I recently responded to a Reddit post question about use of tasting notes and developing tasting abilities, in “Tea Tasting,” in r/puer:
The basic question was this:
“Has you sense of taste developed over the course of drinking tea? If so, has it transferred over to other drinks or foods? If taste is not that important for you, what do you look for in tea? Do you think that people are being pretentious when writing elaborate tasting notes? Have you ever been able to match the vendors tasting notes to yours?”
To me it’s more a question of how much function tasting notes serve the purpose, which moves on to considering why they would often be inconsistent. Interpretations of aspects vary; that seems to be the short answer to the second part. I review teas for a blog so I’m comparing my own written description to a vendor version on a weekly basis. Still, the first part is harder to sort out than it first seems: Why make notes, or why try to break down the experience to concepts and description.
I think in general there’s no reason to create formal taste descriptions, and no added value. As someone explores teas further, it’s natural to want to place experiences analytically, though – to describe what you’ve experienced at different times (even just to yourself) and concepts are going to help with that. Just deciding if a version is better or worse than what you’ve tried in the past is going to require some definition, then variations in style and specific aspects all the more. Consideration of flaws or limitations is half of that, beyond describing what is experienced as positive.
Vendors often don’t seem to be very good at describing their own teas. I can relate in detail to why they really shouldn’t even try, because the subjective interpretation theme is essentially impossible to work around. But then vendors are either bad at descriptions because that’s an aptitude they haven’t developed—which seems fine, not really a problematic limitation—or some don’t seem familiar with a broad range of teas or of what makes the tea versions they are selling more positive. That could be a problem – a vendor not being a good judge of tea, apart from the aspect description list theme.
People take or leave a lot of parts of the tea experience. Describing experienced aspects is one thing, which can be functional, but then other parts can be included: Meditation aspects, brewing ceremony, inclusion and collection of lots of tea gear, a social aspect, including background themes (drinking tea outside, or setting up a tasting zone theme), on and on. Someone could value simplicity in tea experience, and try to leave out as many of these parts as they could, and to me that would actually add something else, enabling more focus on basic experience.
If you do get into reviewing teas, one approach that might help is along with trying to identify what a specific flavor aspect is like, also consider how else it might be interpreted. That can help you relate to varying descriptions better and can also help with what I see as a brainstorming- or imagination-related aspect of tasting and formal description.
All that said, messing around with the review process, aroma wheels, and description frameworks makes sense to me. It’s just as well to never lose touch with the simplest form of the experience—just drinking tea—or to take tea so seriously that drinking it with food eventually seems negative. I usually don’t eat anything while I’m tasting for writing tea reviews, but to completely lose the experience of tea as an ordinary beverage is something else. These posts relate to a couple such extra directions:
I think keeping experiences basic and the internal modeling and description of experience limited works well. There’s nothing like a good piece of bread, and in plenty of cases adding butter or eating cheese with that is plenty to experience for complexity, with no need to describe any of that. The analytical side of ourselves—our mind—is actually separate from the rest; and forcing the two to mix in experiences can detract from the experiential enjoyment. I think people who intuitively reject formal review and description are onto something.
To clarify that, the same can apply to over-analyzing or describing any life experience themes. People who tend to write a lot—a journal or something else—might also add a lot of internal or external narrative to their own experience instead of just being present, and enjoying. I think that’s why sports hold so much appeal to so many people, because even if you want to, you can’t add meaningful layers of concepts to the basic experience in any way that really changes that experience, which can serve to liberate you from all the concepts. Or, being in nature works like that, and so on.
I didn’t really connect this to a simple versus complex brewing approach or process, but it’s easy to imagine how that would naturally extend, and how I take that. The less gear and the less steps the better, the exact opposite of how many people take the “Gong Fu Cha,” formal brewing process.
It’s helpful to keep in mind that gong fu means technique, roughly, or a skillfully-conducted activity. The tea ceremony theme comes up but that’s not what “Gong Fu Cha” is: It’s about making tea skillfully, and using a higher proportion of tea to water and multiple infusions to get better results. I don’t see including more infusion steps as adding much complexity, but someone could. If experiential results are better for adding those steps then it would still fall under skillful means, no less so than Western style brewing would – which is how I see it.
To me it’s best to keep the tea experience simple and basic. It works out better that way. Of course that’s just a statement of personal preference.
Then, a lot of other aesthetic range can be hard to place. What about drinking tea in a wood-paneled room, with some plants around, and lots of hand-made teaware? Or burning incense, or wearing special clothes? I have no interest in those things, but as separate interests that pair with tea experience they could be fine, and add depth. I can relate to people appreciating drinking tea outside, in nature, and I do regularly experience a setting related to that.
Photo of stone benches and table provided and copyright held by author