Complicated drinks, education, and consistency


Is there some particular tea concoction that’s “your” tea drink? Is it something complicated? You’ll hear people every day in Starbucks ordering coffees that take twenty words to describe, but we don’t run in to that much in the tea bar … yet.

PVP Online comic from January 27, 2012

Comic used with permission. Courtesy of Scott Kurtz and PVP Online.

Why is it that more coffee drinkers than tea drinkers tend to be like the guys in this PVP Online comic? I think it’s a matter of education and consistency.

Most of our regulars at the tea bar are like me: they order something different each time they come in. I may go through phases where I drink nothing but malty Assam for a few days, but then I’m back to switching it up. I also drink different tea in the morning than I do in the afternoon or evening. Of course, I’m also that annoying guy that will go into a bar four times, order something completely different each time, and then ask for my “regular” on the fifth visit.

We do have some regulars that are consistent, but their drinks tend to be simple: a cup of sencha, Scottish breakfast with a touch of milk, or iced mango oolong. As people learn the menu and zero in on what they like, that is beginning to change a bit, though.

Amber is from the South. She likes her tea sweet, and she loves boba tea (a.k.a. “bubble tea”). I finally put the “Amber special” on the menu so she didn’t have to describe her boba tea made with Cinnamon Orange Spice tea, vanilla soy milk, and triple the usual sweet syrup.

Phyllis isn’t much of a tea fan, but she found herself drawn to Hammer & Cremesickle Red, which is a rooibos/honeybush blend. She likes it prepared as a latte with frothed 2% milk and a bit of honey.

Starbucks has dramatically changed coffee culture, much as McDonald’s has changed restaurants (I’m going to catch grief for that one, I know, but keep reading). You can go into a McDonald’s in an unfamiliar city, and you know that Big Mac and fries will be just like the ones back home. Similarly, you can go into any one of 19,555  Starbucks franchises and be comfortable that your half-caf double-shot venti skinny hazelnut macchiato will taste just like it would from the franchise back home. They have taught the world their own terminology (education) and made sure that the drinks are prepared exactly the same at each franchise (consistency).

Let’s look at those two factors as they apply to tea:

Consistency

The world of tea is generally not a good place for consistency. Even for fans of a single type of tea, the options are legion. There are dozens of matchas, hundreds of oolongs, and each has its own unique flavor. My tea bar offers six types of milk (nonfat, 2%, whole, half-and-half, vanilla soy, and almond), where another may offer 1%, light soy, and whole. When I went into the tea business’ closest thing to a national chain (Teavana – you can read about my visit here), they didn’t offer milk at all. You may go into one tea shop that has a hundred Chinese green and white teas and an English tea shop that has only black teas.

There’s a strong parallel to be drawn here with independent bookstores and big chains. You can find exactly the same books at a Barnes & Noble in Austin, Texas as you’d find in San Francisco, Denver, or New York. On the other hand, two indie bookstores a block apart can offer completely different experiences.

Tea aficionados revel in this. I enjoy wandering into a tea shop that has dozens of different pu-erhs available and tasting something I’ve never had before, even though I know the odds of finding that 1935 Double Lions Tongqing Hao anywhere else are close to zero (and the odds of being able to afford it are similar).

Tea shops can help a lot with this problem by proper labeling and by knowing the products well enough to compare our wares with popular brands from elsewhere. If someone walks into my shop that likes Constant Comment, I can guide them to my closest loose-leaf blend (that would be the aforementioned Cinnamon Orange Spice). If someone buys a mountain-grown Wuyi oolong in my shop, the next tea shop they visit should be able to give them something with a similar flavor profile.

Consumers can help by asking questions. If I have a breakfast tea I enjoy, I’ll ask the shopkeeper what’s in the blend. Then I’ll know to ask for an Assam/Tanzanian black breakfast tea blend next time I want something similar. I watch (or ask) how much leaf they use and what temperature the water is. Again, if I don’t know how they brewed it, I can’t ask for it to be prepared that way next time.

Education

The tea industry is where coffee and wine were a few decades ago. The average person has no idea what the difference is between a green tea and a white tea, but they know the difference between Merlot and Chardonnay. Tea people need to focus on education the same way wine and coffee people have done.

Educating customers is a bad thing for the mediocre shops. The more people learn about tea, the less likely they are to buy lower-grade products, and the less likely they are to buy from people who don’t know what they’re talking about. Once the person who’s been buying pre-sweetened chai from a box tastes fresh-brewed chai, they won’t be switching back.

On the other hand, education is a great thing for consumers and for good tea shops.

The more you know as a consumer, the better you’re able to find what you like and recognize the good products (and good prices). Educated consumers will frequent the better shops, and spend more money there, benefiting both the shop and the customer.

About Gary D. Robson

Gary Robson: Author, tea guy, and general manager of the Billings Bookstore Cooperative. I've written books and articles on a zillion different subjects, but everyone knows me for my "Who Pooped in the Park?" books.

Posted on 7 July 2012, in Tea Biz and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I am not particularly immersed in specialty coffee culture, so I don’t feel that I can say much about it. I do think that tea does exhibit a broader range of diversity of aromas, flavor, and colors than coffee. Coffee also seems to lend itself more to the preparation of the drink, compared to tea, at least, the way it tends to be consumed in the US.

  1. Pingback: Young Generation of Chinese Americans — Enjoying “Bobalife”! | Travel Around the World in 80 Seconds

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