Hype — and Tasting Tea.
If you’re familiar with puer tea, you’re no stranger to hype.
I generally choose not to specify exactly where the teas I produce come from. Not because I think I’m influential enough to cause the rise and fall of various village’s tea by naming names — but because I prefer to let the tea speak for itself, based on its merits, with no preconceptions about where it comes from. Knowing the exact location or name of the material is not important for enjoying the tea, which I buy and build around achieving a specific goal in terms of taste or experience. In fact, I am wary of the effect a name-drop can have on the experience of drinking a tea.
An incorrectly exposed snap of the top a pretty well-known tea mountain.
I also think in the landscape of the tea industry at large, the odds are stacked against the drinker, and the buyer. One can never be sure if what is said on the wrapper or label is what the tea actually is. There is little chance to start building mental flavour maps of various areas when you can’t rely on a given tea actually being from that area. I also think that ultimately,
If I tell you this tea is Yiwu, what’s the end game? Am I hoping that saying ‘Yiwu’ will sell more tea? Maybe it will, but how are you, the humble consumer, supposed to trust my word when the vast majority of the tea industry is rife with fake tea and meaningless labels? What does saying ‘Yiwu’ even mean or achieve? Yiwu is such a vast area, and there are so many different profiles of tea that could be called ‘Yiwu’, that it doesn’t actually do anything for the potential customer. It’s misleading at best. Many people have preconceived notions of what to expect when certain names are thrown around, based on things they’ve read or heard, what other people tell them, or their own experiences with tea labelled as that area.
How many times have you seen someone online say ‘I don’t like tea from x place’ or ‘tea from y place is bad’? It’s as pointless as saying ‘I don’t like Italian white wine’. What if there is a wine, which happens to be from Italy, that if you tried you’d really like? But if someone told you beforehand where it was from, your brain is already making assumptions and gearing up not to like it, or at least not to judge it objectively. Of course, you can sometimes catch yourself and open your mind a little, but it’s quite difficult.
I’m not infallible; I’ve struggled with this bias just as much as anyone, and have to be mindful of it when sourcing tea. I’m always inclined to enjoy certain teas more highly if I know where they’re from, or someone I trust tells me it’s good beforehand. It’s incredibly difficult to keep your judgement from being clouded, because the power of suggestion is very strong.
The endless view of tea mountains in Yunnan, through power-poles.
There are certain things you can do to level the playing field as much as possible. For me, in a tea buying situation, I never trust my judgement of a tea until I’ve tasted it in my usual environment, by myself. If I’m tasting tea with someone else, in their shop or in the mountains, with unfamiliar water, with their steeping style, and listening to what they say about the tea — it’s very hard to make a clear assessment. Alone, I always use the same gaiwan, the same water, the same temperature, the same steeping times. I avoid looking at the bag to reveal what the tea is or where its from until after I’ve drunk it. I make sure to drink teas multiple times, across different days and times of the day.
An old tea tree branch covered in symbiotic/parasitic plants.
As a consumer, this situation is a little more difficult because you’re generally buying tea already labelled. But you can still do this if tasting multiple teas: set them into separate identical containers, and label the containers A, B, C, D etc in a way that you can’t see the letters unless you specifically reveal them. Write a list with the corresponding teas, and set it aside. Muddle up the containers without looking at them until you can’t remember which is which, and then drink them side by side. This removes most of the preconceptions you might have, although you will still know what teas are in the mix and so might be expecting certain things.
Simply put, the message I’m trying to preach is that it’s important to recognise our readiness to judge teas before we’ve even drunk them. It’s important to try and assess a tea for what it is, and make a determination if it’s enjoyable in it’s own right, not for what it’s supposed to be.
Teas from hyped areas aren’t always going to be good, and tea from unknown places aren’t always going to be bad. We all know this, logically, but in practice it can be very testing.