Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Why "Styles of Tea"? And Another Thank You

Yesterday we published a new page on RateTea titled Why Style? What Exactly Is A Style Of Tea?. Lately I've published a ton of new articles on RateTea, and I think they are all quite good, but this one in particular I would like to encourage people to read it. I use the phrase styles of tea frequently on this blog as well as on RateTea. As the article explains, I have some very carefully thought out reasons for the use of this term, a term which is not a universally accepted standard within the tea industry (although a number of companies and bloggers do use it, sometimes in different ways).

The above picture illustrates what I think of as different "styles of tea"; p.s. exactly two of these are not tea...can you tell which two?

I also want to give yet another thank-you to Tony Gebely of World of Tea and Chicago Tea Garden for this one; although I had reasoned through my choice of the word style long before I began talking to Tony about the matter, it was a series of conversations I had with Tony that helped me to more clearly articulate exactly why I like using this term, and that made me decide it was worth writing about this choice.

What do you think?

Do you understand my rationale behind using the term style? Do you ever use this word to refer to tea? Do you use the word differently from, or similarly to how I use it or how we use it on RateTea? Do you have any interest in using this word more, after reading the RateTea article?


  1. right on! thanks for the thanks Alex. Peace.

  2. If I had to guess, I'd say styles of tea were: black, Oolong, green, white, Pu-ehr, yellow, and...?

    But my suspicion is that it's broken up into even more styles. Considering the wide variety of sorts of Oolong, as well as other incredible sorts of green tea.

    Am curious what you mean when you use the term.

  3. We explain this in the RateTea article! I use the term in the same way here as we do on the site.

  4. The word "style" generally refers either to a manner of doing something, or to a (visual) characteristic of design or appearance. So if you were to allude to a "style" of tea, I'd assume you were talking about the manner in which it was prepared, as in, "I brewed the tea gongfu-style," or "I prefer to brew my green teas Korean-style."

    Therefore, the way you're using "style" (as rationalized in your RateTea piece) strikes me as ambiguous, unnecessary, and...well, like a word a novice would blurt out to refer to a tea varietal simply because he/she didn't know any better.

    So, no. I'd never use "style" regarding tea, and after reading the RateTea article, I'll be on guard against its use by others. :)

  5. Thanks for the comments; it's interesting to hear different perspectives. I wrote the piece primarily to address concerns from people expressing, like you did, a skeptical initial reaction to the word.

    As I explain in that article, our use of the term:

    (a) fits with one of the most common dictionary definition of the word "styles"

    (b) is more specific at capturing separating out the production and character of the tea from the region in the case of teas like Ceylon or Darjeeling, which may be produced in a broad range of styles (i.e. Young Hyson from Sri Lanka, Silver Needle from Darjeeling) -- as Ceylon and Darjeeling are considered types of tea, and Variety often refers to the varietal of tea plant, which in these cases, might actually be the same one in all cases.

    (c) addresses the issue of geographic authenticity in a more neutral way: accurately, openly, and yet without making any claims of authenticity. This is a major issue nowadays and was one of the prime concerns I had when developing RateTea, as many mainstream tea companies are selling teas produced in the style of one tea, but in a different region.

    If you have a suggestion of a better term that does all of these things more effectively than the word "style", please by all means share it!

  6. Thanks for your reply, Alex. My rejection of the term "style" has more to do with issues of language and usage than with tea: When we consult a dictionary for reference, we need to be aware that the given definitions (of common words, especially) are always context-dependent and therefore can't be automatically applied without further consideration.

    For example, at you found this accurate definition of the word "style": "A particular kind, sort, or type, as with reference to form, appearance, or character." Yes, that sounds like it could apply to teas, but it also sounds like it could equally well apply to bacteria, squirrels, and termites. Hmm. After a bit of reflection, it should dawn on us that in English, we nearly always use "style" to distinguish among inorganic objects (e.g., houses, clothing, autos, furniture) or among modes of activity (e.g., speech, art, cooking, music), but rarely to distinguish among organic objects.

    So although the following uses would seem "correct" according to the dictionary definition, we never refer to Romaine, Iceberg, Red Leaf, or Manoa as styles of lettuce; to Dark Roast, Jamaican Blue, Robusta, or Arabica as styles of coffee bean; to sirloin, white, corn-fed, or free-range as styles of meat; to Fuji, Delicious, Golden Delicious, or Jonathan as styles of apple; or to brown, white, long-grain, or short-grain as styles of uncooked rice. In fact, if I proclaimed, "Globe is my favorite style of eggplant!" you'd probably assume I'm an EFL speaker (or otherwise verbally-challenged).

    Clearly, then, we need to rely on our intuitive native-language sensibilities (and ears) before we declare any usage fitting merely because it complies with a dictionary definition.

