Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Tea Subreddit: A Tea Community on Reddit

Today I want to draw attention to an online tea community that is quite active, highly diverse, and has a continuous influx of tea newcomers. These factors combine to make it an excellent place for advancing tea culture online. This is the Tea Subreddit:

Subreddits, like the tea one, are small sub-communities of Reddit, focused on a particular topic. They are relatively loose, open communities, yet still have a certain degree of cohesion to them.

About Reddit:

Reddit is a social sharing website, a little bit like Digg, but distinctly different, which involves sharing links, up and down voting of items, and discussion. I first learned of Reddit through a friend who mentioned tangentially knowing one of the people involved in the development of the site.

In spite of being superficially so similar to Digg (both allow sharing, up and down voting, and commenting), the two sites are radically different. I find that Reddit is distinguished from other similar sites by its peculiar culture, and I have been unable to fully understand or explain why its culture is so different. Both sites have their following (Reddit is the more popular of the two), and I enjoy both sites, but I find that I strongly prefer using Reddit.

The main distinction that I notice between the two sites is that Reddit seems to generate far more discussion. A link that becomes popular on Reddit will almost invariably have dozens to hundreds (even sometimes thousands) of comments, whereas on Digg, links regularly make the front page with no comments at all, and many of them have only a handful. The discussion on Reddit is what distinguishes the site, in my opinion.

But I also find the discussion on Reddit to be consistently more respectful and positive than the discussion on Digg. I don't know how or why, but Digg often gets overwhelmed with negativity and hostility, whereas this seems to happen much less often on Reddit. I also tend to be much less interested in the stories that show up on Digg's homepage (although I usually stay off the homepages of both sites).

What I like about the tea subreddit:

The tea subreddit is highly eclectic. It's a place where just about any topic pertaining to tea can come'll find die-hard practitioners of Gong fu brewing, even a few serious collectors of Pu-erh, a healthy dose of loose tea enthusiasts, and a massive supply of casual tea drinkers, many of whom are quite open to learning more about tea.

Of all the online tea communities that I've come into contact with, this is the one where I see the most interaction between people with differing levels of immersion and experience in tea culture. I'm particularly excited about this, because one of my main intentions with RateTea is to do exactly this, to draw in casual tea drinkers and help push them in the direction of high-quality single-origin artisan teas.

I'd encourage you to participate:

If you are going to spend time on online communities with the goal of advancing tea culture, I would encourage you to participate in the tea subreddit. Not only are you highly likely to get something out of it, but you can also help by giving guidance to the numerous newcomers who post there.

What do you think?

Have you ever visited the tea subreddit? If so, do you also find that it is a useful place for advancing tea culture? Have you used both Digg and Reddit, and if so, have you also found, like me, that Reddit tends to have both more discussion, and more respectful discussion?

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

More Is Not Better: How To Balance Freshness and Turnover for Small Tea Companies

This page highlights a business mistake that I see dozens of small tea businesses, mainly small tea shops and tea houses, making. This is carrying too many teas. But beyond just recommending small companies to carry fewer teas, I also want to provide deeper advice about how to effectively manage your stock of teas when you have a small turnover. This advice comes both from my experience as a tea shopper, my experience working with tea businesses through RateTea, and my past experience working in retail establishments -- many of these issues are the same for any business that sells perishable goods.

I will be the first to admit that I love a good selection. My favorite tea company, Upton Tea Imports, has a huge selection (currently over 480 teas), but selection is always less important than other factors, including quality and price.

Above is a picture I took this past October, in Cups and Chairs Tea Shop in Philadelphia, which I reviewed in that earlier post. This photo shows 61 teas, in glass jars. The actual tea that is used for brewing or for sale is stored in airtight, opaque tins, but these small samples are exposed to light in this bright storefront, leading them to degrade in color and aroma.

Given the relatively low traffic in this store, I can't help but wonder how much turnover in the teas this company has. I strongly suspect that this store may be incurring losses associated with carrying more teas than can be justified by its level of traffic, as I explain below.

You need a high turnover to justify a large catalog:

The main problem with a large catalog is freshness. Tea does not stay fresh indefinitely. A higher turnover can justify a larger catalog, because more of your company's teas will sell out, and you can keep them fresh by frequent restocking with fresh batches.

Offering a huge selection of teas for sale might initially excite people, but, once those initial batches of tea go stale, you will either be faced with a large loss from products you did not sell, or a dying business as you fail to impress people with your stale tea. Tea that is not fresh is not going to keep people coming back to your store, and it's not going to attract die-hard tea enthusiasts who are likely to do some free work for you, promoting your business. In order to retain customers, you need high-quality tea.

Balancing selection and freshness when you have low turnover:

If you run a small tea company and are struggling with low turnover, there are several things you can do to achieve an optimal balance between selection and freshness of your teas:

  • Put more care in choosing which teas to sell, so that you can get the most mileage out of a smaller selection. I offer detailed advice on this topic in my recent post about choosing which teas to sell.
  • Throw out stale tea rather than selling it. While this results in a short-term loss, it avoids the negative results of selling stale tea, which can turn customers away and result in permanent or long-term losses.
  • Use sales and deep discounts to sell tea before it goes stale - If you find yourself stuck with a batch of something that is not selling, put a deep discount on it so that it sells out, and try to empty it out of your stock before it goes stale. This allows you to recover some of the loss, without disappointing a customer with stale tea. Discounting can sometimes also draw in new customers hunting for a bargain.
  • Highlight teas that are not selling before you need to discount them - If it looks like you are going to end up with a batch of tea that you might be tempted to discount, try highlighting it in your store or catalogue. There was probably a reason you chose to carry it in the first place, so it is likely that if you draw attention to it so that your customers buy it, someone will enjoy it.
  • Order smaller quantities of each tea, so that you can order more frequently even if your turnover is low. This also minimizes any losses from throwing out or discounting stale tea. Although smaller quantities tend to cost more, you will tend to save money if you manage to keep your orders close to the amount you actually sell. If your wholesaler doesn't sell in quantities small enough to work for your constraints, find a source that does; the smallest shops, and tea rooms, can even consider buying some tea from a company that focuses on retail, as these tend to offer smaller quantities. Keep in mind, you can sell teas from a variety of different sources.
  • Rotate and vary selections rather than keeping your whole catalog in stock at all times. This allows you to provide greater variety to your customers, without incurring the greater costs of keeping more teas in stock. You will notice that even many companies with a large selection, like Upton, frequently vary their offerings.
  • Be okay with selling out of less popular teas - If you are effective at managing your catalog, you can effectively avoid almost all waste. Throwing out tea, selling stale tea, or offering a deep discount, are all generally worse outcomes than temporarily selling out of a product. If a product is popular, you can keep it both fresh and continuously stocked. But if the product is not popular, people will be much less likely to miss it while you restock. Estimate the amount of tea that people are buying and then under-stock the more esoteric teas to avoid waste. Focus on keeping your popular teas stocked, and always having enough of a selection to keep your catalog interesting, and you'll be fine. In some cases, under-stocking teas could even impress customers because they may be more likely to perceive a tea as rare or difficult to obtain. And tea connoisseurs will understand and appreciate that you don't over-order because you value freshness and and want to keep your waste to a minimum.

I'd probably still discourage a small tea shop, tea room, or tea bar from selling as many as 61 varieties of tea, unless they had an exceptionally high turnover. The Ten Ren store in Chinatown in New York can get away with this. A small tea shop in a small town, or even a small tea shop in a peripheral part of a medium-sized city, probably cannot. But, if you are clever, you can find ways to achieve both selection and freshness. The same goes for small online companies: if you have little sales volume, don't carry hundreds of teas, because you won't be able to keep them both fresh and in stock.

