Tuesday, January 31, 2012

An About Page, And Other Navigation Pages

In case you haven't noticed, yesterday I added several more permanent or timeless pages to this blog, and a toolbar at the top. There's now an "About" page (helping me to be a little more consistent at practicing what I preach, after I wrote some time ago about the importance of having an about page), as well as a page highlighting popular posts, and a page on the series of best practices for tea company websites.

These changes are mainly because this blog has grown old enough that I think there are a lot of useful posts buried deep in the history...and I want to encourage new readers and new visitors to this blog to discover some of the better old posts out there.

If you have a blog:

If you have a blog, I'd encourage you to periodically draw attention to your older posts, especially ones that you are most passionate about, or that you think are the most informative or the best representatives of your work. I love reading this sort of stuff, so if I subscribe to your blog, and you post something of this nature, I'll be very likely to read it. Also, if you have any suggestions about what you'd like me to include in the navigation bar at the top, please let me know too!

Monday, January 30, 2012

Trader Joe's Tea - And Commentary On The Chain As A Whole

Some time ago I wrote a long post about Tea at Wegmans Supermarket, which I followed up on by reviewing nine of Wemgans' Teas and herbal teas on RateTea. This post is about another supermarket chain: Trader Joe's. The following picture shows a Trader Joe's that I have visited before, in Media, PA, although this is not the store I regularly shop at. If you've seen me with my hat, the flower (a poppy) in my hat was a gift from a veteran outside this store, after I donated some money. This store was built inside the old Media armory, which also houses the Pennsylvania Veteran's Museum:

Trader Joe's and Wegmans share a few things in common: they are both perceived as relatively high-end supermarket chains, catering to people who like food and want higher-quality products. But the similarities end there. Both the tea selection and the stores as a whole are vastly different.

Trader Joe's Tea:

Tea is not Trader Joe's strong suit. The company does sell its own brand of tea. However, the tea is only available in tea bags, and as tea bags go, I personally find them quite disappointing. If you read reviews of Trader Joe's Tea on RateTea, you'll see that, as of writing this, all of their tea ratings on the site are in the 40-50 range (out of 100). They're not terrible, but no one seems to love them either. There are no single-region teas, and no loose-leaf teas.

Trader Joe's also does not seem to put as much effort into tea as they do coffee. The company has a full four pages on their website about coffee, and not one page on tea. Their coffee offerings are also, in my opinion, clearly superior to their tea offerings: they sell single-origin coffee, including some shade-grown coffee.

I do believe that, with little effort, Trader Joe's could do better. Most of Trader Joe's products are consistently high quality for a relatively low price, and their tea seems to fall outside this pattern: it is average-priced, but strikes me as below-average in quality. Even if they just wanted to stock tea bags, they could stock higher-quality tea bags. Maybe they could throw in an offering or two from Ten Ren Tea, which, in my opinion, offers one of the best quality-to-price ratios among simple tea bags. Even offering just Foojoy tea bags would be a step up in quality (and a step down in price) from what they currently sell. And there are so many great companies out there selling simple tea bags that are better than what Trader Joe's offers, and lower in price. Why not throw some single-region teas in the mix?

If I were running Trader Joe's:

If I were running Trader Joe's, I'd make the following changes:
  • Sell finum basket infusers in the tea section, and sell some boxes of loose-leaf tea. I'd search long and hard to find a product offering superior quality at a low price, like the three teas I featured in my post cheap tea: loose-leaf teas offering outstanding value.
  • I'd put a big, and cute sign next to the loose-leaf tea for about 6 months after stocking it, saying something to the effect of: "Loose-leaf tea saves money, protects the environment, and is superior in flavor." These are three things that Trader Joe's customers seem to care about, and I think it would probably make the loose-leaf tea sell quickly, even among people who had not ever tried loose-leaf tea before.
  • I'd put an equal amount of pages on their website about tea as about coffee. I'd highlight the individual products they offer, and draw attention to the fact that the company was now selling loose-leaf tea, and explain the benefits of loose-leaf tea in terms of price, quality, and sustainability.
  • I'd find a new supplier for their private-label brand of tea bags. From what I've tried of them, I don't think their current tea bags compare well to what else is out there, even among low-end tea bags.
  • I'd add single-region tea bags, like Darjeeling, Assam, and I'd probably offer some of the most popular Japanese styles of green tea, like hojicha and genmaicha, and maybe some Chinese teas as well, like oolongs and green tea. I know these things exist because I've had decent tea in tea bags for a fair price from brands like Ten Ren Tea, Foojoy, Harney and Sons, and Jacksons of Piccadilly.

In short, all Trader Joe's needs to do is to start thinking more about what tea they offer. The offerings now seem to reflect a lack of consideration or focus on this product, like tea is merely an afterthought.

Trader Joe's as a Whole:

While I'm writing on the topic of Trader Joe's, I want to comment on the chain as a whole. I shop here semi-regularly (every couple of months) and there is a lot I like about the store. But there's also a lot that I dislike.


In my opinion, the biggest strength of Trader Joe's is that it has consistently fair prices on products that are consistently above average quality. I think the best products to buy at Trader Joe's are packaged products that you can buy in relatively large quantities. I buy such things at this store as raw nuts, dried fruit, kalamata olives in glass jars, canned smoked herring, and massive bars of 70% dark chocolate. I also buy a fair amount of cheese and chicken sausage at the store.

I also want to mention some strengths of this store, other than the quality of the products: the employees are very courteous, which, according to my friends who have worked at this store, follows naturally from the fact that Trader Joe's treats their employees very well and the store is a pleasant place to work. I also like the no-nonsense pricing -- there are no sales or complex deals, only consistently fair prices. Another benefit of shopping here is that the store keeps enough staff on hand so that lines stay short, even when the store is busy.


Trader Joe's produce section is close to what I would consider an epic fail. Nearly all the produce is shipped in from very far away; the chain lags behind even the most "ghetto" supermarkets in terms of its lack of locally-grown or even semi-locally-grown produce. Much of the produce is packaged, and a very large portion of it originates outside the country. Once in a rare while I've picked up a good batch of something or other here, but my experiences, by and large, with the produce have been pretty bad.

Trader Joe's also fails when it comes to the sustainability of their fish offerings (with the exception of the canned fish I mentioned above). There is no fresh fish in the store, only canned fish and frozen, packaged fish, which can be fine, except for the problem that much of what the company sells is among the worst choices available from the perspective of sustainability and health. I use Seafood Watch and EDF's Seafood Selector to guide my choices of what fish to buy, and a large portion of what Trader Joe's stocks is on the "Avoid" or "Eco-Worst" list of these organizations, not to mention that many are also marked as being high in mercury and/or PCB's.

In terms of the store itself, some other downsides of this chain are that the store interiors tend to be cramped and have traffic jams during busy times of day, and that many of the store's parking lots also tend to be cramped. I have also noticed that some of their stores in urban areas have a pedestrian-unfriendly design. For example, there is a Trader Joe's on market street in Philadelphia, but you can only enter from the rear of the building, where the parking lot is--friendly to drivers but unfriendly to walkers or people arriving from the trolley stop.

What do you think?

Do you shop at Trader Joe's? What do you think of their tea offerings? Do you think they could do better? How about the chain as a whole?

