Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Slowing Down: RateTea.net, RateTea.com, RateTea, and the Holidays

I was posting daily for a while, feeling very inspired to write, but I've slowed down, at least for this week. I can't keep up that level of energy indefinitely. Today I want to write a brief post highlighting some of the things that have been occupying my time and thought energy. But I'm also announcing that I'm taking a bit of a break for the holidays, where I will be enjoying tea a lot without writing about it as much. I'm not sure how much I'm going to slow down or take a break, but it's definitely going to happen.

Domain name news:

I was excited to buy the domain RateTea.com, which recently expired. There's a rather interesting story about this, involving Joshua Chamberlain of J-Tea International.

Yesterday, we switched RateTea.net to RateTea.com, and changed most of the naming that refers to the site to the more general RateTea. All the old links will remain valid and will be seamlessly redirected to the new site, so you don't really need to update any links, but we would prefer if people use the new domain for future links, and you can certainly update any links if it is easy for you to do so. If you missed it, you can read the official RateTea newsletter about the switch, and/or the press release: RateTea.net Acquires RateTea.com Domain, Becomes Named or Branded RateTea. The move is going smoothly, but there is a lot of work tying up the loose ends.

Whenever I go through with something like this, I get a little nervous. Is it going to influence search rankings of the site? So far, I haven't noticed any sort of a change. One thing I have noticed, however, is that because the URL's have all changed, all the social bookmarking / share counters have been reset. I think this is a little unfortunate, as I think those shares reflect the hard work of myself and the others on the site, and now they have been reset to zero until people re-share the pages via google, twitter, and the google +1 buttons. But I think this is a small price to pay for a change that I hope will look a lot better in the long-run.

Enjoying tea:

I have a lot of samples that I have not yet written reviews of. I received a gift of tea from Steph of Steph's Cup of Tea and I have yet to brew a single one. I've been drinking a lot of Ahmad tea Ceylon and not writing or thinking about it particularly deeply, just enjoying it. Upton Tea Imports also sent me some samples, as did Imperial Tea Garden. I've posted a few reviews but many of them are going to have to wait.

What do you think?

How much of a break do you take for the holidays? And do you think the change of RateTea from .net to .com will prove to be a good one in the long-run?

Sunday, December 18, 2011

My Top 5 Squidoo Pages on Tea

Update: Squidoo has since closed. You can read about it on my page title The Rise and Fall of Squidoo. I've updated the pages here to pages that I republished on a new site, Wizzley, for ones that have been republished.

I publish on a ton of different sites. I'm inherently a bit of a dabbler. One of the sites I publish on is called Squidoo. Squidoo is a bit of a quirky site; the first time I saw it I honestly did not see the purpose of it, and I actually found it quite annoying. However, over time I began to see its value. I actually recommend for serious webmasters and bloggers to check out and fiddle with Squidoo because it is an excellent way to learn about how to engage readers with interactive features.

Squidoo is a self-publishing website, but one that is structured very differently from a simple website or blog. It allows you to create pages by putting together modules, which can contain text, images, embedded content, or interactive features like discussions or polls, to name a few.

I have published a couple dozen pages about tea on Squidoo, and here are the five most popular. These articles are more casual and meant to appeal to a slightly different audience from my tea blog:

  • Tea vs Coffee - Caffeine, Health, Cost, Acidity, and Benefits - You probably know ahead of time that I'm going to come out advocating for tea; I try to give solid reasons for my preference though.
  • Loose Tea Companies - Where to Buy Loose-Leaf Tea Online and In Stores - This page highlights a few of my favorite companies, and also gives some general advice.
  • Hibiscus Tea (Roselle) - Health Benefits, for Hypertension and More - This lens focuses on hibiscus tea and its various supposed health benefits, with a particular focus on its blood-pressure lowering properties.
  • My Tea Blog - Tea, Sustainability, Herbs, Ecology, and More - A page about this blog, intended to draw in readers to this blog from the Squidoo community.
  • Tea Bag Brands - The counterpart to the looose tea companies page, I was surprised to find that this page generated significantly less interest and traffic than the page on loose-leaf tea. Is this a sign that the tide is turning in favor of loose tea?

What do you think?
Have you ever used Squidoo as a self-publishing platform? If so, please leave a comment so I can connect with you on that site as well. What do you think of the format / features that this site has to offer?

Friday, December 16, 2011

Infusing the Flowers of the Christmas Camellia - Pretty But Not Tasty

I really love infusing flowers, either mixing them in with tea (especially black or green teas), or using them as an herbal tea of their own. I have a big bag of rose petals at home that I bought at a Mexican store (where they are really inexpensive) and I frequently steep on their own. Recently I wrote about a blooming Christmas Camellia that I found growing in my neighborhood, and I observed that the flowers had a wonderful fragrance that was similar in many respects to the floral qualities exhibited by some green oolongs.

I thought, maybe I could infuse the petals in hot water, like I do rose petals, or like people do the sepals of the hibiscus (roselle) plant. Here is a picture of the petals and flower centers (which I included because they were the most fragrant):

I used boiling water and steeped for quite some time, I did not time it exactly but it was a longer infusion. Here is the resulting cup:

It looks pretty, but unfortunately, it did not taste good to me. I would describe the infusion as having some of the tannic qualities of black tea, but in a muted way, a sort of underlying unpleasant bitterness, and some of the cooked fruit quality reminiscent of hibiscus tea, another quality I dislike. The floral fragrance of the fresh flowers was completely lost. I sipped it a bit to sample, but did not drink it.

I like experimenting in life. Sometimes you need to try some things that you don't like in order to discover the things that you do. Even though this didn't turn out that well, I'm still glad I tried it.

Warning! Do not experiment infusing random flowers:

As a side note, I want to warn people that it is not necessarily safe to go around infusing non-food plants. Everything I have read about Camellias has suggested to me that all parts of the plant are non-toxic, not just to humans but to mammals in general, and I have read that this particular species is used as a food plant, with its seeds used for oil, and that it also is used to produce an herbal tea.

There are some flowers commonly used as landscaping plants, however, which are highly toxic. If you want to experiment with brewing up an herbal tea from a plant that is not normally used for herbal teas, do some background research first to make sure it is safe.

What about you?

Do you think this plant just isn't good to infuse? Or perhaps would the flower taste better if dried first? Or perhaps is the issue that I used a cultivar selected for its visual appearance and not aroma?

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Why Did I Create RateTea When Steepster Already Existed?

This post was inspired by a discussion on the TeaChat forums, When/why did you start drinking tea? In this discussion, one of the forum users posed the question:

What was your reason for creating ratetea when steepster already existed?

The answer was long, so I decided to write it as a blog post rather than just reply on the forum. Most of you probably already know about both RateTea and Steepster, but for some quick background info, these two sites are the only two interactive tea-related websites that have a database of individual teas classified by brand / tea company, which allow anyone from the internet to sign up and write about tea and rate individual teas. Both sites were launched in 2009, but Steepster was launched considerably earlier in the year than RateTea.

The above picture shows old screenshots of both RateTea and Steepster...this is actually not what the sites looked like when they launched though, unfortunately, I do not have a screenshot of Steepster after its launch, and it would be a bit of work to resurrect an old copy of RateTea from then.

I actually had no clue that Steepster existed until some time after I had launched RateTea to the public.

When I went to create RateTea, it was inspired by RateBeer. I was drinking my tea one morning, Upton Tea's Chun Mee Dao Ming to be specific, when I thought..."I wonder if there's a site like RateBeer, but for tea".

