Category Archives: Tea Biz

Most popular teas of 2014


Most Popular Teas of 2014 header

I’m bringing back the old January tradition that I skipped last year, which is reviewing my tea bar’s most popular loose-leaf teas of the previous year. This time, it’s a little different. In the 2011 and 2012 summaries, I just looked at the overall bestsellers. This time, I’m going to break it down by category.

I don’t want my blog to be a commercial for the shop, but on the other hand, I do want to provide links to the tea bar’s website, in case readers are interested in trying out any of these teas. As a compromise, if you see a regular link in this post, it goes to another post in my blog. If you see the name of a tea italicized in square brackets [like this], it goes to that tea’s page on shop’s website.

Black Tea

My Scottish breakfast blend, which I call [Gary’s Kilty Pleasure] remains the top-selling unflavored black tea for the fourth year in a row. There’s something about the complementary maltiness of the estate-grown Assam and strong traditional flavors of the Mount Kenya black teas that really works together.

Oolong

The classic [organic tieguanyin], a.k.a. Iron Goddess of Mercy, topped the straight oolong charts. It is medium-roasted and lightly-oxidized, using traditional bamboo coal baking techniques. Most of our oolong drinkers like the flavored options, however, and mango was the top flavor of choice.

Green Tea

Overall, [organic Jasmine Green] did the best. There’s something about the delicate aroma of jasmine that really adds to the flavor of a good green tea. Of the unflavored, unscented green teas, it was Dragonwell (longjing) by a big margin!

White Tea

Our new Shou Mei narrowly edged out the [Yin-Zhen Silver Needles Supreme], even though it hasn’t made it to our website yet. On the flavored side, the [Peach Blossom White] blew away all of the competition. We don’t serve many cups of it hot, but it’s far and away the most popular iced tea at the bar.

Pu-Erh

It’s really hard to pin this one down. We get one answer if we measure sales by the ounce of loose-leaf tea sold, but a very different answer if we take into consideration all of the compressed pu-erh (beeng cha, tuo cha, brick, and so forth). In total mass, this year’s winner would have to be ripe “wild” pu-erh bricks from 2005.

Earl Grey

We have nine different Earl Grey blends, but the organic, fair trade [Ancient Tree Earl Grey] has not only been the number one Earl Grey, but has held a spot in our top three sellers overall for as long as we’ve been selling tea.

Masala Chai

In 2013, we made a scary move. We dropped the Rishi organic masala chai that had been our number-one selling tea and replaced it with a house blend. Several house blends, actually. Our house chai, which is made with estate-grown Assam and our own masala spice blend, did reasonably well, but then serendipity stepped in. We were experimenting around with a caffeine-free option, and blended our spices with rooibos and caramel. The first cup we brewed, Doug looked at me and said, “Oh my God! This is a ginger cookie in a cup!” We named it [Ginger Cookie Chai], and it became our top masala chai, and one of the best-selling teas overall. It also makes a great molasses cookie recipe!

The Holly family

Yerba maté has always been a good seller for us, so we decided to add the other two members of the holly family that produce caffeine: guayusa and yaupon. [Guayusa] became a staff favorite, and soon surpassed yerba maté. It’s an amazing drink that we just can’t get enough of!

Rooibos

We sell a lot of rooibos, and I am still surprised that the green rooibos outsells red rooibos by a factor of three. Yes, [Green Rooibos], which most Americans haven’t even heard of, is one of the top 15 sellers out of the 150+ teas and tisanes we sell. When it comes to flavored rooibos, [Montana Gold], a caffeine-free blend from our friends at Montana Tea & Spice not only handily tops the list of rooibos-based blends, but was our #1 seller overall.

Other herbals

When you think of herbal tea, what’s the first herb that pops into your mind? Probably chamomile. Personally, I’m not a big chamomile drinker, which probably explains why none of my chamomile blends compete with [Evening in Missoula], another complex and wonderful blend from Montana Tea & Spice.


While writing this blog post, I was drinking an organic Iron Goddess of Mercy (tieguanyin), as I so often do. It’s a soft and flavorful oolong that’s lightly baked and medium oxidized. I usually use my leaves at least three or four times, brewing it with 175-degree water. I make my first infusion light (2 1/2 minutes), and then add 30 second to each subsequent infusion.

Blogging on a schedule, redux


Blogging on a Schedule header

When I wrote about blogging on a schedule in mid-2013, I made it pretty clear that I didn’t think it was the right move for “Tea with Gary.” I had some pretty good reasons for feeling that way, too. Go ahead. Read the post. I’ll wait.

