Absolute and relative quality

A question that I have discussed on a few separate occassions with friends over the last month or so has been the question of how to determine quality in a given agricultural product — in this case, tea, but more generally the usual suspects, such as wine, whisky, etc, came up as well over the course of discussion.

The problem is: how do we determine whether tea A is better than tea B?  What are the standards, and who determines these standards?  Is there such thing as a tea A that is unequivocally better than tea B?

Let’s start with the basic question.  How do we determine what’s better and what’s worse?  There are obviously different ways of approaching the question.  The “scientific” one is one that bases itself on various metrics that are somehow measurable and readily testable.  For example, something about dissolved materials in the water, amounts of various kinds of chemicals (name your favourite antioxidants, for example) and also the absence of unpleasant things.  It’s a very scientific way of measuring tea, and coupled with more physical traits, such as the size of the leaves, the amount of variation in such traits, etc, you can arrive at a way to grade certain kinds of teas in a rough “best to worse” sort of way.  Any buyer of Longjing would’ve encountered such a grading system — they are meticulously graded from high to low, with corresponding prices.  The highest grade is the best, the lowest grade the worst.  Simple, right?

Well, maybe, maybe not.  I have met many people over the years who do not like the highest grade of Longjing — mingqian longjing can often be too soft and light, and for many, it is on the wrong side of being bland.  For them, it is much better to drink something slightly lower grade — a yuqian, for example, or some other teji type Longjing.  They find the flavour more robust, and the tea more interesting.  The same can be said for people who prefer second flush Darjeelings over the first, etc.

That leads me to the question at hand — is that “objective” quality scale really a measure of quality, and is it absolute?  In other words, can you really just say that a mingqian Longjing is better than 4th grade Longjing, period, no qualifications?  Or can we only say that “for me, this mingqian Longjing is better than the 4th grade one”?  Is there such thing as an absolute measure of quality?

When talking this over with a wine sommelier over the Christmas break, her argument is strongly in favour of the existence of some sort of absolute quality.  One can indeed say that this Grand Cru Burgundy is better than that Beaujoulais, period (I know, not a fair fight, but I’m trying to make a point).  Likewise, applying the same logic, one could say that this dahongpao is indeed better than that Taiwanese jinxuan oolong.  The key to this measure, especially when one compares things that are not directly related to one another (as opposed to our Longjing example earlier where everything is supposed to be the same type) is the tongue of the expert, or perhaps a group of experts, who have tried a multitude of things and are very knowledgeable in their field of expertise.  They can use their knowledge to evaluate the goods in question, and then arrive at some sort of measure of quality that puts different wines or teas or whatever into a ranking of one over another.  In other words, there is such thing as absolute quality.  I had a similar conversation with a friend’s friend, who, among other things, sells whisky.  The logic was similar – the expert knows best, basically.

I must say I am not entirely convinced.  What, exactly, does it mean when we say something is “better”?  That it is of a higher quality, that it is more worthy of our money, or that it should be more pleasurable to partake in?  Or, perhaps, none of the above, or some combination of all of the above?

That’s where I really have a problem with the idea that there is some absolute scale of quality.  I know, from my own vantage point, that I have a personal scale of things that I think are higher quality than others.  I know which teas I deem to be great, which ones good, which ones bad.  I also know, however, that my ideas change, that what I think half a year ago as great may, upon further inspection, feel less great.  There is, of course, also the question of interference — I am predisposed to think that a certain tea is better if I were told that it was some ultra rare tea that came from Zhou Yu, than some no-name stuff that one picked up from the Kunming tea market, and this is before I even take a sip of anything.  In this case, one can make the case that the expert and his blind tasting, a la Robert Parker, is really the best way to judge a tea, but then, there is also the argument against blind tasting.  The problem here really is a relativistic one — just because some expert out there, who presumably knows far more about tea/wine/whatever than the average joe, thinks A is better than B, does that make it really better?  Does that actually MEAN anything?

