Thursday, May 31, 2012

Could Tea Be Grown Commercially In Puerto Rico? Probably, But Not As A Major Crop Like Coffee

In the United States, tea is grown commercially in a handful of locations, including Hawaii, South Carolina, Washington State, and Alabama. These operations cannot compete with other countries for producing tea as a bulk commodity, but several commercial operations persist, probably in large part due to the novelty factor of teas produced in unusual regions. RateTea's page on The United States as a tea producing region has more information on these locations, and the relationship between the climate in various parts of the US and the feasibility of growing tea there.

Prior to visiting Puerto Rico, I never thought much about the possibility of growing tea in this region. Tea is grown commercially in Latin America, in Guatemala; I recently tried tea from Guatemala, Los Andes from Shanti Tea, which was good, and interesting, although it was CTC tea and not among the best black teas I have tried.

Also, prior to visiting, I did not realize how mountainous Puerto Rico was. Look at this photo which I took from a car while driving across the island:

The highest point on the island is 4390 feet, or 1338 meters, considerably taller than the highest point in my "mountainous" home state of Pennsylvania. Puerto Rico, incidentally, mostly uses the metric system, using liters, kilometers, and Celsius, but, in an odd reference to the US way of doing things, displays their speed limit signs in miles per hour.

Coffee in Puerto Rico:

Puerto Rico currently grows a substantial amount of coffee commercially; the coffee is a product of pride among the locals. A lot of people talked about it, and I saw it for sale many places on the island (in contrast to the states, where I infrequently see Puerto Rican coffee for sale). Puerto Rico also grows a substantial amount of shade-grown coffee, and interestingly, many of the birds in Puerto Rico rely on shade-grown coffee plantations as habitat.

The above field guide, Birds of the West Indies, which I used in Puerto Rico, and which I'd recommend as the best compact field guide to the region that I was able to find, explicitly mentions shade coffee plantations as a habitat of a number of bird species. Shade coffee plantations, although nowhere near as rich a habitat as natural rainforest, provide a rainforest-like habitat which can be valuable for bird species whose natural habitat has been mostly destroyed by humans.

The climate in Puerto Rico:

Puerto Rico's climate is tropical with seasonal rainfall, and moderate variability in climate from one region to another. The southwest of the island is semi-arid, supporting tropical dry forest; the higher altitudes support tropical rainforest, including El Yunque, the only tropical rainforest in the U.S., and part of the national forest system. Much of the region has what would be considered a tropical monsoon climate. Unlike South and Southeast Asia, the monsoon pattern is weaker and has two distinct peaks, with a brief wet season in May, followed by a brief dry season, and then a longer, wetter season Aug-Nov. Other parts of the island have less variability in rainfall.

The following map, from the National Weather Service, shows how the average precipitation for Puerto Rico varies in different regions:

To see what effect this difference in rainfall has on vegetation, look at this photo from El Yunque, which is located around that bright purple spot of high rainfall on the map; in spite of the fact that it did not rain at all when we visited the rainforest, there was water everywhere, and lush, dense vegetation:

Contrast this with the tropical dry forest, Guanica State Forest, which was full of agave, cacti, and sparse tree cover, with short trees letting a lot of light through:

Although some of Puerto Rico is probably too dry to grow the tea plant, I suspect that there would be substantial areas in the mountainous interior of the island, with cooler temperatures and higher rainfall, where it would grow well. I also imagine that the asymmetrical bimodal precipitation pattern, with short and long wet seasons, could result in unique tasting teas, with harvests from different times of year having different qualities of flavor and aroma.

Economically, tea probably would not compete favorably with coffee, which fetches a much higher price per acre of production in most of Latin America, but an artisan tea operation, growing unique, high-quality tea, and appealing to an audience of tea enthusiasts willing to pay a premium for something different, might be able to survive. Another model, using tourism, perhaps eco-tourism, to supplement the income of the tea operation, might also make it possible for a tea garden to support itself in a region where the economics don't seem to line up; the Los Andes tea garden doubles as a nature preserve and offers eco-tourism opportunities, and the Charleston Tea Plantation in South Carolina, owned by Bigelow, also offers tours and various special events.

What do you think?

Is this just a crazy idea, or do you think a commercial tea operation in Puerto Rico could be a worthwhile undertaking?

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Upton Tea Imports - Featured Tea Company

Today's featured tea company is Upton Tea Imports. I've mentioned Upton time and time again on this blog, and I think it's time I write a detailed post about this company. Upton Tea Imports is not only my favorite tea company, but is a major source of inspiration behind my becoming more seriously interested in high-quality loose-leaf tea, and creating RateTea. You'll notice that Upton's listing on RateTea was the first, and that it is also the company that I have personally reviewed the most teas from. This is because I was drinking Upton's teas from well before I created RateTea.

Pictured above is Upton Tea Imports's Website.

What I like about Upton Tea Imports:

Since this is my favorite company, this list will naturally be a little longer:

  • A clear focus on single-origin teas - Although Upton does carry a few blends and flavored teas, these occur at the back of the print catalogue, and are also not emphasized on the website. Upton's focus is clearly on single-origin teas. The catalog covers a wide range of different countries, although showing a strong focus on India and China.
  • Unusual offerings - There are many teas and a few herbs that I've tried from Upton that I've rarely or never seen for sale anywhere else. Among teas, this list includes a Thailand long-leaf green tea, and an orthodox black tea from Tanzania. For herbs, this list includes green honeybush, lemon myrtle, pure vana (wild) tulsi, and Yerba Mate Buds processed like tea. One thing I especially like about Upton's herbal offerings is that they tend to focus on tea-like herbs, including rooibos, mate, honeybush, and other pure herbs that are likely to satisfy pure tea enthusiasts.
  • Very good prices - Upton has a wide range of prices, but I find that their prices are consistently lower than most other companies. I've purchased more bargain buys and teas that I would consider to offer exceptional value from Upton than from any other company. The company truly shines, in my opinion, in the number of offerings that cost well under $10 for about 1/4 pound (sometimes under $5), yet compete on par with teas selling for well over twice this amount.

    Another interesting point, related to prices, is that Upton carries a lot of "low-end" or "low-status" teas that I think are overlooked by other companies, but that offer exceptional value. Although these teas are cheap, price-wise, their quality demonstrates a careful selection process, whereby Upton is choosing inexpensive teas that compete in quality with much pricier offerings from other companies. Some examples include Upton's offering of 4 different Shou Mei (longevity eyebrows) white teas, an inexpensive grade of Chinese white tea that is rarely sold at all by companies in the US, and a very good selection of broken-leaf first flush Darjeeling teas, some of which have been top-notch, and many of which are extraordinarily inexpensive. I also find some of their inexpensive Chinese oolongs really shine, including their green Se Chung oolong, an osmanthus-scented version of the same tea, and some of their cheapest Tie Guan Yin offerings, like this medium-roast Tie Guan Yin. They even surprised me with a Chinese-produced gyokuro, which was not bad, not to mention both cheap and organic certified.
  • Affordable, usually generous-sized samples of every tea in their catalog - Most of Upton's samples are $1 or a little over $1 for as much as 15 grams. As someone who loves trying new teas, this sends the message that Upton is oriented towards people like me. One small caveat about the samples, because Upton uses a fixed-size sample pack, the large-leaf teas come with a smaller weight of sample, which I don't like for the largest-leaf teas (often coming with as little as 6g of leaf). These teas, however, tend to be pricier so it usually works out that these are the teas I'd be happy buying a smaller sample of.
  • Functional, no frills website - I've heard some people say that they're not crazy about Upton's website, but I really like it (it follows many of my recommended best practices for tea company websites). I like the site, not only because it conforms to all the conventions that I think make a site easy to use and navigate, but also because it does not have any obnoxious javascript automation, flash, and unnecessary visual features. It's a simple, functional, old-fashioned website, and the more busy and overly-interactive other websites get, the more I appreciate sites like this. There is a page for each tea, with pictures of the loose-leaf, with a grid for size comparison. I also like that the site is organized by region and by tea type. However, I will say, their website is not a substitute for their print catalogue...I especially like the way the catalogue is organized, by region. If I could offer any one suggestion for Upton to improve their website, it would be to also allow people to browse their print catalogue online, by paging through as if it were a book. Upton does link to a PDF of their full catalogue; I recommend reading it if you don't have a print catalog on hand.
  • Honest, concise, yet informative descriptions of each tea - I like the length, style, and focus of the descriptions of each tea in Upton's catalogue more than the teas from most other companies. More so than with any other company, I've found that Upton's descriptions fit my own personal perception of the teas. When Upton says "citrus" or "mint" or "apricot", I'm pretty likely to detect these aromas when I brew the tea. I recognize that different people perceive taste and aroma differently, so Upton may not be a match for everyone, but I get the sense that the people behind the scenes at Upton have a similar sense of perception to me, and this also keeps me coming back because this match helps me to pick teas that I am likely to enjoy.
  • Affordable shipping and great customer service - I've never had anything go wrong when ordering from Upton. Orders are packed and shipped promptly, and I never had a single mistake happen. The company also has responded very quickly to my email inquiries, and they are also equally responsive when engaging them in more casual conversation on social media, see Upton's twitter and Upton's Facebook. And shipping is very affordable, low enough that it's pretty clear Upton is eating a small loss on the shipping rate on some orders.

