Relativism in tea

A long time ago, I talked about tea blogging as a community of people who are virtually talking about drinking tea together in a never-ending session. Things have really quieted down since then. Blogs, as a form of writing, seems to be at least dying, overtaken by social media in various guises. Sometimes you still have new entrants in this field, however, and recently there were a couple posts, one by the vendor TwoDog, and the other by Cwyn, a sometime visitor of this site, about relativism in tea. The claim here is simple, if I’m allowed to reduce them a little bit. Basically, the idea is that we should approach teas with a clean slate, and that opinions shouldn’t be formed based on other people’s views of the tea. So far, so good. Then the claim, made in slightly different ways, come out of both posts – that all opinions are equally valid because there’s no real absolute in tea, and that experts, real or imagined (and there are plenty of imagined ones out there), don’t know any better. That I’m not so sure about.

This type of claim I see often, and basically boils down to the idea that opinions are all equally valid. On some level this may be true, if it’s a matter of preference. What I mean is, when given a choice of, say, a menu of food items, each person have their own matrix of preferences that will guide them to choose one out of the many things on that menu. Some will choose none at all, others may have to be limited by the size of their stomach. That choice is an opinion, and the chooser has the liberty to do whatever s/he wants. They may be picking based on taste, allergies, religion, politics, or any number of factors. It’s hard for anyone to say “you shouldn’t have picked the chicken.”

At the same time though, that doesn’t mean that one cannot make claims about absolute quality of the food on this given menu. For example, if the choices on the menu include the following items: a McDonald’s hamburger, a simple grilled flank steak, and a slow cooked beef stew from a top restaurant, I think it is pretty easy for most people to say that the slow cooked beef is the best food item among the choices, even though not everyone will choose to, or even want to, eat that. There will be outliers who prefer the hamburger, even. Others, Hindus for example, will reject the entire menu because it’s all Not Food for them. But even then, objectively, they can probably say that the slow cooked beef is the highest quality item here.

Teas are no different. There are, objectively, teas that are better and teas that are worse. The high elevation, hand crafted Darjeeling is probably a better tea than the Liptop tea bag, but there might be times when I’d rather drink the Lipton (admittedly not too many). One is a judgement of quality, the other is an expression of preference. It’s quite easy to mix the two.

More importantly, the experience of the person expressing that opinion also matters. I asked my cousin, who’s a professional sommelier, about ideas of absolute quality in wine – does it exist? Do people talk about these? It’s pretty easy to say that a First Growth Bordeaux is a better wine than the $5 a litre box wine you find at your local supermarket. At the same time, the guy who’s only drunk First Growth wines and who’s never had a bad wine, so to speak, is actually probably less able to judge a wine than someone who’s drunk the whole range, good and bad, because he lacks the reference points for making an informed judgement. What you get in the end is just first impressions, with references that may or may not be relevant, and is indeed utterly useless precisely because it’s ungrounded in experience.

Similarly, when TwoDog talks about approaching a tea as a beginner, well, a true beginner won’t know what’s what, and in my experience, most beginner to puerh all have one instant response to this stuff – it’s really bitter. That’s it. That’s the first thing that hits them, and quite a few can’t let go of that beyond the “but it’s so bitter”. Some may move beyond it and find other things about the tea, but it actually does take experience with a certain type of item in order to be able to pass a decent judgement on it. If you really approach something as a real beginner, you will end up with reviews like this four year old at the French Laundry. It’s honest, it’s unpretentious, she’s not probably all that impressed by the pomp and circumstance, but it’s also something we look at and say “well, the kid doesn’t know what she’s dealing with,” and end up with “let me eat that.” Never mind that she rejected half of the good stuff. So, my point is – there’s a good and bad, and experiences do matter. They’re certainly not foolproof, and there will be differences of opinion, but if you stick a few tea in front of a bunch of people who all live and die by drinking tea, chances are their preferences will be similar. The preferences will be more disparate when the teas sampled are more diverse, but in general there will be a consensus on which one’s better and which one’s worse.

Having dispensed with absolute relativism, I do agree with Cwyn in the uselessness of tea reviews online, but not for reasons of relative opinions. Rather, they’re useless because nobody controls for the most important input into the tea – water. Unless we all start using the same thing as our standard tasting water, what you put into the cup is going to drastically affect how it comes out. Someone who uses a reverse osmosis filtration at home is going to have a lot of tea come out absolutely horribly. In some places, whether you’re drinking water from the snow melt in the spring or the summer rains probably will also change how your teas taste. Without controlling for that, all reviews are at best suggestive. There’s a reason I pretty much stopped writing tea reviews on this blog – they’re not useful and they don’t serve any real purpose, not even really for myself anymore at this point. So, I don’t do them.