I actually searched exhaustively for interactive tea-related sites before starting to develop RateTea. I discovered TeaViews and the Tea Review Blog, and various forum sites, but I did not come up with Steepster. Steepster did not show up in any google searches, and I searched exhaustively, not just for topics related to tea ratings and tea reviews, but a whole other series of searches related to tea and social networking sites, web 2.0, interactive websites, and anything I could think up. A few tea blogs probably linked to Steepster back then, but I was not as engaged with the blogging community then, and most prominent tea bloggers did not start writing about or linking to Steepster until later.

In all honesty, I may not have developed RateTea if I had known about Steepster, but that's now how things went. When I first discovered Steepster, I was annoyed and frustrated. I had invested about five months of effort into singlehandedly developing and launching a site, and here was another site that was developed by a company that clearly had more resources (three employees, based in NYC, means they must have a hefty funding source) and experience in developing interactive websites. I am not a competitive person, and, in the business world, I don't like competing; I would rather limit my work to things I can do better than other people, and shy away from work that other people can do better than me. Back then, RateTea was very minimal, so I can say without a doubt that at the time, Steepster looked better and more professional than RateTea in virtually every way.

My frustration was compounded when, about six weeks after launching RateTea, Steepster added ratings. Prior to this point, Steepster only had a "tea log", allowing a twitter-like stream of written posts about tea. I have no idea if Steepster was inspired to add ratings in response to the launch of RateTea, or if they had developed the feature on their own and were going to launch it independently of anything I had done. For all I know, they might not have known about me until I tweeted at them on twitter under my @RateTea account, in response to their addition of the ratings feature to their site. I also recognized that even if RateTea actually did offer tea ratings to the public first, being technically first in this regard wouldn't help the site much because Steepster was already more established and being more actively used.

Abandon RateTea or keep working on it?

I was now faced with a decision: abandon the project I had invested a lot of time into, or keep going with it and find a way for it to coexist with Steepster. I thought a lot about what my vision for the site was, and whether or not I'd be able to create a unique resource that would be the best resource on the web in some regard, or whether I'd just be taking second place to others with more resources, skills, or knowledge than me. And when I started thinking about my vision for RateTea, and looking at Steepster, I realized more and more that the sites were fundamentally different, and not only that they could coexist, but could have some positive synergy, as well as collectively appealing to a broader audience and meeting more needs than either one site could alone.

My vision for RateTea:

What I wanted to do with RateTea was to create an independent repository for accurate tea information on the web, one that I could use as a vehicle for promoting transparency and sustainability in the tea industry. That is, I wanted it to be fully independent of any tea company, a website that does not sell any tea and does not even have any affiliate links. RateTea uses only third-party advertising on the site.

I was impressed by the massive empire of high-quality sites like TeaChat, TeaMap, and the like, owned by Adagio, but I saw a need for something that was not associated with any one company. And I also wanted something that could be viewed as the most accurate, most definitive tea resource. Unlike Steepster, RateTea screens reviews from new members, and the site's terms of use prohibit companies from rating and reviewing their own teas.

Tea as a vehicle for food culture:

I also wanted to use RateTea as a vehicle for getting people to think more about their tea: where it comes from, and how it is produced. For this reason, we classify teas to a greater level of detail, not just black, green, etc. but down to specific cultivars, specific provinces or even counties of China, and then we have an article on each style of tea, each specific region. And, rather than just appealing to tea connoisseurs, I want the site to draw in casual tea drinkers and get them to start thinking about their tea.

But the vision is not just about tea, it is really a global scheme which I intend to use as a platform for influencing and reshaping food and drink culture in America and worldwide. I want to push people in the direction of the slow food movement, embracing traditional foods, paying more attention to how their food and drink tastes, etc. For myself, when I got more into beer (and then tea) in this way, it opened up the door to thinking more about food. This is another reason why I have a lot of info on the site about climate and how tea is grown, on the region pages. I want people to become aware of issues like climate change, soil degradation, and also to learn about gardening, growing their own herbs, etc.

Very different from Steepster:

When I explain the full vision of RateTea, it is apparent that it is vastly different from Steepster. The site is a social networking site, and an interactive site where anyone can rate and review teas, but this is only a small part of it: it is also intended to be a massive repository of accurate information, and a vehicle for quiet, information-based activism that I hope will transform an entire industry by making it more transparent, accountable, and committed to sustainability. And more broadly, I hope it will influence the national and global food cultures in a positive way as well.

And this is what motivates me:

And that's why I'm so motivated to keep working on it and make it succeed even when there's a "competing" site that has more funding, more technical expertise, and more paid employees, each of which is probably making a lot more money than I am. Sometimes I still feel frustrated, not just about Steepster, but just in general. Steepster is a well-designed site, and a product of honest business and hard work. What really irritates me are the sites using blatantly unethical practices. I think...why does X website get more traffic / media attention / have more facebook fans / have better search rankings? Why am I not making more money? I see websites that have a message I see as negative or harmful, or are spreading misinformation, I see websites engaging in black-hat SEO practices to manipulate their search rankings, and I see companies using marketing that plays off all sorts of insecurities in unwholesome ways, like the weight loss message used to market tea to women. And I don't want to do these things, and I see that I am earning less money because I'm living with more integrity. And it frustrates me at times.

But I'm not interested in giving up. I know that my projects, not just RateTea, but other longer-term projects like Merit Exchange, or the Cazort.net political platform, are worthwhile contributions to society, and so long as I have enough resources to live comfortably, I can't imagine doing anything other than working on the projects and goals that I am most passionate about. And I know that right now, RateTea already is an awesome resource. The header of the site says: "The most comprehensive tea resource on the web." Anyone who reads this blog knows I write at length about honesty in marketing, and I wouldn't make this claim unless I believed it wholeheartedly. When I launched RateTea, I didn't make this claim, because the site wasn't good enough to make it honestly yet. Now it is. And I hope the quality of the material on the site will speak for itself and that others will recognize the quality of this work, and over the long run, take down their links to the unscrupulous websites and replace them with links to the higher-quality resources that I and many others have created.

What do you think?

What do you think of the relationship between RateTea and Steepster? Have you ever worked on a project only to find that someone else did something similar, and did a better job in some ways? What are your thoughts on competition vs. coexisting and working together by focusing on your strengths? Do you ever get frustrated when you see unscrupulous businesses making more money or getting more traffic or attention than you or your business? Do you think I'm being honest with the claim that RateTea is the most comprehensive tea resource on the web?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

On Haiku, and Haiku on The Half Dipper, and on Appreciating Art

This post is about a tea blog called The Half-Dipper. If you do not know of this blog, I would recommend checking it out. It is a great blog to read for tea lovers, especially die-hard sheng Pu-erh enthusiasts, but in this post I want to highlight another aspect of this blog, its haiku. As of writing this post, Hobbes, the author of this blog, has shared well over a hundred haiku.

On haiku:

Most people are familiar with haiku, a Japanese form of poetry. You can read a bit about this form on Wikipedia's page on Haiku. Haiku, like most poetry in languages other than English, is a form that cannot be easily translated or truly appreciated in English in the same way. Rather than arguing about authenticity of haiku in different languages, I just want to remark that the form and structure of the poetry becomes different in a different language. It becomes a different art form, a new form which, in my opinion, is valid in and of itself.

