Thursday, March 31, 2011

How many tea companies are there?

Several times, I have asked myself the question "How many tea companies are there in the United States?" or in the world, or in some other region. The answer to this is not straightforward. publishes an interesting list of tea companies in the U.S., which currently has 927 companies listed. But browsing this list, it doesn't seem terribly selective and it looks likely to even contain some possible errors (unless Advance America Cash Advance serves tea with your payday loan).

But this list raises several difficulties about what exactly constitutes a tea company. Some questions that come up are:

  • Do you count tea rooms? Or count some, but maybe not all tea rooms, depending on how "serious" they are about the tea, or whether they sell loose tea "to go"? And if you're going to count a tea room that serves tea but does not sell loose tea to take home, would you also count a bubble tea store?
  • Is there a distinction between a tea shop that sells its own brand of tea, vs. one that does not? What if the tea shop does nothing but repackage and rebrand the tea with its own name?
  • Do you count dropshippers, websites or mail-order outfits which "sell" tea only by placing an order through another company? And if you count dropshippers, do you count websites that set up a whole business website but just refer the sale through an affiliate link?
  • Do you count a big company like Unilever which owns lots of brands, only once, or do you count its brands separately? you count some of them separately but not others? What about a brand like Red Rose, which has different ownership of the brand in different countries?
  • At what point do you count a tea company as being "in" a given region? What about a company that is headquartered elsewhere but ships into the region? Or what about the numerous brands of tea companies which have no official presence in the U.S., but are available in specialty import stores? At what point do you start counting them?
There's no clear answer because there's no clear way to define the question. It's a lot like the old question: "How long is the coast of Britain?" This question is called the coastline paradox: it has no answer. Using different measures of width, and different standards about how to handle bays, rivers, and other estuaries, one comes to completely different answers, sometimes on the order of thousands of kilometers different.

Even if you set clear standards, there might not even be enough information available to accurately answer the question. For example, in many U.S. states, information about the ownership of private corporations is not widely available, so if you want to only count two brands once if they are owned by the same company, you will not be able to get a definitive answer. For example, until recently, there was much speculation about whether SpecialTeas was owned by Teavana. Although the evidence strongly suggested common ownership or a merger or a buyout of one by the other, there wasn't an unambiguously clear answer in the public record about what the exact relationship between the two companies was. You can see the evidence on RateTea's page on Teavana.

My answer about the number of tea companies:

From my research, my intuition is that, using most reasonable standards, counting all U.S.-based companies with their own brand, and all international companies with a more-than-esoteric presence in the U.S., excluding dropshippers and tea rooms without their own brand of tea, the answer to the question of how many tea companies there are in the U.S. probably numbers somewhere in the hundreds. How many hundred? I honestly have no idea. I think Manta's estimate, however, is probably too high as it seems to count a number of tea rooms that do not have their own brand of tea, as well as straight-up erroneous listings.

What do you think? How would you define tea companies to count them? And how many do you think there are?

Friday, March 25, 2011

What Tea Brands Does Unilever Own? And How Does It Make You Feel?

Recently I set out to clearly collect in one place a list of all the brands of tea owned by the Unilever Corporation. RateTea's page on Unilever Tea Brands was born.

What surprised me about this list was the number of brands of tea owned by Unilever which are the dominant players in their respective markets. This list of brands includes Lipton, PG Tips, as well as Bushells in Australia, Red Rose Tea in Canada, and ones less-known in most western countries but dominant in their respective markets, like McCollins Tea in Peru.

Just how big is Unilever? According to Unilever's page on sustainable tea, they purchase 12% of the world's black tea. That's huge. All this stuff got me thinking.

How does this make you feel?

I like to take as neutral a perspective as possible, and I recognize that there are advantages of consistency and quality control, and economy of scale associated with large corporations. Economy of scale can also provide advantages in terms of sustainability, and when a large corporation signs on to sustainable practices it can provide a major global boost to sustainability. Unilever has made a commitment to source its tea sustainably, as discussed in that page above. But is Unilever as a whole a sustainable company? Even if it is sustainable environmentally (and some would dispute this), is it doing the best to promote sustainability culturally?