I spent the past weekend with a tea friend who knows far more about black tea than I do.  He drinks all manner of them, and also a number of darker oolongs and some puerh, mostly of the cooked variety.  I’ve been trying to find this friend some quality raw puerh that he might like, but generally, I fail, because of a problem that never goes away — apparently, he is very sensitive to bitterness.  I knew this all along, but it has been confirmed again, probably definitively, this time around.  Because of this sensitivity, young, raw puerh in general tastes far too bitter for him to enjoy, and unless it is old or well stored in a traditional storage, the bitterness overpowers everything else a tea has to offer and is therefore unenjoyable.  It doesn’t matter what I or anyone else thinks of these great young puerhs — even if it’s top flight, super high end stuff, he probably will still feel it’s too bitter and impossible to drink in an enjoyable way.  Each of us, I think, have similar preferences and therefore will have our own personal scale.  What, then, does it really mean when someone else who “knows” rates one over the other?  So what?

We see this phenomenon with puerh all the time.  Some critic out there, presumably someone who sits on a large stash of tea A, for example, goes on some magazine or internet forum and says that said tea A is excellent.  Meanwhile, he is slowly feeding the tea to the market through various channels.  Before you know it, the tea makes it big, gets famous, prices shoot up, all the while the tea itself is really…. not that great.  But surely, these critics must know what they’re talking about, because they are, well, knowledgeable, right?  They have twenty years of drinking experience, no?  If you drink, say, tea A, and think it’s just ok, it must be because you don’t know how to appreciate it yet (and sometimes some of these critics will actually come and tell you that, in no uncertain terms — this happens more on Chinese forums than anywhere else) and that you just, well, need another ten years under your belt to really appreciate it.

Now, someone like Robert Parker doesn’t do that, I know, but even then, these wine critics do have their skin in the game, sort of.  Even if a critic has no agenda, he or she is still biased by his or her own tongue in ways that we cannot know.  Wine drinkers lament the direction in which the market is headed, just like how tea drinkers in Hong Kong lament the demise of traditionally processed tieguanyin, but nonetheless, the market moves that way, often guided by a number of influential individuals who prefer their drinks a certain way.  In
the case of tea, the process is infinitely more complicated because the drinker is also, indirectly, the maker — you brew your own tea.  The critic/expert is not there to make it for you, so although the expert, in his expertly way, might make the tea a certain way and come to a certain conclusion, for the drinker reading said criticisms, that might not be relevant at all.  If the drinker is, say, an expert in making tea grandpa style, but the critic is drinking his with 10g of tea in an 80ml zhuni pot…. do the critic’s comments still apply?  Really?

This is partly why I basically no longer post tea reviews of any sort, save for ones I find particularly interesting or when I really feel like having something to say.  With tea I just find that the room for variation is very large — it basically all depends on how you make the tea, and to a very large extent, the water you use.  What I find to be excellent is not always going to go down well with other people, and while I am convinced that I have some basis in what I say, it does not mean that what I say applies to anyone else, really.  One person’s “butchering” of a tea in terms of brewing methods can be another one’s “perfect”.  What’s more important than figuring out the supposed absolute quality of a tea is to figure out how to get the most out of the tea.  That, I think, is the key to tea drinking.


Absolute and relative quality — 11 Comments

  1. How much of the thought in this essay is this a reflection of how unregulated Chinese teas are?

    Indian teas are all graded. Batches are sold at auction via various buyer’s tasters. Indian teas are already prejudged by some kind of expertise, and this expertise is validated by whether that tea sells well for the final retailer or not. All of the tea for elites are grabbed from known good top sections of top estates, or from auction when people who work for them tastes the grade.

    In China, from what I can understand, I suspect that the quality of many of the bings made for the elites from 1995-2006 or so varied quite a bit because even small batch stuff made with top stuff was adulterated to some degree and many improper techniques were used to make the puerh more palatable in the near term. One reason I think brands have value is that even though that Yichanghao isn’t all top stuff, it has cleared a marketplace of tastes, and there are plenty of reviews–giving assurances of basic quality. In China, are you that certain that bland mingquan is a properly made and stored version of the real thing?

    If I look at senchas from Japan, the very little I’ve tasted of those teas, I’ve found that the vast majority of sencha’s grades correspond to their hedonism points. It’s all standard. The flavor profile is known or easily described for even mildly experienced drinkers, and you can easily pay for exactly what you want. All the storage is totally standard, with nitrogen flushing, etc, etc…There is just very little need for expert guidance for getting into sencha or gyokuro except for some beginner training in brewing. Every product is made every year, and they are mostly the same, so over the years you gain experience. That’s why there isn’t really a Robert Parker of Sencha, at least in the US.

