Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Taxonomy of Tea

You can learn a lot about how people view things by examining the taxonomy they use to describe them. The reason for this is that people will start out with the first distinctions being the ones they perceive as most important.

Violating my own rule, it is easy to get a snapshot of what is wrong with the quality of tea in America by examining the taxonomy used to describe it. Implicitly, the taxonomy can be thought of as the question that comes next when you say 'Can I order a tea?'. It's the formulation of "What sort of tea - X, Y or Z'? The choice of X, Y and Z says much about what is viewed as the important variation in teas, and that in turn tells you the level of perception.

Before we get to America, let's start with how the taxonomy appears to a tea connoisseur.

This indicates a familiarity with the main types of tea, and if this is the first question, you can be sure that many more detailed questions will follow. This is the mark of someone who knows what they're talking about.

Let's look at how the taxonomy appears to the reasonable middle class tea drinker in most commonwealth countries.

The assumption here is black teas, but that's okay, since they're the main teas that are drunk in western countries. Moving down the refinement scale, you'll get
In this case, the implicit subset is 'Black' and probably 'English Breakfast' (or more realistically 'Black' and 'What's the Difference Anyway'). So this is at the okay but not great level - these are still reasonable teas, and the milk/no milk (or sugar/no sugar) distinction gets to questions of taste. I'll pay it, but just.

So what's the first level of the American taxonomy? What do you get asked when you order tea?

Yeesh. In other words, Iced teas are about 50% of the relevant variation. If you have to add 'Hot', you've already got a problem. The probability that you'll be getting a teabag is close to 98% at this point, and the likelihood that you'll be offered milk without asking is probably less than 50%.

It's like if you went to an electronics store and asked for a TV and were asked 'A Colour TV?', you've probably be worried about whether you'd walked back into the 1970s. Same thing with 'hot' tea. Is there any other civilised kind?

A friend of mine who lived in the South told me of a circle of tea hell that is even one level lower

In this case, the assumption that the tea will be iced is so obvious as to go unstated. Ye Gods.

Thank goodness for internet tea purchases, that's all I can say.

Getting back to my rude foreigners rule, tea notwithstanding, America is a great country. This may sound like the 'some of my best friends are black/Jews/gay' defense, but it's true.

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