Friday, March 30, 2012

Informational Tea Articles On A Commercial Tea Website

This post, continuing my series on best practices for tea company websites, explores the question of whether or not, and how, to include informational articles about tea on your website.

This screenshot shows informational articles about tea on RateTea. There are already many websites, including tea company websites, blogs, and strictly informational sites, offering articles about tea, so it is important to have good reasons for deciding to write articles for your site.

There are many different reasons that tea companies choose to include informational articles on their site. These include:

  • Answering specific questions that your customers may have about your teas, or providing more information directly relevant to your customers.
  • Helping to generally raise the knowledge level both of your customers, and of people in general.
  • To convey an impression of authority or expertise, thus making a favorable impression on people and increasing the likelihood that they buy your teas.
  • To draw in traffic from search engines and other sources.

Of these purposes, I would say that the first is the most important, and the last (drawing in traffic) is a mindset that is best avoided, for reasons I explain below. My recommendations for the best practices in how to include articles on your site are as follows:

  • Share your unique expertise and knowledge, which leads into the next point:
  • Write in detail about your particular teas and their origins.
  • Avoid writing general informational / educational material about tea unless you are confident that you can write accurate articles, and that you have something unique to offer. If you aren't confident in these respects, you would do better to search and locate the best resources and link to them from your site.
  • Avoid using articles to draw in traffic to your site unless you really know what you're doing.

I am going to go into more detail on some of these points.

Sharing your unique expertise and knowledge:

If you have unique or specialized knowledge about tea that is not easily available anywhere else on the internet, this unique knowledge is probably your best material to write about. Examples of such unique knowledge include experiential accounts like the detailed descriptions of remote areas of Yunnan province that you can find in The Tea Urchin, or the discussion of Chinese green teas that you can find on the Life in Teacup Blog. Another great example is Bearsblog, which offers a level of depth of knowledge about Pu-erh that can be hard to find.

For some examples of tea companies whose information I like, I find that Upton Tea Imports offers some engaging takes on the history of the tea industry in the West, in their Upton Tea Quarterly. For a completely different sort of information, check out Norbu Tea; I find their descriptions of each tea to be highly informative, offering information that is not available elsewhere, and written with a personal touch that offers opinions and perceptions without making universal claims about how the customer will experience the tea. Another company with information about their teas that leaves a very good impression on me is Red Blossom Tea.

If you read this blog, you'll notice that I'm not as knowledgeable about tea as a lot of other tea people, who have been in the industry for years, who have travelled extensively to tea producing regions, or who have tried much more tea than me. My unique strengths lie in thinking holistically, and integrating discussion of tea with discussion of ecology, food culture, culture in general, business, and health. In any one of these areas, I have little unique knowledge to offer, but I think that the breadth of my knowledge stands out, and I have a knack for relating things to each other, so I choose to focus on writing articles that integrate subjects in unusual or novel ways.

Write in detail about your particular teas and their origins:

If your company is selling tea, you want to write first and foremost about the tea that you sell. You can write about the regions your tea comes from, how the tea is produced, its characteristics of flavor, aroma, and appearance, how to brew the tea, the history or origins of the tea, or any cultural practices surrounding the tea, and anything else that makes your teas stand out from the offerings of other companies.

Here are some examples of the following sorts of articles and pages:

All of these pages explain topics that are likely to be unfamiliar to a majority of tea drinkers. The pages on aracha and biodynamic tea are longer, whereas the page on the Kangra region is very brief. But all of these pages provide useful background information while highlighting something unique about the teas sold by these particular companies.

Be cautious about writing general informational or educational material about tea:

My advice, if you're going to write general informational articles about tea, is to actually do thorough research before writing them. If you don't want to do the research, don't write them. Having inaccurate articles on your site, besides spreading misinformation, can make a bad impression on potential customers (or on bloggers or webmasters who are considering linking to or helping promote your company), or, in extreme cases, even open you up to potential lawsuits.

As an example of such misinformation, here is a screenshot from an article hosted on the Republic of Tea website. I am bringing attention to this tea company, as always, because I like them as a company, and I'd like to see them update their articles to be more accurate, both because it is in their best interest, and because I want to help promote truthful and accurate information about tea.

The biggest claim that I take issue with in this article is the claim that white tea contains "virtually no caffeine". I've researched this topic extensively, citing the best scientific studies I could find, and summarized it on RateTea's page on the caffeine content of tea. What I found was that it is not possible to generalize about the caffeine content of tea based on type, and that white teas cover the full range of caffeine content from very low to very high (among teas). Furthermore, white teas made exclusively of buds, like those described here by Republic of Tea, are among the teas highest in caffeine. Unless Republic of Tea has tested their particular teas and established that their particular offerings are low in caffeine, this information is outright wrong, and even if their particular white teas all happen to be low in caffeine, the general statement made on the informational page is untrue.

This is the sort of information that, at best, makes a bad impression, and at worst, alienates customers or even opens a company up to lawsuits. As an example of how this sort of misinformation could open a company up to legal liability, even if the error made were in reality an innocent one, it would be easy to argue in court that Republic of Tea is using the claim about low caffeine to make white tea seem more appealing, and thus, to profit by making sales; the company emphasizes the claim of there being "virtually no caffeine", and presents this claim in the context of a claim that white tea is healthy. And can the false idea that white tea contains "virtually no caffeine" cause damages? Absolutely:

I once had a nasty drug interaction between an antibiotic that I was taking, and caffeine from white tea. While the interaction was not dangerous, it was extremely unpleasant, and there are other cases in which caffeine can pose dangerous and even life-threatening risks to people. In my case, I knew that white tea was not necessarily low in caffeine, and I simply under-estimated the effect that the drug I was taking had on my rate of caffeine metabolism. However, in the case that someone drank white tea thinking it had, as this article quotes, "virtually no caffeine", and the person had a dangerous reaction to the caffeine, I can imagine this sort of published misinformation opening the door to some potentially ruinous litigation. I'm not a particularly litigous person; I think lawsuits are overused, but it's a fact of American society that there are large segments of the population that are "sue happy". In the case of lawsuits, it often doesn't matter if a person wins a case, or even if they are theoretically able to win. Even the most frivolous lawsuits can be a costly headache for everyone involved, and I think as a general rule, if you run a business, you want to avoid doing anything that would make anyone even consider suing you.

I've brought the claims about caffeine content to the attention of Republic of Tea in the past, well over a year ago, and the claims still have not been taken down. This company is playing with fire by leaving an article like this, with an egregiously false claim about a topic of medical importance, up on their site. They're also missing out on the free promotion that they'd get from people who might have promoted their company through word of mouth, but who, like me, were put off by the bogus claims about white tea.

My advice to tea companies in general is that if you don't want to put in the large investment of time necessary to create accurate informational articles, you can search for and link to the best and most relevant articles. However, as with hosting your own articles, linking to articles with misinformation can also make you look bad. If you don't know how to identify accurate sources and want to learn how to do so, Wikipedia's guidelines on identifying reliable sources might be a good place to start.

Even if you don't ever want to write informational articles, I think that improving your ability to distinguish truth from falsehood is a worthwhile endeavor for everyone to undertake. You'll be developing a critical life skill that can benefit not only your business, but virtually every aspect of your life, including your health, finances, social relationships, hobbies, competence as a parent, etc.

Avoid using articles to draw in traffic to your site:

Some people may be tempted to add articles on tea to their website selling tea as a way of drawing in new customers, through people who search for general information on tea. As someone who runs an informational tea website, I have a lot of data about people's behavior when arriving to websites through web search. There are two reasons that the information business is unlikely to pay off for online tea retailers: one, it is extremely competitive, and two, it does not reach the users most interested in buying tea.

On competitiveness, ranking high in internet searches for informational searches related to tea put you into competition with big-name sites like Wikipedia, and, for health-related topics, sites like Mayo Clinic and WebMD, all three of which your tea company is unlikely to ever outrank. Occasionally, high-quality pages from NIH or well-known universities will also show up; your articles are unlikely to ever outrank these articles in searches as well. Slightly less authoritative sites like also have extensive articles on tea, and these sites are still hard to outrank, especially for smaller companies whose websites are unlikely to have much clout.