    I don’t think Robert Parker’s specific opinion matter all that much in popularising wine. It was simply that there was publicity over the idea of getting “elite” wines, and the trend of fad collectorism, which was gaining momentum in the 80’s and went crazy in the ’90s took care of the rest. In general, I think you *can* say that something is better than something else, like your wine friend and your whiskey friend–not least of which is because any spirits that I know of is already taste-sorted and priced by the originator, who’s certain to have tasted a wide variety of his or her competitors. Just like Darjeeling tea. Public experts do perform a role, but the grading is already done to what are effectively community-wide standards. Know enough to stay away from the Jindamos of the wine world and know what you want out of your wine, and your bucks generally go to the qualities you want because in part, you pay for the expert already.

    In chinese teas, and especially puerh, you are completely dependent on expertise. Maybe not some random expert that’s trying to sell off a quantity of tea. People can easily avoid that, I think, mostly because I think people like that are obvious, even through Google translate. With puerh, you are dependent on two sets of experts: The people behind the brand, and the people who sell puerh directly. People with an effective brand try to have something distinctive in their taste profile. Sellers try to not have tea that have few repeat customers. Both groups taste their teas, and their decisions have an opaque impact on whether you drink something or not.

    Regulate Chinese Teas Or Chinese Tea Will Die!!!!!!!!!


  2. I feel we tend to get accustomed to what we drink, and upon trying something different we really have two directions to take “hate” or “love”. Very rarely do people in the Wine, Whisky, Tea, Beer, etc. field try something that they find “unique” and say “its different” and not follow that up with only a mediocre review, at least not without stating that they either loved or hated that unique feature.

    An example from my life in terms of tea, this summer I started to try Korean teas. At first I found them so unique that even though upon going back and trying some of the first ones I realized they were not all that great, even though I loved them. And the first time I tried sencha, I hated it, but upon trying more and more I came to appreciate it.

    So in essence our tastes are slightly flawed from that perspective, and there has been some speculation in the wine world that it played a role in the Judgement of Paris results. But in the long run, I feel there can really be no “absolute” rating system, as in essence it is people consuming them, people who all have different ideas as to what they look for in product x. In another story from the Wine Industry, I read something written by a judge writing about a few of his fellow tasters at the Wine competition, he got incredibly frustrated because one of the judges identified an aroma compound of ‘bandaids’ which may not be a rare occurrence in Wine, but it is supposed to be considered a flaw and the wine marked down for that. But that particular judge said that that aroma “adds character” to the wine and should not be penalized for it.So really reviews are “flawed” because we as tasters are “flawed”. While I am no longer writing tea reviews, I do defend the purpose of reviewers. I feel people should seek to find a reviewer they agree with in terms of taste and really only do that by trying a few teas that person has reviewed to see if they agree with the reviewers thoughts. What I do dislike though is some of these big names that are somehow viewed as the “authorities” for their chosen drink, as no matter how gifted the person is at identifying flavors and aromas, each person is ultimately unique.

  3. very interesting comments on a deeply perceptive entry here. i am intrigued by the notion of a grading system for chinese teas similar to what one finds in india and sri lanka; but [a] i don’t think the absence of this would spell the death of chinese tea — i think the growing coffee industry in china is a bigger threat than that — and [b] it’s inaccurate to say that there is no grading system to chinese teas. for dian hong alone, yunnan distributors speak of at least 12 [numbered] grades of the tea.

    i think the points raised in this conversation about tea reviews are also worth pondering. it’s a well-noted phenomenon that tea bloggers often move away, over time, from posting reviews; but there may be no better way to *begin* gaining expertise as a tea blogger than to write precisely such notes. the principal value may actually be to the blogger/reviewer, as they force him/her to think very pointedly about the experiences of buying, brewing, and drinking the tea, and then to articulate these thoughts in readable form.

    speaking of brewing: marshaln’s observation about the interactivity of maker/drinker and tea is extremely important, i think. a wine-drinker interacts with the wine to some extent [method & extent of cellaring, allowing it to breathe, etc] but to nowhere near the extent of the tea-brewer.

