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.


Hobbes said...

A lovely lunchtime read - thanks much!



Unknown said...

Ancient corax—This is very well done of you, very well done indeed! Thank you for writing and publishing this piece. A few of too quick comments on olfaction: First, it operates ipsilaterlly. That is, tiny particles entering the left nostril travel to the left brain, and those entering the right nostril travel to the right brain. This is unlike the usual contralateral method of experiencing reality by the crossing of the human’s middle line. Second, olfaction is likely the most primitive of the senses in the sensory register. It operates far back in the lower brain. Third, it is the only sense that allows the actual world to physically touch the same matter that comprises the brain. Fourth, research indicates that olfactory memory may be the sharpest memory—although less conscious than other types of memory. Some suggest that olfaction often triggers the haunting déjà vu. When I drink good aged pu’er, I rocket back to my childhood—to a world containing (rather than this desert’s basalt, sand, and sage) actual loam, oak, aspen, birch, and water pumped by hand through iron pipes from artesian springs. On another of your topics—if we could achieve the ideal of brewing the same tea twice through identical parameters and then taste it while inhabiting the same physical body, that tea would still present a different profile. We cannot taste the same tea twice. This fact is both maddening and fun. Thanks again for the most excellent article. Best to you, ~grasshopper

Anonymous said...


I was delighted to discover your fine essay on tea and the effect of air on taste. It was especially gratifying to read of your comments on tea and wine. Your several comparisons brought back my own pleasant memories of tasting experiences in the company of tea and wine connoisseurs. I wish to share one occasion concerning wine.

The very first was when I was in college and knew the late Georg Isaac, a White Russian professor and translator of Fyodor Dostoevsky. Thin and tall, pale with thinning white hair, bow-tied, bespeckled and moustachioed, Georg was the picture of the urbane and erudite. His great secret was that he moonlighted as a waiter at San Francisco’s famous Blue Boar restaurant. His great passion was for the horse races, a game he tracked with thick reams of statistics every Saturday afternoon. Aloof and remote, Georg was a hermit at heart. One day, I found him in the kitchen at the stove bent over a pot he stirred in lazy eights. All about him lay jugs of cheap wine by the gallon. To my surprise, he explained that he was blending sweet and sour wines to brew into a palatable table wine. He offered a taste test, a succession of sweet, sour, and blended samples. As I dubiously but dutifully sipped each wine, he instructed me to slurp and draw in air with and through the wine. “Aerate,” he said, “to enliven the wine and tickle the taste buds.” To my surprise, the jumble of jug wines was much improved by his alchemical brewing, and I learned to drink wine from a master of the stove.


corax said...

hearty thanks to all three of you for your appreciative responses. i think there is a lot more to be learnt in this field, and i for one am looking forward to learning it!

Lew Perin said...

Thanks, corax, for sending a report back - no, a few reports back - from the little known territory of our apprehension of tea. The terrain is rough, and your observations are sharp.

I've a couple of things to bring up.

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.

But 酉 doesn't just mean wake up, it also means sober up. So the unaired Pu'er could be seen as metaphorically drug-impaired, intoxicated rather than, uh, enthusiastic, right?

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.

I actually think this happens with all teas except for the ones we like to drink aged. I've come to mistrust my enthusiasm for a just-opened tea, not because the experience was illusory, but because in so many cases it's the best I'll ever get from the leaves. For me, this is true despite the advantages I gain from getting to know the tea better. With green tea, this pessimism reaches the level of grim certainty. I can't help concluding that there's a large amount of air damage that happens swiftly once the vacuum sealed package is opened, certainly within 24 hours. (There's also the gradual air damage in the weeks that follow, of course.)

corax said...

lew, thanks so much for your comments too. it means a lot to have such thoughtful readers.

i think you are right on both counts. alas this is so intensely true about greens -- one thinks above all of japanese shincha, and how we try to get it rushed over here to sip immediately ... and yet the vast majority of tea drinkers [on any continent] do not get particularly fresh green teas. it makes me wonder especially how things were in the olden days, before nitrogen flushing or vacuum packing -- i guess the first-24-hour experience you mention was that of only very few drinkers, and those virtually all local?

but/and in the case of aged teas, it means that the environment in which the tea is aged becomes vitally important: it's one of those do-or-die situations in which the aging process is the tea's last best chance to escape the grim certainty of which you speak ...

Anonymous said...

Thanks for more clues to the never ending mystery of the tea experience.

corax said...

dear austin -- many thanks to you as well, for all you do for us in the world of tea. great to see you over here!

