Author Archives: Gary D. Robson
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.
Yesterday started out with the return of the bloggers to Tea Expo (it’s kind of like the return of the swallows to Capistrano, except noisier).
I was very pleased to find that The Tea Spot and Teas, Etc. were in the lobby to keep us all adequately caffeinated. I enjoyed cups of their tea before, during, and after the seminars. Interestingly, both companies had chocolate pu-erh blends, and both recommended steeping them for 4-5 minutes. That’s an awfully long time for a shu pu-erh. I went for 3 minutes, and quite liked both of them (sorry, purists).
My first seminar of the day was an absolutely fantastic start to Tea Expo: Jane Pettigrew and Bruce Richardson talked about “A Social History of Tea in the UK and USA.”
They walked us through the history of tea in the western hemisphere from the 1600s to modern times, covering everything from Catherine of Braganza to A&P (originally the Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company). A few of my favorite factoids from their seminar:
- “Monkey-picked oolong” isn’t picked by monkeys. That would be cost-prohibitive. It is just a term for the highest-grade oolong in the house.
- The “Queen’s closet” wasn’t a place to store clothes. It’s where she brewed tea and shared it with family & friends.
- “High Tea” isn’t the fancy thing many Americans think it is. It’s a casual family meal. The elegant tea you’re thinking of is “Afternoon Tea.”
- I’ve mentioned this one before, but there were no tea bricks dumped in Boston Harbor in in 1773. The Boston Tea Party tea was all loose-leaf — and quite a bit of it was green tea.
Every year I take another picture of this matcha stone at AOI. It just intrigues me. Last year I described it and even posted video of it, but I just can’t stay away from it.
One of the things I look for at Tea Expo every year is new and different tea. I do love the teas from the big tea-producing countries like China, India, and Kenya, but it’s fun to explore some of the varieties you don’t run into every day, from countries that aren’t represented in every single tea shop. We had a very pleasant tasting of Indonesian teas at three adjacent booths and found some great surprises.
The afternoon session “Amplifying Your Business Voice Through Tea Bloggers” was informative, even for tea bloggers. All of us look at things differently and run our blogs differently. I update this blog every Friday (most of the time, unless I’m late) with bursts of activity during events like World Tea Expo. Nicole Martin has been updating hers every weekday for the last six years. One of the blogs nominated for a World Tea Award this year hasn’t been updated since early 2014.
Some tea blogs are all about reviewing individual teas. Some are about teaware. Some are about stories. Mine is whatever happens to be either exciting me or annoying me at the moment. The big message from this session was, if you wish to work with tea bloggers, do your research first. Read the blogs. If you are selling flavored chamomile blends, don’t pick a tea blogger that’s a single-origin Camellia sinensis specialist. Geoff Norman told us that he didn’t know the difference between Yixing and Wedgewood, so don’t waste your time and money sending him a teapot to review!
Something else I’ll be writing about in more detail later is “Coffee leaf tea.”
The name may be a bit confusing, as this product contains no coffee beans and no tea. It’s a tisane (“herbal tea”) made from the leaves of coffee plants. I can’t stand coffee, but I found the flavor of this drink quite pleasant. The company’s focus is on extending the season (picking leaves when you can’t pick beans) and creating more jobs, but there will be more on that in a future post.
We all have our taste preferences, and mine tend to run towards pure (unflavored) tea. I’m not a big fan of ginger, either, but my wife, Kathy, and I couldn’t resist having our picture taken with this gigantic (and slightly creepy) Korean red ginseng root:
And, just as a close, my birthday is coming up and this automated pyramid satchel tea bagging machine is only $70,000. It would be an easy way to take some of my whole-leaf teas on the road with me. Hint, hint…
Here we go! World Tea Expo 2015 begins tomorrow!
Between the Expo and my new book, my once-a-week blog schedule is completely disrupted at the moment. Look for daily updates this week (possibly multiple updates per day), as well as a fairly steady stream of tweets.
If you’re attending, don’t miss the Tea Bloggers Roundtable that I’m moderating on Thursday from 2:30 to 3:30. It’s free for anyone with a World Tea Expo badge.
My wife and I will also be wandering the show floor and attending various seminars. I have a lot of booths to visit for the shop, but I’m always happy to meet other tea people, so feel free to say hi!
I came across a fascinating article the other day with pictures (and short captions) of tea as they drink it in 22 countries around the world. Obviously, picking one tea — and one style of drinking it — to represent an entire country is difficult, but they did an admirable job of it. What I appreciated, though, is that it got me thinking about the way we experience tea from other countries.
I was rather distressed that the caption they chose for the U.S. was:
Iced tea from the American South is usually prepared from bagged tea. In addition to tea bags and loose tea, powdered “instant iced tea mix” is available in stores.
