Author Archives: Gary D. Robson
If my last post (Yerba mate in a gourd) inspired you to try the traditional South American method of drinking yerba mate, you’ll need to get yourself a mate gourd.
As a reminder, it’s pronounced MAH-tay, it’s spelled “mate” in Spanish, and often spelled “maté” in English as a hypercorrection to differentiate it from the English word “mate.”
You can find mate gourds in many tea shops and just about any place that sells loose-leaf yerba mate. There are zillions of online sources as well, but if you like being able to see the actual gourd you’ll be buying, you’ll probably end up in a brick-and-mortar shop.
Once you get the gourd home, you don’t just start drinking from it. Before using your new gourd for the first time, you’ll need to cure it to assure the best flavor and longest gourd life. Here’s the process:
- Put a couple of tablespoons of dry yerba mate leaf in your gourd.
- Fill it all the way to the top with hot water, but NOT boiling water! Boiling water can crack your gourd.
- Let it sit for 24 hours, and then dump out the liquid and the leaves. Don’t drink it. It will taste horrible.
- Thoroughly rinse the inside of the gourd with hot water.
- Gently scrape the inside of the gourd with a spoon. Don’t use a knife. Be careful scraping around the stem at the bottom; if you take out the stem, your gourd will leak.
- Dry the gourd completely. Set it upside down on a drying rack or prop it up where air can circulate and moisture can drip out.
Congratulations! Your gourd is now ready to use.
You only have to go through this curing process once, but you’ll want to make sure to rinse and dry completely after each use or you risk growing mold inside it. Don’t use soap! It can soak into the porous surfaces of the gourd and ruin the flavor of the mate next time you use it. A good rinse with warm water will do the trick.
Over time, the inside of your gourd will become stained, taking on the green color of the mate leaf. Don’t worry about it. That’s just a sign of a well-seasoned gourd.
Let’s get this out of the way first: is it spelled yerba mate or maté? Normally, when words from other languages are adopted into English, their accent marks go away. In this case, it’s the other way around. In both Spanish and Portuguese, the word is spelled mate and pronounced MAH-tay. No accent mark is used, because it would shift the emphasis to the 2nd syllable. The word maté in Spanish means “killed.”
In the United States, people unfamiliar with the drink see “yerba mate” written on a jar in a tea shop and pronounce mate to rhyme with late. So it has become accepted in English to add the accent above the e just to help us pronounce the word right. Linguists call this a hypercorrection.
Yerba, on the other hand, is spelled consistently in English, Spanish, and Portuguese, but the pronunciation varies depending on where you are. As you move across South America, it shifts from YER-ba to JHER-ba.
Directly translated, a mate is a gourd, and yerba is an herb, so yerba mate (Ilex paraguariensis) is literally the herb you drink from a gourd. I don’t really care which way you spell (or pronounce) the word as long as you give this delicious drink a try!
Yerba mate is a species of holly that contains caffeine (not, as previously thought, some related molecule called mateine). It grows in Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay, and is the caffeinated beverage of choice for many people who live in those countries.
In the U.S., mate is usually made like tea, with the leaves steeped in boiling water for a few minutes and then removed. This, however, isn’t the way Argentinian gauchos (cowboys) been drinking mate in South America for centuries.
The process uses four elements: dried yerba mate leaves, hot water, a gourd (mate), and a bombilla (straw). Bombilla is another word that varies in pronunciation in different parts of South America, ranging from BOM-bee-ya to BOM-beezh-a.
Drinking mate was a social time for the gauchos and still is throughout much of South America. You generally won’t find yerba mate served this way in a U.S. tea shop, because it’s darned near impossible to clean a natural gourd to health department standards.
- First, the host (known as the cebador), fills the gourd about 1/2 to 2/3 full of leaf. Yeah, that’s a lot of leaf, but we’ll get a lot of cups out of it!
- Next, the cebador shakes or taps the gourd at an angle to get the fine particles to settle to the bottom and the stems and large pieces to rise to the top, making a natural filter bed. Before pressing the bombilla against the leaves, dampening them with cool water helps to keep the filter bed in place.
- Finally, the cebador adds the warm water. The water is warm (around 60-70°C or 140-160°F) rather than boiling, because boiling water may cause the gourd to crack—and your lips simply won’t forgive you for drinking boiling water through a metal straw!