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Top 5 Most-Viewed Region Pages on RateTea

RateTea has pages with brief to long articles on individual tea-producing regions, including both countries and smaller divisions, such as states, provinces, prefectures, districts, counties, or whatever divisions exist in the countries that grow tea. This post highlights which of these articles or pages are viewed most often on RateTea.

This list was surprising to me.

  1. Japan - Japan comes out a clear first, beating out China by a long-shot. Why? This result was not intuitive to me; although Japan certainly has a very well-developed specialty tea culture, the volume of tea and diversity of tea produced by China is much greater, and the number of Chinese teas listed on RateTea is much larger. However, when I looked at when this page started being more viewed, I realized exactly what was going on...this page received few views before march of 2011; people seem to be coming here to learn about their tea in response to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.

  2. China - This one is to be expected.

  3. The United States - Another surprise....the United States barely produces any tea commercially, but, given that the bulk of RateTea's audience is in the U.S., I think it makes sense that people would be interested or curious to check out this page. The page itself is fairly extensive, and talks both about the sparse tea production in the U.S., the climate of the U.S. as related to growing the tea plant, and herbs grown in the U.S. used in herbal teas.

  4. India - Another expected one.

  5. Sri Lanka - No surprise here either.

There you have it. Interesting, huh? Oh, and guess what one was number six on the list? Guatemala.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Link Permanence - The Importance Of Keeping The Same URL Scheme

This post is the next in my series of posts on best practices for tea company websites. Recently, I wrote about the importance of having a product page for each tea. Many of the benefits of having product pages come from increased traffic to your site, often coming in through links from bloggers, forums, and social networking sites, when people comment on your teas and share a link to the page on your site.

These links will stop helping you if you change your URL scheme and the links become broken links. Furthermore, the broken links may also harm the people who linked to you, which can frustrate them and make it less likely for them to link to you in the future.

In this post I will make an argument for the benefits of maintaining a consistent URL scheme. The best practices, as I recommend, are:

  • Ideally, do not ever change the URL scheme on your website. Put great care into thinking about how your URL's will be organized, and then stick to it, even through a major site redesign.

  • If you do ever change your URL scheme, or move or rename the URL of a page, use an HTML redirect, such as a 301 redirect, from each old page to the most appropriate new page.

  • If you discontinue or retire any teas from your catalogue, do not merely delete the page, but either leave the page and mark the tea as discontinued, or recycle the URL and have the same page display a newer, similar tea. I discuss these alternatives below.

  • Never, under any circumstance, make any link that you shared anywhere lead to an error page or broken link. If you must take down a page, redirect the page to the most relevant page still existing on your site. As a worst-case scenario, at least redirect old pages to your homepage.

  • You can draw attention to the fact that your URL's will remain in existence permanently by using the word permalink to draw attention to them and show your commitment to URL permanence, especially if you have a box somewhere on your page that allows people to copy-and-paste the URL to your tea in order to facilitate sharing.

Below I explain why I believe these practices to be in your best interest.

Links often produce sustained traffic:

It has been my experience that most links provide sustained traffic to a website. In our society, with a culture that favors things new and current, it can be tempting to think that all that matters is recent or current coverage, but this could not be farther from the truth. When looking at the websites sending traffic to RateTea, or to any of my websites, I see a clear trend that most referral traffic from other websites comes from pages that continually send traffic over a long period of time. I provide a few examples, which I've anonymized to discourage people from spamming these sites; the graphs come from Google analytics, which is a free and easy way of tracking visits to a website.

The following link to RateTea, from a social bookmarking site, added by a user I have never had any contact with, produced a burst of traffic, with 53 visits in one day, slowing to almost zero. But over the long-run, it began sending more traffic; currently this one link has sent 491 visits to the site; the original burst was only about 11% of the total traffic through this link.

When someone links to your website, you often will see a burst of traffic coming through that link immediately after it is posted. The traffic then slows to a trickle, and may not even be measurable over a period of a few weeks. But in many cases, if you look on a larger time-scale, such as months or years, the total traffic arriving through the link in the long-run ends up being much larger than the initial burst. Why? Often, people rediscover old posts and pages on websites, and re-share them. As people re-share them and begin linking to them, traffic on those pages picks up, and the traffic tends to be more sustained, as it reflects deep interest in a hard-to-find resource, rather than subscribers to a blog, or people looking to glance quickly at something just because it is new.

In case you're not completely sold yet, check out this graph:

This link to RateTea was on a post from a blog that I suspect has very few subscribers. There was no initial spike in traffic when the link appeared. Yet the link appeared in an interesting and well-written post, one that people continued to share and link to over time, and the traffic through that link has grown and grown, and shows little sign of slowing down. To-date, over 89% of the traffic through this link arrived over six months after the link appeared.

Which of these graphs is typical for traffic to RateTea? You may be surprised, but the second graph is actually more typical. Most of the traffic to RateTea comes through links like the second; I had to really search hard to find the first example.

If you change your URL's carelessly, and leave broken links, you will lose most of your referral traffic. You will also lose search traffic, because links influence the prominence of your website's pages in search results.

What happens when links break:

When links break, and lead to error pages, such as "HTML 404 Not Found" errors, a bunch of things happen. First, you stop receiving traffic through that link. Search engines stop seeing that link, and stop using it to factor into returning your site's pages in search results, so, as links to your site become broken, your site's prominence in search results may fall, including on unrelated pages, such as your homepage.

But also, the person who linked to your site now has a broken outgoing link on their website or blog. This makes them look bad, and it can also penalize their site in search engine results. (Search engines perceive sites with a larger portion of broken links as being less well-maintained.) I will say that personally, when I link to a tea company's pages, and they repeatedly change their URL scheme or take down products, leaving broken links, it makes me highly reluctant to link to them in the future, as I learn that I will need to periodically check the links. This creates unnecessary work for me, if I am to maintain my own website as accurate and reputable. It is also annoying, because I add links as a favor to websites: I link to tea companies that I like, if I feel good about the company and want to promote them and their products.

So, by making your links break when you change your URL scheme, you risk annoying (and in extreme cases, alienating) bloggers and webmasters who have already linked to you. You are effectively harming them, in response to an action they did that helped you. Allowing your links to break is not good business, and is not a very courteous thing to do.

Dealing with web design companies:

Most tea companies do not run their own websites; they hire other companies to do them. But if you hire a company to do a site redesign, make sure to specify, before hiring them, that you want them to develop a sustainable, permanent URL scheme, and if you already have a permanent URL scheme that is good enough to keep, specify that they carry out the redesign within your old scheme, so that all links remain the same. And if you do end up changing schemes, specify that you will require permanent 301 HTML redirects from all old pages, so that all your old links will remain indefinitely.

Handling retired or discontinued teas:

Tea companies invariably retire or discontinue some of their teas from time to time. There are different ways of handling this without producing broken links. If you retire a tea that is unique, without adding a similar offering to your website, it is best to leave the tea's product page on your site, and simply mark it as retired or permanently out of stock, and remove it from search results on your site. You can remove all the links to this tea, without taking down the page for this tea. This prevents all the problems mentioned above. It is also a good idea to link to the most similar teas in your catalog, from a page on a retired tea. This increases the likelihood that you will actually make a sale when someone comes to your site looking to buy a tea that you no longer sell.