I am not a fan of corporatism and consumerism, and it's hard to deny that large, multinational corporations have been a centerpiece of the globalization of consumerist culture (the culture where the economy revolves around spending and consumption, people are viewed as "consumers", and everything is dominated by brand names and large corporations), something I frankly find abhorrent. Unilever, which owns a myriad of brands, not just limited to tea or even food products, but spanning soaps and personal care products, cleaners, and much else, certainly plays its part in this globalization of consumerism.

For a more critical take on Unilever, check out PowerBase's page on Unilever's Corporate Crimes. This page levies a broad range of accusations against the corporation. Is this page heavily biased? Yes. PowerBase is a heavily biased organization. Do I agree with all of it? By no means! But is there more truth to these accusations than most people would want to admit? Of course.

Unilever & Tea Culture:

In the tea world, Unilever promotes a uniform culture by marketing mass-produced brands of tea with a consistent flavor. The majority of their sales are in tea bags. The company invests heavily in marketing to establish and maintain brand loyalty, and relies on branding psychology to maintain their market dominance. This is the opposite end of the spectrum of single-origin, single-harvest teas.

When I imagine an ideal world, I picture one in which people are connected to their food, and aware of their food...where they know where their food comes from, and how it is produced. People would make decisions based on taste, not brand loyalty or marketing. The tea industry would be focused on the growers and producers, not the packers, shippers, and retailers. Retailers would see themselves primarily as an intermediary to connect the tea drinkers with the tea producers, and the whole system would be highly transparent. And people would drink loose tea, packaged sustainably, and wouldn't throw anything out. They could toss the used tea leaves directly on their garden, where they'd be growing herbs and vegetables so that they could be eating the freshest, most local food possible.

Let's work together to move towards this world.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Cloves in Tea

Over the past couple years I've started thinking more about individual ingredients, both in cooking, and those used as flavorings in tea. Cloves are an interesting spice. They're fairly mainstream--something you might expect to find in anyone's cupboard--but they're also not necessarily the most versatile of spices: a lot of people may go for a long time without using them in anything, and they certainly don't go well with all foods.

Cloves have a strong, distinctive aroma, which can easily overpower other spices or flavorings.

Tulsi, or Holy Basil, and Other Basils, Resemble Clove:

As distinctive as cloves are, their aroma is not completely unique. There are a number of other plants, including unrelated ones, which have aromas sometimes suggesting clove. The plant that I've found that most closely resembles clove in aroma is tulsi, or holy basil. I find holy basil has a warmer and gentler quality than clove, which can come across as harsh or dominating.

Not surprisingly, these plants both share the same primary component of their essential oil, a chemical called eugenol. Eugenol is a biologically-active compound, and is responsible for many of the medicinal properties of both cloves and tulsi, such as the anaesthetic properties of clove. This chemical is also present in other species and varieties of basil, including regular sweet basil, giving other basils a clove-like quality as well.

Cloves in Masala Chai:

Cloves are usually only used to flavor tea in the context of masala chai or spiced tea. Because cloves are so strong and distinctive, adding clove alone to tea will generally give the tea more of a "spiced" character, even if you do not add any other spices. My own perception is that if I add cardamom to tea, I'll taste "tea with cardamom", whereas if I add cloves to tea I'll taste "spiced tea".

I find that cloves go most well with strong black teas, such as Assam. Lighter teas tend to be overpowered by the clove aroma. Personally, I rarely like adding clove to anything other than black tea; the aroma does not seem to blend well with green, white, or most oolong teas, although I could imagine clove might go well with some of the very dark, roasted oolongs. I also rarely use cloves in tea on their own: I usually blend them only as one spice among many, and I tend to add only a hint of them, using other spices, like cardamom, as the dominant character.

When I add cloves on their own to anything hot, it's to hot fruit juice, especially cranberry juice or a blend of cranberry and orange. Especially when I have a cold, in the winter, I find that a mix of orange and cranberry with clove often makes me feel a lot better.

What do you think of cloves in tea?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Honest Naming Schemes for Tea: Style & Region

Verity Fisher of joie : de : tea just shared a blog post "So...What would YOU call it?" that got me thinking about how you name tea. This post also links back to an older post which poses similar questions about naming sencha. The big question raised in these posts that I'd like to focus on is the question of whether or not it's okay (in the sense of legitimate or honest) to call something sencha if it's not from Japan. This question could be posed for a number of different types of tea, but I think sencha is a particularly key example.