Done yet? Good! Now I’ll tell you why I think I’ve changed my mind.

When I was a kid, I remember getting up Sunday morning and looking forward to reading the Sunday funnies. Oh, who am I kidding? I did that as an adult, too. I kept my Sunday subscription to the paper years after I dropped the daily subscription, mostly to get those comics. When I was regularly listening to podcasts, I looked forward to Science Friday every week. These days, I look forward to xkcd updating every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

Speaking of xkcd, a slight tweak to today’s comic explains why I was reluctant to update on a regular schedule:

xkcd 2 Jan 2015 - edited

Oh, no! It’s Friday and I have to have a blog post! Whatever shall I do?

I’ve always felt that writing to a deadline ruined my spontaneity and writing posts in advance ruined their news value. But then I got to really thinking about it.

I have been writing professionally (meaning I get paid for articles and books) for decades. Every single one of those 300+ articles and dozens of books had a deadline. Not “a lot.” Not “most.” All of them. I should certainly be able to deal with deadlines.

Deadlines book cover

Deadlines are scary. See? Really scary!

Then I went through my posts from the last year or so. Very few of them were so timely that they couldn’t have spent a few weeks in a queue waiting to be published. Those few could have either been special reports (e.g., my series of live posts from World Tea Expo last year) or just been inserted at the front of the queue, pushing everything else back.

I haven’t been really good lately at keeping up my goal of posting every week or so — I averaged one post about every 2.5 weeks in 2014 — but I have plenty of ideas. I keep a list of potential posts, and it’s gotten really long. I also really want to give my readers something to look forward to (assuming that any of you actually look forward to my ramblings).

So here’s what I’m going to do: Starting today, there will be a new post on this blog every Friday. Starting next week, they’ll be pre-scheduled to post at 9:00 a.m. Mountain time. There will be an alert on the Tea with Gary Facebook page and the Tea with Gary Twitter feed when each article posts. Those of you who subscribe to my RSS feed will see it at the same time. I’m going to watch my stats for a few months and see how it goes. If I see a significant increase in traffic on Fridays and Saturdays, or if there’s a noticeable overall increase in followers, then I’ll stick with it.

Like me on Facebook!

Yes, that was a shameless self-promotion. Please like the Tea with Gary page on Facebook. It would mean ever so much to me. And follow me on Twitter, too. Then you’ll always be the first to hear all of my exciting news! That really was shameless, wasn’t it? I feel bad. Really, I do.

While we’re at it, I’ve kind of slacked off on #TeakuTuesday. I’m going to start pre-scheduling those as well. Not all of them will appear on the Tea with Gary blog, though. I’ve re-purposed my old Tea with Gary Tumblr specifically for #TeakuTuesday, and (of course) they’ll be on the Twitter feed as well.

Let me know what you think. Is this exciting? Is it boring? Do you care?

The Logic of Tea Bar Redesign


Tea bar redesign header

It all started simply enough.

Doug looked at the jars of tea behind the bar one day and said, “This cubbyhole-based system is too constricting. We have space for nine oolongs. If we want to add a new one, we have to drop one of the existing ones. What if we went to a more open system?”

Logical enough. If they are arranged in a linear system, we can drop a white tea and add a black one, and everything fits fine. But that led us to a much deeper discussion. Do our groupings make sense?

The old back bar had teas arranged by style. All of the green teas were together, including the dragonwell, sencha, raspberry hibiscus green, Moroccan mint, and jasmine green. But that’s not how people select a tea. That’s not how we select a tea. When a customer comes in that doesn’t know what he wants, we go through a decision tree.

We start with, “do you prefer straight tea, or something flavored?” If they choose straight tea, we ask if they like white, yellow, green, oolong, black, or pu-erh. If they choose flavored, we ask if they want something fruity, flowery, spicy, creamy, or minty.

So why not set up the shelves that way? Very few of the people asking for a berry tea care whether the base tea is green, black, or oolong. They just want a berry flavor. It makes more sense to put all of our huckleberry teas together instead of having one with the black teas, one with the rooibos, and one with the yerba maté.

Back bar

The new structure puts all of the straight tea and herbs on the right, and all of the flavored blends on the left. Posing in the front is our tea plant, Tea H. White.

We went through our stock and found that if we grouped the herbs and tisanes (e.g., rooibos, yerba maté, guayusa…) with the straight tea, very close to half of our blends were flavored. So we arranged everything so that if someone says they’re looking for straight tea we take them to one side of the bar, and if they’re looking for something flavored, we go to the other.

Having an organization that customers can follow makes it less intimidating for people new to the tea world.

