Thursday, June 14, 2012

Grasping The Aesthetic Of A Tea Company

In the course of sampling teas and reviewing them, I often go through a process with a new or unfamiliar tea company, in which I move from having no familiarity with the company, to trying one, two, three, and then more teas. Eventually, I form an impression of the company. Besides reflecting on the business, customer service, pricing, and presentational aspects of the company, I also form an impression of what I'd like to call the aesthetic of the tea company's teas. This aesthetic represents what I think of how the company's teas tend to differ from other company's teas, or how they tend to deviate from average or "typical" examples of each type of tea.

The aesthetic of a tea company is a bit of a nebulous concept, like this Lagoon Nebula pictured below, but, like this nebula, it is still a real concept that can, in some cases, be described in words:

Aesthetic can take the form of teas being sweeter or more bitter than typical, or of teas performing better under western-style brewing or gong-fu-style brewing, of the leaf of teas having certain characteristics of color, shape, or form, or of certain aromas being more or less represented than typical.

When comparing similar teas, aesthetic is sometimes subtle. For the most part, if you try a bunch of the same type of tea (like dragon well green tea, or Keemun black tea) from different companies, you'll be trying similar teas. But you will also probably notice certain trends even in these cases, if you pay enough attention. And, when looking at a company's whole catalogue, you will notice much larger trends in terms of which teas they choose to stock.

Some examples of a company's aesthetic that I've noticed:

  • Rare Tea Republic struck me as carrying a lot of smoother-than-average teas that had a moderately vegetal flavor, more vegetal than typical, especially for their black teas, but not overwhelmingly vegetal.
  • Adagio Teas has seemed to me to carry teas which tend towards a sweeter flavor, with lighter aromas, although they certainly have some exceptions as well.
  • TeaVivre's teas struck me as more aromatic than most Chinese teas for sale in the west. Each tea of a familiar style that I tried, conformed closely to the "typical" examples, with traditionally more bitter teas tasting more bitter and traditionally smoother teas tasting smoother.
  • Rishi Tea seems to often have bold, edgy teas, with atypical aromas and strong flavors, often a little out of my comfort zone, but always making my tea-drinking experience enjoyable.
  • Life in Teacup seems to have a decidedly non-western focus, with more teas that initially taste quite different to a western palate. The company also carries a lot of teas that are less well-known in the West. This company's teas are more likely to strike me as a bit strange, but I've found, they are also more likely to excite me, and I'm more likely to find teas I consider to be truly exceptional from Life in Teacup than from most other companies.
  • Simpson and Vail, whose teas I've been sampling recently, seem to have dry leaf that is less aromatic than typical, but I find that their teas are much more pleasant to drink than I'd expect from the aroma of the dry leaf.

Some companies, like Upton, are so diverse that it's hard for me to describe an aesthetic of the company as a whole. And in most cases, I haven't formed enough of an impression to describe a company's aesthetic.

Forming an impression of aesthetic:

In order for me to form what I would consider to be a very solid impression of the company, I like to do the following things:

  • Sample some teas that represent the company's strengths - I think that a company's strengths and areas of focus say more about the company than random teas. Even in cases where a company specializes in a type of tea I am less familiar with, I want to really delve into the specialized offerings. When a company offers me samples, I like to accept at least a few samples that the company wants me to try, and that I may initially be less enthusiastic about. Sometimes, like with Rishi Tea's Vanilla Mint Pu-erh, which I would have never chosen to sample on my own, I am pleasantly surprised.
  • Sample some of the company's most unique offerings - A recent example of this would be sampling Shanti Tea's Los Andes tea from Guatemala (my review).
  • Sample some teas of styles which I am very familiar with - If I try only unfamiliar teas, I don't have a great sense of how the company's teas compare with others, both in terms of quality, and character.

The aesthetic begins to take form:

Once I've begun to sample a sizeable portion of teas from a particular brand or company, I begin to form an impression in my head about what that company's aesthetic is. Every tea company that I have sampled teas from has had its own unique stamp, signature, or characteristic aesthetic, but in some cases, it has been more overt, whereas in other cases, it has been subtle. This aesthetic reflects the decisions of the company's staff in which teas they choose to stock and sell. It also reflects the company's audience, and it may also reflect the companies practices of packing and storing teas, as these influence the tea's flavor as well. For example, I suspect that TeaVivre's loose-leaf tea is so aromatic because it is packed and sealed closer to the source of production and not re-opened after being shipped to the US, in contrast to some companies which import tea and then re-package it.

What do you think?

Do you think that the "aesthetic of a tea company" is a useful concept? Have you formed any impressions about the aesthetics of any tea companies yourself, whether or not you call them by this name? If you've formed an impression of the tea companies I mention here, does your impression fit with mine, or do you have a different view of any of these companies?


