The intimidation factor in tea


In terms of consumer education, the tea industry is where the coffee industry was a couple of decades ago. When I was in college in the 1970s, going into a coffee shop and ordering a vente half-caf no-foam skinny vanilla latte with a shot of white chocolate and a half-pump of peppermint would have gotten you some very strange looks. Starbucks created the terminology and spent years teaching it to their customers — and convincing their customers that it was the standard terminology in all coffee shops. Coffee aficionados have become very comfortable with the terminology and the technology behind their drinks.

Teahouse Kuan Yin

Two Dragons pu-erh as served to me at the Teahouse Kuan Yin in Washington.

Most of my tea customers, on the other hand, are completely overwhelmed by the array of 120 different teas laid out before them. They don’t know the difference between an oolong and a green tea, they’ve never heard of pu-erh, and they think orange pekoe is an orange-flavored tea. They aren’t going to make a complex drink order, largely because the consumer terminology hasn’t standardized and partially because they don’t know what they want. Instead, we have to walk them through it question by question without sounding bothered or talking down to them.

Every day I have conversations like this one:

Customer: I’d like a chai, please.

Me: Masala chai? Okay. We have nine to choose from. Do you want something traditional, or do you want to experiment?

Customer: Experiment?

Me: We have chocolate chai, spice apple chai, rooibos chai, vanilla chai…

Customer: Wow. I think I’ll go traditional.

Me: Here’s our most popular masala chai. It’s a house blend that uses a nice estate grown Assam tea as the base.

Customer: [sniffs] That smells great. I’ll go with that one.

Me: Hot or iced?

Customer: Oh, definitely hot.

Me: Sounds good. Then would you like it prepared as a latte with frothed milk, or just as a cup of straight tea?

Customer: A latte sounds good.

Me: What kind of milk would you like? I have nonfat, 2%, whole, half-and-half, vanilla soy, or coconut.

Customer: Hmmm. What would you recommend?

Me: The vanilla soy is good, but the whole milk is more traditional and makes a pretty nice froth.

Customer: I’ll go with whole milk then.

Me: And would you like it sweetened at all?

Customer: How do most people do it?

Me: In India, you’d probably get it sweetened with sugar. I tend to prefer agave nectar myself, although I don’t sweeten my own masala chais very much.

Customer: Do you have stevia? I’d like a bit of that.

Me: Sure thing. One last question: would you like that for here or to go?

Customer: I’ll drink it here, please.

Me: Okay, then. I’ll have that ready for you in about five minutes.

[This conversation is a lot longer than it would be for a typical non-latte tea, where I just check to see whether they want it hot or iced, here or to go, and they add their own sweetener and milk if they want any.]

Our job as tea experts is to make tea as friendly as possible. If the customer looks exasperated after the first question, I’ll point them at the staff favorites board or just ask if they’d like it made the way most of our customers take it.

I visited a lovely tea shop in Seattle last winter called Vital T-Leaf. Just my kind of place. They set out a gongfu set and we must have sampled a dozen different pu-erh teas. The woman doing the serving had the ceremony down pat, and all of the equipment arrayed before her: tray, kettle, cups, strainers, gaiwan, spoons, and more. We examined the dry leaf and wet leaf and tasted and discussed each tea.

To me, that was the perfect tea shop for the trained tea lover — and I spent plenty of money there in appreciation, but that would not work in Red Lodge, Montana. Most of my customers are intimidated just by the tea list itself. Add the presentation they used in Seattle, and few would even approach the tea bar. Even the way the tea is delivered to the customer matters. To me, the gonfu-style presentation when I ordered at the Teahouse Kuan Yin (see picture above) was perfect. A non-tea person wouldn’t have the slightest idea what to do with that. We prepare the tea and deliver it fully steeped, so our customers don’t have to worry about what kind of equipment we use and what we do with it. After all, they aren’t paying us a few bucks a cup to make them prepare their own tea!

Over the last couple of years, though, I’ve noticed more and more customers coming in and knowing what they want. Many of the regulars are starting to ask detailed questions about the equipment, the process, and the tea styles themselves. They want to know the origins of the funny names (one of the reasons I’m writing the Myths and Legends of Tea book that will hopefully be out by Christmas), the regional differences in style, and the reasons for the differences.

More customers come in knowing what they want, or asking what’s new.

One huge difference remains between coffee aficionados and tea aficionados, though. Most of the coffee people I know neither know nor care what kind of coffee beans are being used — their custom order is all about the additives and preparation methods, so it stays the same every time. Tea people, on the other hand, are more likely to come in and experiment: a longjing dragonwell from China yesterday, a gyokuro from Japan today, and a first-flush Darjeeling from India tomorrow.

We encourage this, of course. The coffee shop down the street sells dozens of different coffee beans, but on any given day they’ll only be serving one or two of them. The differences among plain coffee beans are much more subtle than the differences in tea leaves, so that works for them. If we want our customers coming in to our shop instead of buying Lipton’s in tea bags at the grocery store, that approach won’t work for us. We need to educate our customers on style, terroir, and infusing methods. But we need to do it without being snobbish or intimidating.

It’s a delicate balance, but all of the good tea shops have figured it out. Mayhaps that’s what defines a good tea shop?

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 6 September 2013, in Tea Biz and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Great article, really enjoyed reading it! What was the name of the Gong fu style shop in Seattle? )

    • The shop is called Vital T-Leaf, and I’ve updated the blog post to include the name. Sorry I forgot that. The woman who poured the tea for my son and me was named Fang, and she really knows her tea — especially the pu-erhs. I could have spent the whole afternoon there.

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