Unknown said...

I think that this blog and the venerable newsgroup, and a couple of other serious blogers, in the last five or six years have done so much to add legitimacy to the chatter about tea online. It is a true pleassure for me to read the level of discourse over tea that happens in English. yes and I think one can, on the other side, feel pretty discoursed looking the garbage that gets written in 'tea views', but there really is a serious, well informed thoughts going around, which would have seemed unlikely a few years a go. I think though that this blog gets the prize.

Anonymous said...

this is great, nice to see such an in depth post, as Hobbes says, a lovely lunchtime/breakfast read!

corax said...

thanks david!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for such an in-depth review of this fascinating and complex subject. Will

corax said...

will, you are very welcome. would love to know your own thoughts on the subject as well.

Warren said...

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

Corax, you're right on the button. Perception of the tea you're drinking changes with various subjective or objective factors.

To illustrate a point try something like this:
Take a light, floral oolong, say TGY, by any kind will do. And brew it and drink it gongfu style until the taste seems imperceptible to you.

Next, in another gaiwan, try a more robust tea, say like Da Hong Pao, and also gongfu style, drink that for a few steeps.

Now go back to the other gaiwan of TGY you brewed, and re-steep it again.

Suddenly, you will notice it has flavor again!

I'm too tired now to say anymore, but you should get the idea.
But your point is very true.

corax said...

warren, thanks for this suggestion. it's a simple experiment, but the results speak volumes!

Stephen Shelton said...

Thanks for taking the time to post this. I enjoyed it immensely.

corax said...

and thanks to you stephen, as to all our esteemed readers, for taking the time to visit CHA DAO.

Icetea8 said...

great topic, well i should say topics since, many things have been touched on,

the puerh needs to de-gas and oxidize, and when its compressed we should first peel instead of break or flake to keep the leaves intact, then 60 days normal climate wrapped or contained with breathable material. kodo(incense ceremony)righ on the can experince an incense and it might remind you of years ago in your grandmas closet, the smell and memory connection is strong....and the work you guys do on this blog is great, there is another blogger-tealover, and he is doing some things i am getting together with some people myself and do some trails on puerhs here is the links

i wrote some things too

the problem with alot of puerh testing is that it takes time and money and different locations, puerhs, people, and no one wants to denate their masterpiece puerh for the good cause of science..
but us tea drinkers are doing it..

corax said...

thanks steven for your comments and the links to wes's blog!

Icetea8 said...

HELP guys i could be wrong ----Compressed Puerhs usually come with a coding that is used as a way to ID the Puerh but the system is not universal; but I will give an example if =8761-423, the first two numbers represent the year the recipe was started 87 means 1987, next number is the maturity/size of leaves used, higher the number the older the leaves, "leaf grow before harvested", so the 6 is medium age leaves used, forth number is the factory 1- Kumming, 2- Menghai, 3- Xiaguan, 4-Lancang, 8- Haiwan, in this case 1 so Kumming. The number after the dash is the recipe year "first year, second year.." the number is 4 therefore the recipe 87+4 is the year it was made 1991. The last numbers are the batch number "first batch, second batch", in my example they made a 23rd batch wow! This is just an example.
----------icetea (03/08/09)---------------------

Icetea8 said...

All about Tea
Vol.1,2 large volumes
isn't the copywrite ran out i can't find it on the internet (full)
some is here?,

Anonymous said...


Regarding the publication query in the 21st comment to your article, please find the following information:

William Harrison Urkers (1873-1954), M.A.
All About Tea
2 volumes
The Tea and Coffee Trade Journal Company, 1935

The book was reprinted in 1996 by Hyperion Press: ISBN 0-83055-1311


corax said...

dear steve,

many thanks for supplying this information. i didn't realize that ukers [or is it urkers?] was still in print. it is certainly routinely cited in every major bibliography on tea.

Anonymous said...

Great--and very scholarly--article! I agree--given the huge role of aeromatics in all things gustatory--wine, cheese,vodka (!)it would be surprising if air and its immediate contact with a given tea, initiating distinct reactions in distinct teas, were not a matter of importance in determining taste.

Speaking of which, excuse me, I could use a cup right now. :)

Steph said...

What a fantastic article! Thank you! I might offer a related factor - presence...our presence or conscious focus.

corax said...

thanks, steph -- you are exactly right. this was implicit, perhaps, in the 'psychological factors' i mentioned, but it surely deserves to be made explicit.