In most of the world’s ceremonies, the host goes last, always serving the guests first. The mate ceremony doesn’t work that way. That first gourd full of yerba mate is most likely to get little leaf particles in the bombilla, and can be bitter. So the cebador takes one for the team and drinks the first gourdful.
After polishing off the first round, the cebador adds more warm water and passes the gourd to the guest to his or her left. The guest empties the gourd completely (you share the gourd, not the drink!), being careful not to jiggle around the bombilla and upset the filter bed, and passes the gourd back to the cebador.
The process repeats, moving clockwise around the participants, with everyone getting a full gourd of yerba mate. A gourd full of leaves should last for at least 15 servings before it loses its flavor and becomes flat.
Quora can be an interesting place. Questions tend to fall into a few broad categories:
- Thoughtful questions that inspire experts in the subject to post answers. These are educational and often fun (“Why do closed captions still look like they did in the 1990s?“).
- Questions that could have been answered by a quick Google search or a visit to Wikipedia. Often, the same question (or slight varieties) are posted over and over and over… (“Does green tea have caffeine?“).
- Questions that start with a bizarre or incorrect assumption (“Why does visiting a library or bookstore have an instant laxative effect?“).
This post is inspired by a question in the latter category.
A Quora user posted the question, “Why don’t you get innovative tea shops like you do with coffee shops?” I wrote a short response to it, and then decided that it would make the basis for a good Tea with Gary blog post, so here we are!
I’m not a coffee fan, so I’ve spent very little time in coffee shops. On the other hand, I’ve visited a lot of tea shops, met a lot of tea shop owners at tea conferences, and I just happen to own a tea shop.
I challenge the assumption behind this question.
There are some incredibly inventive, innovative, and creative tea shops out there. In fact, because the overwhelming majority of tea shops are single-location “mom & pop” shops rather than corporate chains, they have a great deal more personality than the chain shops that represent the majority of coffee shops in the U.S.
Tea shops vary in quite a few ways, and each one leaves room for innovation.
Traditionally, tea shops either follow an Asian or Victorian aesthetic. It’s easy to find a tea shop serving Earl Grey in fine porcelain cups with scones and clotted cream, and every tea connoisseur knows at least one Chinese tea shop serving tea samples gongfu style or a Japanese tea shop where you can get a real authentic matcha whisked to perfection in a beautiful handmade chawan (matcha bowl) with some wagashi.
In visiting other tea shops and talking with tea shop owners & employees, I’ve found a whole lot of variety beyond those standards, though, including the “tea tavern” aesthetic of my shop, and tea shops that are steampunk, modern, art deco, fusion, and about any other style you can imagine.
Coffee shops tend to have a handful of basic varieties that they serve on a day-to-day basis, and a ton of additions you can make (steamed milk, sugar, sweet syrups, flavorings, whipped cream…). The one down the street from me has dozens of coffee varieties that they roast and blend on premises, but most of those aren’t available every day by the cup.
Tea shops, on the other hand, tend to have a lot more varieties, and all of them are available all the time. There’s no one single variety that you’re guaranteed to find in every tea shop, either (yes, there are a lot of tea shops that don’t have Earl Grey tea). Tea shops use a variety of criteria to choose their teas:
- Medicinal properties: There’s a tea shop in the big town down the street that’s run by an herbalist. She has a selection of good flavorful tea, but that’s not her focus. She has every variety of herb you’ve ever heard of (and many you haven’t), and an encyclopedic knowledge of their reputed effects on the human body.
- Flavor: A lot of shops focus exclusively on flavor, ignoring health benefits, sourcing, and quality of the underlying tea (which is overwhelmed by all of the added ingredients).
Quality pure tea: My friend Kevin Gascoyne owns the Camellia Sinensis Tea House in Canada (he’s the one I got the Laotian pu-erh from). They are deeply focused on super high-quality estate-grown teas. He can tell you exactly where every tea on his shelves came from—sometimes right down to which section of the estate the plants grew in, when it was picked, and sometimes even the name of the person who picked it or processed it. You can get some absolutely extraordinary tea from him!
- Creativity: I confess. We do this. One of us will wonder, “what if you made masala chai with pu-erh instead of black tea?” or “would a smoked Earl Grey work?” Next thing you know, we have another new & different blend on the shelf.
- The latest trends: Oh, yes. The tea biz is just like any other business. When boba tea became popular in the U.S., boba shops popped up everywhere (some don’t even put tea in their “boba tea”!). Ditto kombucha. When mainstream media started plugging the incredible benefits of matcha, tea shops dedicated exclusively to matcha appeared in the big cities.
