Why We Shouldn’t Describe Tea

When you read descriptions of teas that you’re thinking of buying, or are told in a tea-tasting class that you should record your impressions in a tea journal, or read those blogs that are little more than a public tea journal in the guise of tea reviews, something vital is being lost: the experience of having tea.

In one study, researchers showed volunteers a color swatch of the sort one might pick up in the paint aisle of the local hardware store and allowed them to study it for five seconds.  Some volunteers then spent thirty seconds describing the color (describers), while other volunteers did not describe it (nondescribers).  All volunteers were then shown a lineup of six color swatches, one of which was the color they had seen thirty seconds earlier, and were asked to pick out the original swatch.  The first interesting finding was that only 73 percent of the nondescribers were able to identify it accurately.  In other words, fewer than three quarters of these folks could tell if this experience of yellow was the same as the experience of yellow they had had just a half-minute before.  The second interesting finding was that describing the color impaired rather than improved performance on the identification task.  Only 33 percent of the describers were able to accurately identify the original color.  Apparently, the describers’ verbal descriptions of their experiences “overwrote” their memories of the experiences themselves, and they ended up remembering not what they had experienced but what they had said about what they had experienced.  And what they had said was not clear and precise enough to help them recognize it when they saw it again thirty seconds later.

Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert

Let’s apply this to tea tasting for a moment.  First, a color is pretty simple–it’s a particular wavelength of light.  From a scientific standpoint, the color watches could be described with a single number ranging from roughly 380 nm to 750 nm (the spectrum of wavelengths in light that humans can perceive).  Granted, there may be a few exceptions–like if the color swatch had some color variations, etc.

However, compare that to how complex an experience tea is.  There are tactile senses, olfactory sensations, gustatory sensations…and each of those is more complex than seeing color.  Let’s simplify things and ignore everything but taste.  You taste with your taste buds.  But there are five types of taste buds which sense through both protein receptors and ion receptors.   So let’s further simplify and say we’re only talking about the ion receptors.  We’ve still got choices, because the ion channels can sense sodium ions (“saltiness”) or hydrogen ions (“sourness”).  So let’s simplify further.  We’ll only look at acids activating the ion channels of a single taste bud.  Different concentrations of acidity will cause different levels of charge in the underlying nerves that take the sensation to the brain.

Oh, but it’s even more complicated than that because some “sour” flavors are caused by potassium ions, not hydrogen ones, and potassium ions follow a different channel.

In short, the taste of a tea is WAY more complex than a color.  And if humans can’t even remember a color accurately for 30 seconds, and their ability drops by more than half if they try to describe that color because the description falls so far short of the experience as to render it useless, we shouldn’t bother with something so complex as a flavor or a scent.  After all, the people who didn’t describe the color did more than twice as well at identifying the same experience 30 seconds later.

Will that do away with tea reviews, descriptions on cannisters and websites, or discussions at tea tastings?  No.  Clearly, we need to communicate some information about flavor when choosing a new tea or evaluating a sample.  But we should keep in mind that any description is about as accurate as if I tried to point to New York from here in Seattle: it’s more useful than no directions at all, but it’s doubtful that you’d get there with only that information.

What I recommend, though, is that when you’re tasting your tea, or cupping samples, or engaged in some other tea experience, SHUT UP.  Instead of trying to put it into words, or discovering exactly which fruit that particular flavor note reminds you of, stop and taste the tea.  Savor the experience without language (aloud or in the mind) if possible.  You’ll develop a more accurate taste memory than the people who spend their time trying to put words to their experience.

15 thoughts on “Why We Shouldn’t Describe Tea”

  1. Michael,

    Your article has smoke but no fire.

    Your example seems persuasive at first, until one realizes that sight, smell, and taste are not processed by the brain in the same manner, and therefore those memories are not necessarily stored/recalled in the same manner.

    As you say, tea tasting is about sight, feel, taste, and smell. Smell plays a major role in tea tasting, perhaps even more than the basic tastes of salty, sweet, etc.

    In fact, when you smell, aroma particles practically touch the brain. Smell is more direct-to-brain than any other sense. As a result, smell creates some of the strongest links to memory. It is possible that this link is so strong that verbal descriptions have no interference on ability to recall and identify.

    The simplest way to test describing tea= weaker recall theory would be to have people taste/smell tea and compare describer’s vs non-describer’s ability to identify the same tea in a subsequent lineup.

