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Tea appreciation: snobs and slobs

Charles Cain - Dec 15th 2010

What do you taste?

Knowledge drives experience

The art of flavored tea

Taste is a funny thing, and an intensely personal thing. On one level, "taste" is the sensory perception of the flavor of a thing. On a deeper level, people who appreciate the finer things of life are said to have "good taste". So far I'm not telling you anything you don't know, and yet tea connoisseurs tend to lose sight of what it is that really separates tea snobs from everyone else.

I believe the greatest difference between the tea snob and the tea novice has less to do with palate and more to do with intellectual bent. Please let me be clear I am not comparing intellects! :) Rather, I am suggesting that for many, the flavor of of a thing defines one’s experience. For others, the experience is informed by many other outside factors including history, culture, tradition, perceived rarity, perceived quality and social or environmental impact.

I personally tend to find flavored teas that "taste" excellent a bit boring because I already knew that I liked the flavor of strawberry. However, discovering a lilac-high note in an Oolong excites my palate in a way that extends far beyond flavor and into intellectual experience.

The same process can be seen in evaluating “the classics” in art and music. Some will claim to like a piece for no other reason than because it is significant and it speaks to them on an intellectual level. Others can view a Picasso or hear work of Mozart and declare simply and factually that they don’t like it.

I don’t see a difference of intelligence between these two groups; they simply are curious about, and interested in, different things.

Most importantly, we connoisseurs of fine tea must understand that our experience turns on our understanding of tea and our personal inclination towards it. We cannot expect others to share our passion immediately, or ever. At a minimum, sharing our passion requires sharing our knowledge and experience, not simply offering someone a cup and saying "isn't that incredible"? I've seen my share of blank stares on the sales floor when some poor customer simply can't understand what's so special about this particular pile of dried leaves.

We wouldn’t bother condescending to someone who dislikes math in favor of art. Why would we not extend the same courtesy to someone who chooses a beverage based only on flavor? History and tradition aside, creating excellent tea blends is just as much an art form as creating excellent teas. The best way to grow the industry is by embracing everyone, and understanding that quality means different things to different people.

Companies succeed by giving the customer what they want. A good tea consultant can make a customer feel very good about their purchase of Earl Grey and Rooibos Caramel, and at the same time plant a seed by introducing that customer to the larger world of tea we love. At the end of the day, the goal is to build a customer base. Some will become connoisseurs, but many will very happily continue to drink inexpensive flavored teas. There's no reason we can't delight both groups!

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