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.