Some companies, such as Upton Tea Imports, recycle their item codes, and appropriately, replace the content on the page for an old, discontinued tea with the description and information of a new tea. This approach also prevents broken links. If the new tea is similar to the original, it also ensures that people following the link land on a page that is of interest to them. This can be a good way of solving the problem of retired teas and broken links, especially when you add similar teas to teas that had been removed from your catalog. This practice, however, can become a bit iffy when replacing a retired tea with a radically different tea.

Stay tuned for more:

How to design a good URL scheme for a tea company? I hope to address this in future posts.

What do you think?

Do you agree with my advice and think my reasoning here is sound? Am I perhaps overestimating the importance of URL permanence? Have you ever linked to a tea company website only to see them change their URL scheme and have the link become a broken link? And if you work for a tea company, have you considered these things when redesigning your site?

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Why "Styles of Tea"? And Another Thank You

Yesterday we published a new page on RateTea titled Why Style? What Exactly Is A Style Of Tea?. Lately I've published a ton of new articles on RateTea, and I think they are all quite good, but this one in particular I would like to encourage people to read it. I use the phrase styles of tea frequently on this blog as well as on RateTea. As the article explains, I have some very carefully thought out reasons for the use of this term, a term which is not a universally accepted standard within the tea industry (although a number of companies and bloggers do use it, sometimes in different ways).

The above picture illustrates what I think of as different "styles of tea"; p.s. exactly two of these are not tea...can you tell which two?

I also want to give yet another thank-you to Tony Gebely of World of Tea and Chicago Tea Garden for this one; although I had reasoned through my choice of the word style long before I began talking to Tony about the matter, it was a series of conversations I had with Tony that helped me to more clearly articulate exactly why I like using this term, and that made me decide it was worth writing about this choice.

What do you think?

Do you understand my rationale behind using the term style? Do you ever use this word to refer to tea? Do you use the word differently from, or similarly to how I use it or how we use it on RateTea? Do you have any interest in using this word more, after reading the RateTea article?

Monday, January 23, 2012

Why Does Glass Break Or Shatter When Pouring Boiling Water Into It? On Thermal Shock

Occasionally I find interesting questions on Yahoo! answers about tea; today I saw one that was interesting enough that I wanted to write about it here. The question was:

How to prevent broken glass when pouring hot tea?

A number of people, at some point in their life, have the unfortunate experience of pouring a hot liquid, such as boiling water or hot tea, into a glass, to find the glass shatter or crack. Why does this happen? And how can we prevent it from happening?

Even the most heat-resistant glass, like this borosilicate glassware, is subject to shattering under thermal shock.

Why does some glass shatter when heated?

The phenomenon which causes glass to shatter when we pour boiling water into it is called thermal shock. Wikipedia has a very technical article on Thermal shock that is probably more than most of you would need to know about it.

Unfortunately, not all cups or vessels are suitable for handling hot liquids with ease. Typical glass, in general, is not able to handle such heat very well. The reason is that as the glass heats, its density changes; it expands. Pouring boiling water into a glass is highly likely to shatter it, because the hot water contacts part of the glass first, whereas other parts of the glass (such as the outside of the cup) remain cooler. The glass thus does not expand as a whole, but is pulled in different directions as part of it expands and part does not; this difference produces the shattering.

Glass is less likely to break or shatter if we warm it up gradually. Pouring boiling water into an ice-cold glass is much more likely to shatter it, as is putting a hot piece of glass into a cold bath of water.

This effect of thermal shock is strong enough that it even can cause special types of glass like Pyrex or borosilicate glass, used in a lot of commercial labware, to shatter. I remember this from a chemistry lab in high school: we produced a solid in a test tube and needed to extract it, and to do so easily, we heated the tube to a high temperature, and then put it in a bath of cold water. This procedure caused even the heat-resistant labware to shatter.

Preventing breaking:

We can prevent teaware, cups, and mugs from breaking by following two guidelines:

  • Avoid using generic glass for hot liquids; stick to ceramics or glass that we know to be heat-resistant.

  • Even when using ceramics or heat-resistant glass, avoid very large, sudden changes in temperature.

Properly fired ceramics can handle the shift from room temperature to boiling water just fine, but a big enough shock will shatter just about anything. Have you ever had any of your cups, mugs, glasses, or teaware shatter due to thermal shock?

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Top 5 Most-Viewed Styles of Herbal Tea on RateTea

Some of the readers of this blog are die-hard tea purists, and have little interest in herbal teas, but to me, herbal teas are actually as interesting as, if not more interesting than tea. Herbal teas, particularly those made from fresh herbs grown in my garden, are actually one of the main driving forces behind my interest in tea, as I explain in my post how I became interested in tea. Accordingly, RateTea has a tremendous amount of information on herbs, in addition to tea.

Note: for explanation of why I use the term "herbal tea" even though some people consider it to be technically incorrect, you can read my post: Is Herbal Tea Tea?

This post highlights the five most-viewed styles of herbal tea on the site:

  1. Hibiscus Tea - A tangy herbal infusion with a deep purple-red color, demonstrated in controlled clinical trials to be an effective treatment to lower blood pressure and treat hypertension, hibiscus is a popular herbal drink on its own right, and a major ingredient in many herbal tea blends. This article explains all these things in depth.

  2. Tulsi / Holy Basil - This herbal tea is one that I personally find most interesting, which is reflected in the extent of this article. Tulsi is important in Ayurveda and also holds spiritual significance in Hinduism. There is growing scientific evidence for it having a broad range of medicinal uses, including positive impacts on the mind, such as preventing or treating anxiety, Alzheimer's, and depression, as well as other medicinal uses, such as treating type 2 diabetes. And it tastes really good.

  3. Rooibos / South African "Red Tea" - Rooibos is sometimes presented as the herbal tea that most closely resembles black tea; it is oxidized in a process much like the process used to create black tea. This article is also pretty extensive, and if you haven't yet read it, I'm pretty sure it contains some things about Rooibos that you are unlikely to know already.

  4. Chamomile Tea - A widespread and popular relaxing herb in western tea culture, chamomile is one of those herbs that I also found had a lot to it, when I started researching it. This page includes discussion of different species of chamomile, medicinal uses, and even some potential cautions such as drug interactions and possible allergic reactions.

  5. Mint Tea - I've been hoping to at some point break out this post into different pages on the individual types of mint, especially peppermint and spearmint, but possibly others, as they are quite different, but for now I have them lumped into this single article.

What do you think? Surprised? I'm not at all surprised...chamomile, mint, and rooibos are the three most popular pure herbal teas that would come to my mind. Hibiscus is very popular globally, and both hibiscus and tulsi are popular topics for people searching for information related to herbal medicine.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Flash-Only Websites and Insulting Your Customers: Shooting Yourself In The Foot

This is the second post in a series of best practices for tea company websites. This post is about something that some businesses, including some tea companies do, which is to have flash-only websites, meaning a website that is only accessible or navigable by using Adobe flash player. In my opinion, the best practice for the use of flash in websites is as follows:

Make your entire website fully accessible, and attractive looking without the use of flash player. Use flash player only for supplemental interactive features that cannot be achieved without flash.

The screenshot above shows what a flash-only website looks like to a user who has flashblock installed. Does this look inviting? Professional? Do you think you're going to make a new customer or retain an old customer with this sort of greeting?

Why not flash?

  1. A large number of people legitimately cannot install flash on their computers or browsers. Most users on mobile phones cannot use flash; Adobe discontinued flash for mobile devices some time ago. Some very old computers cannot handle flash, and some browsers, including text-based browsers, cannot handle it either. Flash can also provide problems for the blind and visually-impaired, who must often rely on text-based browsers. Yes, by relying on flash you are completely shutting out visually-impaired users.