  1. To build on your green tea post, I'd say ordering green tea from a company is a quick way to ascertain the quality of a company. Since, as you pointed out, the majority of western companies sell low quality, poorly (or too long) stored green teas, you can tell very quickly whether or not a given company is serious if they take their green tea seriously.
    Beyond that, I can usually ascertain a lot about the quality and level of professionalism of a tea company by looking at their oolong tea selection, since I know oolong tea well, and spent 8 months in Taiwan, drinking among the best oolong in the world, and a lot of it.
    When I walk into a shop, or look on the website of a company that is trying to tell me about the "exotic" or " amazing" Four Seasons tea that comes from Taiwan, for example, I know right away they're full of crap; that's a fairly pedestrian-quality variety of oolong compared to what's available in Taiwan. It's not bad, but when you pretend something like that is the cream of the crop, and don't care, or neglect to mention the actual high quality teas Taiwan produces, such as Alishan or Lishan, it is just deliberate misinformation. Same as when I see someone selling Da Hong Pao for 4 dollars an ounce; anyone who knows anything about real Wuyi knows that if you are selling one for that price in the USA, it is a 4th grade imitation of the real thing.

    1. Everything you're saying here makes a lot of sense, and, although I personally don't know as much about oolongs, I definitely form some of the same impressions when I check out a new or unfamiliar tea shop or company. Sometimes though, I will say, companies can excel in one area even if they lag behind in others. As an example, I absolutely love Upton Tea Imports, but there are certain aspects of their catalogue that I am less excited about, like their offerings of Japanese teas, or perhaps even more pointedly, their Pu-erh. If I judged Upton by their Pu-erh alone, I'd be likely to dismiss the company entirely. I even would say that of their commercial descriptions--I've consistently found Upton to have descriptions of their teas that are very close to how I perceive them--but--definitely not with their Pu-erh. Now, there are some tea shops that raise quality / freshness issues, like a store you walk into that seems to have a very low traffic / turnover, and has hundreds of varieties of tea for sale--that raises questions about freshness for me before I even glance at what they sell. But, in terms of judging a company by their offerings of one particular type of tea, unless you're specifically looking for the type of tea that you are assessing, I am cautious about dismissing the company as a whole.

      I also like to have a positive effect on people. If I am having an internal dialogue that says that "they're full of crap", this is not likely to lead to me treating the person in a respectful way that will help me actually get through to the person, and perhaps, in the long-run, point them in the direction of selling high-quality teas. It's more likely to lead me to close off from them, which doesn't help them to be any more honest or informative towards future customers.


      But this is really off-topic. Quality and overall level of knowledge is not what I'm getting at in this post. I mentioned above that quality definitely is related to aesthetic, especially since there are different dimensions of quality, and companies can choose to focus on some more than others.

      I think aesthetic is something very different from quality and I think it is often hard to ascertain or grasp without trying a fair number of teas from a company. And it's usually only something I care about assessing when a company has gotten my attention as selling teas whose quality is great enough that I actually want to sample a bunch of their teas.

  2. You're on to something really crucial here. The first question people have when they get turned on to good tea is, "where can I buy it?" I thought my friend was being cagey when he refused to answer, but it really is something that you largely have to work out for yourself. The gross calculation of buying tea is a value proposition: is this retailer going to have the quality and selection I want for a good price? This used to be all that was necessary, because there were so few places to get high-quality tea. Now that internet retailers abound, there's much more fine-tuning to do: is this company's buyer going to value the same qualities in a tea that I do? I think this would be nigh-impossible to quantify, given the nature of our aroma and taste experiences, but I commend anyone who has the money and energy to take this on.

  3. Thanks for a great blog Alex! I think you are absolutely right that there is usually a kind of overall aesthetic or style to a tea company. Many tea companies are probably founded upon some ideas of what kind of teas the founders would like to see available. As a tea merchant I would just note that the teas a company carries and their exact style will never be completely tuned and controlled to the house style. If the tastes and aromas of the teas are not controlled by blending or spicing, there will be yearly variations that can in my experience change the style of a tea dramatically. Some merchants can in these situations source elsewhere but i doubt many tea companies have the processes in place to do this. Tea companies are also 'forced' to carry teas that might not match their exact preferences. This can be for reasons related to diversifying the selection and pricing, among others. As a result, i think the style is something that might sometimes be more obvious on a higher level that relates more to how the teas are presented, served, stored, marketed etc. Once you have tasted a lot of the teas the company offers, you might start to understand what are the characteristics the company values in tea. This still depends on the company actually having someone making consistent choices on what teas to offer. To me it seems it's possible to run a successfull tea company with anything from quite loose to very strict selection criteria.

    1. I also agree that it's possible to run a successful tea company with either loose or strict selection criteria.

      I think there are several ways that tea companies can deal with the issue of variability from year to year, while retaining a consistent aesthetic. I think the biggest way is that variability (or consistency) is itself part of the aesthetic. That is, some tea companies opt for consistency, which, as you point out, is only possible to achieve fully by blending and flavoring teas, whereas other ones opt for purity of the tea, and embrace the variability.

      Tea companies also can choose to have their catalog rotate and change yearly, with teas going unavailable if the quality or aesthetic no longer matches the company's standards--this is how Upton Tea Imports handles it--one thing I love about Upton is that they even make notes of how the batches vary, in the teas where there is a high amount of seasonal variability. In some cases, I've even seen them admit that a certain batch is not as good as past year's batches, but that it was as close a match as they were able to get. I appreciate this honesty, and have enjoyed some of these supposedly "off" batches. In other cases, I've been sad when a tea I liked disappeared, but I trust their judgment and was grateful that they retired a tea rather than sell something that was not up to their standards.