The straight teas are organized first by style, in order of oxidation (white, green, yellow, oolong, black, pu-erh). They are followed by the caffeinated herbs (maté, guayusa, yaupon) and then the caffeine-free herbs (rooibos, honeybush…). It’s nice to be able to point at the shelves and say, “everything from here up has caffeine, and from here down doesn’t.”

Straight teaWithin each style, the tea is arranged by origin, with blends coming first. In the picture above, you can see the black breakfast blends, and jars of black tea from China, Sri Lanka, Kenya, Rwanda, and Malawi. Most of our customers aren’t used to thinking about tea origins, and they’re intrigued by the diversity of sources.

“Where do you get your tea?” is one of the most common questions we get. It’s kind of difficult to answer. We deal with quite a few importers and distributors, but we also like to buy direct from estates and farms when we can; it helps us to be sure of what we’re getting. To answer the question, we included estate names on the labels where we can, and made a map to put between the two blocks of tea shelves.

Tea mapWe’ve had very positive reactions to the map. People say, “I’ve never had a tea from Vietnam. I want to try that one!” Sales of some of more obscure tea are increasing, and people seem to be enjoying comparing tea from different parts of the world. It’s a great way to learn about terroir and regional differences in processing techniques.

When we move over to the flavored side, priorities are different. Few people care about the origins, and virtually all of them are blended from geographically-diverse ingredients. We couldn’t organize those by origin if we wanted to.

flavored teaOn that side, we start with fruity teas at the top, grouping all of the berry together, the citrus together, and so forth. We then proceed down through the spicy teas (with masala chai getting its own section), flowery teas, Earl Greys, mint teas, and on through the flavor profiles. Since caffeine isn’t taken into consideration in the sorting of the flavored teas, we put codes on the labels to help people find what they want: a green O for organic, blue F for fair trade, red C for caffeine-free, brown M for “made in Montana” (mostly our house blends), and purple E for Ethical Tea Partnership.

Is this the perfect organization for every tea shop? Of course not. An herbalist might want to group the teas and herbs by reputed health effects, or by Linnaean classification of the plants. A tea house focused on food might group them by the foods they pair well with. A café focused on tea by the cup rather than bulk sales might group their tea based on what’s best hot, what’s best iced, what works well in a latte, and so forth.

All indications at the moment, though, are that this is going to work well for us. I shall, of course, report back when we know more…


While writing this blog post, I was drinking Lamdong Hoodoo, a Vietnamese black tea. Since I don’t take milk or sugar in my tea, I prefer black teas with low astringency, but I still like plenty of flavor. This one definitely fits the bill. A nice spicy flavor and aroma, but no bitterness. I steep it for 2:30.

World Tea Expo 2014, Day 3: Revenge of the Pu-erh


WTE2014 Day 3 header
If you haven’t already read Day 1: The Saga Begins, Day 2: Attack of the Clonals, and Tea Bloggers Roundtable, you might want to read them first for context. If not, that’s fine. Read on. No biggie.

The third day of World Tea Expo 2014 started rather unexpectedly, as we pulled into the parking garage and encountered Harley Quinn. On roller skates. As we walked to the expo center, we met up with a variety of other comic characters — along with some characters from movie and TV shows. Yes, it was cosplay time at a comic book convention. Parked in front of the expo center, we saw a variety of vehicles: Kit from Knight Rider, three (Count em! Three!) Jurassic Park tour vehicles, the Back to the Future DeLorean, complete with a dead ringer for Doc Brown, and quite possibly the most awesome Batmobile I’ve ever seen.

WTE cosplay

That wookie was BIG! I’m guessing he drinks a lot of good healthy Taiwanese oolong.

Once we got past the Star Wars crowd, however, it was back to the business of tea. And most of that consists of placing orders on the last day of expo to catch all of the show specials. Most of what we purchased was pu-erh tea, which I drink a lot of these days. A good part of the reason we buy so much pu-erh at the World Tea Expo is that there’s a rich variety available, but it can be hard to find in the U.S.

Looking for a nice first-flush Darjeeling? Every major tea importer or distributor has one. Sencha? There’s hardly a catalog without at least one. Earl Grey? Even grocery stores in Montana are likely to carry more than one. But if you’re looking for unique and tasty pu-erh teas, you just might have a long (and pleasant) task ahead of you.