With such a big catalogue, there will inevitably be some "misses" if you sample a large number of their teas. I can't say I've liked everything to come out of Upton. But I've been really surprised at how few teas like this there have been, given how many I've sampled. I do think that Upton excels in some areas more than others; I would say that their largest strength is in inexpensive, pure, single-origin teas and pure, single-origin, tea-like herbs.

When I recommend people a single company to buy loose tea from, Upton is the one I point to. When I recommend a single company to look into when "getting into tea", Upton is the one I point to. And when I look at the company that I've ordered the most tea from, and keep coming back to, it's Upton.

What is your experience with Upton?

I know that many of you are also big fans of you like them as much as I do?

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Not Much Tea in Puerto Rico

Recently I took a one week long trip to Puerto Rico. The trip was rather spontaneous; one of my friends approached me with an offer to stay in her hotel, paid for by her employer, while she was there on a business trip. When I checked idly for flights, I was surprised that even last-minute flights, direct from Philly, were very cheap. And since Puerto Rico is a US Territory, there is no need for visas, passports, and the like. I couldn't pass up this opportunity.

Having grown up in Lancaster, PA, a small city where Puerto Ricans are the largest ethnic group (outnumbering each of whites, blacks, and Asians), I've acquired an odd familiarity with and affinity for Puerto Rican culture, for someone who has zero hispanic heritage in my own family. When left to my own devices, the music I most often put on my playlist is Puerto Rican salsa, and, to me, Puerto Ricans sound like they have no accent, whereas Mexicans, Spaniards, and other Spanish-speaking people from Latin America all sound to me like they have some strange sort of accent.

I want to write about this trip here on this blog, but it's a bit of a struggle, because I did not do much in Puerto Rico relating to tea. But when I started thinking about that, that in itself is interesting.

Going mostly without tea:

The first cup of true tea (not herbal) which I had in Puerto Rico was a cup of the London Cuppa, served with breakfast in Hotel Belgica, a quirky hotel in Ponce, a city on Puerto Rico's southern coast. I would recommend this hotel wholeheartedly; it was very reasonably priced, and located conveniently on the town square. Unlike many of the hotels in San Juan, it was not a tourist trap; some of the hotel staff spoke no English. But the rooms were clean and the building was beautiful and a prime example of the unique architecture you can find about Ponce.

I didn't drink much tea in Puerto Rico, but I found, I didn't miss it very much, mainly because it was so hot. I did, however, have a very nice iced herbal concoction, involving ginger and lemongrass. In Puerto Rico, herbal teas, especially iced ones, seemed a little more popular and widespread, but only slightly so.

Pictured above is the town square in Ponce, in the morning, when it was quietest. This square came alive in the evening, filled up with people doing all sorts of activities. One thing that struck me on my trip was how friendly and approachable Puerto Ricans were, and how caring they were towards each other, their families, and to me. With my minimal Spanish and the fact that most Puerto Ricans speak at least some English, I found it easy to communicate with almost everyone. And people I talked to were immensely positive, helpful, and open. I found little of the closed-off attitude that seems to be the default in much of the U.S. and especially in the bigger cities of the east coast. I never got the sense that anyone was judging anyone else or trying to impress. It seemed everyone I talked to at length talked about their families a lot, and many expressed a deep caring for Puerto Rico, and for their families and communities.

A lot of little things went wrong on the trip; random things we had hoped to depend on were often closed, broken, under construction, or just not present at all. But there was always someone willing to help out. Once I got used to the slight unpredictability, and got more comfortable talking to random people, I realized that the unpredictable points were small and most of the important things worked out very nicely on the trip.

My experience with the people made me want to go back again some time soon.

Hot, Humid Climates and Tea:

The climate in Puerto Rico is solidly tropical, fairly uniformly hot and humid. Temperatures are relatively constant year-round and from day-to-day, and, especially in San Juan, on the humid, northeast part of the Island, there is much less variation in temperature between day and night than I am used to in the U.S. Temperatures ranged from about 87F (30C) during the peak of the day to around 77F (25C) at night.

In San Juan, pictured above, it seemed like there was water everywhere, even when it was not raining. I saw numerous rainbows like this one pictured here. I got used to being rather sweaty while walking around in the near constant 70% humidity. It rained every day, at unpredictable times (apparently, May is a rainy month on much of the island), although the rain only took up a small portion of the day. Umbrellas are a lot less useful than I thought they would be...when it starts to rain, the wind typically picks up, making umbrellas unwieldly. And it's often more pleasant to just let it rain on're already wet from the humidity, and the rain doesn't seem to get you much more wet.

Tea in hot weather?

Here in the U.S. I like to drink hot tea even in very hot weather. But what is "hot"? During the heat of the day, in July and August, it often gets much hotter than the 87F (30C) highs I encountered daily in Puerto Rico. But it tends to cool off a lot more at night, and during much of the year, it's much cooler.

I've heard that coffee is much more popular than tea in Puerto Rico, and I saw a lot of coffee for sale and on menus, but I did not see many people actually drinking coffee. I saw a lot of people drinking water, beer, smoothies, and various cold sugary drinks.

People think of South China and Taiwan, where hot tea is popular and widely consumed, as being tropical and humid, but these regions are actually much cooler than Puerto Rico. Taipei, for instance, has more well-defined seasons, with night-time lows in winter averaging 55F(13C), a good 22F(13C) cooler than San Juan's "winter" night-time lows. See Taipei's Weather Averages compared to San Juan's averages to see for yourself. I can understand why people might not want to consume many hot beverages in this climate. San Juan's temperatures are more similar to areas much farther south than China's southernmost point, like Southern Vietnam or points in the Philippines. Do people consume many hot beverages in these solidly tropical areas? I don't know, and I'd be curious to hear from people who have traveled in these areas.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Tea Companies: Choosing Which Teas To Sell

This post is oriented towards tea companies, small and large, and is about how to choose which teas to sell. I offer three points of advice:

  • When you have a small catalogue, avoid teas too similar to each other.
  • Carry a few products that make you stand out.
  • Focus first on quality and relevance to your audience.

