I recently complained on Facebook that a package of tea samples contained a lot of clunkers. Tea-friend Sara Mae Schneider asked whether the tea was actually bad or whether it just wasn’t to my taste. In this particular case, I think the tea was just plain bad, but I do think that she raises an important issue for tea reviewers.
When I first started blogging about tea in 2008, I was a newbie in the tea world. Going on two years later, and I still consider myself a newbie. In fact, the more I learn about tea, the more aware I become of my own ignorance. If you want to read about tea from experts, or people actually who actually have something approaching expertise in tea, go read Cha Dao. Me? I’m just happy to lap up the drips off the tea-tables of these masters and continue writing tea reviews and the occasional post on common tea brewing mistakes.
For this reason, I usually refrain from making definitive statements about a tea’s quality. I am not a professional tea taster, and my own palate is still developing. Instead, I try to describe the teas I review and suggest appropriate food pairings or steeping techniques. (I also describe my own reaction to the tea, which may, or may not, be of use to readers, but provides me with a bit of narcissistic indulgence.) Occasionally I will run into a tea that I do think is genuinely bad: Bad enough that it merits a warning to the general tea-drinking population. But I generally don’t review mediocre teas, as I see no reason to waste my time writing about them. Not all tea bloggers agree, and that is fine. We all have our own approach.
But back to Sara Mae’s original question: How does a tea blogger, especially one with no professional training in tea, decide what is good and what is not to her taste? Personally, I’ve found that it is a lot easier to discern the quality/preference difference with flavored teas: There are good ways to flavor a tea and bad ways to flavor a tea, and never the twain shall meet. If a tea is loaded with hibiscus and cornflower petals and a mismatched “essence” of heaven-knows-what, it is a bad tea. On the other hand, Kusmi’s creations are absolutely sublime: One sip of Prince Vladimir, and you know you are drinking the good stuff.
Plain teas? Different story. One thing that I am working on is exploring a tea type in depth and noting its distinguishing features. I’m also spotting my own preferences and taking that into consideration when reviewing a tea. For example, I love spicy Yunnan golds, but also realize that there are good Yunnan golds with a different flavor (i.e. peppery or more creamy) flavor profile. Ti Kuan Yin? I prefer the greener versions, but am learning to appreciate a darker roast. I don’t want to knock a truly good tea just because it doesn’t suit my palate.
(Freshness also counts, and while it is hard to describe the taste of “fresh”, it is also something that is quite distinctive.)
Beyond setting some standards for my writing, I am attempting to get a bit more education (will hopefully be getting some training at the Northwest Tea Festival this year), so as to be able to provide my readers with even more objective reviews. Hopefully as tea culture evolves here in the United States, I, and other bloggers, will be able to provide better writing and recommendation to go along with (again, hopefully) better tea offerings from retailers.