If you want some inspiration, in the form of examples of companies stocking fewer teas, I'll point to Little Red Cup, Chan Teas, and Min River Tea Farm. These three companies have taken a more minimalist approach to their catalogue, probably in large part due to the constraints discussed in this post. Even having never tried any of their teas, I'd be more likely to guess that their teas are higher in quality than other similarly small companies with huge catalogs.

What do you think?

What are your experiences with tea shops and online tea companies? Are you often turned off by companies that display a huge selection but below-average quality or freshness? What do you think the optimal amount of selection is for a small brick-and-mortar store? And if you run a tea business, whether one with a storefront, or a strictly online or mail-order store, how do you deal with these issues? Do you find the advice offered here to be useful and the reasoning valid?

Monday, June 25, 2012

Fair Trade and the Tea Industry on Journey for Fair Trade

I recently shared a guest post with the blog Journey for Fair Trade. Journey for Fair Trade is a blog, run by Mitch Teberg, focusing on fair trade. Mitch is currently working with the United Nations Development Program, and recently moved from Vietnam to Afghanistan.

One thing I really like about this blog is that Mitch Teberg is looking to promote fair trade, but he also examines the fair trade organizations with a critical eye, and looks to give as much of a voice as possible to the producers of the products which are imported to the U.S. and other Western countries with fair trade certification labels. The blog often goes into considerable depth about potential criticisms of fair trade, and in one case, even organized some activism surrounding a fabricated news article about fair trade producers and child labor. I also like the way the blog integrates discussion of other sustainability-related issues, as I think fair trade is not just about wages or working conditions, but is also about long-term health and environmental issues in the communities producing the goods imported to the Western world.

If you're interested in reading a blog that is focused on fair trade, and that addresses all types of producers, broader than just tea, and broader than just agriculture in general, you may find this blog very interesting. Updates are relatively infrequent, but posts are quite deep.

My guest post, specifically about tea:

You can find my post on the blog; it is titled Fair Trade and the Tea Industry.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Harris Decaf Tea, Cold Brewed, Offers Life Lessons

This post is about drinking tea that falls quite far outside my normal comfort zone, both in terms of the choice of tea itself, and the way it was prepared.

Pictured here is a pitcher of iced tea that some of my friends brewed up:

This is Harris Tea's decaffeinated black tea, cold brewed. The two pitchers are the same tea, but the strength of brewing is different; the darker pitcher is obviously stronger.

I found this tea interesting to sample, because it was well outside the zone of teas I would brew up on my own. I tend to avoid decaffeinated tea, instead preferring naturally caffeine-free herbal teas if I am looking for something without caffeine. I strongly prefer loose-leaf to tea bags, and I tend to avoid the brands of tea most commonly available in supermarkets. I also rarely cold brew iced tea, as I find it tends not to produce the results I like the best. For this reason, I wasn't comfortable writing an actual review of this tea on RateTea.

I wasn't crazy about this batch of iced tea. It was perfectly drinkable, but a bit bland. I suspect this tea, however, might taste a bit better to me if brewed the way I would prefer it.

Compared to the worst loose-leaf tea:

As much as I love loose-leaf tea and prefer it to tea prepared in the manner described above, I want to note that my experience with the tea above was still pleasant. I drank a cup of the iced tea, and it was refreshing, only a little bland. There have been some loose-leaf teas that I've brewed up that I've placed great care into preparing, only to pour them out without drinking them because I found them so foul tasting.

I think there's an important life lesson here. Life is a bit unpredictable; sometimes, even if I do everything the way I think is best, things can come out in ways quite different from what I want. At other times, the setup in a situation may seem close to the worst possible, at least by my standards, but things might surprise me by turning out in positive ways.

Delving deeper: what else is going on here?

I think there is one observation about the tea situation here. The tea pictured above was brewed weakly, and I did not expect much from it. When I put care into brewing loose-leaf tea, I usually brew it more strongly, and I usually expect more from it. Thus, it has much greater potential to disappoint.

A life lesson:

I've often found that situations involving people are a lot like this. Sometimes, it seems like I would have a lot in common with someone, but I struggle to relate to them, or find myself coming into conflict with them in odd and unpredictable ways. Sometimes I've been excited about a class or a teacher, only to find that I absolutely hate it, and either drop it or find a way to barely scrape through it.

Other times, I've interact with people from vastly different backgrounds, sometimes even people that others have told me are "difficult to deal with", only to find I get along with these people just fine. I've also taken classes or read books that I did not expect to find remotely interesting (like Numerical Linear Alegbra, or the accompanying text Matrix Computations by Golub) that I ended up finding absolutely captivating.

I think the lesson here is not only that life is unpredictable and full of surprises, but also that delving into something too deep, and becoming heavily vested in a certain outcome of a situation without first getting a taste of that situation, can lead to disappointment. With a cup of tea, you can just pour it out, but in life, sometimes you are stuck with greater consequences to deal with. I find I am both happiest and most productive when I embrace the unpredictability of life, and make decisions in such a way that acknowledges the uncertainties, leaving ample room for both unexpected disliking and unexpected liking.

How about you?

Do you relate to my experience of this batch of iced tea? How about my experiences with life and with people? How about Matrix Computations? Do you get excited about that?

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Acquired Tastes, and Biases Against Flavored Teas

I recently read a post by Courtney Powers on The Purrfect Cup, titled Say Goodbye, which highlights a tea purchased in the closing sale for Tony Gebely's Chicago Tea Garden. I first want to say (as I have on various social media sites but have yet to say here on this blog) that I am sad that Chicago Tea Garden is closing.

There was also something that resonated with me a lot about this post, when Courtney started talking about her experience brewing the tea:

I’m getting a light orange bit of sorts on the finish. Which I might have said months ago was just weird and wrong….actually months ago I would have NEVER thought of trying a pu-erh let along one like this. Sadly, my tiny cup and pot are empty…which means I need more!

This remark in particular resonated with me, in that I could relate to how my own experience with tea has changed and evolved over time. I've especially noticed that my tastes seem to broaden over time, and that I develop an ability to appreciate teas that I did not at first. For example, as I write this, I am drinking a green oolong, produced in Vietnam, and sold by Simpson and Vail.

Green oolongs are one category of tea that I often had trouble appreciating. Many of them tasted soapy, skunky, or highly vegetal, and many of them also just tasted bland to me. But now I love green oolongs. Another bias that I find myself confronting over and over again is a bias against flavored teas...I often expect myself to not like them, but then find myself pleasantly surprised when I try a well-executed one. My favorite example of this would be Rishi Tea's Vanilla Mint Pu-erh, but I recently tried a well-executed flavored oolong from Shanti Tea, their Citrus Punch.

How about you?

Which teas did you need to acquire a taste for? That is, are there teas which initially tasted uninteresting or possibly even unpleasant to you, but which you later came to love?

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Truthfulness: Tea Companies: Be Cautious With Claims of Uniqueness

I recently read a post on SororiTea Sisters, a review of Assam Mothola White (White Assam) from Grey’s Teas. This post shared a commercial description of this tea, from the seller, which claims that "No other white teas are known to be produced in Assam." For those of you who don't know them, Grey's Teas is a tea company, based in the UK, which has quite a few interesting offerings in their catalog, such as an oolong produced in Assam, and white teas from Assam, Darjeeling, and other regions. I have never tried any of their teas though, but the company has definitely gotten my attention.

