Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Letting Tea Settle, or the Psychology of Acquired Tastes? My Skepticism Shines Through

I seem to be on a roll, giving people a hard time, and this post continues in this vein. I recently read a post on Bon Teavant, titled letting tea settle. I found this post interesting, but I also found that my reaction to it was one of skepticism. The post describes the phenomenon in which you get a new tea in the mail and are disappointed with it, but you find that after several weeks, it is yielding more enjoyable cups. Most people who have ever received tea in the mail have probably experienced this at some point.

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?


  1. Even tea you have been storing in one place for a long time reacts differently to brewing on different days (if you like it better, you could say that you as a human being perceive it differently...)

    But, this has been observed countless times among groups of people. For example, I will suggest that Dan Cong will turn out better on a rainy day than a very dry day.

    Having observed this over the past several years, myself and other tea fans (I will name names if you don't like the weasel), have also come to believe that letting tea sit out in open air overnight to "adjust" to the present climate (not the sealed-in-bag-or-jar climate) improves the brew.

  2. I definitely notice differences in how tea tastes on different days. My inclination would be to chalk it up more to my own perception than anything else though.

    I think when I was younger I would be more inclined to search for some sort of external explanation. I think there's a degree to which my whole interpretation of events and the dialogues I use in my mind and writing to describe my experience of the world has shifted away from external to internal explanations.

    About "adjusting" to the present there any way to objectively determine whether there is actual adjusting happening, or whether it's just a question of having the tea air out improve the brew? I keep thinking of ways to test that scientifically and it seems like it might be impossible to test. If there is a benefit to exposing the tea to air like that, in the absence of a clear reason to interpret it as the tea "adjusting", I'd rather use more neutral language, like just saying that I was letting it air out.

    Perhaps saying the tea is "adjusting" could view the tea with greater reverence or respect. This could be a valid reason for using this term even if it had no scientific basis.

    But I'm still not sure how I would feel about this though. I am cautious of the idea of viewing inanimate objects with respect, and I tend to see dry tea leaf in this way (as opposed to living organisms). It reminds me a little bit of idolatry; maybe this is the influence of my Judeo-Christian heritage shining through. I'd rather use language in ways that focuses my respect on the people involved in producing the tea, and the ecosystems and plants that it comes from. I think that if I were going to use language rooted in viewing the tea as some sort of object worthy as respect in its own right, I'd want more of a justification behind why that view was beneficial. As someone who tends to associate this sort of way of viewing objects with consumerism, I tend to be very skeptical of it and need considerable justification in order to want to use language that would support such a view.

    Perhaps this is why I had the strong skeptical reaciton to the tone and ideas in Bon Teavant's post to begin with.

  3. Alex, I do feel a bit uncomfortable with mentioning names like this here, and perhaps more so in the previous post but I see that you're encouraging open debate, which is good. It's just sometimes "culprits" haven't got the chance to defend themselves, or shouldn't even be put in the postion to have to defend themselves. Most tea vendors are small business people just trying to make a living.
    Again, I understand you're promoting healthy debate, and want to raise awareness too.
    As to my views on "moving tea leaves around" and "having them settle" I agree with you. I mean the leaves have been put through far more torturous events, roasting, twisting etc. - I really can't see them needing too much "acclimatization." I just think tea most likely tastes different, first and second time round due to mood, or perhaps to a greater degree expectation.
    Anyway, I don't know for sure, and I don't claim to know. This is just the way I interpret it. For some reason the tea my husband brews often seems to taste better than my own. We don't really brew it up differently, I just think I love having it made for me, and the happy feelings mean I really enjoy every sip.

  4. I am definitely not intending to put people in a position to defend themselves; if someone reacts that way, it might be a sign that I did not present my post as respectfully or tactfully as I could have! I don't want to imply anything bad about the people writing any of the things I've been commenting on. I think I've been a bit grumpy the past few days and that's shining through.

    To clarify how I feel about people though, I really like all the people and companies I've been writing about. I like reading the Bon Teavant blog and I think it's a worthwhile blog--if I didn't, I wouldn't subscribe to it, and I certainly wouldn't comment on it. If I actually disapprove of a tea company or blogger, you will find me not mentioning them by name and not linking to their blog.