  2. Many users simply do not install flash player. Security concerns are a major reason. Security-sensitive workplaces can ban the use of flash for this reason. Annoyance and slow speed on older computers are another concern that leads people to not install flash.

  3. Many users who have flash player installed use flashblock, because they find flash ads annoying. A certain portion of these users will choose not to load the flash elements of your website, instead just leaving your site in annoyance.

  4. Search engine crawlers cannot navigate flash menus and flash websites. If your site is just one page with a giant flash program, you will only get one page indexed by search engine, and it will just index a blank page. Even if your website has normal URL's and some text content, if you rely on flash for navigation features, the search engines will not be able to navigate your website and will have a hard time determining its structure and returning your site in search results.

  5. If your site is flash-only, you lose the benefit of people being able to include deep links to specific pages on your site, a benefit I describe in my post about the importance of having product pages for individual teas. This also causes you to lose potential traffic when people talk about your products on blogs or social networking sites.

  6. Even people who have flash installed and not blocked may still find it annoying. Even before I installed flashblock, I disliked flash-only websites, and I had a very low tolerance level for them.

Think these are small amounts of users? The percentage of mobile users is on the increase; on my websites it tends to range in the 5-10% zone. I've seen estimates that roughly 25% of Firefox users use flashblock. My estimation is that if you have a flash-only website, you are shutting out a minimum of 15% of your users, and probably losing 25-50% of visitors between annoyance and inability to view your page.

In practice, however, when considering the loss of search engine navigability, since search contributes 50-80% of traffic to many websites, you can easily be losing 90% or more of your total traffic by having a flash-only website.

An example of a flash-only tea company website:

The most egregious examples of a flash-only websites are those where you cannot even view any aspect of the website without flash player:

Really? A user on a text-only browser would just get "Please click here to get the Flash 7 player and enter the world of Tazo.", and the full message, "Your patience with technology will be rewarded..." is worse. This message is a particularly self-destructive marketing move on the part of Tazo: it is worded so as to imply that if you do not use flash, you are not "patient with technology".

Never insult your customers!


If you use Adobe flash on your website, use it only for supplemental features embedded as a small feature within specific pages on your site. Make your site fully functional and navigable without flash, or make a flash-only alternative for search engines and people who cannot use flash. Requiring flash can cause you to lose a majority of your potential web traffic. And, if you do make a flash-only website, at a very minimum, think carefully about the wording of your message. How about offering an apology for your own failure to make your site accessible without flash, instead of insulting users who do not use flash?

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

How Into Tea Are You? How Is Being Into Dance Like Being Into Tea?

Lately I've been thinking a lot about my level of depth, interest, and focus, in various aspects of my life. A discussion on the Tea Trade Forums led me to an LA Times story on rare tea enthusiasts, which sparked some of this thought. When I first started working on RateTea, I was interested in tea, but was early on in the process of learning about it. Now, I know a fair amount about tea, having spent a few years researching it in a fairly intense manner, sampling different teas, and becoming tied into the tea industry in various ways. But I would not consider myself a tea expert, and I regularly encounter people who know far more about tea than I do, and perhaps more importantly, who are more into tea.

These people are more excited about tea than me. Tea is their passion. I will be the first to admit, tea is not my passion. Yes, that's right, I'm not that into tea. Just how much am I into tea? I'm into tea in much the same way I'm into dance. Here is a picture of one of the styles of dance that I like to do regularly, called lindy hop, a type of swing dance. This photo was taken at Rittenhop, an event run by the Lindy and Blues organization, whose tuesday night dances I nearly always attend:

There are some people who are really into dance: they dance many nights a week, and on weekends they frequently travel to various big dance weekends, which include weekends focusing on workshops and dance lessons, as well as those focused on social dancing. Some of the people with the highest level of enthusiasm for the dance scene will lose a lot of sleep at these events, and between their work and dance, they have little room for other hobbies and social activities.

When I dance too much:

There is such a thing as too much dance. I have gone to physical therapy twice for dance-related injuries, and they were both not acute injuries, but rather, injuries associated with chronic over-use. I've stayed up later than I normally would because of dance, and felt bad and off-kilter for the following day or two. And I've had moments when I realized that my whole social life revolved around the dance scene, and that I felt a strong need to diversify my social circles. And I cut back from dance and diversified my life in all of these circumstances.

I'm more interested in balance in my life. I like dance not for its own sake, but because I like the exercise and the social interaction, I like the sort of community of quirky, intelligent, creative people that the dance scene attracts, and I like the dance form as something that can be a source of creativity and inspiration in my life. I like dance because it produces good results in my life. But I am not interested in attending every big dance weekend, not even every one in my own city. I do not care about being the "best" dancer (if there is such a thing), and I do not feel like I'm missing out if I miss a major dance event. I value my sleep, I value having a broad range of hobbies, and I value having a diverse social life. I want to dance only to the degree that it enhances, rather than detracts from the other elements of my life.

My interest in tea:

My interest in tea is similar. I like tea not for its own sake, but I like tea because I like how it tastes, and how it makes me feel. I like the effect that drinking tea has on my life. And I like the effect that paying attention to how tea tastes, and learning about where my tea comes from, has on my life.

However, I am not interested in getting so focused on tea that it would detract from other elements of my life. For example, I'm not interested in drinking so much tea that I have trouble sleeping because of the caffeine, and I'm not interested in spending so much money on tea that it takes away in any substantial way from money that could be better put to use elsewhere. And I'm not interested in thinking or learning so much about tea and where my tea comes from, that I start thinking less about my food and where it comes from.

My interest in tea fits in a holistic way into my life. And at times, I find myself obsessing over tea, and I realize this is too much, and I need to hold back.

What I want to encourage in others:

I want to encourage this approach in others. I want people to become interested in tea, not to become interested in tea for its own sake, but so that they start paying more attention to food and drink in general. I want people to start listening to their bodies and raising awareness of their mind and bodies through paying attention to how tea makes them feel. I want people to drink tea with others and to take a break in their day to enjoy tea, and I want people to see the mental and emotional and spiritual benefits of taking these sorts of breaks.

And I think this is a good general rule to follow, when asking yourself how interested you want to be in something. Is your interest in this one thing making your life as a whole better? If so, then keep being that interested or more interested. If your interest is detracting from your life as a whole, by taking away from other aspects of your life, then scale back. This point will be different for different people. But I'm about at that point for tea. I'm not interested in being any more interested in tea, nor any less interested; I'm content where I am.

How about you?

Monday, January 16, 2012

Tea-Food Pairings: Kiwifruit And Pouchong

I mostly discover tea-food pairings by accident. I recently I discovered an unlikely pairing that I thought went quite well together: kiwifruit and Pouchong / Bao Zhong tea.

Photo by André Karwath aka Aka, Wikimedia commons. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5.

On Kiwifruit:

Kiwifruit are a rather strange fruit; they are quite delicious (and high in Vitamin C), but leave a lingering tangy quality on the palate, which I find can radically change the experience of anything I eat or drink after them. Sometimes, I find the effect on a cup of tea is negative, especially if the tea is a more mellow or subtle one. Usually, the teas that I find are best to drink after eating a kiwi are strong teas which overpower the lingering flavor and sensations left by the fruit, but teas that work well with having an additional tangy quality added to them.