But their claim about no other white teas being produced in Assam raised a red flag for me. I'm not crazy about the passive voice ("...are known...") as it doesn't identify who is doing the "knowing" (or lack thereof). But I also had a gut feeling that this statement was untrue, when I read it. I have a good intuition for which types of teas, produced in which regions, are available, because of my work on RateTea. I did a quick check, using the powerful tools in RateTea that allow anyone (yes, you can do this too!) to search and filter for teas of a specific type or style, from a specific region. RateTea's listings of White Teas produced in Assam, India turned up 7 results:

Checking this list, I found Upton's offering (since retired from their catalogue) is indeed the same tea sold by Grey's Teas, from Methola or Mothola estate, as is the Assam white tea sold by Canton Tea Co and Stash Tea. But the other teas are different. Many are from Satrupa Tea Estate, and there are several distinct types or grades of tea available from this estate in Assam, all available through the Assam Tea Company, and some through other retailers.

So, this claim of uniqueness is an overstatement; Assam does indeed produce other white teas. I would urge Grey's Teas to update their description to reflect this!

Tea companies: be careful with claims (including uniqueness claims):

I urge companies to be cautious about making claims about your teas which depend on information that you may not have. Uniqueness is one example of this--uniqueness makes a claim not only about the tea you are describing, but about all other teas in an area or of a certain type. When making a claim of uniqueness, unless you have exhaustively travelled to a whole area and checked every estate, I don't think it's safe to make a claim about uniqueness. And keep in mind that producers and sellers may make false claims about their products' uniqueness in order to sell them, so be cautious about passing on a claim of uniqueness that a seller made to you. Instead, say: "We are not aware of any other white teas produced in Assam..."

This statement is more truthful because it speaks from your own personal experience rather than making a global statement. A global statement may or may not be true; a statement of your own personal knowledge is true.

Some ideas for rewording the description from Grey's Teas include:

  • "Very few white teas are produced in Assam."
  • "This is only one of a few white teas produced in Assam."

It is perfectly possible that Grey's tea wrote their description a long time ago, and that, when it was written, the statement was actually true. It is also possible that the company did not know of any other Assam white teas. In these cases, they could have written:

  • "As of [whatever date], this was the only white tea produced in Assam."
  • "This tea is to our knowledge the only white tea produced in Assam."
  • "When we began carrying it, this was the only white tea we knew of produced in Assam."

These claims are more truthful, and their truth does not change when new information becomes available. This is because they speak from personal experience and/or include dates or historical info rather than making a claim of universal truth. These sorts of descriptions protect a company in the long-run, because they do not require diligently checking the description in the case that something changes and the description is no longer true.

False advertising can become legally problematic:

False claims of the uniqueness of a product are a form of false advertising that can range from a legal gray area to solidly illegal.

I seriously doubt that anyone would want to start a legal battle over something as trivial as the claim mentioned above, but as a general rule, making any false statement about your company's products can open you up to legal exposure, such as lawsuits from customers, competitors, or activist groups, or action from governmental agencies like the Federal Trade Commission. It also can look bad and discourage potential customers from buying your products, especially when you make a statement that a potential buyer knows to be untrue.

To impress potential customers with your knowledge, you want to speak from your experience and limit your marketing to material you know to be 100% truthful. No one knows everything, but it often conveys wisdom when a person communicates that they're aware of exactly where their knowledge ends.

What do you think?

As a tea shopper, how do you react when you encounter a claim that seems to be an overreach? How about if you work within a tea company? How do you react when a competing business makes a claim that somehow infringes on one of the products you sell? Do you consider how things might change in the future when you write descriptions of your products? Do you think that I am being nitpicky here, focusing on a tiny point, or do you think this is getting at an important issue of truthfulness in advertising?

And do you agree that in general, speaking from your direct experience and avoiding uncertain generalizations produces more truthful statements, and statements that retain their truthfulness better as time passes?

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Tea Nerd: Featured (Inactive) Tea Blog

Today I want to do something a little odd and unusual, which is to feature a tea blog that is no longer active, and that has not had a single post since March of 2011. This blog is Tea Nerd, run by Brent Hughes. I haven't been in contact with Brent, so I have no idea what he's been up to, but I do know that this blog was most active before I started blogging about tea.

Incidentally, Brent Hughes was instrumental in setting up WikiCha, a tea wiki that is being administered by Brandon of Wrong Fu Cha, and a site that I would like to see grow and thrive.

Why am I featuring an inactive blog?

There are two answers to this question. One is that I obviously like the blog, and I think it might be interesting for people to read, and I want to recognize Brent for his contributions through this blog. But the second question is deeper.

People often think of blogs as a time-sensitive phenomenon, like a newspaper, something about the here and now. But many blogs are surprisingly timeless. Most blogs tell a story, and stories are usually interesting to read regardless of whether they're happening in real time, or happened years ago. A lot of blogs also have posts about topics that are timeless. I find this is especially true if you read through this blog.

What I like about this blog?

  • I like the way the reviews are written. I get the sense from reading the blog that Brent knows a lot about tea and that I can trust his perception. It's funny, because, when reading old blog posts or browsing inactive blogs, reviews are usually the last things I look for, but I like the style in which the reviews are written. There's quite a lot of detail, and for some reason, I feel like I can relate to the way in which the reviews are written.
  • Little random things, like how Brent names his houseplants (incidentally, I also have a jade plant), and writes about it in his blog when he slows down posting, rather than just disappearing without notice. I also like his writings about mindfulness, with an interesting and relevant John Cage quote.
  • Brent also seems to enjoy trying teas from different regions. I particularly liked his review of Hawaiian tea from Onomea Tea Company.

If you enjoy perusing inactive blogs like me, you might want to take a peek at this one. And who knows, Brent may post again at some point!

Monday, June 18, 2012

Taiping Hou Kui Green Tea, and on Branding, Traceability, and Quality

I recently enjoyed tea with Evan of PluckTea. We brewed up some Taiping Hou Kui, and I took this photograph of the spent leaves, after we brewed several very flavorful infusions from them:

I loved the way the leaves of this tea looked after they had been brewed, and I could not resist photographing them. Evan broke most of the leaves in half before steeping, so they would fit in a small gaiwan; the huge leaves here are thus about half the length that the leaves originally were.

Taiping Hou Kui is a peculiar variety of green tea with exceptionally long leaves, pressed very flat. The leaves pictured here were 2-3 inches in length before being broken. Because they are so flat, it can be hard to intuitively measure out how many of them to brew. I've been struggling with this, as Evan gave me a bit of this tea to take home and enjoy on my own.

More unbranded tea:

I think this was the best batch of this type of green tea that I have tried yet. Unfortunately, Evan had no information on the tea's origins. A friend of his brought the tea back from China, and it did not list any brand or information about its source or how to buy more of it.

I've found that this is often the case with tea bought in China and Taiwan. The whole concept of branding and tracing products is to a large degree Western in origins, and although many Chinese companies and tea producers have embraced this practice (especially since it serves their interests when people like their products and want to buy more), many do not.

A relationship between quality, branding, and traceability?

The whole process of making your products traceable and adding a brand name to them is costly, and does not fit into the way the tea industry often works, with many layers of resellers. A small producer who has no role in the retail end of the tea industry usually must rely on whoever is buying the tea from them to ensure traceability, so they have little agency in encouraging traceability, even though they are the party who stands to benefit most from it.

Branding is a marketing effort and takes considerably time, energy, and financial resources, and traceability of products (with batch numbers, harvest dates, and other info on their origins) requires considerable resources for recordkeeping, as well as demanding a certain organizational know-how and structure which must be present at multiple levels in commerce. I think one can look at branding as a certain simple form of traceability or identifying of products, a first step along the continuum towards more detailed traceability.

One thing I've reflected on in the past is that traceability and brand name recognition has the greatest potential for paying off when the product is high quality. If the product is junk, all the effort will be for nothing, as people will either forget the brand name or form a negative association with it and avoid it in the future.

China, unfortunately, often has a reputation in the U.S. for low quality products. It doesn't surprise me that both branding and traceability of products are less common in China.

