Friday, February 4, 2011

Writing About Expectations in a Tea Review

One thing that I like to include in my tea reviews, even if it's only a brief sentence, is discussion of what I expected of the tea, and how my experience with the tea met, exceeded, fell short of, or differed from my expectations. Some of the most common factors that set expectations for me are:

  • My previous experiences with teas of a similar style

  • The commercial description of the tea

  • The aroma and appearance of the dry leaf

  • What I've read about the tea from others

  • Contextual clues -- i.e. a paper tea bag that's been sitting around somewhere, I expect to be stale, or sometimes the visual design on the packaging leads me to expect certain characteristics from a tea.

I want to share two particular teas as examples: one that met my expectations very closely, and another that threw me for a loop.

One tea that met my expectations very closely was a Makaibari Estate Darjeeling First Flush from Arbor Teas. What set my expectations here? I know Makaibari estate, and I know that their teas have a particular character to them; I know that first flush tends to have a particular character, and I had a favorable impression of Arbor Teas at selecting good batches of tea, from what I was reading online. And when I tried it? It was very similar to how I expected it to be, and it was outstanding.

To contrast, a tea that really surprised me, was the Jade Oolong, also from Arbor Teas. This was my fifth review of a Taiwanese jade oolong, and up until this point, the teas I had tried all had a more-or-less similar character. The aroma of this one was much more woody, a characteristic I had only encountered in more-oxidized oolongs, mostly Chinese oolongs, at this point, and the aroma also had elements of spearmint and thyme, something I would not expect at all in this style. It also was much less floral than I was expecting. I also want to note that I don't think it matched the commercial description at all. I picked this example because my experience in this tea was not better or worse than I had expected, just different. There are, of course, numerous teas that I liked much more or less than I had expected, and perhaps I can share some at a future time!

What about you? Do you write about expectations when you write your tea reviews? (From reading other tea blogs, I think most people do.) What are some teas that have most closely met, or most glaringly failed to meet, your expectations?


  1. I agree about the Makaibari Darjeeling. I've drunk it many times from different vendors, and I know I like the tea a lot. I can't imagine being disappointed unless the tea was stale, which hasn't happened.

    If I like a certain tea, I guess I do expect it to taste similarly good when I re-order. Not always the case though.

    As I don't really write tea reviews - it's Pete who does - I can't say that I talk about my expectations in them.

    I like your point about the packaging. I hadn't really given that much thought up until you mentioned it. I guess I really don't care about the packaging at all. Of course it has to help keep tea fresh during transport but that's my only concern. I don't think I draw a lot of conclusions from the visual design.

    It would be interesting to hear more about your views on packaging. What expectations do you have, how did the visual design affect those? Could you give an example?

    Thanks, I really enjoyed reading you article. As always really!

  2. I posted the comment about packaging not because I genuinely believe that packaging corresponds in some neat and clean way to the quality of the tea, but because I would be fooling myself if I said it didn't influence my perceptions.

    I was thinking more about tea bags when I wrote that remark though.

    On tea bags, I think there's actually a fairly strong correspondence between the visual look-and-feel of packaging, and what the tea is like. Some tea bags scream "food service", others are clearly from Asian companies, others have a sort of natural or earthy-look, still others convey a look-and-feel more characteristic of British-style teas. There are plenty of examples of teas from tea bags that have surprised me as being higher or lower quality than I had expected from the look and feel of the packaging but I've found that it's one among many signals that I use.

    With loose tea it's more complex and harder to generalize, but I do think that it says something about the focus of the company. For example, Arbor Teas packaging is green and the pattern / design matches their website...that shows that they've put care into a certain congruence of brand and image. That doesn't guarantee anything about the tea though, but it's shows they've put care into something, which in my opinion makes it more likely that they'll have also put care into the tea.

  3. Price and box shape seem to go together:

    (Twinings, Celestial Seasonings, Bigelow) 2.50

    (Traditional Medicinals, Numi, Yogi) 4.00+

    Tall cylinders (Republic of Tea, Gypsy) 8-12.00

    Expensive looseleaf-and-in-a-paperish-bag, sold by the ounce.

    Within each of those categories, a certain packaging style may say something about the tea, but the categories aren't necessarily comparable to each other.

    The box shape seems to suggest a lot to the consumer--that is, we happily pay a lot more for something that's in a differently shaped container. Yet such a choice may yield an inferior tea-experience. For instance, Bigelow's Earl Grey may cost very little, and have ugly packaging, but I find it really tasty, whereas the "Two leaves and a bud" Earl Grey doesn't live up to its appearance; it always tastes scalded to me: I can taste the weird mesh teabag more than the tea leaves or bergamot.

    Packaging is a good starting point - I pay attention to it - but it can also be deceptive. I have this "Ah, now I'm having a treat" feeling when I look at Two Leaves and a Bud packaging, and feel disdainful when I see lowly Bigelow as an option at a public function, but my taste buds would choose the Bigelow Earl Grey every time.