What do you expect to see from profile/introduction of a tea?

I’m not talking about product introduction from a seller’s page, but rather introduction about a tea variety, dragonwell, keemun, Tie Guan Yin, etc.

Recently a friend and I were talking about the book of Chinese Teas written by the leading tea scientist of China, Wan Xiaochun and his colleagues. By the way, the book is very nice, and an English translation is being put together now. Besides a thorough introduction of science, history and culture of tea, it also collected images of nearly 200 tea varieties, with all their photos of dry leaves, liquor color, spent leaves, and simplified maps showing where they are from. I think the book is the best of its kind.

My friend, a Chinese American, said he is in love with this book, but at certain point, can’t bear with the “pompous and flowery language” used in the tea profiles in the book. For example, there would be a few consecutive sentences describing how aromatic or how fragrant the tea is. You can’t blame him for being picky on language, as he is a comparative literature Ph.D. Many of the tea descriptive terms are jargon commonly used among tea professionals. I don’t like over-description either, and I simply don’t have the capability of writing or thorough understanding such description in English. Then we wonder if the “flowery language” is a special phenomenon of Chinese tea profession, and if English language readers would find it bothersome (as we both found it bothersome). Then, another friend commented that the “flowery language” is actually found a lot in wine reviews too.

So here comes the question to tea drinkers (and probably wine drinkers as well). How do you like the flavor/aroma descriptions and how much would you like the description to be? Would it primarily of aesthetic enjoyment for you to read from a fellow tea/wine drinker, or would it be of practical value for you to collect knowledge about this tea/wine? Would it bother you? Besides, what else do you expect to see from profile/introduction of a tea, and what would you get fed up with?

8 Replies
Geoffrey said

Hi Gingko. Interesting subject. I’m curious if you could post an example from the book you’re referencing to give us more context for what your friend considers “pompous and flowery”. I know you say it’s in Chinese, but maybe you could do a short english gloss of one of the descriptions.

Language, and particularly poetry, was a major course of study for me so these kinds of questions always stir my curiosity. One thought that comes to mind is that hopefully, in the best cases, drinking tea provides someone with an elevated aesthetic experience. If, for instance, a fine Tieguanyin, smells and tastes flowery — how might one accurately describe it without the use of flowery language? Maybe some people can get carried away in trying to convey the beauty and elevation they experience though….

I’ve had a few tea experiences that I would characterize as sublime, and in those cases I’m not sure how anything other than a good poem could adequately convey the nature of them in language. I don’t know if I have any particular answer to your question, but I do think that tea is capable of delivering some very elevated experiences. Perhaps it’s just that not everyone is equal to the task of eloquently expressing the beauty of what they experienced?

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Here is an example:
“The dry leaves of Bi Luo Chun are slender and spiral, in emerald green color, and covered by rich silver tips. When the tea is brewed in a teacup, the silver tips are as light as cloud and snowflakes. The tea liquor has a bright green color, with refreshing and lingering aroma. The spent leaves look delicate and tender. "

The English translation has already tuned down a bit from original text, which talks about snow as “flying and dancing snowflakes”. My friend said, reading one such paragraph is all right. But when he went though pages and got something like this for every other tea, he got a little dizzy :-p I didn’t got that dizzy probably because I’m more tolerant of such descriptions or probably because I’m somewhat numb about some “typical tea words” and didn’t pay much attention on the descriptive details.

I honestly like the slightly drier descriptions more than the flowery language, but it depends on the tea company. I think flowery language can be okay, what I really don’t like is when the description tells me how I will perceive the tea. “You’ll love the…” — really?

If the language is so flowery and different though I might even find it funny, which could be an advantage. I think it’s when it’s flowery but serious that it rubs me the wrong way.

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Tough. As someone who is not a foodie or a wine drinker, or anything of the sort, I have found tea descriptions and reviews something I am gradually learning to “translate” into something meaningful to me. Someone who is not used to that kind of description might find it hard to get into.

On the other hand, this doesn’t sound to me like the sort of book you’d read cover-to-cover (at least, not the descriptions of teas), but more something you’d consult as a reference when you wanted to know more about a specific tea before trying it. Is this correct? In that case, it’s hardly like you’d read enough of it at once to find it “dizzying.”

I guess I’d ask what the audience for the book is. If it’s expected to have a “serious” tea-drinking audience and it’s not for “newbies,” perhaps you’d have the expected audience turn up their nose at more simplified descriptions?

My biggest issue with the example you provided (and this may be me being a “newbie”) is that it doesn’t tell me much of anything. I know the color of the tea. That doesn’t seem altogether useful to me… After reading, “refreshing and lingering aroma,” I just think, great, but what does it smell like?

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Daniel, I share some feelings with you. I’m pretty much a “what, where, when, how…” kind person and always appreciate solid, compact information more than “poetic” information :-p The book pages have photos of those tea too, so describing the colors is a little unnecessary. When the descriptions say the color of the tea is like jade, or morning dew, or other things, I would rather have the figures left for me to imagine. But I don’t know if other people feel the same way.