So what’s the point of me writing all this? Well, I think it does matter for us to critically reflect on what tea we’re drinking, to examine them, to analyze them, and to learn from them. Addition of experience will enhance tea drinking, because it adds one more frame of reference and will enrich all future tea drinking activity, even if it’s a bad tea. If this is a hobby (and if you’re reading this, it probably is) then you should most definitely go out and enjoy and at the same time critique what you’re drinking. There are lots of good tea out there, there are also lots of bad tea out there, but exploration is half the fun. Besides, there’s a tea for every occasion, even if that tea sometimes happens to be a Lipton teabag.


Comments

Relativism in tea — 18 Comments

  1. A thought provoking post. The reason I personally value the idea of maintaining the “beginner’s mind,” and I think Twodog’s post alluded to this, is precisely because I am no longer a beginner. I find it helpful to sometimes remind myself to step back and taste and feel a tea as purely and simply (and beginner-like) as possible; to put aside expectations and assumptions and even the lexical framework of tea tasting. Though I am no expert, I think that as one gains experience and tastes more, this approach becomes both more challenging but also more essential and valuable.
    As far as relativism is concerned, I too find the “taste is totally subjective, whatever’s good for you is good” argument to be a cop out and an unrealistic (and boring) dead end. Of course people experience flavor differently and have their own preferences but I agree that quality is somewhat objective. Where the beginners mind comes into play here (and the beauty of blind tastings) is sometimes what “they” say is good might not actually float your boat whereas something an expert might scoff at on principal without needing to taste might actually be a hidden gem of enjoyment. Of course we should use our experience and accrued powers of judgment to get the most out of tea drinking (and the most bang for our buck) but the true expert knows that there are always “interesting” outliers, and perhaps always keeps in mind “you might be wrong.”

    • Well, I think in the sense of “keeping a beginner’s mind” it’s not so much a beginner’s mind but an open mind. “Beginner’s mind” is very misleading because a true beginner is the four year old that I referred to, which is obviously not what you’re really after. Blind tastings are perfectly fine and may sometimes surprise, although I have to say that most of the time the disappointment happens because of vendor hype rather than actual deficiency in quality (meaning that the item was originally low in quality but hype made it out to be better than it is).

      And for “interesting”, I have to say anyone in the Sinosphere tea drinking community who says “interesting” really means “this is not good but I’m too polite to say it”

  2. Funnily enough, given that you’ve observed the trickling down of blogs, I was actually thinking about starting one recently as someone told me they enjoyed my writings about tea and other things despite them not personally being interested in the content itself. Perhaps I should go through with that…

    This post, like many others on this blog, codifies many thoughts similar to my own, and I agree that there are absolutes where people might not think there are. Maybe temporarily and philosophically, there are not absolutes in opinions, but as humans, there are many seemingly subjective perceptions that are often undisputed, and therefore more acceptable as fact. I think the reason people tend, in most places nowadays, to argue that there are no wrong opinions is because of the, for lack of a better term, “wishy-washy” and Harrison Bergeron-esque nature that’s become popular apparently as an attempt to keep people feeling less bad about themselves if their opinions seem unwashed, but that’s really a deeper problem…

    In regards to the four year old’s review of high cuisine, I think this illustrates some other thoughts I’ve had. That is, it illustrates that preferences and perceptions differ depending on one’s relative experience and where they are in their physical and mental maturity. Throughout living, most people will find that they like things they hadn’t previously, or dislike things they used to like, or that they see or feel many things, even outside of consuming, differently. This is part of why a review is not all that useful, and part of why opinions are both subjective and objective. When you get a ton of people that are all in the same place in their maturity, as a person, as a tea drinker, what have you, it will seem that their perceptions and preferences are objective because of the bias we have as humans in believing when people are in consensus. I think what separates the temporal objectivity from the “truer” objectivity is how long the opinion lasts, and on how much experience that opinion was founded. It’s a philosophical conundrum however, because one could argue that the more experienced opinion is no less valid or true than the less experienced one, and I would agree; those absolutes are absolutes for their lifetime and are as tricky to prove as any perception; but I think, similar to what you said, that when any human has a lot of experience with something, they generally reach the same conclusions or build upon the old agreed-upon conclusions.

    I think what people need to remember that even facts themselves have a half life, and that subjectivity and objectivity are not really as different as they’re illustrated. The two go hand in hand, should lead to new discoveries or ways of thinking, and should balance each other out, like I find an enjoyable cup of tea does with my mood and mindset.

    • And as a sidenote: as I’ve said in other posts here, I too enjoy a nice, humble teabag every now and then, even with any experience with tea or knowledge of tea I’ve gained. I also cook myself elegant meals, but I also enjoy some “prole chow” from the local fast food joint on occasion. In keeping it real, one realizes that people are prisms, and that like prisms, we have many different offshoots. Some might be better, some might be worse, but they are each inimitable, and we have to follow every path at least a little bit to get what we need at any given time.