  2. Yes, smell is processed very differently than the other senses, especially with how memories are recalled. However, the question is how are the memories *formed*? The formation of a new memory isn’t as simple as the smell-to-recall connection. But the differences between perception of sight and smell are different enough, and smell is so influential on perception of flavor (though not, technically speaking, on taste), that it’s worth further consideration.

    I think the same experiment should be run with smell/taste sensations to get a more accurate picture of what’s going on. Maybe run it a couple of times with different collections of decoy teas. For example, you’d probably get different results if the target tea is a Keemun and all the decoys are Keemuns also, as opposed to Keemun vs. a variety of black teas from different places. The greater the range of differences, the easier it is to pick the right one.

  3. I agree with most of this Michael… During a tea tasting everybody should get a chance to quietly, sip, savor and personally evaluate all of the complex flavors and sensations a good tea delivers. Only after everybody has had a meditative moment should we be allowed to chat about a tea’s attributes. I love your suggestion that people “shut up” and actually experience their tea, but I’m not so sure that discussing a tea will make it any less memorable.

    I also agree that one person’s description of a tea can be meaningful or useless to other people. (your New York quote was a great way to articulate that fact!)

    “the taste of a tea is way more complex than a color.” (Something about this quote struck me as both simple and deeply profound at the same time. )

    Thanks for another thoughtful post!

  4. I understand your argument here, but it seems to be completely without weight or merit. You’re only fluffing up the very obvious argument that taste is subjective. It is subjective not only based on personal preference, but on physiology; our tastebuds are all slightly different and will interpret flavors in a subtlely different way. Our childhood also affects our preferences for flavors and textures. None of this is news to anyone.

    That makes it all the more curious that you are so venemous towards those would dare record their personal experience. I know that most of your argument was about physical receptors, but it’s still fundamentally an argument of personal taste. Your argument could be used to attack all food critics, movie critics, or truly any critic, because personal taste is the ultimate, and perhaps only important factor.

    This may sound like a digression but I promise it will prove my point. When it comes to movies, if I want to get a good idea of it before I decide on going, I will do one of two things. I go to a site called rottentomatoes.com that compiles a long list of reviews to give you an idea of how many people liked it. If only 10% of critics liked, let’s say Transformers 2 (seems accurate) then I won’t go. Also, there’s a movie critic who writes for the Chicago Tribune who I quite like because we seem to share similar tastes. I have noticed this through the years, so I’m more apt to listen to his critique.

    The same could be said with food. The food critique industry is based on taste just as much as movies or tea. The biological concept behind the difference in personal taste is not relevant; it only matter that there IS a difference in personal taste. Yet, with said difference in personal taste, critics are still well respected for their taste. It does take a definite skill to translate the sensations of food and drink into writing, but to think that it can’t be successfully done is silly.

    The problem lies in how you read a review. You cannot read a review or critique with the concept that the author is telling you “this fish is salty” or “this tea is overpowered with ginger.” You’re missing the most important two words. They are saying “I think this fish is salty” and “I think this tea is overpowered with ginger.” If you choose to not respect their personal interpretations, that is okay. I think everyone reading a critique understands that personal preference will change the interpretation, and even that tasting the sample multiple times might yield different results for the same taster. That’s ok, simply put. The only one who doesn’t seem to understand that it is not a definite is you.

    For you to say that “You’ll develop a more accurate taste memory than the people who spend their time trying to put words to their experience” proves to me you are not a writer. I am a writer, and nothing brings to me a more vivid memory than words. Suggesting that a tea critic is wasting their time is interesting considering you seem to run a tea blog. I can assure you that it is not a waste of time; I enjoy reading tea and food blogs, and I enjoy people’s personal experiences, whether they match mine or not. Opening your mind up to this instead of telling people to shut up would be a big start to appreciating tea and life on a different level.

  5. It won’t make it any more or less memorable. It’s *what* you will remember that will be different. My point is simply that if you attempt to describe your experience, you will remember your description, not your experience. You’re more likely to recall what made a tea great if you don’t talk about it. If you do talk about it, you’ll remember only the words you used.

  6. Kevin, I think you’re missing my point. I’m not talking about whether taste is subjective or not…it obviously is. The human brain doesn’t take raw data in; the information from your senses is, in a sense, “interpreted” before it even gets to your brain because it has to be converted into a form that can be transmitted through your nerves.

    And I’m not against people describing their personal experiences. I’m saying that in doing so, they’re likely destroying the very memory they’re trying to record.