When English speakers learn about haiku, they often learn about the syllabic structure, traditionally, 17 syllables divided into lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables. However, there is a lot more to haiku than this structure alone (and some modern haiku deviates from this structure). Haiku historically focused on nature as a subject (or a whole paradigm) for poetry, and this aspect can be just as important as the syllables. Even modern haiku that features urban or more modern subjects often reflects this sort of natural approach, with the poem saying something about the natural or organic nature of life, or drawing contrast by emphasizing something unnatural. Another aspect of haiku which is extremely difficult to translate or even approximate in English is the Kireji, a cutting word, which is used to divide two thoughts or ideas, the comparison or juxtaposition of which is central to the poem. Some of my favorite Japanese haiku (alas the author's name eludes me now) uses this juxtaposition to engage in a sort of self-deprecating humor related to Buddhism, the relationship of humans to nature, and the limitations of being human.

What I like about Hobbes' approach to haiku:

Hobbes typically includes a photograph with each haiku, which I often find enhances my ability to experience or appreciate the poem. I also find that many of the poems have a clearly evident juxtaposition of two contrasting ideas, in the spirit of the Japanese form, like I discussed above.

But what I like most about Hobbes' approach to haiku is that he often explains the meaning of the poem in a comment. If you visit his blog and read a haiku, I recommend always clicking to expand / read the comments, because he often posts his own comment after each poem, giving his interpretation or further explanation of what his intentions were with the poem.

I absolutely love this, I love when any artists or writers do this. I think there's something really wonderful and beautiful about explaining why one created a work of art or poem, what it means, and what its intention is. I also like the way in which this commentary is presented, nestled away in a hidden comment. This allows readers to read and experience the poem free of preconceptions, coming to their own interpretations, and then read the author's interpretation or ideas after the fact. I think this is just a wonderful paradigm in which to experience and appreciate art, one that is flexible and free, but also helps people to become more connected to the artist and aware of the artist's original intentions.

Read some:

If you want to check out some of these poems, travel over to the Haiku section of the Half-Dipper. And next time you create a work of art, whether it be a poem or anything, try this approach of attaching a little brief commentary or explanation of your intentions after the fact, hidden away somewhere that allows people to experience the art first, and then read your interpretation later. You may find that you really like the results this approach produces.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Molasses in Tea

A post on the (now defunct) tea blog Steep, Sip, Smile, "’tis the season for holiday teas" got me thinking. This post was about holiday teas and holiday cookies. The post resonated me because of the way the author, Mary Beth, remarked that she is usually not a big fan of sweets and tends to like her tea unsweetened.

The thought of "holiday teas" and holiday cookies got me thinking about the cookies that I like most. One type of holiday cookie that I really love is gingerbread cookies, and I like gingerbread cookies that use a lot of very dark molasses. I like the cookies to come out very dark brown, almost black, and I like them to have a strong molasses flavor but without being very sweet. One way to achieve this is by using blackstrap molasses, a very dark type of molasses that is not particularly appealing looking:

This photo by Badagnani, courtesy of Wikimedia commons, licensed under CC BY 3.0.

Molasses, an interesting by-product:

One thing that I find interesting about molasses is that it is a by-product of the production of refined sugar. As sugar is refined, all the other things in the sugar cane become concentrated in the by-product. As a result, molasses is extremely high in iron and other mineral nutrients. According to the USDA Nutrient database, a tablespoon (20g) of typical molasses contains only 11 grams of sugar, yet has 5% of your iron and 4% of your calcium for the day. This may not exactly be the healthiest food, but it sure beats refined sugar.

This whole phenomenon is interesting to me because it reflects some of the things that are harmful about how our society treats food. We highly process and refine certain foods, and in doing so, the more "desirable" foods actually become less nutritive. The refining of sugar is in many respects analogous to the refining of grains to produce white flours. But this is just an aside...back to tea.

Molasses in tea:

Have you ever used molasses to sweeten tea? If you do, I would not recommend using blackstrap molasses like that pictured above. I actually don't have any molasses on hand so I can't even try this out, but I was thinking about the combination of tea and molasses and wanted to throw the idea out there.

My intuition is that I'd like to put molasses in a strong, malty black tea like an Assam, or perhaps a deep, fruity black tea like Keemun. I'd also imagine that it would be hard to get it to dissolve...molasses is extremely viscous and tends to be slower to dissolve than honey.

I really have no idea how it would taste though. If anyone has tried it, or tries it after reading this post, please let me know.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Importance of Context - Violinists in the Metro, and Tea Prices

One of my friends recently brought an interesting phenomenon to my attention. Back in 2007, a journalist for the Washington Post orchestrated an interesting social experiment in which the famous violinist Joshua Bell played a piece by J.S. Bach in a Washington D.C. Metro Station during rush hour.

There's a brief page on NPR and a radio program about it: A Concert Violinist on the Metro?. If you want to watch just the video, you can see it here:

This whole experiment is fascinating to me because of the huge disparity in how people receive and respond to this violinist in different contexts. People pay steep prices to buy a ticket to see this award-winning musician play, and concert halls fill up when he performs. Yet the same musician, playing the same music, is completely ignored by a vast majority of people.

How is this relevant to tea?

I think that this social experiment is actually directly relevant to the world of tea, in two ways, both in terms of the enjoyment of tea, and the choices people make when buying tea. The case of the famous concert violinist going mostly ignored in the subway reminds me a lot of how people are shelling out tons of money on expensive tea sold in high-end shopping malls, while missing bargain-buys such as the ones highlighted in my recent post on cheap tea. Why? Context.

Context in Buying and Enjoying Tea:

It is a well-known and well-studied phenomenon that people will (often baselessly) attribute higher quality to a product, including food and drink like tea and wine, if the product is more expensive. That's right, if the tea has a higher price tag, you will think it is more expensive. There are several factors going on here.

A psychology book, Influence: Science and Practice by Robert B. Cialdini, sheds some light on this phenomenon, citing multiple factors:

  • Committment & Consistency - People are more likely to think that something is better if they gave up more to obtain it. In tea terms, people are more likely to think that a tea is higher quality if they spent more money on it, or went through greater lengths to obtain it (such as putting energy into searching for a bargain or researching online, or obtaining it from a little-known shop in an inconvenient location).

  • Social Proof - Because prices often reflect market demand, people often assume that a more expensive tea is expensive because it is in high demand, and therefore, other people like it so it must be better.

  • Scarcity - People are more likely to think a tea is better if it is scarce or difficult to obtain, such as if it is frequently out-of-stock, or only sold in limited batches. This is one reason why tea companies include weasel words like rare in their tea descriptions.

Beware of manipulation by marketing:

While there is some truth in all of these factors, unfortunately, all of these factors can be gamed or manipulated by unscrupulous tea companies looking to sell low-quality tea for a higher price. For example, people often assume that a higher price is related to scarcity or demand, but companies are free to set their own prices, so the price tag alone says nothing. And companies can also make teas seem artificially scarce by only ordering a small quantity and then having it go out of stock quickly.

For this reason I think it's good to be cautious. Some teas are genuinely rare or scarce, and some teas are more expensive because greater care has been put into their production. A few tips I would offer are to carry out blind taste tests (which can sometimes produce surprising results), and, when receiving teas as samples, to sample the tea and form your impression of it before looking at the tea's price. And, when buying tea online, shop around to see what the typical prices are for similar teas (or, in some cases, the same exact tea).

What do you think?

What do you think of the video / experiment with the violinist in the metro station? What about context as it applies to buying tea or enjoying tea? Do you have any additional tips for how to protect yourself against manipulation by marketing? How do you determine which teas really have the quality to justify their price?

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Top 5 Individual Tea Reviews on RateTea

This week, for the top five post, I have chose to share the most often viewed individual reviews on RateTea. This is not necessarily the same as the most often-viewed individual teas, in fact, all five of these reviews are of somewhat esoteric teas that are not particularly well-known and are not particularly often-viewed on the site.

