Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Where do you notice that aroma?

Yesterday I had tea with Brandon of Wrong Fu Cha. I was impressed with his skill at brewing gong fu style, as well as his desire to improve his skill at brewing teas in this manner. We sampled a number of different teas, including a very mellow Lapsang Souchong, a Wuyi da hong pao, a double-roasted hojicha. We also sampled some of my pineapple sage, which was interesting to experience brewed in a gaiwan. We then tried an aged shu Pu-erh, and although I tend not to be impressed by Shu (cooked) Pu-erh, I will say that I liked the one we had. Then we proceeded to brew Arya Topaz (A Darjeeling oolong), a tea that I am still not impressed by, and the results were disappointing. We concluded with a rather ancient aged Shui Hsien oolong, aged over 50 years. Here's where the interesting experience began.

I've never had an aged oolong before, so this experience was new to me. One thing immediately struck me about this tea: each infusion was remarkably constant and similar. Normally, I find gong fu brewing brings out unique attributes of the aroma and flavor of a tea with each infusion. In this case, however, each infusion was virtually indistinguishable to me, until the final infusion when the tea became somewhat thin and the flavor was starting to finally weaken. It's hard for me to say how I'd describe this tea: the aroma seemed very unfamiliar to me: it was earthy, but not at all in a similar way to aged Pu-erh. It had a noticeable roast to it as well. There was a mild sourness in the flavor, but very little bitterness, and each cup except the last was very full-bodied.

But when I got home:

When I got home, the most peculiar thing happened. I opened the door of my apartment, and my apartment was filled with the scent of the aged Shui Hsien I had most recently sampled. Perhaps this is not terribly unusual: after all, I am always being told by my friends that my apartment smells earthy and smells like tea, possibly because I brew so much tea in it and because I'm often tracking dirt and leaves in from my garden. But it was particularly interesting to me because when I drank the tea, I had a strong feeling that the aroma was new and unfamiliar, something I had never encountered before.

It is a well-known psychological phenomenon that when a person encounters something new, they're more likely to notice it. This phenomenon can be seen as one manifestation of the recency effect, a bias that people have towards remembering or recalling things that they have encountered recently. The aromas are out there in the world, and there are going to be aromas present in various places that are similar in certain respects to various teas. Because I had been thinking intensely about the tea's aroma when I sampled it, that aroma was primed in my consciousness. I was then more likely to notice a similar aroma in my apartment--one that has been there all along.

One more benefit of tea drinking?

This phenomenon highlights one of the most remarkable things about tea, which especially occurs if you sample many new teas: tea makes you more aware of aromas in your environment.

I don't know about others, but I find this type of benefit particularly exciting. Senses are a seemingly innate skill, and are the first part of the filter through which we perceive the world. Honing or improving our senses in any way equates to broadening our experience of the world. Aromas can signal all sorts of things that cannot be communicated through the senses of sight, sound, or touch. I will certainly never pass up an opportunity to further develop my perception in this way!


  1. I find this topic really interesting. There were teas/smells that I couldn't detect when I first got into tea. As my palate developed, my appreciation increased as well.

    Similarly, there were teas I liked early on that I can barely stomach now.

    Really pleased you're writing about this. Constantly surprised by my evolving taste.

  2. It doesn't always happen to me. But for a few times, after an intense drinking session, I would feel the aroma lingering around. And I knew it was not really around, but rather on my mind. I think it's part of the hang over effect from intense tea drinking :D

  3. What a great post! And a wonderful tea tasting session.