      Keepin’ it real is part of the lifelong pursuit of truth, and what’s real in our experiences in tea drinking and in life is not always so clear.

      “I wouldn’t have seen it if I didn’t believe it.”

  3. I generally drink quality (to me) aged oolongs and pu’erhs, but I also enjoy having the occasional Masala Chai, or maybe even an herbal tea (I do like mint).

    For me, my favorite quality in a tea is for it to be interesting. Those tend to be the best learning experiences. Even if it was absolutely disgusting, you still gained new perspectives and added to your knowledge. A shop pretty close to me sells some really interesting stuff, including rolled Dancong and some sort of roasted oolong that tastes fruity and smells like a freshly baked baguette. None of those teas are good to me, but I still truly value the experience of trying it because I learned more than drinking a tea that’s plain good but doesn’t stand out.

  4. I really envy those who still enjoy magical a glow around puerh- and even rather ho-hum teas can transform into a zen experience. I had such an amazing time with my first beeng- I really long for those days you know. Life is a lot happier and easier when one is not so critical.

    Besides the obvious that critical analyses has never been that popular with vendors, I’m not sure what motivation tea drinkers have to defend so much mediocrity in puerh. I’ve already had my fill of alright just okay puerh that does not rise above agricultural commodity. It is not so wrong to want more.

    H

      • Did I miss the real forum action to precipitate this whole debate? I’m not surprised there is periodically a backlash against overly harsh critical opinions. However I’m surprised that a vendor would do so publicly. I’ve enjoyed twodogs blog and he seems a sincere conscientious vendor. But on abstract principal, a vendor asking tea drinkers not to be so critical would be in most contexts construed as being self-serving.

        I think there will always be a group who will want to perpetuate the mystique of puerh and thankfully a group that wants to demystify and qualify puerh. Given how much mediocre tea that exists out in this wide world, those who just honestly express opinions play a valuable role in the eco system.

        H

        • one of the most important things to remember as a tea drinker is to NEVER tell someone they bought a fake Yixing pot. if they’re impulsive enough to drop that much money on something without research, they’re impulsive enough to flip out on you.

        • I think you’re blowing this out of proportion, hster. I don’t think mr. TwoDog wrote the post hoping that people would stop evaluating his teas seriously, or write critically about them. Furthermore, he posted it on his “twodogteablog”, not the white2tea-blog, and the former is not linked by the latter (and as far as I can see it’s not posted on the W2T facebook page either). Of course there’s always the danger for vendors writing about tea that people suspect a self-serving (financial) motivation, but I don’t see how the “beginner’s mind” post fits here, especially seeing how W2T’s teas in general seems to receive far less “harsh critical opinions” than several (I’d say the vast majority of) western competitors. I’d also factor in the fact that W2T is one of the least “bulshitty” international vendors around in terms of tea mystification, so I really don’t think this was written with sinister intentions… I may of course be wrong, and I understand the suspicion vendors writing about tea is met with. I do enjoy TwoDog’s writings, though, so I hope he continues posting.

          More on topic, I agree that “open mind” is more suitable than “beginner’s mind”. Perhaps the point TwoDog tried to make is that the former is more likely to be found in the beginner than the experienced drinker, but I don’t know whether that’s true or not. I think it’s true that there’s a lot of arrogance out there, but of course arrogance and knowledge/competence are not mutually exclusive. Perhaps the least open mind is to be found in the semi-experienced drinker, who has experienced more than the beginner and is starting to feel the urge to strictly classify things in an over-simplified manner, and to convince himself that he has indeed learnt the ropes. (“This is an autumn tea, autumn teas are worse than spring teas.” “This is a recent Xiaguan, those are way worse than pre-2003.”) The more experienced drinker will perhaps be less dependent on simple schemas, enabeling an open mind, and at the same time have the insight accumulated through years of drinking that allows him to distinguish between gold and pyrite

          Or perhaps this presentation itself is too simple to be of much use. I have sometimes thought of myself to fit into the second category (strict categorization, at times a somewhat closed mindset and an urge to confirm expectations) and so these thoughts are based on introspection that may or may not make sense to other people…

          • “Perhaps the least open mind is to be found in the semi-experienced drinker, who has experienced more than the beginner and is starting to feel the urge to strictly classify things in an over-simplified manner, and to convince himself that he has indeed learnt the ropes.”

            Yup, this is pretty much it.

  5. “Having dispensed with absolute relativism, I do agree with Cwyn in the uselessness of tea reviews online, but not for reasons of relative opinions. Rather, they’re useless because nobody controls for the most important input into the tea – water. Unless we all start using the same thing as our standard tasting water, what you put into the cup is going to drastically affect how it comes out. Someone who uses a reverse osmosis filtration at home is going to have a lot of tea come out absolutely horribly.”