On the second point, the intention of a web user, while hard to directly measure, is of critical importance in any sort of website. As an example, RateTea receives a tremendous amount of traffic to its informational articles; however, these users are extremely unlikely to explore (let alone use) the rating and review feature of the website. One of the big draws to RateTea is the article on the caffeine content of tea. However, users who enter the site through this article rarely explore the site. The users more likely to participate actively on the site are those who arrive by typing terms like "tea ratings" into search engines.

From the perspective of a tea company, people who search for informational content related to tea are much less likely to buy tea than people who search for tea to buy. There may be a way to make the business model of drawing in customers through informational articles work, but it is highly unpredictable and requires exceptional cleverness, so it is not a strategy you can rely on.

In summary:

A lot of what I said in this post can be summarized by the guideline to write about the topics most directly related to what your company does, and the topics you know the most about, rather than just writing about tea in general. Informational articles can both help or harm your business, and which of these happens depends on whether you write from your area of expertise or whether you venture too far outside it.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Good News: Ahmad Tea Speeds Up Their Website

I noticed today that Ahmad Tea's website has been dramatically sped-up, following my post on Website Speed and Responsiveness, in which I drew attention to the fact that their site was loading slow for me. It now loads in about 1.6 seconds, according to my timing! This is an impressive speedup!

This is very good news for me, as I am a big fan of Ahmad and want to see them thrive. I also like being able to easily view their website. I have no idea if there is a relationship between my blog post and the speed-up; it could be pure coincidence. But it's good news for me, and I wanted to draw attention to it!

I actually am currently drinking a cup of Ahmad Tea, their loose-leaf Earl Grey, which I just reviewed on RateTea. It was a smooth tea, not easily oversteeped, but rich in flavor.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Tea and Locavores: Loose-Leaf Tea Which is Not Local Can Still Appeal to Fans of Locally Grown Food

I recently read an article on J-TEA's blog, Marketing Oolong in the U.S: Difficult But Not Impossible , which raises a number of questions. In this post, I want to focus on one question: whether or not imported tea can appeal to people who value locally-produced food and drink. My short answer is a resounding yes! I posted a comment on the post, but I decided that it was an interesting enough topic that I wanted to expand on it here.

The above picture shows a poster from the U.S. Food Administration, circa 1917-1919. While the U.S. government used to actively promote local foods, now, current U.S. food policy encourages a lot of long-distance shipping of foods, such as by subsidies of bulk commodities and other subsidies that benefit wide-scale factory-farming. Now, the local food movement is primarily driven by a decentralized network of people acting from their own personal value systems, out of a desire to preserve local food cultures and protect the environment.

My experience with locavores, die-hard fans of eating locally-produced food:

My experience is that there are very few "strict locavores", i.e., people who truly will not eat food that is not locally produced. Rather, most people seem to embrace eating locally-grown foods as a general guiding principle of something that is good, but not necessary to follow strictly, the way an Orthodox Jew might follow Kosher food laws. Strict locavores in colder climates would be forced to avoid such culinary staples as olive oil, lemons or limes, and many spices. Most people, no matter how enthusiastic they are about local foods, don't hold themselves to standards this strict.

The above salad (click the image for an ingredient list) was made in Pennsylvania from mostly-local ingredients, but it included lime, olive oil, and coriander from other regions.

It's also been my experience that people who are highly enthusiastic about eating locally-produced food and drink, either already love loose-leaf tea, or are very easy to get into drinking loose-leaf tea, especially if you present them with an explanation of how loose-leaf tea can fit into the same value system that values locally-produced foods.

Why do people want to buy or support locally-produced foods anyway?

There are many reasons that people seek out locally-produced foods. These include:

  • Sustainability - Using locally-produced goods can minimize consumption of fuel to transport goods over long distances. Increased reliance on locally-produced goods can also promote economic sustainability by promoting more local economic activity and insulating each region against economic downturns in other regions.

  • Local Traditions - Local food production is inextricably tied to local food culture. People often support local foods because they want to support traditions, including the preservation of and development of specific cultivars of plants, as well as traditions of preparing food. "Foodies", people interested in food culture in general, tend to be among the strongest proponents of locally grown foods.

  • Quality - Locally grown foods are often fresher and higher in quality, and are often preferred by people seeking out the best-tasting and highest-quality goods.

Loose-leaf tea may not be local, but fits easily into all of the main driving factors behind the eat local movement:

In most parts of most Western countries, locally-grown tea is simply not available. But even if tea is not locally-produced, there are reasons that loose tea, specifically, high-quality loose-leaf artisan teas, traditionally produced, single-origin teas, can fit into this same framework for a variety of reasons. Much of this comes into comparing tea to coffee, or presenting tea as a substitute good for coffee:

  • Tea production, measured per cup of brewed tea, is less resource-intensive, and thus more sustainable, than coffee production.

  • Tea culture is associated with a more mindful, slow-paced culture than coffee, which is often associated with a fast-paced consumerist society.

  • Tea is much more diverse than coffee, having a greater potential to appeal to foodies and people interested in the diversity present in the different types of a certain food or drink available.

But looking at tea on its own, it also fits into more things:

  • Tea, even higher-priced tea, is quite inexpensive when compared to other food and drink. Tea can thus appeal to people who value sustainability and the prudent use of resources.

  • The traditions of tea production in many countries are rich and diverse; by buying high-quality single-origin tea of specific varieties, produced by traditional methods, people support the preservation and development of local traditions.

  • As tea ships and stores well, people seeking out local foods primarily for quality reasons will have no qualms about seeking out high-quality tea imported from far away, as it is a good, much like olive oil or spices, that does not suffer much from being shipped.

Do these "selling points" work for drawing local food enthusiasts into the world of high-quality, imported loose-leaf tea? It has been my experience that they absolutely do! Most locavores are not strict or fanatical in their focus on buying and eating local. They are just regular people with common sense, who care about sustainability, about the quality of their food, and about preserving local food traditions. If you can show them how loose-leaf tea fits into their value system, they can and will get into it.

If you want to read more about these issues, you can find more depth on my post Tea as Slow Food.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Systems Thinking and the Benefits of Thinking Holistically About Tea and Everything

This post is about systems thinking, which is related to thinking holistically. Wikipedia has an extensive article about systems thinking; it's a useful article, but is a bit rough around the edges. Here I want to explain, in the context of the world of tea, what systems thinking is, and how it can benefit you.

An illustration of systems:

A system, generally defined, is a combination of interacting components which form a cohesive whole with interesting properties of its own.

Pictured here are four systems: M51: Cosmic Whirlpool, two colliding galaxies, some tea gardens in Ooty, Tamil Nadu, India, a tea shop in Kunming, Yunnan, China, and a diagram of a typical plant cell (which could easily be the cell of a tea plant). These pictures illustrate that systems can exist at vastly different spatial scales, from the cosmic to the microscopic, and that they can be natural or can involve human civilization.

Systems are complex, and often exhibit bizarre, interesting, and beautiful phenomena, which is what leads people to describe them at times as complex systems.

What exactly is a system?

A system is more than just a collection of things. If you collect a bunch of loose teas and throw them in your cupboard, you have a tea collection, not a system. A system is something where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. You might have a system of organizing your tea, but in this case, the system lies in your thoughts and practices, not the teas themselves.

This picture, titled "Tea in the Garden" by Albert Chevallier Tayler, shows a group of people gathered for tea. Groups of people are examples of systems.

Have you ever noticed that when a group of people gets together, the group takes on characteristics that the individuals in the group do not have alone? In some cases, a group might be much more effective at solving problems or getting work done than the individuals alone, or perhaps a quirky and fun sort of humor comes out, but in other cases, conflicts arise that did not exist when people were just operating as individuals. These new properties of the group are one of the key features of complex systems. Any group of interacting people forms a system: families, communities, classes in school, businesses and organization, casual social circles, political groups.

Systems are ubiquitous in biology and ecology. Individual biological cells are systems, as they have many individual parts that work together in complex ways. Within the human body, there are many systems: the circulatory system, the digestive system, the brain and nervous system. A person, or any life form, is also a system.