Most shops are a fusion of these (we all touch on the trends from time to time), but one of these will be the focus.
Almost every shop can make you a cup of straight black tea. Some will make it with teabags (yuck), some with teapots, some with funky infusers. Some use monstrous electronically-controlled brewing systems.
Even the options for that hot cup of tea vary. I’ve been in two Teavana shops, and neither one offered milk or cream to pour in your English Breakfast tea (we offer 2%, whole, half & half, cashew, almond, and soy). Some shops will make a great tea latte, like a traditional masala chai or London Fog. Some pre-sweeten the teas, while others offer a dizzying array of sweetener options. Some offer syrup flavors, others focus on just straight tea.
Traditional serving methods from other countries show up, too. If you pick the right shop, you may be able to drink yerba mate from a gourd, matcha from a bowl, or strong black tea with salted yak butter from a samovar.
And there are always new methods cropping up. For example, we’re experimenting now with carbonated iced teas, fresh-brewed in front of the customer.
So I say to the original poster on Quora, if you haven’t seen an innovative tea shop, you’re looking in all the wrong places.
As I write this, I’m enjoying the third infusion of a well-aged single-serving “mini-brick” of shu pu-erh and paying the price for my inattention. I usually give the first steeping an extra minute or so to let the leaves soak up water and separate, and then cut back on steep times for the next few infusions. Typically, I’d give the third infusion two minutes. My daughter would do one minute and my wife would do three. I wasn’t paying attention and steeped it four minutes. It’s quite a bit stronger than I’d prefer, but it’s certainly still drinkable.
What was the first tea you tasted? If you’re American, it was probably a cheap teabag filled with black tea dust, probably steeped for a long time and possibly drowned in milk and sugar.
If you have a taste for adventure, you probably tried a few other things later on. Earl Grey, perhaps, or possibly a pot of nondescript green tea at the Chinese restaurant down the street. Then maybe — just maybe — you stopped into your Friendly Neighborhood Indie Tea Shop™ and had your mind blown by an amazing oolong or a mind-blowing pu-erh. Now you want to taste all the tea!
Congratulations, you’ve just become the perfect candidate to join the tea tasting club at my shop (the Phoenix Pearl Tea Tavern), but let’s leave that for another blog post.
Thankful to have left that cruddy old Lipton behind, you plow forth into the tea world. You taste exotic green teas like genmaicha (roasted rice tea), hōjicha (roasted green tea), and kukicha (twig tea). You savor delicate white teas like silver needle. You chase down both sides of the pu-erh spectrum, sampling rich complex sheng and deep earthy shu. You try the full range of oolongs, from buttery jade to crisp Wuyi. You might even be lucky enough to find a tea shop with a yellow tea. Wow.
But you’ve left the black teas behind, your impressions tainted from those teabags you drank back before you became enlightened.
Yesterday, I taught a tea class on the teas of China. In it, we tasted all of the major tea styles, and sampled our way through five prime tea-growing provinces (Anhui, Fujian, Jiangsu, Yunnan, and Zhejiang). There were oohs and ahs over the bai mudan white, the roasted tieguanyin (Iron Goddess of Mercy) oolong, and the longjing (dragonwell) green. But do you know what stopped everyone cold in their tracks? The black teas.
I pulled out my favorite Keemun mao feng. If you’ve never tried one of these, stop reading now, buy yourself a bag, and come back. Ready? Okay. Let’s continue.
It’s easy to fall in the trap of considering black tea the “cheap stuff” and all of the other varieties the “good stuff” (except for that pond scum the Chinese restaurant down the street thinks of as green tea, but we’ll just ignore those guys). Nothing could be farther from the truth.
Keemun mao feng has a lot going on. It’s rich and complex, lighter than you’d expect, and if you consider grocery-store-brand teabags representative of black tea, this stuff will open your eyes. The people in my class kept commenting on how many layers of flavor this tea has, on how it changes as you hold it on your tongue, and the subtle sweetness they picked up in this (completely unsweetened) cup of tea.
Note, by the way, the steeping instructions in my slide above. You may like yours steeped longer than the two minutes I recommend. That’s fine. I’m no tea Nazi. Drink it the way you like it.
Next, we tried a dian hong, also known as a Golden Yunnan. It flips you clear across the flavor spectrum, with that color in the glass saying “oolong” as the flavor says “black tea.”
