Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Cantos of Mutabilitie: Or, The Varieties of Tea Experience


I well consider all that ye haue sayd,
And find that all things stedfastnes doe hate
And changed be: yet being rightly wayd
They are not changed from their first estate;
But by their change their being doe dilate:
And turning to themselues at length againe,
Doe worke their owne perfection so by fate:
Then ouer them Change doth not rule and raigne;
But they raigne ouer change, and doe their states maintaine.

-- Edmund Spenser

As I try different teas -- or, especially, the same tea repeatedly over time -- I find myself wondering what roles habituation and acclimation play in the appreciation of tea, and how these differ from other aspects of the experience. Let's assume that [a] a given tea is tasted and re-tasted within a brief enough compass to rule out striking changes due to the aging process; and, moreover, that [b] the same kind of water is used each time in brewing the tea. While we're at it, let's stipulate [c] that the proportions (tea leaf to water) and other parameters (water-temperature, brewing time) are all the same. Why, in the face of such putative stability, is the subjective experience of tea still so liable to the vagaries of what Spenser called 'mutabilitie'?

I. Subjective and Objective Factors

Perhaps the likeliest answer is, the drinker's perception is what has actually shifted. This could be the result of a host of somatic variables, such as:

• body temperature
• body (de)hydration
• physical fatigue or illness
• circadian rhythms
• various factors affecting the moisture and/or pH factor of the mouth and throat
• residual coating in the mouth and throat resulting from recent intake of food or other drink

It could be the result of a variety of psychological variables, such as

• psychic stress or distraction
• expectation (on this see 'Flavor Hedonics: Pleasure and the Physiology of Taste,' and the pages linked-to from there)
• the amount of leisure the drinker adjudges s/he has for brewing and enjoying the tea

In and of itself, perception is, almost quintessentially, a subjective factor. Certainly the somatic and psychological variables mentioned above all affect the self and the consciousness, and could thus hardly keep from affecting the taste experience. But the drinker's perception of 'mutabilitie' could also have to do with variables that we might term environmental or situational, including such factors as

• ambient temperature/humidity
• the amount of tea being drunk in a session
• the length of time spent drinking and experiencing the tea

While these undoubtedly have importance precisely because of the drinker's bodily and mental perception of them, they are also external to the self, in a way that the factors I have termed 'somatic' or 'psychological' are not. This gives them an 'objective' quality that sets them apart from the 'subjective' nature of the others.

The senses of smell and taste are, of course, closely related. Their function is similar (and different from the other senses) in that actual matter -- no matter how minute in size -- must physically enter and interact with the body in order for both olfaction and gustation to take place. The ancients understood profoundly the potentially spiritual power of this experience; among the ancient Greeks, the encounter with Dionysus was mediated first and foremost via the ingestion of wine, and the flush of euphoria that such alcoholic intake could produce was known as enthousiasmos, the source of our word 'enthusiasm.' To drink wine to the point of euphoria was to be entheos -- to have the god (theos) within you (en). So too, in the Great Mysteries of Demeter, celebrated at Eleusis, a secret mixture (kukeon) containing grain, was ingested as part of the initiation ceremony. It has been theorized that the grain included in the Eleusinian kukeon carried a hallucinogenic ergot that produced the ecstatic bliss reported by initiates -- another powerful incidence of enthousiasmos.

But even without the inclusion of psychoactive chemicals, each thing that we smell or taste consists of pieces that literally enter us and become part of us. These pieces may be mouthful-sized or microscopically particulate; either way, they are arguably the most objective factors that impact our perception.

The full extent of that impact has yet to be determined and explained. For example: once we have inhaled or otherwise absorbed bits of what we are smelling and tasting, how does that affect our memory of the thing? Do we absorb trace amounts of chemical substances from things we smell and ingest, that actually become part and parcel of the physiological memory -- to use an internet metaphor, part of the 'source code' (so to speak) of our memory? Does that source-file, somehow accessed by thinking and remembering, cause us to like and even crave these things more? If so, this could turn out to be a significant -- perhaps the crucial -- aspect of our perception of the taste and smell of a tea on the physi(ologi)cal level.

II. The Special Role of Air

I am wondering what other objective factors, if any, might additionally play substantively into the experience of drinking tea. One possibility was suggested to me by my learned colleague Geraldo, who wrote: 'Might be that I like or dislike [a given] tea as I learn more of it. But I wonder if air in general or even if particular air [emphasis added] plays any role. The tea is tightly sealed for its trip. It arrives; Geraldo snips the seal. Whoosh (hyperbole) goes the Hong Kong air. [My local] air rushes in.'

I found this suggestion not only striking, but highly convincing. Tea aficionados often mention air, in a general or global sense, when discussing (e.g.) optimal humidities for the storage and aging of pu'er tea, and for the growing of teas in general; but I think that we have been remiss in not hitherto including air as one of the major variables affecting the actual brewing and tasting of tea. Specifically, this localization of air to which Geraldo was alluding: the fact that a tea from, say, Fujian is planted, grown, harvested, processed, and packed -- all in Fujian air. But then it is shipped to Sally in Sarasota, or to Frank in Fargo; and Frank and Sally will brew that tea, not only using a water that is (in all likelihood) not from Fujian, but also in the ambient air of Fargo or Sarasota. I do not have scientific data to underpin a specific assertion here, but my general inclination is to ask: how could this not have some impact on the taste of the tea?

