Monday, February 20, 2012

Pure Teas vs. Flavored Teas, And Sneaky Blends: Tea Companies Classifying Tea In Different Ways

Lately I've been thinking (and writing) a lot about tea company websites, in the course of my best practices series. In this post, however, I do not want to offer any advice, just make some observations, and also point to one advantage of using RateTea rather than tea company websites to search for teas, an advantage I also highlight in the news item about the redesign of the page for each brand of tea which we launched this past wednesday.

How do different tea companies classify teas?

Most tea companies break their website or print catalog into different sections. Websites usually have a navigation bar in the header or sidebar, with different headings for different types of tea. A common scheme of classification is to have sections or categories for black tea, green tea, white, oolong, and Pu-erh (if the company sells them), and then, usually, to have separate categories for herbals, with rooibos and Yerba mate sometimes getting categories of their own. The following toolbar comes from the header of the Teavana website:

This classification scheme is fairly standard or typical for tea companies. The only thing atypical about Teavana's header is that they draw attention to white teas first. So what happens if you click on one of these items, say, green tea? The following screenshot shows the green tea page on Teavana's website:

This page shows a mixture of pure green teas, such as the Gyokuro Imperial Green Tea or Three Kingdoms Mao Feng Green Tea, and flavored green teas which are blends of tea and other ingredients. Having read over each of these entries in the course of classifying these teas for listing on RateTea, I can say that there is a huge amount of variability in the blends which Teavana lists under "green tea". Some are traditionally-scented single-origin teas like Jasmine tea, or blends of pure tea with a single ingredient, like genmaicha, whereas others are blends of many different ingredients, some of which contain green tea as the main ingredient, and others of which contain green tea only as a second or later ingredient. Many of these blends contain rooibos, some containing green rooibos and others red rooibos.

Sneaky blends: teas in one category may contain other types of tea as well:

Some of the teas Teavana classifies under one category even include teas from other categories. I will call these sneaky blends. For example, at least five of the blends Teavana lists under White Tea contain other types of tea, typically green tea. For this reason, at RateTea, we classify these blends as Miscellaneous Blends, rather than flavored white teas.

I do not intend to single out Teavana here: the phenomenon of sneaky blends is actually relatively common among mainstream tea companies. If you browse RateTea's listings of "Miscellaneous Blends", you will find teas marketed as green teas, white teas, black teas, oolongs, and Pu-erh, from a variety of different companies.

Are these sneaky blends overtly misleading? As much as I think they're sneaky, I don't have a huge problem with them: I don't see any glaring ethical problems here, especially dealing with blends that have many ingredients, and given that Teavana gives the complete ingredient list for all teas, but I do think that the classification scheme used by Teavana and many other companies, in which teas containing green tea can be listed as "white tea", or vice versa, does obscure things a bit for people who really care about what type of tea is going in their blends. The largest point of suspicion here, for me, would be that since typical white tea tends to be a lot more expensive than typical green tea, the inclusion of green tea in blends marketed as white tea could perhaps obscure the cost or value of the blend. But this issue is a small quibble, as flavored teas contain so many ingredients that the total cost of any one ingredient is usually relatively unimportant.

A different approach:

Upton Tea Imports has a completely different approach, one that I personally prefer:

Upton has separate categories in their header for black, white, green, oolong, and Pu-erh, but these headings all take you to listings of mostly pure teas, with a few traditionally-scented teas and traditional blends, like Jasmine tea or genmaicha. Flavored teas, including ones with extracts or flavorings, as well as those blended with other whole ingredients, are relegated to the "Misc. Teas" section, along with herbals. Upton's classification scheme represents a clear focus on pure teas, especially single-origin pure teas.

Yet another approach to classifying teas:

The two classification schemes presented above may seem like opposite ends of a spectrum; however, they can be synthesized, by companies willing to be a bit creative and flexible. Arbor teas takes an interesting, hybrid approach between the two, with a navigation bar in their header that looks superficially like Teavana's, but displaying a drop-down menu from each entry, allowing visitors to navigate to pure or flavored teas (among other searches, like searching only fair-trade teas) from each of the broad categories (black, green, etc.) in a single click:

Arbor Tea's site works quite well; although their approach is rather complex, it allows serious tea-drinkers to easily get to what they're looking for. It may be somewhat busy, but their website strikes me as clean and well-executed, minimizing any risk of confusion.

Moral of the story: different tea companies classify their teas differently.

As I've shown above, different tea companies use completely different (often, mutually inconsistent) schemes for classifying their tea. It is common among mainstream companies to label as one type of tea a blend also containing other types of tea (i.e. a "black tea" including some green tea, or vice versa), making what I call a sneaky blend. Even more common is for companies to lump both pure teas of one type under the broad headings, such as including pure black teas and flavored black teas together under the heading of "black tea".

If you are someone who shops at different tea companies online, and you care about filtering out these sneaky blends, there is one clear solution: use RateTea to locate teas.