The list:

Why are these the most often-viewed reviews? Your guess is as good as mine. They're not the longest or most detailed reviews on the site, and they're not even the ones that have been most shared or talked about. I do find it interesting that they are all tea bags, and all brands that are relatively low-profile in the U.S.

Friday, December 9, 2011

An Unusual-Shaped Mug

One of my friends, Allison Bishop, has made some interesting pottery. While at a cookie party at her apartment (where, incidentally, some very high-quality loose-leaf teas were consumed), I noticed this mug that she was drinking tea from:

I really like the way this mug looks, but I also like the way it feels when holding it. It is handleless, and best to hold with two hands.

There is something organic and earthy about it. It also got me thinking about drinking tea from a relatively wide, flat mug, and I realized that I had never drunk tea from a mug or cup with a wider, flatter shape like this one.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Tea Snobbery: At Least I'm Not Like Those Snobby Tea People

This post is inspired by a discussion on the Tea Trade Forums, How Snobbish is the Tea Community. I started writing a reply but then I realized that I wanted to write more than just a forum post. My reply was also influenced by a post I read recently on the blog Ruqyo's Song: Tea and Poetry, titled: 'There is Nothing I Dislike', referencing a famous quote by Linji, a well-known Chinese buddhist who, ironically, was known as a bit of an abrasive figure, as Buddhists go. But I digress.

Disdain for the tea bag is often associated with tea snobbery. I think there are many compelling reasons to avoid tea bags and prefer loose-leaf tea, but I think that, like any preference, this opinion can be taken too far, and can become snobbery.

The notion of "snobbery" can be subjective:

I think "snobbery" is something that can be found in many communities, but it's something that is subjective, in the eyes of the beholder, and hard to pin down. The sorry state of Wikipedia's article on Snob seems to reflect the difficulty of talking or writing objectively about this topic. Yet, subjective as it is, snobbery is something that I tend to have strong feelings about: I dislike it rather strongly. I think that snobbery actually causes harm in two ways: it harms the tea industry and tea culture by alienating people from tea, and it also causes harm in general by introducing negativity into the world and imparting a sour or bitter note into human relationships. Directly, this harms business, and indirectly, it makes the world a worse place by pushing people away from the idea that all human beings have inherent worth and are deserving of the same respect.

What is snobbery?

I will say that I have encountered people in the tea world, both online and in person, who have personally struck me as snobby (thankfully, these people are in a small minority). But rather than getting sucked into subjective negativity, I want to start by actually defining tea snobbery. What is the difference between tea snobbery, and legitimate differences in opinion, as well as legitimate differences in level of experience with tea and education about tea? I want to quote Ruqyo Highsong here:

When it comes to tea, I often find myself coming to terms with people drinking tea the way I don't think they should. Tea bags. Mesh infusers. Tea blends. Etcetera and so on.

I think these remarks are getting at a key aspect of how snobbery operates. Note the word should, a word which I have stopped using for reasons I explained in an earlier blog post.

I think snobbery, at its essence, is the idea that people "should" behave a certain way, or, to word the definition without the word "should", the idea that people are somehow better than others, more worthy of our respect, because of their choices, preferences, or their level of education or understanding of a specific topic. Tea snobbery is not the same as acknowledging or identifying that some people know more about tea than others. Tea snobbery is when you think that you have "better" tastes in tea, or that your level of knowledge makes you somehow a better person than others with less discerning tastes. Tea snobbery is not when you want to share your knowledge of tea with others, it is when you want to talk at others and impose your knowledge on them, possibly without their consent. Yes, I've seen this happen in some tea businesses, sadly, and it's very bad business, alienating customers.

My confession:

I've been guilty of various sorts of snobbery in the past. I've always been someone who highly values learning and education. I have two advanced degrees from prestigious schools. It's easy for me to get sucked into the idea of thinking that these things make me better than others, and it's perhaps even easier for me to think I'm better than others for not thinking I'm better than others for these reasons, if that makes any sense. After all, we live in a society where we are rewarded, sometimes at least, for superior knowledge. People who are more highly educated often make more money, and even in areas where education does not pay off, people are given frequent praise, especially in school, when they exhibit superior knowledge, such as on exams and other assignments. We are taught, unfortunately, and wrongly, that knowing more makes us better people. And I've gotten sucked into this mentality on multiple occasions. And then our society also values humility, so when I get out of the status trap, I fall into thinking: "Wow, look at how great I am, I'm not like all those snobby people judging others based on their level of wealth or education." ...and snobbery sets in again. Staying of out snobbery's grasp can be tricky!

What I want, however, is to not be remotely snobby. I want to learn voraciously, and cultivate excellence in all aspects of my life, but I want to share my knowledge freely (not impose it on others forcefully or hoard it for my own personal gain), and I want to use whatever skills and abilities I develop to help others, rather than just using it to manipulate or control others. And I want to connect with all people, people of all levels of ability and education, so that I may learn from people who know things I do not know (which includes, no exaggeration, everyone), and may share my knowledge with others who do not know everything that I know (which, again, includes all people, no exceptions). And, perhaps most difficult of all, I want to be able to be modest and humble about whatever abilities I have without looking down on all the people who arrogantly flaunt their knowledge and abilities.

What do you think?

Do you get sucked into snobbery when thinking about tea? What helps you get out of it? Have you been alienated from a business by a snobbish owner or employee? Have you ever been the victim of someone trying to "educate" you about tea without your consent? And how do you deal with that really tough, meta-level problem of getting snobbish about the fact that you're not snobbish?

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Being Evergreen: What Does it Mean that the Tea Plant is Evergreen?

As the Christmas season approaches here in the U.S., evergreen plants like spruce (for Christmas trees) and holly become culturally important. What does it mean to be evergreen?

The tea plant is an evergreen plant, meaning that it is green year-round. However, the term "evergreen" usually carries some additional meaning or connotation: the term "evergreen" is typically used to refer to plants that are green year-round in areas where a number of the other plants are deciduous (losing their leaves). The following photo shows an example familiar to people living in wet temperate climates like the eastern U.S., an evergreen pine tree in the midst of a bunch of deciduous trees in winter:

Evergreen plants are not the same as plants with needles (coniferous plants). There are broadleaf evergreens, like the tea plant, as well as deciduous needle plants, such as cypress, larch, and dawn redwood trees.

The fact that the tea plant is evergreen tells us several things about the nature of this plant, and in this post, I will explain a few things about what being evergreen means for a plant, from an ecological perspective.

Why are plants deciduous?

The short answer for why some plants lose their leaves and then later regrow them, rather than keeping them year-round, is that in certain climates, the environment or conditions are not beneficial for keeping the leaves year round. These unfavorable conditions usually take the form of certain periods of time that are either too cold or too dry. In the eastern U.S., the main seasonal stressor on plants is the cold winter. In other regions, such as parts of Sri Lanka or Africa, or even parts of the southwestern U.S., the main seasonal stressor is drought. Asia, including China, India, and southeast Asia, critical areas in tea production, are interesting in that they have both cold and dry conditions occurring together: this whole region has a strongly seasonal precipitation pattern, with dry winters.

When it is cold or dry, plants risk being damaged by the cold or drought. Plants can maintain their leaves under these conditions, but it takes resources, such as reserves of water, or expenditure of energy. Plants, like businesses, are faced with a cost and a benefit to keeping their leaves. Since plants produce energy from sunlight, and light levels are lower in the winter, the benefit of keeping leaves in the cold season is lower. The same is true of dry periods; most plants will not benefit much from keeping their leaves through dry periods -- even though there is ample sunlight, the plants usually just go dormant because they do not have enough water to continually photosynthesize.