    As for a better term than "style," over the years I've acquired perhaps 60-70 serious works in English about tea, some written for laypersons, others written for professionals. Because no single word could possibly convey the range of distinctions you mentioned above, all of the writers of whom I'm aware (from Ukers on down) have deemed the words "type" or "kind" or "variety" absolutely adequate when describing classes of teas. Naturally, when discussing specific cultivars, varietals, growing regions, or degrees of oxidation, all writers also provide whatever level of detail is appropriate to the scope of the material and the intended readership.

    My suggestion (since you asked) is that you follow the the convention of the hundreds of tea writers who've preceded you and rely on the obvious words of "type" or "kind" or "variety." Unilaterally employing your own term only introduces uncertainty, inconsistency, and hubris, particularly because (as I mentioned earlier) the term "style" has long been used to denote modes of brewing (gongfu, English, Japanese, etc.).

    In any case, best of luck with your tea endeavors!

  7. One of the reasons why fewer tea companies and tea writers use this word is that very few of them have been making an effort to separate out the notion of the character of a tea from its region of production--in fact, it seems to have been common for many of them to make ontological claims about a certain tea being defined by its production in a certain region. The arguments in favor of the word "style", in the absence of this separation, are rather weak, I would concede. The strongest argument, in my opinion, is the issue of geographic authenticity, and separating out the character of the tea from its region of origin.

    You said that "Type", "Kind", and "Variety" have been deemed "absolutely adequate" when describing classes of teas. I do not agree with this statement. I think they are not adequate because the current system of naming has led to disputes, sometimes involving legal battles, over issues of authenticity, culminating in the establishment of geographic patents and all sorts of legal machinery. In my opinion, in an ideal world, people would not need to resort to these sorts of things--legal battles are costly and then they create a burdensome framework of government regulation, and an environment where the market for tea is now subject to arbitrary cutoffs based on political wrangling. I'd like to encourage our world to move in a different direction.

    I think the word "style" solves these problems in a different way, a way based more on consenus than conflict.

    Also, there actually are precedents for the use of the word "style" in this way. Upton Tea Imports actually uses this word, and they use it specifically to refer to teas that are not identified with a particular named variety, yet emulate that variety. E.g. TL86 or ZK14. As another example from the realm of food, see Beer styles, on Wikipedia; the term is used heavily in beer culture.

    You may not wish to adopt my use of the word, but I assure you, it has a lot more precedent in tea culture as well as in the culture of food and drink than your comments suggest. I also think that my argument in favor of it is much stronger than your comments suggest.

    There are times when it is important to come out and advocate for a use of language that is not standard within an industry. This is one case where I feel compelled to do so.

    I am using the word "style" in a way that does not correspond exactly to the way other authors use words like "kind", "type", or "variety". If I were to use the word "kind", "type", or "variety", I would be likely to come across as making a claim of authenticity when I labelled a Hubei Keemun or a Taiwanese Keemun as "Keemun". I do not want to make this claim--this not only steps on toes, but in some cases, is illegal! Yet I want these teas to be compared side-by-side with Anhui keemuns, because they have been produced with a similar production process, with the goal of reproducing the Keemun character, and the clear intention of being compared to them.

  8. That's fine, Alex. One should always do what one feels compelled to do.

    In the meantime, please allow me to correct your misstatement. You wrote: << You said that "Type", "Kind", and "Variety" have been deemed "absolutely adequate" when describing classes of teas. I do not agree with this statement. >>

    No, I'd never make such a sweeping generalization, nor one so impossible to corroborate. What I wrote was: << …all of the writers of whom I'm aware (from Ukers on down) have deemed the words "type" or "kind" or "variety" absolutely adequate when describing classes of teas. >> So if you disagree, take it up with those writers, not with me. :-)

  9. Apologies on the misstatement!

    I don't think it changes anything in the core ideas or general trends of my response though.

    I'm not intending to start any sort of argument, I'm just saying...I use the word "style" because I found the other words to be inadequate, particularly, for separating out region of production from character and method of production, and thus from questions of authenticity.

    I don't have any issue with other authors using the words "kind", "type", or "variety". I think these words are fine. Part of what I'm trying to do here though is to explain--I'm not saying the exact same thing that they're saying, I'm trying to capture something slightly different. Not different in all cases, but definitely different in those cases where a tea is made to emulate a tea originating in a different region.

    A while back, there was some interesting discussion around my post on the definition of white tea which also got at this same sort of issue, the question of ontology vs. style. In that case, the tea in question was silver needle white tea, and the question was...are teas produced in different regions, in this style really silver needle? I don't like to debate ontology because it's subjective, and can become political.