When you have a small catalogue, avoid teas too similar to each other:

One mistake that I see a lot of companies make is selling teas that are too similar to each other. This sort of thing can happen both with companies with a huge catalogue and those with a very small catalogue. For an example of a company with a small catalogue that has some very similar teas, take Novus Tea. Novus is a high-end brand owned by Bigelow tea, which sells packaged whole-leaf tea in pyramid sachets.

Novus only has 14 offerings, yet there are a couple of their teas and herbal teas that I personally find to be very similar to each other. For a few examples, both their Persian Pomegranate Herbal Tea and Wild Encounter Herb Tea are fruity herbal blends with a red color and sour flavor. Another example is that they sell four distinct pure black teas: a Darjeeling, a South Indian Black Tea, and both a caffeinated and decaf version of a Ceylon tea. I personally think they would do well to reduce one or two of these duplicates, and instead add something not covered, like a Rooibos, an oolong, or an herbal tea with a radically different flavor, like tulsi / holy basil.

As usual, I'm picking on Novus because I like them. I've been consistently impressed by their teas; the only teas of theirs that I am not a fan of are ones that are in a style that I tend to not like...such as the sour herbal blends. It may not make sense for Novus to adjust their catalogue now. If the teas are selling well, they probably already have their loyal fans, and it might do more damage to retire them even if the newer configuration were more optimal. But I find this principle can be very helpful when considering teas to carry in the first place.

Carry a few products that make you stand out:

Although it can be risky from a business perspective to make your entire catalogue consist of "unusual" offerings, carrying a few teas that are hard to find, and are not well-represented in the market in your country, can make you stand out. These offerings can draw in new customers who have never purchased tea from your brand before, because they will be looking for a specific type of tea. They can also keep customers loyal to you, if someone finds they like a particular kind of tea and you are the only company or only one of a few that sells it.

A few examples of this are:

  • Upton Tea Imports stands out by offering pure teas from unusual regions, regions whose single-origin teas are not typically available in the west. They also carry a few herbs that are hard to find, like Lemon Myrtle. And they are one of the few companies to sell tea flowers, along with Rishi Tea and the Taste of Tea.
  • Rishi Tea stands out as being the only source of fair trade certified teas of certain varieties. Want Fair Trade Yellow tea? Rishi is, to my knowledge, the only source. They are one of a few companies offering fair trade Keemun (see Little Red Cup) and fair trade Dian Hong / Yunnan black tea (also see Arbor Teas, Octavia Tea, and Cha Cha tea, although Rishi still has the most offerings).
  • Numi Tea and Republic of Tea are, to my knowledge, the only companies to sell green rooibos in tea bags; both are organic certified.
  • Carrying an esoteric offering, like an oolong produced in Japan, Indonesia, or Kenya, or a white tea produced in Taiwan, Tanzania, Bangladesh, or any tea produced in the United States, will instantly set you apart. Keep in mind though, don't carry these just to carry them, make sure you're selling a top-notch tea.

Focus first on quality and relevance to your audience:

You may feel compelled to add a particular tea because it seems interesting, or seems to fill a gap in your catalogue, but remember, these factors are small relative to quality and relevance to your audience. Quality goes without saying: it is never worth compromising your quality standards just because a tea looks or sounds interesting.

Appealing to your audience can be more involved. For example, certain oolong teas from Nepal or Darjeeling may seem interesting and may even be top-notch if prepared properly, but if a particular tea is picky about brewing, and if your customers are primarily used to easy-to-brew Chinese or Taiwanese oolongs, you may disappoint your customers with such a tea. Another such tip would be, if your customers are used to darker, bolder-flavored teas, I'd recommend avoiding silver needle, and instead stocking a more robust white tea like bai mu dan or shou mei, or, if you do want to sell silver needle, locate a particularly robust example of it (Teas Etc's Tanzanian Silver Needle impressed me in this regard).

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Featured Tea Blog: Tea For Today by Marlena Amalfitano

Today's featured tea blog is Tea For Today by Marlena Amalfitano. This blog, among the tea blogs that I have followed for the longest time, is updated frequently and regularly, and I find it is always a pleasure to read.

What I like about Tea For Today:

  • The blog frequently introduces me to new tea companies, and new teas as well, new in the sense that I have not read about them on any other blog. Marlena samples a lot of tea, and she samples teas from a lot of different traditions, including traditional Chinese teas as well as more British-style teas.
  • Marlena has similar tastes in tea to me. Like me, she tends towards pure teas but does sample the occasional flavored tea. She also loves Upton Tea Imports, my favorite tea company. I tend to trust her perception of taste as being a better predictor of how I will perceive a tea, more so than virtually any other tea blogger. RateTea's matching algorithm shows that we are a 69% match in terms of preferring the same teas, based on a pretty large sample too.
  • Marlena often writes about birds, and she makes notes not only about the arrival, absence, or presence of birds, but also shares notes about the bird's behavior, vocalizations, etc. I find this extremely interesting to read, being an avid birdwatcher. To me, part of the appeal of tea is the relationship between tea and nature, the fact that it comes from a plant, and that becoming more aware of artisan teas involves becoming aware of climate and weather in far regions of the world. I like how Marlena also shares her experiences with both tea and nature, in an interwoven narrative that I find is very similar to the thought processes going through my head while I drink a cup of tea and watch birds out my window.
  • I also like the color scheme (which has changed since I subscribed to it). The background is colorful without being loud, and contrasts nicely with the photos, which tend to include mostly either architecture or nature.
  • The blog has a personal touch, and Marlena shares what is going on with her life, and often writes about her travels too.

If you find you have similar tastes in tea to me, you might also like Marlena's blog for its description of tea. And you may also enjoy it for its pairing of tea with nature commentary, commentary on the birds and flowers and other plants, the changing of seasons, and the like.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Whoops I Did It Again: Tea Does Not Go Well With Grapefruit

Back in December of 2010, I wrote about Grapefruit and Tea, describing how I found that grapefruit did not go well with tea. If you missed that post, there's some interesting material in there both about tea and grapefruit, and about grapefruit's strange drug interactions.

I like grapefruit a lot, and I like eating it in the morning, close to when I drink my tea. Grapefruits have also been in season for some time, although we're nearing the end of the US season and I've found the quality has declined (and price increased) in recent weeks. But when grapefruit is in season, I seem to have a problem, which is that I keep end up consuming tea and grapefruit together, even though I know that I don't like the results.

Photo by J. Smith, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

What happens?

I've recently sampled a lot of teas alongside grapefruit, as grapefruits are in season. I was particularly struck by the effect grapefruit had on TeaVivre's Xin Yang Mao Jian, a brisk green tea that I liked very much. I found the grapefruit took away all the bite from this tea...there was none of the pleasing bitterness that I find so appealing about this tea. But I also found that the aroma was also somehow lost.

I would really like to find a tea that goes well with grapefruit but I have yet to discover one, a year and a half (and two grapefruit seasons) after writing that original post. Any recommendations? Or is this just the way it is?

Interestingly, I never seem to have the same problem with oranges.

Friday, May 11, 2012

How To Link Your Tea Company Website to RateTea And Other Sites

This page, continuing my series of best practices for tea company websites, is about linking your tea company website to RateTea and similar sites, including Steepster, group review blogs like Teaviews and Tea Review Blog, or even individual tea blogs.

The above image shows a few examples of social networking icons, discussed below, which you can use to link to RateTea. A skilled graphic designer can also easily make a logo, like the square RateTea logo on the left, into an icon in the style of your website. You can feel free to do this, or Sylvia, RateTea's graphic designer, can make one for you. Sylvia designed most of the icons above.

Why link to RateTea and similar sites?

