The Willat Effect: More Consequences

A month ago I bought three identical tea pots to compare tea side by side. I hoped to take advantage of the Willat Effect (side-by-side comparisons create connoisseurs) to become a tea connoisseur.

It worked. Side-by-side tea comparisons are fun, easy, and have taught me a lot. When I drink tea I notice more and like it more. I do about three comparisons per day. I blogged about the first results here. The most useful idea about these comparisons came from Carl Willat himself: Compare the same tea brewed differently (e.g., different amounts of tea, different brewing times, different water temperatures). Most of my comparisons vary amount of tea or brewing time.

These many  comparisons have had several effects:

1. Yeah, I’m a snob. No more cheap tea. Yeah, I’m more nerdy about it.

2. I bought a scale (Camry EHA901, $12 in America) with a precision of 0.01 gram. No more heaping teaspoons. Mostly I use 1.5 grams of tea with about 170 ml water. For dense tea, 1.5 grams is roughly 1 teaspoon. Standard-size teabags contain about 2 g of tea.

3. Much different brewing times than recommended. The black tea I have now is Ahmad Tea English Tea No. 1 (in spite of the name, not expensive). The tin says “infuse 4-6 minutes.” I used to brew it (and all black tea) 5 minutes, now I prefer less than 3 minutes. I found that 2.75 minutes is better than 3 minutes.  Around 3 minutes it starts getting bitter — I never noticed! Another example is  American Tea Room‘s Choco Late, which contains cacao husks, vanilla, and rooibos. The package says brew 5 minutes. I prefer 30 minutes — 30 minutes tastes better than 20 minutes, I have found several times.

4. To make the comparisons as sensitive as possible I want to start with equal tea pots, so I need to clean them well after each use. This became boring. I could eliminate cleaning by using tea bags. I bought ordinary-size empty tea bags. Side-by-side comparisons (same tea, bagged versus loose) showed they made the flavor much worse. Too bad I’d bought 200. I bought much larger tea bags to use as liners rather than bags. That worked fine — no cleaning needed, taste just as good. However, they are too large, so I shorten them. The concept of a disposable tea liner (instead of tea bag) seems to be new. I cannot find any for sale. My connoisseurship has not only caused me to spend much more on tea, it has made me want an interesting new product. Tea pot makers could sell liners specially designed for their pots.  Continuing revenue, like razor blades.

5. I stopped adding artificial sweetener (e.g.,  Splenda) to black tea. Now I prefer it without sweetener.  I continue to add cream to black tea. This is the most surprising and intriguing change. Maybe sweetness is a distraction from the complexity of the flavor (which I now notice more and derive more pleasure from), but creaminess is not. I imagine the same thing is behind Richard Stallman’s “If it is tea I really like, I like it without milk and sugar.” And maybe the same thing is behind all sorts of artistic expression that strike outsiders as harsh and unpleasant. A few years ago I went to a BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music) concert and was stunned how unpleasant it was. Yet the composer (who performed it) surely enjoyed it.

Regular readers know I think connoisseurship evolved because it increased technological innovation. My experience so far supports this. Thanks to the Willat Effect, I am more of a connoisseur. As a result of this change, I am spending more on high-end artisanal goods (expensive tea) and precision manufacturing (precision scale)  and I want a new product (disposable tea liners).

People think of connoisseurs as having higher standards. The word connoisseur seems to mean exactly that.  Iin some obvious ways, they do. Yet the sweetener change (I no longer want sweetener) is in a way a lowering of standards. Sweetness is pleasant. I no longer require, or even want, my tea to be sweet. As far as I can tell, something like this is true throughout the arts. Connoisseurs make unusual demands, yes, but in some ways they are easier to please than non-connoisseurs. Indie films are less pleasant than mainstream films. Yet film connoisseurs like them more. To most people, indie films are also much cheaper and more experimental than mainstream films. By supporting them — by preferring them — film connoisseurs are supporting innovation. The connoisseurs have lowered their standards for film in the sense that they can enjoy cheaper films. A friend of mine attends the San Francisco International Film Festival  each year. He enjoys it. I wouldn’t. The SF film festival films don’t cost much, yet  they have a certain innovative quality. (I”m not a film connoisseur, I barely understand it.) The source of pleasure has shifted from conventional sources (plot, music, dialogue, gorgeous actors, sets, and landscapes) to something else, perhaps novelty and complexity.




24 Replies to “The Willat Effect: More Consequences”

  1. Have you thought about using a tea infuser? I’ve found the large ball tea infusers to be best, although I’ve not done a side-by-side comparison. They should be a lot easier to clean than teapots, but they don’t need constant replacement like tea bags.

    1. “Have you thought about using a tea infuser?” Good suggestion, I will try it. For many years, that’s what I did. It bothers me to have tea in my waste water (from rinsing the infuser) but now that I think about it that’s silly.