The leaves of deciduous plants, like those of this pawpaw (Asimina triloba), tend to have relatively delicate or thin leaves that are light green in color, contrasting with the tougher and darker green leaves of evergreen plants. Why?

Think of a person trying to keep their home warm. People can choose to keep their home warm by burning more fuel, or they can invest more energy into insulating their home, allowing them to maintain the same amount of warmth while burning less fuel. Investing in insulating one's home is costly up-front, but pays off in the long-run. For this reason, homeowners and property owners are likely to invest in insulation, but short-term renters are unlikely to make similar investments.

Similarly, plants can keep their leaves safe through cold or dry periods by expending energy or water (a short-term expenditure), or by investing in a more robust leaf structure. The more robust leaf structure may include waxy coatings that help hold water in the leaf, conserving water during dry periods, and it may include resins and other chemicals that allow the leaf to operate at lower temperatures without expending energy. Evergreen plants tend to have tough leaves: they tend to be thick, leathery or waxy in texture, and tend to be very dark green in color.

The following leaves from Camellia sasanqua, a close relative of the tea plant, are a typical example. This plant, like all Camellias, has leaves adapted to both cold and dry conditions in winter:

Building a more robust leaf is costly to plants: firm structures and waxy coatings in particular are very energy-intensive to manufacture. If a plant is to get a good return-on-investment on a robust leaf structure, it needs to keep the leaf for a longer period of time, typically 2 or more years, so that it can gain back enough energy from photosynthesis to make the investment worthwhile. Like a business that needs to earn revenue to survive, a plant will die if it does not earn back its investment of energy through photosynthesis.

Why are some plants evergreen?

The explanation above establishes that plants are deciduous in climates with cold or dry seasons because the plants are not able to gain more than they expend by keeping their leaves year-round. If this is true, then why does one encounter some evergreen plants even in climates with periodic cold or dry seasons? And why do the coldest climates, such as the Boreal forests of northern Canada and high altitudes in warmer climates consist mostly of evergreen needle trees like spruce and fir?

The main factor is actually availability of nutrients, such as nitrogen. Deciduous trees drop their entire set of leaves every year, and need to resprout them. Building leaves not only takes energy, but also takes nutrients. Although the energy balance is in their favor, the balance of nutrients may not be. If the plants are growing in a nutrient rich environment, such as most of the forests of the Eastern or Midwestern U.S., the loss of nutrients is not much of an issue: the plant can just pick up new nutrients through its roots. But in areas with fewer nutrients in the soil, the yearly loss of nutrients is too crippling to the plant.

This phenomenon explains the dominance of evergreens in rocky outcroppings with poor soil, and on coastal areas and in pine barrens with sandy soil. It also explains the dominance of evergreens in cold climates, because as the climate gets colder, leaf litter breaks down more slowly, and eventually a point is reached at which few of the nutrients in the leaf litter are actually available to the plants growing in the soil.

Back to the tea plant:

The tea plant is evergreen, and it is a broad-leaf evergreen which grows tough, waxy leaves, quite unlike the tender, newly-sprouted leaves used to produce most of the tea we drink. Its leaves are adapted to get through both cold and dry winters characteristic of the Asian climates where it is native, and, in a broader sense, its evergreen nature is an adaptation to growing in nutrient-poor conditions, such as the rocky outcroppings of the Wuyi mountains.

What do you think?

Do you find the topic or phenomenon of plants being evergreen as interesting as I do? Do you have any thoughts to add?

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Romanization of Chinese Tea Names: Wade-Giles vs. Pinyin

Buying, selling, writing, and talking about Chinese tea in the English language can be rather complicated and confusing, owing to uncertainty about the names of teas. The Chinese language is unfamiliar and alien-sounding to most English speakers, although the base-level of cultural awareness of the Chinese language among the general U.S. population has increased dramatically in recent years. One thing that complicates the naming and spelling of teas is the use of different systems of Romanization. The following screenshot of a chart on Wikipedia shows a few common Romanizations of Chinese:

Romanization is the translating of names from one language into the characters of the Roman alphabet, the alphabet used in English and many other Western languages. There are several different systems of Romanization of Chinese, but the most well-known two of these are Pinyin and Wade-Giles.

Wade-Giles Romanization:

Wade-Giles Romanization is an old system for transcribing Chinese characters that was developed by Sir Thomas Francis Wade, a British Diplomat, during the mid 19th century. Wade-Giles romanization was the dominant form of Romanization in English speaking countries for most of the 20th century, and was used in an overwhelming majority of books published on China until Pinyin began to be adopted.

Because tea culture was firmly established in the West during this period, many of the Wade-Giles spellings of names of tea, such as Pouchong, stuck, either in their literal form or in closely-related spellings. Other spellings, like Lapsang Souchong and Oolong, are artifacts of some other Romanziation system.

Pinyin Romanization:

Pinyin is a more modern system of Romanization, which was developed organically, based on building off earlier systems. Zhou Youguang was a Chinese linguist who figured prominently in the development of Pinyin, although many people were involved in its development. Pinyin was created in the 1950's and initially published in 1958, but the system has been revised since then. Pinyin was created with the official support of the government of the People's Republic of China, and the system retains official backing to this day. There are several variants of Pinyin, including Tongyong Pinyin, adopted briefly by the Republic of China (Taiwan), but the differences are slight.

There are compelling advantages to Pinyin over Wade-Giles and other earlier systems, although there are ways in which it is less intuitive as well. Although Chinese pronunciation does not come close to corresponding cleanly in a one-to-one way with any Western Languages, and is hard to map into Roman characters by any means, Pinyin offers several improvements. Some of the sounds beginning with "chi" in Wade-Giles did not correspond well to the Western "ch" sound, and are represented by "ji" in Pinyin, which is a closer match to how English uses the letter "j". Similarly, Wade-Giles' use of the letter "j" could be particularly unintuitive, and has been replaced with "r" in some cases where it is a much better match. One consonant in Pinyin, however, which I find unintuitive is "c", which makes a "ts" sound that was written as "ts" in the old Wade-Giles system. Pinyin also switches the "d" and "t" relative to Wade-Giles, which leads to much confusion, and Pinyin uses separate "b" and "p", using "p" for the aspirated syllable rather than Wade-Giles which used an apostrophe to mark aspiration.

In the tea world, some of the results of these changes are Tung Ting -> Dong Ding or Pai Mu Tan --> Bai Mu Dan, and returning to the three examples above, Pouchong --> Bao Zhong, Lapsang souchong -> Zhengshan xiaozhong, and Oolong --> Wu long.

Barriers to Adopting Pinyin for Tea Names:

In spite of the fact that Pinyin has been widely adopted as the primary means for romanizing the Chinese language in the West (as well as in China), there remain a number of barriers keeping these names from being adopted in the tea world. One of these is the alien-looking spelling of some tea names. Zhengshan xiaozhong is a good example...even some people such as myself who are at least somewhat familiar with the difference between Pinyin and Wade-giles are unlikely to recognize this name as being the name as "Lapsang Souchong" at a brief glance.

Another barrier, in a very specific case, is that the term "Wulong" or "Wu long" has become associated with the fad (and scam) of weight loss teas. Legitimate tea companies thus are forced into making the choice of using the old Wade-giles spelling Oolong, which is widely used in the tea industry and among tea enthusiasts, or using the Pinyin "Wulong", which strongly evokes (and is associated on the internet with) the weight loss fad.

How do I handle romanization?

