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?