RateTea has a consistent classification scheme, separating pure teas from flavored teas, and checking ingredient lists to ensure that anything containing more than one type of tea is put into an appropriate category for blends, rather than allowing things to slide like "flavored white teas" that also contain green tea. Our classification scheme isn't perfect, and we make sometimes arbitrary decisions, especially when it comes to hard-to-classify styles of tea such as moonlight white (see my blog post about the difficulty of defining white tea). But, at a bare minimum, you know that the scheme on RateTea will separate pure teas from flavored teas and blends, and will be internally consistent (minus the occasional error).

What do you think?

Do you have a problem with sneaky blends, or do you think they're fine?

And would the advantages of consistency across different tea companies, and clean separation of pure teas vs. flavored teas, and other types of tea, convince you to use RateTea rather than tea company websites to search for teas? How do you feel about the schemes presented above, used by Teavana, Upton, and Arbor Teas? Do you have another scheme you like better? How do you like RateTea's overall classification scheme?


  1. I think the way tea sites classify "sneaky blends" makes sense if they don't have a classification for blends of tea, especially if the dominant flavor is that of the type of tea of its category, and if the category includes flavored teas as well as pure teas. I don't think it's a problem, but I'm not much of a tea purist.

  2. Yeah...I thought about that, the question of whether or not the overall character or flavor of the tea is more characteristic of what the tea is labelled as. Your comments are pretty closely along the lines of what I was thinking.

  3. Hi Alex -

    Aubrey from Arbor Teas here! Thanks for including us in your analysis of tea categories. Phew - it was difficult trying to organize the world of tea in a navigation bar so that it is clear for both the tea novice and the tea connoisseur. We spent hours debating our navigation menu and I'm glad you think it is a hybrid approach, because that is what we were going for!

    Incidentally, the "premium" tea option in our drop down menus is actually just that; it is a listing of our "premium" or highest quality tea options within that category. If I am understanding your terminology correctly, your use of the term "pure" tea is what we refer to as "unflavored" tea. We also decided to double list such teas as Jasmine Green Tea in both the "unflavored" and "flavored" Green Tea category because it is technically a scented tea (ie no flavoring has been added to the tea and thus unflavored), but many of our customers mistakenly think it is "flavored" because of the jasmine scent. Lapsang Souchong is another example of a similar situation.

    Thanks again Alex!

  4. On a tangent, I've always liked the menus at Tria, the wine/cheese/beer bar which now has a third location in West Philly. Everything is grouped in consumer-focused, experiential categories, rather than by arcane production methods. For example, the cheese categories are "clean, luscious, stinky, approachable, stoic, and racy." But this is an approach for a beginner-friendly restaurant with a limited selection, and not a massively-stocked retail outfit like Upton.

  5. Oh, okay, I misunderstood then! Let me update my post, apologies to Arbor Teas!

  6. No apologies needed Alex! Thanks again for including us.

  7. Evan, I haven't been to Tria yet...but I find that to be an interesting approach. =) It certainly makes more sense than just labels based on production or tea type, especially for beginners...since when you get into high-quality teas, teas of all classes can be dark or light, bitter or smooth, strong or mellow.

    There are often a lot of false generalizations in the public consciousness about broad classes of tea. For example, my parents like very strong teas, and often avoided green teas because they found them weak. But when I choose strong-tasting green teas, ones that are full-bodied and have a bite or kick to them, they often end up liking them a lot.

  8. Hi Alex
    My list of blends has grown to 12, and so I am thinking of classifying them.
    I am thinking an interactive filtering method:
    -Blends that contain white tea
    -Blends that contain herbs
    -Pure Black Tea Blends
    So some may turn up in more than one category.
    What do you think

  9. That's an interesting approach...filtering in overlapping categories based on ingredients. I think that's a good idea, especially if you focus on blends. That's how Steepster classifies teas, and I think that system has its advantages.

    I think that it's usually a good idea to have a one-click access to pure teas, because people who like pure teas tend to want to be able to access them, and I think that also sends the message that you're serious about pure teas. I also think that having caffeine-free herbals in a category of their own, accessible by one click, is important.

  10. Sometimes there's a tough balance between presenting info simply to a customer, and trying to be correct. Eg. I have customers at who refer to my Tie Guan Yin oolong teas as 'green tea' - they're wrong, but I'm not going to waste mine and their time being snobbish and correcting them over technical details. If they learn to love tea, they'll get it eventually.

    So while tea geeks like ourselves can and should fret over these details, I'd forgive a tea company for classifying their teas a particular way - they're dealing with the fuzzy edges where un-knowledgeable customers and very-knowledgeable critics meet :)

  11. Yeah...tea gets complex when comparing actual classfication schemes with how the tea looks and tastes. For example, a lot of the greener oolongs are much greener than some green teas. I just drank a Darjeeling "black tea" with a very green color and character too (see my was fantastic, by the way.

    I often especially like the teas that are hard to classify or that break out of what many people think of as the "typical" examples of their type.