I've adopted a fairly complex take on how to handle romanization, both in general and on RateTea, where I've taken some effort to standardize how Chinese tea names are handled. I settled on using the most widely accepted spellings, rather than universally preferring one romanization over the other. But because Pinyin has been replacing Wade-giles on a global level, when the two names are used with roughly similar frequencies, I have given a preference to Pinyin. I also make a prominent reference to the Pinyin spelling at the introduction of each RateTea article on specific styles of Chinese tea, even for teas typically referred to in older Romanizations, and I use Pinyin spellings for all provinces and counties of China.

What do you think?

Do you have any opinions or preferences on the romanizations of Chinese tea names? Can you think of any advantages or disadvantages of either system, or any barriers to the adoption of Pinyin in the tea world, beyond those which I have mentioned here? How do you personally handle these differing spellings and romanizations when you talk about Chinese teas?

Monday, December 5, 2011

Christmas Camellia (Yuletide Camellia) - Camellia sasanqua

I live in a climate relatively far from where the tea plant is commercially grown, in a region where it can only be grown as a peculiar, delicate garden specimen, in highly sheltered areas. I've heard that there are a few specimens of tea plants growing around Philadelphia and Delaware, but I have yet to see one.

However, I recently stumbled across a more cold-hardy camellia, and I wanted to highlight it both because it is a beautiful and somewhat unusual plant, and also because it sheds some interesting light on the tea plant and on how the relationships between different plants in the same genus tend to work.

The plant pictured here in this post is the Christmas camellia, scientific name Camellia sasanqua, placing it in the same genus as the tea plant. This plant is about as closely related to the tea plant as a crabapple is to a commercial apple, or about as close as cabbage is related to mustard. Plants in the same genus but different species can sometimes (but not always) hybridize, and usually share certain major similarities, but they can also have major differences (Bunchberry, a tiny plant growing on the forest floor in cold climates, is in the same genus as dogwood trees).

The next picture shows an immediate similarity to the tea plant in the sprouting leaves; I'm curious to return in the spring to see if this plant looks even more like the tea plant when it leafs out in the spring:

The Christmas Camellia is so named because it tends to bloom around Christmas time...very unusual as there are very few flowers blooming at this time, let alone ones as showy as this one. I am quite curious what the natural pollinators of this plant are, as insects tend not to be active in cold weather, and most bird pollinators have departed from temperate climates by this point in time.

This plant is not native to North America, and I would have mixed feelings about planting it. It's beautiful and offers a unique landscaping opportunity with the timing of its blooming, but I usually recommend avoiding the use of non-native plants for landscaping. This is certainly not an invasive species though; it is hardier than the tea plant but still a bit of a stretch for gardeners in the Philadelphia area. This plant is thriving, but it is in a city, in a sheltered location, planted close to a building and surrounded by other broadleaf evergreens. However, I will note that there are cases of other broadleaf evergreen plants escaping and becoming invasive species, including English ivy and privet (which becomes semi-evergreen in areas as cold as Pennsylvania). Both of these plants have adapted to a colder climate than their native habitat and have become a problem, choking out native plants in wild ecosystems in eastern North America.

Similarities in aroma between these blooms and tea:

I want to conclude this post with one final note about this plant, another point of similarity between this plant and the tea plant. Its blooms smell very similar to some of the floral qualities in greener oolong teas like Qi Lan or Tie Guan Yin.

I'm quite curious if this plant could be used to produce a tea-like infusion. I've been wondering about this for a long time; see my old post other camellias for tea, in which I mention this species. One point which I find compelling as a reason for pursuing herbal teas made from other camellias than the tea plant is that they are naturally caffeine-free, which might make them attractive to some people. I may try seeing if I can produce some sort of tasty infusion from this plant at some point. However, given that I'm no expert in tea processing, and that this plant has been cultivated primarily for its blooms, it seems like it may be a bit of a stretch to produce something that would actually taste good. I'll keep you updated if I undertake any project like this, which may need to wait till the spring.

How about you?

Have you ever grown this plant, or other camellias? Have you ever tried making a tea-like herbal infusion out of this plant, or any others?

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Top 5 Tea-Producing Regions for Single-Region Teas, by Number of Teas on RateTea

For today's Sunday Top 5 post, I'm focusing on the top tea-producing regions, but I am not ranking the regions by volume, but rather, by the number of teas listed on RateTea. If you are interested in the volume of bulk production, you can visit the Production section of Wikipedia's article on tea, which has a very interesting table of this ranking. The top 5 countries of this ranking are, in most common order, China, India, Kenya, Sri Lanka, and Turkey, although the order changes subtly from year to year. The ranking of teas on RateTea shares only three of these countries in common, and the ordering is different:

Counting the number of teas on RateTea is by no means scientific, as there are a lot of arbitrary factors that have gone into influencing which teas have gotten listed, but I do think that this listing is actually a very good coarse indicator of which countries are more important or influential in the Western market for specialty teas, specifically, single-region teas, as blended teas will not be counted in this list.

After this top five, the count falls off precipitously. Kenya comes in with 39 and Nepal with 29, and there are no other countries with more than a handful of teas. Of the well-over 5000 teas listed, the overwhelming majority (1424) are still blends or teas of unlisted origin (1016) which are probably mostly blends.

Some thoughts on this list:

I find several things interesting about this list. For one, even though China and India are roughly equal in terms of volume of tea production, China almost doubles India in terms of representation among single-region teas. Another interesting factor is the absence of countries such as Turkey, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Indonesia in this list...all of which produce substantially more tea than Japan. Taiwan isn't even in the top-10 of producers by volume, but it muscles its way onto the top 5 list as a clear leader among single-region specialty teas. Taiwan and Japan clearly focus on the specialty market.

Do you have any interesting observations about this list? Do you think it's a good coarse indicator of these countries representation in the Western market for single-region teas? Are there any factors here that I may have overlooked?

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Paradox of Unremarkable Tea

I have been writing about a lot of rather long posts about rather weighty and deep topics lately, so I thought of tackling a lighter, and more boring subject today, the topic of unremarkable teas.

Unremarkable teas are rare:

How much tea do you drink that is just not very interesting or notable? I sample a lot of teas, and I actually find them mostly pretty interesting. I am the sort of person that tends to be pretty interested in life, and in tea, and I tend to find interesting qualities in most teas, so there isn't that much tea that I find unremarkable. Unremarkable is not the same as bad. Bad teas usually get my attention. Sometimes they can be terrible. Undrinkable teas are the worst...the ones I pour out into the sink. I hate pouring out tea. But this experience itself is remarkable...it doesn't happen that often, thankfully, but it leaves an impression on me. In order for a tea to be unremarkable it needs to tread that fine line between good and bad. It needs to be good enough that I enjoy drinking it, but boring enough that it doesn't leave much of an impression. It can't be similar enough to other teas I've had that it leaves an impression on me. It can't have any interesting aromas that I have never been exposed to before. It needs to achieve that delicate balance between being similar enough to other teas I've tried that it doesn't stand out as new or different, but not so similar to any notable teas that I notice the similarity enough to make a mental note of it.

The more I think about it, the more remarkable and notable it seems when a tea is unremarkable. How odd. And the data backs this perspective up:

I have used the term unremarkable exactly nine times in writing reviews on RateTea, of the five-hundred-something teas I've reviewed. Interesting, no other reviewers have yet used the word "unremarkable" in their reviews on the site. Which teas did I find unremarkable? Honestly, I do not think they are worth mentioning. Do a google search if you really want to know. They're really not bad teas.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Lego Bricks: Components, Quantization, and the Discrete, and Tea

When I was a child, I used to play a lot with Lego bricks. I love Legos; I think in many respects they are an ideal toy. Besides being really fun, I think they also encourage creativity and help develop spatial reasoning skills and manual dexterity. Pictured here is a box of Lego bricks:

One thing that is interesting about Legos is that they are inherently finite and limited, unlike other creative media, such as drawing or painting, or even playing with a musical instrument. When drawing, an artist can choose to draw anywhere on the paper, and a musician can choose exactly when to play each note, how loud to play it, and what tone or timbre to play with, whereas with Legos, the bricks can only connect in a predetermined number of ways.

