Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The 'Constant Tea Meeting': MarshalN on Blogging about Tea

[[EDITOR'S NOTE:When MarshalN, who writes the justly popular Tea Addict's Journal at xanga.com, sent an earlier version of this piece to me as a private email, I asked if he would elaborate his thoughts a bit more for us to publish here at CHA DAO. He graciously agreed, and the result is as follows. I think it strikes close to the very heart of why we all spend so much time writing and reading blogs about tea -- or, for that matter, about whatever other passions inspire us.]]

It's been almost a year and half since I started my blog. Initially I had no idea how many people would read it. I figured that if I get 10 readers a day, I would be doing well, since according to some study the average blog is visited by 7 unique visitors every day. While my blog has certainly exceeded that expectation, the fact remains that it is merely a small project, comprising mostly of notes for myself and observations I have gathered along the way.

During this time, however, the blogosphere has blossomed. When I first started, only four of the links on the blog existed -- Babelcarp, CHA DAO, La Galette de Thé, and the LiveJournal Puerh Community. The rest, as far as I am aware, were still in gestation. Now any visit to any of these sites will bring you to even more blogs and journals out there, composed by dedicated tea drinkers like you and me. Just keeping up the reading would mean visiting a dozen or so blogs every week, at least.

Visiting these blogs in quick succession, one will get the impression that most of the blogs on tea are devoted to reviewing specific teas. In fact, many blogs do basically nothing but review teas. Is what we're doing merely tea reviews, tea reviews, and more tea reviews?

Is there a value for this, or is it mostly old news, uninteresting because of the relative lack of experience on the bloggers' part in drinking tea compared to some grand tea masters out there? After all, my sister has likened the reading of my blog to reading knitting patterns for people who don't knit -- it's really rather boring stuff. Why bother?

I think what's beneath the surface of the blogs is what makes some of us come back, day after day, blogging about the rather mundane topic of "what tea we drank today" or "what we found." It is the exchange of information, the interaction, and the joy in knowing that somebody else is interested in the same thing with the same keen interest that you do that keeps us interested in maintaining our respective blogs. I believe this is partly because of an acute lack of a culture of gongfu tea drinking in much of the blogging community's own locale. When I was in Beijing there was always a ready-made group of tea drinkers who could share my interest in person, going out to a tea store or a teahouse to share a cup of our favourite beverage. But in much of the English-speaking community, from which most tea bloggers are drawn, oftentimes the only person who drinks tea seriously whom the blogger knows is the blogger him/herself. What the blogs, and the exchanges that take place both on and off sites, serve are the same needs that a tea drinker in China wants from a visit to a teahouse or teashop -- an interaction with somebody else who is passionate about tea. (French blogs, curiously, have a very high "comment" rate unmatched in the English community -- I've always wondered why.)

Online interactions also turn into real life interactions. The LA Tea Drinkers were formed, I think, from exchanges online and now meet regularly in person for drinking sessions. There's an active group of drinkers in New York centered around the Tea Gallery, and though they do not blog, by and large (except for Toki, from time to time), others from other blogs or websites have found them through the internet. For a little while, a few of us in the Boston area tried our best to get together to drink some tea. The same has happened in the UK, and is going on in Hungary soon. Drinkers in Asia are luckier, but even then, on forums such as Sanzui, a large section is devoted to tea drinkers from various cities trying to organize tea tastings, sometimes on a weekly basis. In Beijing, for example, there's a dedicated group of them who get together every so often, trying everything from white to black teas. All of these groupings consist of people who, by and large, would never have met in real life were it not for their love of tea -- and their online activities which revealed themselves to each other.

These groupings remain small, however, and even in China, there are many cities where one sees users post something along the lines of "I'm the only person I know in the city who really likes tea -- anybody else???" with nary a reply. The internet in general, and personal blogs in particular, become our outlet for the need for such exchanges. When we review the same tea, or teas of similar genre, or even drinking something random, we're exchanging views in what is sort of a constant tea meeting. Photos and videos enhance that experience, but at the end of the day, I think it is the exchange of information and views that constitute the raison d'etre of the blogs out there. I, for one, have met many new friends both online and offline through my writing, and now I can count at least a dozen places where I have gotten to know new tea friends because one day in 2006, I decided to start keeping my tea notes online in a blog format. I'm sure I will only meet more in the future.

