Whose Tea Is That?

When I am looking around the ‘net for tea information, I often see people reviewing teas. They’ll say they like or dislike various flavors or qualities of a particular tea. However, I find it curious how so many reviewers refer to the retailer as if they somehow produced the tea. It’s like most people think the place they buy tea is where it originates.

Tippy Golden Yunnan

For example, if you were to say “I just love Tea Geek’s Tippy Golden Yunnan,” that would seem a little odd to me, because it isn’t my Yunnan. I know at least one other retailer selling the same tea, and neither of us buy it direct from the farmer. That doesn’t stop it from being one of the top sellers at the Tea Geek Store, of course. And I wouldn’t blame you for loving it–I sure do. It’s just that Tea Geek didn’t have anything to do with making that tea the wonderful product it is.

There’s a problem with the retailer-origin approach. I’ve seen someone do a comparison of the same tea from different retailers, as if they were different teas. Even though both retailers bought the tea from the same farmer (at the same time), neither credits the farmer and both independently sell the tea as their own. So what, then, can the reviewer compare? Perhaps storage quality for the brief time portions of the same batch were held at two different companies. It’s more likely, of course, that the reviewer assumes they are actually different teas and contrasts what’s different about the quality, flavor, etc. where there really is no difference. This discredits the reviewer and misinforms the people who read the review.

The Starry NightI view teamaking as an art. Imagine a painting. Let’s say the Museum of Modern Art is selling Van Gogh’s 1889 painting, “The Starry Night.” Let’s also say I’ve won the lottery and have the cash to buy it. Wouldn’t it sound strange if I said of my new painting to my fancy dinner guests, “Oh, I just love MOMA’s Starry Night that I picked up last week.” Or to later buy another Van Gogh from a collector and to treat them like they’d been painted by two different people because I’d bought them from two different people.

Every batch of tea is unique. It’s the result of thousands of decisions made by the farmer (and processor(s), in cases where the farmer doesn’t see the process beginning to end)–soil preparation, cultivar selection, plant propagation, fertilizing, pest control, timing of the harvest, harvesting technique, plucking standard, machinery used (or not), speed of transportation to the processing facility, control of temperature and/or humidity, choice of processing technique and style, timing of the various steps of whatever process is chosen, skill of the labor required, and so forth.

Some teas come from a tea artisan that uses a somewhat standardized set of choices (think Thomas Kincaid), and others are more experimental and use different styles (Picasso, as an example). But all of them are unique. I have a tea sample next to me from Darjeeling. The information on the sample, though, is quite detailed–Glenburn Tea Estate, FTGFOP1 Special Grade, plucked on 30 March 2010, Invoice (aka “batch”) number DJ20. That tells me exactly where and when it was made, gives some information about the plucking and processing, and specifies a particular batch number. If I were to get another FTGFOP1 Special from the Glenburn Tea Estate, but it had a different invoice number, it would not be the same tea. If I got a tea of the same grade and same date from a different Darjeeling farm, it would not be the same tea.

Now, I’ll concede that many teas on the market are blends, and therefore can’t be attributed to the original craftspeople who grew, plucked, and processed the leaves. Great. But here it seems to me that tea works like literature or music. Derivative works are made all the time. Think of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Jane Austin wrote Pride and Prejudice, and Seth Grahame-Smith added the “Ultraviolent Zombie Mayhem” bits. Or Jane Eyre was written by Charlotte Brontë, and Jasper Fforde wrote The Eyre Affair in which the villain uses a device that allows him to kidnap the character Jane from the original manuscript, causing all copies of Jane Eyre to go blank. In cases like this, it’s the creator of the newer, combined, derivative work that gets the credit.

This is how I think tea should work, too. If a retailer makes their own blend, they should rightly be able to call it theirs because they actually did something to produce the thing the customer buys other than put somebody else’s product in a tin and slap a label on it or whatever.

“Yeah, but you’re a Tea Geek. Us regular tea retailers/wholesalers/customers don’t have the time to do all that kind of research to figure that all out. It’s too confusing and we’re not tea scholars!” Well, maybe that’s true to some extent. But there are some very simple steps that you can take to make it easier to give credit to the artist that created the teas you drink.

If you’re a retailer:

  • buy as close to the source as you can: ask your suppliers if they buy direct from the farm/factory
  • at the very least, ask where the tea you buy comes from
  • at best, require production information as a condition of placing an order
  • share as much of this information, through labeling or website or whatever, with your customers as you can
  • remember that if you specify a particular batch/invoice number, it’s unlikely anyone else can source the exact same tea–don’t fall into the trap of thinking all sourcing information must be kept secret from competitors
  • check out how other places do it. I happen to like what Seven Cups is doing, for example.

If you’re a customer:

  • Ask for farmer’s names, production dates, processing information
  • If it’s a blended tea (e.g., “Breakfast” teas) or flavored/scented (e.g., Earl Grey or jasmine greens), ask if the blending or scenting was done in-house.
  • Be clear that you’d rather buy tea from places that supply this kind of information. Don’t buy from a place that seems unable or unwilling to answer your questions
  • Be flexible–sometimes a new tea shop might not have all the answers up front and might have to do some research on their own. A good faith effort that doesn’t produce a good answer is much better than no effort at all.

Do you have any good (or bad) examples of giving credit where credit is due? Post them in the comments!

5 thoughts on “Whose Tea Is That?”