What does surprise me is the top-notch quality of some batches of unbranded tea that I try. I've especially noticed this in teas from Taiwan, but I've also encountered it in tea from China. Whenever a tea is top quality, yet offers no identification of its origins (or how to buy more) on its packaging, I see this as a lost business opportunity. Somewhere, some producer put in their work to grow and process some amazing tea. Hopefully, the process of auctions and tastings and competitions will reward them for their hard work, but, I think there is another level, the level of people like me trying their tea and having no clue how to get any more of it, on which there is a lost opportunity.

What do you think?

Have you thought about these issues? And have you tried Taiping hou kui?

Friday, June 15, 2012

Rishi Tea - Featured Tea Company

Today's feature is about Rishi Tea. Rishi Tea has been one of my favorite tea companies for a long time, since before I started RateTea.

In case you haven't visited it recently, Rishi redesigned their website. I like this website a lot more than the old one, which I liked a lot, although there's a small caveat about this new site which I describe below.

What I like about Rishi Tea:

  • Huge selection of organic and fair trade offerings - Rishi is a clear leader in the area of sustainability, and in particular, Fair Trade certified loose-leaf tea. Although there are several newer companies that also focus on loose-leaf fair trade teas, including Arbor Teas and Shanti Tea, both of which I have had positive experiences with, Rishi was around long before these other companies. One thing I like about Rishi is that they go above and beyond; rather than focusing exclusively on fair trade certification, they also sell a number of traditionally produced Chinese teas that are produced by small growers but are neither organic nor fair trade certified. Rishi is also involved in the development of new varieties of tea, working with farmers pioneering new production methods, and those carrying traditional methods into new regions.
  • Teas with a bold flavor - As I recently mentioned in my post about the aesthetics of different tea companies, I find that, to me, Rishi has its own signature qualities, reflected in the flavors and aromas of their teas. And I find that Rishi tends to select teas that have bolder flavors and are more likely to be edgy, stronger, and, in my opinion, more interesting. Rishi's aesthetic seems quite different from that of any other company, and different from both the aesthetic of mainstream British tea culture and Chinese and Japanese tea culture.
  • Unusual teas - Although Rishi does sell quite a few standard types of tea, what excites me more is how their catalogue is chock full of what I would consider "unusual offerings", including both types of tea not widely available in Western countries, and styles of tea produced in regions in which they are not typically produced, like black tea from Taiwan, or Keemun produced in Hubei province. Rishi seems to be a prime example of a company that follows the sort of advice I gave in my recent post about choosing which teas to sell.
  • Teas sold by individual ounce - I like that Rishi sells teas in the size as small as an ounce (about 28 grams). This is larger than most companies' sample sizes, but small enough that you are unlikely to spend a lot of money to end up with a lot of tea you don't like. The larger sample size of one ounce gives enough leaf to experiment several time with gong fu style brewing, and enables you to try a tea over time and acquire a taste for it, which I find may be important with Rishi because some of their teas tend towards the more bitter side and have many aspects of aroma which may be unfamiliar at first, but very pleasing as one develops a taste for them.

Rishi's teas are markedly pricier than most of the other companies that I like to buy from, like Upton Tea Imports. But I find that the premium is worth paying for, not only because of their focus on sustainability, but because of the quality of the tea itself. And even though many of their teas do have slightly higher pricing, they still have a broad range of pricing, and many inexpensive offerings as well.

A quibble about the new website:

One little quibble, in case anyone from Rishi is reading, and a piece of advice to other web designers. It seems highly unnatural to me to see the "Sign up for our e-newsletter" box in the upper-right corner. Convention on the web is for search boxes to appear in the upper right of a webpage. Rishi's search box is pushed lower down on the page. I find myself repeatedly returning to Rishi's site and typing search terms into the newsletter subscription box. The presence of this box is annoying, to say the least.

The screenshot above shows that, on my browser, the search box is awkwardly pushed down below the header, overlapping other interactive features on the site, like the sorting of teas. This is a small complaint, and hopefully the bumping down of this box out of the header is a simple bug that can be quickly fixed; overall, I love the new website, and I especially like Rishi's teas and the company's philosophy and approach.

Have you tried Rishi?

Do you also like the aesthetic of Rishi's teas? And do you like their approach of encouraging the production of teas of a particular style, in new regions? Do you like the distribution of teas in their catalogue? Do you like their new website?

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Grasping The Aesthetic Of A Tea Company

In the course of sampling teas and reviewing them, I often go through a process with a new or unfamiliar tea company, in which I move from having no familiarity with the company, to trying one, two, three, and then more teas. Eventually, I form an impression of the company. Besides reflecting on the business, customer service, pricing, and presentational aspects of the company, I also form an impression of what I'd like to call the aesthetic of the tea company's teas. This aesthetic represents what I think of how the company's teas tend to differ from other company's teas, or how they tend to deviate from average or "typical" examples of each type of tea.

The aesthetic of a tea company is a bit of a nebulous concept, like this Lagoon Nebula pictured below, but, like this nebula, it is still a real concept that can, in some cases, be described in words:

Aesthetic can take the form of teas being sweeter or more bitter than typical, or of teas performing better under western-style brewing or gong-fu-style brewing, of the leaf of teas having certain characteristics of color, shape, or form, or of certain aromas being more or less represented than typical.

When comparing similar teas, aesthetic is sometimes subtle. For the most part, if you try a bunch of the same type of tea (like dragon well green tea, or Keemun black tea) from different companies, you'll be trying similar teas. But you will also probably notice certain trends even in these cases, if you pay enough attention. And, when looking at a company's whole catalogue, you will notice much larger trends in terms of which teas they choose to stock.

Some examples of a company's aesthetic that I've noticed:

  • Rare Tea Republic struck me as carrying a lot of smoother-than-average teas that had a moderately vegetal flavor, more vegetal than typical, especially for their black teas, but not overwhelmingly vegetal.
  • Adagio Teas has seemed to me to carry teas which tend towards a sweeter flavor, with lighter aromas, although they certainly have some exceptions as well.
  • TeaVivre's teas struck me as more aromatic than most Chinese teas for sale in the west. Each tea of a familiar style that I tried, conformed closely to the "typical" examples, with traditionally more bitter teas tasting more bitter and traditionally smoother teas tasting smoother.
  • Rishi Tea seems to often have bold, edgy teas, with atypical aromas and strong flavors, often a little out of my comfort zone, but always making my tea-drinking experience enjoyable.
  • Life in Teacup seems to have a decidedly non-western focus, with more teas that initially taste quite different to a western palate. The company also carries a lot of teas that are less well-known in the West. This company's teas are more likely to strike me as a bit strange, but I've found, they are also more likely to excite me, and I'm more likely to find teas I consider to be truly exceptional from Life in Teacup than from most other companies.
  • Simpson and Vail, whose teas I've been sampling recently, seem to have dry leaf that is less aromatic than typical, but I find that their teas are much more pleasant to drink than I'd expect from the aroma of the dry leaf.

Some companies, like Upton, are so diverse that it's hard for me to describe an aesthetic of the company as a whole. And in most cases, I haven't formed enough of an impression to describe a company's aesthetic.

Forming an impression of aesthetic:

In order for me to form what I would consider to be a very solid impression of the company, I like to do the following things:

  • Sample some teas that represent the company's strengths - I think that a company's strengths and areas of focus say more about the company than random teas. Even in cases where a company specializes in a type of tea I am less familiar with, I want to really delve into the specialized offerings. When a company offers me samples, I like to accept at least a few samples that the company wants me to try, and that I may initially be less enthusiastic about. Sometimes, like with Rishi Tea's Vanilla Mint Pu-erh, which I would have never chosen to sample on my own, I am pleasantly surprised.
  • Sample some of the company's most unique offerings - A recent example of this would be sampling Shanti Tea's Los Andes tea from Guatemala (my review).
  • Sample some teas of styles which I am very familiar with - If I try only unfamiliar teas, I don't have a great sense of how the company's teas compare with others, both in terms of quality, and character.