Cities, like one of my favorite cities pictured here, are systems.

Systems also abound in business: each individual business is a system, and the economy of a town, city, or region is itself a system. Furthermore, businesses operate within and are constrained by systems, including the economic system of society as a whole, as well as local and national political systems, and the system of culture in society, as well as local and regional subcultures.

Systems thinking vs. mechanical or linear thinking:

I find that systems thinking is best described by contrasting it with other types of thinking, which I like to call mechanical thinking or linear thinking. Mechanical thinking treats things as machines, and tends to use reductionist reasoning (understanding something by taking it apart or looking at the pieces). This type of thinking is highly logical, and is often very good at solving problems that are clearly stated.

Mechanical thinking has its place; without engineering, which is a discipline founded mostly on linear thinking, we would not have the complex buildings or technology that many of us take for granted in our modern world. And straightforward, linear thinking is also necessary in many aspects of life, and business. But this way of thinking can be severely limiting when dealing with systems when we rely on it exclusively.

Examples demonstrating the misapplication of mechanical thinking:

  • This tea, which tasted great yesterday, tastes bad today. I must have steeped it too long, or used water which was too hot.

  • I want to make more money through my tea website. I need to get more visitors to my site, to increase the conversion rate (rate of making a sale) for visitors, or to increase the amount of tea purchased per sale.

  • My tea growing operation (or anything-growing operation) is struggling to make ends meet. I need to find some way to cut my costs, or increase the yield per acre.

These misuses of mechanical thinking can lead from relatively unimportant consequences, like a person puzzling for no good reason at why they can't brew their tea properly, to more serious ones, like an online tea company owner making some bad business decisions, to catastrophic ones, such as agribusiness engaging in farming practices that lay off workers and destroy the environment.

One particularly straightforward example of the failure of linear thinking, in engineering, is explained in an article I wrote about flood prevention. An individual property owner can protect themselves from some short-term flooding damage by making changes to their property to run water off their property as quickly as possible. But, collectively, if everyone in a region follows these practices, catastrophic flooding will become a much bigger problem. The optimal solution for a region as a whole is for each property owner to minimize the runoff from their property.

Much of the flooding that happens in the U.S. is preventable, as it is caused by land-use practices that speed the runoff of water.

There are numerous similar issues in tea production, and in agriculture in general. I don't have any experience with tea cultivation, but I have a lot of experience with small-scale gardening, and I have researched the agricultural system in the U.S. a lot. Here in the U.S., mechanistic thinking has resulted in a move towards monoculture crops, cultivated by chemically-intensive farming methods...fewer people are involved in farming, the farming happens in ways that are damaging to the environment, and the produced food is of much lower quality.

Systems thinking, or holistic thinking, can lead us out of these sorts of binds. Thinking holistically is an essential part of sustainability. Systems thinking does not replace or contradict linear thinking, it just steps back and looks at the big picture in addition to the details. Often, whereas linear thinking is good at answering questions that are correctly posed, systems thinking is good at evaluating whether we are asking the right question, or coming up with creative solutions.

Examples of systems thinking in these same cases:

  • This tea, which tasted great yesterday, tastes bad today. Maybe I steeped it too long or used water which was too hot, or maybe I'm perceiving it differently because I'm in a bad mood today, or because I ate different food before drinking it.

  • I want to make more money through my tea website. I could try reaching a new audience, try improving the experience people have on the site, or try carrying unique offerings which will make my company stand out.

  • My tea growing operation is struggling to make ends meet. Maybe by developing new cultivars, pioneering new ecologically-friendly farming methods, I can attract attention and sell the teas for a higher price. Maybe by banding together with other tea producers, we can solve problems that we cannot overcome on our own. Maybe we can find ways to eliminate middlemen and more directly access the higher profit-margins historically available in Western markets. Maybe we can influence local or national government policies and regulations in ways that reshape the business environment in ways that are better both for me and for my community.

The latter approach is highlighted in the approach Kenya has been taking to tea cultivation. RateTea's page on Kenya explains this in more depth. The approach being taken in Kenya does focus on bottom-line factors like cost and yield-per-acre, but it also seeks, unlike agriculture policies in the U.S., to reduce costs through reducing energy and chemical inputs, and to create cultivars with a broad range of adaptability in the face of global climate change, which poses a particular risk to farming in Kenya, where much of the country is too arid for normal western-style agriculture. Another example, which I discovered through a post by Jackie on the Tea Trade forums, from a different part of the world, is happening in India, where small tea growers are creating their own brand of tea, an idea that came up in self-help groups of small tea growers and tea factories. The people involved in this movement have also worked to encourage the Tea Board of India to get on board with some of these initiatives, and they seem to be having some success.

What do you think?

Do you think about systems and systems thinking? Do you find systems thinking helpful in your life and/or in your business?

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Top 5 Most-Viewed Chinese Provinces on RateTea

Previously, I wrote about the top 5 most-viewed pages on tea producing regions on RateTea. RateTea not only has pages on each country that produces tea, but also on sub-regions of the country, on the level of states (provinces, prefectures, etc.) and even counties or districts.

Incidentally, we just did a major improvement to the region pages on the site, rolled out March 8th, so if you haven't explored them recently, I would encourage you to do so! Even more recently, Mar. 23rd, we just added maps of county-level divisions within Fujian province.

The following list shows which of the 14 Chinese provinces listed on RateTea gets the most views. The list is relatively predictable, although there's one surprise:

  1. Yunnan - This province doesn't surprise me at all. Yunnan province, besides being the origin of Pu-erh, also produces well-known black, green, and white teas, and it has a bit of a reputation for "weird" or "esoteric" teas, and it's just an interesting province in general. Yunnan would be high on my list of provinces that I'd imagine tea enthusiasts would want to read about, both because it's interesting in its own right, and because the people who tend to like teas from this province tend to be those most interested in tea's origin and production.

  2. Fujian - If I had to pick one province that is most important in tea production, I'd probably pick Fujian. It is undoubtedly the most important place in the world with respect to white tea, and it houses both Anxi (producing Tie Guan Yin and numerous other oolongs) and the Wuyi Mountains, making it where most of the "oolong stuff" (other than dancong) happens in China. And Fujian is also is the origin of numerous well-known green and black teas.

  3. Zhejiang - Zhejiang province, just nort of Fujian province, along the coast, is a major producer of green teas, and the origin of many famous varieties of green tea, including Dragon Well, gunpowder green tea, and Anji bai cha. There's no surprise for me here.

  4. Anhui - Anhui is the origin of Keemun, and also produces Huo Shan Huang Ya, a yellow tea, and numerous green teas, including Huang Shan Mao Feng, Tai Ping Hou Kui, and Lu An Melon Seed. This one was also not a surprise.

  5. Jiangxi - This was the only surprise for me on the list. I know relatively little about Jiangxi, having only ever sampled three teas from there (the only memorable ones being two Wuyuan green teas). Up until very recently, RateTea's article on this province was briefer than many others, so why it has been getting so many views is a mystery to me.

Runners up, in order, were Sichuan, Shandong, Hubei, and Hunan. The other provinces got even less attention. I was a little disappointed to see Guangdong, the origin of most Dancong (single-trunk) oolongs, even lower down on the list.

What do you think?

Does anything on this list surprise you? How would you explain Jiangxi, or the absence of Guangdong?

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Welcome Page For A Tea Company Website - Don't Have It

This post in my series on Best Practices for Tea Company Websites highlights a little thing that a lot of websites, including some tea company websites, do, which I think is silly, unnecessary, and slightly detrimental. This is to have a welcome page, entry page, or gateway page, a webpage that greets the user without having any real content and without having the full functionality of normal pages of your website.

It's great to welcome visitors to your site, but, in keeping with my advice about having consistent navigation schemes, I think it is a best practice to make the main part of your website, including navigation bars, available on the homepage.

Example of a welcome page:

Here is an example of a welcome page for The London Cuppa, a brand of British-style black tea:

As usual, I have chosen to give this company a hard time because I like a lot of the other things they are doing with their website, which I will discuss below.

