Sunday, February 2, 2014

Report from the Tea Trenches: There are Thousands of Others Like You!

Of late, I've been spending a lot of my online time at Steepster, which is basically the tea lover's analogue to some intersection of Fragrantica, Parfumo, and/or Dnotes. I suppose that since there is no content beyond tea profiles and tea tasting notes (reviews--or comments relating to the same author's previous reviews), the closest comparison would be to Parfumo. 

People who love tea convene at Steepster to share their tea experiences. It's quite clear that some members spend the whole day drinking tea, and writing about drinking tea. So that's a bit different from the online perfume community experience, because few people write more than one review a day, and many people write nothing at all--aside from interacting in the forum boards.

Tea lovers, like perfume lovers, enjoy talking about their recent purchases, their struggle to "contain" their collection, and their desire to expand it at the same time. All of these dynamics are quite familiar to those who have fallen into the bottomless vortex of perfume acquisition, with many of us resolving each January to refrain from buying any more bottles until _____________ (fill in the blank). My favorite resolution is to not buy any new bottles until I have reviewed everything in my house--bottle, decant, and sample. I usually make it a month or more before breaking the resolution. I believe that my record may have been 2013, when I recall having lasted at least through the month of March! 

One relevant difference in this regard between these two obsessions is that tea costs a lot less than perfume and can be consumed several times a day--or all day long! Perfume, on the other hand, is generally worn for several hours, which means that even very prolific reviewers don't write about several different perfumes in a single day. With all of the aromachemicals swirling about in the air these days, that might not even be safe!

What are the other differences between "fumeheads" and "students of tea"? One may be that people who write about their tea experience do not appear to be advocating for the tea. I suppose that one could consider raves to be a form of exhortation and negative remarks a form of dissuasion. But more than anything, people who write about tea seem to be simply sharing their personal experience with a particular brand, style, and harvest of tea. Some people prefer blends; others prefer single-origin leaves. 

There are five major families of tea: black, oolong, green, white, and pu-erh, and different people tend to greatly prefer some of these over others. (In China, yellow tea is considered a sixth major category, but I have never tried it!) Some people prefer herbal infusions, which are not really "tea" at all, for they contain nothing derived from the tea plant, camellia sinensis. In navigating one's way through the vast and kaleidoscopic world of tea and tea-like brews, subjectivity is key: something not to be overcome but to be celebrated. 

No one seems to have any problem with a person who finds jasmine or oolong teas headache-inducing, for example. We are different people, and different people like different things, including different types of tea, in large part as a result of not only physiological factors, but also cultural habits acquired over time. Sencha is the number one tea in Japan. In Argentina, the "national infusion" (defined by law!) is maté. Is one of these beverages better than the other? In a referendum, the Japanese might insist that sencha is superior, but Argentinians would certainly demur!

There are groups of tea lovers who all seem to be patronizing certain very popular tea emporia, many of which would be absolutely unknown to the average person. There are also "controversial" tea providers--above all, Teavana--whose business practices elicit anger and denunciations reminiscent of some of the vitriol slung by perfumistas at houses such as Bond no 9, Creed, and Montale, among others which are beloved by many but scorned by others. In these and many other ways, the social world of tea and the social world of perfume seem to have many parallels.

There are many different levels, qualities, and kinds of tea within each family--indeed, more than there are of all perfumes taken together! People tend to like or dislike certain "genres", just as with perfume. In Japan, there are undoubtedly imbibers of maté (an herbal infusion packing a major punch of caffeine), and in Argentina, there are undoubtedly people who prefer sencha (a green tea with a clean, vegetal taste). 

Some tea drinkers add sugar or honey and cream or lemon to their brew; others regard such "adulteration" as akin to an act of desecration! In all of these matters of taste, the cultural milieu in which we are raised affects us without fully determining our preferences. How else could I, sherapop, who grew up in a perfume-free home, have become so obsessed with perfume? Why am I, sherapop, the only person in my family who even knows what bancha and pu-erh are?

