; Cwyn's Death By Tea: December 2021 ;

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Non-Linear Perceptions of Quality in Puerh Tea

At the beginning of December I had an intestinal surgery, and as a result I have been off puerh for the month. Nothing stops me from thinking about it, however. Recently I watched an interesting video by Mark Darrah, a former video game designer at BioWare, a video in which he talked about consumer perception of quality [tea] of games as "non-linear." He speaks mainly of aesthetic aspects of games such as the game's UI, as opposed to more linear counts of technical problems. He made a graphic that I thought might apply very well to discussions of quality of puerh tea, which are also aesthetic and therefore non-linear. 

We puerh drinkers have often discussed how linear quality measures like rating scales or grades are arbitrary and not very satisfactory, such as those on Steepster and elsewhere. Scales and grades are better than nothing when trying to rate which teas people like more, or less than others. But really we are talking about qualities which are not numerical themselves. Tea qualities are non-linear perceptions, they are subjective aesthetic opinions, "questions of taste." Even if we reach a common consensus about certain teas and questions of taste, someone inevitably comes along and says "I hate that tea," or "Hey, that's my daily drinker you are knocking." Perceptions of quality also take into account the tenure of the tea drinker, how long they have been drinking puerh tea, for as we know our tastes change over time. What we enjoyed yesterday is not what we prefer today.

There is no singular body of opinion on puerh tea, no committee, no oversight, no one other than ourselves discussing puerh teas. And every year more and more people discuss puerh tea. The whole scene has exploded in recent years into myriads of online discourse. On the positive side, we now have lots of forums and discussion groups consisting of people from around the world. People are mixing together and fumbling as best they can in languages they don't speak well. It's a beautiful thing to see. But even more difficult to wade through when trying to figure out what to buy. 

All we really have to answer our "questions of taste" are discussions. We know with teas that perceptions of quality spread like wildfire and any teas perceived to be "good" can lead to a frenzy of buying and teas sell out or become too expensive and scarce. We also know that a tea perceived to be "bad" can go the other way, where few people buy it, or perhaps those who do look for teas that others think are bad hope they can take advantage of the noise and get a deal. 

Mark Darrah said that consumer perceptions online also sink video games. He proposed that a basic starting model of non-linear quality can look like this, as a solid bar with no numbers or lines, just space. I will link the video here, I could embed it, but watching the whole video really is not necessary unless you are interested in gaming. I will just use it with tea discussions as the example instead.

All graphics by Mark Darrah

The idea I have about this quality perception graphic is that a tea may be thought to be Bad, or Great, but probably the vast majority of it is neither bad nor great, but most teas do not have anything particularly notable about them. Bad tea can have any number of undesirable qualities stemming from processing problems, storage issues, poor leaf quality, on and on. Great tea will of course have qualities that stand out, such as mouth feel, or body feel, or complex flavors. Un-noticeable tea will have none of the bad qualities, but nothing particularly Great either. 

The quality perception graphic almost gives the impression of a Bell curve-like notion that most opinions will fall into neither Bad nor Great but the Un-noticeable "middle." And, that Un-noticeable middle might be somewhat a default if nothing bad or great stands out. 

But most discussions online really don't fall into the Un-noticeable middle, do they? Mark Darrah notes this too, that we are so polarized now online. People get very loud about the Bad and the Great, and this is where the bulk of the discussion ends up, either a rant or a rave. Mostly with puerh tea the discussions tend toward the rant end, if not an actual rant then the idea that most puerh teas sold now are Bad. So the quality perception graphic looks more like this.

Obviously with truly Great puerh tea so scarce a resource, we cannot expect in reality a mostly Great scenario. We tend to feel skeptical of the raves. Or we think a group of silent collectors exists who holds truly Great tea, but they don't feel the need to opine online. They buy the Great, and the rest doesn't matter so much.


We can envision a type of graphic with tea vendors. They market all their tea as Great, which of course we know it cannot be. At the same time nobody expects a vendor to say "this tea sucks so buy it" or even "eh, this is okay tea, so here you go." But then no matter what the vendor says in marketing, none of it is really helpful. The same might be said of any discussion, especially if the discussion is so polarized that every tea too often Bad or too often Great cancels out any helpful take-away. 