    on the subjective element of all this: readers may be interested in

  4. @shah8 – 

    Not as much as you seem to imply, Shah8. I think while it is true that the market has very opaque rules and they are not well enforced, by and large the point made here is one that is more universal — how do we qualify one tea over another, and is there some “objective” and “absolute” scale of quality that transcends individual tastes? I am of the belief that the answer to that is no, for reasons already stated. While it is annoying that the tea market is not very well regulated in China, I don’t think regulation necessarily helps you solve this problem. Take French wines for example — the labeling laws pretty much tell you exactly what can and cannot go into the bottle for it to have certain names/words on them, but it doesn’t actually mean that first growth Bordeaux is always going to be superior to the other stuff, or, more importantly, that the first growth Bordeaux is a better wine than that Grand Cru Burgundy. Once you cross those lines the classifications are pretty meaningless, but to each drinker there’s definitely a hierarchy.

    @Adam Yusko – 

    You’re quite right that we do get used to what we drink, and can, sometimes, like what we’re used to and not as much what we’re not. I do agree that reviewers serve a purpose, although I also find that reviews can lead to all kinds of unintended consequences — just because you say something is nice means people might go out and buy it, and then they will come back and tell you it’s actually terrible, etc. Or, as I find myself doing back then, sometimes I change my mind about a tea after a second or third try. In fact, some teas are quite fickle that way, and reviews, which are almost always snapshots of impressions, are very imperfect. As such, I think we often assign far too much value to reviews.

    @coraxjk – 

    I think you hit the nail on the head — tea asks a lot more of its drinkers than I think pretty much all beverages out there, and the interaction is constant — you don’t do it once, you do it throughout the session, adjusting, presumably, every time (assuming some kind of gongfu style brewing). Coffee makers do it when they brew that initial cup, but that’s it — the interaction is over and the drinking begins. Tea isn’t like that and tea drinking, at least the way we do it, occupies time in the same way music appreciation occupies time — your constant attention is required.

  5. Thanks for this very interesting reflection.

    Two distinctions could be helpful to understand this ‘philosophical’ problem about the status of evaluations. First, our evaluative judgements are, most of the time, different from judgments about our pleasure. If I am very thirsty and get some very chlorinated water from the tap, it can nevertheless please me a lot. On the other hand, the first time I drunk a Da Hong Pao, and even though on that day I understood something about what could tea be, I must admit I did not ‘like’ it. So very bad water can bring out much more pleasure than a very fine tea. What does that mean ? It merely shows that our evaluative judgments don’t aim at the pleasure we take drinking, but at the quality of the tea itself. In that way, our evaluation isn’t self-centered and relative, but objective and absolute.

    But then, we cannot conclude from it that there is an objective scale telling the truth about the quality of the tea we drink, because no criterion is convenient here. We can determine precisely the length and size of the leaves, the concentration of tannins or minerals, etc., but as you say, this doesn’t mean the tea will be better. There is no way to determine the quality of tea, because our judgment isn’t a matter of truth and error, but, definitely, an evaluation.
    So, relative, absolute ?
    I would say it’s a little bit more complex. Basically, our evaluations could be very different and none of us make a mistake : your friend finds shengpu unbearable, you love it, it’s Ok. But :
    – we are all human beings, and so share a lot of likes and dislikes, even though we are well aware about the important gap separating different cultures and people. Maybe a cat would bear a very different evaluative judgment about this Grand Cru Burgundy and that Beaujolais ; but most human people, at least wine-used people, would think the same way. And, presumably, the closer (culture, education, etc.) we are, the more evaluative judgments we will share. Consequently, when a blogger posts a tea review, if he proved to have the same tastes as I have in the past, there is good chance that I will agree with his actual judgments.
    – our taste is in a constant evolution : drinking more tea, we learn to appreciate flavors we could not stand before, and develop a more accurate perception. I imagine this is the way almost everybody – in occidental culture – learn to like puerh, and especially the bitter ones : first they don’t really like it, then they guess there is ‘something’ interesting in it, and eventually they finally love it. Were they wrong on the very first day, when they thought it was terrible ? I would not say so.
    – Then comes the thing with the ‘experts’. Why is it interesting to read Parker’s appreciations on wine, or actually any expert’s appreciation on music, tea, cinema, or literature, since you can never be ‘wrong’ ? Well, I’d say that the experts can tell you what they think about the object. Then, as they know a lot in their subject, you can ‘believe’ them, and try to get – to understand – why they did bear this judgment. This understanding effort, requiring flexibility, is precious, since it can lead you to a new way of tasting and appreciating. For example, when you’ve read both a review on a book and the book itself, you can make a comparison and try to get into the expert’s eyes, to consider your book as he did. That doesn’t mean the critic is right or wrong (neither are you), but you can often learn a lot from it.

