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.
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.
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.