The Agony of the Leaves

Written by Gautam Raja

I’d never heard the phrase “the agony of the leaves” until I landed a project for a specialty tea manufacturer (there’s the clue, in case you haven’t heard it either). As a freelance writer, I’m used to being led on mysterious journeys with each client. A company brochure covering the intricacies of shrimp farming in Kerala. Short training video scripts on bedside-manner for nurses. Frou-frou branding copy that was etched in glass at the entrance of a fancy restaurant that never paid me or the designer, and then swiftly went bankrupt. Just desserts?

It turns out that business-to-business specialty tea looks a lot like high-end audio. Both are specialized luxury markets with their own jargon, trade shows, and range of associated brands you’ve never heard of. Both are focused on purity and quality, and have an appeal that’s at once robust and rarified. Both are ubiquitous in common form, but much of the market hasn’t woken up to the pleasures of the truly good stuff.

Just like wine, good tea has terroir, and the client spoke with great passion about how a cup of tea is a journey to the plantation. “You can taste the soil, the seasons, the slopes, the drying process.” He took me to the tasting room at the factory, where professional tasters showed me how they brewed tea in cups of a standard whiteness so they could inspect infusion color, a vital part of the consistency of a product. They were formulating a turmeric blend, and demonstrated how to slurp the tea off a spoon to taste all the notes, though “slurp” doesn’t quite describe how little tea is ingested relative to air. “Huff” might be a better verb.

I was reminded of a similar room, focussed on a different one of the five senses, and one I’ve only heard about. It’s listening room at a storied audio brand, one I hope to visit some day. The irascible chief listener, yes I’ve decided that that’s actually his title… the irascible chief listener is someone we’ll call Steve.

As is common at many high-end audio factories, Steve listens to every single unit that leaves the premises. Someone from the company described it as one of the worst jobs in the world, especially since he has to use the same music track for months or years on end for consistency.

One day, the company decided to change brands of solder. Steve listened to a production unit made using the new material, and deemed the sound so bad that he would resign if they were 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 Steve, it was almost painful.

Hearing me tell this story and knowing how much I fetishized high-end audio, the owner of the tea company worried 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, such as contract manufacturing, that we’d never encounter as regular consumers. It’s like a playgoer being allowed to peep backstage before the show begins. My treasured find from the specialty tea industry, though, is the phrase I mentioned: “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 exploited for “blooming teas”, those hand-tied balls that blossom as they steep.

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

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