What is the purpose to this page? The page as-is does not even make clear how to proceed. It took me a little time to notice the discrete link at the bottom that says "come in for a cuppa". This link is in plain black text, not underlined or highlighted in any way, so it is not clear that it is a hyperlink until hovering the mouse over it. Upon following it, I reach the following page:

This is now a fully-functional website. It is easy-to-navigate and visually pleasing. It even matches the visual look-and-feel of the tea's packaging (always a plus). There is a self-explanatory navigation bar at the top, and, not visible in the screenshot, a footer navigation bar as well. This whole setup begs the question: why not just direct the user to the full website initially?

I wish I had access to the statistics or data about the webserver. I would be curious to see how many users reach the welcome page, only to leave without entering the website.

What do you think?

Do you share my feelings about welcome pages? Do you think that there are any possible advantages to a welcome page that I am overlooking? One thing that I thought about was that possibly slowing down your users and inducing them to search through a page to locate a link, and then follow that link, would get them into a mindset that would make it more likely for them to explore your site. But that thought seems highly speculative to me, and I know that personally, as a user, I don't react well to these pages. Can you think up any other sort of benefits to them?

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Obsessive-Compulsive Tea Shopping, and Unity in Addictions

I just discovered an interesting discussion thread on Steepster, How do you stop the compulsion to buy buy BUY more tea?!, through a post on the Life in Teacup Blog how to deal with obsessive tea shopping... . This got me thinking about addictions in general, and I decided I wanted to write on the topic here.

Pictured here is some heroin, an illegal drug that can be highly addictive. Addiction, including addiction to hard drugs like heroin, is something I have thought about for a long time; when I was in high school, someone on the periphery of my social circle died of a heroin overdose.

This post is only tangentially related to tea, but I think it is an important topic, and I hope people find it useful.

If you were thinking initially of compulsive shopping, and are shocked by my leap to heroin, you may think I am exaggerating. But I hope that if you bear with me, you will find that my analogy has an interesting reason behind it, and the reason is not to shock or exaggerate. And, after explaining myself, I will conclude the post with a suggestion of how to overcome compulsive tea shopping.

There is unity in addictions:

I personally believe that there is unity in addictions, in the sense that, whether a person is suffering from compulsive shopping, unhealthy behavior in sex or relationships, drug addiction, compulsive gambling, self-injury, video game addiction, or anything else, the person is suffering not just from a specific form of addiction, but from a general state of addiction. All forms of addiction have in common that a person's self-control is not strong enough that they are able to choose long-term benefits over short-term behaviors that produce some sort of immediate mental reward or stimulation.

There is some science that is beginning to confirm the idea that different types of addiction have a lot in common, in terms of what is going on with the brain. I also find it interesting that twelve step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, and other similar programs, have been developed not only to help with alcoholism, but with a variety of other sorts of addictions, and these different programs have basically the same approach. The approach begins with admitting that the people have a problem with addiction, and that self-control is inadequate. In terms of my understanding of addiction, I would say that these programs work because they change a person's beliefs (the step of believing that one has an addiction and choosing to want to overcome it is a critical one) as well as providing a network of social support.

My experience with addiction:

Addiction is not something I discuss from afar; I personally have had problems with video game addiction, and it got bad enough that I deleted all video games from my computer years ago. I could spend hours playing role playing games and neglecting all sorts of other activities. More recently, I have struggled with addictive behavior towards social media and online communication media such as Facebook and gchat. I have also seen people close to me struggle with alcoholism, self-injury, and unhealthy patterns in relationships. One of my friends found a twelve step program helpful for overcoming problems with codependency in relationships, and I have seen people overcome alcoholism while others have failed to overcome it.

Some interesting resources on addiction:

If you're interested in this topic, NPR has recently had a number of programs (and published articles) on this topic. One that I found a particularly interesting read was Addiction Is Not A Disease Of The Brain. Wikipedia's article on addiction is also well-developed and has a lot of interesting and relevant material on it. The overall picture I get by reading different materials on the topic of addiction though is that addiction is complex and involves many factors, including brain chemistry, actions, habits, and life choices, social networks and relationships with people, and beliefs about the effects of various actions.

My thoughts on how to overcome addiction:

Some people "overcome" one addiction only to fall into another. I think that this is not a true victory over addiction...truly overcoming addiction involves overcoming the whole state of addiction, in which someone seeks some sort of immediate gratification through some sort of impulsive activity. The question of which activity is more harmful is often a relative one. Playing video games may seem relatively benign when compared to heroin use, but a true video game addiction, in which a person spends hours every day playing video games, and neglecting their job, school, health, or significant other, could actually be more destructive to a person's life than someone trying heroin once and never using it again.

I think that the best model for overcoming addiction is a holistic approach, one that aims to help a person reach a healthy state in which they are thinking and acting based on the long-run rather than immediate gratification. I think that an essential part of this is feeling happy and content in the moment. Addiction is all about satisfying immediate cravings; if you are consistently able to enjoy the moment without engaging in any of your addictive vices, and, without these activities, you can feel like you have everything you need in the short-term, then you have overcome addiction. I find mindfulness exercises like meditation, or the appreciation of subtle pleasures to have a positive effect on this whole process. A lot of people use addiction to run away from their problems...difficult situations, feelings, or memories they don't want to confront. It is hard to overcome addiction if you genuinely believe that your life is in ruin, as you will feel that you have nothing to lose, but if you feel like your life is worthwhile and in order, your willpower will be greatly increased. At least, that's how I view things.

How to overcome compulsive tea shopping:

I find it ironic that people suffer from compulsive tea shopping, as for me, tea is something that is associated with mindfulness, taking a break in my day to focus both on the act of preparing a cup of tea, and on the aromas, flavors, and other sensations while drinking a cup of tea, or my company when sharing tea with others. So perhaps a remedy for compulsive tea shopping would be to spend more time enjoying the tea. If you're truly enjoying what you have, you don't need any more, right?

What do you think?

Have you had any personal experiences with addiction, either mild or severe, that you are comfortable sharing in the comments? Do you think there's much truth in the "unity in addiction" view that I put forth here? What do you think about my suggestions of how to overcome addiction?

Monday, March 19, 2012

Foojoy Including Free Samples of Tea Bags With a Large Purchase

In this post, I want to highlight something that Foojoy, a brand of tea widely available in Asian stores, is doing that I think is a wonderful idea that can help people to learn more about tea, and that is also a good marketing decision. If you are a loose tea enthusiast, perhaps tempted to skip over this post, I want to ask you to bear with me on this one, as I conclude this post by describing how this simple offer of free tea bags might actually benefit loose tea culture in the long-run.

The following image, from Foojoy's website, shows a promotion that the company is running:

The idea is simple: buy a box of 100 tea bags, and you will receive a sampler of 18 tea bags, of 6 different types. I think this is a great idea, both for helping people to learn more about tea, and for the company promoting their own teas.

The samples help people to discover more of a company's product:

On a very basic level, the free samples included in the box will help Foojoy by helping people discover new teas that they might not already buy. This could increase the sales for the company in a number of different ways.

For example, someone may be used to buying Foojoy's plain green tea, but might sample their Lungching (dragon well) green tea (which, incidentally, has very favorable ratings on RateTea, surprisingly high for such simple tea bags) and might be converted to buying this slightly higher-priced product. Another way the samples could help is by making it more likely that someone would discover a new favorite tea, one that they would buy more of. It could also increase customer loyalty, as a customer realizes that they like many of Foojoy's teas, not just one.

The samples help people to learn more about tea in general:

I think that one of the best ways to learn about tea is by sampling different types of tea. One reason I personally like this promotion, offering free tea samples, is that it is a promotion that helps the person buying the box of tea to become more knowledgeable about tea. Furthermore, rather than just including one tea bag of each type, Foojoy includes three tea bags. This allows the person to experiment with brewing, and/or share a tea bag with a friend.

This promotion makes the product more attractive on the shelf:

One reason I think this promotion is such a great business decision is that it's offering something additional that will make it more likely for people to purchase the product. This could draw in new customers who have not purchased Foojoy tea before, such as a casual tea drinker, who is visiting a Chinese grocery store for the first time, and is unfamiliar with the brands of tea for sale in this store. This sort of promotion is also likely to appeal to people who enjoy sampling different teas, and these are ultimately the people companies would do well to draw in as customers, because they are most likely to spread the word about the company's products.

