Monday, January 17, 2011

Experimental Language to Describe Tea's Aroma and Flavor

Writing about tea, or about any type of food or drink, is tough, and requires experience. When I first launched RateTea and introduced it to my friends and family, I was surprised at how intimidated most of them were with the prospect of writing a review, even anonymously. Keep in mind, these are regular tea drinkers with strong opinions on what they like and dislike. I take for granted reviewing food, as I have been active as a user on RateBeer, and also as a reviewer on Yelp, for years now. But I seemed to forget that it was a slow process for me to learn how to write about tea. Hence the writing about tea article was born.

A Recent Thought-Provoking Blog Post:

I recently read a post on Little Yellow Teapot's Tea Reviews about Tula Teas Formosa Green. Both the post and one of the commenters agree that the commercial description given is a bit unappealing sounding. The description uses a lot of language that is atypical among words commonly used to describe tea. This got me thinking: just what degree of experimental use of language is useful? If you use the same words repeatedly to describe teas, you won't be able to capture the full range of diversity in the qualities of the different teas you are writing about, and you may also bore your readers. But if your language is too esoteric, people won't be able to relate to your writing.

Thus I arrived at the following guidelines for how to experiment with broadening your language used to write about tea:

  • Start by expanding your analogies into aromas that other people will have more exposure to. Most people have some familiarity with with aromas like orchid, citrus, pine, grapes, or spearmint. Fewer people, but still some, will get much of a mental picture if you say that a tea has an aroma resembling the Mayapple fruit, Galangal root, or Privet blossoms.

  • Think of the connotation of your word. Some words convey connotations of class or sophistication, such as making an analogy to a specific type of wine on the one hand, or a marginally crude analogy to take it to the opposite extreme. Occasionally I'll find a tea that has a quality that smells slightly like marijuana, the hops in beer, or perhaps skunk. There can be an odd similarity in a certain component of these three smells. But these three words have completely different connotations: do you want to conjure up images of an intoxicating controlled substance, the flavoring of a malt beverage, or a foul-smelling animal's chemical deterrent? While I've used all three analogies myself, at times, I do so cautiously. This is more of an issue when writing a commercial description than a review on a blog, but it is still important in both cases. By choosing your connotation carefully, you can evoke an emotional response in the reader. The best choice of language, in my opinion, is that which has a connotation fitting the other overall qualities of the tea.

  • Combine some familiar language with some more unusual language. If every word in your reviews is pushing the boundaries, readers may be overwhelmed and confused by your reviews or descriptions. But if your language always uses the same words, you won't be able to capture the distinct essence of each tea. Strike a balance: pick one or two unusual words that will grab the reader's attention, provoking thought. But don't make each word provoke such reflection, or the review will be jarring and disjoint. A review that I think achieves this balance brilliantly is Anne's review of Republic of Tea's Cardamom Cinnamon, which contrasts the familiar and bold word guts with the less common word winsomeness.

1 comment:

  1. I would have loved to read this post before I started to review tea. Even so it brings up some wonderful points to ponder