What has audio got to do with tea?

by Gautam Raja

Freelance copywriting takes you to some strange places. I’ve written film scripts that teach bedside manner to newly employed nurses. Brochures for a commercial shrimp farm. The copy that was etched in glass at the entrance to a fancy restaurant. Today, I’m writing content for a B2B specialty tea company, and a high-end audio dealership.

I’m struck by the similarities. Both are specialised luxury markets with their own jargon, trade shows, and range of associated brands you’ve never heard of. Both are focussed on purity and quality, and have an appeal that’s at once robust and rarified.

The owner of the tea company told me about how good tea has terrior, just like any other specialised beverage, and spoke with great passion about how a cup of tea is a journey to the plantation. You can taste the soil, the seasons, the drying process. He took me to the tasting room, where the tasters showed me how to slurp the tea off a spoon to properly taste it, though “slurp” doesn’t quite describe how little tea is ingested relative to air; “huff” might be a better verb.

Back to audio, take the story of W, the chief listener for a famous American audio brand. Like all truly high-end brands, every unit is listened to before it’s packaged to be sent out of the factory. Yes, every single one, and they’re all heard by W. Someone from the company described it as one of the worst jobs in the world, especially since he has to use the same track for months or years on end for consistency.

The company was bought by a large parent brand which provided its own solder. W listened to a production unit made using the new solder, and deemed the sound so bad that he threatened to leave if they were forced to adopt the stuff. Experienced staff screwed up their eyes and ears, and when they concentrated, could tell that yes, this new unit didn’t sound quite as good. It was barely noticeable to most people, but for W, it was almost painful.

Another time, I watched a speaker designer tweak a system. It sounded pretty good to me, but the designer obviously thought it needed work. While it was playing a track, he went over to a speaker on its stand, picking it up, holding his head right above it. He moved it about, listening to the changing sound as it went forwards, backwards, side-to-side, his movements getting smaller and smaller, until he plopped it down. He did the same with the other speaker and the sound of the system snapped into place, as if the band moved in from playing in the next room.

The owner of the tea company, knowing how much I fetishised high-end audio, worried that that I wouldn’t be interested in the intricacies of his market. But intricacies are fascinating in themselves. I’ve learned a lot, not just about tea, but shadow markets we’d never encounter as regular consumers. It’s like a playgoer being allowed to peep backstage. My most treasured find from the specialty tea industry, though, is this phrase: “the agony of the leaves”. It is used to describe the unfurling, dancing action of tea leaves when hot water is poured over them. It’s the phenomenon that’s used for blooming teas, those hand-tied balls that blossom as they steep.

The agony of the leaves. My delight with it is not just that it’s uncomfortably vivid, but that an effect I’ve barely even noticed is an event with a name; a thought as mind-blowing as knowing that solder has a sound.

First published in Gulf News, September 12, 2017