The offering of samples shows business confidence:

I also think that the offering of free samples shows business confidence. Companies that sell an inferior product generally will not benefit from samples, because people will try them and not like them; these companies must rely on other types of marketing to sell their low quality product.

When a tea company goes out of their way (incurring some additional up-front costs) to offer samples, it makes it more likely for me to believe that the company knows that their teas are high quality.

For the loose tea enthusiasts:

For those of you who are die-hard loose tea enthusiasts, I want to point out that Foojoy also sells loose-leaf teas, including some of very high quality. A promotion like this, which encourages people to try new types of tea, may not directly promote loose tea drinking, but I think that it ultimately will help prod people in the direction of exploring tea more, which usually leads in the long-run to people exploring loose-leaf tea. By offering both a more inexpensive line of loose-leaf teas, as well as a higher-priced line of artisan teas, Foojoy is not only giving people the option of moving into loose tea, but is poised to benefit as their customers make this transition.

What do you think?

Do you think that this promotion is a good business decision by Foojoy? Do you agree with my reasoning given here? Have you seen other, similar promotions, offered by other companies?

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Top 5 Mistakes I Make When Brewing Tea

This top 5 post highlights the most frequent mistakes I make when brewing tea.

  • Brewing tea that's not great quality - I know this isn't really a "brewing" problem, but when I ask the question: "Why didn't this cup of tea turn out well?" the answer is often that the tea used to prepare it was not particularly fresh or high-quality. Although I've encountered some green teas and a few oolongs that are truly picky about brewing, most teas I drink aren't, so if the tea turns out truly bad, the tea is usually the culprit.

  • Not making the water hot enough - I rarely brew tea too hot, mainly because I am aware of the types of teas that tend to be sensitive to water that is too hot, and I tend to be cautious with them. However, I also find that there are many teas that I prefer brewed with fairly hot water, that other people recommend brewing with cooler water. I thus find that I err too much on the side of water being too cool for my tastes, especially when following written brewing instructions. Another reason that I can brew tea with water that is too cool is if the room is cold and I do not warm up the mug or tea pot before brewing.

  • Oversteeping a whole-leaf tea on the second infusion - I often make multiple infusions of my tea when brewing western-style, in a mug, using a tea infuser. I generally do not do a "rinse" of the leaves as one does with proper Gong Fu brewing. When not doing a rinse, however, the leaves tend to take some time to become wet and start infusing, so the first infusion may be rather weak. The second infusion, however, can become much stronger even with a shorter steeping time. For example, I recently steeped a green tea for 2 minutes, and it came out just right. I steeped it a second time, for 1 minute, and it was much too strong on the second infusion. Oops.

  • Using too little leaf when brewing greener oolongs - I find the amount of leaf necessary when brewing greener oolongs to be hard to gauge. If I've used too much leaf, I can usually detect this from the smell, as soon as I pour water over the leaf, and make a short infusion. When I use too little leaf, I just end up with a bland cup. I seem to make this mistake a lot. For some reason, I don't have this problem with darker oolongs as much.

  • Brewing a cup of tea out of habit when I am not really in the mood for it - As much as I love tea, I'm not always in the mood for it. There are a few times in my day, especially in the morning, when I regularly make myself a cup of tea. On those occasions when I make a cup of tea out of habit without really wanting it, I usually don't enjoy it very much. I find that this problem is preventable if I imagine what (if anything) I want to brew up before actually starting to do so. The problem is only on those days when I'm on auto-pilot.

How about you...what are some of the mistakes you make when brewing tea?

Friday, March 16, 2012

Adding Teas on RateTea - Critical Bug Fix

I recently learned of (and fixed) a critical bug in RateTea that was preventing users from adding teas to our database. Checking our logs, I saw that at least 50 users in the past month had visited the page with this bug. And, meanwhile, I was feeling discouraged that no one had been adding any teas!

Pictured here is a Acanthasoma haemorrhoidale, or Hawthorn shield bug, on a European holly. I like these kinds of bugs, which are cute and have piercing and sucking mouthparts, more than I like the kinds that cause people to have a less-than-satisfying user experience when using RateTea!

It seems that while I've been writing about best practices for tea company websites, I have been neglecting some basic functional aspects of my own tea website! What can I say? Writing about something and actually doing it are not the same!

I also want to thank Jackie of Tea Trade, and Sylvia, for pointing out bugs recently, and also Bob Downs for inadvertently helping me to identify a third bug (sorry, the other two bugs are not fixed yet).

If you tried to add teas, please try again!

This tool is for users to add teas to our database so that they can immediately rate and review them. The old January newsletter, Users Can Now Directly Add New Teas, explains more.

If you work for a tea company, there is a more useful tool for you:

If you are a tea company and wish to add your teas or list your entire catalogue, we have a more powerful tool for adding teas; rather than use the user tool, please contact me and I can get you set up with a special account to manage your company's catalogue on the site.

Website Speed And Responsiveness - Why Speed Is Important For Tea Companies

I look at a ton of tea company websites in the course of my work on RateTea. If I had to point to a single factor about a website that is the most important, it would be website speed and responsiveness. The responsiveness of a website is the first impression that your site makes, and it is an issue that will come up again and again, whenever the user views a page on your site. If your site is slow, you will waste your users' time. If your site is slow enough, you will lose sales, you will lose search traffic from google, and you will lose visibility from people who may have linked to your site.

Have it be fast. How fast? Ideally, instant (<1 second).

Speed matters, but like the tale of the Tortoise and the Hare, it doesn't matter if 90% of your page loads instantly, if some other element holds it from loading completely. Nor does it matter if 90% of your pages are fast if some key page hangs, keeping users from using your site. What matters is the time it takes for the pages to actually display in a browser, and the speed of the whole experience of users exploring your site.

For comparison, RateTea is a very complex site. Many of the pages on the site involve multiple, fairly complex database queries, and many of them load external elements from other sites. I'm not exactly a wizard at website optimization, and I haven't put very much serious effort into optimizing my site for speed. But most of the pages on RateTea load in less than 2 seconds. If your tea company website is taking more than 2 seconds to load, it is unnecessarily slow.

What happens if your site is slow?

If your site is slow, several things happen. One is that people leave your site. If your site is extremely slow, like more than 30 second load times (yes, there are some tea company websites this slow) they are highly likely to leave your site entirely, perhaps even before visiting a single page.

But another thing that happens is that your site can drop in search rankings. Google states this explicitly, in their April 2010 article Using site speed in web search ranking:

Like us, our users place a lot of value in speed — that's why we've decided to take site speed into account in our search rankings.

A slow site, even if your customers are patient, can cause you to lose potential search traffic. What else can happen? Even if a user does not actively close out of your site, you may lose visits (and possibly sales) if a competitor's site responds more quickly. Picture the following scenario: someone types a search term into google, looking to buy tea. Your site is the first hit, and they open it. It is slow to respond. They leave the tab or window open, and open a new tab or window, this time choosing the second result. The second website responds instantly, the person finds what they are looking for, and makes a purchase. Even if your website responds, it is too late.

How late is too late? I don't have enough intuition (or data) to make a clear cutoff. Here's one site though that I think is too slow, Ahmad Tea: (follow-up, Ahmad tea has sped their site up dramatically)

If by "most exclusive tea", Ahmad means that they are excluding all but the most patient visitors from viewing their site because it takes too long to load, Ahmad may be on to something.

I'm picking on Ahmad Tea because I like them; I think their loose-leaf teas are unparalleled in their price range, and I talk about them often. Go to RateTea and read the reviews of Ahmad's teas if you have not yet done so! But, as good as their teas are, their site took about 14 seconds for each page to load. This slow page-load time happened even on very minimal pages with no text. I will explain below why their page is so slow, and how to fix it.

Another company with great teas and an even slower site is Wild Tea Qi. I timed 22 seconds for their homepage to load. This page load is so slow that it has actually hindered me from looking up information on this company and listing their teas on RateTea, something I wanted to do after being impressed with their teas at World Tea East. It's just not worth it to me to sit there loading lots of tabs in the background and waiting them to load when I can focus on other companies whose sites load quickly. So, having a slow site can also discourage webmasters and bloggers from linking to your site, which can cause you to lose potential traffic and visibility.

