Tea Shops Don’t Care About Tea, part 1: the rant

I don’t know where you get your tea. But unless you’ve got lots of options and have thoroughly explored them, I bet I can tell you something about the place where you shop: they don’t care about tea.

Let me explain. I mean that your local tea seller doesn’t care about tea because if they did, they’d actually know something about what they sell.

Frustrated man

Not only do they probably not know much about what they’re selling, they recognize that shoppers expect them to be experts, so they make something up. That’s right—if they don’t know the answer, they won’t say they don’t know. They won’t look it up. They won’t take a class to be ready next time. I would say that 80-90% of the tea shops I go into answer my warm-up questions wrong.

I’ve gone into tea shops and been told that the tea is called Oolong because it was grown in Oolong Province, China. It wasn’t—that’s a processing style, or maybe a cultivar, but certainly NOT a province. Anywhere.

In another shop, I overheard untruths as the guy behind the counter told a customer, “Oh, if you’re worried about caffeine, you should totally drink white tea because it’s got the least.” No, no, no! It’s got the MOST caffeine on average. Are you trying to kill her?

Yet another shop saw an employee telling me their Qilan wulong was from the “maofeng” region of China. It wasn’t. There is no such place. This time they’re chosing a leaf style—most often associated with green or black tea, not wulong—and pretending it’s a place (or ignorant enough to not realize it’s a leaf style, even though it’s one of the more well-known tea terms out of China…the motherland of tea).

If you go into a shop that sells French wines, you would expect that they may not speak fluent French or Italian, but might be able to tell France from Italy, and recognize the difference between places in France and terms used to describe how the wine is made, right?

I had a Tea Geek member recently ask me about tannic acid because they’re frequently hearing people have been told by local shops that tea has tannic acid in it. No! By international definition of “tannic acid” it cannot come from tea because that definition specifies which plants it can come from and be called tannic acid and Camellia sinensis isn’t on the list! For crying out loud, Wikipedia even says:

“Commercial tannic acid is usually extracted from any of the following plant part: Tara pods (Caesalpinia spinosa), gallnuts from Rhus semialata or Quercus infectoria or Sicilian Sumac leaves (Rhus coriaria). According to the definitions provided in external references such as international pharmacopoeia, Food Chemical Codex and FAO-WHO tannic acid monograph only tannins sourced from the above mentioned plants can be considered as tannic acid.”

So there’s a tea shop who didn’t even bother to look it up on Wikipedia. Wouldn’t you hope that a specialty tea shop gave better answers about tea than Wikipedia?

“But surely those are special cases, right?” No. Before I founded Tea Geek almost eight years ago, I was already teaching the specialty tea shops where I bought my tea about the very products I was buying from them. The average tea shop worker just doesn’t know much about tea. They just memorize the pitch, the one interesting story, the health claim, or whatever they’re told about each tea to sell it, and that’s where training ends. Sometimes not even that much. Often times, they’re just regurgitating what the supplier told them or printed on the package. Or repeating what they heard another worker and/or customer say.

Now, there are exceptions to the rule. Sometimes it’s just one employee who knows what they’re talking about and everyone else is just trying to get your money (or trying to make it until quitting time). Sometimes—very rarely—there’s a company where everyone who works there actually participates in a training program, and/or somewhat rigorous self-study.

But if you are someone who likes tea and curious about your choices, the sad truth is: you will be told things that simply are not true by someone posing as an “expert.” It’s just going to happen, and it makes me furious that the tea industry as a whole is so careless about the facts.

But there is hope.

Ignorance is a curable condition. In part 2 of this series, I’ll rant a little less and give some pointers on how to separate the wheat from the chaff. I’ll throw some education in there so that if you’re a tea drinker, you can start to figure out the relative quality of different purveyors’ answers so that you don’t get taken for a ride by someone that’s woefully uninformed or outright dishonest.

(Caveat: I always try to go with Hanlon’s Razor: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity. I’m far more likely to assume someone is woefully uninformed than dishonest unless I have evidence of the latter.)

Image source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/zachklein/54389823/

22 thoughts on “Tea Shops Don’t Care About Tea, part 1: the rant”

  1. Guess you’ve never been in our store. That’s too bad because I think you would have appreciated the time and care we spend educating our customer and answering their questions – as evidenced on our website and store in Beverly Hills. And I disagree with you – I have been into many many tea shops in the US and abroad where the owners and employees are very informed of all aspects of tea.

  2. Hi Michael,

    Everything I’ve ever read anywhere says that white tea has the least caffeine — do you have evidence of the contrary? I honestly couldn’t finish this article after reading that bit. Have been looking up white tea now, but everything I find states the same.

    I can’t honestly believe that white tea has on average the most caffeine of all teas.

