Sunday, January 12, 2014

Experts know best, Cognitive Bias.

  When starting with something new I often seek for experienced people or at least people whose opinion I value, respect and/or feel might be helpful. I have to admit, I usually hoped for a recommendation to experience the ‘best’ possible examples. As part of my learning journey, I found that experienced enthusiast often seemed to agree with naming their favorites or ‘best’ to the point that sometimes made me feel like they agreed that most other options were sub-par or just not good at all.  I heard the same region names/brands/factories repeatedly when asking about the best and favorite Puerh. Some of them I tried while still discovering Puerh and well, I did not appreciate all of them at that point. This was mostly related to my lack of experience with Puerh and the need to open up to new experiences, tastes or in other words acquired taste.

Wild Orange Shou - Possibly the only Puerh type I completely avoid.

  As I progressed and kept developing my taste for Puerh and tea in general, I found myself leaning towards the some of the ‘expert preferred’ choices in terms of brand/tea regions and traits from certain tea.  I started to agree with some of the views I have read and heard from enthusiasts; this is including traits that make a specific region/brand “better”. However, I also found that even though I could appreciate all of them, not all were winners in my book. I kept trying them and buying new samples and cakes since I know that tastes evolve and change as you experience new sensations and even grow fond of some of them.

Liu-An - I can appreciate it, but not favor.

  Is not an unusual thing for experienced people to lean towards renowned names/brands or traits, setting somewhat of a trend. It has a lot to do with personal preference, but a trait that undeniable is that as you repeatedly drink tea (or anything you enjoy) your taste buds move on to new dimensions as far as what it takes to stimulate them (you need ‘better’, perhaps less subtle tastes and/or new experiences). As part of this trend people usually seem to disregard or avoid anything that does not constitute part of the new favored "better" option. I never knew how to properly explain it, so I turned to researching other things people enjoy and I found a good article about beer with a chart that (in my opinion) was incorrectly perceived as an association of people’s preferences with the level of expertize/knowledge, as the only reason why people choose certain traits/types of beer. Article Here! Preference, in my opinion, does not have a direct and exclusive relationship with expertise. I always thought about exposure-to-exploration as the main reason, but I didn’t know how to properly explain it.

  Later, I found a response to the article/chart by a reddit user that to me, perfectly explained how palate/taste fatigue is the main reason why experts may agree on stronger almost more pungent tastes. He explains that there is a bias existing in both beginners and experienced people's preferences:  

I have to say that this article also highlights a strong beer bias among experts, as well as the more commonly realized lager bias among beginners. I have noticed that the longer one is in the field (either brewing or being a connoisseur), the most tastes shift towards stronger beers. There is an assumption that this is due to expertise, but I think that taste fatigue and social conformity may also play a role. When you are regularly drinking strong beers, certainly within a session, but also between sessions, you are going to experience some taste fatigue and have difficulty appreciating nuances of weaker beers. Also, when you are embedded in a community that universally prizes certain experiences (Pliny the Elder, etc.), if you don't express appreciation for those beers your competency is questioned. This is a form of social conformity, and it would produce the exact same statistical convergence in expert opinions that expertise would produce.” - psychguy via reddit

2009 Feng Qing Shou - A cheap but reliable Shou.
  I feel all the points made by Psychguy play a role in the world of tea as it does with beer. Beginners prefer certain tea types due to the ease to appreciate them, while more experienced/seasoned drinkers have a tendency to prefer stronger (sometimes not stronger but rather more complex) tastes, but the most interesting point is the social conformity portion. I feel like this is possibly the most prominent issue in regards of tea reviews and popular opinions, not to mention pricing. Being able to appreciate something is not equal to favoring it, appreciation means that you understand and recognize the traits and characteristics something has or should have. Not liking/favoring a particular famed tea region/type would make people question your capability to taste/rate tea for sure if you are renowned reviewer or vendor, but the truth is that if you are a true tea enthusiast, the reason you became one is your love for tea, not to seek approval from others. As far palate fatigue goes, giving yourself breaks and changing up routines helps quite a bit.


  1. "...the truth is that if you are a true tea enthusiast, the reason you became one is your love for tea, not to seek approval from others."


    It's interesting to see how our tastes evolve over time, as we become more familiar with something and our palate become more refined, or alternately, "fatigued," as you put it. Also, how we may, or may not, develop more sensitivity in our brewing technique. Though I think some of the best teas can tolerate a wide range of brewing methods (or lack there of), one would be losing out to dismiss something simply because of over-brewing, using a poor vessel, or not taking care with water temperature or quality.

  2. I tried not to draw a line between a ‘fatigued’ palate and ‘refined’, because taste is such a subjective thing, but If I tried to differentiate between them; I would say refined palates are able to discern between natural taste/expected traits and the effects of brewing (over and under brewing as well as water issues), while fatigued mostly go for the next big thing, maybe even using over steeping as a tool (that’s why it can be subjective, too much time vs too little can change among people).

    I agree with you about the brewing vessels! When I first started I had the same steeping cup and filter for all tea types, but as I learned about other brewing methods and vessels I found how some teas just benefit from certain methods or brewing vessels. To me was one of those things you try just to disprove it and end up discovering a new favorite thing.