Eek! As much as I enjoy a cup of iced tea on a hot day, I rarely stoop to tea bags, and never to “instant iced tea mix.” If you are one of my international readers (when I last checked, about half of my blog’s visitors were outside the U.S.), please don’t judge us based on that article!
Despite that, the article made me think about something: When we experiment with the drinks from other countries, we usually prepare them our own way. Yerba mate, for example. The traditional method of making mate in Argentina, Uruguay, or Paraguay is in a gourd, with water that Americans would call “warm.” Americans trying out the drink usually make it just like a cup of tea, using boiling water in a cup or mug.
With tea, many of us would have difficulty drinking a cup of tea like they do in another country. Follow that link above and look at their description of Tibetan tea (#5 on the list). I don’t know about where you live, but here in Montana, I can’t easily lay my hands on yak butter.
Nonetheless, it’s a lot of fun to research how people eat and drink in other countries and try to duplicate the experience. Even if you’re not doing it exactly right at first, it makes you feel connected with other people and their cultures.
When my wife and I were dating, we discovered a Moroccan restaurant that we both loved: Menara in San Jose, California. They had fabulous food, belly dancers, authentic music, and — of course — Moroccan mint tea.
Kathy and I loved enjoyed watching them pour the tea as much as we enjoyed drinking it. We sat cross-legged on pillows around a low table. The server would place the ornate glasses — yes, glasses for hot tea — on the table and hold the metal teapot high in the air to pour the tea.
I am not a big fan of mint teas, generally, and I do not sweeten my tea, but I absolutely loved the tea at Menara (and no matter what my wife tells you, it had nothing to do with being distracted by the belly dancer).
When I made Moroccan mint tea at home, it never came out the same. There was always something off about the taste. I tried different blends, but just couldn’t duplicate the flavor. Then I decided to try duplicating the technique.
Take a look at that picture to the right (a marvelously-staged and shot picture from chelle marie). Look closely at the glass. That, as it turns out, is what I was missing. Pouring the tea from a height does more than just look good; it aerates the tea, which changes the way it tastes and smells.
You’ll find the same thing with a well-whisked bowl of matcha (Japan), a traditionally-made cup of masala chai (India), a frothy-sweet boba tea (Taiwan), or a cold, refreshing Southern sweet tea (USA).
If there’s a tea shop or restaurant in your area that makes the kind of tea you want to try, get it there first. Otherwise, read a few blog posts, watch a few videos, check out a good book, and give it your best try.
Tea is more than just a beverage; it is a window into the cultures that consume it. Embrace the differences. Enjoy the differences. Enjoy the tea!
Recently, I came across a Quora question asking, “What advice is there for starting a tea shop … that is targeted to a younger crowd?” I’d been thinking a lot about that demographic since my Millennials & Tea post last month, so I decided to answer it. Looking over my answer, I realized that it was absolutely begging to be tweaked, expanded, and transformed into a Tea With Gary blog post.
If you are planning to open a tea shop and you want to target the young folks, here’s what I’d advise:
- Figure out where your target audience hangs out and put the shop close by. Don’t try to entice them to come all the way across town to get to your shop. They won’t.
- Keep it calm. If they want a frenetic environment with lots of energy and noise, they’ll go to a coffee shop (or a club, or a mall, or…). Tea shops are gaining in popularity because they are relaxing places to hang out.
- Hire people who are enthusiastic about tea and train the bejeebers out of them! In many ways, today’s tea shops are where coffee shops of the 1980s were. Our customers don’t just walk in and order a double-shot half-caf low-fat light-froth caramel mocha latte. Most of them walk in and look around, rather overwhelmed by the options. It’s our job to educate the customers. When they learn from us, they come back.
- Pick your niche and fill it. Are you going to be the healthy place that prescribes tea like medications? Are you going to be the socially-conscious place that has the organic, fair-trade, and ETP teas? Are you going to be the British tea house with Earl Grey and scones? Are you going to specialize in Chinese teas only? Will you be the über high-end place with the $500 pu-erh beengs and the $25/oz specialties, or the cheap place where tea is a buck a cup? You can’t be all of those things, so pick something that fits the youth in your area and do it well.
- If you want to sell loose tea, make sure to either sell by the cup or make samples. People are far more likely to buy it if they try it first.
- Prepare the tea for the customer and pour it yourself. Younger customers are less into product and more into experience. Control the amount of leaf, the water temperature, the steep time. Explain what you’re doing, and make it both educational (see #3) and fun.
- Don’t use solid colored dark mugs. Let the customers see the tea. I use glass mugs so that they can enjoy the beautiful colors of the various teas — engage the eyes, not just the taste buds and nose.