  1. Fantastic Post filled with great advice. Thanks Tea Geek!

    I particularly appreciate the mention that a “good faith effort… is better than no effort at all” in regards to a tea retailer’s ability to answer their customer’s questions. At Teacup (the Seattle store I manage) we have a few part-time employees who certainly love tea but it is definitely not their “life’s calling” and they often have way too little knowledge of how a tea came to be sold at our shop. I am always available to our customers to give them as much information about a tea as I can (but sometimes it may take a few days to get the answers they need). I believe any good tea shop should have at least one person who has the knowledge and/or connections to get the desired answers.

    As far as online tea reviews (by bloggers) or product descriptions (by vendors) are concerned… I agree that the best ones reveal every important bit of a particular tea’s life story… and the more specific the better. It certainly can be confusing with most North American tea shops (including Teacup) buying much of their stock from other North American tea wholesalers… this can result in the exact same leaves being sold under varying names and even different prices. A good tea vendor will be totally upfront and honest with any customer who desires to know the complete supply chain behind their teas!

  2. To some extent I agree with you, but it depends on who your customer/viewership tends to be. If you are serving a market of customers that WANT to know the information you recommend that they ask then that is great. That gives them what you may view as a more authentic experience. My experience however, is that the majority of tea consumers in North America really only care about 1 thing – how does it taste. To them it does not matter where the tea originated from, even from country to country, nevermind farmer to farmer or even batch to batch! The sad part IS that the majority of tea consumers are of this type. If it tastes good, they will continue to purchase it. If it doesn’t – they either decide they do not like green/black/white/whatever tea as a group, or do not like the company as a whole. That is sad, but reality. If we could convert these people (all tea retailers goal) then we could make things like the source of the tea relevant to more people.

    From a reviewers standpoint, again, it depends on the market they are serving. If it is for themselves as a personal form of expression, then it would be up to them as an individual to decide how much information they want to find out and communicate. If they are serving consumers, again, who are you targeting? if the majority, then a little information would be good, but is it relevant? Or is that majority looking for “it tastes good”, and like good sheep the customer buys on the recommendation. What about the reviewers that assign an arbitrary rating to a tea, but only review teas that they “like” – that will skew ratings every time. What are they basing that review rating on? Is my 4/5 the same as another reviewers? Something that the reviewing community would benefit from as a whole is a standardized scale, but good luck with that!

    I hear what you are saying, but not everything is/will be relevant to the majority of tea consumers in North America. As much as the pulpit pounders (I include myself here) would like them to care, they just don’t, and it is reflected in the success of major companies that provide sub-standard product online and in-store, both of tea and pretty much any other group of food you can name!

    The real question is, how can we educate the public without alienating them, requiring them to jump thorough hoops when all they want is a good green tea, yet at the same time, serve the needs of those that want to know more? Achieving this balance should be the goal of any company that wants to continue to grow and become successful, whatever they define that as being 😉

    The VERY last thing that we (being the tea community) need to do is become what a lot of gourmand groups have become viewed as being, exclusive, snobby and pretentious. That will only serve to scare away casual tea drinkers, and eliminate them as a possible “convert” to a higher level of tea understanding. That is not good business, nor is it good for tea.

  3. Without going point by point, what you say is true–but it goes both ways. That is, it’s true that most North American tea drinkers are just looking for a cup they enjoy the taste of. On the other hand, as a tea educator, the audience of my blog (and classes, and certification, etc.) are those who have self-selected as being people who are at least interested in learning more than that. It’s not called Tea Geek for nothing.

    This might be a bias on my part because of my point of view as an educator, but I believe the fact that most North American tea drinkers take the approach they do (which I think you accurately describe) is solely because they don’t know any better. It’s in the best interest of the commodity tea suppliers that everyone accept the idea that what’s on your grocery store’s shelf represents the breadth of what’s available. And without encouraging people to question that assumption with approaches that might seem to some to be snobby, nobody’s going to convert to the good stuff.

    And as for your comments on reviewing tea, I’ll just say “Don’t get me started.” I’d say if it’s a personal form of expression, it’s not a review. And if it doesn’t use some standard (such as the ISO brewing method and sensory evaluation terminology), it’s useless as a review for the reasons you state.

  4. I have to echo a lot of what Mike said, the majority of the American tea drinking public doesn’t really care about tea – at least when it comes to pedigree. It is a matter of two things, taste and convenience. Those qualities are at the heart of American food consumerism. Before I go on, I have to support TeaGeek’s perspective about blogging/online reviews being self-expression and not real reviews. Tea is entirely subjective and even the brewing process is subjective – each and every time.

    One thing that isn’t mentioned here, is “value added”. It wasn’t mentioned that tea leaves the farm as a finished product. The entire nature and backbone of the American tea industry is adding value. With the exception of the (very small) tea plantation in South Carolina, the US produces no tea. Improving and educating American’s about tea isn’t the necessary factor here to promote tea and move it forward as a beverage for American’s. Adding value that is relevant to American consumers is the important factor.

    As much as people may look down their noses at brands like Tazo, we have to look at the business model that Steven Smith and Company did to bring the Tazo brand to the attention of Starbucks. They added value. All the major tea retailers do exactly the same thing – develop a theme/brand to add to the tea as it is from the farm. The question at that point remains, does theme/brand that is added to the tea appeal to you, the market segment to which you belong, etc.

    Tea most certainly can be sold in it’s natural state with detailed information about source, farmer, technique and method – however, the average consumer is not a connoisseur and that detailed information complicates matters and ultimately – sales.

    A skilled and knowledgable tea retailer will be exactly like retailers of any product, well-versed in their product. That will include source information, but they will also be able to speak different marketing languages in order to best effect sales. Tea evangelism is great, and I’m a big supporter of it – but evangelism without many, many sales conversions is totally useless.

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