The aesthetic begins to take form:

Once I've begun to sample a sizeable portion of teas from a particular brand or company, I begin to form an impression in my head about what that company's aesthetic is. Every tea company that I have sampled teas from has had its own unique stamp, signature, or characteristic aesthetic, but in some cases, it has been more overt, whereas in other cases, it has been subtle. This aesthetic reflects the decisions of the company's staff in which teas they choose to stock and sell. It also reflects the company's audience, and it may also reflect the companies practices of packing and storing teas, as these influence the tea's flavor as well. For example, I suspect that TeaVivre's loose-leaf tea is so aromatic because it is packed and sealed closer to the source of production and not re-opened after being shipped to the US, in contrast to some companies which import tea and then re-package it.

What do you think?

Do you think that the "aesthetic of a tea company" is a useful concept? Have you formed any impressions about the aesthetics of any tea companies yourself, whether or not you call them by this name? If you've formed an impression of the tea companies I mention here, does your impression fit with mine, or do you have a different view of any of these companies?

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Featured Tea Blog: Tea Guy Speaks by William I. Lengeman III

Recently I've been featuring a bunch of tea blogs. This week's post features a completely different tea blog, which I also greatly appreciate, and for completely different reasons from any of the other blogs I have featured recently. This blog is Tea Guy Speaks, run by William I Lengeman III:

What I like about this blog:

Tea Guy Speaks publishes a lot of press releases from within the tea industry, and is a good place to keep up on what is happening among the larger, more mainstream specialty tea companies, but the blog also highlights smaller and less well-known companies as well. The blog frequently shares videos, mostly promotional videos related to tea, and many funny videos. It also showcases various sorts of tea businesses, and occasionally, a tea review or two. But, while I appreciate all these aspects of the blog, there is an additional section that is not particularly blog-like, which is the #1 thing I like about this blog.

"Tea Resources" lists:

The blog also has a few very comprehensive resources which I have mentioned before, but would like to draw attention to. My favorite of these is the tea blog list, an exhaustive list of tea blogs which is one of the best references out there if you want as complete a listing of blogs focused primarily on tea as you will find. Another smaller list is the list of Tea chats, Lists, and Forums, and there is also a list of Tea Review Sites, which includes websites, both interactive and not, that have tea reviews from multiple reviewers.

There are other lists too, a total of eight (the business spotlights are linked to but are in a blog format, not a pure list). These lists are too much for me to really cover in depth...they can all be found in the blog's sidebar, labelled "Tea Resources":

Whether or not you subscribe to it, Tea Guy Speaks is yet another blog that I think is worth knowing about if you are involved in any capacity in the tea industry. If you run a blog, website, tea of the month club, tea room or tea house directory, or other relevant business or website, check the lists to see if your organization is already listed. It probably already is, but if not, Tea Guy Speaks is very responsive about adding new items and keeping these lists up-to-date. And lastly, you can also get in touch with Teaguyspeaks on twitter; he's quite active there, shares and retweets a lot of material, and is a good person to tweet with if you want to get involved in the tea conversation.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

FTRN Fair Trade Photo Contest: Submit Your Photos Of Fair Trade Tea Producers

I am very interested in promoting fair trade in the world of tea, as it is a sad reality that the bulk of the profit margins on tea production still flow primarily into wealthier countries, whereas the poorer countries that account for most tea production enjoy a much smaller share of the profits. Fair trade is a powerful social movement, which aims to address this disparity of wealth and empower producers, as well as to work to promote sustainability in the communities that produce the goods imported into wealthier countries. There are a growing number of fair trade certified teas on the market, but tea remains a relatively small and obscure product within the total aggregation of all fair trade certified products.

A contest for fair trade photos:

I recently learned that the Fair Trade Resource Network is having a photo contest. The contest is already open, and will accept submissions through June 26th. Since I know that some of the readers of this blog have traveled to regions of tea production, and some of them work for tea companies that sell fair trade certified products, I wanted to bring this contest to people's attention. I think it would be great if there could be some photos submitted to this contest that come from areas of fair trade tea production.

The contest is time-sensitive: photos submitted sooner will appear higher up in the list for voting. Currently, there are only four entries though, making it an excellent time to submit new entries. The current photos depict producers of baskets, beads, bananas, and coffee. You may also want to see the winning photos from 2011's contest for ideas. Winning photos will be featured in the FTRN's calendar, with the top photo shown on the cover.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Using Screenshots To Comment Critically On Websites

I recently read a post by Ken MacBeth (Lahikmajoe) titled Trashing the Tea Competition. This post was very interesting to me, and is likely to inspire a second post beyond this one, but in this post, I want to talk about something that happens often, not just on the web, not just in tea culture, but across the board in our society. This is when people get curious about a negative perspective being expressed somewhere, and end up inadvertently giving this negative perspective a lot of voice.

In this post, Lahikmajoe describes what he thought was a particularly nasty commentary on a specific company's tea, tea that he actually enjoyed. In the comments, several people spoke up and said that they wished he would provide a link to this commentary.

Why I think it is not a good idea to include such a link:

Linking to a website sends traffic to the site, and also makes it more likely for that page to be returned higher in search results, and thus get more traffic. Web traffic has financial benefits, as it can lead to sales and increased advertising revenue. It also makes a message more likely to be repeated--in this case, a message that the author commenting on it (Lahikmajoe in this case) thinks is negative. So it is not in the best interests of the author (which might be you!) to link to the site that contains the message you are critical of.

My general rule:

It is best to avoid publicly linking to any site that you do not wish to encourage or promote.

This rule can be applied to negative commentary that you think oversteps some sort of ethical line, to tea company websites of businesses that you think engage in questionable practices, or to any website voicing views or engaging in practices that you do not wish to support.

If someone contacts you and is curious, you can share a link in private, but what can you do when you really want to comment on a site publicly? I think that in this case, the best way of handling it is a screenshot.

Why screenshots?

Displayed here is a screenshot of, included only as an example. I own the copyright on this site, so I can use this screenshot however I please. When using screenshots on which you own the copyright, care must be taken to see that your use constitutes fair use.

A screenshot displays the content of the website that you wish to comment on, but enables you to describe it, in the way it appears on the website, without actually linking to the website. A screenshot is often more informative to your readers than simply quoting the material, because it shows the material in context. Screenshots also allow you to blur out or paint over sensitive material, such as profanity, personal information, or anything else you wish not to display:

Websites are copyrighted, and taking a screenshot of a website constitutes making a copy of copyrighted material. However, the use of a screenshot, for the sole purpose of commentary, and showing only a small portion of the site, is protected under fair use. For a brief legal explanation, I recommend reading Copyright & Fair Use: Commentary and Criticism on the Stanford University Library's website; this is the best, most concise explanation of fair use that I have been able to find. There is a more detailed article on the use of screenshots in particular on lifehacker, Ask the Law Geek: Is publishing screenshots Fair Use?. In general, screenshots can infringe copyright, but, if used for commentary and in ways that do not reproduce more of a website than is needed for commentary, are allowed under fair use. When the amount of text or images included in a screenshot may cause problems with fair use, you can always crop the image or blur out more material.

Using a screenshot also avoids the duplication of text within search engines, which, if you are copying a large block of text, can make it appear as if you are stealing content with ill intentions.

How to make a screenshot differs depending on your operating system. Wikipedia's page on Screenshots has some explanations for different operating systems.

What do you think?

Do you use screenshots in the way described in this post? Do you think I have convinced you to avoid linking to websites with a negative message or other sites that you do not wish to support, and instead use screenshots for commentary?

Friday, June 8, 2012

How Many People Are Put Off From Tea By Bad Green Tea?