At World Tea Expo, there’s a broad variety of pu-erh laid out on tables all across the expansive show floor, almost all of it compressed into cakes of some form or another. One of the most intriguing we came across this year is a jasmine sheng pu-erh. It has the same jasmine aroma that any Chinese green jasmine tea has, but the underlying flavor is much more robust. A touch of the expected pu-erh earthiness comes through, along with more astringency than most. Part of the astringency is explained by the relatively long steeping time that LongRun used in their booth. They steeped for about four minutes. When I got it home, I played around and decided two minutes is more my speed on this one.

jasmine sheng pu-erh

These are 100 gram beeng cha cakes, which are significantly smaller than the traditional 357 gram cakes. This also makes them more affordable for someone who’s experimenting.

Yes, I can hear the faux gagging sounds coming from the purists, aghast at the idea of scenting a pu-erh tea. Pish tosh, I say to you. I’ll drink my straight pu-erh in the morning, but this lightly scented jasmine delight is just the thing for mid-afternoon. Also, being such a young fermented tea (2012), it will continue to get better and smoother for many years, aging like a fine wine. If you end up with enough self-control to put some away for five more years, it will be awesome!

Two other interesting things about that picture: the color of the tea in the glass in the background, and the pu-erh knife in the foreground. If you’re used to shu (“ripe”) pu-erh, which brews up very dark red, this pale green concoction will look mighty odd. I suppose if I wanted to really show the color, I wouldn’t have set it on a dark wood counter, but that’s beside the point. Sheng (“raw”) pu-erhs are much lighter and more delicate than the “in your face” shu pu-erhs.

For breaking apart pu-erh cakes, you don’t want a regular sharp knife. Cutting it will tear the leaves. What you want is a pointed knife that will slide between the layers of leaves and flake them apart. This pu-erh knife, which they call a “needle,” has a very sharp tip and basically no edges at all. I also like the ceramic handle.

In addition to the other pu-erh cakes we bought, my friend and fellow tea blogger Geoffrey Norman slipped me a little present: two “pu-erh” teas from different countries.

Geoff Norman pu-erhs

I’ve talked about spelling of Chinese teas here before, so don’t let Geoff’s “puer” and my “pu-erh” throw you off. The transliteration from Chinese into English will never be perfect, and often you’ll find different translators spelling the same words in different ways. The spelling Geoff uses is how the town of Puer appears on most maps, so it may end up winning out eventually if we ever come to consensus, but until then I’ll stick with my way.

Speaking of the town name, that’s why “puer” appears in quotes on the tube. Technically speaking, you’re not supposed to use the name pu-erh unless the tea comes from the Yunnan province of China, where the style originated. The tea is named for the town where it was processed and marketed. A fermented tea from anywhere else should be called a dark tea rather than a pu-erh. We’ll see if that works out as well as “masala chai.” Translated into English, that one should be “masala tea,” indicating a tea made with a masala spice blend. Instead, most Americans call it “chai tea,” which translates to “tea tea” and loses the whole meaning. *sigh*

There are fermented teas (pu-erh style dark teas) made in a number of places outside of Yunnan. In addition to the Taiwanese and Vietnamese I got from Geoff, I bought dark teas from Fujian and Anhui provinces, and I am carefully aging a Laotian beeng cha as well.

There is no other style of tea that has the variety pu-erh does. Some I steep for minutes, and some for mere seconds. Some brews so dark you can’t see through it, and some as light as a short-steeped dragonwell. The colors range from yellowish-green to orange to deep red. The flavors are all over the map. You can steep pu-erh leaves a dozen times, and each infusion will be different from the last. If you haven’t experienced pu-erh before, don’t blindly order some online. Go to a tea shop and talk to someone who really knows the style. Try several different ones to narrow it down. Only then, make the investment in a good pu-erh cake to take home and enjoy.

Tea Bloggers Roundtable 2014


Tea Bloggers Roundtable 2014Last night at World Tea Expo 2014, we had fun on the Tea Bloggers Roundtable.

The moderator, Naomi Rosen (Joy’s Teaspoon) asked us questions, guided the discussion, and took comments from the audience. The panel consisted of (left to right):

Nicole Schwartz (AmazonV) live tweeted questions and answers for those who couldn’t attend, and Geoffrey Norman (Lazy Literatus), who was on the panel last year, heckled us from the audience.

Our friend TeaPigeon from the exhibit floor (pictured below) was unable to attend the roundtable. Something about too much oolong.

pigeon

That isn’t pavement, it’s the comfy carpet of the exhibit hall floor beneath the tired feet of TeaPigeon. We declared him our official show mascot. For more pictures of him and a buddy, check #TeaPigeon (and #TeaPidgeon) on Twitter.

We answered questions on a number of topics, and got some great audience participation, too. Among the topics were:

Q: What do you do if someone sends you a sub-par tea to review?

A: Most of us review only what we like, so if we get a bad product we don’t talk about it. If we do, we tend to lay it on the line.