I see three direct benefits to linking to RateTea and other review sites:

  • By encouraging your existing customers to rate and review your teas, you will gain greater visibility for your teas, and you will reach new customers. For smaller companies, reviews on RateTea are highly likely to reach an audience who may not even know of your company. For larger, more well-established companies, such reviews will help you maintain your brand visibility.
  • By linking to existing reviews of your teas on RateTea, Steepster, group review blogs, or even on personal tea blogs, you are more likely to convince to potential customers that your reviews are authentic, because these sites are independent of your company. RateTea in particular demonstrates this because the site (1) requires an actual written review to post a numerical rating (2) does not allow companies to review their own teas (3) screens reviews to prevent spammy and fraudulent reviews (4) identifies on the review the number of teas reviewed by a given reviewer, including teas of a particular style, as explained on how many teas like this have you tried?.

Why RateTea in particular? A lot of companies already link to Steepster, alongside a number of different social networking presences (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, some even have Youtube channels). RateTea stands out in that it is integrated with informational articles about tea varieties and production, and that it provides live links directly to the product pages on your website, not only from the page for each tea, but from the page for each tea review as well. Reviews on RateTea can not only provide free links to your website, boosting your teas' visibility in search results, but can provide direct traffic to your site and help you make more sales.

Indirect benefits of linking to RateTea:

There are also some very powerful indirect benefits of linking to RateTea:
  • Because RateTea is independent (i.e. not owned by your company), by linking to RateTea and other external review sites that you do not directly control, you will send a message of business confidence, that your teas are high-quality and that their quality speaks for themselves.
  • The information on RateTea is of much higher accuracy than the typical informational sites about tea on the internet. By linking to RateTea, and to other high-quality sites, you will both help to promote truthful and accurate information in general and you will show your customers that you know how to discern high-quality information from low-quality. This last point may seem silly, but I have lost count of the number of times I have seen otherwise reputable tea companies link to low-quality, self-published articles on the supposed "health benefits of tea". Needless to say, this sort of thing does not convince me to make a purchase.
  • RateTea is committed to sustainability, and goes to great lengths to highlight companies doing things to promote sustainability in the tea world. This includes highlighting fair trade and organic certified teas, as well as drawing attention on the main page for each brand to things that each company is doing to promote sustainability, which can include both the sourcing and production of their teas, as well as things like packaging, green certifications, and donations to sustainability-promoting projects.

And lastly, I want to point out:
  • I'm easy to access if you want me to update the page on your brand in any way. My goal is to be a resource for tea companies, so I want to write an article that will highlight the best aspects of your company. If you don't like the blurb currently written about your company on RateTea, and you have either a correction, or additional information you'd like to add or you'd like us to highlight, you can get in touch with me. And keep in mind, you can also manage and edit the listings of your company's teas directly, without requiring a RateTea admin to make changes, so you can always keep your listings on the site 100% up-to-date.

Several options of how to link:

  • Linking to RateTea's page for your brand, using social networking icons.
  • Adding generic text links, linking to the page for your brand.
  • Adding buttons or text links to your pages on individual teas, linking them to the corresponding pages on RateTea or other sites, which house reviews of that specific tea.
  • Writing a blog post or newsletter in which you let your customers know about RateTea, and encourage them to rate your teas.

Each of these approaches have their relative benefits.

Social networking icons:

Social networking icons, like the ones pictured at the top of this post, can easily be added to every page of your website, in the site's header or footer. These icons can be formatted in the visual style of your website, and they are unobtrusive and look professional. These icons are probably the simplest and least time-intensive way to link to RateTea, Steepster, and any site that has a recognizable logo that can be easily made into one of these icons.

Text links:

It has been my experience from RateTea that companies that add text links tend to generate more reviews from their customers than companies adding social networking icons. I think this is likely because the text of the link can be used to encourage the customer to write a review. For example, you can say: rate this tea on RateTea or share a review of this tea on RateTea followed by a link to the page for that tea, or you can use a more generic rate our teas on RateTea which links to the page for your brand.

For best results, link each tea directly to the page for that specific tea on RateTea. If this seems too labor intensive, you can get in contact with me; I would be glad to provide you with a way to automate this process if you so desire, such as by importing a table of URL's into your database, corresponding to each of your teas. However, if this is too much work, you can also link to the page for your brand, and your customers can find teas to review by searching or browsing as other RateTea users would.

I can't say anything about the effectiveness of "Rate this tea on" buttons, or similar buttons including both images and text because we have yet to have any company use such buttons. My intuition, though, would that these images would probably be as effective as the text links, possibly more effective, and more effective than basic social networking icons.

Linking in a blog or newsletter:

Linking to RateTea in a blog or newsletter provides a very different way to generate reviews. This sort of attention tends to result in a burst of reviews, but is unlikely to provide any later reviews once the initial burst of views of the blog or newsletter has passed. However, even this sort of burst of reviews can still help you, because once a review has been written, it can be viewed many times over a long period of time. Look at the following graph:

The above graph shows a review of Typhoo tea that was written in August of 2010; it continues to receive fairly regular views over time.

This graph is typical, not atypical, of a review on the site. I also want to note that this graph underestimates the number of people viewing the review, because it does not include the views of the tea's page, which shows this review alongside two others. Because of how the site is structured, most reviews do not receive an initial burst of traffic, but they receive sustained traffic over time, as users find reviews through the search and browse functions of the site.

More ratings and reviews lead to more visibility for your teas:

Also, when your teas receive more ratings, they appear higher on "most often rated teas" lists, which appear on dozens of pages throughout the site. So, suppose you sell a dragon well green tea which receives a lot of favorable reviews. It is likely to appear not only under "most often rated dragon well tea" but, if it receives enough reviews, it may also display on the page for Zhejiang province (assuming, like most dragon well, it is produced there), and, if it makes it into the top tier, the pages for China and the master page for green tea. Even if it does not make it onto any of these lists, reviews boost your tea's visibility in search results, as teas with more reviews are returned first in search results.

So, even a short-term, one-time endeavor like writing about the site in a blog post or newsletter can result in sustained benefits for your tea company.

Let me know if you have any questions:

Let me know if you have any questions about how to link your company to pages on RateTea, such as needing any graphics beyond those displayed here, or questions about how to link things up. If you don't have my email, you can easily reach me through the contact form on RateTea.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

My Top 10 Pages On White Tea

Recently, I posted a A Challenge: What Are The 10 Most Useful Web Pages On White Tea?. In this post I demonstrated how the pages that come up in a google search for "white tea" are not all high-quality, carefully-maintained websites and articles, and I challenged people to come up with what results they personally would prefer, in their ideal world, to come up.

This post shows my ranking. I know it is really tough and a lot of work to come up with a list like this, but I would like to encourage people to do it, because I think it will have a positive effect on tea culture by helping to draw attention to companies selling high-quality teas, and to websites which contain valuable information. I would also like to encourage people to challenge my list in the comments, providing me with other sites they'd like to see in the list.

My (admittedly biased) ranking:

I want to say ahead of time that this ranking is far from perfect, and there are undoubtedly a lot of good sites omitted from this list. If your site is not on this list and you think it belongs here, please don't feel bad--just leave a comment! If I get enough replies I may write a follow-up post about new pages I discovered through this process.

This list is skewed by my own bias of tea companies and websites which I have happened upon largely through chance, and it's also skewed by my own tastes and preferences (which, in white teas, tend towards sampling pure white teas from unusual regions).

