The Sapience of Savoring Tea

by Jason on December 10, 2010

in Uncategorized

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Sitting around with my cup of tea has given me some time to ruminate on a few recent tea conversations. When viewed as a whole, these voices brought forth a few worthwhile considerations.

First off, it is important to clarify a comment I recently made on this Tching article. I noted that “tea snobs” were necessary, and that they would likely need to shame much of the tea-consuming public. What did I mean by that?

It must be noted that fine tea involves much more than the conventional use of the word “taste”. Most times, “taste” is used to refer merely to the combination of aromas and initial taste bud data. This definition omits critical and pleasurable aspects of many full tasting experiences. Concepts like mouthfeel, texture, and awareness of sustained, evolving aftertastes are foreign or ignored.

To use the words of one of my tea friends, the “gestalt of the tea” has been lost or at least ignored. With that loss came the loss of a form of wisdom. “Savor” and “sapient” are related in origin. To be homo sapiens is to have deeper perception, to have keenness. It is the essence of the ability to savor.

The tea snob then, is the sapient one who has cultivated the ability to savor. Many have not developed their innate abilities to savor, and so do not seek the gestalt of tea and the full taste experience I described. For them, lower qualities of teas suit them, and they are oblivious to the worlds of experience available to them. There are several forms of tea that will never allow a drinker to develop the ability to savor. Tea sapiens can get labelled as “tea snobs” by those who limit themselves to poorer teas and possess underdeveloped abilities to savor. I grant that the pretentious and arrogant may also be labelled tea snobs, and recognize the groups can overlap.

Either way, the tea snob has the ability to “shame” the tea-drinking public. The arrogant and pretentious will do so-putting people off of tea, or making them feel unable to develop their ability to savor. The tea sapiens will shame people indirectly. They will remind people who have abandoned their natural abilities to savor. Hopefully, tea sapiens will also step in to guide people toward excellent teas that are worthy of savoring.

In the end, I note that we need at least 2 kinds of tea. One is common, and used for quick, simple refreshment. The other kind exercises our ability to savor, and hopefully makes us more wise in the process. A proper diet of the two will make both tea drinkers and the tea industry healthier.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Dianna Harbin December 14, 2010 at 06:03

Jason, thanks for commenting on my December post to the tching.com blog, “Tea enthusiasts need access to pure teas in tearooms and tea shops” (see http://www.tching.com/2010/12/tea-enthusiasts-need-access-to-pure-teas-in-tearooms-and-tea-shops/).

It amazed me that I drew so much flack for making that simple observation and plea! For those who don’t know, I got called out as a “tea snob” for what I said in the post. I am not a tea snob though.

Jason, I wanted to read this extension of the conversation before responding to your tching.com comments on my posting. First, let me say I appreciate your not going too far afield in your tching comments. I didn’t need to fan the tea snob flame!

First, let me say that I like your clever term “Tea sapiens”. To me “sapiens” refers to the ability to think and acquire knowledge, a prerequisite to wisdom. In this way, Homo sapiens is presumably set apart from other primates, which also gain knowledge. What I call “serious tea enthusiasts” are on a path of seeking knowledge about tea that goes beyond, but still includes, the taste in the cup. Maybe they are seeking tea wisdom? Is that why it takes a lifetime?

I agree with you and the others that “tasting” does not encompass the full range of activity involved in experiencing tea in this way. It certainly does involve savoring and it is an intellectual pursuit as well.

What I want to expand upon here is that the sensory experience of “tea tasting” also involves our senses beyond smell and taste to include all of our senses, even the sound of the dried leaf as it bounces off the container, and includes our grasp of the entire body of knowledge tied to that particular tea (tea wisdom?). Some also say it includes the qi/chi (energetics) of the tea, another topic for discussion.

I don’t think one needs to be a snob to engage in tea in this way and conversely, I don’t think every snob will engage in tea in this way.

People often want someone to model themselves after, if only in a superficial way, and, in this sense, you might be right about “fundamentally likable tea snobs” advancing tea beyond the blends and flavors that are the current rage among the general public towards the pure premium teas.

I think it is more likely that we will have a “tea personality” come to the fore to advance tea appreciation in America, much like James Beard and Julia Child did for cooking. We would not have a “Rachel Ray” to popularize home cooking without these forerunners (and the imprisonment of Martha Stewart). I have said elsewhere that this will happen for tea in mass media soon. The thing is, we might start with someone with the ability to come off more like a Rachel Ray and than a Julia Child/James Beard. Either way, it is all to the good as far as I’m concerned.

Jason December 13, 2010 at 15:12

Cinnabar, Charles,

I believe we are moving in the right direction, but something is missing from our conversation. Our references to flavor and taste are the tip of the iceberg in tea experience.

Imagine a Buddhist monk from centuries ago, being refreshed by a few teaspoons worth of tea. Was it the flavor that sustained her?