Also, of course, there is the issue of indoor and outdoor air: inside your home, the air may be heated or conditioned; this will affect not only solid particles floating in the air, but the ambient humidity. Indoors there may be food or other odors; outdoors there may be salt air (if you are by the ocean), industrial odors (if you live near a factory), carbon monoxide (if there is a lot of traffic nearby). And so on.

Certainly we are well aware of the effects, over time, of oxygen on dried leaf. Except in the case of pu'ers and other heicha (I suppose those are the basic, if not truly the only, exceptions) most of us do our best to protect our leaf from oxygen, until more or less the moment we are ready to brew it. (I know some very serious tea connoisseurs who actually nitrogen-flush and vacuum-pack their tea until they are ready to use it; of course these precautions are not available to most consumers.) But, again, despite my 'more or less' hedge, I am wondering principally about a very small time-frame here.

Within a small time-frame, it seems, air can have a powerful effect on tea that has been stored in vacuum. Geraldo, who has been experimenting with Wu Yi yan cha of different types, reports that tea fresh out of the vacuum-packed pouch tastes noticeably different than the selfsame tea, 24 hours later, when it has been left open to the air. And when preparing to brew pu'er cha, several colleagues recommend flaking the tea (be it bing, fang, zhuang, or tuo) and letting it air awhile first. The type of compressed pu'er, and whether it is sheng (raw/green) or shu (cooked/black), is less important than the degree of humidity in your local air: in a humid environment, a flaked pu'er may be fully aired in less than a week, whereas in a dry climate you might want to air it for a couple of weeks. What does seem to make a difference is when the tea is fully flaked, rather than broken up into chunks: the larger the chunk, of course, the longer the air will take to reach and affect the tea. And, whether flaked or chunked, pu'er is traditionally stored in unglazed pottery vessels rather than in porcelain; or if porcelain is used, one wants to ensure that the cover is not tight. With a porcelain vessel, a cover of paper or cloth over the opening might be just right.

Note that in the case of pu'er, the interactivity of the tea with the ambient air is an ongoing issue, and an important factor in the development of its eventual character. And in the case of any tea -- not just pu'er -- many people find that if it has not been stored in a strong vacuum, the process of moving the tea -- say in a suitcase, from Asia to America -- can have quite a negative effect on the taste. If, eager to show off your newfound treasures, you brew it right out of the suitcase, you may find it dramatically unlike the exquisite tea that you sampled and purchased in Hangzhou or Kunming or Kowloon. Let it sit and breathe awhile -- a day at the very least -- before attempting to replicate at home that delicious experience you had in the tea shop.

The Chinese term for this process of airing the tea is xing cha -- 醒茶, literally 'awakening the tea' -- and if you look carefully at the character 醒, you will see that it contains the radical 酉, which is the pictogram for a wine bottle. So one could, without being too fanciful, compare this process to the uncorking of a wine bottle. The principle of letting the tea 'breathe' before consuming it is doubtless familiar to the wine connoisseurs among my readers.

The import of this came vividly home to me when I heard the following true story:

An older friend of mine, who had relatives in the French wine business, once had access to a bottle of 100-year-old Bordeaux of particularly eminent vintage. The wine was opened in the most festive circumstances, and small tastes were shared round among four friends; the room thrummed with anticipation as each person raised his glass to taste this rare (and astoundingly costly) wine.

But a heavy silence fell upon the group, when each of them realized that the wine was dead. Not turned to vinegar, but curiously flat and pallid. The radiance of its splendor, garnered from the sunny days of a preceding century, and cherished in the rich dark earth of France, had somehow faded to the dream of a shadow. Everyone covered the embarrassing moment as best they could; my friend left the half-empty bottle on kitchen counter and nursed his wounded pride.

The next morning, about to dump out the remainder of this most disappointing bottle, he stopped himself in time to give it one more taste. A miracle! an epiphany! having been allowed to 'breathe' overnight, the wine had essentially risen from the dead -- or perhaps it would be better to say 醒, 'awakened' from its centurial slumber -- and indeed now emerged transfigured, in all the majestic glory of a hundred years and more. Nurtured by overnight aeration, this noble wine had gathered its strength for one final display of brilliance, many decades after its vintners had themselves turned to dust.

The lesson to be drawn from this anecdote is at least twofold: first, that the things we drink can be very noticeably affected by air; and second, that the effects may be considered subjectively as well as objectively. Just how all this comes to pass, is a matter for scientists to tell us; but everyone who cares about tea can pay attention to this and other factors, in order to learn more about how they may conduce to the 'mutabilitie' of our tea experience.


Thanks to all the usual suspects for the help they afforded me in beginning to think this through. There is of course much more to be thought and said about it; I am looking forward to continuing the conversation, both here and offline.