Pouchong or Kiwifruit:

Pouchong is a type of tea that I would not expect to go well with Kiwifruit. Its flavor is mild and slightly sweet, and its aroma gentle, floral, and vegetal. But I found that, in the case of the pouchong I most recently tried, they went pretty well together.

This Pouchong:

I drank a cup of Upton Tea Import's TT92: Formosa Pouchong. When I first ordered from Upton, they had only two Pouchongs in their catalogue. Both were extremely high-end, among the highest-priced of Upton's offerings. One of the reasons I prefer Upton is their lower prices. This new offering is not cheap, but it is lower in price than either of the two other teas (both of which they still carry). You can read my review of this newer pouchong on RateTea.

What do you think?

Does kiwifruit spoil or interfere with your experience of tea? Can you see pouchong going well with kiwi?

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Top 5 EzineArticles Articles Sending Traffic to RateTea

I publish on a number of different websites. One site I publish on is EzineArticles, an article directory. Article directories are websites which solicit articles in exchange for free publicity--an author contributes free articles, in exchange for (supposedly) greater visibility and traffic to a website or blog. In general, I do not recommend publishing on article directories; after experimenting with them, I have found them to be a waste of time. EzineArticles is a sole exception, as it has higher standards of editorial integrity than the other sites.

Here are the five articles I've written which have sent the most traffic to RateTea; these are not the articles with the most views:

I think these are some of the better articles I published on the site, reflected in the fact that people actually read through the articles and visit RateTea.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Importance of Having A Product Page For Each Tea

This is the first post of a series I hope to write on best practices for tea company websites. These practices are based on my own understanding of web marketing, and are personal advice, not universal truth. I'll be the first to admit that I'm not an expert on web design; a lot of the best aspects of my websites are things that I have needed to figure out myself, by trial and error. One thing I have come to believe through my work on RateTea is the following principle:

It is beneficial to have a specific product page, with its own URL, for each individual tea that your company sells.

The screenshot above shows a product page for a tea from Upton Tea Imports; Upton has over 420 individual teas in its catalogue, and has a specific page for each one.

We all know the importance of having a webpage that is informative and looks nice. Why have a specific page for each individual tea? What if my company has hundreds of teas? Isn't that a lot of work? In this post I will not address the question of how to do this, but I will provide the reasons that I think this is important:

1. People can link to the page when talking about your tea:

If you have a page for each individual tea, and this page is easy to find on your site, people will be likely to link to it when talking about your tea. They may share the page on facebook or twitter, or link to it in their blog, or on a forum. Either way, you get more traffic to your site. You may get new people coming to your website who have not been there before. You may even make sales as a direct result of these links.

These links are especially beneficial when someone writes a detailed review on a blog, and links it to the product page for your tea. These sorts of links are very common: if you read review-centered tea blogs you will see that many of them include such links in almost every case, whenever a product page exists.

Personally, I am much more likely to link to a tea company's website if they have product pages. This is true both of links on this blog and on RateTea, which links the page for each tea to the product page, if this page exists.

2. Having a specific product page for each tea helps you to get search traffic:

If you have a product page for each tea, it makes it more likely that that page is returned in the results when people type the name of that tea into a search engine. The extra links generated because people are linking to the page will also make it more likely that your website is returned in search results, but sometimes, just having the specific page can go a long way, even if no one else links to it and the only links are from within your own website.

If you do not have a page for each tea, and another website does (as is common on sites like RateTea, Steepster, or various tea blogs), you make it unlikely that your own website is the first search result returned. Often, if you send out samples to bloggers, you will end up with quite a few pages on blogs specifically written solely about your tea. Not having a page on your own site is shooting yourself in the foot...you may actually lose search engine traffic by not having such a page...now there are dozens of pages dedicated to that one specific tea, and you still do not have such a page on your site.

A large portion of traffic to RateTea comes to individual product pages, and this traffic disproportionately comes from companies that do not have product pages. I also frequently see Steepster pages and pages on various tea blogs ranking higher in search results than tea company websites, and again, this is more likely for companies that do not have product pages for their teas.

3. Having a page for each tea creates a relevant place to land on your website:

If you have no individual product page for each tea, whenever someone types a tea into a search engine, even if the first result returned is your website, if they land at a generic page, such as your homepage, or a listing of multiple teas (such as if you put all green teas on the same page), they will take longer to find what they're looking for. Depending on how patient they are, and how easy to navigate your site is, they may give up. If you have a product page, and they land specifically on it, you make it that much easier that they find the information they wanted, about that specific tea.

Personally, if I follow a link looking for a specific tea and am redirected to the company's homepage or another generic page, if I'm not already focused on researching or buying that specific tea, I usually become annoyed and just close that browser tab.

In summary:

I find that, for tea companies, having a product page, with its own URL, for each individual tea in your catalogue, is a best practice. The benefits of having a product page are increased links and thus increased traffic to your website, including both referrals from other sites, and search traffic, and increased relevance of people when they land on your website, as they find exactly what they are looking for instead of having to navigate to find the information they want.

What do you think?

Do you agree with the advice and conclusions I draw here? Or do you think that sometimes, it is too cumbersome to create individual product pages, or that you do not have enough to say about each individual tea to warrant a whole page for each one? Do you think product pages are as beneficial as I am making them out to be on this page? If you are a tea blogger or just a casual tea drinker, do product pages make it more likely for you to link to a company's website? Do you prefer landing on a page about a specific tea, instead of having to navigate to find it? If you work for a tea company, do you have individual pages for each tea? Have you ever experienced anything to confirm or deny the claims I make on this page?

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Letting Tea Settle, or the Psychology of Acquired Tastes? My Skepticism Shines Through

I seem to be on a roll, giving people a hard time, and this post continues in this vein. I recently read a post on Bon Teavant, titled letting tea settle. I found this post interesting, but I also found that my reaction to it was one of skepticism. The post describes the phenomenon in which you get a new tea in the mail and are disappointed with it, but you find that after several weeks, it is yielding more enjoyable cups. Most people who have ever received tea in the mail have probably experienced this at some point.

So you can get in the mood for this post, here's a photo of some tea I recently received in the mail:

Bon Teavant offers the following explanation:

People whose passion is the study of tea will tell you that tea requires careful handling and rest when being moved from one storage space to another, even within the same town or village. Plants are extremely sensitive to change, and just as a person can suffer jet lag or mild disorientation when traveling or moving homes, tea can experience "shock" when being transported or changing venues, and is best left alone for a while to find its equilibrium.

Something about this explanation does not sit well with me; my skeptic-dar starts going off. For one, the claim "People whose passion is the study of tea..." strikes me as weasel words, like saying: "People who are really in the know will agree that X." instead of citing a specific expert or authority and quoting them saying something to the effect of X. And while I would not consider myself a tea expert, I am pretty passionate about tea, and, while I do think that there are important issues to consider in the handling, packaging, and storage of tea, I'm not inclined to agree with the explanation that follows, about tea being sensitive to moves. By making this statement, Bon Teavant is putting words in the mouth of all tea enthusiasts, which is something I try to avoid doing.

I've noticed this phenomenon, but I attributed it not to the tea itself but to my own psychology. My experience with tea is that it can be sensitive to handling which breaks the leaf, to excessive changes in temperature, and to exposure to air or sunlight, but that moving alone has no effect on it if it is packed properly.