I think nobody is claiming any of this information in the blogs to be necessarily new, accurate, or thought-provoking in and of themselves; however mundane and knitting-pattern-like, they serve a purpose that is only possible thanks to the democratisation of the internet experience -- as an ongoing virtual tea gathering of like-minded individuals, each sharing their little slice of knowledge learned while drinking this marvelous beverage.


corax said...

i very much like your concept of the 'constant tea meeting' -- i think that is very much what one is trying to do in these blogs. yes, tea reviews are an important part of what we do here, but they are by no means the be-all and end-all of the tea blog [at least, not of CHA DAO -- nor, i think, of your xanga.com blog].

that said, the very urge that motivates the writing of the tea review seems to be rooted in a desire for commonality, for community. in an attempt [if i may wax philosophical here for a moment] to reach across the vast gulf that separates all individuals.

in my earlier piece on flavor hedonics, i was trying to touch a bit on this very issue you are confronting here: part of what we are trying to do when we write up a tea review is to ask, 'is there anyone else out there to whom this brew tastes the same? who loves it or hates it the way i do? does my description mean anything significant to anyone else?' and, of course, those questions hint at a much larger one: 'is there anyone else on this planet who experiences life and the world as i do?' [i am reminded of the bitter lines in t.s. eliot's 'love song of j. alfred prufrock: 'That is not what I meant at all. | That is not it, at all.' -- an articulation of the nightmare fear that genuine communication is, in fact, impossible.]

such fears aside, i'm very glad to have this piece of yours here at CHA DAO. i imagine it will be deeply thought-provoking for our readers.

-- corax

MarshalN said...

Thanks corax for coming up with the term "constant tea meeting". Being the good academic that you are -- you quickly identified the point of the rambling piece of writing and came up with a catchy title, all this at midnight on a Monday. Ah, I have much to aspire to.

I think the question of "Is there anybody else who've tasted this before" can extend across boundaries of tea classification -- sometimes an oolong can remind us of something entirely different, a sencha, perhaps. The more we read, and the more actively we think about the tea we're drinking, the more we learn and the more enjoyable it becomes :)

Julian said...

I think to some extent this explains why there are so many tea blogs than tea sites.

Tea blogs spark personality. There is interactivity. You feel like talking to a friend sharing a similar interest.

Reading it not fun. But interaction is addictive.

Whereas a tea site - a lot of time you feel like visiting someone who is trying to sell you something.

It can feel rather cold.

I have got so many tea RSS feeds in my Google reader now.

I think this is just the beginning - tip of the icebergs.

There are so many teas.

There is so much knowledge hidden away.

There is a convergence of culture -evolution of tea processing techniques.

The tea landscape in 5 years time -will be - very different.

The community is booming and it is great for every tea lover!

corax said...

[MarshalN] Thanks corax for
coming up with the term
"constant tea meeting". Being
the good academic that you are -- you quickly identified the point of the rambling piece of writing and came up with a catchy title, all this at midnight on a Monday. Ah, I have much to aspire to.

[corax] marshaln, you are welcome -- and too kind. when i read your felicitous metaphor, in the piece itself, it fairly jumped off the page at me.

[Julian] The tea landscape in 5 years time will be very different.

[corax] i do think this is true. as marshaln has chronicled, it has changed dramatically even over the past two. and these changes are not only being charted but, i think, to a significant extent brought about by all this blogging about tea, and the interactions being caused between:
--- blogs and commercial websites
--- blogs and online shoppers
--- tea websites generally and f2f meetings between tea aficionados
--- tea websites generally and casual readers who get the idea to try good tea
--- tea-drinkers, new or longstanding, and all the entrepreneurs who start brick-and-mortar tea houses in the western hemisphere
[and so forth].

add to all this the burgeoning economy of the people's republic of china, and the parlous economy of the USA, and the equation could be almost unrecognizable within our lifetimes.

-- corax

Jo said...

MarshalN: I think many tea-bloggers started their blog like you as notes for themselves, often to help them remember the impressions and feelings they had about a certain tea (or even to remember the parameters that proved to work best).
I also think that blogs like yours (and many listed on your blogroll) have developed into a certain art form with appealing visuals to complement the "knitting patterns". You can see an evolution in the presentation that is inspired by yourself and fellow tea-bloggers.

Corax: I agree with your remarks about connection and community. After all, if we are enthusiastic about tea, chances are that most people think we are lunatics to get excited about something that seemingly simple. When we read other people's posts, we realize that we aren't alone and certainly not crazy.

One point that was only mentioned implicitly in MarshalN's post and which I regard as being one of the main drivers for readers of tea blogs is the aspect of information and education. We're developing respect or trust into the bloggers' comments (well, certainly not everyone's, but we all have people we believe) and their posts might help us on our own quest. Tea is such a comprehensive subject and most literature is not readily available in English. Blogs and the contained personal description of teas can help guide the way to new discoveries. The reader finds out what flavors to expect from a sencha or yunnan hong cha and can decide for himself which profile suits his preferences best. Blogs are probably the only guide in English for people who are interested in pu-er. Many kinds are produced each year and blog posts are an enormous help in getting your bearings.