If you’re at this point in your exploration of the tea world, congratulations! You’ve left the cheap black tea behind and opened yourself up to a whole world of other tea styles. Now it’s time to come back home to black teas. Try the two I talked about above. Explore the vast difference between India’s tea-growing regions by drinking a first-flush Darjeeling, a hearty Assam, and a rich “bitey” Nilgiri. Sample the Rift Valley teas from Kenya (the largest tea exporting country in the world). Island hop with some Java and Sumatra tea. Drink a liquid campfire with a steaming cup of lapsang souchong.
Once you’ve experienced the range of flavors, textures, terroirs, and aromas from top-notch loose-leaf black teas, you’re still not done. Now is the time to turn your newly-expanded palate loose on some blended teas, like high-end English Breakfast. Go back and taste some of the flavored black teas like Earl Grey. Play with some masala chai and some tea lattes (try a strong Java tea made with frothed vanilla soy milk!). Start experimenting with iced tea, brewing it strong and pouring it over ice.
You may decide that you’ve moved on from black tea and that’s great. Or you may just find that you’ve developed a whole new appreciation for that stuff that got you started on tea in the first place.
As I write this, I’m sipping on a 2017 1st flush Darjeeling from the Glenburn estate. It’s very different from last year’s, when the picking was delayed by heavy late rains. You’d swear this was oolong tea. It’s extremely different from teas picked at that estate later in the year. I don’t know what (if anything) we’re going to end up with for a 2018 1st flush, as many of the estates in Darjeeling were left in horrible condition after this summer’s strikes, so if you have some Darjeeling tea you like, don’t waste it!
It has been a while since my last post. Ever so much has been going on in my life, and it’s starting to settle back down. Parts have been joyous and parts have been traumatic. I’m not going to try to stuff everything into a single blog post, but I’ll give you a glimpse right now and fill in the rest as I have a chance.
My main blog, at GaryDRobson.com, has been neglected as well, but I’m currently working on a series of updates there that my tea friends and followers might be interested in.
For those who haven’t heard, my book and tea shop, Red Lodge Books & Tea, was acquired by a cooperative in Billings, MT last year. I was excited and enthusiastic. I’d be managing a new shop twice the size of my old one, located right in the heart of Billings’ historic downtown. The 60-mile commute was a pain, but I could live with that.
Unfortunately, that relationship went down the toilet in March. The cooperative owes me a lot of money, including almost half of the money they agreed to pay for my old store, plus repayment of a loan I made to them and money we put on my personal credit card to buy products for the store. They haven’t even paid me my last two paychecks from February & March. But let’s not dwell on that right now.
I’ve spent over fifteen years on the retail side of the book trade, and that’s a long time. I’m still writing and publishing books, but I decided it was time to put my focus somewhere else. My daughter, Gwen, and I decided that it was time to open a new tea shop and drop the book part of the business, and thus was born the Phoenix Pearl Tea Tavern.
The name is a dual reference to phoenix pearl tea (a tightly-rolled jasmine green that I’m quite in love with), and to the fabled phoenix bird rising from the ashes of the old store.
What with opening the new shop and everything else that’s been going on in my life, I haven’t had a whole lot of time to blog about tea. That doesn’t mean, however, I haven’t been learning, experiencing, teaching, and collecting ideas to share on Tea with Gary. Life is still pretty crazy, so I’m not committing to a regularly weekly update schedule, but I am telling you that there will be a lot more posts coming on this site.
It’s good to be back.
As I write this, it’s getting pretty late, so I’m not drinking tea. Instead, I’m enjoying a steaming mug of green rooibos. It’s mild and a bit woody without a hint of astringency, and like its red cousin, it contains absolutely no caffeine. Green rooibos one of my favorite bedtime beverages. I made this cup with 16oz of water at about 200°F and one tablespoon of leaf, steeped for four minutes.
I’m not leaving today, but I am heading for New York New York next month! I’m looking forward to drinking tea, telling tea stories, and signing tea books at a café in NYC called The Monkey Cup, where my friend and fellow tea blogger Linda Gaylard did a book signing last year.
The trip is actually a book tour for my latest children’s book, Who Pooped in Central Park?, but I’m taking a couple of hours off on Sunday June 26 to relax with some friends and some tea and tell some of the stories from Myths & Legends of Tea, including one from the upcoming volume 2. If you’re on Facebook, please join the event page for the signing. If you have questions, I can answer them there.
