth — the most is some mention of astringency, perhaps, in some cases, of huigan, but that’s already getting into specialized territory.  I think this is due, partly, to other beverage cultures, especially the wine community, where (for most people reading those tasting notes anyway) it’s all about the blackcurrants and what not.  Tea, though, is not like that.  It really shouldn’t be just about the flavours, but rather how it activates and excites the sensory nodes in your mouth — not just the tongue, but the entire mouth, perhaps even your body.  I don’t know how we can change that, but I think we should at least try, in our own discussions, to incorporate these unique qualities of tea as much as we can.

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10 responses so far ↓

  • Nicolas // February 25, 2011 at 8:54 am | Reply

    really great post!..

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  • Di // February 25, 2011 at 8:16 pm | Reply

    I wish I could move into that level of discussion, but it’s been awhile since I’ve had tea that’s created such a notable effect on me. Tea is so tricky like that. Sometimes it’s like chasing wild geese, especially when it comes to pu’er. :p

  • bev "learning to pull radishes" // February 25, 2011 at 9:53 pm | Reply

    Great post! Of all the things I enjoy about these teas, ‘taste’, while certainly enjoyable, has never been at the top of the list. Some days I think it’s the fragrances I love most, other days I’m enamored with long-lasting and nuanced hui gan, sometimes it’s the qi factor that impresses me. Today, after having had that smoky 2000 Kunming and then spending the rest of the day tasting and smelling smoke in my nose, I’m thinking a lot about what a tea leaves me with for the rest of the day. This smokiness is certainly not pleasant, and I’ve been pining away all day for the wonderful day-long remembrances I’ve had drinking the ’01 Jin Chang Hao from EoT.

    But I realize I’m still harping on variations of ‘taste’ while you’re talking about a whole other level on this matter of ‘feeling.’ I do have a sense for what you’re getting at, though. But I don’t yet trust myself completely to discern whether my feeling about a tea is thanks to the tea itself or to something else (what I ate at my last meal, whether I woke up in a good or bad mood that day, etc). Then again, I could be second-guessing my intuitions (and now second-guessing my guess about second-guessing — lol).

    Once again, your post sheds a refined light on the matter of tea knowledge and enjoyment. Thank you.

    • MarshalN // February 26, 2011 at 3:40 am | Reply

      The smokiness is certainly not something you necessarily want, but then again — that’s something, right? Even that, I would say, is sometimes better than nothing — where the tea didn’t leave any impression on you at all. That’s the worst, really.

  • Jason "Bearsbearsbears" F. // February 26, 2011 at 3:13 am | Reply

    Such nuances of feeling are one reason that I find group tea drinking useful. I think multiple persons dissecting their experience with the same tea simultaneously quickly move past flavor and onto the enduring sensory experiences. Most obvious to an observer could be the “qi” of the tea: some teas make groups talk boisterously, others languorously, others make the group sit back and fall silent.

    • MarshalN // February 26, 2011 at 3:40 am | Reply

      We definitely learn the fastest when drinking with others, no doubt. Drinking by oneself is a much more difficult task.

  • tort // May 10, 2011 at 9:24 am | Reply

    I think there is no discussion more exclusive and insubstantial as the flavor vocabulary of wine (and scotch) drinking. I have found it is much easier for me to understand cha qi than to trace down hints of dried walnut hulls or wind-fallen apricots (in wine or tea, for that matter). I am new to all of it, but the “feeling” as you say is something people can still discuss without a shared lexicon.

  • The process of aging | A Tea Addict's Journal // August 7, 2011 at 10:29 pm | Reply

    […] hurdle for many newcomers to puerh is to get past that veneer of taste.  This is something that I’ve written about before, but it still bears repeating.  Chasing taste is futile.  Mr. L told me a story of him buying a […]

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