Drink Magazine

What is ‘good Tea’ and Why Objective Definition is Important

By Dchew78 @peonyts

It was the first day at the art camp for Johnny and he can hardly wait. For years he had marveled at how his sister transformed blank canvasses into lifelike portraits, landscapes that immortalized many a perfect moment. He had some rudimentary skills, and was described as a ‘raw talent’, but he wanted to take his knowledge to a deeper level. When he caught wind of the art camp, Johnny could hardly contain his excitement, believing it to be the breakthrough he needed.

The teacher stood in front of him- Johnny made sure he had the best seat- and addressed the class.

“You are here today because you want to learn to draw well, am I right?”

“Yes!” Johnny shouted in unison with his class.

“Do you want to know what a good piece of art is?”

“Yes!”

“A good piece of art is”

“Here it comes.” Johnny stifled a whoop.

“Here is the best piece of advice I can give you- a beautiful painting is whatever you like. That is all. No one can tell you what works or doesn’t. If you like it, it is beautiful.”

Would you send your child, or join a class, that teaches you that? Be it art, music, language or any discipline, is everything truly equal, but for your own preference?

But many view tea like that.

“What is good tea? Whatever you like, it is arrogant to think that there is a definite answer.” While it sounds innocuous and inoffensive, these are some of the least helpful statements, especially to a serious student of tea.

While everyone has their personal preference, and we will look at this later, there is an objective measurement of quality, more specifically production quality, of tea, and there are 3 main reasons why it should not be buried under relativism.

The Price is Right

You could be fleeced when you pay $10 for 50g of Tieguanyin or get a bargain when you pay $50 for the same quantity of Tieguanyin. Not all teas are created equal and there are different tiers for the same variety of tea. Here is where an objective assessment comes in.

To illustrate, let us look at the production of Tieguanyin.

At the picking stage, tea leaves are picked at different times of the day- in terms of value, the noon to mid-afternoon picked ones are the most valued, followed by those picked in the late afternoon and then those picked in the morning. (An explanation can be found here.)

After withering, the tea leaves undergoes a stage known as ‘zuo qing’ (often inaccurately translated as ‘partial oxidation’).

After the ‘zuo qing’ process is completed, the leaves undergo ‘shaqing’.

Thereafter they are shaped and then roasted or baked.

At any stage, it could be done imperfectly- for instance the ‘shaqing’ might be slow, leading to unintended oxidation, or the roasting could be overdone, leaving a slightly burnt smell, all of which would factor into the value of the tea leaves.

The Chinese grading system would address this. An honest merchant would also price the tea according to its grade.

Knowing what ‘good tea’ is, understanding the production quality will allow the tea drinker to assess the worth of the tea, and if it is fairly valued.

Growing as a Tea Drinker

Any course or books on creative writing will be incomplete without examples, either of what works or what does not. For a budding wordsmith, there is no better way to learn than to read the works of the masters, especially with a guide. Reading why a particular passage of Hemingway’s conveys power or how Ishiguro uses an unreliable narrator to perfection helps a writer to grow, much more than a statement like “Read what you like, there is no good or bad book.”

In the same way, one of the most useful exercises I found is getting a few teas of the same variety and origin, but of different grades, and conducting a comparative tasting. Compare the aftertaste of a $10 tea versus a $30 one for example, the aroma, the appearance, the texture and so forth. This would then help the tea drinker understand the difference and link it to production quality.

Honoring the Producers

You spent hours fussing over your hair and make-up. You brought out that outfit you expended hours to choose, paired with the shoes and handbag you bought to match. Putting on that expensive perfume, you walked into the living room and ask your waiting partner:

“How do I look?”

“Let’s go, we’re late.”

What is ‘good tea’ and why objective definition is important
How does that make you feel? Or if you are the one on the other end, what trouble did you get into?

Imagine that you are a tea producer. You spent a lifetime honing your art, learning how to vary the intensity of the ‘zuoqing’ in line with the weather or the condition of harvested leaves. You spent sleepless nights, baking tea leaves in the charcoal furnace, not nodding off a single second lest whatever effort expended thus far be for naught if the leaves are over-roasted.

When you present your labor of love to a tea drinker, you ask “Good stuff eh?”

“Good or no good, it doesn’t matter. If you like it, it is good.”

How does that make you feel?

Honor the masters by learning to discern good quality tea.

Forget sob stories of how families are sustained by your tea purchase- many of them are untrue anyway- tea producers work hard to produce the tea, they deserve appreciation not charity.

However……..

Quality Does Not Equate to Personal Preference

“Her expression transformed before his eyes, her young features hardening with all the detached composure of a seasoned ER doctor dealing with a crisis.”

“Her compensation for a sixteen-hour workday was learning the ropes in the trenches with a seasoned politician.”
You probably recognize the iconic writing of Dan Brown from the two sentences above. I am certain even his most ardent supporters would not defend his prose, but with 80 million copies of the Da Vinci Code being sold, I doubt Mr. Brown loses any sleep over critics.

At the same time, the John Banvilles of this world, despite their perfectly crafted prose, would not come anywhere near to Mr. Brown’s sales.

Just because something is of a superior quality does not mean everyone has to like it.

Sophisticated Palate?

Staying on the example of literature, people read for different motivations. To some people, fiction is associated with long flights, in which case the Ken Folletts would work better than James Joyce. That is not to say readers of the former are necessarily intellectually inferior to fans of the latter.

In the same way, people who can tell the difference between Gande, Xiping and Xianghua Tieguanyin ought not to look down on those who sip Assam CTC. Tea means different things to different people- it can be an obsession for some, it can be a mere after meals beverage for others, to each his or her own. One tea can be esteemed higher than another, but not the drinker.

There is superior quality tea and mediocre tea, but that says nothing of the drinker, just a matter of personal preferences.

See more articles on Tea Appreciation here


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