I venture that it was awareness + texture (a.k.a. mouthfeel, a.k.a. viscosity) + the spectrum of aftertastes of the tea. This is less of an intellectual/critical exercise of pulling threads from the flavor tapestry to examine. Nor is it a research-based experience.

It is awareness of the now, like suddenly becoming increasingly aware of your right earlobe. With awareness, you can become more cognizant of the weight and temperature of your earlobe. You become more sensitive to breezes touching your earlobe. Same with tea. Some will find it easier to become aware, but each of us can cultivate an awareness of the tea-moment. An awareness that combines flavor, taste, texture, and aftertaste. An awareness that places greater appreciation on texture and aftertaste. This is the gestalt of tea; harvest, origin, and terroir information are supplements to the gestalt.

With this understanding of “taste” and “awareness,” it is easy to see how our discussion extends beyond tea to foods and life in general. Savor and sapience involve being attuned to our sensory experiences and how those senses shape our present moments.

Charles Cain December 11, 2010 at 21:22

I agree, but I believe the greater and less understood difference between the tea snob and the tea novice has less to do with palate and more to do with intellectual bent. Please let me be clear I am not comparing intellects! 🙂 Rather, I am suggesting that for many, the flavor of of a thing defines one’s experience. For others, the experience is informed by many other outside factors including history, culture, tradition, perceived rarity, perceived quality and social or environmental impact.

For me, a flavored tea that “tastes” excellent may strike me as boring because I already knew that I liked the flavor of strawberry. However, discovering a lilac high note in an Oolong excites my palate in a way that extends far beyond flavor and into intellectual experience.

The same process can be seen in evaluating “the classics” in art and music. Some will claim to like a piece if for no other reason than that it is significant and it speaks to them on an intellectual level. Others can view a Picasso or hear work of Mozart and declare simply and factually that they don’t like it.

I don’t see a difference of intelligence between these two groups; they simply are curious about and interested in different things.

Most importantly, we connoisseurs of fine tea must understand that our experience turns on our understanding of tea and our personal inclination towards it. We cannot expect others to share our passion immediately, or ever. We wouldn’t bother condescending to someone who dislikes math in favor of art. Why would we not extend the same courtesy to someone who chooses a beverage based only on flavor?

gingko December 11, 2010 at 17:35

Very well written! I like your way of seeing tea drinking as both a challenge to people’s neglectful drinking/eating and a way of returning to the natural ability to savor.

About the industry, I generally have very cynical view on food/beverage industry. I think large part of food industry’s classic success builds on making people abandon their natural ability to savor. Now tea industry is still quite new. Whether it will become a better entity than the rest of food/beverage industry, or it will conveniently take “experience of success” from other beverage fields, is hard to tell. But I do believe tea drinkers, especially the most serious ones, play a key role in shaping the industry.

michaeljcoffey December 11, 2010 at 07:17

@jasonowalker Read it earlier. Brief response–generally agree. More when I have a bit more time. 🙂 Ditto @GongfuGirl “need more words”

Cinnabar December 10, 2010 at 15:53

It sounds to me like you are describing the same sort of transformation in tea that has has happened in coffee, where the palate of the general public becomes more mature through exposure to opinions from people who are knowledgeable and very particular about what they drink. I’m sure that “shame” is the best word to use for that process, but I agree entirely that this is how it works. In the United States not all that long ago people actually drank instant coffee from a can every day and John Q. Public would never have known what a latte was or be able to identify an espresso machine. That is no longer the case, and ignorance of fancy coffee drinks is not as prevalent, and no longer as socially acceptable.

I see a similar overall process at work in the tea industry. There is more availability of high quality teas and of good information, a lot of that is disseminated by people who might be called “tea snobs.” I’m not so sure that it’s the snobbery that accomplishes change, though. I see more useful change through education by people who are passionate about tea, not committed to condemning other people’s tea drinking habits. I can guarantee that you’re going to teach more people through, “try this tea, from this place, processed this way, with this historical tradition,” than “you should drink this tea because it’s GOOD, unlike that flavored crap.”

To your primary point, about the sapience of tea drinkers, I agree with you that there are people with no interest in cultivating a more sophisticated palate, and those people will be satisfied with lesser quality teas. I also think that there are differences in innate ability to differentiate flavor profiles and more subtle characters in food and drink, in the same way that some people have higher levels of native musical talent, whereas others have to practice considerably harder to attain the same level of skill on an instrument.

A lot of this comes down to desire and opportunity. People who want to take the time to learn how to appreciate pure loose leaf teas and also have resources to make this happen will naturally evolve into more sophisticated tea drinkers. And at the same time the greater population will only care about tea (or any other particular thing) to the extent that it’s really easily obtainable, brewable and drinkable. I don’t see that as an impediment to the overall spread of tea knowledge or access to good tea.

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