- Serve iced tea. No matter what the weather is outside, iced tea is massively popular in the United States. Make sure every single one of your teas is available iced, and teach your staff how to make a proper glass of iced tea. And brew each cup fresh!
- Serve boba tea, but keep it authentic. You’re a tea shop, not a snow-cone shop. Don’t use the sickly sweet syrups, make your boba from tea! Brew it up fresh and make it an experience (see #6). We do our boba in cocktail shakers.
- Most of the younger crowd is looking for a place to settle in and relax for a few minutes, not a place to dash in, grab a drink in 93 seconds, and dash out. Make your shop comfortable, brew everything fresh — even if it means your masala chai lattes take a while — and perhaps keep a hot pot of your tea of the day and a big jug of iced tea of the day for those customers who are in a hurry.
- If you’re pondering this right now, go to World Tea Expo and take their new business bootcamp. It’s coming up fast, and the bootcamp may be booked, but give it a try. The rest of the Expo is a great place to learn the industry and meet the people; and you do not want to miss that wonderful Tea Blogger Panel that I’m moderating. It’ll be a blast!
Even purists who eschew “flavored” teas will often enjoy a cup of jasmine green tea. Perhaps it is because when you look at the loose tea, all you see is tea leaves; there are no visible indications that your tea leaves have been adulterated in any way. Perhaps it is because the affect of the jasmine in a well-made jasmine tea is delicate and subtle. Perhaps it is the rich history of jasmine teas.
Jasmine first made its way to China from Persia (now known as Iran) over 1,700 years ago, and it took hundreds of years before it was used to scent tea. Even then, it spread quite slowly, and it wasn’t until the Qing Dynasty, which began in 1644, that it became widespread.
The making of jasmine tea is quite different from typical flavored teas. Most flavored teas are either blends, where dry ingredients are mixed together, or tea leaves sprayed with flavor extracts, like Earl Grey with its bergamot oil. Jasmine tea, on the other hand, is scented rather than flavored.
In the traditional process, jasmine flowers are picked early in the morning, when the blossoms are still tightly rolled. Trays of processed and dried tea leaves (usually, but not always, green tea) are stacked in alternation with trays of jasmine. The trays have woven mesh or screens as bottoms, so as the jasmine blossoms open up and release their scent, it travels freely into the tea leaves over the course of about four hours.
The tea leaves pick up moisture from the flowers along with the jasmine scent, so they have to be re-dried before they can be packaged. In the finest quality jasmine teas, this scenting process may be repeated half a dozen times or more. The finished tea has no jasmine blossoms in it — only the scent that has transferred.
How you prepare a cup of jasmine tea depends on the base tea used. If it is made form a green tea, as most of them are, then you’ll want to use 175-185°F (80-85°C) water, and steep for three minutes or less. Using boiling water is a quick way to ruin a good cup of jasmine tea — or any other green tea, for that matter — by bringing out unwanted bitterness.
Grades of jasmine tea vary with the quality of the tea and the process used. One of the popular higher-end styles involves tea leaves that are tightly rolled, often known as “jasmine pearls.”
When drinking jasmine pearls, seven balls are placed in a small cup. Seven is considered good luck, so with jasmine pearls you don’t weigh them out or measure them in a tablespoon. Each rolled ball contains two leaves attached to a bud, which will slowly unfurl when the hot water is added.
Unlike most loose tea, jasmine pearls are infused right in the cup with no screens or filters, and you don’t remove them before drinking. The unbroken leaves assure that if you sip carefully, you won’t get a mouthful of leaf. If you’re drinking jasmine pearls with friends, the host should make sure that there’s always more hot water available to keep refilling the cups.
Jasmine blossoms certainly aren’t the only flowers used to scent tea — I’ve written about Vietnamese Lotus Tea, for example — but jasmine is definitely the best-known and most popular.
Cor, I’m gobsmacked! The world’s gone barmy! The Telegraph, that bastion of Britishness, has declared in no uncertain terms that 80% of Britons don’t know how to make tea! Not only that, it’s scientists that say so. Scientists! Why, just look at the headline:
Okay, let’s all just keep calm and carry on here. I have certainly addressed the subject of making the perfect cup of tea before. And scientists have weighed in, too. Why, there’s a British standards document from the Royal Society of Chemistry that explains it step by step. Even George Orwell defined the ideal cup (although I disagree with him).
You see, the world is filled with tea Nazis: people who aren’t happy with figuring out how to make their tea; they have the cheek to tell you how to make your tea. I am a much more mellow fellow myself. I believe that if you make a cup of tea and you enjoy it, you’re doing it right. You may not be doing it my way, or the Royal Society of Chemistry’s way, or George Orwell’s way, but you’re doing it in a way that makes you happy. It doesn’t get much more “right” than that.