Tea Buying

So how is this quality perception graphic useful? I think it can help parse the discussions a bit when looking at tea shopping. Specifically, if you find a discussion about a group of teas trending large on Bad, or large on Un-noticeable, or large on Great, spending more money within that large section is probably not going to gain you anything. For example, if a group of teas skew the perception to mostly Bad, then a $100 tea is not going to improve your buying any more than the $50 tea will. You won't be buying your way out of the Bad, so maybe stick with the $50 tea. 

Spending higher within Un-noticeable
may not gain you much in quality. [stars added]

The same is true when the perceptions are mostly Un-noticeable. Nothing particularly Bad or Great here. Can you spend your way out of the Un-noticeable into the Great? Will spending $150 more still leave you in the Un-noticeable, with just "okay" teas, rather than Great tea? The tea might not have bad qualities like wood smoke or oolong processing, but nothing too great either. If this is my issue, I might as well look to other aspects when deciding what to buy, such as how many steeps I can get from a session of a tea. I might be better off asking those rant-ers and ravers how many steeps they got rather than asking for more about good vs. bad.

We can also see that with Great teas, for those who have the money to spend, these folks may not need to stew so long over whether to buy either that particular XZH beeng or the special CSH tong, because both teas are perceived to be Great. We don't need to ruminate over the quality so much as look to other factors, such as which one might do well in our tea storage, or which one the wife enjoys more. Or just which tea you can get your hands on with the least amount of trouble. 

Tea Selling

The same quality perception graphic might be useful to tea sellers as well. Buying leaf every spring to press is a challenge to the wallet as well as to how that tea will sell later on. A tea vendor certainly wants their tea to be, at minimum, Un-noticeable in terms of processing. Realistically not every tea will be Great, perhaps the vendor can only afford a small amount of Great leaf. But here is where the graphic might be useful. Will buying X quantity of Great leaf to add to the blend really move that tea from the Un-noticeable to the Great? 

What are you gaining by adding the amount of Great leaf to your beeng? If your tea goes from $100 a beeng to $200 a beeng, is that a jump from Un-noticeable to Great, or are you really just moving your tea further along as an Un-noticeable? The question is how to explain to your buyers the difference between your $100 tea and your $200 tea, is this really a jump in quality, or is it just reflecting what you paid for the leaf? Or is the jump in "quality" really more of a $25-like dollar jump or a $50-like jump? In that case, maybe adding that Great leaf won't distinguish that tea enough with buyers for them to justify the higher price tag. The buyers will just go online and rant about how that $200 tea really isn't worth the money, and that they didn't like it much better than the $100 tea they bought from you. 

But maybe you have just enough of that Great leaf and can stretch it a bit further with adding some Un-noticeable tea without losing any of the qualities of the Great tea. Vendors need to think about their pricing in terms of buyer perception, particularly if most of their tea falls into the Un-noticeable range. Any leaps in price need to reflect a clear difference to justify a buyer who spends more. Otherwise, they won't trust you and won't be back. Or they will stay safe and buy on your low end, because all your teas are perceived to fall into Un-noticeable drinkers, still decent enough for a vendor but of course never Great. 

But if you really do have some nice leaf, and can add some Un-noticeable tea without much effect, then maybe that $200 tea will really reflect the price tag. If not, then perhaps a small pressing of that Great leaf alone for just a few buyers is the better way to go, or selling it loose or just keeping it for now.

If I was a vendor in a scenario of mostly Un-noticeable but okay teas, I would then focus on things like flavor differences or steep qualities. I would keep my beeng prices fairly close together instead of trying to fool people with creating higher priced teas that are really not that much better at all. 

I hope this is helpful in parsing the discussions online. When people say things like "all Dayi is bad after 2011" or some such, what do you do? If Dayi after 2011 is really that bad, then maybe you shouldn't buy Dayi at all. Or perhaps most of it is really in the Un-noticeable range and you won't get much better quality spending $100 more within that line of teas, so spend $50 and call it a day. Of course we are all skeptical of Great tea raves, especially on the low end of the price tag. Instead of falling for tea hype, assume the tea is probably at best Un-noticeable so you can buy or not and have realistic expectations of what you are getting.