What makes a good description?
I think a good commercial description of a tea:
- is brief.
- contains useful information about what flavors, aromas, and other qualities to expect in the tea.
- may mention or reference brewing instructions.
- may contain information about the tea's origins and how it is produced (e.g. is a green tea pan-fired or steamed? is it grown from a particular cultivar? etc.)
- may compare the tea to familiar varieties of tea in positive or negative ways ("similar to a Keemun" or "without the grassy and vegetal tones characterizing some sencha").
- avoids weasel words (I am an active editor on wikipedia and I love the concept of Weasel words--if you're not familiar with the concept, I would recommend reading that page because it provides a great way to quickly distinguish b.s. from well-researched material).
Let's look at Upton Tea Import's TM20: Himalayan BOP. This is an inexpensive (125g for $4.20) broken-leaf black tea that is a blend from various regions in and around Darjeeling. Personally, I love it and think it offers great value. (my review) Upton's description:
For those seeking a Darjeeling-like tea at a very attractive price. The liquor is light amber. A brief infusion yields a flavorful cup with a distinctively high-grown character. Excellent for iced tea.
This is what I'd say is a good commercial description. It's brief and provides useful information: "Darjeeling-like" is very informative, "brief infusion" communicates that this tea infuses quickly (and implies that you don't want to let it steep too long--which is true--this tea becomes unpleasantly bitter and astringent if steeped too long), the cup is indeed a light amber color, and the tea has a high-grown character, makes good iced tea, and has an attractive price.
What Not to Say - Weasel Words in Commercial Descriptions:
Since I just praised Upton, and since they are my favorite company, I think it's fair for me to give them a bit of a hard time too. Let's look at their TA98: Mothola Estate White Tea.
Crafted entirely from the tips of the Assamica tea plant, this rare selection is on par with the most exquisite white teas. The flavor is smooth and sweet as one expects from a quality white tea, but a surprising malty nuance adds a delightful complexity. Highly recommended.
This description has a lot of useful information--it's made entirely from tips, made of the Assamica cultivar, its flavor is smooth and sweet, and it has a malty nuance (interesting and worth mention because one wouldn't expect this from a white tea). But the "Highly recommended" reads like a weasel word -- Recommended by whom, by Upton? Does this mean their other teas are only weakly recommended? This seems silly. And "is on par with the most exquisite white teas"...what exactly is the "most exquisite"? Taste is so subjective and I think it's best to refrain from making sweeping statements. For example, I notice that many tea drinkers strongly prefer silver needle white tea over shou mei, but there are those (such as myself) who would take shou mei any day.
I'm singling Upton out a bit unfairly here...mainly because I want to keep this post as positive as possible. =) I think Upton's descriptions are consistently honest and informative and that's one reason I like them as a company. However, if you scan commercial descriptions of various companies, you find language like this all the time, and sometimes significantly worse. "You'll love this tea..." and variants of that phrase are quite common. How does the writer know what I'll love? A major weasel word is the word "renowned" or "famous" to refer to an estate or tea garden, or sometimes a particular tea. And another weasel word: "rare". If a tea is limited production, a one-time single batch, why not state how much of it was produced? If it's not, there's no basis to claim it's "rare". If it has won an award, why not state that? But if it hasn't, but your own personal team of tasters selected it for its qualities, isn't that more informative than just saying it's good? Thinking about these things enable us to identify honesty (and dishonesty) in commercial descriptions.
The description of one of Upton's teas (TD70, since discontinued) contains the phrase:
...one of the best we have cupped this season...
I think this is better...it's not claiming that the tea is the best out there, it's just saying--hey, we tried a bunch of teas and we really liked this one. There's nothing wrong with subjectivity in taste...I think most people want to buy from tea companies that employ people who put effort and their own subjective judgment into tasting teas.
I'd be curious to hear other people's opinions / experiences with commercial descriptions. Does anyone have any more likes / dislikes to contribute?