My explanation of the same phenomenon:

Each batch of tea is different, and I think we need to get accustomed to new food and drink. The first time we encounter something it may taste a bit off...not because it is, but because we're not used to it. This is the essence of acquired tastes. To tea drinkers, the phenomenon of acquired tastes is usually most evident when we try a completely unfamiliar variety of tea, but it can happen to a lesser degree with familiar teas that change in more subtle ways. And because most tea generally loses flavor over time, if we have been drinking last year's batch, and we use it up and receive a fresh batch in the mail, even if the batch were identical (as it almost never is), it would taste different to us because it would taste fresher.

While we usually think of fresher as tasting better, fresher teas often contain more vegetal tones in the aroma, and these aromas are some of the ones that most strongly evoke the acquired taste process, in which we are a bit averse to them initially and then develop a liking to them over time. Tea does change with storage, but, with the exception of Pu-erh and other aged teas, it generally seems to lose flavor over time, not develop flavor, and moreover, it seems to lose flavor very slowly. If the tea is extraordinarily fresh, it is possible that it is still undergoing chemical changes that may result in a better-tasting cup if you allow it to sit, but in this case, it is time, and not the move, that is the explanation.

So, when I ask why teas often taste better to me a few weeks after receiving them, my inclination is to explain the phenomenon primarily in terms of my own psychology, and secondarily in terms of inevitable chemical changes in the leaf, in the (usually rare) case that the tea is so fresh that it is still undergoing changes that you'd notice on the time-scale of a few weeks. It is possible that the opening up of a package and exposing it to air may spark some of these changes as well.

Objectivity vs. Subjectivity:

What is the objective reality experienced in the situation described in the Bon Teavant post? The reality is simple: you get new tea in the mail, you brew it, and you are disappointed. You return and brew it later, and you find you enjoy it more. We'd all agree upon this, when it happens.

But any interpretation of why, is going to be speculative and subjective. Why? Because human tastes are so complex, and the chemistry of tea and associated flavors are also rather complex, and there are too many factors to establish a clear explanation with certainty. So I'm not going to claim that my interpretations are correct. I would not feel comfortable with this sort of claim unless I somehow devised a scientific way to test the hypothesis of the different causal explanations.

But I will share why I'm more inclined to go with my explanation, which is that it fits more with the things that I know about how the world works. The blog post I link to makes an analogy to "jet lag" and the disorientation and disruption humans experience after a move, but I think this analogy is not applicable. Living organisms experience disruption when placed in a new environment. For example, if you were to transplant a live tea plant, it would need time to be adjusted to the new environment, the new light levels, soil, air temperatures and humidity, etc. In the case of dry tea leaf, you're considering a processed product, not a living organism, and it's being transported from one (hopefully) fairly controlled environment to another. Unless it is carelessly handled so as to damage the leaf (and most whole-leaf tea arrives nearly completely intact when I order it), or packaged so as to not be airtight, or subjected to extremes of heat or cold, it changes little.

Whereas the phenomenon of acquired tastes, on the other hand, is one that I've directly experienced.

What do you think?

Do you think my explanations are more plausible? Do you think there's more truth in Bon Teavant's one than my intuition suggests? Can you think of other, more plausible explanations than the ones I came up with? And do you think I've been giving too many people a hard time lately?

Monday, January 9, 2012

What Happened to Admari Tea? And Some Subtle Points On Language In Tea Marketing

I recently learned that Admari Tea has undergone a fairly radical transformation. Admari tea was a small tea company based in Midland Park, NJ. The company has moved to Miami, FL, but perhaps more importantly, it has shifted its focus dramatically, discontinuing its sales of all loose-leaf teas, and instead selling only tea bags.

Admari Tea's new website has two quotes that I want to highlight:

“A Buddhist monk once asked his master, ‘No matter what lies ahead, what is the Way?” The master quickly replied, “The Way is your daily life.’ This is the very essence of The Way of Tea. The principles of the Way of Tea are directed towards all of one’s existence, not just the part that takes place in the tearoom.” (Excerpt from Tea Life, Tea Mind by Soshitsu Sen XV)

And later on the page:

The way of tea is your daily life; your daily existence. The beautiful ritual of tea and respect for a simple ingredient, when done with reverence, can carry over, and bring meaning to every aspect of your life. At Admari Tea we recognize that in the modern world, the ritual must sometimes take a back seat to the hectic pace of life. So we are bringing the quality, the beauty and the reverence to you.

I totally understand that there is a large market for tea bags in this country, and globally, including a market for high-quality whole-leaf tea in pyramid sachets, and that companies are going to want to fill this business niche. However, there is something about the message being put forth by Admari tea that does not resonate well with me.

I want to go into depth about how I perceive this company's new message and marketing, because I think that the company's marketing has some negative elements to it that may alienate potential customers, and I think they can make a few simple modifications to the language in their new marketing that would help them to engage with potential customers in a more positive way. My remarks here may seem nitpicky, but I think they are important: sometimes tiny changes in wording can produce profound differences in how people react to language. I think the case below is one where a few very small changes could produce very large improvements in perception.

What are tea bags about?

Tea bags are about convenience. I have never heard any compelling argument in favor of tea bags, other than the convenience argument. Tea bags standardize the brewing process, save time, and allow people to brew tea with less equipment--all of these boil down to convenience. But tea bags require resources, which makes them inferior from a value and sustainability perspective. They also take away the control and flexibility of measuring out an exact amount of leaf, and they take away some of the possible benefits of using different brewing vessels or methods, such as mug brewing of loose-leaf tea. They are associated with a faster pace of life, which emphasizes quick and convenient consumption of food. On a spiritual level, they disconnect people from their tea and its origins; they move away from experiencing tea as a whole food and as slow food and move towards experiencing tea as an industrial product or consumer product.

It is certainly possible to experience tea more richly while using teabags, by being more mindful of the aromas, experiencing it as slow food, seeking out higher-quality tea, and putting care into brewing it, as I did in my post Multiple Infusions of a Tea Bag. But this type of experience is somewhat at odds with the experience of convenience and the fast pace of life.

A contradiction in marketing and message?

I think Admari tea is presenting a bit of a muddled message or apparent contradiction in their marketing. On the one hand, they're citing one of the quotes from the Sen Sōshitsu, referencing Buddhism, and talking about the "way of tea", the ritual of tea, respect for tea as an ingredient, and presenting a general approach of mindfulness about one's food. But on the other hand, they are caving into societal pressures. When they say: "...the ritual must sometimes take a back seat to the hectic pace of life." this seems like a cop-out to me.

And not only does this statement feel like a cop-out, it also feels like an intrusion or affront, like it is directly assaulting some core aspect of my beliefs or value system, and I imagine that many others may react similarly, even if they are not able to articulate it as thoroughly as I do here. Why?

A key issue is how they present "the hectic pace of life" as if it were a universal, immutable aspect of the world. Life is not inherently hectic or fast-paced. It can be fast-paced, or slow-paced, depending on who, where, and when you are talking about. A more honest way of wording this would be "...if your life is hectic or fast-paced..." or "...the hectic times in your life..." I also particularly object to the wording of their statement, using the word must. The hectic pace of our modern society is not inevitable, and, while some people are still caught up in it, it is not necessarily a good thing. And even when presented with hectic or fast-paced circumstances, people can respond in different ways, and often, the most productive and healthy way to react is to take a brief time for a meditative break, which, incidentally, one can sometimes do by taking the time to brew a cup of tea and drink it mindfully.