Sencha is a style of tea, not wedded to any particular region:

Unlike Keemun or Pu-erh, which are both named after particular counties in China, sencha is a neutral, simple name which refers to the style of tea, not its region of production. Sencha is produced throughout Japan, in all the major regions of Japan in which tea is grown. Teas in the style of sencha are now produced in a number of other countries: mostly China, but also Vietnam, Taiwan, Sri Lanka, and even small amounts in Australia and Brazil. Sencha is a Japanese style of tea, but it's not necessarily Japanese tea.

Is it honest to market non-Japanese sencha as sencha?

I believe that it is fine to call sencha from countries other than Japan by the name sencha, if the origin of the tea is clearly identified. If, on the other hand, you simply sell sencha, there is an implicit assumption that the tea is from Japan because sencha is a Japanese style and is most frequently identified with Japan and not China or any other country. Is this sort of practice outright dishonest? Perhaps not, but it is a lie of omission. I also think it is more than a bit shady if a company boldly labels tea as "Sencha" and then places a small "Origin: China" or some other country in small print, discreetly, on the back of the label. I have seen this frequently.

What is worse is tea sold as "Japanese sencha" which actually originates elsewhere. Businesses may be able to cover their metaphorical legal rear end by the claim that they mean "Japanese-style sencha", but I think this practice has overstepped ethical bounds even if it is still within legal bounds (and my intuition is that they may be exposing themselves legally as well).

How does RateTea handle this?

RateTea sets out to clearly separate style and region, not just for sencha but for all teas. As an example, we list sencha as a style of tea, and identify, when possible, the region of origin of each individual tea. And if you really only want to look at Japanese teas, you can use the filtering options on the search, or you can start from our page on Japan as a tea-growing region and either list the sencha's from there or hone your search down to a specific prefecture first.

Chinese tea is delicious, and there's nothing wrong with sencha produced in China or elsewhere. And there's nothing wrong with labelling it as sencha: it is just important to clearly and boldly identify where it originates so that there is no possibility of confusion.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Tea Companies: Diversify Your Offerings of Similar Teas

I recently read a post on Nicole's blog Tea For Me Please that provoked some thought; it was a single review of TeaGshwendner's Darjeeling Steinthal First Flush. At the end of the review, Nicole remarked:

This is the third Darjeeling that I have tried from TeaGshwendner and they have all been very different from each other.

I think that this comment highlights one key piece of advice for tea companies: diversify your offerings of similar teas (i.e. teas of the same style or from the same region). Diversification grabs the attention of variety-seekers. If someone samples three similar-looking teas from your company and they're radically different, they will be more motivated to try each one of your offerings. If, on the other hand, all three teas are similar, the person may assume that the rest are more similar, and may seek another company if they're truly looking to diversify.

Diversifying your offerings also increases the likelihood that you'll help a customer locate a tea that is an all-time favorite. Most of us have one or two teas that, even when we are itching to sample more new teas, we keep coming back to, the teas that we like to drink for comfort when we're having a bad day, the ones we buy in quantity, over and over again. This phenomenon provides yet another advantage to intelligent diversification.

What happens when your teas are too similar?

I'm going to pick on Upton Tea Imports because it's my favorite tea company. While I love Upton's huge catalog, its large size (over 420 different offerings) is definitely intimidating to newcomers. When your catalog is this big, you want to think carefully before adding a new tea: each tea should offer something genuinely different: either a unique flavor or aroma, a different price point, or something else compellingly different (like organic, fair trade, or biodynamic certification).

Upton usually is pretty good on the diversification, but, at least as far as I am concerned, they did fail to sufficiently diversify on one count: their offerings of the standard, dark-oxidized Formosa oolong. Upton's offerings in this realm range from the bargain-priced TT10, fannings, which is currently unavailable, through four progressively higher grades of tea of basically the same style, TT17 (80g for $7.80), before making a dramatic price jump to the next grade. The price differences of these teas are negligible from one grade to the next, and, having sampled all of them, although there are definitely subtle differences from one tea to the next, they're basically similar teas.

Upton's catalog, on the other hand, has holes as far as other teas are concerned; they still do not carry any medium-priced or inexpensive pouchong / bao zhong. As much as I love Upton, I've tended away from them for my oolongs. Life in Teacup is one company that I have been more impressed with in the realm of oolongs, both Chinese and Taiwanese. You can read my recent reviews of Life in Teacup Teas; I was particularly impressed by the diversify of their Se Chung oolongs, and I have some more oolong samples that I have yet to try.

