Monday, April 12, 2010

Good Catalog Descriptions of Tea

There is a degree to which almost every company (not just in tea) "talks up" their product in marketing. However, some companies are more egregiously over-the-top in doing it than others. As someone who greatly appreciates honesty in all aspects of life, I pay a lot of attention to how tea companies write about their products, and I think critically about whether or not they are being honest in their descriptions. And I reward companies that consistently provide honest, useful descriptions with my loyalty as a customer.

What makes a good description?

I think a good commercial description of a tea:

  • is brief.

  • contains useful information about what flavors, aromas, and other qualities to expect in the tea.

  • may mention or reference brewing instructions.

  • may contain information about the tea's origins and how it is produced (e.g. is a green tea pan-fired or steamed? is it grown from a particular cultivar? etc.)

  • may compare the tea to familiar varieties of tea in positive or negative ways ("similar to a Keemun" or "without the grassy and vegetal tones characterizing some sencha").

  • avoids weasel words (I am an active editor on wikipedia and I love the concept of Weasel words--if you're not familiar with the concept, I would recommend reading that page because it provides a great way to quickly distinguish b.s. from well-researched material).

Example of a Good Description:

Let's look at Upton Tea Import's TM20: Himalayan BOP. This is an inexpensive (125g for $4.20) broken-leaf black tea that is a blend from various regions in and around Darjeeling. Personally, I love it and think it offers great value. (my review) Upton's description:

For those seeking a Darjeeling-like tea at a very attractive price. The liquor is light amber. A brief infusion yields a flavorful cup with a distinctively high-grown character. Excellent for iced tea.

This is what I'd say is a good commercial description. It's brief and provides useful information: "Darjeeling-like" is very informative, "brief infusion" communicates that this tea infuses quickly (and implies that you don't want to let it steep too long--which is true--this tea becomes unpleasantly bitter and astringent if steeped too long), the cup is indeed a light amber color, and the tea has a high-grown character, makes good iced tea, and has an attractive price.

What Not to Say - Weasel Words in Commercial Descriptions:

Since I just praised Upton, and since they are my favorite company, I think it's fair for me to give them a bit of a hard time too. Let's look at their TA98: Mothola Estate White Tea.

Crafted entirely from the tips of the Assamica tea plant, this rare selection is on par with the most exquisite white teas. The flavor is smooth and sweet as one expects from a quality white tea, but a surprising malty nuance adds a delightful complexity. Highly recommended.

This description has a lot of useful information--it's made entirely from tips, made of the Assamica cultivar, its flavor is smooth and sweet, and it has a malty nuance (interesting and worth mention because one wouldn't expect this from a white tea). But the "Highly recommended" reads like a weasel word -- Recommended by whom, by Upton? Does this mean their other teas are only weakly recommended? This seems silly. And "is on par with the most exquisite white teas"...what exactly is the "most exquisite"? Taste is so subjective and I think it's best to refrain from making sweeping statements. For example, I notice that many tea drinkers strongly prefer silver needle white tea over shou mei, but there are those (such as myself) who would take shou mei any day.

I'm singling Upton out a bit unfairly here...mainly because I want to keep this post as positive as possible. =) I think Upton's descriptions are consistently honest and informative and that's one reason I like them as a company. However, if you scan commercial descriptions of various companies, you find language like this all the time, and sometimes significantly worse. "You'll love this tea..." and variants of that phrase are quite common. How does the writer know what I'll love? A major weasel word is the word "renowned" or "famous" to refer to an estate or tea garden, or sometimes a particular tea. And another weasel word: "rare". If a tea is limited production, a one-time single batch, why not state how much of it was produced? If it's not, there's no basis to claim it's "rare". If it has won an award, why not state that? But if it hasn't, but your own personal team of tasters selected it for its qualities, isn't that more informative than just saying it's good? Thinking about these things enable us to identify honesty (and dishonesty) in commercial descriptions.

The description of one of Upton's teas (TD70, since discontinued) contains the phrase: of the best we have cupped this season...

I think this is's not claiming that the tea is the best out there, it's just saying--hey, we tried a bunch of teas and we really liked this one. There's nothing wrong with subjectivity in taste...I think most people want to buy from tea companies that employ people who put effort and their own subjective judgment into tasting teas.

I'd be curious to hear other people's opinions / experiences with commercial descriptions. Does anyone have any more likes / dislikes to contribute?


  1. I have been having to write these disc. for my site, and it is rough. I think the above examples are pretty reasonable with the exception of the "highly recommended" that you pointed out. When a bunch of people are working on a site, that wording never sounds genuine. I won't post my link, but I am from Pavilion teas. If you look us up, I would love a critique of my recent prose. Good points, good article. Thanks! Aaron

  2. To be honest I do not usually like to read descriptions.
    Sometimes if I am stuck on two different teas I might glance over them, but for the most part I try not to.
    I like to make my own opinions about the tea

  3. I've been retailing loose leaf tea for almost 9 years (at the Teacup in Seattle) and I found this post to be super useful. Like most well-established tea shops, Teacup's online store also has a mix of good information peppered with what you (rightly) called "weasel words."

    As Teacup moves forward and grows in today's very well-connected and truly international tea scene, we will keep trying to tighten these things up.

    This post reminds should remind us tea vendors that today's tea customers really want solid facts about their tea as well as honest personal opinions from their trusted friends. Some flowery stories may be OK, so long as they're 100% true and they're offered in addition to the above information.

  4. Sometimes I do find what I taste is a bit different than how I imagined after reading the description, but getting used to their perceptions has helped me pick out what I like, and stay away from some that I don't like. For instance, most Upton teas that have the word 'winey' in their description, I won't like because they carry a certain characteristic. Whether I think it tastes 'winey' or not is debatable, but I just know that that particular taste they call 'winey' is undesirable to me.

    Great info and example for the 'weasel words'!

    Happy sipping!

  5. This is an extremely well presented point and something that all online retailers should consider. The best support for this argument is that Cazort's suggestions mirror what is often talked about in university marketing classes.

    People can see through dishonesty - the weasel words - that clutter so much of advertising. Writing good copy for teas can be challenging - especially when so many teas feature similar profiles. When you take an example of a company like Upton (which maintains an inventory of over 200 teas), getting commercial copy written for each tea can be very difficult. Weasel words will make up a good percentage of it if you are not diligent.

    Thanks for this awesome perspective!

    Leafbox Tea

  6. Thanks! It is a really tough job, especially if you have a large catalog. I find it hard to keep up with the 140+ styles / varieties of tea on I am constantly catching weasel words in my own writing, and I don't even have any monetary incentive to "talk up" particular styles!