Q: What’s the best time of day to update the blog and social media?

A: For the most part, we don’t post to the blogs on a schedule (except for Nicole, who posts at noon Eastern time), but we try to do the social media links early in the morning, as most folks check their Facebook and Twitter feeds first thing when they get up. Some of us repeat links in the afternoon, typically with different text.

Q: Do you blog about tea and health?

A: That’s a topic that’s in much demand, but there’s so little proper scientific research that we’re all hesitant to do it. Studies tend to be myopic (good word, Chris!), and media coverage of the studies often distorts the results. The dearth of data means everyone’s looking for solid information, but the research is time-consuming and can be expensive; not all of the studies are available for free on the Internet.

Q: How do you deal with word count?

A: Some tea bloggers (Geoffrey, for example) worry about whether their posts are too long and rambling. Others (like me) want to make sure there’s enough content to make them worth reading. The beauty of the Internet, though, as compared to print media, is that we don’t have hard limits. Doug Robson pointed out from the audience that for the first time in history, we have a medium with infinite scrolling. You can fit ten thousand words as easily as you can fit ten words. There’s no reason to trim it back.

Well, I need to get going and hit the last day of Expo, so I’ll cut this post short and talk more about tea blogging later. In case you’re interested, I started my day with a lovely golden tip Yunnan tea from TeaSource. That’s my kind of black tea!

World Tea Expo 2014, Day 2: Attack of the Clonals


WTE2014 Day 2 header

There’s more than one way to skin a cat … er … build a tea plantation. The common theme through much of what we saw today was exactly that: how to make tea plants.

Traditionally, humans have allowed plants to go to seed, and then planted those seeds. That involves a male plant and a female plant, and the mixing of DNA, which can have unpredictable results. For many crop plants, farmers came to realize that taking cuttings meant the new plant was identical to the parent plant. If you have a perfect cultivar, don’t pollute the DNA with random Mendelian fluctuations; keep the strain pure.

This process, whether it entails planting cuttings or grafting varietals onto different rootstock, is known as cloning. Today at the World Tea Expo, clonals and interesting varietals of tea plants turned into a bit of a theme for the day.

The day began with fellow tea blogger Geoffrey Norman (the Lazy Literatus) rushing up to me. “Bacon tea?” he asked frantically, “Where did you find this bacon tea?” I took him down to the appropriate booth (see yesterday’s post), and as we waited for them to brew bacon tea, he said, “Did you hear about the smoked green Assam at Tealet?”

I’ve been looking for a good green Assam for quite a while. The overwhelming majority of the world’s green tea comes from Camellia sinensis var sinensis: the Chinese varietal of the tea plant. Camellia sinensis var assamica, the Indian varietal, is quite different.

We wandered over to Tealet’s booth and found that they were in the middle of a video recording. We met up with TJ Williamson, who said that they did, indeed have green Assam (both smoked and unsmoked), but we’d have to wait until they finished the video thing. After we chatted for a bit, he said that he’d like to interview Doug and I for the World Tea Podcast. We spent the next hour sipping tea and talking into TJ’s microphone.

Podcasting with TJ

Totally not a posed picture of me (on the right), TJ (middle), and my son, Doug (left) recording the World Tea Podcast.

The smoked green Assam was unique. The first hit on the tongue was very astringent, and very different from the aroma. It had a full mouthfeel, and it mellowed to a light smoky malty flavor that was very pleasant. They steeped the first infusion with 188-190 degree (F) water, and the second infusion with 175 degree water was much less astringent and much smoother.

Much of our afternoon consisted of placing orders and tasting tea — two of my favorite things to do. We found a lot of different cultivars (many of them clonals), and ordered some great new tea for the tea bar.

One particularly significant stop was at Ajiri Tea. I know I have said a few unflattering things about a particular Kenyan tea company, but I’d like to note for the record that I’ve never had a problem with Kenyan tea. Ajiri in particular is doing some wonderful things.

When Kenya gained independence from Great Britain in 1963, many of the huge tea conglomerates retained their land and operations. Many tracts of land, however, were broken up into family farms and cooperatives, which now represent almost 60% of Kenya’s huge tea industry. That’s who we prefer to buy from.

Ajiri was founded not just to export tea, but to create jobs (the word “ajiri” is Swahili for “employ”), especially for women. The boxes for their tea are hand-made, as are the beaded string ties for the bags. All of the labeling and decoration on the outside of the boxes is handmade from dried banana tree bark, and profits go back to Kenya for educating orphans. This is a tea operation we can get behind. Look for their products on our shelves next month.