  1. White Tea on Wikipedia - This page is far from perfect, but I still think it is the best search result to return in the first position. It is wikified, meaning that it is linked into a bunch of pages on related topics, it is relatively well-referenced (much more so than any other page I could find), with numerous in-line citations to published books and articles in peer-reviewed journals. It also is an independent resource, not maintained by a tea company, and it is continually evolving, in such a way that makes it highly likely that the page will tend to get better over time.
  2. White Tea on RateTea - I realize I'm biased here, but I think that this is the second-best page about white tea on the net, and I think this page belongs in as the second search result. Like Wikipedia, it is independent of any tea company, and it is well-maintained and updated. It is also tied into a database of white teas from various tea companies, and these teas are classified by brand, type of white tea, and region of origin. There are also separate articles on each type of white tea and each region producing white tea. Even without the reviews (of which there are 50), this page is both useful as an informational resource, and as a tool for browsing different sources of buying white tea.
  3. White & Yellow Tea Forum on TeaChat - TeaChat, a forum run by Adagio Teas, has a whole section dedicated to discussion about white and yellow tea, and as one might expect, it is primarily about white tea. I would place this page third in the search results for white tea because it is, in my experience, the single place online where one can find the most active discussion of white teas.
  4. White Teas from Upton Tea Imports - I placed Upton so high on this list because of the thoroughness of its catalogue, especially in terms of unusual offerings that are not readily available elsewhere. Although the white teas sold by Upton come in and out of stock, and at any time, not all are available, the company offers a remarkable number of white teas from "non-standard" regions, including Ceylon, Kenya, Assam, Darjeeling, and Taiwan. Among Chinese white teas, Upton also stands out as having the largest selection of Shou Mei (Longevity Eyebrows) of any Western tea company that I know of, and they also sell a few other white teas that go beyond the usual silver needle and white peony, including the "pseudo-white" Yunnan tea, moonlight white.
  5. About White Tea - Seven Cups - Seven Cups is a small retailer of Chinese teas. Although their catalogue only currently has one white tea, I found their informational article about white tea to be very rich and thorough on the topics of white tea history and production in China. There are also many photographs depicting white tea production, although they are unlabelled.
  6. What Really is a White Tea? on TeaGuardian - TeaGuardian is a strictly informational site about tea, run by Leo Kwan. I discovered this site through someone linking to it as a reference on Wikipedia; although I removed it as a reference because I did not think it met Wikipedia's strict guidelines for a reliable source, as it is self-published, I do think that this page and the related pages on the site presents above-average information above white tea. Not only is this site thorough and accurate, but it has some great photos of tea leaf illustrating the points it makes, and it is likely to contain some information that most people do not know.
  7. Best White Teas on Steepster - Steepster also has a database of white teas. I think this list is complementary to RateTea's resource. Although Steepster has no informational articles about white tea, and groups all white tea (including flavored teas) into a single category, Steepster stands out in having more ratings and more reviews (or tasting notes) than RateTea, or than any other site that I am aware of. As such I think it also belongs on this list.
  8. White Tea on Norbu Tea - Norbu Tea is a small tea company selling single-harvest, single-origin teas. Although I have yet to try any of this company's teas, the pages on each of this company's white teas stand out in describing the harvest date, specific location of production (to much more detail than most companies offer), and cultivar used. Furthermore, there is a detailed article about each individual tea, explaining the influence of location and cultivar, and the history and character of each particular tea.
  9. White & Yellow Tea on JK Tea Shop - JK Tea shop carries a number of Chinese white teas as well, including ones hard to find in the West. Like Norbu Tea it provides information on cultivar, specific region of production, and harvest date. There are also great photos of the dry leaf, as well as the leaf brewing in a gaiwan, used leaf, and brewed liquor. And take a look at the prices too! I have yet to try any of these teas but I rarely see leaf that looks this good for this low a price.
  10. White Tea: Culmination of Elegance - This is a pretty lengthy article, by Joshua Keiser, about white tea, hosted on TeaMuse, a site run by Adagio Tea. Although it is unreferenced, it does have a lot of information and it also links to some of Adagio Tea's offerings of white tea. Adagio stocks several different types of Chinese white teas, and one Darjeeling white; I have tried three of these teas and liked all of them, especially their white peony.
You may notice that there is not a single page on this list that is dedicated specifically to the health benefits or health effects of white tea, although the Wikipedia article does touch on this issue, and RateTea's article and a few other pages on the various websites linked to also discuss the common caffeine myth. This is not because I don't think this is an important topic, it is because I think most of the sites dealing with this topic are either lower in quality, or (like academic articles in peer-reviewed journals) not accessible to a general audience and thus not terribly useful to return on a first page of search results.

If you think your page belongs on this list, or if you think I have omitted a good resource, please let me know:

I may not know of (or have forgotten about) a page that, if I thought about it, I would like to place in this list, perhaps bumping the last page or two off the list. If you would like me to consider any other page, please leave a blog comment or contact me by some other means!

I found the end of this list in particular really tough to put together.

Please publish your list:

The point of this post is to reshape the search environment surrounding white tea, in order to promote the websites that are offering the best and most useful, accurate, and informative sites on the topic of white tea.

If you have a blog or website, please publish your own list! I know that it is very hard to come up with a list like this. But this attempt to reshape the internet search landscape around white tea will only work if a large number of bloggers take up this challenge.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Featured Tea Company: Hampstead Tea

In addition to starting a series featuring tea bloggers, I am also starting a series featuring tea companies.

Today's tea company is Hampstead Tea. Hampstead Tea is based in the UK, and accordingly, is not well-known in the US. The company has a small selection of teas, and specializes in organic, fair trade, and biodynamic teas, also focusing on whole-leaf, loose-leaf teas, although they also sell whole-leaf tea in sachets. My experience has been that people in the U.S. tend not to know of this company; I rarely hear or read people commenting about it, and as of writing this post, there are no reviews of Hampstead on RateTea other than my own. Since my audience is primarily in the U.S., I'd like to draw attention to this company.

I don't know if Hampstead sells tea directly outside of the UK (their website's prices are in pounds), but a quick search with Google Products shows that their teas are easily available for ordering in the U.S., and, as I describe below, I have even seen them in stores here.

How did I learn about this company?

I learned of this company through a rather unusual means, through the discount food section in TJ Maxx. TJ Maxx is a discount store best known for selling clothing (which constitutes an overwhelming majority of the store's stock). But these stores also sell some food products, and among them, typically sell some tea. The tea selection is very hit-or-miss; the few times I have been in the store, I haven't found anything I wanted to buy. But one time, my dad saw some Darjeeling tea from Hampstead Tea, certified both organic and fair trade, and picked it up for me.

When I tried it, I was impressed. The tea was from Makaibari Estate, which I wrote about previously, and which is my favorite Darjeeling estate, both by flavor and by its ecologically-friendly practices. And when I looked up the price of the tea sold by Hampstead, I was also impressed: it was quite reasoanble.

How good was their Darjeeling? I'll just say it was one of those teas that I kept wanting to drink every morning until it was gone, and then wished I had more of. I later tried their English Breakfast, and it was also quite good (although lighter than typical for this style) and I used it up rather quickly as well, although I preferred their Darjeeling.

What do I like about Hampstead Tea?

  • Their loose-leaf Darjeeling is unparalleled in quality in its price range.
  • Hampstead focuses on organic, fair-trade, and biodynamically grown teas.
  • Hampstead offers an unusual combination of a company that is rooted solidly in the British tea tradition, yet is a leader both in terms of organics and fair-trade, and the quality and value of its tea.

So, if you value sustainability and like Darjeeling tea, and you have an opportunity to pick up something from Hampstead, I'd recommend doing so. I have yet to try anything other than their Darjeeling or English Breakfast, so I'd be curious to see if their other teas are also good as well.

Have you heard of Hampstead Tea or tried their teas?

I'm a bit many of you all knew of this company? How many of you have tried their teas? Have you tried anything other than the two teas of theirs that I sampled? And how many of you are learning about this company for the first time?

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Featured Tea Blog: Lao Ren Cha by Neil Gorman

I have decided to start a series of posts featuring various tea blogs that I like and subscribe to.

