Ten years ago, I had a pretty simplistic view of the word “organic.” I figured there was some set of guidelines you had to follow, and *presto* — you could put the word organic on your product. As it turns out, things are much more complicated than that.
When my wife and I had our ranch, we had a neighbor that produced organic pork. One day, they were forced to make an unpleasant choice. A disease was circulating among the hogs in our area. They could inoculate their hogs, but it would cost them their USDA organic rating. Or they could keep the organic rating, and potentially lose the animals — possibly even the farm. In another post on this blog, I told a story of an herb farm near us that gave up their USDA organic rating simply because they couldn’t keep up with the paperwork. There is a daunting amount of documentation required for a small family business to be certified organic.
I learned even more about organic products when I got into the tea business.
I learned that if you take some organic tea leaves and mix them with organic peppermint leaves, you cannot call the resulting mint tea “organic” unless you go through the process of having your facility certified and document everything you do.
I learned that some of my customers will only buy tea that is certified organic — and others will only buy tea if it is not certified organic.
I also learned that there are countries that won’t produce USDA organic tea simply because they don’t want a U.S. government agency telling them what to do. That’s when I found out that not all organic tea is USDA organic. Japan has their JAS (Japanese Agricultural Standard) program, the logo in the center bottom of the header image for this blog post. The European Union countries have their EU organic program. All of these programs were designed to encourage natural and sustainable farming techniques, but they all do so in different ways.
There’s also Fair Trade. In their own words, “Products that bear our logo come from farmers and workers who are justly compensated. We help farmers in developing countries build sustainable businesses that positively influence their communities.”
In 1997, a group of tea companies grouped together to create a program that was more specific to tea. At first, it was about tea companies working to monitor and certify their supply chains. Eventually, it became the Ethical Tea Partnership. Many of the members are names you’d recognize, like Bigelow, Tazo, and Twinings. Others are boutique brands. All work with the entire chain of people involved in tea production, from the farmers all the way to the distributors.
The ETP certification process is unlike organic and fair trade certifications, but it has elements of both. Provisions of their global standard include:
- No bonded or forced labor. Employees can’t be forced to leave their identity papers with the employer, must be free to leave at any time, and may not be forced laborers from prisons
- Freedom of association. Employees must be allowed to join trade unions and bargain collectively if they so choose.
- A safe and healthy workplace. Tea businesses must provide clean, well-lit, and safe work areas. Workers in potentially hazardous areas must be provided with health and safety training and appropriate protective clothing.
- Safe and hygienic wash stations and restrooms.
- No child labor, and special treatment for workers under 18 years of age.
- Fair minimum wages and on-time payment of workers.
- Reasonable working hours, including a maximum of 48-hour regular weeks, paid overtime on a voluntary basis, maternity leave, and a minimum of one day off in every seven-day period.
- Equal opportunity employment, including equal pay for men and women and a written policy forbidding discrimination on the basis of race, caste, nationality, religion, age, gender, sexual orientation, and other factors.
- Environmental management systems, including policies for control and reduction of agrochemicals, and for prevention of soil erosion.
- Water and ecosystem conservation.
The entire global standard document is available online as a 30-page PDF file.
So the next time you’re looking for tea, don’t just look for that USDA logo. Keep an eye out for these other logos as well!
While writing this blog post, I was drinking Pi Lo Chun, a hand-processed Chinese green tea. I brewed this cup for 3:00 using 175 degree (F) water. If you’re squeamish, you may want to taste it before looking at the translation of its name (“green snail spring”) — but it contains no snails; it’s just straight green tea. It has a full body and an earthy flavor, but it’s not overpowering at all. In fact, I’d describe this tea as “soft.” It’s not like a hearty Japanese Sencha, which I almost feel I have to wrestle into submission.
I suppose I should be drinking something organic, or fairtrade, or at least ETP. Mea maxima culpa!
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.
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.”
Within 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.
We’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.
On 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.
