Let’s play a game. What are your first thoughts when I mention the following terms?
- Wet storage
- Mini tuocha
- Lao Banzhang
What did you think? Did you have some initial expectation of what the imaginary tea might taste like? You might have said “bitter” for Lincang or “forest floor” for wet storage. Regardless of your specific thoughts, most people have some sort of expectation when the label of a tea makes a certain claim.
What’s the Problem?
Humans, to a fault, develop expectations for all of our senses. We are conditioned to expect things, and this is even true with word association. If a label says “Yiwu,” you might have a certain expectation. That is independent of the fact that Yiwu is a huge area comprised of different elevations, soil conditions, water sources, weather, etc. that all affect the potential of the leaves. Then, on top of that, there is the processing, compression, and age of the tea.
The point here is this:
- When I hear “Yiwu,” I think of the flavor notes of wood, floral, and mineral; and
- Yiwu is much more than just a flavor profile and can be many other tastes.
This is the problem inherent in our tea drinking experience. The more we taste, the more expectations we create.
So, what do we do?
It’s good to judge a tea based on its label; however, the flip side is that it’s also unfair to judge a tea based on its label. There’s the difference between accurately portraying the tea (i.e., something is marked gushu when it’s really not), and accurately portraying the taste of the tea.
I love white wrapper cakes. I love unmarked samples. These items force you to think about the tea. Maybe you make some parallels to other teas that you have tried or a region with a similar profile, but the point is that you still don’t know one way or another.
Make your tasting fair. Give your tea a chance. If you want to enjoy the experience, stop worrying about what kind of tea it is. Sure, we all want to know what that 2000 Xigui sheng tastes like, but we also don’t want to pigeonhole ourselves into having a specific expectation for the tea.
Mix up your samples. Taste things blindly. Put samples into umarked bags. Put the sample into your gaiwan without looking at the label. Taste it first, then look at the label to be pleasantly surprised by the answer.
There’s nothing wrong with labels – just don’t let those labels influence your experience. Oh, and don’t let other people’s opinions shape your brewing experience either, but I’ll save that topic for another day.
Until the next cup.