  3. Hey, Simon! Thanks for the comment. Yes, there is data available although I don’t have it handy as I write this reply. The first person to show me hard numbers was Nigel Melican of Teacraft LTD some years ago. But if you understand how caffeine is synthesized and transported through the plant, particularly during growth spurts (“flushes”), it shouldn’t be any surprise. It’s essentially protection of new growth, and concentration of caffeine decreases as the leaf ages. It’s not numerical data by type, but in Tea: Bioactivity and Therapeutic Potential edited by Yong-su Zhen, they say it, “The caffeine contained in tea flush is higher in spring and gradually decreased with the growth of leaves. The caffeine contents in 1st and 2nd leaf (3.4% in dry weight) are higher than that in the mature leaf (around 1.5% in dry weight).” So any tea with more tips (like Silver Needle) is going to have higher caffeine than something that uses, say 2-leaves-and-a-bud, simply by the fact that leaves are older than buds.

    I’ve got a stack of tea data/research/etc about 6″ tall that still hasn’t been added to the Tea Geek member wiki, but I’ll try to circle back when I run across the information again and post some sources for you.

  4. David–I haven’t been to your store. But I’ve also been assured of how well informed someone is and find that they repeat bad information anyway. I wasn’t meaning to single anyone out (I could have, for example, pointed out where each of these examples came from but didn’t) because I want to point out the trend. Although part 2 will be focused on helping consumers determine if a particular tea shop is worth putting their trust in, it will also be useful to individual tea shops like your own to evaluate where on the scale you might stand of what you do vs. could be doing. I’m hoping it will be helpful for tea educators as well. Stay tuned!

  5. The amount of Internet misinformation on White tea is staggering. I would suggest reading: Tea: History, Terroirs, Varieties by Kevin Gascoyne and Camellia Sinensis. The lab study on several teas in the back of the book gives some of the most definitive numbers on teas.

  6. There is a fundamental shortfall between the number of knowledgeable tea shop workers required and the number of people in the workforce who wish to acquire that knowledge. We have had staff for whom merely being interested enough to repeat something verbatim was enough.
    Also, there are a fair few contentious issues, so sometimes people may simply choose to believe them.
    There is a tea shop owner here who is convinced Shen Nong invented/discovered tea as per the legend. Relations between he and I are strained since the publication of my book.

  7. Yes, that is one of the challenges a tea shop faces, Robert. Part 2 (which I hope to have up in a week or two, not years) will include some ideas for taking that repeat-verbatim employee and bring them further along.

  8. If you’ve spent time in East Asia you can see how shit 99% of all tea shops in North America in comparison, including ones which many people (including workers and owners of the store) seem to think are good. State of tea outside Asia seems maybe where coffee was here 75 years ago or so.

  9. Any suggestions for a soon to be owner? I am starting a tea company next summer hopefully and I have read quite a bit but I still feel like I don’t have enough information for my customers. Most of the books I found reviewed the tea which was ok but it still feels like I am missing something.

  10. I absolutely agree with the article. I nearly had a Hulk moment in a tea shop when the pleasant young woman behind the counter assured me that Assam tea came from China.

  11. Ashley–I’ll have some suggestions in Part 2 of this post, so stay tuned. In the mean time, if you’ll excuse the marketing message, Tea Geek does have a business membership which gives you access to the Tea Geek Wiki in which I collect as much of the information as I have time to add. (As I mentioned in another comment, I’ve got about a 6″ stack of things yet to enter.) It also gives you access to the Tea Geek Library Service, which is roughly like Netflix, or interlibrary loan, for tea books. More information on that here: http://bit.ly/48MSZO

    Okay, commercial complete. Aside from what Tea Geek can provide, there are some systemic things you can include in your operations to ensure you’re always moving generally in the right direction. There’s also a mindset that will help. But these I’ll try to cover in the next post. But the short answer is basically: don’t believe anything outright.

  12. Oh, Stephen. There have been a few times when I’ve heard something and thought, “I need to leave this shop NOW or there will be a scene.” That’s exactly the kind of thing that brings on those episodes.

  13. I agree there is much to be desired. I was at a tea shop that listed all their green teas as decaffeinated. When I questioned the owner about it–what process was used to decaffeinate the tea, she kind of stumbled around, finally indicating that it was caffeine free just because it was green tea! That was before I had studied much about tea and before I started my own tea business, but I knew enough then to know that green tea was not naturally caffeine free and that there were different methods of decaffeinating tea, some more harmful than the caffeine. I would also recommend the book, Tea: History, Terroirs, Varieties by Kevin Gascoyne. It’s one of the newest books on tea.

  14. Very good topic. You have certainly hit a nerve.
    I moderate a discussion group of tea shop owners, and have posted a link to this page. It is sure to generate some interesting comments.
    Looking forward to the follow-up with your suggestions on where to obtain reliable tea knowledge. As your last line stated, I am sure that most all shop owners want to be informed, but do not know where to go.

  15. Hi Michael…long time! I must be the lucky person who has the only tea shop with knowledgeble staff (you know Eric is a scientist). What is remarkable…is that the people work in this shop for years and years. They keep learning and sharing information. They CARE about tea. One person is indeed a scientist, one lived in China and read/speaks some Chinese. Happy Lucky’s Tea House (Fort Collins) may or may not be unique. I hope not. I would like to think there are many hidden jewels that are educating people in the proper way.

  16. Well, as war as I see, for most of shops the problem is not the rant, but the rent. That’s the reason they are pushed to buy cheaper low-quolity teas and tell that it’s a good ones. Same reason for finding workers with the low salary expectation

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