Ajiri

Me, with Kate Holby of Ajiri Tea. You can see some of their tea box designs in the upper left. I want a shirt in the pattern of Kate’s dress!

Ajiri tea boxes

Some of the handmade tea boxes from Ajiri. Every one is different.

The day continued with a class in rolling oolong teas, and the tea bloggers roundtable you’ve all been waiting for, but it’s after midnight and I am growing weary. I shall sign off now, and continue tomorrow with the World Tea Expo saga…

World Tea Expo 2014, Day 1: The Saga Begins


WTE2014 Day 1 header

So here I am at World Tea Expo 2014. The day didn’t start all that well. I’ve been attending expos and trade shows for decades, and this has to be the hardest one to find ever. Very little signage, and the parking area had no directions to the expo area. We got there late, there was an issue with my badge, and we didn’t get breakfast.

The day got better quickly, though. One of the first booths we visited had BACON TEA! That’s right. Tea with maple and BACON! Yeah, it sounds weird, but it was quite tasty. Also, my magic press pass has a sticker on it that allows me to take pictures on the show floor. I know, I took pictures last year, too, but a large security guard offered to escort me out of the building and take my badge away if I didn’t stop it. This year, it’s kosher.

Tea Expo Badge

It’s okay, Mr. Security Guard. I’m legit this time.

I won’t even try to cover everything in this one post. Steampunk and vacuum tea infusion systems are going to get their own article. I’ll be writing book reviews separately. There will be an upcoming post comparing yaupan with the other caffeinated holly infusions (guayusa and yerba mate). And smokable mate? That’s definitely another subject all on its own!

country breakfast

They call it “Country Breakfast” tea, but I’m a “tell it like it is” kind of guy, so I’m going to call it bacon tea.

The bacon tea is from the Tovah Group. Its ingredients, among other things, are maple black tea, lapsang souchong (for a smoky flavor), maple hickory smoked bacon jerky, and various masala chai spices. I think this will go really well with breakfast!

The next person to improve my day was Lillie at the Modern Tea Girl. She was showing off a line of tea-based frosting mixes (“just add two sticks of butter…”). To demonstrate, she had tasting cups with little tasting spoons, but that’s not all! She went above and beyond the call of duty by making little cupcakes. After Doug and I sampled — just a few, of course — we decided that the Lady Grey and the Chocolate Chai were definitely standout flavors!

Modern Tea Girl

With some cupcakes in my belly and tea samples from a half-dozen booths, I finally felt that I could settle into my rhythm for the day.

With hundreds of booths showing off approximately 4.3 zillion products, you can’t get overly caught up in one booth unless it’s (a) a good fit for the tea bar or (b) a great subject for a blog post. Oh, since I’m with my 21-year-old (single) son, there’s also a (c) that has to do with pretty girls in the booth, but we won’t get into that one.

As I said, there will be more posts, so I won’t describe the plethora of tea storage containers, yixing teapots, infusers, travel mugs, food products, RTD (ready-to-drink) beverages, tea blends, raw spices, electric kettles, and other wondrous things we looked at. We’ll be buying a lot of this stuff and taking it back to the shop. Some of what we looked at had me itching for a bigger budget (would you buy a $400 teacup with real gold in the ceramic glaze?), and some had me scratching my head.

Infuser Tray

Although this looks like the Grand Inquisitor’s tray of torture devices, I’m pretty sure they’re all tea infusers. The one second from the left is really cool!

Two of the tea blends I encountered caught my eye, and the merchandizing part of my brain immediately jumped to the conclusion that they should be displayed side-by-side:

Elmwood Inn Fine Teas has a new small batch bourbon black tea. No, it doesn’t actually have bourbon in it, but they’ve put together a collection of teas and spices (including a smoky lapsang souchong) that really evoke the flavor of bourbon. It reminds me of what Vintage Tea Works did with their line of wine-inspired tea blends last year.

To go with it, we have Hancook Tea’s “Hang-Over (sic) No More” blend. This South Korean company has blended lotus leaf, persimmon leaf, hydrangea serrata leaf, and mulberry leaf to come up with a surprisingly sweet (but sugar-free) hangover remedy. It’s not something I’d drink just for the flavor, but it’s still rather pleasant — and who drinks hangover remedies for the flavor, anyway?

Bourbon and Hangovers

Have you ever seen a toy that you really wanted, but you just couldn’t have? AOI (our matcha supplier) had a matcha grinding stone device in their booth. It’s two pieces of hand-carved stone with some wooden parts. You place dried green tea leaves in the top, crank the handle, and it mills those leaves into matcha powder.

