On my blog I avoid writing tea reviews. I avoided them because I never could think of how to make them work in a way that pleased me. However, I recently had a thought that changed my mind. This post is a discussion and exploration of that idea. It’s a new form of writing for me. I hope you’ll enjoy!
I’m hardly awake but I need to write. An idea itches at my skull and I can’t rest until I get it out.
The idea is a simple one: tea reviews should be stories.
I stumble bleary-eyed into my living room with all the coordination of a toddler learning to walk. I open the shades, but the room is still shrouded in shadows. The west-facing windows on this side of the building don’t bring in much morning light. Feeling like I’ve still got one foot in the dream world, I make my way through my unfurnished apartment and find the one piece of “furniture” in the place–a Japanese cushion called a zabuton–and manage what I can only call a controlled flop as I sit on top of it.
It’s tea time.
With careful movements, I prepare my space. Every noise I make echoes in the empty room. We recently moved from San Francisco to Austin and our belongings have yet to arrive. I expected this, so I packed all my teaware and my kettle into my Volkswagen Jetta and hauled them with me across 2,100 miles of the southwestern United States.
While I wait for the water to heat, I open my laptop–perched on a brown Home Depot cardboard box–and begin to write.
The Problem With Tea Reviews
Tea reviews have a problem: they’re often boring and uninteresting.
I’ve mostly avoided writing reviews specifically for this reason. If I can’t write reviews I personally find interesting or helpful, why bother?
I can’t taste what you taste. I can’t feel what you feel. I need your stories to evoke images of what you were going through with a tea while you were drinking it. Why did you pick it? What was your environment? These details allow me to recreate your experience inside of myself. Through your story, I embody your experience and come to have some kind of understanding of the experience I might have.
All without ever having a sip of the same tea.
When Lu Tong (aka Yuchuanzi) wrote his famous poem “Seven Bowls of Tea” about a gift of tea he’d received, he didn’t talk about how it tasted. He didn’t say anything at all about the tea itself. Instead, he wrote this:
The first bowl moistens my lips and throat;
the second bowl breaks my loneliness;
the third bowl searches my barren entrails but to find therein some five thousand scrolls;
the fourth bowl raises a slight perspiration and all life’s inequities pass out through my pores;
the fifth bowl purifies my flesh and bones;
the sixth bowl calls me to the immortals.
The seventh bowl could not be drunk, only the breath of the cool wind raises in my sleeves.
Where is Penglai Mountain? Yuchuanzi wishes to ride on this sweet breeze and go back.Lu Tong, “Seven Bowls of Tea”
For what it’s worth, Penglai Mountain is a mythical mountain home of Daoist Immortals. That’s the kind of tea Lu Tong was drinking. Who wouldn’t want a sip of that?
The water is warm and ready to go. I use it to measure out the proper volume for drinking using two tea cups. The glaze on these two cups crackles with dark lines stained with tea. The patina of many cups enjoyed over years stains their interior.
I pour the water into a hirakyusu (平急須)–a wide, squat, and round teapot with a handle on the side for pouring. The dark tokoname clay swallows the water and shrouds it in shadows. The half-light from the windows shows the swirling motion of the water inside. Steam curls and dances off its surface. I place the paper-thin lid on top.
I take up a small blue can with the characters 玉露 (gyokuro, a classification reserved for the highest quality Japanese green tea) written on a white label. The tea isn’t gyokuro–it’s “88th Night” by Kettl. I moved it to this tin from the bag for better storage. The container is a gift from an old friend. It’s nothing fancy–just a simple can with a silicon lid he didn’t need anymore–but I’ve kept it since 2018. I think of him whenever I use it.
The sweet and fresh fragrance of the green tea wafts out. The first taste of tea is always the stored scent of the dry leaf. It’s a tantalizing hint of what’s to come. I measure out a portion onto an oblong brass dish patterned like the skin of a melon. Though there are some broken pieces, this tea is mostly full of slender green leaves, rolled up and glistening like needles from a pine tree. The sheen of the leaves is another hint of the flavor packed inside.
Questions fill my mind: will the tea taste this sweet? How will it make me feel? My excitement rises as I ponder the experience I will have.
With the teaware washed and heated, it’s time to brew. The leaves slide off their dish into the teapot, striking the surface of the clay with a clear and pure note of satisfaction. I feel sound is an underappreciated element of tea, by myself and many others.
But not by the ancient tea masters. They called the sound of water gently boiling in the kettle “the sound of the wind in the pines” (matsukaze, 松風). I have much to learn from them still.
I pour the water in and watch the leaves swirling and spinning. They begin to gently unfurl. I could watch, but I want to preserve the tea’s fragrance. The lid goes on and it’s time to wait.
Shared Language and Building Collective Wisdom
What is the purpose of telling stories? Why do we do it? What have stories got to do with writing better tea reviews?
Stories are the tool humans developed over centuries to not only spread wisdom and share experiences, but also develop a shared vocabulary. The way we talk about tea through stories we write and tell one another becomes the way we all talk about it together.
Not only that, but individual stories gather to form a body of collective experience (aka “wisdom”). Individually, no one of us can have every single experience with tea by ourselves. It’s too much. It’s too big. By bringing our stories to other people, we are building on top of and advancing the collective wisdom of all tea drinkers.
In this way, tea reviews as stories not only inforn and entertain, they serve a larger purpose: making tea better for everyone.
Finale: Now, We Drink
Time to pour.
Light green tea spills forth from the long spout of my tea pot and splashes gently into my cups. The trick with using two cups is to distribute an even amount of tea between the two so each cup has a similar strength of flavor.
“One, two–two one…” I repeat the mantra to myself silently. The first cup then the second; the second then the first. It’s a technique I’ve been practicing lately so I can reduce my reliance on tools. I want to know tea through sight, sound, and touch. I want to be with my tea, not fussing with things.
The liquor, as it is often called, starts off as a light jade, but as stronger tea comes out it clouds a bit. It’s less cloudy than a deep-steamed tea (fukamushi, 深蒸), but some of the leaves are broken and some sediment makes its way into the liquid.
I raise a cup to my lips and the fragrant steam wafts into my nose. My eyes open and my senses engage. I drink.
The tea is savory and astringent. It’s fresh and crisp. I feel that “spicy” feeling–my tongue puckering as the caffeine and catechins cause the blood vessels to constrict. My weariness dissipates like fog under sunlight. The film of sleep strips off my eyes and I can see much more clearly. The world’s contrast knob just turned up a notch or two.
A calm sense of focus and energy fills my body. I’m ready to finish this article and send it off into the internet.
I do sincerely believe most tea reviews fall flat. I’ve avoided them as a reader and a writer for precisely that reason.
That flatness is a problem with the way we think about relating our tea experiences to one another. Tea reviews written as summaries of facts without any element of the personal fall short of transmitting the true experience of tea.
I believe telling tea stories has the power not only to make writing and reading about tea more enjoyable, but also the ability to bring the larger tea community together with a shared vocabulary. With that, we can all build on each individual tea experience and grow wiser and more knowledgeable as a group.
To that end, this piece is a discussion and exploration of these ideas. I’m certainly not the first one to try writing like this (I like Geoff and Scott’s work in this type of tea writing). My hope is, by making the attempt, I can encourage even more tea writers to give it a try.
Here’s to many more tea stories we can tell together.