Today's post, the first in this series, is about Lao Ren Cha, a blog run by Neil Gorman, whom you can find on Google+ and also on twitter. There is, incidentally, another blog by this same title, written by Jenna Cody, which, while interesting (and occasionally containing some bits about tea), is not primarily about tea. But, back to the blog I want to feature:

As its about page explains, this blog is named for the term 老人茶(Lao Ren Cha), meaning "Old man's tea", which refers to the idea that the only old men have time to practice gong fu cha, the careful brewing of tea in small vessels using multiple infusions.

Although Lao Ren Cha has been going for around a year and a half now, I still think of it as a "new" blog, because I distinctly remember when it was founded, and it was after I had been blogging for some time. This blog impressed me from the start, which I find particularly interesting as I felt like I had a bit of a rough start to blogging, having to take some time (several months) writing posts before I figured out the style I wanted to write in and the topics I wanted to write about. This blog seemed to start with a coherent vision and style.

There are a lot of things I like about this blog. They include:

  • In-depth writing about high-quality loose-leaf tea, with care placed in brewing - This blog is one that has a lot of posts that I think will please die-hard tea enthusiasts, the sort who practice gong fu brewing and seek out the highest-quality teas.
  • Ample philosophical writings interspersed with the writing about tea - My favorite tea blogs are ones that are not just about tea; this is because I am not interested in tea for its own sake, I am interested in tea for the role it plays in my life, and the way it relates to food, culture, and other aspects of life. What I like most about this blog is its way of weaving life lessons, insights, and bits of wisdom in with the narrative about tea.
  • A clean, minimal layout that I find very pleasing - I really like this blog's simple white background and layout.
  • Artful photography with a distinct style - I find that the style of the photography goes particularly well with the blog's layout and writing style. Many of the photographs show relatively low lighting and contain a lot of darker wood surfaces; the bright white background contrasts with this and keeps the blog looking open and bright overall. The combination of the darker photographs and wood surfaces, combined with the minimal, mostly white layout, I find highly congruent with the blog's practice of interspersing bits of wisdom with commentary on gong fu tea culture.

Whether you're a die-hard gong fu cha enthusiast, or someone who likes the combination of tea and life philosophy, if you don't already know about this blog, I would recommend checking it out.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Reading And Writing Tea Reviews: How Many Teas Like This Have You Tried?

This post is about reviewing teas, and more specifically, about the question of how many similar teas the reviewer has reviewed, when writing a review. I find this question to be of key importance both when writing tea reviews and when reading reviews that others have written.

When reading reviews:

When you are reading reviews, trying to decide whether or not you want to buy a particular tea, or trying to decide what tea to buy, it can be important to know how experienced the reviewer is. As an example, I would trust a review of aged sheng Pu-erh on Bearsblog, or The Half-Dipper because both of these bloggers have been reviewing these teas for a very long time. And similarly, I trust what Gingko writes about Chinese green teas on the Life in Teacup Blog.

This may seem like just common sense, but it flows into a rather nifty (and to my knowledge, unique) feature on RateTea that many of you may not know about, and that I highlight below.

When writing reviews:

When I write tea reviews, I usually include at least a brief mention in the text of the review that communicates how experienced I am at reviewing a tea. The statement can be direct, or it can be indirect, such as by comparison to other teas (implying that you have sampled these other teas). Examples of these sorts of statements include:

  • This was the first green tea from Sri Lanka that I have ever sampled. It was similar to a number of Chinese green teas, and rather unlike any of the green teas from India that I have tried in the past.
  • This is my all-time favorite among the dozens of Darjeeling first flush black teas that I have sampled.

The first statement clearly communicates that the person is inexperienced with green teas from Sri Lanka, yet is quite familiar with Chinese and even Indian green teas. I write these sorts of statements in my reviews mainly because I find it helpful when reviewers share these sorts of statements, and I want to write reviews that can be useful to others.

Something useful that RateTea does, that you may have overlooked:

Because a reviewer's level of experience when reviewing a tea can profoundly change how you read the review, I've added a feature to RateTea that clearly displays on the page for each tea review how experienced the reviewer is at reviewing teas, both in general, and teas of the particular style, as well as teas from the particular company in question. The following screenshot shows this feature:

The reviewer box on this tea shows that Sylvia has reviewed 4 Ceylon Black Teas, 3 teas from Upton Tea imports, and 72 total teas. The box also shows that she has been a member of the site since March of 2011. Note the level of specificity: the site identifies the number of Ceylon Black Teas, not just any black teas, which the reviewer has reviewed. The same goes for any specific style or variety of tea.

This feature is of particular interest to serious tea drinkers, as, when buying a specific variety of tea such as silver needle white tea, or golden osmanthus (Huang jin gui) oolong, it is more important to know if the reviewer has reviewed any of these specific teas, rather than just reviewing a lot of generic white or oolong teas. Also of interest to serious tea drinkers, RateTea keeps pure teas and flavored teas completely separate, so reviews of flavored teas will not count towards the count of pure teas of a given type (green, white, etc.). This feature is one of the places where RateTea's detailed and deep database truly shines. It would not be possible to even implement this sort of feature without this sort of level of depth, a level that has made RateTea more labor-intensive to develop and maintain. I am truly hoping that this effort will pay off in terms of recognition by and participation from the people who are most interested in promoting the culture of single-origin, pure teas.

If you like it, then use it!

If you like this sort of feature, I would encourage you to use it! Review pure teas of specific varieties on the site, and become viewed as more authoritative on the site, for reviewing these specific kinds of tea. Sadly, the teas getting the bulk of the reviews are still tea bag teas from mainstream brands, mostly blends. I think the true strengths of the site show through only on single-origin teas of named varieties, and I would really like to see more participation by people who are enthusiastic about drinking these types of teas.

What do you think?

When you read tea reviews, how important is it to you to know how experienced the reviewer is at drinking or sampling similar teas? How much of this info do you share in your own reviews? What do you think about the RateTea feature I highlighted, which shows the number of teas of a specific style that a reviewer has reviewed?

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Revisiting The Question Of Whether To Say "Herbal Tea"

Back in early 2010, I wrote a post Is Herbal Tea Tea? in which I explain. Recently, I read a post Let’s go there, shall we? on Joie de Tea, which expressed a similar sentiment. However, this post gets into an interesting aspect of this terminology, the question of inclusiveness vs. divisiveness:

...I regularly see people having other people jump down their throats before they can even have a sip of their lovely herbal tea, because the herbal-tea-drinking people called it tea rather than a tisane or an infusion. How tedious.

Let’s be inclusive, not divisive...

I found this post resonated with me quite deeply, not just because I also call these drinks "herbal teas", but because I could relate to the question of inclusiveness. I also get a gut feeling of some sort of exclusivity or snobbishness when I hear people forcefully insist on the correctness of the terms "tisane" or "herbal infusion", and even more so when they frame their statements in the negative, insisting on the "wrongness" of the term "herbal tea", or, in the most extreme cases, making personal attacks on people who use the phrase "herbal tea", such as by claiming that they "don't know anything about tea".

Why do I react this way? Experience with other pushy groups sheds some light:

Language is complex and dynamic. The meaning and connotations of words evolve over time, and even at a given time, not all people will use the same word a certain way. Furthermore, many words have specialized meanings within certain subcultures. Often, these "subcultures" can constitute people of a particular political ideology, or of particular religious beliefs.

There's nothing wrong with having specialized terminology, when it is necessary. But specialized language and jargon can cause harm in several ways. One way such language can go wrong is when it is used to exclude others, such as when people are judged by whether or not they follow the linguistic conventions of a small subculture (even when those conventions go against the usage of similar words in mainstream society). Another way in which language can go wrong is when it is used to push an ideology onto someone else.

Examples of pushy language:

An example of pushy political language would be how far-right conservatives describe as "socialist" any more liberal policy which they disagree with, or how far-left liberals might describe as "reactionary" or "facist" any conservative policy they disagree with. These uses of language, which differ from the widely-accepted definitions of these terms, serve to advance the agenda of the person using them, because they paint the opposing viewpoint in a negative light. Religion can also be one of the biggest offenders when it comes to using these sorts of negative labels (think "unbelievers", "heretics"); I am confident you can think up many of your own examples here.