We tried it out, and it works wonderfully. The kind folks at AOI took it apart and showed us how it works. I’m not likely to ever start grinding my own matcha, and this device isn’t for sale anyway, but I’d sure love to have it in the tea bar, just to show off!

We finished out the day with the networking party, which featured the most 70s band ever, complete with bell-bottoms, afros, and Earth, Wind & Fire songs, and headed back to the hotel to wind down, blog a bit, and put together some orders for tomorrow.

And now, it is time to sleep. There will be more tomorrow. Lots more…

If you follow me on Twitter (@TeaWithGary), you can get updates all day long. Otherwise, check the blog at the end of the day.

And if you’re here in Long Beach, don’t miss the Tea Bloggers Roundtable, which will feature me along with a half-dozen or so of my fellow tea bloggers. They’re not all as strange as me (Robert Godden isn’t here, so I guess I have to be the weird one this year), but it should be a great panel discussion. It’s at 5:00 p.m. in room 104B.

 

Warning: Royal Tea of Kenya


I first encountered Joy M. W’Njuguna and Royal Tea of Kenya back in 2011. I had blogged about Kenyan purple tea, and she offered to supply it for me. For a year or so, we had a great working relationship. We got quite a few excellent Kenyan teas from RTK, and Joy was always pleasant and easy to work with.

Kenya-Slide07

A slide from one of my presentations on African tea, showing Joy W’Njuguna and me together in 2012.

I try to keep my blog generally upbeat and positive, so when problems started to surface with Royal Tea of Kenya, I kept them private. Our shipments got later and later. Tea that I paid for at World Tea Expo 2012 didn’t arrive for over six months, and I finally got her to ship something else instead. My last order, which I made the mistake of pre-paying, never arrived at all.

For over a year, I have been calling and emailing Joy, and receiving a string of promises. At first they were promises to ship the tea as soon as it was ready. Then, after I told her I just wanted my money back, she’s promised a check in the mail numerous times. Nothing.

Please don’t take this as a general indictment of Kenyan tea! Kenya, the world’s largest exporter of tea, produces some wonderful teas and there is a plethora of ethical tea businesses there. I am speaking specifically of Royal Tea of Kenya, which is a U.S. business based in Nashville, TN.

It wasn’t until I heard from friends that they were having similar experiences with Joy and RTK that I decided I needed to make this public. I sincerely hope that none of the people she defrauded heard about Royal Tea on this blog, but I feel I have a responsibility to make sure I don’t send them any more business.

There are two threads going on LinkedIn tea groups about the problem now. Numerous people are out hundreds of dollars each, and many of us made commitments to our customers based on RTK promises — commitments we were ultimately unable to fulfill.

If you’ve been victimized, I don’t know if you’ll be able to get your money back (I haven’t), but Royal Tea of Kenya is a United States corporation, so we can certainly take some action here. Some of the suggestions from the LinkedIn threads include:

I don’t know how much it will help to contact Kenyan authorities or organizations, since it’s an American company, but it certainly couldn’t hurt to talk to:

My experiences with other companies in the tea industry have been good ones. I’ve made some lasting friends in the world of tea, and learned a lot from some of them. Every barrel has its bad apples, and it appears that Joy is the rotted leaf in the tea basket (wow — that’s one of the most mixed metaphors I’ve ever posted here).

The eternal optimist in me hopes that I’ll get a call from RTK saying “we’ve solved all of our problems and there a check and a box of tea is on its way to you,” but the eternal pragmatist in me has already written off that money. I will post updates here as I hear them.

Tea Blogger’s Roundtable in Long Beach


Last year at World Tea Expo (caution: that link autoplays video with sound) in Las Vegas, I attended a Tea Blogger’s Roundtable. It was a great opportunity to talk with some of the big tea bloggers, share experiences, and discuss challenges. This year in Long Beach, California, I’m pleased to be one of the panelists.

WTE Blogger Panel Poster 2014

The panel will be on Friday, May 30th, starting at 5:00 p.m. Anyone registered for World Tea Expo or Healthy Beverage Expo is welcome to attend. If you can make it, please let us know using the email address in the poster above. Prepare questions for your favorite tea bloggers (and the ones you just tolerate, too). Take some time to check out the blogs before you attend, too. We all love getting new readers!

The event is being coordinated by A Gift of Tea (Twitter feed @AGiftOfTea). I will also be posting updates here and on my Twitter feed (@TeaWithGary). The bloggers on the panel (in alphabetical order) are:

I’m really not sure what they were thinking when they replaced Robert Godden (Lord Devotea’s Tea Spouts) with me. Maybe he’s too edgy and controversial. Or maybe he’s just getting old and everyone thought his 45-minute PowerPoint presentation on Australian eucalyptus tea was too darned boring. (I have a feeling I’m going to pay for that comment!)