  2. I switched from paper filters to Finum Goldton tea filters, shortly after the Finum filters were written up on Cool Tools. The Finum filters make a good cup of tea and clean easily.

    Agreed about cream in black tea. I discovered that cream is better about five years ago. Cream is better than half-and-half, half-and-half is better than milk, milk is better than plain black tea.

    Several months ago I started transitioning from sweetened coffee and tea to unsweetened, mostly from a nutritional point of view (under the theory that if the brain perceives sweet, the body actually should be digesting incoming glucose). I’m halfway between preferring sweet to unsweetened. In my case, it’s a matter of retraining, not preference.

    I keep a spreadsheet of my ratings of black teas which I have ordered over the years from Upton Tea. My current top 2 favorites are ta30 and zk16.

    You almost have me convinced me to start measuring and timing during tea preparation.

    1. Kirk, that’s great info! Upton Tea’s a30 tea costs $11 for 125 g, which at 3 g/serving (for me, a serving consists of the same tea made 2 ways) is $0.26/serving. Their zk16 costs $7 for 125 g. Shipping (USA domestic) is $4.

    1. “Are [I] brewing the Choco Late at a constant 185 degrees for 30 minutes?” No. The water cools. Maybe I could get better results if I kept the water hot but that would be difficult. I have done that with a microwave and temperature probe — brewed chai at constant temperature for 80 minutes. I still remember how great it tasted. It just took too long.

  3. I drink only mint tea.

    I always noticed
    1) exactly one minute is great. 15 more seconds makes it ugly. Not nice in stomach, and not tasty.

    I also noticed a huge difference between brands. It was hard to believe, but it was too clear to neglect.

    2) i used sweeteners.
    2.1) only one sweetener ( a mixture of aspartam and saccarine) was good in my sensitive stomach. I would run to other stores to find it and gather an inventory.
    2.2) it was exactly half a ball of sweetener that was great. No more. No less….

    I thoughts i am crazy or fantasizing. But i knew i am right

    It comes together with many other things that I gave up my eyes because there was no theory, and common opinion were not accepting my eyes.
    No more blindness! What I See Is What I Believe

  4. @Jazi

    Several months ago I started drinking peppermint tea after supper. I agree with your observation that there’s a huge difference between brands. I’m about ready to throw out one brand because the tea tastes stale.

    Also, I hadn’t thought about brewing for just one minute; I’ll give it a test tonight.


    Another advantage to Upton’s is that you can order samples for about a dollar each. That’s what I did in my first several orders, several dozen samples in each order, and then did a bake-off between them. The smart thing I did at the time was to start a spreadsheet to track my ratings and reactions.

  5. Hi Seth,

    I have not been as diligent and methodical as you. However, I have meandered my way into being very bitchy about how my tea is prepared from experimentation and toying around.

    1) Like you mentioned with black tea, I have consistently, across all forms of tea or tisanes, preferred less steeping than is suggested, and this is one of the most important factors as to whether the tea is tolerable (to me).
    2) Whenever possible, I make tea in french presses so the leaves have plenty of room to move around. When the tea is finished steeping, I transfer the tea to another vessel. I also have a single cup+infuser for traveling, and spent a while finding a brand with an infuser I liked (holes were small enough to accomodate tisanes with small leaves, infuser was almost the entire size of the cup — FORLIFE). As my main, I use a double-walled steel french press to preserve the temperature during steeping.
    3) I pour the tea into either small cups (3.5oz) or halfway into larger cups (6oz) so that I can finish the cup while the tea is at a temperature I like. Rest is stored in a thermos.
    4) Bagged tea is always terrible, unless it is luxury (fancy infusers, whole leaves) bagged tea where the prices are ridiculous. Fortunately, quality loose tea is very competitively priced to cheap bagged tea.

    I still have many questions and curiosities and things I’ll hope to figure out. For example, the samovar method of tea is common in some cultures and makes some delicious tea, at least black tea, but involves oversteeping and then diluting this oversteeped tea with hot water. Does the temperature of the water matter? Does giving a short pre-soak in cold water help? Does storing or serving the tea in metal vs. glass vs. ceramic matter? Steeping in cast iron vs. clay vs. glass ?

    My conclusion has been similar to yours — figuring these things out may not necessarily be the right way, but they’re the right way for me and gives me pleasure when I’m enjoying my hobby later. The only frustrating thing is, like you mentioned with the liners, you realize you want a product to solve your problem that doesn’t exist yet.

    1. Daniel, I like your definition of connoisseur: “bitchy about how X is prepared.” Two things I didn’t mention in my post that are related to what you say: 1. I now prefer black tea to green (at the same price). Black has a more complex flavor than green. Now that I make black tea in a way that minimizes the bitterness and drink black tea without cream or sweetener (the same way I drink green tea), that’s quite clear. 2. Room temperature tea is fine. The complexity of flavor is clearer at room temperature than other temperatures.