Pushy language, in religion, politics, and other spheres, is usually much more subtle. One Philosophy or movement that I find uses language in ways I react negatively to is Ayn Rand's Objectivism. This movement uses language in several non-standard ways: one, the choice of name implies that the philosophy itself is objective--rather than having a neutral name and allowing people to choose for themselves whether or not they personally find the philosophy to be objective. Secondly, the philosophy uses certain words, like selfishness, quite differently from the mainstream uses of these words. The word "selfish" has a strong negative connotation in mainstream society, yet within the "Objectivist" philosophy it has a positive connotation.

Non-standard uses of language can restructure a person's value system:

I find these non-standard uses of language to be pushy because they can restructure a person's value system without their consent. When people begin to use language in a different way, it changes how they think. I am a huge believer in continuously questioning your beliefs, but I believe that people reach healthier conclusions when they question their beliefs consciously, rather than allowing their beliefs to be unconsciously restructured through processes like using special jargon. I find this to be a particular matter of concern because groups often choose their jargon or special language in such a way as to promote their own agenda (like the political examples above). When people allow for their beliefs to be restructured unconsciously, they open themselves up to being influenced by people or groups who would manipulate them for profit or gain, against the person's best interest, and also in potentially untruthful ways.

I think that this potential for unconscious manipulation of value systems is a very legitimate reason that people have for reacting negatively and defensively to language that is used in non-standard ways.

The religious group my friends and I are in the process of founding has discussed these issues at length. From the start, there was a strong resolve in our group to do everything we could to avoid being pushy or overstepping people's boundaries in attempts to advance our views. Because of this, one of the core rules of communication that we agreed upon was to Use language and definitions based on societal consensus. We are hoping that this rule, which few groups of any sort embrace as centrally as we do, will help us to create a novel religious organization that will succeed at avoiding the pitfalls of pushiness more successfully than past organizations have done.

Back to tea: what exactly is the mainstream definition of tea?

The mainstream definition of tea is a broad one. The word tea is not only used to refer to true teas, but also to a wide variety of other beverages prepared in the same manner as true tea. You can check the definition of tea, which pulls from a number of different mainstream dictionaries, to verify this. The strict definition of tea as only referring to true teas made from the Camellia sinensis plant is one that is only agreed upon in a small subculture.

In conclusion: yes, I do think that insisting "tea" only be used to refer to true tea is divisive:

I hope I have convinced some people that there is indeed something inherently divisive about insisting that the word "tea" only be used to refer to true tea. I am a huge advocate for pure teas, and I have done and continue to do a lot of things to promote them, both in terms of sharing them with my friends, in terms of what I recommend to others, and in terms of how RateTea is structured. But I think that when people get too pedantic about the use of the term "tea", it actually harms this cause. It makes people react defensively, and it creates an inclusion-exclusion dynamic. This sort of decision harms the advancement of tea culture, and, if carried out in a business context, is a bad business decision because it can alienate potential customers.

You don't need to use the word "herbal tea". If you don't like it, then use whatever other term you'd like (tisane, herbal infusion, etc.). But, if you're going to criticize the use of this term, be mindful of how this criticism will be may be having the opposite effect that you actually want to have!

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

A Challenge: What Are The 10 Most Useful Web Pages On White Tea?

This page is about a problem that you can help solve if you are a blogger or tea company webmaster, or if you have any web presence whatsoever. The gist of this post is that I am challenging bloggers and webmasters to come up with a list of, and then link to, the 10 pages that they think would be the best and most relevant pages to return in online search results related to white tea.

Why this challenge?

I work very hard on RateTea. I have now put in over three years of work designing and maintaining the site. Although I have received some help from the other two site admins, Sylvia, and Gretchen (who worked with the site two summers ago), and Sylvia still works on the site's graphic design, I do the bulk of the work (programming and writing) myself.

The site is not performing as well as I would like it to in search results for certain search terms, and there are numerous websites outranking it that I personally believe to be much less useful or relevant, and that do not seem to reflect the same sort of work that I've put into RateTea. Let me give you one example of a search query which I find particularly frustrating. Here is a screenshot of a google search result for "white tea":

RateTea's page on white tea is buried deep within this search. When opening a clean web browser and running a non-personalized search, it displayed first on the 11th page of search results; google webmaster tools shows that its average rank is 180th in the list. With my personalized search results, on which I have +1'ed RateTea's page, it is still on the fifth page. Barely any people travel this far. I think this is unfortunate both for RateTea, and for tea culture in general, as I will show, many of the search results that are returned before RateTea's page are ones that I think most people would agree are far less useful or informative than RateTea's page.

RateTea's page is not the only one that is getting buried...there are numerous pages by bloggers and tea companies that I would like to see on this list that are also buried very deep in this search (much deeper than RateTea's page).

RateTea's page on white tea:

I want to invite you to visit RateTea's page about white tea. I personally think this page is an outstanding, unparalleled resource for information about white tea--but I am biased because I have an interest in promoting my own site, so I would like to ask you to view the site with a critical eye. My intention for the page is that it can be a central resource on the topic of white tea, where people can go to find:
  • An introductory article defining white tea and talking about its production and origins, hyperlinked into articles on related topics, like the various regions producing white tea, caffeine levels, etc.
  • Listings of over 200 white teas sold by numerous different tea companies, including a lot of small tea companies selling very high-quality, single-origin white tea.
  • Currently, 50 reviews of white teas, and growing.
  • Pages on specific varieties of white tea (currently listing seven different types, with an article on each one, and, similarly, listings and reviews of each one).
  • (These are less important to me but I think others may want them) Top-rated and most-often-rated white teas on the site.

What pages are outranking RateTea?

The first search result is Wikipedia's page on white tea, which I think is a good resource and a good first result to return, although, like many Wikipedia pages, it has considerable problems and could use more work by editors. However, the second site, WhiteTeaGuide, I think pales in comparison to RateTea, in terms of usefulness and accuracy. There is not only less information on that site, but the site provides no identification of authorship, cites no sources, does not provide any contact info, and does not link to many other useful websites. It is a complete mystery to me why this site is the second result returned. The third link is to Teavana's category for white teas, and the fourth, a single, brief article on (which shows no evidence of being maintained and contains two broken links). Although I can understand how Teavana's page would rank highly, none of these pages offer anywhere near the sort of exhaustive resource that the page on RateTea offers.

Many of the pages returned, including some from tea companies, have blatant misinformation about white tea, such as myths about white tea's caffeine content. An Amazon search for white teas ranks very highly on the list, but this page is just a generic listing of products, unlike RateTea which takes great care to orient the information towards tea drinkers and tea culture, providing both more informational content, and indexing each tea by particular style (like white peony, silver needle, snow buds, etc.) and by region of origin.

If you browse through past the first few pages (but long before the 11th page), some of the sites that appear in search results are even less relevant or useful. I find this rather demoralizing. It's frustrating to work so hard to create a resource which I know to be really outstanding, and which people repeatedly tell me is useful and informative, only to see it buried so deep within search results while less relevant sites are returned first.

How can you help?

Google and other search engines decide what pages to return in large part by who links to a given website. I really have no idea exactly why some of the sites are ranking higher than mine. It's particularly demoralizing to see such brief articles that aren't even being maintained being returned so close to the top, when I am painstakingly checking RateTea to keep the articles up-to-date, incorporate new information, fix broken links, etc. Google does weigh some factors (like the domain name) which could partially explain the presence of some of the less useful sites with "whitetea" in their domain names. But in the end, if you want to see RateTea's page on white tea to rank highly on a search like this, people will need to link to RateTea's page on white tea. But I don't just want you to link to RateTea's page, I want you to link to all the best pages on white tea. Link to informational websites whose information you think is the most accurate, companies selling the teas you personally believe to be the best teas, bloggers talking about tea culture, whatever pages you think would be best for an all-purpose search on white tea.