I think that statements that imply that the fast pace of life is somehow innate, universal, and unchangeable, actually cause harm by legitimizing the fast-pace of things even when it is harmful to people on a spiritual, physical, or emotional level, or harmful to society as a whole. And they cause harm by making people believe that life is always that way, and that one must cave into societal pressures to act and live that way, even when this way is destructive. A healthier viewpoint is one in which a person realizes that life will sometimes be fast-paced and other times slower, and that one can be empowered to influence the pace, speeding it up when it is too slow and slowing it down when it is too fast.

More, on the use of the term "reverence":

Another point which I object to occurs in the following sentence. After all the grandiose talk about the way of tea, their claim: "So we are bringing the quality, the beauty and the reverence to you" seems overstated, particularly in the use of the term reverence. Admari Tea is bringing a tea bag to the marketplace; it may have quality to back it up, and beauty, but reverence is something that you cannot package or sell as a product. Reverence is something that people must bring of their own accord to the way they experience tea. And I think that packaging a product in a tea bag actually places a barrier that makes it more difficult (although not impossible) to experience reverence for one's tea. To use this word, which typically is reserved for spiritual or religious topics, in the context of a consumer product, I think oversteps a boundary for me, and also elicits a negative reaction. Their use of the word reverence in this context seems to cheapen the word, and it strikes me as a bit irreverent.

Integrity in marketing:

I'm a big fan of honesty and integrity in marketing. Companies can and do market top-quality whole leaf tea in high-quality sachets. There is no guarantee that loose-leaf tea is better in quality than tea bags. Also, there is large existing market demand for tea bags, and I would not negatively judge a company just because they chose to sell tea bags (as I explain more in my recent post). But I do think that Admari Tea is trying to pull itself in two different directions here.

I think integrity in marketing is not just a question of simple factual matters, but also encompasses the spirit of the marketing. I object to some of their use of language in marketing, and as I am someone who tends not to be easily offended, I suspect that others may also react negatively as well, especially to their combination of referencing Buddhism and the Sen Sōshitsu, and using the word reverence, in the context of a move that most people would probably see as moving in the opposite direction, away from these concepts.

A recommendation for Admari Tea:

I think Admari Tea would benefit from softening their use of marketing in such a way that is more honest and avoids some of the apparent contradictions that I raised here, and I'd also suggest that they still offer some loose-leaf tea for sale, even if it is a slight inconvenience or results in a small financial loss. While it is understandable, given the constraints of market demand in our society, that some tea companies would choose to focus on tea bags, I think that it is important to always at least allow shoppers the option of the best possible choice, especially from the perspective of value and sustainability, which is loose-leaf tea. Both of these changes would make me think more favorable of them as a company. The indirect benefits to Admari Tea in terms of greater perception among serious tea drinkers and those with a more religious or spiritual inclination would more than offset any small financial loss associated with making these changes.

What do you think?

How do you react to the examples of Admari Tea's marketing that I gave here? How about other companies using similar language and rhetoric to market their products? Do you agree with my suggestions, or do you think you'd make different suggestions? Do you think that my suggestions would result in a tangible economic benefit to Admari Tea?

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Top 5 Most-Viewed Press Releases of RateTea and This Blog

I occasionally issue press releases related to RateTea and/or this tea blog, using prlog.org, a free service that is minimal but easy to use and rather powerful. Sometimes, I find it almost comical which of these releases get the most views. Here are the top 5 press releases of all time, by views:

What's the lesson? Life is a bit random perhaps?

Friday, January 6, 2012

Flavored Teas, Tea Bags, Boycotts, and Bullshit

I recently read a post on Tony Gebely's World of Tea, titled No Bullshit Tea Companies. I found this post very interesting on several levels. I like certain aspects of it but there are other aspects on which my perspective differs and I wish to respond to. I responded to the post in the comments, but I wanted to further respond, because I just had to write more about private prisons, Islamic terrorism, and the tea party movement, in a post that is really more about tea companies than anything else.

The gist of the post is that Tony has compiled a list of companies that (a) sell tea in loose-leaf form only, and (b) sell only unflavored teas. I am a huge proponent of loose-leaf tea; I drink almost exclusively loose-leaf tea myself, and I am constantly encouraging people to go over to it, as it is superior in terms of quality, value, flexibility, and sustainability. I also love pure teas and traditionally-processed teas, and tend to be less of a fan of teas flavored with extracts or flavorings. And I am saddened when companies discontinue their loose-leaf tea offerings to focus on tea bags, as happened recently with Admari Tea.

And I think it's useful to compile lists of companies that focus on pure teas. But I question the usefulness of identifying tea companies solely by whether or not they focus exclusively on pure, loose-leaf teas, and disqualifying or refraining from including ones just because they sell teas in tea bags, or sell some flavored teas.

I don't dismiss companies selling a high-quality product just because they sell other products that I am not interested in:

I want to highlight one of my favorite tea companies as an example: Upton Tea Imports. Upton is my favorite tea company. It sells only loose-leaf tea, and it has a clear focus on unflavored teas. As of writing this post, their catalogue includes 160 teas in their category of blends, flavored teas, decaf teas, and herbals. Yet they have 261 pure black teas, 107 pure green teas, and 42 oolongs.

Upton occasionally does things that I don't like. One thing that I've always found strange about Upton is that they sell numerous flavored teas that have artificial flavoring. I can't see ordering any of these teas, personally. Yet I don't think this detracts at all from the quality of their pure teas. This morning I tried a tea from a new tea garden in Nepal, Singalila Estate. Upton not only has some outstanding teas, it has some unique and novel offerings, including some herbs that I buy regularly that are hard to obtain elsewhere, like lemon myrtle.

I also think Upton is consistently fair in their pricing, and consistently accurate in their writing of commercial descriptions of tea. And Upton is just one example; I can think of other companies whose loose tea I really like, but which also sell flavored teas or tea bags that I would not be interested in, including Rishi Tea, Arbor Teas, Harney & Sons, Foojoy, Adagio Teas, Hampstead, and Ten Ren Tea.

Boycotts: where to draw the line?

In my comment on Tony's post, I brought up the topic of boycotts. I don't think that the exclusion of companies from a list necessarily is the same thing as a boycott, but I do think that such inclusion or exclusion makes an implicit statement about what companies you wish to support buying or not buying from. And I think that it is generally more useful to compile lists of companies based on what they sell, rather than what they don't sell. I brought up boycotts because I think they are the sole exception, at least in my value system, from this principle.

There are certain times when I think it is appropriate and constructive to refrain from supporting a company because of a certain product they sell or a certain practice they are engaging in. For example, if I learned that a company was knowingly profiting from something grossly unethical, or directly engaging in unethical business practices, I would remove them from listings of tea companies, and recommend against buying from them.

Some examples of behaviors that would get me to do this would be using black-hat techniques to manipulating search rankings (see boutique spam for an example), deliberately misrepresenting a product, publishing bogus health claims to promote a product.

