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Thursday, February 13, 2020

The "Mom Test"

Recently in a Slack Chat tea group, I read a bit of discussion about a concept used by the TeaDB guys known in their videos as the "Mom Test." For those of you living under a rock, if you don't know who TeaDB is, run not walk over to teadb.org for a whole wealth of content about puerh tea. But I am guessing most readers here are familiar with the videos by the TeaDB guys and their reviews of tea, as well as the trope the "Mom Test." The relevant discussion in Slack Chat was whether or not the Mom Test is "sexist." I found this very interesting food for thought.

Now, before I get into those thoughts I am grateful to TeaDB for the idea of the Mom Test, because my thoughts about this are not specific to TeaDB nor to the guys, but rather to the social, literary and aesthetic merits of the concept. In other words, I found a lot to think about and at my age thinking is good. So, the Mom Test is very simply an idea of whether or not a specific tea might appeal to a Mom, that is, someone with a limited appreciation of tea.

In fact, the Mom is a character we need to consider here. It's true the Mom is a female, and refers most specifically to the Mom of the young man and also somewhat to the Moms of the TeaDB guys. Though Denny has exempted his actual mom from the Mom Test from time to time, because his mother actually drinks a variety of teas and probably has more appreciation than the trope Mom. But the key here with the Mom is the idea of appreciation. Even if the Mom drinks tea, she is assumed to have limitations in her taste or ability to appreciate teas beyond a certain comfort zone, and sheng puerh specifically and usually lies outside the comfort zone. Sheng is especially challenging when it has strong bitterness or astringency, or very wet or obvious storage flavors, or perhaps a peat-y profile that leads to strong body sensation. The Mom may be sensitive to teas beyond a simple hong or oolong.

The Mom also is likely to reject teas outside the comfort zone based on assumptions from actual past experiences of rejecting teas presented by the son, although not always a rejection. Sheng puerh in particular is somewhat like serving stinky cheeses. Even though a person may not reject the stinky cheese outright, we still have the failure to fully appreciate nuances. So even if the Mom agrees to try the tea, and might not find it completely offensive, she still fails to appreciate fully all of the characteristics the son finds in the tea.

I say "son" as specifically as the term Mom, because I cannot separate the idea of the Mom as sexist without removing the son. To have a Mom, we need a child and the idea of son is as key as the idea of Mom. The Mom Test is a generalized notion of the non appreciative parent, but is specifically mother and son in that the humor or idea here is that of a boy presenting a tea to his mother, not a daughter necessarily. I'm not sure the hubris works quite the same way culturally with daughter/Mom as it does with son.

As an older mother of a grown son the same age as the TeaDB guys, I can respond to the notion of sexism but this is not troubling to me necessarily, at least not beyond an occasional eye roll. My eye roll is more the generalized idea of sheng specifically as unappealing to older women, but I don't feel in the same category as the Mom. In my case, I'm the sheng drinker in the family and I would never serve my son any of the sheng teas because like the Mom he actually fails to appreciate the nuances of the tea, so I don't bother trying. In my world, I suppose I have the Son Test, but this isn't a concept that means anything to me, and doesn't have the hubris of the Mom Test as used in TeaDB. Why not? Because we need to consider the audience.

The Mom isn't necessarily sexist as a trope to me because the hubris here is really more about the sons rather than about the mom. When the videos refer to the Mom Test, the conversation shrinks to boys and more boys with the shared idea of mother of a certain age and sensibility. This is where my eye roll lies, not with the Mom as such, but the reminder that suddenly I'm not in the audience of young men.

I have had this same out-of-audience experience as a gamer, specifically with a Japanese MMO I played with Chinese and Japanese young men who agreed that women over the age of 20 should not play video games. In their view, a woman older than this changes from a child to whatever they associated with wife and mother. At the same time she develops interests such as shopping and laundry. I liked to follow up their gamer trope by ticking the cultural boxes back at them, by saying that I am over 50, have a PhD, career, am a mother to grown son, son is in university, yes all the stereotypical cultural boxes I am "supposed" to have and yet here I am kicking enemy ass all the same. I asked flat outright if I should be gaming, and they all said no. I didn't object to this because the expectations on my performance were still ironically the same as for them. But I never lost the awareness that I am still outside the club of young men even though in reality they probably failed to appreciate me.