    So, the tea quality is neither absolute or relative 🙂 It is an evaluation you bear upon it, according to your tastes, your culture and your experience. But discussing this evaluation, comparing it with others’, and especially with the experts’, may be the best way to discover new sides of tea, and to improve your way.

  6. @Robin – 

    Point well taken, but with regards to the problem about reviews — I think a real issue here is that the tea is really only half the equation. The other factors, which are very significant, are water and the brewing method, both of which can drastically change the way the tea comes out. I’ve done tests with friends before, drinking the same tea using a filtered water and Volvic, which is quite heavy in minerals. Basically — the tea brewed with Volvic was infinitely superior. Since the tea was brewed by the same person in the same setting on the same day, the only real variable was the water. Given that, I think reviews are, at best, a very poor way of conveying one’s ideas about the tea.

    The sort of interaction that I find much more useful and valuable are the face to face discussions I have with other tea lovers, all the while drinking the same tea that just came out of the pot. That, I think, is where real exchange of ideas happen. Too bad in the US anyway that is virtually impossible to do for most people.

  7. I have read your blog for a while and have enjoyed it.

    This was a damn good entry. As far as I’m concerned quality is and will always be relative. Hopefully my palate will continue to find lower quality teas to be pleasing.

    I do agree that the teas discussions around the same pot of tea are difficult to accomplish. oh well

  8. Everything is generally said in light of the fact that different people want different things. If I was a different person, I’d spend my far too much money on very late 90s and early-early 2k’s instead of boutique younger puerh. That’s because I select for a certain set of qualities, just like someone else might select for higher roast Dahongpao vs lower roast Dahongpao. *Everyone* selects for a certain set of qualities, everyone who has any sort of expertise. With this in mind, there is *much* less to be said for “relative”, and I think that’s an easy way to throw your hands up, and say there’s no single overpowering best. Nobody really is going to be interested in whether Japanese-Mexican fusion food is better than New Orleans creole cooking. Everyone is interested in whether *something does **what it’s supposed to do*** better than an alternative product for some given consumer. For example, I do not mind bitterness or oxidation in my puerh as much as some other people do, but that does not necessarily mean that I will *prefer* those traits. I do not emphasize mouthfeel as a big value, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not happy when I get good mouthfeel. I, as well as anyone here, have personal tastes. These tastes, however personal they are, are generally constructed by a matrix of socialization, biological development, and biology. To some degree, they will *always* pole towards (or against, for whatever reason) community agreed standards. On the other hand, weird new things are introduced and they sell like pancakes, and a new group of fans are created. Am I saying that out there, somewheres, there is a perfect coffee tree that gives perfect beans and there is a perfect roaster and a perfect barista, and then boom, you’re taken to coffee nirvana?


    I’m saying that the relativeness of qualities is a trivial answer. There are always going to be teas, wines, and anything else out there that will be better than what you have in your cup–completely objectively and a more valuable judgment than “relative”. You simply can’t say that one can make do with Muggsy Bogues instead of Magic Johnson and then conclude that it’s all relative. A scientist/engineer can’t go with undefined relative at all, (outside it’s constructed meaning in General Relativity) from selection of materials to usage of statistics. A AV aesthetician is going to be able to say that “Christian Art” is inferior to Jackson Pollock. All these people are comfortably able to do that because they choose the axioms of whatever aesthetic system they use. Some people might fight over the axioms, but if a group of people have a mutually agreed set of axioms, well “relative” is not needed, unless you want to judge people instead of the wine in their cups. Sometimes objective is hard to tell–bad tv screen or terrible water, but more experience and better equipment usually does the trick.

