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How to be an awesome indie tea shop customer

How to be an awesome indie tea shop customer

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

  1. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.


The intimidation factor in tea

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

Teahouse Kuan Yin

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

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

Every day I have conversations like this one:

Customer: I’d like a chai, please.

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

Customer: Experiment?

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

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

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

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

Me: Hot or iced?

Customer: Oh, definitely hot.

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

Customer: A latte sounds good.

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

Customer: Hmmm. What would you recommend?

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

Customer: I’ll go with whole milk then.

Me: And would you like it sweetened at all?

Customer: How do most people do it?

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

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

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

Customer: I’ll drink it here, please.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Complicated drinks, education, and consistency

Is there some particular tea concoction that’s “your” tea drink? Is it something complicated? You’ll hear people every day in Starbucks ordering coffees that take twenty words to describe, but we don’t run in to that much in the tea bar … yet.

PVP Online comic from January 27, 2012

Comic used with permission. Courtesy of Scott Kurtz and PVP Online.

Why is it that more coffee drinkers than tea drinkers tend to be like the guys in this PVP Online comic? I think it’s a matter of education and consistency.

Most of our regulars at the tea bar are like me: they order something different each time they come in. I may go through phases where I drink nothing but malty Assam for a few days, but then I’m back to switching it up. I also drink different tea in the morning than I do in the afternoon or evening. Of course, I’m also that annoying guy that will go into a bar four times, order something completely different each time, and then ask for my “regular” on the fifth visit.

We do have some regulars that are consistent, but their drinks tend to be simple: a cup of sencha, Scottish breakfast with a touch of milk, or iced mango oolong. As people learn the menu and zero in on what they like, that is beginning to change a bit, though.

Amber is from the South. She likes her tea sweet, and she loves boba tea (a.k.a. “bubble tea”). I finally put the “Amber special” on the menu so she didn’t have to describe her boba tea made with Cinnamon Orange Spice tea, vanilla soy milk, and triple the usual sweet syrup.

Phyllis isn’t much of a tea fan, but she found herself drawn to Hammer & Cremesickle Red, which is a rooibos/honeybush blend. She likes it prepared as a latte with frothed 2% milk and a bit of honey.

Starbucks has dramatically changed coffee culture, much as McDonald’s has changed restaurants (I’m going to catch grief for that one, I know, but keep reading). You can go into a McDonald’s in an unfamiliar city, and you know that Big Mac and fries will be just like the ones back home. Similarly, you can go into any one of 19,555  Starbucks franchises and be comfortable that your half-caf double-shot venti skinny hazelnut macchiato will taste just like it would from the franchise back home. They have taught the world their own terminology (education) and made sure that the drinks are prepared exactly the same at each franchise (consistency).

Let’s look at those two factors as they apply to tea:


The world of tea is generally not a good place for consistency. Even for fans of a single type of tea, the options are legion. There are dozens of matchas, hundreds of oolongs, and each has its own unique flavor. My tea bar offers six types of milk (nonfat, 2%, whole, half-and-half, vanilla soy, and almond), where another may offer 1%, light soy, and whole. When I went into the tea business’ closest thing to a national chain (Teavana – you can read about my visit here), they didn’t offer milk at all. You may go into one tea shop that has a hundred Chinese green and white teas and an English tea shop that has only black teas.

There’s a strong parallel to be drawn here with independent bookstores and big chains. You can find exactly the same books at a Barnes & Noble in Austin, Texas as you’d find in San Francisco, Denver, or New York. On the other hand, two indie bookstores a block apart can offer completely different experiences.

Tea aficionados revel in this. I enjoy wandering into a tea shop that has dozens of different pu-erhs available and tasting something I’ve never had before, even though I know the odds of finding that 1935 Double Lions Tongqing Hao anywhere else are close to zero (and the odds of being able to afford it are similar).

Tea shops can help a lot with this problem by proper labeling and by knowing the products well enough to compare our wares with popular brands from elsewhere. If someone walks into my shop that likes Constant Comment, I can guide them to my closest loose-leaf blend (that would be the aforementioned Cinnamon Orange Spice). If someone buys a mountain-grown Wuyi oolong in my shop, the next tea shop they visit should be able to give them something with a similar flavor profile.

Consumers can help by asking questions. If I have a breakfast tea I enjoy, I’ll ask the shopkeeper what’s in the blend. Then I’ll know to ask for an Assam/Tanzanian black breakfast tea blend next time I want something similar. I watch (or ask) how much leaf they use and what temperature the water is. Again, if I don’t know how they brewed it, I can’t ask for it to be prepared that way next time.


The tea industry is where coffee and wine were a few decades ago. The average person has no idea what the difference is between a green tea and a white tea, but they know the difference between Merlot and Chardonnay. Tea people need to focus on education the same way wine and coffee people have done.

Educating customers is a bad thing for the mediocre shops. The more people learn about tea, the less likely they are to buy lower-grade products, and the less likely they are to buy from people who don’t know what they’re talking about. Once the person who’s been buying pre-sweetened chai from a box tastes fresh-brewed chai, they won’t be switching back.

On the other hand, education is a great thing for consumers and for good tea shops.

The more you know as a consumer, the better you’re able to find what you like and recognize the good products (and good prices). Educated consumers will frequent the better shops, and spend more money there, benefiting both the shop and the customer.

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