I love drinking tea. I love telling stories. I love hanging out with other tea lovers. Drinking tea while telling tea stories to tea lovers is my idea of heaven! I hope to see you there.
Thanks to Jo Johnson of Scandalous Tea for setting up the visit!
Tea Stories with Gary Robson
Sunday, June 26, 4:30 pm to 6:30 pm
The Monkey Cup
1730 Amsterdam Ave, NY, NY
As I write this, I’m savoring a cup of Jinxuan Jade Oolong. This mild oolong has a smooth, buttery taste that I just can’t get enough of. If you don’t want to drink it, make a cup anyway, just to watch the “agony of the leaf,” as the tightly-rolled balls of tea open up in the hot water into full pairs and trios of leaves still attached to a bit of stem. I made mine with water just under the boiling point and steeped it for three minutes. Yum!
Developing a good palate for tea really requires keeping notes. Remembering what teas you do and don’t like needs notes, too, for most of us. And I’ve been searching for a tea journal that I really liked for a while. There are some pretty good ones out there, but I’m an individualist. I had to do my own thing. And my own thing is called A Tea Journey: Your Personal Tea Cupping Journal.
(Caution: blatant self-promotion ahead)
This guided journal is designed to guide you through the next 100 teas you taste. Keeping notes about each cup of tea encourages you to drink your tea actively, paying attention to taste, aroma, appearance, and how it feels in your mouth. When you journal about it, tea becomes an experience to savor and linger over instead of just another drink.
Tea is a subjective experience. Between these covers, nobody’s opinion matters but your own. Don’t worry about what other people think of a particular tea; just record your own impressions.
Each tea page is numbered, so you can see at a glance just how many teas you have tasted and written about. Some tea journals (especially the cupping journals intended for experts and aficionados) use terminology that may not be clear to a beginner. At the front of the journal, I included descriptions of the common tea styles and some related tisanes (rooibos, honeybush, yerba maté, and so forth). Also, on the page facing tea number one, I included short descriptions of what to write in each section.
Comparative cupping is a great way to develop your palate. Get two similar teas and try them side by side, recording your impressions on facing pages of the journal.
Obviously, the best possible Christmas present for a tea lover would be one of these journals and a big box of tea — and maybe a copy of Myths & Legends of Tea.
Enjoy, and thank you for putting up with my utterly shameless self-promotion this week!
While writing this blog post, I was enjoying a cup of Houjicha, a roasted Japanese tea about as different from traditional Matcha, Sencha or Gyokuro as you could possibly get. The roasting adds a nutty flavor and a toasty aroma that go beautifully with a cold, windy Montana day.
Okay boys & girls, it’s time for a bit of blatant self-promotion (because, you know, it’s not like I ever do that). I am please to announce that Myths & Legends of Tea, Volume 1 is now available in paperback! The eBooks (both Kindle version and Apple iBook) came out this summer, and now Proseyr Publishing is offering a 6×9 perfect-bound trade paperback edition for a paltry $8.99.
“How do I get my very own copy, Gary,” I hear you cry. Have no fear, Gentle Reader, for I have just the answer you’re looking for (and if you want wholesale information, keep reading)!
You can get a copy of Myths & Legends of Tea, Volume 1 at your favorite bookstore (either brick & mortar or online). Give them the book title and my name — or the magic number 978-0-9659609-5-3 — and they’ll have it to you in a flash.
Want an autographed copy? Not a problem! If you order from my tea shop, you have the option to buy the books plain, autographed, or personalized.
If you just want a regular autographed copy, select “Just signed, no personalization,” and choose how many you want. If you’d like a book personalized to you or a friend, select “Personalize to name(s) shown below,” and type in the name or names in the box below.
If you’re getting more than one personalized copy, you’ll have to add them to the shopping cart one at a time, filling in the options for each. In the picture above, Robert would be getting eight copies, all signed “to Robert” (Those must be for Robert Godden. One is just never enough for that guy). If you want copies signed to each of your friends, family members, and co-workers (you know you do!), fill it out for one of them and click “Add to Cart.” Then change the personalization and click it again. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Selling the book
If you want to sell the book in your shop, buying wholesale is easy! Most bookstores already have an account with Ingram, a giant book distributor with copies of Myths & Legends of Tea ready to ship out on a moment’s notice. For tea shops and gift shops, you’ll want to order directly from the publisher, Proseyr Publishing.