    I like to draw attention to people's blogs when I like them as a whole, even if I quibble with them on small things. For example, I often like to comment on the times when I find Upton Tea Imports' comemrcial descriptions to be way off, or to contain language I find questionable. I like commenting on these times because they are in the minority--Upton consistently has accurate descriptions, and I like that.

  5. Before I found the virtues of allowing teas to acclimate for 48+ hours (the higher, and more recent, the roast the longer it tends to need), I had noticed that there were correlations with barometric pressure; my tea would quite often come out with much fuller and clearer aroma and taste when the pressure was higher than 30in. (I was checking the pressure for other reasons when I noticed this, and made a point of trying teas before checking the pressure, and over a prolonged period of time, after noticing.)

    I also found acclimatization to be quite necessary with vacuum packed teas. Gaoshan, for example, would almost always come out thin and bitter until I had put the leaf into a tin and opened it on at least 3 occasions; more if left in the bag without exposing much of the leaf to the air.

    Of course we know that vacuum sealing things can have a dramatic effect on soft materials, as anyone that took high school physics can tell you from the experiment with a marshmallow in a jar while vacuum sealing. With teas with some level of roast, however, the effect was the same as with barometric pressure, but to a greater degree.

    Roasted tea also continues to undergo significant changes for at least the following year, and more subtle changes after that. Yes, tea does go through more torturous changes than shipping during processing. Those changes don't necessarily stop immediately after processing is concluded, but vacuum sealing can suspend, or at least dramatically slow, those changes.

    Of course there are other factors at work as well, such as pressure and humidity affecting the body, probably absorption of smells from the container, and so on. However one does not need to engage in idolatry to recognize that tea can and does undergo changes that can dramatically affect the results. I did also find one study that found dramatic differences in the release of aromatic volitles with different levels of atmospheric pressure. Unfortunately I have not been able to find that study again.

    Skepticism isn't denying experiences or phenomena, it is withholding judgement about their cause until one has sufficient evidence for a conclusion; the two should not be conflated lest you cross the line to denialism, which is just as much idealism as idolatry.

    So if you haven't done some experiments then you may want to withhold judgement until you have. Just find some particularly finicky teas (especially any with any level of roasting), leave them out for 48 hours before brewing, and then brew and compare with what you left in the tin. I'd suggest doing so over the course of multiple days to help eliminate other factors and increase sample size.

  6. This is a really interesting discussion.

    I found your comments really insightful, abx. I agree with what you say about true skepticism not being denial of experiences, but rather, avoiding the jumping of conclusions to causal explanations. I think that is a useful distinction to make not just here but in general; I have never heard it articulated that way before, but I think that is a particularly clear way of explaining it.

    I'd be curious to do some experimenting with this.

    The discussion has strayed though from the original post. My original skepticism was mainly about the idea of letting tea settle. The idea of having it air out, and the various changes that could happen with this, fits more with my experience and intuition.

  7. The distinction is only a semantic one, and "airing out" is probably just as technically inaccurate. The author is talking about the same thing, but using different language.

    It is your post that Brandon and I are responding to. The common term for this is letting the leaf 'rest' or 'breathe' (like wine) but 'settle' is as good a word as any. (The term 'rest' is actually mostly used to talk about the period of time in which roasted tea is stored to allow the changes that the tea undergoes after roasting to settle out.)

    If there's anything to criticize his post about, it's really that it happens with storage, and not only after travel; the leaf you're going to use really needs to be set out to breathe for a couple days before using every time -- even after the initial acclimatization.

    It's more productive to focus on the principal and the tea than other people's rationalizations or verbiage. You'll find that there are many things for which there are no answers -- even things that defy logic -- and as soon as you think you know something for sure, a tea will come along, or something will happen, that will completely contradict it. You'll also find that making good tea (gongfu cha) is really an intuitive process, as there are too many variables to ever account for.

    As such, some people will come to understand gongfu cha with varying degrees of abstraction; thinking of it as having a personality is not uncommon. Bon Teavant's explanation is lacking and goes a little far in the wrong direction, but he's speaking figuratively and using common tea terms. Discussing the phenomenon, and your experimental findings in countering it, are interesting and productive, but I don't think the same can be said about arguing about the best name for it.