Speaking of pu-er. A friend of mine brought up an interesting observation just yesterday about the tea-blogging community (after I've sent him a quick list of blogs I'm reading on a regular basis). He remarked that it was surprising that most tea blogs are more or less devoted to pu-er. It is an interesting fact that most tea bloggers are indeed pu-er lovers. (This might support your thoughts, Corax, of blogging as a search for community since finding fellow pu-er lovers is unequally harder than just finding tea friends.) My friend's comment on this was that if he had a lot of money to invest in tea, he would certainly by Darjeelings, not pu-er (in fact, there is very little written about Darjeeling teas in comparison to pu-er).

I'd like to end with a thought I had reading this post and wonder what others think about it.
I think the publication of this post is very timely. I feel that tea-blogging has reached a certain maturity lately. Reflecting about the nature of tea-blogging itself seems to be an indication of that. I think its role is well enough established and we all benefit greatly from the vast amount of tea-related information it supplies us with.

My gratitude goes to Cha Dao and all its contributors for being a unique source of information and food for thought.


Hobbes said...

Thanks both for the fine original article, and for the comments.

I found myself in agreement both with the notion of community, which is very appealing, but perhaps just as importantly with the desire for information, as Jo writes.

The best blogs that I read convey a great deal of impartial, independent, meaningful advice that informs both my own treatment of tea, and of my potential purchases.

Who can forget MarshalN's tour of maocha from the Six Famous Mountains; TeaLogic's wistful blend of autumnal Guhua pu'er with a great eye for photographing nature; Phyll's photographs of his tea dungeon, to briefly name just three articles that come immediately to mind from a rich corpus of many hundred examples scattered throughout the various tea blogs?

Through the various (independent) tea blogs, I vicariously taste many more teas than I could otherwise hope to experience - a hundred tongues, a hundred voices, all learning what makes Great Tea.

I look forward to learning much more from them. As Jo says, they have come of age.

~ Phyll said...

I blame only one person for making me start a tea blog: Marshaln.

I blame all tea blogs out there, and most notably Cha Dao, for making the standard of tea blogging so darn high.

You guys make my life miserable and my bank account emptier.


With lots of love,


Daniel Scott Poynter said...

Very well said - a great defense of (tea) reflection in general.

"Just keeping up the reading would mean visiting a dozen or so blogs every week, at least."

Imagine a growing wave. Not only is it growing, but doing so exponentially. And imagine the "web surfer" falling off the board into the data deluge.

The danger could be great: an exasperation in the face of the immensity of data available at our finger tips. Maybe this is the cause of growing apathy among youth?

Bloggers like yourself help sift through this deluge. Maybe the future of the thinker resembles a magazine editor?

Anyway, keep up with cha dao -- you're doing more than "mere blogging." The East/West bridge is rich and in need of builders.

MarshalN said...

Indeed -- part of it is vicarious tasting. In some ways, tea drinkers like us are by nature unfaithful -- we like new things and are always eager to try new teas. It's like a restaurant critic wanting more "mouths" to go to a restaurant together to try different foods, we're having each other report on the teas they've been drinking.

Phyll -- don't blame me for your bank account! If you want, I can hold your money for you so you don't spend it :)

corax said...

[=Jo=] My gratitude goes to
Cha Dao and all its
contributors for being a
unique source of information and food for thought.

[~phyll] I blame all tea blogs out there, and most notably Cha Dao, for making the standard of tea blogging so darn high.

[dan poynter] Anyway, keep up with cha dao -- you're doing more than "mere blogging." The East/West bridge is rich and in need of builders.

[corax] thanks to all of you for your encouragement. it's really encouraging to know that our readers appreciate what goes on here. and yes, these are really exciting times to be alive and online ... and drinking tea.

anodyne said...

Pertaining to what jo wrote, I know that my own notes about teas have always been precisely for my own sake and rooted in my desire to find, as best I can, what range of aroma and flavor any given tea might achieve. I've enjoyed attempting to articulate that for (and to) myself. In my case, my communications are always more to myself than anyone else even though I have enjoyed the online community interaction. But in the end, if there was no community out there, I would still be putting the theoretical pen to paper to attempt to "repeat" the tea drinking experience purely for my own pleasure and enjoyment.

Actually this blog doesn't reflect my daily drinking pattern. I am more like jo's friend who drinks far more Darjeeling than Puerh. :-)

MarshalN said...

Anodyne - when I started blogging I only thought I would benefit from taking notes. Since I know I will quickly stop doing it should I be trying to write it down on pencil and paper, I decided to do it in a blog form. I remember when I was a kid and the teachers told us writing journals is good for you. I always thought that is hogwash. I still sort of do.

It worked though. I'm still taking notes, and I have learned much from doing it. It makes you think about the tea you drink.