How to speed up your website?

  • View your website from a fast internet connection so that you actually notice slow page-load times. If you are used to a site being slow, because you use dial-up or a slow broadband connection, you may not notice that your site is responding much slower than other sites on the web, but a large number of your customers will notice. If you are running a business which relies heavily on its internet presence, don't skimp on your own personal internet connection from whatever location you view your company's website most frequently. This way, you will detect a problem with speed as soon as there is one.

  • Have a fast web host. If you have a simple, text-only webpage, which does not load instantly, nearly 100% of the time, then your web host is too slow. Get a new host. Web hosting is cheap. I have a virtual server which hosts multiple interactive websites with databases, is highly responsive, and costs under $40 a month. Most tea companies won't need to pay anywhere near this much for hosting. Compared to the cost of designing and managing a website, hosting is a negligible cost, so don't skimp on it.

  • Avoid large images or large numbers of moderate-size images on a single page. Use thumbnails, compressed with JPG, for bigger images, and allow users to click through to view a full image. Even if your server is fast, having too much data to download will make your page slow to load, especially for people with slower internet connections. Even though few people still have dial-up internet (a few still do though), many people have slow broadband connections to save money. How much data is too much? One 150kb image on a page with only smaller images is probably fine, but many such images, or an image of 500kb, is probably too big. For larger images that you want to look perfect (like a logo), use PNG; it offers better lossless compression than GIF for larger images.

  • Use features hosted on external sites sparingly. Examples of these include Facebook fan boxes, Google +1 buttons, twitter feeds, and other things. You cannot control the speed of external sites. Even if the external sites load quickly, the user viewing your site may have a slow DNS server (a very common problem, even among users of high-speed internet), which means that looking up the hostname of these embedded elements in your page may take a matter of seconds. This additional step can more-than-double page load times for a large number of users. Make sure that the design of a page allows the page to load fully and then load the external element, rather than forcing the browser to wait on the element to load. When in doubt, it is best to just not include these external features.

  • Minimize the number of external files (including css stylesheets and javascript files) that your page loads. I explain this more below, using the case of Ahmad Tea.

If you're not a tech person, and you outsource your web design and/or IT management, just make a point that you require a fast, responsive site. Put it in a contract if you sign a contract with someone. If someone can't deliver good page load times, find someone else who can. Any web developer can learn to design pages that load quickly; sometimes they just get carried away trying to add features to a page, and neglect the speed side of things. Sometimes all it takes is to ask your web person to focus on minimizing page load times.

Back to Ahmad Tea and loading external files:

Because I'm interested in this topic, I decided to take a peek and see why Ahmad Tea's site is slow. Looking at the source code of their webpage I see this:

The page is requiring each computer's browser to load a large number of individual files, in order for the page to display; I see 13 javascript files here, and 3 stylesheets. Although Ahmad's server responds quickly to an individual request (I timed a page load time of 1.27 seconds for the main page), these page load times add up.

Ahmad could easily redesign their page to look exactly the same, but load much faster. One way to do this would be by consolidating their relevant info in a single stylesheet and a single javascript file. I suspect that much of the code on Ahmad Tea's site isn't even being used. Their page is relatively straightforward; I can't imagine why it would actually need more than a tiny amount of Javascript code to display the way it does. For comparison, on RateTea, I write all necessary Javascript into the page itself; this is one reason why the site is relatively fast.

In the broader picture, one simple way to avoid these problems is to not use Javascript at all. Javascript can be useful to add features to your website, but it is not worth adding any of these features if it comes for the price of slowing down your page load time from 1-2 seconds to 10-15 seconds.

What do you think?

Have you taken any useful advice from this post? If you run a website, how fast and responsive is it? As a web user, how do you respond to slow websites? How slow is too slow for you?

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

How To Get People Into Tea (Teavangelism) - What We Can Learn From Swing Dance

A while back, I shared a post how into tea are you? in which I talk about my limits of being interested, not only in tea, but in anything. I draw an analogy to dance, particularly, swing dancing (lindy hop, charleston, and the like), which I'd like to continue in this post.

A lot of tea enthusiasts express to me that they want to build a richer and more diverse tea culture in the U.S. This post is about my thoughts and recommendations of how to do this. I am planning to write a series of posts on this topic, which I will call Teavangelism. But let's start with dance:

The University of Delaware has a vibrant swing club, which practices improvised dances like Lindy Hop, Charleston, Blues Dance, Balboa, as well as choreographed jazz routines and dancing to pop music. Tea culture can learn some lessons by examining what makes this club so successful.

Both dance and tea have in common that they are things that can become more or less a part of someone's life, and that they both rely on people to keep them going. If people don't buy tea and drink tea, the tea won't continue to be produced, distributed, and sold, and of course, enjoyed. Similarly, if people don't continue to dance a certain type of dance, that dance will die out, and if people do not attend a certain dance venue, that venue will eventually close or start hosting some other sort of activity.

Both dance and tea thus rely on some sort of "evangelism", a sort of "tea evangelism" or "dance evangelism", to spread the phenomenon and cultural practice of tea or dance.

What makes people keep coming to dances?

At the dances I attend, mostly swing dances, there is a constant influx of new people, and a large number of the new people keep coming back and become regulars. There are a lot of barriers to this happening: some of the styles of dance I participate in are difficult to learn, and cannot be easily picked up in a night or two. Newcomers often feel intimidated. How does the dance community overcome these challenges? I see a number of factors that lead to a vibrant, sustainable dance scene:

  • There is a continual influx of new people. Nearly every dance I attend has a substantial portion of first-timers as well as relative newcomers. People are constantly inviting their friends, to keep this new flow of people.

  • Dances have a broad range of people of different ability levels, who have been dancing for different periods of time. This ensures that newcomers see where one can go with dance, and also have the ability to learn from dancing with and watching more experienced dancers.

  • Experienced dancers ask new dancers to dance, and they go out of their way to dance with and talk to some of the more shy people sitting around the edge.

  • Experienced dancers take the time to explain what they are doing when people ask, for example, showing how to do a particular dance move, or giving them other useful feedback, but people avoid giving unsolicited feedback.

  • The dance community, including both the curriculum of formal lessons, and the casual conversations people have, places a strong emphasis on respecting people's boundaries, making an effort to distinguish themselves from generic "club dancing" with a culture of picking up people. While dance can be a great way to meet people (I met my girlfriend through dance), the emphasis is on human connection, clear communication, and respect. This is especially true of close partner dancing, like blues dancing in close embrace. Teachers emphasize respecting personal space and making the dance fully consensual and respectful, and there is no tolerance or room for the sort of groping and hitting on people that often occurs in dance clubs.

  • The dance culture and etiquette favors inclusion of newcomers. For example, at the dances I attend, the norm is to dance one dance with each person, and then find a new partner. This ensures that people mix up and dance with many different people, which helps to include newcomers. It is also considered taboo to dance for a song if you have already declined a dance during that same song--and this rule helps to prevent hurt feelings, making it more likely that people feel comfortable at the dance.

The absence or opposite of these factors can be a barrier to a dance scene growing, and can cause the scene to stagnate or decline. If people are not sufficiently friendly or encouraging to newcomers, and the new people do not feel comfortable or welcome, they will not return, and they will certainly not recruit their friends to visit the group as well. Any group has a natural ebb and flow, and some people will always be leaving any group, so without newcomers, any group will eventually decline.

I have talked a lot with people about what they like and don't like about different dance scenes. The number one reason that people tell me that they do not feel comfortable at a dance is if they perceive a disconnect or segregation between the "good dancers" and the newcomers. People often use words like "cliquishness" to describe this sort of situation. It has been my experience that people who describe a dance scene in this way are the most likely to leave the scene or not come back to the dances.

What makes people get into tea?

We can learn from the observations above about a thriving swing dance scene, gaining insight into how to create a thriving tea culture both in our local area, and in the U.S. as a whole. Most of these points come down to making an effort to invite people into tea culture in ways that make them feel comfortable and welcome.