I love you. Really I do. I’m not a picky guy. I’m certainly not a snob. I love a five-course meal at a five-star restaurant, but I also must confess a fondness for a “Snag Burger” at the bar down the street from my shop. I love a good Indian buffet, a medium-rare steak, authentic London fish and chips, and an authentic Inverness haggis with neeps & tatties. Basically, if the chef cares about how the food tastes, I’m probably going to enjoy it. And if your servers care about serving the customers, I’m probably going to enjoy being in your restaurant. I love eating out.
But we’ve really got to talk about your tea.
First, if your restaurant is even half a notch above fast food, you have more than one type of tea, right? It may be powdered sweepings from the factory floor in a Lipton teabag, but you’ll have a black tea, a green tea, something without caffeine, and either Earl Grey or Moroccan Mint. If you don’t offer at least those four, you’d might as well hang a sign that says, “Tea Drinkers Not Welcome.”
So let’s start with that. When we order a cup of hot tea, either ask what kind we want, or present us with a basket or box containing a selection to choose from. Don’t just bring out a cup of black tea and then let us find out later that you had other options.
RULE 1: Tell us (or show us) the options!
Next, don’t grab the water until you’re on the way to the table. If we’re ordering black tea (and that includes Earl Grey), then we want that water boiling, or darned close to it.
RULE 2: Hot water. Really hot water.
And now, a big no-no. Don’t ever ever put the tea leaves (or tea bag) in the water before you bring it to us. The only exception to this rule is if you run a tea shop and your waitstaff plans to monitor the entire steeping process for us, in which case you’ll be controlling the steep time as well.
RULE 3: The tea meets the water at the table.
There are several reasons for this.
First, most serious tea drinkers have their own opinions on how long their tea should be steeped. I typically short-steep my black teas and drink them straight. My friend Angela steeps hers long and strong and adds milk. There’s no way to prepare a cup of tea that will make both of us happy. You have to let us do it ourselves.
That said, if you start the tea steeping in the kitchen, we have no idea how long the leaves have been in the water when it gets to our table. A glass carafe (like the one in this post’s header) helps that, but if we don’t know the particular brand and style of tea you’re serving, it’s really hard to judge by the color.
Additionally, not all tea takes the same water temperature. If I’m drinking black tea, I’ll pour in that boiling water the second it gets to me. If I’m drinking green or white tea, I’m going to let the water cool a bit first. Boiling water makes green tea bitter.
Once our tea is steeped to our liking, we’re going to want to remove the leaves from the water — or pour the water off of the leaves.
RULE 4: Give us something to do with used leaves or teabags.
I’ve been in many restaurants that give me a cup of water and a teabag, but no saucer to put the bag on when I’m done steeping it. I really don’t want a soggy teabag on my dinner plate, and you probably don’t want it on the tablecloth or place mat. Even the nice places that bring me a pot of water with a strainer full of leaves and a cozy to keep the pot warm sometimes don’t provide a place to put that strainer. Oh, and this reminds me of rule five:
RULE 5: Don’t just dump leaves loose in a pot with a spout strainer unless it’s a single-serving pot.
It’s frustrating to pour off a cup of tea and know that by the time I’m ready for the second cup, it will be oversteeped and nasty and there’s not a thing I can do about it.
Those five rules will cover the basics. All but the real tea snobs can make something acceptable to drink if you have a few choices (which need to include unflavored options — don’t just give us Earl Grey, mint, fruity stuff, and herbal stuff) and serve it properly. But if you’d like to upgrade the experience and really make us tea drinkers feel welcome, here are a couple of bonus tips:
BONUS TIP #1: Make sure all of your servers can answer rudimentary questions about your tea selection.
Everyone who works there should know which of your teas have caffeine and which don’t. They should know the difference between green and black tea (and know that Moroccan Mint is green and Earl Grey is black). They should know the teas from the tisanes (herbals), and they should know which ones are organic and/or fair trade.
If you serve leaf tea, as opposed to bagged dust, give the staff a bit more information, like origin and style. You want your server to be able to tell a customer whether that red wine is a Merlot or Zinfandel and whether it’s from Bordeaux or Napa Valley. Why shouldn’t they be able to say whether the black tea is a Darjeeling, a Ceylon, or a Keemun?