But as anyone experienced with playing with Legos knows, the amount of possible combinations of even a modest number of lego bricks is so great that it is essentially endless for our limited human comprehension.

Components, The Discrete, and Quantization:

In the language of mathematics, Legos are discrete, whereas many other forms of art are continuous. This distinction parallels the distinction between calculus, which studies continuous changes, and discrete mathematics, which studies things broken into individual units. In the language of physics and quantum mechanics, Legos are quantized. Both of these mean that legos can be broken into smallest units or components, which can be placed or combined only in certain pre-determined configurations.

The Nature of the Universe:

When we look at the world around us, we see a world that looks for all practical purposes continuous. For example, we can raise our arm and move our arm or hand through various motions of distance or angle. We can cut a slice of cake, or a cucumber, exactly where we want to, rather than being constrained by only being able to divide it into a certain number of pieces.

But people who have studied science in more depth will know that the continuous nature of the world around us is actually an illusion. What looks like the unbroken surface of our skin, or the surface of the cucumber pictured above, is actually made of cells, and what looks like a smooth piece of metal is actually an array of individual atoms held together by electromagnetic forces. Furthermore, more modern advances in quantum physics have given us both theoretical grounds and empirical data to suggest that distance and time itself are quantized--that is, that there is a "smallest unit" of distance and smallest unit of time, and that particles cannot exist just anywhere in space and time. Like lego bricks, they can only be placed on the allowed grid.

Components, Quantization, and The Discrete, and Tea:

These concepts may seem very far removed from tea, but they are actually much more directly related than you might think. There are many macroscopic elements of our world that are broken into indivisible, discrete components. On a very basic level, we see these in terms of the individual leaves of a tea plant, which are well-defined units that we can see after brewing whole-leaf tea. But the same is actually true of more deeper things, things that are actually relevant to the important questions of how we experience tea. One particularly poignant example of something that is broken into a finite number of components is the olfactory receptors which we use to perceive aroma. The quantization or finite nature of the olfactory receptors is of paramount importance to how we experience tea because aroma is arguably one of the most important aspects of tea.

Humans, like any animals, have a finite number of receptors for aroma. These receptors are very numerous and very diverse, and they vary greatly from one individual to another. But for each person, the same basic fact or constraint is true: each chemical activates some finite number of receptors, in some combination, which are then processed by our brain. And the number of chemicals out there in the universe, even in our daily environment, far exceeds the number of aroma receptors we have. Our perception of smell is limited. This is why there are a variety of different chemical compounds which smell similar to us. When two teas seem to share the same aroma, it can sometimes mean that they share individual chemical components, but it can also mean that they have chemical components that are similar enough that they activate some of the same receptors.

When we try to communicate our experience of aroma to others, we run into another form of quantization: language. There are only a finite number of words with which we can describe aromas, and there are far fewer words available than there are possible combinations of olfactory receptors that can be activated by the chemical compounds in a cup of tea.

The Limitations of Being Human, and Being At Home in the Universe:

Smell, however limited it is, is still extremely complex, even when constrained by language. But I find it interesting to think about how, when it comes down to it, our experience of everything in life is finite, limited. It reminds me of our inherent limitations as human beings, but it also can make us feel more at home in the universe. Perhaps it is not so bad after all that we are finite human beings, as the very universe we live in seems to also be finite, discrete in some strange sense, like a set of lego bricks. But just like the lego bricks, it is so complex so as to effectively be boundless and infinite, offering far more depth and richness of experience than any one person could ever hope to experience in their lifetime.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Tea and Honey Bourbon Whiskey

Today I am sharing a post that is rather acharacteristic of me in several ways. For one, I am sweetening my tea, and for two, I am featuring a type of alcohol to do so. However, in a broader sense, I think this post fits with my character as the amount of sweetness and alcohol that I added was very minimal.

I am not much of a drinker; I never have been and I likely never will be. I don't like going to bars and I never feel the need to get drunk. But I do love the taste of many kinds of alcohol. It is no secret that RateTea was inspired by RateBeer, where I have been an active user for years. I enjoy beer more than any other sort of alcoholic beverages, but I do like several types of liquor. My favorite of these is bourbon. I find something about bourbon to be enticing...it's smooth yet complex, and I like it so much that I can drink it straight, although I usually like to add a dash of water to it.

Recently, at the house of some of my friends, someone procured a bottle of Wild Turkey American Honey Bourbon, a honey-sweetened bourbon of the Wild Turkey brand. This is not the sort of thing I would drink on its own. I tend to avoid sweet alcohol, and I like plain bourbon without any honey. But this drink was more subdued flavor-wise than pure honey, and it was pleasingly aromatic, and I got the idea of using it to sweeten black tea:

I chose a first-flush Darjeeling, the Darjeeling from Two Leaves and a Bud, and added just a dash of the bourbon. The result was really interesting. For one, the addition of the bourbon changed the character of the tea, much more so than adding sweetener alone, although less so than adding milk. The bourbon seemed to take some of the edge off the tea. This tea was already a relatively smooth tea, low in bitterness and tannic qualities, but I found it was even smoother upon the addition of the bourbon. I also found that the aroma of the bourbon seemed to blend seamlessly with the tea. Both were rather floral, and in oddly similar ways.

This was an interesting experiment, and the results were pleasant. I could see myself trying something similar again, perhaps with different types of liquor or different teas. Have you ever added liquor to your tea? Does this idea appeal to you at all?

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Dollar Store Tea: Lindsay Gardens Tea

I like exploring dollar stores, although I often don't buy much in them because I tend to seek out high-quality merchandise and, as I explain below, sometimes buying low-quality "bargain-priced" merchandise can actually increase your costs in the long-run. But sometimes I do discover true bargains and I always enjoy searching for them. I recently discovered a store, Dollar Days, on 48th street in West Philadelphia, which has a fairly large selection of food products, and among them, tea. The following photograph shows the tea for sale in this store:

This tea was all from Lindsay Gardens Tea, a brand which I had never heard of before I saw it in this store and took this photograph. I did not buy this tea and I'm probably unlikely to try it unless someone else has already bought it and offers me a tea bag to try, because I don't like throwing out tea.

I love shopping for bargains, but I think it is important to think about the broader picture when considering price, rather than just buying things because they are cheap. The tea pictured above is a good example. While I can't say much about its quality without actually sampling it (and I have not done so), I'm skeptical about its quality. It's clearly a brand of low-end tea bags, and I tend to avoid these brands regardless of price, because I think that high-quality goods often offer better value. But even if this brand offered high-quality tea, would it really be the best price available?

Cost-per-cup Analysis:

The following analysis will clearly demonstrate the supremacy of loose-leaf tea over tea bags as a bargain buy. First of all, the price above, $1 for 20 tea bags, is exceptional. Except for buying very large packs (100+ teabags) in bulk, it's rare to find prices as low as the one above. But in loose-leaf teas the prices can go much lower.