But let’s set my sappy altruism aside for a moment and examine what The Telegraph and the scientists at University College London have to say. They do, as it turns out, have some quite valid assertions — although their science reporter may have been a bit hasty in his conclusions.
“Despite drinking 165 million cups of tea each day, scientists believe that most Brits do not allow the leaves to infuse long enough for the complex flavours to emerge. Researchers at University College London and the British Science Association claim tea must be allowed to steep for up to five minutes, far longer than the toe-tapping two minutes allowed by most drinkers.”
I’m going to start out by making an assumption here, and that is that we’re specifically talking about black tea. I make my assumption based on the fact that their entire article assumes you’re adding milk to your tea (I have never met anyone who added milk to white or green tea, although I did meet one sad little man who put milk in his oolong), and that you’re using boiling water, which is perfect for black tea or pu-erh but ruins white or green tea.
One of the characteristics prized by British tea aficionados is astringency (which Lipton’s calls “briskness”). Your average breakfast tea in the U.K. is steeped until it is quite “brisk” (which I call undrinkably bitter). The astringency is then cut with milk, and possibly sugar as well. Generally speaking, when I want milk I drink a glass of milk. When I want tea, I want it to taste like tea. I take mine black, which means I use shorter steep times to control the astringency.
“And they advise using a pot rather than a tea-bag in a mug to allow convection currents to swirl tea leaves fully through the water.”
Okay, I have to agree with them there. Teabags are evil, and here’s why:
Dried tea leaves swell as you steep them. To extract the maximum flavor (and caffeine, and antioxidants…) from the leaves, they need water flow around them. Teabags were introduced for convenience, and they are, indeed, convenient. On the downside, though, they don’t give the leaves room to swell, and they severely limit the flow of water around the leaves. To address this problem, tea makers generally don’t put high-quality whole-leaf tea in the bags. Instead, they use finely crushed leaves, known as “fannings” or “dust.” This increases the surface area exposed to water, allows them to make the bags smaller, and (here’s the evil part) use the lowest-quality tea that was passed over by all of the tea makers that buy whole leaf — what I refer to as “floor sweepings.”
The article goes on to quote Mark Miodownik, Professor of Materials and Society at University College London:
“It’s obviously subjective but I feel people are missing out on a drink which could be so much more sophisticated because they don’t wait for the tea to brew long enough. Tea is made of 30,000 different chemicals, it’s a very complex thing and those molecules take time to emerge and influence each other.”
He could well have stopped after the first three words. It is obviously subjective, indeed. Perhaps the first 10,000 chemicals that emerge are the ones you find tastiest, and the last 10,000 are the ones that I prefer. Should we both steep our tea the same? Of course not.
On an unrelated note, I sometimes feel that my formal training in electrical engineering and computer science does not really qualify me to speak as an expert on tea. Seeing The Telegraph quote a professor of “materials and society” as a tea expert makes me feel better.
Back to the point at hand, Mr. Miodownik goes on to say something that reinforces my point from above:
“Fair enough if you want a hot milky drink, but then why drink tea?”
The article explains that the UCL people have an answer to the question of whether the milk should be added before or after the tea is poured. They don’t, however, address the issue of whether the milk should be there in the first place. That’s because it’s subjective. Some of us prefer tea, instead of hot milky drinks!
I also particularly enjoyed their discussion of a tea study by a milk company, which quite refutes the premise of the article.
A study carried out by Cravendale milk in 2011 found that the perfect cup of tea needed eight minutes (two minutes with the tea bag or leaves, six more afterwards) before it reaches optimum flavour and temperature.
UCL tells us that tea must be steeped “far longer than the toe-tapping two minutes allowed by most drinkers,” but Cravendale says that a two minute steep is just fine as long as it can sit in milk for six minutes after it is steeped.
So who do we believe? The scientists or the milk company?
How about neither?
Make your tea the way you like to make it. Steep it until it tastes good. If you want to add milk, cream, lemon, sugar, ice cubes, honey sticks, a sprig of mint, a dash of cinnamon, or a soupçon of cayenne, then by all means do so.
As for me, I shall eschew teabags, brew my favorite black tea for 2:30 to 3:00, and sip it straight.
As I write this, I am drinking an 8-year-old aged shu (“ripe”) pu-erh tea from Vital Tea Leaf in Seattle. I started by doing a 20-second “wash,” swirling the leaves in boiling water and then pouring it off. My first infusion was 2:00, and the second was 2:30, as I wanted it a bit stronger. Proper British tea drinkers may want to stop reading now, as I steeped it neither in a mug nor a ceramic teapot, but in a brewing device made of (*gasp*) plastic. After drinking rich, earthy teas like this, it’s hard to go back to plain black tea!