A Good Start to the 2020s

Every year sees a slew of new tea titles on bookstore shelves; most are ordinary. They add nothing new to our understanding of tea. However, a couple of times each decade a wonderful and informative new text appears. Virginia Utermohlen Lovelace’s Tea: A Nerd’s Eye View is just such a book.

Lovelace, a medical doctor and former professor at Cornell looks mainly at the science of tea. She begins with an overview of how we experience flavor.[1] She discusses taste, aroma and such other factors as temperature and color, and their role in producing the flavors we so enjoy in tea.[2] Lovelace takes us through the physiology of the tongue an then looks at how we perceive bitter, sweet and umami tastes. An intriguing point she makes early in the book is that in addition to the five tastes currently accepted (sweet, sour, bitter, salt and umami) there is growing evidence of our ability to taste chemicals such as calcium.

Dimensions of Taste

An important point Lovelace makes with regard to taste is that, unlike what we believed previously, each taste receptor in the mouth is capable of detecting more than one type of taste and each chemical compound is captured by more than one receptor. Sweet receptors, for example, are not located only at the tip of the tongue and these receptors do not perceive only sweetness.

The sweetness we perceive in tea as well at the umami character are mostly due to the theanine that tea produces. As sweetness and umami increase the perception of bitterness decreases. We can see how there is a direct link between agricultural practices, such as shading tea bushes for gyokuro and tencha, directly impact what we taste in the mouth.

Lovelace also discusses the olfactory system but not nearly in the depth devoted to the mechanisms of taste.[3] One example she cites is that of “indole.” Apparently human are very attracted to this smell when encountered in small doses. Perfumers often add the scent to perfumes to increase their attractiveness; but sparingly for too strong a concentration of indole smells like … well, fecal matter.

Of huge import is Lovelace’s claim, made first in her earlier book,[4] that humans are biologically limited to experiencing only three (or rarely four) scents at a time. As she says, “people who bloviate about how many more different aromas they identify in, say, a wine or a tea, are just using their imaginations.”[5] This is one of the main reasons I rarely use scent descriptors when describing tea (I much prefer to use the sense of taste) and why I do not review individual teas. That and the fact that there are so many who do this far better than I.

Camellia sinensis

After a brief discussion on the effects of heat and color on our taste perceptions (they matter), Lovelace moves on to discuss the origins of the camellia sinensis plant. After the whirlwind excursion into the physiology of flavor perception, I feel on much studier ground here. Lovelace falls into the familiar trap of claiming that all true tea is made from camellia sininsis (it isn’t)[6] but her discussion of the origin of the plant are enlightening. She begins by noting that the genome structure of the tea plant is huge; far larger than most tropical plants. This huge genome is the reason tea offers such a wide spectrum of flavors.

The next topic is the structure of the leaf and the chemical changes that occur during growth and then manufacture. We are squarely back into O chem. Don’t be put off by this section, however, and don’t skip it. One of Lovelace’s great strengths is to render this material in a way that even I can understand.

Processing and flavor

Chapter 6 gets into the meat of the book; what processing does for flavor. I shall simply highlight some of the points I found very informative in this section. For instance, Lovelace notes that, in terms of aroma compounds, white and black teas are surprisingly similar whereas oolong teas have lower concentrations of these compounds but a greater variety of them. Oolongs are intriguing to be sure. Sticking with oolong teas, she says, apparently approvingly that Darjeeling is considered by many to be an oolong. I think she is off base here[7]

Lovelace contends that spring teas are the most flavorful due to the concentration of glycosides and glycosidases. These components are less elevated in the fall. It is interesting for in my experience with Taiwanese oolongs, the preference for spring or fall teas is almost exactly 50/50. Many green and oolong teas have a distinct seaweed odor which is due to the presence of dimethyl sulfide, a chemical also found in plankton. And the list goes on and on. Lovelace does a magnificent job at conveying the significance of chemical changes in the leaf as it is damaged in production.


She is much less sure footed in the chapter on brewing. Lovelace contends that oolongs do poorly when confronted with boiling water and that they should be brewed at 175° to 180° F. This will surely come as a surprise to those in the tea business in Taiwan and Fujian where brewing with boiling water is commonplace and is believed to bring out the best in the tea.

Her discussions on the gong fu brewing style betray a lack of historical understanding. She makes the method into the ceremony it is not and completely ignores the fact that the pitcher (cha hai) and aroma cup (wenxiangbei) were introduced by the Taiwanese in the 1990s. More to the point, Lovelace’s accounting of gong fu brewing implies that there are certain utensils that are indispensable to enjoy tea in this fashion. I counter that gong fu brewing basically just means using a high leaf to water ratio. If you want to drink your tea from a mug, have at it.


The book ends with a discussion of the major, well known, tea types. I’ll focus on the discussion about oolongs as this is the area I know best.  The differences amongst tea types ought to be drawn around production methods, not levels of oxidation. The main production distinction between black tea and oolong tea is that black teas are rolled BEFORE oxidation and oolong teas are rolled AFTER oxidation.[8] A black tea with 70% oxidation is still a black tea.

A must read 

Alright, the last few paragraphs here have been filled with quibbles and these do not detract from the overall value of this book. Don’t be put off by its title; this is a serious and edifying work that anyone claiming an interest in tea must read

[1] Flavor is not just taste but also includes, perhaps more importantly, aroma.

[2] The finest overall lay account of how the brain perceives flavor is to be had in Gordon Shepherd’s short, but very dense, Neurogastronomy: How the Brain Creates Flavor and Why it Matters (New Haven, Yale University Press, 2011)

[3] For a detailed discussion of olfaction see Shepherd, 2011.

[4] Three Basic Teas and How to Enjoy Them (2017)

[5] Lovelace 2019 p. 22

[6] See Campbell, David “A Tea Myth: Challenging the Orthodox View, https://tillermantea.net/2017/05/black-black-want-oolong-back/

[7] See, Campbell, David “Black is Black I Want My Oolong Back, https://tillermantea.net/2017/05/black-black-want-oolong-back/

[8] Don’t confuse rolling with shaping. The ball shaping of many oolong teas is not the rolling to which I refer. Rolling is done on an entirely different machine after the “kill-green” step.

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