by Chen, Hsiao Pu, co-founder of Deerland Tea
TEA : THE GOAL OF TEA
EVALUATING TEA TASTING PROCESS
"Is this a good tea?
How good is this tea?
Is this tea better than that tea?” are what the evaluative tasting process aims to answer.
Based on knowledge and perceptive tasting of tea, the evaluative tasting process is the last step of analytic tea tasting, and probably the ultimate goal of tea tasting. Knowledge of tea provides the expected performance of a category of tea. Perceptive tasting provides the record of what the particular sample actually tastes like. Following this information, we are in the position to judge how good the tea is: Does the tea has serious flaws? Does it perform better than other teas coming from the same region? Only after the evaluative tasting process, such questions can be answered.
Evaluative judgments are commonly challenged by being subjective, unscientific, and therefore unreliable. Such critics, in my opinion, is a valid generalization of how evaluative judgments are commonly made, but not appropriate when evaluations are done properly. In my view, no evaluative judgment can be justified without the aid of at least the basic understanding of tea and the taster/sommelier's attention to what is been perceived. More precisely, I consider the act of reporting one’s impulsive feeling towards tea is not sufficient enough for doing the evaluative tasting. It is important to support one’s evaluation of all of the three pillars of tea evaluation: knowledge, perception, and emotion.
What if we lack the information about the sampling teas? Such a situation can be a bit tricky, but not an insurmountable threat to my characterization of evaluative tasting. People do blind tasting sometimes. In such a scenario, the information of the tasted samples will not be revealed to the tasters. Nevertheless, experienced tasters can often associate the perceptual information of the tea with their knowledge of tea, and make their judgment accordingly.
What make(s) a tea valuable?
Without knowing the foundation of evaluative judgment, it can be hard to communicate with each other about why we like or dislike tea. There might be three potential answers to the posted question. And I will advocate a pluralistic approach which bases the evaluation of tea on all three strategies:
Mouthfeel and Flavor
The mouth-feel or the diversity, uniqueness, strength, or particular flavors of a tea determine the value of tea.
The pleasure one finds in the tea determines the value of tea.
The unexpected facts about the tea determine the value of tea.
Mouthfeel and flavor are surely important components of evaluation, but should not be the only two. When certain tea has unbearable mouthfeel or flavors, there can be no point to evaluate such tea highly. But when there are a variety of good flavors and acceptable mouthfeels, there have to be additional criteria to determine whether the tea is good or not.
Tea should not be valuable merely because it has particular mouthfeel or diverse, strong, or some unique flavors. Sometimes people say that such tea has such and such flavor, for example, the flavor of green apple, and conclude that such tea is a good tea. What if, for the sake of argument, someone adds a little bit of apple juice into a bunch of teas and claim that the resulting teas are all good teas?
This is not just an irrelevant concern. The fad of non-roasted-High-Mountain Oolong 無焙火高山茶/清香型烏龍茶 had dominated the tea production industry in Taiwan in the latter half of the 20th century largely because people used to perceive that fresh, flowery, and smooth teas are what make oolong tea good. Such prejudice of tea has to lead to irrecoverable inhibition and harm, at least, to the technological development of tea roasting and aging.
It is not hard to imagine that similar disaster can happen in all analogous scenario, such as the fad about the honey-like infested tea 蜜香茶 happening right now, the fad about super-aged tea 老茶/陳化生茶, such as PǔĚr 普氵耳 茶 since the last century, and the fad about super intensive aromatic tea such as the frozen tea 冷凍茶 in the 1970s in Taiwan. Mouthfeel and flavor of tea are both important, but should not be the only criteria for tea evaluation.
If mouthfeel and flavor are not enough for tea evaluation, what else is needed?
One important assisting criterion could be the pleasure: how perceptually enjoyable you find in the tasted tea. Specifically, the following tea evaluative reasons based on the sense of pleasure should be relevant in the evaluative tasting when the flavor of the tea is: balanced, harmonious, full-body, weighty, refreshing, long-lasting. Notice that all the terms used in this evaluation are not neutral nor objective. They are all commonly associated with enjoyable perceptions, and not reducible to the mere records of flavors and mouthfeel.
Pleasure is important for two reasons. First, it is to some universal extent among human beings simply because most human beings genetically share the same perceptive system. I am not doubting that some tastes of the culturally specific food are attractive only to people within a certain cultural community. However, it is probably true that people generally tend to prefer a bit of sweetness to intense bitterness; prefer a bit of smoothness to intense astringency; prefer a bit of aroma to flat and boring tea. We may not all have the same preference, but it seems wrong to say that the sense of pleasure is wildly diverse among each and every individual. When an ordinary people impulsively finds a tea enjoyable, there is a high chance that other ordinary people will also have a similar feeling. In sum, pleasure is important because it is to some universal extent.
Second, the sense of pleasure is usually effective to rule out those hazardous teas 烏龍茶之忌味. We commonly say that certain tea is off-odor by pointing out and relate the unpleasant perception with some hazardous components of tea. For example, moldy 陳味, over-roasted 焦味, super astringent 澀味, and grassy tastes 菁味are all related to certain chemical compounds in tea which should not be consumed in a large portion.
Pleasure is the end result of the black-box in our mind aggregating different aspects of flavors and mouthfeel of tea. How the black-box works remain mysterious, but the sense of pleasure commonly helps us consistently determine which tea is better even when we can’t specify non-contradicting reasons for our judgment each time. We may say that A tea is better than B because A is light-body and refreshing, but also perceive that C is better than D because C is full-body and creamy. It is true that psychologists managed to illustrate the manipulability of people’s preferences, but it seems that there is a limit to how far preference can be manipulated. When you really enjoy watching dramas and hate documentary, it could be hard for others to make it otherwise.
Can we conclude that enjoyable flavors and mouthfeels are all we need to evaluate tea? I believe not for the reason that our preference is largely influenced by habits and surprises. In the field of aesthetic judgments, the role of novelty is controversial: It is common that we find something beautiful because it is novel, but a truly beautiful object should not cease to be beautiful when the spatiotemporal condition changes. Which of the two positions is wrong? We don’t want to say that the painting of Mona Lisa is beautiful today, but ugly tomorrow because it is not new to us. On the other hand, it is possible that how we find things beautiful just reflects our habit of thought about beauty. Most people were not used to jazz before, but it is not hard to imagine that people might generally agree that music in certain jazz album is beautiful.
Does the novel flavor of tea make such tea valuable? Whenever a taster/sommelier encounters the experience of a new perception of tea, the taster/sommelier should always distance herself sufficiently but not completely from her habit, experience, and prejudice. They might ask: Will I still find the new flavor enjoyable at the second, third, or fourth time? Is this awkward odor truly unbearable and distracting if I familiarized myself with it? Knowing how to level oneself up is a critical skill for giving objective evaluative judgments. We practically cannot start from no-where and evaluate when we know nothing about tea, but we also should not limit ourselves to possible breakthroughs of the aesthetic of tea.
The skill for assessing the novelty in tea is building on vague principles. However, it doesn’t follow that such skill is ill-founded. There might be different acceptable levels to distance oneself from their assessing habit, or there might be a single unknown best level to distance oneself from their assessing habit. In either case, finding the optimal or acceptable distance is relevant for evaluative tea tasting.