15 August, 2007

A Glossary of Terms

Having recently received two e-mails on the subject of the Mandarin Chinese terms used in the Half-Dipper, I thought that I might perhaps briefly touch on the subject publically.

The Chinese terminology can look daunting. The thing is, it is very convenient to describe tea - using just one word rather than a whole phrase, such as yunxiang instead of "the aroma that appears in the nose once the tea has been swallowed". It's a lazy shorthand, but really compresses the tea notes and conveys the meaning in a concise way. I suppose that's the classical definition of "jargon".

A short glossary would be useful - and I have considered adding one a few times - but figured that it would be redundant, given the ever-excellent Babelcarp, created by Mr. Perin. To that end, I've placed a permanent link in the left column for future newcomers to the Half-Dipper. I tend to not use terms unless they appear in this database, because that's pretty much the "standard reference" for tea-terms in English.

However, I should add a few words on "ku", as I notice it's not in Babelcarp, and is a word I use a great deal. I use it to mean the pleasant (or, at least, potentially pleasant) kind of bitterness that is associated with young shengpu - as distinct from "astringency", the other type of bitterness that tastes exceedingly sharp and unpleasant, usually present near the back of the tongue.

I have heard rumour that the Chinese differentiate between several other types of bitterness, but these two seem to describe most teas I've encountered.

It is said that a good candidate shengpu for aging is one that, as well has having rich, full flavour, has a strong ku. It is this potent bitterness that is, so they say, transformed during the slow shengpu aging process into the more rich, classical flavours associated with truly old tea.

I add the caveats because I haven't been interested in pu'er for the decades required to learn these effects of aging first-hand, of course, having merely sampled different cakes of different ages. I can, at best, rely on the opinions (often translated from Chinese) of those with more years experience with observing the aging process.

So, then, that will hopefully do it for the glossary. Thanks to JW and AB for the initial e-mails and questions.


speakfreely said...

Hmmmm..."astringency" to me is the "pucker factor", more associated with sour than with bitter, so to call it "the oter type of bitterness" is extremely confusing for me.

Objectionable bitterness in young sheng, could we call that "tannic"? Tannic flavors seem to be a combination of bitterness and astringency, so that would make ku the bitter minus the astringent?

小 約翰 said...

David, I encounter "Ku" as a descriptor of tea’s bitterness, used by a large variety of mainland Chinese and Taiwanese. This is often qualified by degree: (很)Hen Ku- Very bitter, (小) Xiao, small, Ji Xi Xiao extremely small, Yi dien dien Ku a little bit bitter, is the one I most often encounter, polite without being disrespectful. .. regards john

Hobbes said...

Dear Carla,

This highlights very well the relative nature of a lot of language! "Astringency" to me means that sort of hairspray-esque feeling in the back of the throat. I think "pucker"-inducing characteristics (like lemon) would be... hmm, just sour? I'm not sure. An interesting one!

Dear John,

Thanks for the notes. I now have "yi dian dian ku" set aside in my memory as a polite phrase for future use!

Toodlepip both,


Anonymous said...

I am using the same definition of "astringency" as speakfreely (Carla?). To me, it doesn't really relate to bitterness directly, but it has a bitter compound to it (it actually is quite complex and difficult to put in words).
Astringency is actually a quality desired (in balanced measures) in many teas, Japanese sencha and Darjeeling First Flushes being prime examples.

I think I know which flavor you describe by it, though! I personally differentiate bitterness with a musical analogy: ku is more like the low vibration of a bass while the unpleasant bitterness resembles more the sharp sound of cymbals.

Hobbes said...

Dear Jo,

To use the old Monty Python comparison of sounds to textures, perhaps ku is "woody" while unpleasant bitterness is "tinny"? :)