I recently featured a handful of teas in a post cheap tea: loose-leaf teas offering outstanding value. Among these, the cheapest was Ahmad Tea's Kalami Assam, an unusually good Assam tea. This tea, which I bought one pound of for $6.15, costs between 3-4 cents per cup, assuming about 2.5 grams of tea per cup, a substantially more liberal quantity than most low-end tea bags contain. The Lindsay Gardens tea above, from the dollar store? Assuming one tea bag per cup, 5 cents a cup. The Ahmad tea is actually an example of a relatively high-quality tea. There are other teas that are still quite high-quality that are much cheaper even. As an example, take Turkish tea from Caykur, all of which is grown without pesticides. It tends to be smooth black tea, available at a fraction of the price of the Ahmad tea above.

Even if you are searching solely to minimize your cost-per-cup, you'll nearly always get a better deal buying cheap but good-quality loose-leaf tea than buying the cheapest tea bags on the market.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Overzealous Trademarks for Tea Names: Numi Tea and Chinese Breakfast

This morning I met my brother in Metropolitan Bakery in West Philly, which is a cute little bakery and cafe, one of the few cafes of its type that does not have wireless internet. I actually really like the lack of wireless internet, as it keeps the cafe focused on people actually connecting with each other (although smartphones, unfortunately, throw a wrench in this). But I digress.

In this cafe, I drank a cup of Chinese Breakfast™ Yunnan Black Tea from Numi Tea, which I enjoyed and wrote a review of in case you're curious...but this post isn't about the tea, it's about the fact that the name of this tea is marked by a trademark symbol. This wasn't just any chinese breakfast tea, it was Chinese Breakfast™. This got me thinking about trademarks.

What is a a trademark?

The trademark symbol (™) is used by companies to denote the fact that they are using a symbol as a trademark. There are two types of trademarks, registered and unregistered. Registered trademarks are denoted by the (®) symbol. Trademarking a name or symbol, even if the trademarks are unregistered, provides a degree of legal protection for a company, in the case that other businesses use the same name.

What is the purpose of trademarking?

The idea of trademarking is simple: a company invests money, time, and resources establishing a reputation, and this reputation becomes associated with the name of that company and its products. If another company is able to come on the scene and name its products in the same way as the original company, it is able to "steal" the hard-earned positive reputation of the first company without having done the work to build up its own reputation. Furthermore, new companies on the scene could offer a lower-quality product, thus riding off the established company's reputation and tarnishing their image. If you want to read more on this topic, there's an extensive, fairly technical Wikipedia page on trademarks.

I'm a firm believer in the general validity of trademark law. I think that in general, it is a good thing. However, I also think it can be taken too far.

Taking trademarks too far:

Some companies unfortunately abuse the system of trademarks and trademark law by trying to register trademarks that are already in use as common phrases. Trademark abuse refers to a company inappropriately registering trademarks, as well as using their trademarks to legally threaten other companies, either to force them to rename their products or to extract royalties.

An example of a trademark of a common phrase is the company Life is Good, which has registered the phrase "Life is Good" as a trademark. This is, in my opinion, an overzealous use of trademarking. If I were a judge and I heard a case in which someone challenged this trademark, I would probably strike it down. The issue, as I see it, is that "Life is Good" is a very common phrase, and the company Life is Good seems to base their whole business model on selling merchandise based on the "Life is Good" slogan, which was in existence long before the company trademarked this phrase. I don't know when they registered the trademark, but according to the company's website, their first shirts with this slogan were presented in 1994. I do not know if this brand has actually sued anyone, but even if it has not and does not ever sue anyone, I still get a weird feeling whenever I see the registered trademark(®) symbol after the phrase "Life is Good". It does not give me good feelings about the company.

There are numerous examples of companies actually suing people over extremely vague trademarks. There's a long list of trademark abuse cases on Tabber's Temptations page on Trademark Abuse, which includes such absurdities as attempts to trademark the phrase Love Potion, or the word stealth. For a particularly nasty case, a cable company actually started suing all sorts of companies with the term "monster" in their names, including a mini golf company.

Because of the issue of trademark abuse, and the negative connotations it evokes, I think it is very important that companies tread lightly in their use of registering trademarks or marking names or symbols as trademarks. For example, my company Merit Exchange LLC (which owns RateTea) has a trademark (unregistered) for its name and the merit symbol used to represent it, which I explain on the Merit Exchange copyright notice. I would not even think of trying to trademark a general name like "community economy". Similarly, RateTea (as well as the domain name RateTea.com as well as the former name RateTea.net) is a trademark, but I would not try to trademark more general terms like "tea ratings". Even though RateTea was the first site to offer online tea ratings open to the general public, there were prior sites (like Teaviews, and many individual bloggers) which already published numerical ratings of teas. Even if there were no prior examples of tea ratings anywhere, I still think it would be unethical and probably legally inappropriate to try to trademark a general phrase like that. And if I were to attempt an overzealous trademark, I would just alienate others and generate hostility towards my site and my company. I'd make myself and the company or website look bad.

And this is exactly what happens when companies overreach in their use of trademarks.

Back to Numi Tea and the Chinese Breakfast Trademark:

I personally believe that the term Chinese Breakfast is too general to trademark. The name, and similar names, are already in use by a number of different tea companies. For example, Rishi tea sells a "China Breakfast". I do not know which company created their tea first though, because I have not researched this topic. The way trademark law works, the name "China Breakfast" is similar enough to "Chinese Breakfast" that if the Chinese Breakfast trademark were ruled valid, the name "China Breakfast" would likely be infringing upon it--especially since both teas are Yunnan red (Dian hong) teas of a similar style and from the same region.

But I think that a case based on trademarking the term "Chinese breakfast" could and would break down in court. Prior use of the phrase is one factor, and I think if this could be established then the case would be sealed. But even if it were not in prior use, I still think it might be too vague and general to trademark. The name is similar to English breakfast and Irish breakfast teas, which are styles of tea that are not trademarked or owned by any particular brand, and which are defined by their character, not by association with a particular company or even particular origin of tea. "Chinese breakfast tea" is a very general term which evokes a strong traditional breakfast tea, with a simple modifier implying that the tea either originates in China or is a style consumed in China. I also think that if a trademark of a general term like "Chinese breakfast" were upheld in court, it would set a bad legal precedent that would lead to a rush for companies to register other names like "Turkish Breakfast", "Kenyan Breakfast", or possibly more esoteric terms. This rush would favor big companies with more resources for advertising and legal teams, and it would do nothing to reward companies for investing long-term resources in development of quality products, and it would ultimately create an anti-competitive environment that was not productive or beneficial to the tea industry as a whole, especially to tea drinkers.

Numi Tea is a company that prides itself on its ethics: it is a leader in sustainability, with a high portion of teas that are certified organic and also fair-trade certified as well. When I see the trademark symbol after the name Chinese breakfast, it doesn't give me a good feeling. Like my reaction when I see the ® symbol after the phrase "Life is Good", my immediate association is with frivolous lawsuits in which larger companies use their wealth and legal teams to bully individuals and smaller companies. I have no idea if Numi has ever done this, or would ever do this (I certainly hope that they would not), but the point is, by writing the ™ symbol after the generic name "Chinese Breakfast", they open the door to this sort of abuse. If they were to quietly remove that symbol, they would be sending a signal to people like me and to the world that they considered themselves above this sort of petty behavior, and instead wanted to focus on the quality of their product speaking for itself. And they can still benefit, legally and ethically, from the protection of trademark law, protecting their brand name.

(Numi, incidentally, is a registered trademark, and I would assert that this is proper and ethical use of trademark to protect brand name and reputation.)

What do you think?

Where do you draw the line between trademark abuse and legitimate use of trademarks? Do you think that this particular case of Numi trademarking (albeit not registering) the name "Chinese Breakfast" is going too far? Or is it within the range of what you think is acceptable?