I often like to re-read old posts on people's blogs. Sometimes I find them through web searches or links, other times by browsing. Today I want to draw attention to an old post on Adam Yusko's blog The Sip Tip. The post is titled Current thoughts on Tea Freshness, and the post is quite brief. I want to credit Adam's post with inspiring not only this post, but my recent post Why Can Green Tea Bags Be Worse Than Black Tea Bags?. In his post, Adam writes:

With all the health promotions out there, most peoples step away from black/ red tea would be a green tea, which is a lot more "time sensitive" than most black/red teas.

I've also noticed this, and I'd agree about the greater time-sensitivity of green tea, in that green tea is not as likely as black tea to stay fresh over long periods of time.

Also: green tea can be pickier about brewing:

I want to add to this observation that, with the exception of a few quirky teas (like Darjeeling oolong), I've found that green teas can be among the most sensitive to brewing temperature, and, in general, the most picky about brewing. I find a typical green tea takes more skill to brew well than a typical black, oolong, white, or Pu-erh tea.

Also: green tea purchased in tea bags can be worse than the worst black tea bags:

I recently published a post Why Can Green Tea Bags Be Worse Than Black Tea Bags? in which I explain how, in my experience, green tea bags can potentially be worse than the worst black tea bags.

Typical green teas in tea bags are more likely to lead to a bad tea drinking experience than black teas:

All these points, Adam's point about storage, and the points about brewing and the broader range of low-quality green tea bags, lead to the same conclusion: green teas are more likely to lead to a bad tea drinking experience for casual tea drinkers than other types of tea.

A lot of people try out tea first in the context of experimenting with green tea as a health product or weight loss method:

People who try out green tea as a health product are unlikely to experience green tea at its best, in the form of high-quality, loose-leaf green tea, properly prepared. What is more likely is that they will encounter low-quality tea in a tea bag, possibly of dubious freshness, and try brewing it with boiling water.

It's a sad fact that in America, many people's first experiences with tea are with low-quality green tea, in tea bags, consumed with intentions of weight loss or acquiring supposed "health benefits". These misguided ventures into green tea can be part of an overall healthy pattern of eating healthier foods, like when a person gives up soda for tea, but they can also be a part of harmful fad diets which have negative impacts on health. I'm active on Yahoo! Answers, where I sometimes answer tea-related questions, and an overwhelming majority of tea-related questions, once filtering through the ones about tea party politics, are ones relating to green tea and weight loss, with a few relating to green tea and promises of vague "health benefits".

Many of them are questions from people remarking that they want to start drinking green tea but that they find it tastes terrible.

How can we combat these things?

It's hard to combat a dominant cultural idea, like the ubiquitious association between green tea and weight loss in the public consciousness in America. I find that the best way to combat these sorts of ideas is, rather than negating or outright challenging them in an antagonistic way, to present a new, more truthful statement, and then, to repeat this statement frequently. I recommend:

  • When talking to someone who seems motivated to drink tea for health or weight loss purposes, acknowledge and appeal to their concern for health. Emphasize that taste is a good indicator of freshness and quality, and that higher-quality teas and fresher teas are often lower in contaminants and are likely to be higher in beneficial chemicals (such as Vitamin C in green tea, which breaks down over time). Emphasize that whole-leaf tea stays fresh better than broken-leaf tea. Appeal to the things the person has already communicated that they care about (health). Emphasize that the process of enjoying your tea can be relaxing and can promote mindfulness, which is well-known to reduce stress and promote overall health.
  • Avoid negating the person's motivations, and especially avoid telling the person what they "should" do, how they "should" think, or what they "should" want, and avoid approaching the person in any sort of way that puts them down. It can be tempting to say something like: "You shouldn't drink tea for its health benefits, you should drink tea because you like the way it tastes." This sort of statement is more likely to alienate a person and elicit a defensive reaction than a similar statement, worded like: "I recommend thinking less about health and focusing on drinking the teas that you enjoy most." or better yet, appeal to their desire for a healthy drink: "I think the healthiest approach is to focus on drinking the teas that taste best to you and that make you feel best."

It's a lot easier to work with people than against them!

Thursday, June 7, 2012

TeaChat Discussion of Extra Dried Tea, and TeaVivre's Xin Yang Mao Jian

This post is in reply to a thread on the TeaChat forums, titled Extra Dried Tea. This thread begins with a poster, beachape, who wrote about friends they had in the Huangshan area of Anhui province in China; the discussion is about green tea:

...They told us that the secret was that they dry the tea more than usual when they prepare it. Most tea for sale is about 80% dried upon sale/packaging. They dry theirs as much as possible, which makes the tea very brittle but preserves well. Such brittle tea would not be good for sale, and producers prefer to have more water weight to gain a better profit...

There is then a reply from edkrueger who writes:

...I think the "extra dry" sounds like "properly dry". And a lot of products nowadays are not dry enough...

Chip, who moderates TeaChat, then chimes in:

Playing devil's advocate ... the drier the leaf, the more it is going to want to absorb surrounding humdity/moisture/aromas ... odors? Is this a logical conclusion? So, I would think the best storage of such tea would be paramount ... and even then, once open ... drink up!

I find this discussion interesting, in large part because I don't have enough knowledge or experience to say which, if any, of these lines of reasoning are accurate. Please chime in in the comments if you know about any of these things, and know which of these rationales are more or less valid, and can explain why.

My experience with TeaVivre's Xin Yang Mao Jian:

Recently I sampled a tea, Xin Yang Mao Jian from TeaVivre. I liked this tea very much; it was a bold, brisk, bitter green tea, darker, and fruity, with an intense aroma and flavor. I gave the tea a very high rating, 93/100. I also shared it with Evan of Pluck Tea, and we both enjoyed it; I enjoyed it even more with his brewing of it, as I find Evan to be considerably more skilled at preparing green teas than I am.

Here is what the leaf looks like now:

An interesting twist: the mao jian goes bad very quickly:

I wish I had photographed this tea up close right when I opened it, because I think it looked slightly different. It looked very wiry--so much that I posted a reply on the thread above remarking that this particularly tea was more thin, wiry, and brittle than I would expect for this style, and wondering if I had a batch of drier-than-normal tea. It's hard for me to know, however, whether the tea changed, or whether I've simply gotten to the bottom of the container, where the pieces seem to be both larger, and more broken. It's a simple fact of physics that when shaking a tea about, the smaller, denser pieces will tend to accumulate at the bottom, and the lighter, more wiry pieces will tend to stay at the top. This tea was relatively loosely packed, so as to keep the leaf intact, so I can see the settling explain the difference I observed between the beginning and the end of this small batch.

But, regardless of explanation, I found that, about a month and a half after opening the mao jian green tea, when I got to the bottom of the container to consume the last several cups worth of the tea, it began to acquire "off" aromas, and these aromas were so unpleasant that I ended up pouring off the last cup that I brewed. I have little interest in brewing up the remaining few cups worth.

Granted, this is a tricky tea to brew. Even when it was right out of the container, I found that it had a narrow range of temperatures that produced good results, and it would be dramatically bitter if the temperature were too high, and quite bland if it were too low. I also found it performed better with Gong Fu style brewing, and was trickier to produce good results with using western-style brewing. But when I got it right, it was very good--good enough that I gave it a 93/100 rating.

Either the tea has spoiled somehow, or the leaf that settled to the bottom of the container has characteristics that I find objectionable. The remaining leaf smells strong, but no longer smells pleasing to me. There are also strong vegetal tones which were absent in the original aroma of the dry leaf. The remaining dry leaf now smells a lot like asparagus to me, and the brewed cup is now substantially more bitter and astringent, even brewing at lower temperatures.

I was careful to store this tea in a clipped bag inside an airtight tin. The inside of the tin even smells a bit off now.