Therefore I am asking you to:

  • Visit RateTea's page on white tea, and type in a search for yourself (the search results may be different if you use personalized search, so try it in a different web browser if you want a clean search), and visit some of the sites. See if you really agree with me that RateTea's page is more useful than any number of the pages returned on the first few pages of results.
  • Brainstorm and search creatively for other pages on white tea.
  • Publish a blog post or webpage about what you think the best top 10 search results would be for a search query on "white tea". Include live links to all the sites that you are highlighting.
  • Even if you do not have a website or blog, you can still help by sharing the pages you wish to highlight on social media.
This will help restructure the search environment surrounding white tea, and help out all of the best websites on white tea. I am not going to ask you merely to link to RateTea, only to consider for yourself what sites are out there, and to publish your own top 10 ranking of what you think the best or most useful search results would be. If RateTea is on your lists, then great, but if not, then at least I know that I need to spend my time improving the page on white tea rather than working to promote it and boost its search rankings.

Thank you!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Tea Companies Are Like People: Neither All Good Nor Evil

Recently, I've been involved in starting a novel religious group called Why This Way. One of the topics that we have discussed at length in the group is the idea of viewing people as whole people, rather than characterizing them in one-sided ways. In Why This Way, we have taken great care to agree on how we want to communicate with each other, and one of the key rules of communication we have agreed upon is that we do not want to attach subjective negative labels to people or groups of people.

In this post I want to explore the same concept as applied to tea companies. Tea companies are groups of people, made up of employees and owners. In the context of tea companies, some examples of subjective negative labels might be:

  • Such-and-such company is an evil corporation.
  • XYZ tea company is totally incompetent.
  • That company is one giant scam.

If you've been reading my blog for a while, some of this may sound familiar, from my earlier post Constructive Criticism vs. Diatribes & Rants. If you've been reading my blog for even longer, you might find that I myself have not always been consistent about following this rule. This is in large part because it has only been recently in my life that I have come to learn the value of being conscious of these sorts of statements while communicating. So, before you say: "You are a hypocrite!" (A subjective negative label.) I want to come clean and admit that, if you look at my whole record of behavior and communication, yes, you will find certain hypocritical actions. But I am committed to following this sort of does not mean I will always do so perfectly, just that it is something I value.

In our group, we discussed many reasons for creating this rule. A lot of it, however, comes down to the fact that these sorts of statements are not truthful. Beyond this, however, we agreed that these sorts of statements tend not to be empowering, in that they are not good for effecting change in the world, and they also tend to have polarizing effects on people, often making people become defensive and making it less likely for them to listen. I want to delve into the question of the truthfulness of these statements.

People and tea companies are never wholly evil (nor wholly good):

The following picture shows the famous illustration of the devil, from the Codex Gigas, a famous medieval manuscript:

I find the devil to be an interesting concept. Whether viewed as a real entity, a spiritual abstraction, or a mythological entity, the devil is usually agreed to be wholly evil. People and tea companies, on the other hand, are never wholly evil (nor are they wholly good). Most people would agree that the first statement above about a company being an "evil corporation" is a subjective negative label, and a sort of exaggeration or distortion of truth. Corporations may do some harmful things, including things that are dishonest or even illegal, and they may act in ways that seem to show a prioritization of profit above the good of society, but it isn't terribly useful to characterize them as "evil", because even ones that ruthlessly pursue profits will usually carry out some positive functions in society, and even if the management is pursuing profit at all costs, there may be other employees within the corporation acting in more caring ways.

The second statement seems a little less strongly worded, but upon reflection, one realizes that it is also limited in its truthfulness. Competence (and incompetence) is relative, and the mere fact that a company is still in existence in some form or another shows a certain base level of competence. If a company (and all its employees) were truly "totally incompetent", it would not exist.

What about the third statement? I want to use this example because there are some companies out there that run scams, such as using false information to sell their products, or pocketing money and leaving creditors unpaid when a business folds. But is it necessarily useful or constructive to call a company something globally negative, like "one giant scam"?

An example: what exactly is a "scam" tea company?

In the course of my work on RateTea, I have come into contact with a broad range of tea companies. None of them is without flaws, but, no matter how bad any one of them gets, there is always a way it could be worse. There comes a point at which I make a decision (sometimes somewhat arbitrary) of whether or not to list the company on RateTea, but there is a whole range of tea companies out there. Let me give you an example of some companies that fall into the grey area:

  • There are quite a few tea companies which sell high-quality tea, honestly labelled, at reasonable prices, and provide good customer service, but provide some false information, often about health or caffeine content, on their website, in order to promote their products.
  • There are some tea companies which sell very low-quality tea, which, in my opinion, is not really worth buying (or drinking). As an example, I've received a few tea samples that I've thrown out without drinking. Thankfully, these sorts of examples are rare.
  • There are some websites which look a little like tea company websites, but which consist exclusively of affiliate links to other websites--what looks superficially like a legitimate business is just a commission-based model. Thankfully, I've actually seen a pretty steep decline in these sorts of websites over the three years that I've been working on RateTea, which may be in part due to Google and other search engines getting smarter about preventing these sorts of people from drawing in web traffic.
  • Some tea companies may sell decent-quality tea at a decent price, but use black hat (unethical) search engine optimization techniques to manipulate their visibility in search engines.
  • I've encountered allegations of one company deliberately misrepresenting their products, and then going out of business, leaving a large amount of debt unpaid.
  • There are a large number of companies that sell low-quality tea at high prices, promoted as a weight loss product. These companies range from packaged brands which actually can be found in some stores, to online companies consisting of a very simple website selling a single product. Some of these sites also do not sell directly, but just make money through affiliate links like the others mentioned above.
These sorts of situations are quite different from each other in their level of "scamminess", but they are also different from each other in how they are like scams.

I find it problematic to call a company a "scam" because this sort of statement does not communicate exactly what is going on. A global statement about a tea company being a complete scam communicates neither the severity nor type of scam being carried out. Also, from the perspective of the tea company, levying an accusation of being a "scam" seems like a hostile action intended only to harm the company, rather than a constructive criticism intended to encourage the company to improve its practices. If a company has some flaws, it can work to improve them, but if it is a "scam" the implication is that its whole business model is fraudulent and that it is beyond hope. And companies, even ones running the most harmful, overt scams, are still run by people, and like companies, people always have some redeeming good qualities.

I also find it problematic because people often use this sort of word in situations where it is not warranted. For example, I have seen people throw around these sorts of accusations in response to a bad customer service experience like a botched order that a company did not correct or handle to the customer's satisfaction.

If you want your message to be heard:

Making strong statements like calling a company evil, or calling a company a scam, in my opinion, is not the best way to get your message across. Although this sort of statement may attract attention, it is unlikely to encourage the company to improve its ethics or practices. And in the cases where a company really has done something egregiously terrible, I think it is best to communicate exactly what the company did, and let the action in question speak for itself.

Please hold me to these standards:

I have one last request for readers of this blog. If you see me making these sorts of statements about any tea company, any person, or any other group of people, please call me out on it. Like I said above, if you've read my blog for a long time you will realize that sometimes I have made these sorts of statements in the past. My work with Why This Way has inspired me to hold myself to a higher standard of communication, but it is hard to accomplish these sorts of changes alone, so I'd appreciate it if you can bug me if you see me slipping into any of these sorts of negative generalizations about people or groups of people. Thank you!

What do you think?

Do you agree with my general advice here? Have you ever thought about these sorts of issues? Are you willing to give me a hard time and call me out if you see me making these sorts of statements?