So you can get in the mood for this post, here's a photo of some tea I recently received in the mail:
Bon Teavant offers the following explanation:
People whose passion is the study of tea will tell you that tea requires careful handling and rest when being moved from one storage space to another, even within the same town or village. Plants are extremely sensitive to change, and just as a person can suffer jet lag or mild disorientation when traveling or moving homes, tea can experience "shock" when being transported or changing venues, and is best left alone for a while to find its equilibrium.
Something about this explanation does not sit well with me; my skeptic-dar starts going off. For one, the claim "People whose passion is the study of tea..." strikes me as weasel words, like saying: "People who are really in the know will agree that X." instead of citing a specific expert or authority and quoting them saying something to the effect of X. And while I would not consider myself a tea expert, I am pretty passionate about tea, and, while I do think that there are important issues to consider in the handling, packaging, and storage of tea, I'm not inclined to agree with the explanation that follows, about tea being sensitive to moves. By making this statement, Bon Teavant is putting words in the mouth of all tea enthusiasts, which is something I try to avoid doing.
I've noticed this phenomenon, but I attributed it not to the tea itself but to my own psychology. My experience with tea is that it can be sensitive to handling which breaks the leaf, to excessive changes in temperature, and to exposure to air or sunlight, but that moving alone has no effect on it if it is packed properly.
My explanation of the same phenomenon:
Each batch of tea is different, and I think we need to get accustomed to new food and drink. The first time we encounter something it may taste a bit off...not because it is, but because we're not used to it. This is the essence of acquired tastes. To tea drinkers, the phenomenon of acquired tastes is usually most evident when we try a completely unfamiliar variety of tea, but it can happen to a lesser degree with familiar teas that change in more subtle ways. And because most tea generally loses flavor over time, if we have been drinking last year's batch, and we use it up and receive a fresh batch in the mail, even if the batch were identical (as it almost never is), it would taste different to us because it would taste fresher.
While we usually think of fresher as tasting better, fresher teas often contain more vegetal tones in the aroma, and these aromas are some of the ones that most strongly evoke the acquired taste process, in which we are a bit averse to them initially and then develop a liking to them over time. Tea does change with storage, but, with the exception of Pu-erh and other aged teas, it generally seems to lose flavor over time, not develop flavor, and moreover, it seems to lose flavor very slowly. If the tea is extraordinarily fresh, it is possible that it is still undergoing chemical changes that may result in a better-tasting cup if you allow it to sit, but in this case, it is time, and not the move, that is the explanation.
So, when I ask why teas often taste better to me a few weeks after receiving them, my inclination is to explain the phenomenon primarily in terms of my own psychology, and secondarily in terms of inevitable chemical changes in the leaf, in the (usually rare) case that the tea is so fresh that it is still undergoing changes that you'd notice on the time-scale of a few weeks. It is possible that the opening up of a package and exposing it to air may spark some of these changes as well.
Objectivity vs. Subjectivity:
What is the objective reality experienced in the situation described in the Bon Teavant post? The reality is simple: you get new tea in the mail, you brew it, and you are disappointed. You return and brew it later, and you find you enjoy it more. We'd all agree upon this, when it happens.
But any interpretation of why, is going to be speculative and subjective. Why? Because human tastes are so complex, and the chemistry of tea and associated flavors are also rather complex, and there are too many factors to establish a clear explanation with certainty. So I'm not going to claim that my interpretations are correct. I would not feel comfortable with this sort of claim unless I somehow devised a scientific way to test the hypothesis of the different causal explanations.
But I will share why I'm more inclined to go with my explanation, which is that it fits more with the things that I know about how the world works. The blog post I link to makes an analogy to "jet lag" and the disorientation and disruption humans experience after a move, but I think this analogy is not applicable. Living organisms experience disruption when placed in a new environment. For example, if you were to transplant a live tea plant, it would need time to be adjusted to the new environment, the new light levels, soil, air temperatures and humidity, etc. In the case of dry tea leaf, you're considering a processed product, not a living organism, and it's being transported from one (hopefully) fairly controlled environment to another. Unless it is carelessly handled so as to damage the leaf (and most whole-leaf tea arrives nearly completely intact when I order it), or packaged so as to not be airtight, or subjected to extremes of heat or cold, it changes little.
Whereas the phenomenon of acquired tastes, on the other hand, is one that I've directly experienced.
What do you think?
Do you think my explanations are more plausible? Do you think there's more truth in Bon Teavant's one than my intuition suggests? Can you think of other, more plausible explanations than the ones I came up with? And do you think I've been giving too many people a hard time lately?