Interestingly, I stored two other green teas from TeaVivre the same way, their Huang Shan Mao Feng, and their Chun Mee, and both of these teas have stayed fresh very well. The Mao Feng in particular tastes just as fresh as the day I opened it, and if anything, has come to taste a bit better to me.

Do you have any explanations?

I'd be curious to hear anyone's explanations about this phenomenon. I also would like some critical feedback on the original thread...and I'm curious if you think there is a relationship between these two things, or if you think they are unrelated.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Featured Tea Company: Two Leaves and a Bud

Today's featured tea company is Two Leaves and a Bud. The company also recently launched a new brand, Paisley Tea Co., focusing on more British-style teas.

Pictured is a screenshot from their website:

Two Leaves and a Bud is a tea company that focuses on high-quality tea in pyramid sachets. Their name is a reference to the standard plucking of two leaves and one bud, used for many standard grades of tea. Their teas are available in upscale supermarkets and also are served in a number of coffee shops.

My experience with this company and its teas:

I became familiar with this brand, and sampled most of their teas, when I lived in Delaware and would work on my laptop from Saxby's Coffee. Much of RateTea was programmed and designed from that coffee shop. You can find my reviews of these teas along with reviews by other people (this brand is one of the most often-reviewed brands on RateTea) on RateTea's page for Two Leaves and a Bud. I have yet to try any of the newer Paisley Tea Co. teas.

Personally, I cannot see myself ever buying this company's boxes of tea sachets. Buying them online, a box of 15 sachets is just under $8, which makes for over 50 cents a tea bag. Their bulk tea, on the other hand, is much more reasonably priced: $17 for a half pound, which, using a generous 2.5 grams of leaf per cup, works out to be under 20 cents a cup. I like to use this brand as an example of how when buying tea bags, you are paying for packaging. The bulk pricing offered by this company is, in my opinion, quite reasonable.

In spite of the fact that I am unlikely to buy this company's sachets, their main product, there is a ton that I like about this company, and I frequently enjoy their teas when they are served in a coffee shop.

What I like about Two Leaves and a Bud:

  • The company offers loose-leaf tea - This point is not a given. Many companies who make the bulk of their sales in tea bags or sachets do not sell any loose tea. I don't know the exact portion of this company's sales that come through loose tea, but I suspect it is small, as I see their boxes of sachets for sale (and served in coffee shops) widely, and have only ever seen their loose tea displayed on their own website. But I would applaud this company for still offering loose leaf tea, even if it is not their big seller.
  • Their tea is quite good - Among the mainstream brands of tea that I've sampled, the quality of the teas sold by this company is consistently high. I don't like all of their teas, but I like most of them, and many I even prefer to a number of loose-leaf teas I've sampled. The teas also have been rated favorably on RateTea by other reviewers. The company sells a number of pure teas, and I find does not skimp on the quality of the base teas used in their flavored teas and blends as well. The sachets contain generous quantities of relatively intact tea leaf, and intact herbs and spices, producing sachets that all can be successfully used with multiple infusions.
  • Their selections are well-balanced - While I might be tempted to change a few of their offerings, Two Leaves and a Bud is actually one of the companies that inspired my recent post about choosing which teas to sell. This company carries a First Flush Darjeeling that, while it varies from year to year, is consistently on the greener side. This tea is a sharp contrast with the other black tea they sell, a strong, malty Assam. They carry a white peony, and a Tamaryokucha (unusual for a Western-focused company). Among flavored teas there is an Earl Grey and a Masala Chai, and they have some herbal blends, including straight chamomile, and a Rooibos-lemongrass blend, called African Sunset, which I like very much.
  • A focus on sustainability - A majority of this company's teas are organic certified, but it doesn't stop there. In August of 2011, the company announced moving to biodegradable packaging. While I'd like to see more testing on whether this packaging (using the Reverte™ Oxo-Biodegradable system for biodegradation) actually biodegrades gracefully (my research suggests that it may not), I do think that this is a major step in the right direction, and places this company far ahead of other mainstream companies, like Lipton and many others, which are still using straight Nylon tea bags for their Pyramid Sachets, and have not expressed a commitment to move towards biodegradable packaging.

What do you think?

Have you tried any of this company's teas? How about the newly launched Paisley Tea Co. teas? What are your thoughts on the biodegradibilty of their packaging? Or their choices of teas to carry?

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Bearsblog: Featured Tea Blog - Focusing on Pu-erh Tea

Today's featured blog is a specialized blog that, unfortunately, I think is easy to overlook, but, once it gets your attention, if you're interested in its subject matter, is impossible to forget. This is Jason's Bearsblog, which focuses mostly on Pu-erh (apologies to Jason, I've decided to spell it this way on my post, for consistency), with only a few sparse mentions of other types of tea. The subtitle of this blog reads Chronicling the obsession, which I think communicates how Pu-erh is a whole world in and of itself.

I am not a die-hard Pu-erh enthusiast. Pu-erh is one of those things that I can see getting into a lot more at some point, but right now, I am a definitive newbie with respect to it. While I do have opinions on (and am sometimes wowed or disappointed by) various Pu-erhs that I'm served, I don't drink much Pu-erh, and don't have much in my cupboard either. I know little more than the basics that one can find on a typical, reliable general-audience website; I even know a lot less than one can find on Wikipedia's page on Pu-erh (which is surprisingly thorough). And my experience with brewing Pu-erh is limited. But I find myself coming back to Bearsblog at random times, as it is one of the best places for Pu-erh on the net.

What I like most about this blog:

One thing I like the most about this blog is that, in spite of being so specialized, it has a lot of material that is relatively accessible. Pu-erh doesn't always seem to be the most accessible type of tea. I have heard the perspective voiced that people who are really into Pu-erh tend not to want to blog about it publicly, because the supply of certain batches is limited, and they are afraid of good cakes getting snatched up. I don't know how much people actually hold or act on this perspective, but I do know that Bearsblog makes the really deep level of Pu-erh knowledge a little bit more accessible. Jason also advertises his meetups, to give an opportunity for new people to connect with die-hard Pu-erh enthusiasts.

There are two pages which I think are incredibly useful and fully accessible to newcomers: the page New to Pu'er? and, for more depth, Pu'er by Appearance: Types & Storage, which I find to be one of the best references on Pu-erh on the net. In fact, if I had to pick a single page as a reference for Pu-erh, to complement Wikipedia's page on Pu-erh, it would be that page on Bearsblog.

Bearsblog is also linked up with other similar blogs and some interesting websites. If you like this blog, you will likely like the other blogs and sites it links to as well.

And on a final note, I think this blog has beautiful close-up photography. I also think that the blog's theme, with the blurry, mostly gray background, is perfectly suited to the subject matter and style of photography. I also like the length and style of the written descriptions of teas that Jason shares.

Do you know Bearsblog?

I'm curious to see how much overlap there is between the people who read my blog and the people who read Bearsblog. I suspect the overlap may actually be relatively small! But, even if you decide not to subscribe to this blog, I think it is an indispensable resource to know about.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Why Can Green Tea Bags Be Worse Than Black Tea Bags?

Before I delve in, I want to explain the exact meaning of this post's title. Among tea bags, there is a broad range of quality. But my personal experience has been that green tea bags range much farther into the low end of quality, poor quality, than do black tea bags. In other words, the worst green tea bags are much worse than the worst black tea bags.

It's been my experience that there is a certain base level of quality one can expect from even stale, low-end tea bags of straight black tea, as well as familiar styles of tea like Earl Grey, Ceylon, Irish Breakfast, etc. And it has also been my experience that the best green tea bags are about as good as the best black tea bags...but I think there are some really terrible green teas out there in tea bags.