    With this in mind, are reviews a good idea or a bad idea? I think the most valuable commercial aspect of reviews is that they give confidence to consumers such that consumers feel like they know what they are buying. Beyond confidence games, are reviews a good idea? Well, for tea, the best reviews are the ones where a few chums get together and drink and talk and stuff. The qualities that are good about this method, cannot be translated to the Web, though. So, what are the purpose of reading web reviews? At first I was reading reviews for the initial commercial reasons of what tea I should buy, because, hey, that tea is supposed to be really good. Then I started reading reviews in more and more context, and searching for insight *about the teas I already own* rather than for which tea to buy. There are far more teas than can be reviewed by extant reviewers. I mean, we can use more reviews on Guanzizai products, people! Heh. When it comes to *this* blog, well, MarshalN and I have fairly different tastes, and I wouldn’t buy things he likes (to buy something, you have to *really* like it, so as to avoid having lots of tea you don’t want to drink just now). I read this blog and I read it backwards and forwards, to understand perspectives about tea, and how it changes the person. Every tea you drink, changes you, and I saw MarshalN evolve from a pathetic Han weakling who drinks crappy flower tea to a sophisticated and subtly influential Mandarin who sends inferior bings fleeing at the crook of the eyebrow. Cha Dao. I don’t intend to emulate, but there is much that can be taken from this, and attempting tea reviews, no matter how useless it might be for some readers, puts stress on how you describe your relationship with tea. That is the valuable part, but it might be difficult to directly write those words of value.

    pardon for any “get your own blog!” feelings by this long comment.

    • @wolfrb –
      Thanks for the kind words (and continued readership). There’s a big difference between low quality and low price — so let’s hope you continue to find low priced teas pleasing!

      @shah8 –
      I think there is something here that needs to be further distinguished in order for the discussion to be more meaningful. There is a real difference between talking about different teas (leaves) and different teas (liquid in cup). Tea undergoes a transformation from leaves to liquid through the hands of the brewer, and with the addition of water and time. Even if one were to post all the incidental information about how one brewed a tea (water type and brewing parameters) we all know that those things are, generally speaking anyway, rather useless. It’s not a science experiment, and results are very unlikely to be replicated. I think it is easy to make some general classification on the quality of the leaves, but it is much harder to do so for the liquid. The word tea, unfortunately, fails us there, since it means both.

      I don’t think I ever quite said that reviews are a bad idea. Lots of people do it, and they certainly have their value — not least for the reviewer himself/herself. By organizing one’s thoughts, the process of writing a review can bring out ideas and sort out the problems in one’s thinking about tea. I also believe that the act of talking with each other, even if only online, helps further the tea practice of everyone involved. However, I’m not so sure that there is some yardstick by which all teas can be judged. Sure, it is probably true that lots of people out there will say that a first growth dahongpao is going to be better than that crappy meizhan, but there will always be those few who disagree. It may be because of biology or any other number of factors, but since this is a matter of taste and preference, they are entitled to their opinions.

      What I find troubling is the typical response of the tea community at large to certain “celebrity” reviewers (mostly in China or Taiwan in this case) who promote some tea or another, and everyone flocks to said tea, creating an artificial demand for a certain tea that is far beyond what I believe to be the true merit of the tea in question. The problem is these things can be self-reinforcing, creating a false sense of absolute quality because, well, everyone is buying this tea and it must be good! This then subsequently influences how future productions are made, and can create a vicious cycle. We’ve seen this sort of thing happen with puerh and tieguanyin (witness the ever more nuclear green tieguanyins being produced these days) and what I’m saying, if nothing else, is trust your own judgment. Yes, read reviews, by all means, because they help give you ideas of what other people think about things, but nothing, unfortunately, beats face-to-face discussions about tea. Just like how people lament that online “social” interaction is not really social at all, I find myself feeling that face-to-face meetings with tea friends to be far more valuable than some long-winded discussion about tea online.

      And for the record — I don’t think I ever drank crappy flower teas on a recurring basis! 🙂

  9. I find Felix Salmon’s argument against blind tastings kind of weak. He doesn’t show that blind tastings are necessarily bad, only that the way they’re usually done is bad. A bakeoff between two anonymous teas, both brewed to bring out their best, in a congenial setting among people who are hoping to enjoy an afternoon tea session? That’ll teach you something!

    • It’s not perfect, no, but I’ve observed this sort of behaviour before, so it doesn’t entirely miss the mark either.

      As always — live experiences are the best.

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