On the other hand, I think you are right that most people use it as a reference book. When I first read the book, I finished the history/culture part first, and then read most of the tea profiles during my tea drinking.

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It sounds like a great book, and I look forward to any opportunity to get a peek at it when it comes out in English. The pictures of the various teas especially sound inciting.

I agree with Daniel Scott’s observation that the intended audience is a serious consideration.

In general, I think I like tea descriptions to be as data driven as possible, focusing on the base sensations, or taste descriptors (sharp, mellow, sweet, fresh, astringent, vegetal) rather than on metaphoric descriptions (“it tasted like the morning dew …”). Metaphors certainly have their place, but I would like to see them used sparingly in an encyclopedia of teas, as it seems this book is a type of. The trick is, how often is sparingly, and who defines it? Ultimately, it seems to be a balance (or rhythm) between what the author wants to include and what the author thinks the audience wants to include.

How do you like the flavor/aroma descriptions and how much would you like the description to be? Overall, I think many of our own resident Steepsters do an excellent job of describing the flavor and aroma of any tea they try. There are so many good examples out here, and rather than singling out any one Steepster reviewer, I decided to use Tea Trekker, as examples are sometimes the best way for me to illustrate what I want to get across. So, here is a description of a green tea of Tea Trekkers’ http://www.teatrekker.com/teas/buddhas-tea
For a vendors description I like it, but for an encyclopaedic description, I would skip all mention of the personal experience (the entire 2nd paragraph and the first sentence of the 3rd paragraph), and focus on the verifiable pieces of information. And, btw, I don’t see any ‘flowery language’ used in their description.

Would it primarily of aesthetic enjoyment for you to read from a fellow tea/wine drinker, or would it be of practical value for you to collect knowledge about this tea/wine? I think I would like mostly practical information, ideally with references for further reading (and possibly a side bar here and there of personal experiences that do not disrupt the flow of the more scientific descriptions).

Would it bother you? I’m not sure what you mean here. What do I not want to read? That’s harder to answer, as there is much more ground to cover. I think I’d like as little, as you have mentioned, ‘flowery language’ as possible—words that may be pleasing to read, but which tells me little to nothing about how I may personally experience the Tea itself.

What else do you expect to see from profile/introduction of a tea, and what would you get fed up with? I like a bit of history (like how Big Red Robe, Iron Goddess of Mercy, got their names), I want to know how it’s processed, I want to know the region its normally cultivated in, I would like current cultural information about how it is drank in it’s native region/province/country (i.e, “Tie Guan Yin has recently fallen out of favor in ….”), something about the elevation, climate, and soil its grown in (terroir), and possibly, as I know Seven Cups does, some information about the tea bush (here is one of the best examples of a description of one of their green teas; the second paragraph describes the tea bush) http://www.sevencups.com/tea_shop/Gao-Shan-Yun-Wu-Organic-Misty-New-Top-Green-Tea-2011.html I would also like a bit of information on any chemistry about the tea, for health benefit reasons (as in the first paragraph here: http://www.sevencups.com/tea_shop/Yu_Qian_An_Ji_Bai_Cha_-White_Tea-Green_Tea_-Organic-2010.html I think I’d get more fed up with too little information, rather than too much (I’d rather sift through too much information than to have my curiosity piqued, only to later have it unsatisfied; they can both be annoying, but the second, more so).

I hope that helps. If you want any clarification about what I posted, let me know, and I will try to clarify. : )

Thanks! All these make a lot of sense! – And sorry I somewhat forgot this threat I myself initiated :-p

Since you mentioned Tea Trekker, the book written by the owner of Tea Trekker, The Story of Tea, is a very good one, and probably the best English language tea book of its kind.

Of all the items you mentioned, I think the description of tea tastes/flavors could be the hardest, much harder than describing history, physical environment, processing and other aspects that are more “data loaded”. In Chinese tea jargon, there are words that people use generation after generation and eventually they become cliche. People would use certain words for certain tea, without thinking much. Some of the words do make sense (such as “chestnut aroma” for long jing and “ripen peach aroma” for traditional style Tie Guan Yin). But for some others, one has to be familiar with the flavor pointed to to make sense out of it. For example, some tea is described to have the aroma of ginger flower. But unfortunately I’ve never experienced the aroma of ginger flower, so this description didn’t help me.

In The Story of Tea, the authors used a lot of descriptive words that are typically used in gourmet food (due to their rich experience in food, I think). And this makes sense because it’s easier for people to relate to flavors that they are already familiar with.

Good point about the downfalls of using the ginger flower as a point of comparison; as you said, if one hasn’t experienced it (or can possibly easily find some some other ‘thing’ it compared to, like, ginger flower = wonder flower, and you just so happened to have experienced wonder flower), then the comparison is useless (and can even be frustrating if the reader thinks, ‘Does that mean I should have experienced ginger flower?’).

I am glad to hear you think The Story of Tea is the best ‘English language tea book of its kind’; in all the books I have read about Tea, that is the same conclusion I came to.

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