What’s in the book? My post about the eBook listed the stories that are included, and I’ve already posted one of them free on this blog and there’s also a preview on Goodreads so you can get a feeling for the book. Here’s a peek at what the printed version of the book looks like — click on the pictures to see a larger version:
The answer to this question should be easy. All tea comes from the Camellia sinensis plant. It is not grain. It contains no gluten.
For those casually following the gluten-free lifestyle, that answer should be enough. But for those with celiac disease, a bit more detail may be required:
A lot of things are called tea that aren’t tea
As the first paragraph said, real tea comes from Camellia sinensis. But many (most?) people refer to anything that involves steeping leaves or flowers in hot water as tea: yerba maté, rooibos, chamomile, honeybush, and so forth. Technically, they are tisanes or infusions, but they are often sold as tea.
So if you’re buying actual black tea, green tea, oolong, pu-erh, or white tea, all is well. If you’re buying “herbal tea,” you’d better take a closer look at that label (Tazo Honeybush from Starbucks, for example, contains gluten).
Flavored teas have all kinds of additives
You may be getting a nice black tea that’s totally 100% gluten-free, but many flavored blends are sweetened. One of the things they may be sweetened with is malted barley, which does contain gluten. There’s not going to be very much of it, but it’s enough to cause problems for celiac patients.
So if you’re buying unflavored straight black tea, green tea, oolong, pu-erh, or white tea, all is well. If you’re buying flavored teas, you’d better take a closer look at that label.
Gluten in teabags? Really?
A number of tea companies use sealants for their teabags that contain gluten. There’s no gluten in the tea itself, but once you dip that bag in boiling water and the glue starts to melt, you’re picking up a tiny bit of gluten. By “tiny bit,” we’re talking a few parts per million in the brewed tea here, which is a tiny fraction of what it takes to cause reactions in someone with celiac disease. But if you’re actually looking for ZERO gluten content, we’re not quite there yet.
So if you’re buying loose-leaf unflavored straight black tea, green tea, oolong, pu-erh, or white tea, all is well. If you’re buying teabags, you’d better take a closer look at that label.
Now we’re getting into incredibly small amounts, but some tea companies (including Mighty Leaf, according to this article) use the same facility for manufacturing tea as they use for manufacturing products that contain gluten. There is a possibility of airborne cross-contamination from those products.
At this point, we might as well be talking about any other food product on the planet. Can we guarantee that there wasn’t a wheat field next to the farm where your tomatoes were grown? A big mug of tea might use 7 grams of tea leaf. Cross-contamination at 1 ppm means 7 micrograms of gluten. That’s about one millionth of the gluten you’d get from a couple of slices of bread or a pint of beer.
According to this article, “research has suggested that a daily gluten intake of less than 10 milligrams (mg) is unlikely to cause significant damage to the intestines in most people with celiac disease.” The gluten you’d pick up from teabag glue or cross-contamination is less than a thousandth of that amount.
That same article says that, “In most parts of the world, regulations say that to be labeled gluten-free, a product can contain up to 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten.” That means a slice of gluten free bread could still contain 100 times the gluten of a cross-contaminated cup of tea!
I am not a nutritionist, medical practitioner, or scientist, but I think those numbers make it pretty clear that if someone with celiac disease wants to drink a few cups of tea every day, it’s going to be just fine.
As I write this, I’m sipping on a cup of Jinxuan Jade Oolong, a rich buttery semi-oxidized tea that has replaced Iron Goddess of Mercy as my regular morning cup. I steep it 3:00 in boiling water, and then get three more cups out of it, adding a half-minute of steep time to each successive infusion. Although it is of the “milk oolong” style, it contains neither milk nor gluten.
As I was browsing the web looking for inspiration and education (a futile effort, much of the time), I came across an interesting blog post entitled, “How Not to Be a Bad Starbucks Customer: 10 Things You Should Do.” It’s an intriguing short post that — at least in my mind — goes a long way toward clarifying the difference between the coffee world and the tea world. We can start with the easy part: it doesn’t say “coffee” in the title; it says “Starbucks.” Granted, the blog is titled, StarbucksMelody: Unofficial Starbucks News & Culture, so I guess it’s only natural to have it Starbucks-centric.