BONUS TIP #2: Give us a couple of upgraded options.
Offering a oolong, a white tea, or a pu-erh makes me feel like you really want me to enjoy the experience. I don’t even mind paying more for a Bai Hao or a Silver Needle. It’s like offering some really nice wines in addition to the everyday wines; or offering craft beer in addition to Bud Light. That tea can make a good meal a really memorable one.
Attitude is everything in the service industry. If you and your staff are proud of the food you serve, it shows. Steak lovers look for restaurants that take pride in their steaks. Tea lovers look for restaurants that take pride in their tea. Most of the time, we’re lucky to find a restaurant that will even put a bit of effort into their tea, much less take pride in it.
If you aren’t a tea expert, find one and ask for advice. Show that you’re trying, and that you take as much pride in your drinks as you do in your food. We will notice. You will turn us into regular customers. We’ll be happy and you’ll be happy. We all win.
While writing this blog post, I was drinking Jasmine King, a jasmine silver needle white tea. The touch of woodiness in the tea blended beautifully with the heavenly aroma of the jasmine. I don’t drink a lot of white tea, but I’m getting hooked on this one.
As I did a year ago, I’ve gone through the year’s numbers from our tea bar to see what have been our most popular teas. A few have stayed consistent, but there have been a lot of changes, too. These sales only reflect bulk loose-leaf tea sales, as we don’t track the cup sales the same way.
Our top three sellers are all black teas — the same three as last year, although in a different order — which doesn’t surprise me. They are, however, the only black teas on the list, which does surprise me. There is only one green tea, one pu-erh, and one pu-erh/yerba maté blend. Everything else is yerba maté, rooibos, honeybush, and chamomile. That really surprises me.
- Premium Masala Chai (#3 last year)
Organic & Fair Trade
I suppose this one shouldn’t have surprised me. There are a lot of masala chai fans out there, and the coffee shops tend to make their masala chai from concentrates instead of brewing it up fresh like we do. I typically make this with milk and locally-produced honey.
- Gary’s Kilty Pleasure (formerly known as “Gary’s Scottish Breakfast” — #2 last year)
This is a nice, strong, kick-in-the-pants first cup of the morning. It’s a blend of Kenya and Assam black tea. Traditionalists would steep it a long time and drink it with milk. I tend to prefer a fairly short steep (2-3 minutes), and I drink it black. This is the tea I used in the Hipster Hummus recipe for our Chamber of Commerce mixer in February.
- Ancient-Tree Earl Grey (#1 last year)
Organic & Fair Trade
This organic Earl Grey is made from 100-year-old tea trees and blended with pure bergamot oil. We carry nine different Earl Grey teas, and this one is consistently at the top of the sales list, although in the last few months Lady Greystoke has been coming on strong. It only missed the top 10 by one position this year, and I expect to see it on this list in 2013.
- Moroccan Mint (#4 last year)
Organic & Fair Trade
The popularity of this tea crosses seasons, as we sell just as much of it iced in the summer as we do hot in the winter. It’s a Chinese green tea with jasmine blossoms and peppermint leaves. I’m doing some experiments now as to the best way to aerate it when we serve it, which is typically accomplished by pouring it into the cup while holding the pot high in the air.
- Evening in Missoula
This one wasn’t even on the list last year, and it’s the only chamomile blend ever to make our top ten list. It’s a blend from the Montana Tea & Spice Company, and it has completely blown away all of our other herbals in sales.
- Chocolate Maté Chai (#8 last year)
Organic & Fair Trade
Dessert in a mug! This velvety masala chai is made with yerba maté and pu-erh instead of black tea, and the standard masala chai spices are enhanced with cacao nibs & husks, vanilla, coconut, and long pepper. We usually prepare it with vanilla soy milk and local honey. It was also very popular during the summer as a base for boba tea.