  • Make a deliberate effort to introduce new people to tea. You can share tea with your friends; you can offer tea when entertaining people at your house, and you can give out tea as gifts to people who you know drink tea. You can also give teaware (including teapots, tea infusers, and the like) as gifts to people who have expressed an interest in tea. Also, as a note, although I prefer loose-leaf tea for many reasons (including sustainability), I nearly always carry a few high-quality tea bags with me, so that I can share them with people at events where it is not practical to brew loose-leaf tea, or give them casually to people who express interest in tea but are not familiar with brewing loose-leaf tea.

  • If you run a tea business, tea tasting, class, workshop, or other tea event, make an effort to include people with a broad range of experience with tea, and make there be something for everyone to enjoy or take away. If an event includes only tea experts, a lone tea newbie will be more likely to feel out of place; similarly, though, a lone expert might feel out of place at an event oriented more for newbies. This same sort of thinking can also inform your choices of what teas to sell in a tea shop or online tea store. Although every company has its focus, and some cater more to connoisseurs than others, it is always wise to carry some highly accessible teas as well as some unusual offerings, as well as carrying teas with a range of prices.

  • When enjoying tea, try to combat or prevent the appearance of cliquishness to whatever degree possible. For example, if you regularly enjoy tea with a group of friends, when a newcomer is present, go out of your way to include this person. Although some people have a natural tendency to reach out to newcomers, others tend to be most comfortable with their existing friends and people with whom they are already familiar. If you have these tendencies, be aware of them and make an effort to check in with newcomers and include them in the conversation.

  • Make an effort to be respectful and positive when talking about tea, especially when you talk about people who are less knowledgeable about tea than you are. If you talk about others negatively, it can make people cautious. They will start to think: "Wow, I know even less about tea than so-and-so...I wonder if this person is going to talk this way about me behind my back." This can be a tough line to walk: sometimes we want to make a statement that we think a company's teas are overpriced, or that their products aren't very fresh. However, it is possible to express these viewpoints while still being respectful on a human level of the owners and employees of the tea company in question.

Whether you run a business or are someone who considers tea a hobby or interest, these points can help you to make tea culture more appealing to newcomers.

It can be a challenge to follow all of these guidelines at all times; as someone with a highly critical mind, I personally struggle a lot with remaining positive and respectful of people when I have something to criticize about their actions or businesses.

I am planning to follow up on this post, going into more depth on some of these points.

What do you think?

Do you think about "Teavangelism"? What do you think of the advice or principles discussed in this post? Have you ever been made uncomfortable by any "tea people", whether someone in a tea shop, or someone serving you tea? Were there any people who helped you to become more interested in tea by inviting you to events, helping you to feel included, or giving or sharing tea with you?

Monday, March 12, 2012

Accessible Teas: Easy Teas to Appreciate

A post by Ken MacBeth(lahikmajoe), titled do I really have to like white tea? got me thinking some time back about the question of accessible teas, that is, teas that people not as familiar with tea would be likely to appreciate.

What makes a tea accessible? There is no one answer, but there are certain trends.

Because tastes are subjective and highly variable, a tea that might be an instant favorite of one person might be completely inaccessible (or perhaps, more of an acquired taste) to another. For this reason, I've found that, in order to figure out what teas might be most "accessible" to a given person, it is necessary to ask the person what they like, or at least to observe them and listen to their opinions on food and drink.

Nonetheless, I've served countless different teas to numerous people over the past few years, including at tea tastings where people sampled many different teas each, and I've observed certain fairly strong patterns in people's reactions. When planning a tea tasting, especially one oriented towards people relatively unfamiliar with tea, I have found it helpful to include some more accessible teas in the selection, although I also like to include some unusual or unfamiliar ones as well, both in order to broaden people's palates, and because there will usually be one or two people who, even from the start, prefer the "stranger" teas.

Teas that I have found to be highly accessible:

This list represents my own personal experiences of serving tea; other people may have had other experiences. But these are the teas I have found that people I've served tea to have been most likely to appreciate most easily:

  • Strong black teas - A lot of people (including both coffee drinkers and those who are really not into coffee) enjoy strong black teas. A lot of people like to sweeten their tea and/or add milk, and this practice tends to work best with strong black teas, but I've found that these teas also appeal to many people, like me, who drink their tea straight. I've found that it's hard to go wrong with high-quality, fresh, loose-leaf black teas from Assam, Kenya, and Yunnan province. Ceylon and Keemun can also be accessible. The tea does not have to be the highest-grade, and it is often best to avoid the most expensive teas; I often have found, for instance, that plain Dian Hong tends to have more universal appeal than Yunnan Gold made predominately of tips. But I find that freshness is very important; even people unfamiliar with tea will tend to notice and be more impressed by strong black teas with a powerful, fresh aroma than stale or low-quality teas.

  • Hojicha - Hojicha is a bit of a specialty tea, but I've found that it has a pretty wide appeal. Many people who tend not to like green teas tend to like it; its strongly-roasted aroma makes it appeal to coffee lovers, and yet it still seems to satisfy green tea lovers as well. Its smooth flavor also allows it to appeal to people who tend to not like most stronger-tasting teas. Given that it can be relatively inexpensive, and that many Americans have still never tried it (or even heard of it), I think hojicha is an excellent example of a tea to include when sharing tea with new audiences.

  • Genmaicha - This mild-flavored Japanese green tea also tends to go over well, I think in part because the vegetal aromas of the tea are downplayed and partially replaced by the pleasing, toasty aroma of the toasted rice, something that seems pretty easy for most people to appreciate.

  • Darker white teas - These include darker Bai Mu Dan / White Peony (although not all examples of it, some of it can be rather light and subtle), Shou Mei, and other teas as well. I have sometimes even found low-grade, broken-leaf white tea can be relatively accessible. The light oxidation of darker white teas I have found removes some of the vegetal tones that people object to in green teas, and often produces aromas like autumn leaves, which most people have pleasant associations with.

  • Sheng Pu-erh - (For those unfamiliar, RateTea provides a brief explanation of the distinction between the two types of Pu-erh tea.) I know this goes against conventional wisdom, but I have found that sheng Pu-erh tends to be much more accessible than Shu Pu-erh, and in general, much more accessible than I would expect based on the way people talk about Pu-erh. I have even found this to be true of Sheng Pu-erh that has barely been aged at all (1-2 years), including very edgy batches which are highly bitter, astringent, smoky, or have other qualities that one might think of as being off-putting. Most Americans that I meet have sampled several low-quality shu Pu-erhs, often from tea bags, and have never tried sheng Pu-erh. The typical response that I get is: "This doesn't taste anything like Pu-erh. All the Pu-erh I've tried so far tastes like a damp basement, but this tastes more like black tea / oolong tea / green tea / something else. I like it."

The above observations (as well as those below) are merely coarse trends. In groups, there are usually a number of people who will still dislike the teas with a more universal appeal.

Herbal teas that I have found to be most accessible:

I nearly always offer caffeine-free herbal alternatives when I serve tea or run a tea tasting, both because I want to accommodate people who cannot or do not consume caffeine, and because I think herbal teas are fascinating to explore in their own right. These two herbs are the ones that I have consistently found to be the most accessible:

  • Lemon myrtle - I like to call this the "lemoniest of the lemony herbs"; it is almost more lemony than lemons themselves, if that is possible.

  • Tulsi / Holy Basil - This was an herbal tea that I instantly liked. With a strongly clove-like aroma, similar in some respects to sweet basil, and also having strong suggestions of other spice (like cinnamon and nutmeg), I found this tea to be pretty accessible, and I've found that people I serve it to tend to consistently like it.

What tends to be less accessible?

I've found that teas that, from my experience, are more likely to receive negative or lukewarm reactions, include silver needle white tea (too mild), single-estate single-harvest Darjeelings (too vegetal), Shu Pu-erh (too dusty/earthy), greener oolongs (too alien), and gyokuro (too vegetal).

