The entire world is based on opinions these days: social media, blogs, and comment sections on practically every packet of information available. Every human being in the world is shouting out their own point of view as loudly as possible, and it makes you wonder if anyone is even taking the time to truly listen and understand.
But even when people are listening, opinions are so different that you may or may not start to wonder in the dark recesses of your mind if your opinion is the only one that matters. These are the kinds of thoughts I’ve had when reading reviews against teas I’ve tasted:
- Everyone says that this tea is fantastic, but I think it tastes like soap.
- This tea is called French Toast, but to me it tastes like vanilla pudding.
- Everyone says this tea is fruity, but it tastes malty to me.
So how do we make the most use out of reading reviews to choose teas we love and avoid teas we hate? How do we make our own reviews most helpful to others? What I have to keep in mind when reading and writing reviews is that the taste of a tea is subject to so many factors…
Taste is based on memories, psychology, and life experience; it’s subjective as hell.
People tend to judge the flavors of tea through the filters of their own experience with other foods and drinks.
Let’s start with lavender first as an example. A lot of people love blends that contain lavender, especially earl grey. I’ve tried so many blends that have lavender in it, and I’ve really hated them all. I don’t see how people can drink lavender tea. It took me a while to figure out why. I’ve been using lavender bath products since I was a kid, and I just don’t think my brain is capable of separating the lavender smell from the idea of soap.
Then there’s the ubiquitous pumpkin spice. Think about pumpkin spice really hard for a moment; do you really, really ever taste the pumpkin part of the pumpkin spice? Be honest with yourself, because if you think about it hard enough, there really is no pumpkin flavor in about 95% of pumpkin spice flavored things. I’ve even run across “pumpkin flavored” items that are actually just pumpkin spiced items. So why are people tasting pumpkin in pumpkin spice? Why the hell is it even called pumpkin spice if there’s no pumpkin in it? It’s because of tradition; in American cuisine, those spices usually only appear in that combination in pumpkin pie, which does contain pumpkin. Since much of my experience with these spices together centers around pumpkin pie, my brain automatically fills in the pumpkin. This can happen with other foods too.
Another issue is food experience and culture. Someone growing up in the southern part of the U.S. is going to have a very different take on flavors than someone growing up in Japan, but we don’t even have to go that far. A poor person will have different references for taste than a wealthy one. People of differing ethnicities living next door to one another will have different references. No matter how much a tea tastes like longan fruit to someone, the person who has never even heard of that fruit is going to have difficulty relating, and will most likely describe the tea completely differently.
And then there’s just the simple fact that despite everything, our brains interpret flavors differently even when differing social circles don’t factor into it. No matter how many black olives I make my husband try, he’s never going to like black olives, which obviously makes him insane. How some people don’t like black tea is beyond me; even when it’s malty and bitter, it’s still fantastic. I still get incredulous exclamations of “HOW CAN YOU NOT LIKE CHOCOLATE?!” when I tell people I am just not a fan of milk chocolate. It just happens.
Also, another quick point to I want to tack on here, experience in the tea world itself matters. It’s difficult for someone to know that a bad tea is bad if they haven’t even had the good stuff yet.
Brewing parameters can change the taste of a tea drastically.
These are all factors that can make a sweet tea into a sour, soapy gut bomb, and not all of them are in your control at all times:
- Weight to water ratio
- Water temperature
- Water hardness/softness
- Steeping time
- Brewing vessel
This post is already long enough, so I’ll save the details on these points for another day.
The smallest thing can affect your taste buds.
As a reviewer, it’s even possible to lie to and mislead yourself, which pretty much means that there is no hope for us to be 100% reliable as taste reviewers. Your own day-to-day experiences can make a tea taste drastically different from one day to the next:
- How long it’s been since you’ve eaten and how hungry you are
- What you’ve eaten that day
- What kinds of smells you are surrounded by as you drink
- What kind of mood you’re in
- What your surroundings are: weather, indoors, outdoors, forest, city, bathroom, etc.
How to read and write reviews to everyone’s advantage.
So how do I find reviewers I trust? What strategies do I use in writing reviews to make them more accessible to people? I don’t always succeed in these endeavors, but I do try to keep them in mind when I read and write.
Find people with similar tastes to yours.
Most bloggers and reviewers are pretty easy to pin down as far as what directions their preferences face. Some bloggers will only review certain kinds of teas. Try looking up some of your favorite teas on Steepster and follow those people that rate them highly.
Read tea reviews to find a common thread.
This is a pretty simple one. Look up the teas on the business’ website, if the website allows for users to give feedback. Keep in mind though that some sites only feature positive reviews. You can also go on Steepster to find unbiased reviews on a tea.
Chances are, if 10 people says that the tea tastes like library books, it probably tastes like library books.
Watch your language!
Because readers are coming from so many different backgrounds, I try not to be too exotic when describing the flavors I am getting. I have had some teas that taste exactly like green peanuts pulled fresh from the ground, but how many people know that flavor? So while I might use that phrase, I also try to add in simpler flavors as well to help out. Green boiled peanuts have an earthy, dirty taste to them, but with a nutty kind of beaniness that balances the earthiness with a sweetness. While this may not be as concise a description as green peanuts, it does make some headway into helping translate. And yes, I do have a tendency to make up words like beaniness when writing reviews.
I have to admit that I am not always successful at this, but I try to step back in a review and give an emotionless account of a tea’s flavor before giving an actual opinion. That way people can decide for themselves if they want to try it. It’s not fair for me to vent about the terrible flavor of a sheng if I hate sheng, so I try to identify the flavors I am tasting instead before reacting to them. I try to keep in mind that someone might actually like the flavors I am reacting badly to, so I describe them instead of just saying that a tea is terrible.
Hopefully this advice will help you newbies out there find sources and opinions that will lead you to more great teas and fewer awful teas.