So I do not fit the notion of gamer lady any more than I fit the Mom in the Mom Test, and thus I don't object to it necessarily as directed to me and my gender because it says more about the boys than it does about me. But I am aware of the shrinking of the audience for the concept of Mom Test, when the conversation is thus directed at other boys who get the in-joke even as I understand the joke and the failure to appreciate tea which is the general idea after all.

A feminist might confront me outright and say that I deflect what is clearly sexist, or anti-feminist. That I am not owning up to and confronting latent sexism in a concept that is meant to be general about tea. In fact, the Slack Chat conversation had men objecting to the Mom Test as sexist. I could say they confronted sexism for me, if I wish to continue the division here. But I argue the division is not really about male vs. female as it is about an audience of young men, and I stress young. It's as much young vs. old as it is about gender.

Surely the question begs whether we can find aesthetic concepts about tea that are gender neutral, and we have these already which is why the Mom Test is interesting. Not many concepts attempt at any kind of humor. In a way, I started my blog because sheng puerh in particular lacked humor. I have certainly taken advantage of gender at my expense, rather like Joan Rivers did in her comedy which relied on female age stereotypes. I push it in the extreme with my particularly incontinent and tea drunk avatar, and am well aware that I can hardly object to notions that I myself choose to abuse.

If anything I feel a bit wistful when the conversation of the Mom Test shrinks the audience to young men, for I can never be anything but the Mom and am not the Mom. I should have a Son Test, but this doesn't work as a concept and I don't care that my son doesn't appreciate sheng. I personally don't want my son to appreciate sheng though perhaps the TeaDB boys wish their Moms did. This is another reason why I can't object to the Mom Test, I don't need to share it necessarily. The Mom Test speaks of boys who want to connect with Mom in ways she doesn't care to, but she doesn't necessarily feel a lack thereof.

As a tea concept, the Mom Test is supposed to label a tea for general consumption by tea drinkers who are looking for pleasant, comfortable flavors but not anything challenging to the palate. This is where the supposed value lies, though I would argue the main value of the Mom Test is that we have a rich concept here in tea aesthetics, when in general "serious" tea conversation nowadays lacks rich concepts. Today in tea we are constantly looking for specifics, we are trying to pinpoint and want tea to be scientifically "objective," when tea is in fact aesthetic and literary. The Mom Test is an actual literary aesthetic idea and is thus more meaningful than our ultimately futile efforts to "science-tize" tea drinking. Thus the Mom Test is more closely related to older tea writing rather than the type we strive for nowadays, like a painting of tea drinking by the lotus pond rather than data and charts and numbers and how many steepings we made that blog posts are full of. In this sense, the Mom Test more accurately points to the activity of tea as aesthetic pleasure rather than scientific and so doesn't mislead the audience.

So mainly I appreciate the Mom Test as a rich idea, and this is why I hope the TeaDB guys continue to use it both to describe teas and to make a few jokes about tea drinking. They are speaking about their experience as aesthetes. I'd rather leave the gender neutral etc. etc. for another day and another topic and just enjoy. Cheers!


  1. Thanks a lot, Cwyn! This is the most interesting post I've read on a tea blog in AGES. As a young man around James and Denny's age, I appreciate their concept of the mom test - though my mom is a bit of an outlier, as she complains if a tea isn't bitter enough to her. I 100% agree that their concept comes from wanting to connect with their mothers over tea rather than stoke the fires of age/gender division. In the ongoing debate over political correctness in our culture at large, I feel that too often semantics are taken into consideration over intention. Of course some words and phrases are problematic at best, but instances like this really are just two guys chatting absentmindedly over a tea session. That's a major part of their charm, and I believe the last thing James or Denny want to do is discriminate or alienate anyone. Thanks again for sharing this! That was very interesting to think about.

  2. Nailed it. Sad that "not offended" is so refreshing, but thank you.

  3. That is a cool description they use, so clear even for not being filled out in most of the cases when they say it. I'm thinking of bringing tea back to a family member on a visit, not to my Mom, but to a niece getting married, and the idea of what would be approachable to a non-tea drinker comes up right away. I'll probably give them a Dian Hong that easily passes that test and a relatively drinkable sheng cake that would land on the other side of that judgement. Somehow I wouldn't be surprised if her new husband "gets it" and she doesn't, or if no one does. Converting any of my family to tea never stuck, but then that is always hit and miss.

  4. Brilliant writing. I hope you write an autobiography and share it for us.


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