Contrary to what one might expect from the fact that most people seem to have a sweet tooth, I have found that most of the naturally sweet teas, like pouchong, greener oolongs, and some green teas, are not the most accessible. People may not say they like bitterness, but I think there is some degree to which people still do expect (and like) their tea to be bitter. I also think that the teas that are naturally sweeter tend to be dominated by vegetal characteristics, which I think are one of the main reasons that people dislike green teas, greener oolongs, and some Himalayan teas. The same goes for the shu vs. sheng Pu-erh distinction: shu Pu-erh is nearly always smoother than un-aged sheng Pu-erh. Yet I find many people object to the aroma of shu Pu-erh, saying it tastes like dirt or mold.

Keep in mind how many people love black coffee...and even higher-quality black coffee is more bitter than most of the more bitter teas.

What do you think?

Have you found any patterns or trends like the ones I've described here, when serving tea to others, especially, to people who are relatively inexperienced at sampling teas?

Which teas do you think are truly the most accessible in a broad sense?

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Tea And Gender Roles: Gendered Marketing

Some time ago I read a post by Tony Gebely, titled Tea: Not Just For Girls (now only available on Tony writes about how there is a widespread perception in American society that tea is associated with "tea parties", a phenomenon that is associated with women or girls, but that in the tea business and industry, and among people who view tea as a serious interest or hobby, men are actually more well-represented than women. Lahikmajoe has also written about this topic, in the post add tea preparation to her feminine wiles.

This is a topic I actually have been wanting to write about for some time, because it's a topic that I feel strongly about, and that strikes a personal note for me.

My experience with gender roles:

When I was a child, I remember my reaction to gender roles: I thought they were stupid. I saw no good reasons for them, and I would react negatively whenever I saw someone, whether an adult or another kid, telling someone that it was not appropriate for them to play with a certain toy or act a certain way because that toy or activity or action was "for girls" or "for boys" or made them look or seem "like a boy" or "like a girl". As a kid, I asked "Why?" a lot, and no one ever gave me a good reason for the way some people considered it good for boys to act a certain way and girls a different way, and why some people considered it bad to cross that line.

As a kid, I consciously sought out toys that I saw as gender-neutral, like legos. I remember finding both Barbie and G.I. Joe unappealing because they were clearly presented as only being for one sex.

In most ways, I conformed to gender roles. I did not want to be a girl, dress like a girl, or play with dolls or other toys that society seemed to view as "for girls". But I reacted negatively to the idea of being told what to do, how to act, with respect to gender roles. And I noticed that the people I liked most were ones who often did not conform fully to gender roles. A lot of my friends were tomboyish girls, and boys who were interested in the social dynamics of adults. And the role models and authority figures I was most comfortable with were ones that I never saw enforce gender roles, but who treated children (and adults) consistently regardless of their sex.

I also remember feeling angry when people would tell me stories of sexism, mostly older adults telling me about times in their past when women were not given the same options or respect given to men. I also remember identifying this sort of sexism, mentally, with people enforcing gender roles negatively on boys. In some cases, in cases where I overstepped a cultural gender boundary, I remember being called homophobic epithets, or hearing such epithets hurled at other boys. Both of these forms of sexism, to me as a young child, seemed stupid and completely unnecessary.

Now, looking back as an adult, I think that I had gender roles pretty well figured out as a kid--my childhood reaction to resist gender roles and distrust people who tried to enforce them was normal and healthy.

How to handle gender roles constructively?

Certain activities tend to be populated more by men or boys whereas others are populated more by women or girls. And it's fine for things to turn out this way. Humans have certain innate biological differences, which include differences in abilities, strengths, weaknesses, tendencies, likes and dislikes, and a whole variety of other attributes. There's nothing wrong with having more men or more women naturally fill certain roles in society.

The problem is when we start introducing negativity and coercion into the social structure of society, when people deviate from those roles. There's no problem if a certain profession tends to attract one sex or another. The problem is when someone stepping into an uncommon field for their sex results in negative stigma. The problem is negativity and judgment, and coercion--when people exercise sexism in hiring practices, in promotion or assigning salaries, or when people belittle, insult, or harm others, whether adults or children, who deviate from gender norms.

I also have a problem with people making normative statements or telling people, directly, or by implication, what they "should" do. We all know that I dislike the word should. When people say that boys "should" like certain things or girls "should" like other things, or worse, that they "should" not like certain things...or that certain toys are activities are for boys or girls, or worse, that they are not for boys or not for girls....I think that's overstepped a's no longer just a natural gender tendency, but it's become a damaging, constraining social norm.

Sometimes there are reasons for limiting the membership of a group to one sex. Certain discussion groups or book clubs may focus on women's issues or men's issues, and may want to create a safe environment where people can bring up issues that they may be afraid to talk about around the opposite sex. But creating a group limited to one sex is not the same as enforcing gender roles coercively. I feel comfortable with people choosing to form single-sex groups, because this is a consensual activity, something people agree to participate in. Gender norms are not something people consent to; rather, they are imposed on people, and this is where I have a problem with them.

Back to tea: gender in marketing:

Gender roles also appear in marketing, sometimes subtly, sometimes overtly. There are whole stores and brands oriented exclusively or primarily towards men or towards women, and there are even a few examples of this in the tea industry.

Above is a screenshot from ManTeas, which strikes me as more of a parody than a serious marketing effort. Yes, the logo really is that bad. But, ManTeas doesn't really bug me...if anything, it seems to me to be making fun of both the association of tea culture with femininity, and our cultural ideas of masculinity as well. My only disappointment with ManTeas is that I don't see any sign of recent activity on their website...does anyone know if they are still operating?

But...back to the topic of serious marketing. Outside of the parodies, and the relatively milder cases, I hate advertising that is specifically oriented towards men or women. I'm not talking about a company or product that naturally appeals more to women or to men. I'm talking about advertising for normally gender-free products that is unambiguously oriented only towards one gender (and is completely serious about itself). When it comes to this sort of marketing, I absolutely hate it, with a passion. Here is an example of some of this sort of marketing, a screenshot from one of my favorite companies, Lego:

There's so much about this marketing that I find objectionable. I already don't like the idea of separating lego sets into ones "for boys" and "for girls", but the way this is executed is troubling to me in further ways. It strikes a personal note because it threatens to turn one of my favorite gender-neutral toys from childhood into a strongly-gendered one. And I don't like the identification of the label "friends" with a toy marketed for girls only--and the associated implication that friendship is something "for girls". Like I said above, I have always found interpersonal relationships fascinating, and even as a kid, was drawn to boys who were more socially-oriented. And, over the years, most of my friends have been girls.

And look at the shape of the girls' bodies used in the marketing material...they all look pretty thin to me. While some girls might naturally be this thin, these bodies do not reflect the full range of natural body types of healthy girls. Marketing and toys are definitely linked to body image...if you're skeptical, read What Barbie does for a little girl's body image - this sort of marketing is a contributing factor to eating disorders.

This sort of issue also hits close to home for me; I have had a number of close friends who have suffered from eating disorders, including Anorexia nervosa and Bulimia. And I just don't understand it...women with a broad range of body types can be beautiful. Why can't marketing material reflect the natural diversity of the human body?

Back to tea:

As usual, I've gotten a bit off the topic of tea; I now have two headings in this post titled "back to tea". Does the tea industry use gendered marketing that plays into negative body image issues for women? Unfortunately, yes. One thing that I see most often, oriented towards women, is the weight loss marketing fad, used to sell green tea, oolong, Pu-erh, or blends including various herbs. Here's an example from Teavana:

The words "guilt-free, slimful beauty inside" occur in the description of this tea. Needless to say, I don't have the most positive reaction to this marketing. And I really wish Teavana would retire this tea, or at least rename it, and ditch this aspect of the description.

In summary:

Women and men are not the same...they never have been and they never will be. But there are problems when we enforce gender roles in ways that are coercive or negative. There are also problems with strongly-gendered marketing. One primary issue in gendered marketing is marketing oriented towards women which promotes a negative body image. In the tea industry, this sort of marketing is primarily oriented in terms of faddish associations between tea and weight loss, or "detox" teas.

What do you think?

How did you feel about gender roles as a child? How do you feel about them now? Do you agree with my criticisms of the marketing here, or do you think I'm being overly harsh?