Drink Magazine

6 Reasons Why There is So Much Misinformation on Tea

By Dchew78 @peonyts

One the reasons we provide an extensive tea resource is that there is so much misinformation on tea being spread, whether on the web or offline, which detracts from the pleasure and appreciation of tea.

For example, the notion that Gongfucha is a ceremony intimidates many from incorporating it into their daily routine, and enjoying Oolong tea to the fullest. Hint: It’s not.

There is a myriad of reasons, whether unintentional or by design, why so much wrong information is being embraced as truth, we look at 6 main causes.

1) Lost in Translation

Tea originated from China and every basic form of tea production traces its roots to China. China also has more tea research institutes and universities than any other country in the world. Suffice it to say, most of the in depth tea information and research comes from China, with Japan and Taiwan close behind.

What do all those 3 countries have in common? Their main language, whether in academia or the vernacular, is not English. To accentuate the problem, Chinese (China and Taiwan) and Japanese are character based languages rather than alphabet based. That makes translation even harder.

Much information is either lost in translation or misinterpreted.

For example is green tea withered? That is, assuming proper production of green tea, not the sloppy type.

Depends on who you ask.

Green tea is not “withered”, if understood as “萎调” (weidiao), though it may undergo something similar but different, known as “摊放” (tanfang). The 2 involves spreading leaves but in execution, intents and purposes are quite different as we might probably look at in a future post. There are writings that confuse weidiao and tanfang as the same thing and hence assert that green tea may be withered even though chemically the impact on the polyphenols differs.

2) Credibility of Information

How do you research?

Unless you are in academia, and even so, odds are your de facto research is to use a search engine, ‘Google it’ as they say in urban-speak.

Google (and any other search engine), to their credit are constantly improving their search algorithm, but IT savvy webmasters have an undeniable advantage in search engine placement. Given that few even venture beyond page 3 of search results, this shapes tea information.

IT folks, though I love you guys, may not always (to put it mildly) be the best source of information. Almighty Wikipedia (and its brethren) is a frequent go-to-source, being at the top of any search engine’s pile, but as mentioned whenever half the opportunity crops up, is far from infallible.

To make matters worse, guys research, and link back to the source of (mis)information, thereby boosting the inaccurate site’s search ranking further. For instance, I read an article that states that the confusion between “oxidation” and “fermentation” in tea is mistranslation (Nope, it is not). That article though has been cited at least twice as ‘Recommended Reading’ based on my eye test.

And the vicious cycle continues.

3) Un-educated Educators

Wait a minute, I can almost hear you say, there are lots of “certified tea masters”, “tea sommeliers” out there; surely we can count on them?

Uh, it gets worse, actually.

Without having actually ponied up for these things, being a tea vendor is not exactly a money spinning enterprise ;p, many of the certifying bodies are not exactly infallible either.

Organizations that proudly certify others as tea masters do not even get the basics right.

For example, contrary to what a certifying body writes on its site, Puer is NOT a category of tea in itself, unlike green, white, yellow etc. It is a ‘dark tea’, post-fermented tea, or heicha, depending on your choice of terminology, but it is not a category of tea on its own.

And this is just the fundamentals.

And we are looking at the educators, the master of the “masters”.


4) Cultural Bias

As mentioned in 1), much of the information on tea comes from the ‘far East’. Unfortunately, there seems to be a cultural bias in some quarters against that part of the world. I have read a recommendation for a particular brewing vessel for reasons no more compelling than its “modern, efficient and WESTERN”, as though the final one is a reason in itself.

While I am 100% Chinese, this is not a matter of cultural superiority.

Pertaining to music, artists in my collection are predominantly African-American (I am a jazz-phile). Pertaining to fiction, overwhelming majority of it is European, Irish especially, or former British colonies, though I do appreciate a spot of Hemingway. Pertaining to culinary (including beverages) inclinations, my hometown bias shines through.

To sum it up: every culture has its merit in my book I search for what I believe is the best, regardless of origin. I am not promoting Chinese tea culture because I am Chinese, but because there is much to be learnt from it.

5) Vested Interest

It takes time (and often money), to study tea. It takes effort to write about that as well. Most people look at being, either directly or indirectly, compensated for that. Nothing wrong with that, we are neck-deep in capitalism, no point pretending otherwise.

The problem lies with delivering half and complete un-truths to achieve one’s goals.

For instance certain vendors would play up the benefits of cast iron tea pots, terming it as the ‘best way’ to brew tea, an assertion linked no doubt to those being the most expensive (and lucrative) products in their lineup. If you ask any Japanese manufacturer, at least reputable ones, cast iron is meant for kettles- that is boiling water- rather than tea brewing.

The hype does not stop there. Look for “health benefits of tea”, 4 words that gets ‘purists’ up in arms, especially with the claims of being a miracle drug. Of course, the other extreme is to deny it altogether, for lack of a better phrase throwing out the baby with the bath water, but that is another story.

6) There is REALLY a lot of information about tea

Regardless of what you think about Shen Nong and the alleged discovery of tea, there is documentation of tea consumption in China for at least 2000 years. That is a longer history than most civilizations.

Contrary to popular belief, there is no single ‘Chinese tea culture’. Tea culture in Chengdu is different from that in ChaoAn which in turn differ from Qingdao and so forth. Especially relating to tea production, production of a particular category of tea, for example oolong tea, can differ significantly for each production area.

Throw in the geography of each region, like the pecularities of Xiping, Huqiu, Gande and Xianghua Tieguanyin, the history (not myths, history), the science and research behind it, you have a lot of information.

An expert in Wuyishan teas may know as much about Puer as a novice, that happens when you go for depth rather than breath, or an authority on Puer can know very little about Oolong tea. It has happened.

The problem is two-fold. Sometimes you buy in to the assertions of an expert, even though he may not be an expert in that field of tea, because of his reputation in other areas of tea; other times you discount the assertions of someone in one specialization of tea, because you know more than he or she does in another topic of tea.

In other words, do not expect a one-stop provider of accurate tea information.

This article is not meant to be a doom-and-gloom, nor a precursor to a solution, for instance a claim that I will write a book that changes the tea world[1], rather it is a call to discernment, discretion and an encouragement to continue learning about tea regardless of language barriers or cultural bias.

Let us journey together.

[1] I am writing one related to oolong tea, and will make every endeavor to ensure it is accurate, informative and entertaining (in this order of priority) but I have no illusions that it will be perfect or comprehensive.

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