And in terms of boycotting a company because of a service or product that a company could provide that I would have ethical problems with, I would like to point to something that happened when I was at Oberlin college, 1999-2002. Oberlin ousted Sodexo-Marriott as the company running their dining halls, and disqualified them from bidding on future food service contracts, because the company had investments in privately-owned, for-profit prisons, both owning its own prison in England, and owning a portion of Corrections Corporation of America. The school decided, and I would say rightfully, that there are serious ethical problems with supporting a company that derives profit from the incarceration of people. When I learned of this, I decided to personally boycott Marriott hotels as well.

And now to the second point I wish to respond to.

Bullshit: what is it and what is it not?

I'm often reluctant to use the word bullshit with people, especially when I'm being conscious about offending people who have differing views. But I do think the word is a useful one, often capturing a meaning and connotation that no other word captures exactly.

That said, I do not like Tony Gebely's use of the term bullshit to refer to flavored teas or tea bags. I'll be the first to admit that some things in life are just straight bullshit. I see a lot of comments in political rhetoric that I think could be accurately labelled with this term. Examples include when politicians or candidates make claims of subjective interpretations as fact. "The policies of Clinton / Reagan / (Insert favorite president here) resulted in economic growth / recovery / (Insert positive result here.)" Really? When people call bullshit on these statements, they're standing on solid ground: cause and effect is complex, correlation does not imply causation, and the political and economic systems are not fully understood by anyone.

Another example are gross generalizations about groups of people or cultures: "Rap music is so anti-intellectual" (Really, have you ever listened to Black Thought or Talib Kweli)? "Muslims are terrorists and hate America." (Really? The Pew Research Center poll below suggests a hefty majority of American Muslims believe terrorism is never justified.) Or a common one among my liberal friends: "Members of the tea party movement are racist and xenophobic." (Really? Have you ever had a serious conversation with anyone who is a member of the tea party movement? And which of the numerous tea party organizations are you talking about, since there are so many different groups with this name?) These generalizations can be accurately described as bullshit.

And then there are the times when someone is talking, in a presentation, job interview, or just a casual conversation, or perhaps writing in an article, or writing an essay on an exam, and you know that they're just totally making stuff up. I see stuff like this on tea company websites or on the less reputable tea blogs sometimes, in tea descriptions, or pages talking about the health benefits of tea. And I also think it's accurate to call out this stuff bullshit.

But I would not apply this label to something that just doesn't fit your tastes!

What do you think?

Are there any tea companies whose loose-leaf tea you really like, that also sell tea in tea bags, or flavored tea, which you are less interested in? What types of unethical products or services would a company need to provide before you'd consider boycotting them? And do you use the word bullshit in public speech? Where do you draw the line between bullshit, and things you just don't like or don't think are correct?

P.S. Tony, I still think you are awesome, I just felt like giving you a hard time in this post.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Tea On A Very Cold Day

Last night and this morning it was very cold where I live. I don't know the exact low but it was forecasted to be around 17 degrees F, and it felt like it. Not only was it the coldest night of the year so far, but it well over 10 degrees (F) colder than the coldest night we have had up until this point, making it feel like a bit of a shock. Living in the city now, there are fewer natural things that I was able to photograph to capture the cold; without any visible ice or frost, this is the best I could come up with:

Bare branches against a blue sky often evoke the association of cold for me, as the coldest days in winter tend to be the clear ones.

I sometimes check the weather in different parts of the country, to get a sense of perspective. I was surprised that it was significantly warmer this morning in Minneapolis, which tends to average about 15-20 degrees colder than Philly in the month of January.

Tea when it is cold:

When it is very cold, I tend to want to drink a greater volume of hot liquids just to stay warm. This includes tea. However, because I don't like consuming additional caffeine, I tend to brew the tea more weakly. Often I achieve this by using a larger brewing vessel. Usually, my default mugs to make tea in hold about 12 ounces of water. On cold mornings, such as this one, I often prefer a larger mug...in this case, one that holds about 16 ounces, or two cups. I have one mug that I bought recently that I drank from today:

This mug was produced by a local potter who sells his pottery at the Clark Park Farmer's Market in West Philadelphia, every saturday. I really like his work, and it is very reasonably priced. His work is very clean and neat looking, yet simultaneously earthy and organic. Much of his work has a pattern of overlapping colors, blending to produce even more colors, produced by dipping the work in glazes covering part of it, and then repeating at a different angle. I hope to return to highlight more of his work because I think he has some genuine artistic flair; this simple photo doesn't really do justice to his creations.

Another thing I do on cold days:

Another thing I do when it's very cold is to stretch tea one infusion beyond when I would normally steep it. For example, if I would normally steep an oolong (western-style brewing) twice, before discarding the leaves, I steep it a third time, and enjoy the last infusion for its warmth, even if it is somewhat bland.

Do you drink more tea when it is very cold?

Do you drink more tea when it is very cold? Do you just deal with the additional caffeine, or do you brew the tea more weakly like I do? Or do you drink other hot liquids like hot fruit juice or herbal teas?

Monday, January 2, 2012

Back From Break, SEPTA's Holiday Trolley, and Transit & Sustainability

Over the holidays, I enjoyed a lot of tea, but I did not write about much of it, because I needed a break. Because I did not post over the holiday break, I want to share one picture from during this time period which captures both a little bit of the holiday spirit, and also shares something of personal importance from my life.

Here is a SEPTA trolley, decked out in Christmas lights:

There are a lot of SEPTA trolleys, but to my knowledge, only one of them is covered in lights like this one. All of the trolleys flash "Happy Holidays" on their signs, alternating with the route number, but I liked the unique touch offered by this one trolley.

These trollies are not directly related to tea (beyond the fact that I rode one of these trolleys to and from World Tea East back in September), but they are directly related to another topic that I am passionate about: sustainability.

Public Transportation And Sustainability:

The U.S. used to have trolleys or streetcars in nearly all of its larger cities, and many smaller ones as well. Unfortunately, the streetcar systems were completely dismantled in most cities, and mostly dismantled in others, such as Philadelphia. The southern end of West Philadelphia is one of the few neighborhoods that kept its system mostly intact. The trolleys branch out and follow the major streets, going away from the city. Travelling towards the downtown, the trolleys come together at 40th street and enter a tunnel, becoming a subway, which travels downtown, ending at 13th street, and connecting with the major north-south and east-west subway lines, with free transfers.

Now, thankfully, much of the U.S. is starting to think about rebuilding these systems. Philadelphia recently restored one discontinued line, the Girard avenue trolley, and some smaller cities have rebuilt trolley systems, such as Little Rock Arkansas' River Rail Streetcar, run by the Central Arkansas Transit Authority. Pictured here is another type of transit, a regional rail station, featuring heavy rail lines that can carry large volumes of passengers over moderate distances:

Public transportation, whether bus, trolley, or other rail, promotes sustainability because it can reduce car traffic, which not only reduces energy use and pollution directly, but also provides indirect benefits: with fewer cars on the road, the remaining cars can get to their destinations faster. Public transit also allows riders to relax, getting to enjoy their commute or travel time, talking, looking out the window, or reading, rather than having to focus on the road. By looking out the window on buses, street trolleys, or elevated trains, people learn more about their communities, including learning about businesses located on or near transit lines. People also can converse with fellow passengers, and get to know regular riders.

Public transportation is like tea:

Public transit thus helps to reduce stress levels and also helps to connect people to each other and their communities. In this respect, I think it is a lot like tea, and I think that many of the same people who enjoy tea because of its relaxing properties and potential to bring people together might enjoy riding buses, trolleys, or trains for the same reasons.