    I’m not against reviews, or taste, or opinions. I did, after all, say: “Clearly, we need to communicate some information about flavor when choosing a new tea or evaluating a sample.” It’s just that the words aren’t accurate enough to capture the experience, and the words overwrite the experience in memory because they’re a more compact and simple chunk of data to encode.

    However, if you think your skill at applying words to an experience (and using those words to accurately recall the exact experience) is up to snuff, I’ll challenge you to the same experiment as the color swatches, only with tea. Where are you located? We might be able to meet up and I can run the experiment (double-blind, of course). Or, if we’re not geographically convenient, perhaps I have a colleague near you that could stand in for me. I’d love the extra data to either support or undermine the hypothesis.

    Oh, and for what it’s worth, I went to my first writer’s conference at the age of 9, chosen as the representative of my entire school district. I was literary magazine editor of my high school for two years. I was selected as a writing tutor at my university, where I graduated with a degree in English. I went on to work as a contract proofreader at Microsoft, then on to managing editor at a publishing company. I taught high school English before moving into the tea industry. I’ve written about 250 articles just on tea at the Tea Geek Wiki. Contrary to your guess, I am indeed a writer.

  7. A Russian poet wrote “A thought articulated is a lie”. To me, it makes more sense to describe a tea impression in an artistic, associative way, catch the mood and emotions – fleeting soul – of the moment, rather than particulars of taste, color and aroma of tea.

  8. I’d like to point out here that different people have different levels of recall when using their various senses. For instance, I have tested at the genius level for recalling things I hear. Few other people have attained unto it. I’m therefore a good listener if remembering is proof of caring. And that’s what people need to do. They need to care about the tea they’re tasting and remember it. I’m not nearly as well-exercised with taste but I’m getting a lot more intelligent with it because I’m practicing with fine teas. I do still get a lot out of certain descriptions of tea flavors that I wouldn’t have been able to come up with myself. I’m sure it helps novices and amateurs more than the experienced to see what other people have noticed about teas. But of course nothing compares to just doing more tasting.

  9. Your defensiveness amuses me. I still see no point of the article, truly. Once again summing up your thoughts, taste is subjective, and words are a flawed way of communicating them. I’m not denying this, nor is anyone else. The problem I have with this is the conclusion. In your article, you state several obvious things, fluff them up with facts to prove that memory is flawed (shocking stuff) and then suggest that we should not waste our time writing about tea, all while you write about tea.

    What you are addressing is memory and not writing. You spend the entire article talking about sensory memory and how flawed it is, but then make a very loose connection to how writing about sensory experiences is useless, or at the very least, over-rated. Your challenge is discussing the wrong thing, you are trying to prove the unquestionable fact of an imperfect memory. I am simply stating that it is not so difficult to write about one’s sensory experiences and paint an intriguing image. You say “words aren’t accurate enough to capture the experience,” but what does saying that even gain you? Words do indeed have limits, but how else do you suggest you convey your experiences to me? Make a video of you on youtube sipping sencha? Invite me over so I can listen to you ooh and ahh?

    I’ve read your article five or six times now and I can honestly say you make no point. You discuss sensory memory and how weak it is, which no one is arguing. You claim that words are not enough to explain the complexity of a palate, but then say that people will continue to write regardless. You say it is necessary to have someone explain the general experience in order to understand the product better, which is exactly what tea reviews are. After that claim, you say that we should stop writing about tea.

    If you are to make such bold statements, you should include a conclusion that doesn’t contradict your previous words. In the event I read a tea review and then taste a tea, I more often than not agree with the assessment, so for this writer, words seem to convey an apt enough message. For all your experience in writing, you seem to be angry at the limit that words provide you. There aren’t enough adjectives in the world to describe a tea’s exact flavor and aroma, if you could remember what it tasted and smelled like to begin with, yes I understand that. It just doesn’t mean anything.

  10. I would say that your summary of my point is inaccurate. I’m not saying anything about the subjectivity of tea, or how flawed language is in communicating the experience. My point is that if you describe your experience, you forget it. Or, put another way, the attempt to describe an experience essentially destroys the object of your description.

    It’s not that language is flawed–it’s that the human brain is. But the tea industry hasn’t caught up with scientific research.

    For example, the Specialty Tea Institute stresses the importance of keeping good records of your cuppings as a way to develop your palate and deepen your ability to carry out a sensory evaluation of tea samples. But from what I’ve read about how humans perceive things and how memories are formed, keeping good records would appear to be the worst thing you could do to achieve those goals. If you really want to develop your palate and do better sensory evaluations, current brain research would suggest that you not try to connect your experience with words.