    True, but even if person A uses his excellent tap water to brew tea, whereas the more unfortunate person B has to use not-so-good tap water, won’t the effect of water quality on different teas be fairly consistent?

    In other words, give both of them one excellent and one crappy (notwithstanding the controversy over the subjectivity of opinions) tea, and they are both likely to prefer the excellent one even though person B ends up with a less good brew due to the quality of his water.

    I may have underestimated the importance of water quality in the past, being fairly spoiled by Norwegian tap water. And when I moved to Hong Kong I did notice that the tap water in my apartment was not of the same quality. But while my tea experiences were overall less good than in Norway (should have spent a few HKD on bottled water) I was still able to distinguish clearly between the teas I drank, and having brought some back here my overall opinion of them has not changed in any significant way.

    But perhaps some water types will mute certain flavors, or in other ways affect different teas or taste profiles in different ways, and if that’s the case I can more easily understand the “uselessness” judgment. Still, I think “flawed” or “imperfect” are more apt than “useless.”

    • I used “useless” partly because the water quality is difficult to know, especially when it’s an unknown source like local tap water, and its variable. In general if the quality of the teas are very different, then yes, water is important but it won’t change your overall impression of the tea. At the same time though, you will have a very different opinion of certain teas if you used water that is particularly poor – distilled or reverse osmosis water, for example, are horrible in general and will ruin any tea, even good ones. Local water can also be pretty horrible. I remember where I went to college the water tasted like it came from the swimming pool. So while “imperfect” may be true if you are using reasonable quality water, but in many cases we simply don’t know.

  6. I have learned so much from you and your blog. Thank you. I am a relative newcomer to tea and pu erh in particular. Fascinating theme in this post…I think there is a lot of subtly here to explore.

    A ‘beginners mind’ tries to discover what it does not know, not confirm what it already knows – or worse, conceal what it does not know (this is a paraphrase of something I read before…I can’t recall the source).

    http://ryandow.com/ic/2011/01/02/beginners-mind/

    I would whole-heartedly agree that not all opinions are equal. Some are well informed by knowledge and experience and others are not. I would rather be guided by the opinion of an expert. I don’t think a ‘beginners’ mind should be equated with a lack of knowledge and experience. Both experts and novices can exhibit a beginners mind…but it is more difficult for an expert to retain a beginners mind, because the more you know the harder it is to be surprised by something new.

    Arrogance is always undesirable and humility is always desirable regardless of level of expertise. Deferring to authority – or whoever asserts claims with the most confidence – is not a good thing. Sometimes you need to trust your own judgment and be willing to go against the crowd and risk being wrong.

    http://www.andersen.sdu.dk/vaerk/hersholt/TheEmperorsNewClothes_e.html

    To judge something good or high quality requires that we can perceive with our senses what is there and then determine how well it conforms to an appropriate (what was the creator trying to accomplish?) standard or ideal. This requires expertise. Standards or ideals however are not objectively good or bad in themselves but subject to fashion, historical factors etc. Experts that are steeped in the tradition of one particular standard or ideal do not often respond positively when new standards or ideals emerge – unless they can embody a beginners mind.

    I wonder if there is something akin to art critics and curators in the tea world? If so, what role do they play?

    Here’s to knowledgeable and experienced tea drinkers who embody a beginner’s mind – that’s who I want to learn from!

    • Thanks for the thoughtful reply. Of course things like fashion and taste will change over time and the generally accepted idea of good will therefore shift. People used to think the impressionists were not really serious artists, or Berlioz was a terrible composer. In puerh, anyway, there’s been a gradual shift away from traditional storage to natural storage. It’s getting harder to find good traditional storage tea even in Hong Kong now. So yes, someone who’s stubbornly clinging onto one position is probably being too closed minded. I guess I just wanted to make the distinction between a beginner’s mind and the idea that all opinions are worth the same, and an open mind where you don’t have that implication. Open mind is important when approaching any topic, not just tea. We modify our opinions based on available evidence. That’s how we learn, after all.

  7. Regarding the uselessness of tea reviews due to water, what if you clarify what water you are using when you do a review? I mean, people also often include how much tea leaf they are using for how much water and so on.

    • I think that would help, but since most of us probably use water with unknown variables (tap water, local source of various sorts) unless you standardize by using bottled water from an international company that ships everywhere, the variables are still pretty big.

  8. It’s a good discussion. I think it’s a Both/And model – “blind” tasting – void of other opinions or even info on the tea – is helpful in developing a skillful and mindful approach to tea. And yet those who have spent lots of time refining their skills can teach us so much!

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