Now that I've given Upton a hard time, I want to give them credit where credit is due. Upton does their diversification astonishingly well in the area of Darjeelings. This is pretty amazing given the sheer number of different teas they sell. But there are other companies that have also impressed me in this realm: Fresh Darjeeling Tea is one worth mentioning, even though their catalog is relatively small: I've only sampled a few teas from them but they've been radically different both from each other and from any other Darjeelings I've tried.

Do you have any favorite examples of companies doing a good job (or poor job) of diversifying their offerings of similar teas?

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Mystery Pu-erh From A Stranger

A lot of people know me, for better or worse, as "the tea guy". While I don't always like this label -- tea is only one of the many things I'm passionate about -- it does sometimes cause some interesting teas to fall into my hands.

A while back, I was sitting in the coffee shop where I usually work, when someone approached me: "I heard you like tea. I have an interesting tea you might like to try." I wasn't sure what was going to be presented with; people are often giving me various tea bags, and sometimes loose teas (usually flavored ones). I was not expecting this one though: the man returned to bring me a broken off piece of a Pu-erh cake!

I asked him if he had any more information on it but he said he didn't know anything more about it.

The Review:

So, how did this tea measure up? It brews a light amber color. It's definitely sheng (raw or green) Pu-erh, young, but with some age, my guess would be about 4-5 years. I'm no expert in this area though.

Relatively little leaf was needed even to produce many brief infusions.

The aroma is more floral than earthy for a Pu-erh. A slight smokiness. Flavor is rich but relatively smooth, without a strong edge. Seems relatively highly caffeinated. Starting in the second cup, a peppery quality emerges, and herbaceous tones become more noticeable. I did not take notes at the time, and am writing this review after the fact, so I'm reluctant to say more about the tea, but I greatly enjoyed drinking it.

I have a good bit more of this cake left, enough for 3-4 more brewing sessions, and I want to try brewing it different ways, perhaps paying more attention to each infusion.

Have you ever had surprises like this, receiving high-quality tea from strangers or people who were not necessarily tea aficionados?

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Infusion vs. Decoction

Most tea enthusiasts are very familiar with the term infusion. The word decoction, on the other hand, is a bit more alien. What's the difference?


The word infuse means to steep in liquid, usually to extract flavor and other soluble ingredients. Infusion is the method used to prepare most herbal teas. Usually, in the case of most tea and herbal teas, the water is hot. Cold-brewed iced tea is one exception to the usual pattern of hot water. The temperature can also vary considerably, such as with more delicate green teas, but the general idea is the same.

Usually, tea is prepared by making a covered infusion, ensuring that the more fleeting aromas do not escape to the air and can be enjoyed while drinking the cup.


The word decoct, on the other hand, means to extract the flavor or essence of something by continued boiling. Decoction differs from infusion with boiling water in that it involves a continuing heat source, keeping the water boiling. Even when you start with boiling water, the water stays below the boiling point during the whole infusion process (and quickly cools further). Decoction is often a longer process than infusion, because it involves extraction of substances that infusion is unable to fully bring out.

The term "decoction" is rarely used in the context of beverages. Some beverages, however, do involve continuous boiling in their preparation, but the term is less commonly used even in these cases.

What effect does decoction vs. infusion have?

Decoction allows for extraction of more substances from whatever plant is being decocted or infused. However, it also allows for more aromas to escape into the air, especially when compared to making a covered infusion.

Decoction is more often used for roots, for extracting chemicals that diffuse slower and are less likely to escape into the air. It tends to be used when the medicinal properties or biological activity of the plant are more important than the flavor or aroma. Decoction is the preferred way of preparing kava, for instance. It is also frequently used in herbal medicine, especially for roots.

Do you use decoction for preparing anything?

I sometimes use decoction as a method of preparing certain herbal teas. One example would be making ginger tea from fresh ginger root: fresh ginger root infuses slowly and you can produce a much more powerful herbal tea by decocting (boiling continuously) the ginger than you can by infusing it, even if you have thinly sliced the root.

Do you ever use decoction for preparing any tea, herbal tea, or blends?