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  12. Michael, I rather liked the article, because it’s provocative an forces a response from the reader.

    There are quite a few frames of mind that accompany tea drinking, some of them less conducive to enjoying the tea than others. Communicating a tea-related experience to others in such a way that might inform future buying decisions might not be the very best way of experiencing tea, but it’s helpful for building a community of interest.

    I would have to say, the problem I have with the study is that it measures color memory in a 30-second time span. What about a color that was seen a year ago? Five years? I don’t have a perfect memory of my experiences, and if I come across some polysyllabic Darjeeling estate’s tea, it might be of value to be reminded what I thought of it last time. (Was it too bitter? Perhaps steep for less time. Is it dull? Maybe I shouldn’t buy this one. When I experimented with it, what gave me the best results?) While it’s almost impossible to translate a nondiscursive experience into words, my enthusiasm may be helpful to someone else trying to decide what to buy, from the 1 million choices available.

  13. Oh, there’s all kinds of things to study. I just hope people will actually study them. I’d love to see a well-designed experiment doing basically this same test with the aroma of tea. And the flavor of tea. And both. I’d love to see experiments using different time intervals. I want to see studies on not only recall of teas, but being able to detect things through taste like roast or oxidation levels, plant cultivar, or area of origin.

    It’d even be interesting to see if there’s a “typical” level of sensitivity to those things. Maybe there’s some kind of objective test that can be given to people to see how good their palate is at detecting variations in tea. If something like that can be created, then we can test to see if palate training actually works or if it’s a complete waste of time. (I happen to think it’s possible, but think that most people go about it in the wrong way. But neither side has much data to back up either position.)

    And yes, clearly communication about tea is important to informing buying decisions and building a community of interest. However, people should be aware of the cost of such communication. A couple of years ago, I had a batch of the most amazing Bai Hao Wulong. I think it was perhaps the best I’d ever tasted. I loved recommending it to people (it wasn’t even my product!) But I have no idea what it was like any more. I described it in roughly the same way enough times that I can only recall what i said about it, not what it was actually like. That’s why I was so interested when I ran across the study mentioned in this blog post–it explained why I had lost one of my peak tea experiences.

    Oh, I just thought of another study that would be interesting: how much does preconception of a tea influence how you experience the flavor. (Perhaps ask people to describe a “typical Darjeeling” for example, and see how the post-tasting descriptions compare between those that can’t really describe a typical vs. those who have a big Darjeeling vocabulary/experience going into it.)

    Okay, I’m going a little random now… enough for this response. 🙂

  14. You develop ‘memory’ of the taste of certain foods and beverages from repeated exposure when multiple associations are made – your brain records sensory inputs and their strengths. When there are pleasant or unpleasant emotional associations, the memory gains strength because the essential neurons that fire in response are heavily networked to other neurons. Repeat tastings (and emotional response) reinforce network strength and maintenance over long periods of time, so that you ‘recall’ the taste as being familiar when you taste that tea after a long period of time has passed.

    On the crux of the valid argument on why you shouldn’t rely heavily on others described experience with a tea. It’s not the tea, its the water.

    Specifically, its the water quality and presence of certain dissolved minerals that key to the perceived taste of tea. That fact appears to answer for us why certain iron-rich clays and cast-iron kettles can ‘sweeten’ tea infusions. My educated guess is that the culprit lies in tea constituents that bind calcium (forming an oily mineral scum that can interfere with tea aroma and volatile taste components), and in the presence of sulfates, in particular, iron sulfates.

    Like many other nervous system receptors, taste and odor activated neurons in the oral cavity respond to various compounds that bind to receptor surfaces in a ligand-concentration dependent manner. They fire when very little is present and also when a lot of ligand is present, but the result is different. So we find reports in the recent science literature that underscores the incredible variety of reported tastes associated with iron sulfates tested over a wide range of concentrations.

    Variable water quality, then, is an important confounding factor in the quality related to the complexation chemistry of infusion eluted tea compounds, and in the gustatory response to them and to dissolved mineral components in the water used for making that teaing tea. Add to this myriad factors associated with tea subtype, climate/season of harvest, and processing and brewing physics (setting aside water chemistry), and you have a heck of a lot of variation in tea tasting experience for a given tea.

    Perceived taste and odor – it’s a relative thing, eh?

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