In the school of hot cups, I have found less snobbery and less tendency to indulge in hype as a way of justifying one's tea preferences than I have sometimes witnessed in the spaces frequented by perfumistas. I believe that this may have something to do with the difference in price between fine tea and most niche perfume. If an ordinary (working) person drops $300 on a 50ml bottle of perfume, it had better be good. Very good

For the last couple of months, I have purchased little perfume and a ton of tea. Yet each order of tea, often containing up to a dozen--or more!--different varieties ends up costing less than a single bottle of perfume. It occurred to me that since tea is an intrinsically rich olfactory experience, in addition to being a healthy habit, given that the body and mind function best when well-hydrated, more perfumistas should perhaps look to the opportunity for olfactory enrichment readily available to them in what looks from afar to be a modest and mundane cup of tea. 

In truth, once one cuts through the packaging and perfume marketing hype, looking for the olfactory experience within the genie bottle--not the seduction of associating with the sorts of people who use, advocate, and advertise perfume--it becomes obvious that the sniffing in one case (the fumes emanating off the surface of a cup of tea or from a packet of dried leaves) is not really any different than it is in the other (the fumes wafting off one's neck or wrist--or ankles!). 

In fact, my fragrant friends, I have discovered that many of the most annoying aspects of the perfume industry in the twenty-first century--including the removal of natural substances from perfumes and the increasingly abstract and synthetic compositions being fobbed off in kitschy bottles as fine fragrances in their stead--are altogether absent from the world of tea. 

I exhort you, therefore, to consider expanding your olfactory horizons by opening the door to the multifaceted universe of tea, not only for the potable pleasure which it affords, not only for the health benefits which it brings, but also because of the olfactory adventures which await you in the exquisite range of teas carefully cultivated, harvested, roasted, steamed, dried, and blended in endless ways to produce a near infinity of flavors and scents all beckoning you to enjoy!


  1. Thanks, Sherapop, for the invitation! Over the years, I've become hypersensitive to caffeine, so my tea experiences are usually herbal infusions that I realize aren't really considered "tea" by its serious appreciators. There is a high-quality tea store in my town. Its owner sometimes appears on a national NPR food show, so I guess he's respected. But I went into the store with a friend when it first opened many years ago and he was extremely rude and condescending, which scared me off. It's funny that I was never scared off from perfume by the first perfume people met - salespeople at department stores who knew nothing about perfume and didn't always think I looked posh enough to spend any time on me. Puzzling.

    1. Sorry to hear about that negative encounter, pitbull friend. Perhaps it is time to stop giving that fellow any further power over your life! Snobs are rife, let's face it. I agree that it's a bit puzzling that you were affected by the tea snob but not by the retail SAs, who can be very dismissive, depending upon their mood and perception of the likely prospect of a sale.

      Perhaps the explanation lies in percentages: 100% of your haute tea emporium encounters were negative, while some smaller percentage of your retail perfume encounters were?

      In any case: I prescribe a cup of tea! Time to move on!

  2. Over the last dozen or so years, I've dabbled with red wines, teas (includes not-really-teas, such as a couple of South African herbal varieties), and coffee. This was all before "fine fragrances." Eventually, I just didn't want to spend time making tea or coffee, and I found that wine changed my sense of taste so that I would always have to have it with meals, which I didn't want to do. Anyway, now I get dark roast Arabica coffees (whatever is one sale) and make up a huge pot (yes I just boil it and scoop it out with a cup). I then have about 45 ounces, so I freeze 30 ounces and it takes me several days to get through each 15 ounce jar (I only drink a small amount with each meal). I also like a little mango juice with each meal, but I drink more water than anything else. The idea here is to just do what works for you. Scents are great for me because it's one or two sprays and that's all I have to do. However, I would take issue with the idea that scents are more expensive that "fine" tea, in that you can get great deals if you have patience, and if you wanted, several 100 ml bottles might last you a lifetime !

    1. Thanks so much for your insights, bigsly! Our experience definitely overlaps, as I'm with you 100% on the coffee front. Basically dark roast Arabica does the trick for me! ;-)

      With your vintage-hunting prowess, you are right that it is possible to enjoy lots of variety in the fragrance field without going broke. However, those gems will eventually all disappear as the market is flooded with abstract aromachemical soup, and consumers' concept of perfume is transformed and molded to fit in with the program being pushed at the IFRA and the EU.

      Some of us will be dead by then, of course. So perhaps the best advice of all is:



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