See you there (except for Robert, unfortunately)!

Black Tea Friday: A happy story of a frantic day


Black Tea FridayAs Black Friday winds to a close, have you chatted with any retail workers that were on the clock today? Checked out their Twitter feeds? Read a few stories on “Not Always Right“? Have you followed the news, as they talk about Black Friday shootings and crowds? I don’t know very many shoppers that consider Black Friday to be “fun.” Yes, it has good deals, but fighting the crowds to grab that cheap game console can frazzle even the mellowest shopper. But the employees in the stores have it worse. It’s not optional for them. Frantic, harried shoppers tend not to be overly polite to the clerks in the stores, and the employees tend to go home tired and stressed.

As a retailer, this doesn’t sound like a recipe for fun to me, either. But you know what? Today was an awesome Black Friday, and I had fun with it. I am tired, but simultaneously energized.

“Today was an awesome Black Friday, and I had fun with it. I am tired, but simultaneously energized.”

As regular readers of my blog know, my wife and I own a bookstore and tea bar in Red Lodge, Montana. Red Lodge is a small town. Pretty much every store in town was closed yesterday for Thanksgiving. I think the Radio Shack was the first store open this morning for Black Friday, and I doubt they opened much before 7:00 a.m. We didn’t open until 9:00, and things were quiet enough that we could get some Christmas decorating done in between customers. In Red Lodge, the real Black Friday shopping day starts at about 11:00.

We keep things fairly mellow. No 75% off sales. Just a book signing in the afternoon, and a “Black Tea Friday” special discount on all black tea. Still, today was our best Black Friday ever, and one of the best days in the history of the shop. We had a lot of people in the store, and there were times when we struggled to keep up. But I still had a chance to say “hi” to all of the regulars, talk to folks about the book signing, and help people select gifts. Could today have been bigger? Sure. We could have offered steep discounts, advertised like mad, and opened at 5:00 a.m. I’ll bet we would have sold a lot more. But to me, it wouldn’t have been worth it.

The nearest city of any size is Billings, Montana, which is about an hour’s drive from here. A sales representative from the big mall there popped by a while ago to see if we wanted to open a kiosk or small satellite store in the mall for the Christmas season. He threw out some amazing numbers. A little kiosk in the mall could possibly generate more sales in a month than our whole store in Red Lodge — and that’s if the kiosk is only selling tea, which accounts for about a quarter of our sales at the shop.

I’d be silly not to jump at that opportunity, right?

No.

People can get a cup of tea anywhere. Ditto a good book. The reason people come to my store is because we take the time to talk to them. I may spend ten minutes with someone pulling jars down from the shelf and asking questions before they settle on the perfect tea for them. They may describe a tea that they got at a favorite shop a thousand miles away and ask me to blend them something similar. I can help customers find a book based on the sketchiest description (“I think it was set in Wyoming and had a green cover”), and recommend a new author based on what they tell me about themselves.

And that’s what makes owning a store fun!

Spending every day frantically preparing cups of tea until I’m sticky from the honey and agave nectar and I smell like a chai latte isn’t my idea of fun. I don’t think my employees would particularly enjoy it, either. But introducing a black tea drinker to a well-whisked matcha gives one a real sense of satisfaction. Having someone say, “this will be perfect for my cousin for Christmas” makes my day. Hearing a customer call their spouse on their cellphone to say, “you have got to come meet me at this amazing tea shop” puts a smile on my face every day.

The sales numbers for an airport bookstore or a shopping mall kiosk sound attractive, but that’s not my lifestyle. I don’t want to end the day thinking I just can’t stand to look at another customer. I don’t want customers stalking out of my store because my employees don’t have time to explain the difference between sencha and dragonwell, or to help them find a good mystery book set in the West with a believable female protagonist. I want to end the day feeling like I made enough money to pay all the bills, made my customers a little bit happier than they were when the day started, and (hopefully) learned something myself. That won’t happen in Wal-Mart in Denver. It does happen at my store in Red Lodge, Montana, and I hope it will keep happening for many years to come.

“I want to end the day feeling like I made enough money to pay all the bills, made my customers a little bit happier than they were when the day started, and (hopefully) learned something myself.”

Let me end this post with a hearty thank you to all of my customers — my friends — who came in the store to shop today. Yeah, it sounds sappy, but it’s genuine. You give me a reason to open the store in the morning, and I appreciate it.

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