The following highly subjective diagram illustrates this point:

Why? Because people buy green tea for reasons other than taste:

Although there may be other factors, such as a tendency for black tea to hold its flavor longer, which can partially explain the phenomenon I'm getting at here, I think there is one factor that overwhelms the others.

I think the broader range of quality among green tea bags for sale in America can be mostly explained by noting that here in the U.S., people frequently drink green tea for "health" reasons, whereas they rarely drink black tea for health reasons.

Black tea, on the other hand, is consumed primarily for taste, so any products on the market that were bad beyond a certain point would quickly stop being purchased. Green teas, on the other hand, persist, because people are buying them and drinking them because they feel they "should" drink them. There's that word "should" again, causing problems in our tea culture.

My advice, to everyone, is to drink what tastes good to you. Not only will you be helping to shape the marketplace in a positive way by weeding out the inferior products, but you'll probably be healthier too because you'll be drinking fresher, higher-quality tea.

What do you think?

Do you buy into my reasoning here? Does your own personal experience fit with the point illustrated in my diagram? Do you agree that the word "should" and beliefs related to statements involving what we "should" drink can undermine quality and allow inferior products to persist in the marketplace?

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Top 5 Most-Viewed Teas on RateTea This Month

It's been a while since I posted a top 5 post. For past top 5 posts, I've focused a lot on webpages that have been most popular in an all-time sense. For this post, I'm focusing on the here-and-now, that is, the past month.

The following is a list of teas that have been viewed the most on RateTea over the past month:

  • Tazo's China Green Tips - I personally think this is a decent tea; it's a pure, single-origin green tea, from Zhejiang province, and in my opinion, Tazo stepped it up a notch when they changed to whole-leaf sachets a while back.
  • Lipton's Black Tea - This tea, nearly universally present in the U.S., doesn't surprise me on this list. It is also one of the most often-rated teas on RateTea.
  • Teavana's Monkey Picked Oolong - The only loose-leaf tea on this list, and among Teavana's most expensive teas. This tea doesn't surprise me on this list either; if you want to read more about this tea, I recently wrote a blog post comparing it to a green oolong from Life in Teacup.
  • Ten Ren's Ti Kuan Yin (Tea bags) - This tea has surprisingly high ratings, given that it's a simple tea bag. Having tried it, I agree that it is really not bad. I was a bit surprised to see this tea on this list, as Ten Ren is not the most well-known company.
  • Lipton's Green Tea - This one surprised me. I haven't reviewed it, so I can't say much about the tea.

For the curious, this ranking was very close. There are no major dominant players this month...pageviews tend to be distributed rather evenly over a large number of different teas on the site...all the top 10 were relatively close contenders with each other, with a few more pageviews easily re-ordering this ranking or bumping new teas onto the list. Runners up which were close to making this list included teas from Rishi, Upton, Numi, and Foojoy.

Don't like this list?

I don't like it either; I'd rather see more loose-leaf teas on this list, and I'd rather see teas that I think are more interesting or better quality getting more attention. This is true even among the brands represented here. For example, Lipton sells loose-leaf tea, and also sells higher-quality tea in pyramid sachets...these teas don't get much attention on the site. And of course, many of my favorite brands aren't well represented here.

I do my best to structure the site so as to favor companies selling specialty teas. But it's a basic fact that teas that get more reviews on the site get more views and attention, and it's also a basic fact that the mainstream teas are still getting the most attention. Want to change things? You can help by reviewing more teas on the site, or, if you're running a tea company, by letting your customers know about RateTea and encouraging them to review your teas, such as by linking your site to RateTea.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Tea In A Puerto Rican Supermarket

The topic of tea selections in supermarkets is something that I'm very interested in. I've written about tea in supermarkets three times before, in the following posts:

In this post, I write about my observations about the teas for sale in a supermarket that I visited in Puerto Rico. I also write about what I think may be missed business opportunities related to the products I saw (and did not see) on the shelf.

The tea selection in a Puerto Rican Supermarket, Pueblo, near Ponce:

There were not as many supermarkets in Puerto Rico as I'm used to in the U.S. But once I actually saw the inside of a Puerto Rican supermarket, it was pretty similar to the U.S. But the tea selection was very small:

In a typical supermarket in the U.S., one about the same size as this one, Pueblo (which means "people"), the tea section usually does not fit in a single photograph. I'm used to having to take two or more photos to capture all the teas for sale. The selection in this supermarket not only fits in one photo, it does not even reach to the bottom of the shelf.

The only two mainstream brands I saw represented were Lipton and Celestial Seasonings. There were two hispanic-oriented brands: Carmencita, and Tadin Herb & Tea Co.

Neither Lipton nor Celestial Seasonings had Spanish-language packaging:

I found it particularly interesting that the packaging presented here by both Lipton and Celestial Seasonings was English-language only. This seems to me to be a business mistake. Most of the other products for sale in this supermarket, and all the signs in the supermarket, were Spanish-language only.

The store where the above photo was taken was located just outside of Ponce, on the south coast. Ponce is a good distance from San Juan, and, compared to San Juan and surrounding areas, is much less of a tourist destination for non-Puerto Rican Americans. (I say this because this area does seem a popular destination for people of Puerto Rican descent born in the states.) Whereas in San Juan, most people spoke English, many fluently, in Ponce, many people I encountered spoke no English at all, and the English skills of the people I ran into were noticeably poorer. Spanish was clearly the dominant language in this area.

If I were running a tea company here, I would offer bilingual packaging for sale everywhere in Puerto Rico. In the absence of bilingual packaging, I would offer Spanish-language-only packaging.

Puerto Rican brands not represented:

The two tea brands mentioned above, Carmencita, and Tadin, are both oriented towards a hispanic market, but neither are based in Puerto Rico. Carmencita is a Spanish company, based in Novelda, Spain. Tadin is a U.S. company, based in California, and oriented towards the US Hispanic market. I do not know about the cultural origins of Tadin, but I will say, I have frequently seen their herbs for sale in Mexican stores, so I suspect that it has a generic Hispanic orientation and may even be more oriented towards Mexicans. It's easy for non-hispanic Americans to think of "Hispanic culture" as monolithic, but my experience has been that there is surprisingly little overlap between the culinary traditions of Puerto Rico and Mexico. Puerto Rican cuisine seems to have as least as much in common with the food in Jamaica, an area not considered Hispanic. I know less about Puerto Ricans' taste in herbal teas, but I'd imagine these traditions could be equally different from each other as the food traditions are.

I do know of one brand of herbal teas with Puerto Rican heritage, Badia. Badia, a spice and herb company, is now based in Florida, but was founded in Puerto Rico when Jose Badia fled from Cuba after the revolution (you can read more about the Cuban revolution in my recent post if you missed it). Badia has some interesting offerings among herbal teas, including linden leaves, star anise, loose-leaf Eucalyptus, and Cat's claw (used in the traditional medicine of Peru).

My intuition is that Badia would be more successful in Puerto Rican supermarkets than any of the four brands sold here. Their offerings may fit more to Puerto Rican tastes, and, if some of their staff had roots in Puerto Rico, they'd be more likely to be able to develop an intuition for which products would work best there. And I also think many Puerto Ricans would gladly support a company with local origins, especially if Badia were to somehow draw attention to this fact.

A purely local Puerto Rican herbal tea company?

I also don't see why a purely-local company couldn't come into the picture here. Puerto Rico has a diverse climate and has the capacity to produce a wide variety of herbs locally. I think it would be great to see a locally-owned brand of locally-grown, locally-blended herbal teas in Puerto Rican supermarkets. And I think such a brand could be very successful. Puerto Ricans drink their locally-brewed beer, Medalla light, with great pride and enthusiasm. And I look at the English-only packaging of Lipton and Celestial Seasonings and I, these big companies are just spinning their wheels. There's a missed business opportunity here!