But this is the point: the U.S. doesn’t have a “coffee culture” per se, but there is a “Starbucks culture,” which comes from their undeniable domination of all things coffee. In large part, Starbucks culture is our coffee culture. And people are nervous about it. So nervous that they read blog posts about how not to be a bad Starbucks customer. They don’t want to embarrass themselves.
We need to make sure this never happens in the tea world.
Our job, as tea shop owners, barTEAstas (if I may coin a particularly ugly word), tea writers, tea growers, tea importers, and general denizens of the tea world, is to welcome, encourage, and educate newcomers. It is not to shame them, make fun of their lack of knowledge, or cause them to worry because they don’t know where to stand or don’t know our terminology. Unfortunately, the terminology issue has already reared its ugly head, and a big chunk of the blame falls on … Starbucks. As an example, there’s a wonderful tea drink called “masala chai.” In Punjabi, “masala” refers to a spice blend, and “chai” means tea. An obvious English translation would have been “masala tea,” but Starbucks went for “chai tea” instead, a rather boneheaded phrase that basically means “tea tea.”
But I digress (as I am wont to do) …
“Our job … is to welcome, encourage, and educate newcomers. It is not to shame them, make fun of their lack of knowledge, or cause them to worry because they don’t know where to stand or don’t know our terminology.”
When you walk into an independently-owned tea shop, you are not expected to know that shop’s terminology, customs, or culture. You don’t need to feel anxious about whether you’re going to commit some horrific tea faux pas. You just need to do one thing to be the customer we all love.
What you have to do to be an awesome customer
- Enter the tea shop with an open mind and tell us what you do and don’t like.
We’ll take it from there!
Referring back to the blog post that inspired my blog post, let me re-frame what StarbucksMelody had to say from a tea perspective.
Things you don’t have to worry about
The tea experience is supposed to be calm and relaxing. You shouldn’t be stressed out about whether you’re properly prepared to walk in and order a cup of tea. And you really shouldn’t worry about these things:
- Knowing our sizes — or weird words for our sizes.
We don’t expect you to walk in the door knowing our sizes. We’ll tell you. Or maybe we’ll have cups on the counter labeled small, medium, and large — or 8oz, 12oz, 16oz. Don’t be afraid to ask.
- Knowing what kind of tea we have
Coffee shops usually have a couple kinds of coffee out. They can do many things to it (add steamed milk, add flavor shots, pour it over ice, sweeten it…), but there’s generally just coffee and decaf coffee in that decanter behind the counter.
Tea shops usually have dozens (or hundreds) of different types of tea. Even our regulars don’t know them all, as most tea shops regularly add or drop teas. If you tell us, “I’m looking for a strong hot black tea” or “I’m looking for a fruity green tea,” we can help you find one. That’s our job, and we love doing it.
- Knowing how a particular tea is prepared
You don’t have to know the proper water temperature for white tea, the appropriate steeping time for Earl Grey, how to whisk a matcha, or how to rinse a pu-erh. That’s what you’re paying us for. We do know these things.
- Using the right terminology
You don’t have to know a bunch of super-secret, just-for-the-cool-kids terminology to order tea. If you ask for that floral green tea that’s rolled into balls and left in your cup while you’re drinking, we know what you mean. Often, the terminology changes from shop to shop. The tea shop back home might call that style Jasmine Pearls, and my shop might call it Jasmine Dragon Tears, and they probably come from different producers. Either way, if you can describe it, we can probably figure it out.
- Ordering something strange
It’s very common for people to come into my tea bar looking for something I don’t have. With any luck, I can do it anyway. You want a super-strong ginger Earl Grey latte with soy milk? I will pick the appropriate Earl Grey, add some ginger root, and make it super strong for you. No problem. If you like it, I’ll make you a big bag of the blend and write instructions on the bag for how to prepare it. That’s what brings customers back for more.
- How long your drink has been sitting out
This isn’t a coffee shop. Your tea hasn’t been sitting in a pot behind the counter for an hour. It’s being made fresh right there in front of you.
- Asking questions
It’s okay to ask questions. We encourage you to ask questions. Most of the people working in indie tea shops absolutely love tea and love talking about it. If you want to know which of our teas are organic, how much caffeine they have, or what the Ethical Tea Partnership is, or where our milk oolong comes from, go ahead and ask.
The tea experience is supposed to be calm and relaxing.
It all boils down to this: Tea shops are not a place for stress. Don’t come in worrying about how to be a good customer (although we do appreciate it if you finish your phone call before you walk up to the counter), just come in looking for some good tea and let us help you get it.