- BlueBeary Relaxation
Organic & Fair Trade
Another debut on the list. Yes, that name is spelled correctly. It’s a red rooibos blend named for one of the bears at the Yellowstone Wildlife Sanctuary. We send a donation to the sanctuary for every ounce of this blend that we sell.
- Carnival Maté (#9 last year)
This is not your basic yerba maté. This yummy south-Argentina style beverage uses roasted maté with caramel bits, marigold, and Spanish safflower petals. I’ve converted a lot of coffee drinkers using this one!
- Hammer & Cremesickle Red
This is a fun rooibos/honeybush blend with orange and vanilla (among other things). I’ve blogged about the name and logo and about cooking with Hammer & Cremesickle Red.
- Blood Orange Pu-Erh
Organic & Fair Trade
This pu-erh blend uses intense orange to balance the strength and depth of the base tea.
Six out of our top ten are organic (up from five last year), and all six of those are fair trade as well. I expect that trend to continue — especially since we’re replacing many of our non-organic blends with organics — and to see at least one ETP (Ethical Tea Partnership) blend in next year’s top ten.
There is only one unflavored tea on this year’s list, and it is a house blend (Gary’s Kilty Pleasure). More of our customers are growing to appreciate the straight teas, though, and I’m hoping to see more of them next year.
We’ve been doing a lot more house blends in the last few months, and we are slowly replacing many of the blends that we buy premade with our own house blends. I’m expecting this list to be at least half house blends for 2013.
These days, you can’t be too careful what you say on a tea website. Last year, Unilever was warned by the FDA for claims they made about “Lipton Green Tea 100% Natural, Naturally Decaffeinated.” A week later, they warned Dr. Pepper Snapple Group about claims they made concerning “Canada Dry Sparkling Green Tea Ginger Ale.” Earlier this year, the FDA’s target was Diaspora Tea & Herb (d.b.a. Rishi Tea) for a wide variety of health claims on Rishi Tea’s website.
Given these warning shots fired across the bows of the big boys, the whole industry is being careful about making nutritional claims for tea. But we still need to say more about tea than just “this stuff tastes really, really good” — although that’s generally good enough for me.
For an example of how far companies are going these days, we got a promotional mailer at the bookstore today from Numi Tea. They are a fine company, and I’d be happy to resell some of their products in our tea bar. The mailer has some traditional marketing language (with appropriate footnotes, of course), just as I’d probably write myself:
“[Pu-erh]’s unique fermentation process results in more antioxidants than most green teas and is traditionally known to help weight management*, improve digestion and naturally boost energy.”
Well, I hope I wouldn’t write it exactly like that, but given a bit of tweaking to the grammar and punctuation, it’s a reasonable sentence.
The first claim is footnoted “*Along with a healthy diet and exercise.” Okay. I’ll buy that. Given enough healthy diet and exercise, lots of things help with weight management. The other two claims are very difficult to measure and/or prove. Vague claims typically don’t draw the ire of the FDA, so they’re probably safe.
But it was the next section that made me chuckle. It says, and I quote:
“Every blend is freshly brewed, made with full-leaf tea and uses 100% real ingredients for a pure Pu-erh tea taste.”
Wow! It uses 100% REAL INGREDIENTS! Is that the best they could do? Really? Can you imagine the certification process for that? “Is this an ingredient? Yep!” I carry 100 different teas in my tea bar, and I can guarantee you that every single one of them carries 100% real ingredients. Yep. Not an unreal ingredient in the bunch.
I did a bit of further looking, and found that the front cover of their mailer says, “Real ingredients. 100%. Nothing else.” There’s a whole section of their website called “100% real ingredients.” There’s a paragraph on that page of their site that says:
“For a pure, authentic taste, we blend premium organic teas and herbs with only real fruits, flowers and spices. We never use ‘natural’ flavorings or fragrances like other teas do.”
I’m pleased to hear that they only use “real” ingredients, and not “natural” ones like everyone else. Come on, Numi. You make some absolutely fantastic teas, and your organic and fair-trade programs are excellent. I’d like to see you spend more time talking about that — which really does differentiate your products — and less time talking about being “real,” which means absolutely nothing.