  6. With reference to the Willat effect and your theories of human evolution, do you think connoisseurship and an aesthetic appreciation of “beauty” (or deliciousness, or repeated patterns, or whatever) are evolutionarily beneficial? Do they contribute to the survival of the fittest in some way?

    I can see that things that taste better might also be more beneficial to one’s health, but I can’t get any further in my thinking about this.

    1. Elizabeth, I think connoisseurship was evolutionarily beneficial because it increased innovation. It increased innovation because it made it easier to make a living as a highly-skilled artisan. People with such jobs produce more technological innovation than people with other jobs. Basically connoisseurship raised their salary. Our enjoyment of beautiful objects, and willingness to pay more for them than similar but less attractive objects (e.g., decorated cup versus undecorated cup) likewise increased technological innovation. It caused innovation in decoration, which was a stepping stone to innovation in obviously useful stuff (e.g., better weapons).

  7. Tea making. More parameters.

    Steering or not? (i.e. letting the tra in gently, and later ulling it out without much movement)

    Pouring hot water on the tea sacket, or easing the tea bag gently into the cup?

    Water temperature (there are claims that say 90 degrees celsius is better. (can be handled with thermometer

  8. Seth, I understand your discussion of connoisseurship, and it sounds intuitively compelling to me.

    My question is, where does “our enjoyment of beautiful objects” come in? How did that originate? What is its evolutionary benefit?

    I just can’t seem to come up with a reason why someone with an appreciation of beauty would have an evolutionary advantage over someone without.

  9. “My question is, where does “our enjoyment of beautiful objects” come in? How did that originate? What is its evolutionary benefit? ”

    Beauty seems like a pretty basic ‘moving towards’ valuation. So, we want to be around or look at things that are beautiful, and presumably these things tend to be good for us.

    When it comes to art, it seems more like we’re recreating the experience of natural patterns or events …

  10. I’m not explaining myself well. “We want to be around or look at things that are beautiful.” Where did the idea of “beauty” come from? Do primates have a sense of beauty? How big a leap is it from “tasty” or “comfortable” (and therefore pleasing) to AESTHETICALLY pleasing? And what evolutionary purpose does an aesthetic appreciation of something (that may not be tasty or comfortable or even useful) serve?

    1. Elizabeth, I suppose our sense of beauty started with mate assessment. Our distant ancestors, including primates, preferred more symmetrical less damaged mates. But in humans this sort of assessment, at least applied to objects, has gotten much more complicated and powerful, I believe. In other words, whether something (not somebody) is beautiful or not plays a much bigger part in our lives than it does in the life of any (other) animal. The evolutionary purpose of this great expansion of a sense of beauty happened because it caused resources to be given to highly-skilled artisans — the ones who can make the most beautiful things. These resources increased technological innovation. Here I’m talking about visual beauty. I believe our appreciation of auditory “beauty” (music) came about because it caused the same thing: resources going to those who could make the best-sounding instruments. Who were the most skilled artisans, etc.

      Perhaps the word “beauty” (what might be called the idea) was invented to describe the more attractive objects. Since many animals choose mates based on appearance, it isn’t clear what it means to say the idea of beauty was “invented”. It’s like asking who invented hunger.

  11. This film connoisseur is a good example of your observation that connoisseurs are less demanding of conventional perfection:

    After the dogs of memory had had a few days to hunt around, I realized that I’d heard this observation some 30 years ago at an AAAS talk by computer game designer Chris Crawford. He talked about candy, comic books, and computer games. In the first two cases, one expects that a small child will grow out of a predilection for simple confections and wish to experience more complicated flavors (spicy!) and may eventually become a gourmand, who eats some things that really taste _bad_. Crawford was largely expressing a hope that the level of connoisseurship and sophistication we see in cuisine and literature might come someday to computer games.

  12. Tonight I tried a new box of peppermint tea. I brewed just from this new tea, without a comparison cup which would have been brewed using my current favorite boxed peppermint tea. I think of it as a tasting where the comparison is done in memory. (I think it’s valid but not as good as having them both available in real time.) I found myself describing this tea as ‘fresh, has two sharp edges, a smooth mint flavor, fades well’. Which, I agree, sounds annoyingly like those wine snobs.

    Which made me curious as to whether you record impressions during your black tea tastings (‘malty’, ‘bitter’, ‘rich’), or if you are interested solely in the winner? And if you capture impressions, have you noticed any patterns, or whether one way to describe is better than another?

    1. I don’t write down impressions, but I remember them. Smooth is better than rough, not bitter is better than bitter. Full is better than sharp or jagged. Perhaps what I call full other people would call rich. You’re certainly right that I notice more than which tastes better: I can always say why (e.g., “A tastes fuller than B”).

  13. This is a great way to adjust/perfect recipes, too. It works because our brains judge everything relatively, even colors. And it’s why we respond to anchor pricing (was $159, now only $99!). To humans, characteristics are always based on direct comparisons.

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