I was at the Fancy Food Show in San Francisco a couple weeks ago, and had a great time talking to tea people and foodies who are tea curious.  I kept getting the same questions I’ve heard repeated over my 5+ years in the tea business – “How do I get trained in tea?” and “Where can I get certified as a tea master?”

There are industry-sanctioned answers to these questions, but I’m going to take the risk of offending some rather important and influential people and suggest that there is no effective way to learn what you need to know to be successful in the tea business aside from working at a tea company.  I am very familiar with the training that is available out there and have participated in – and sometimes led – several of the most prominent tea-training programs.  These are all useful and, in some cases, worth your time and money.

That said, if business success could be wrapped up, packaged, and sold in two or three days of classes, everyone would be successful.  If being a “tea master” (cue the laughter in the background) could be taught in a couple days or even a couple months, most of today’s tea buyers and blenders would not have apprenticed under other tea buyers and blenders for years and years before taking the reins themselves.

Now, some of you are thinking about a great success story you heard about a person who did it all and built a business on a shoestring budget.  True – there are a lot of “success stories” in this business, though most people who are in the middle of the entrepreneurial process are going to tell you everything is great because they are entrepreneurs and both positive and self confident.  I’m not trying to be a cynic, but the statistics suggest that the vast majority will fail.

In fact, there are a decent number of people who actually crossed into the holy land of profitability.  There are even some who eventually could afford to pay themselves and make a decent living in the tea business.  And, there are actually a handful who managed to build wealth.  It CAN be done.  But I would venture to say that few, if any, would say they started the process knowing what they needed to know.  At some point, you just have to take the leap and learn to swim as you go.

A few brief recommendations:

1.  You should be able to learn everything you need to know about tea (the leaf) for free or for the cost of a few books.  Drop $500 on formal training and you’ll learn less than half of what is in a halfway decent tea book that costs $20.

2.  Don’t believe everything you read or hear.  Poll all of the professional trainers and consultants and tea books on a complex tea question and you’ll get competing answers.  Most are regurgitating old information that, in some cases, has long since been proven wrong.  Be skeptical.

3.  While I believe the above, you should definitely learn what you can about the tea business from anyone and everyone you can talk to.  Ask about tips for success, which vendors to buy from and which to avoid, what sells, and what to charge.  You can’t learn this from a book and you’ll only get a sliver of this from any formal training.  The best place to learn the industry is at the World Tea Expo, where many people in the tea business teach classes and many tea shop owners will be there and will be glad to discuss their experiences.

4.  Bounce your business plan and strategies off of tea people AND business people from other industries.  There are a lot of ideas that sound cool to tea people that sound like guaranteed failures to outsiders.

5. In the past couple years, I have talked to AT LEAST 50 people who either A) were unable to make their tea business work or B) decided they didn’t have the money to do it right, and instead are planning to become tea consultants, teaching others about tea and about how to be successful in tea.  ASK FOR CREDENTIALS AND BE SKEPTICAL before giving a consultant your money and before trusting your savings to them.  There are good tea consultants out there, but there are also a whole lot of very well-intentioned novices who will test their theories on you.

I can’t decide if I want people to read this or not because I’m stepping on a lot of toes.  But at the end of the day my interest is in seeing the tea business thrive in the U.S.  For that to happen, we need to make sure GOOD information is out there and BAD information is stamped out.  That’s part of the reason Adagio is sponsoring TeaRetailer.com and paying me to share my experience and insights.

Finally, let me conclude by saying that I’m currently working on revamping the Adagio-sponsored educational website, TeaClass.  It’s live today, but honestly it’s a long way from being “ready”.  I would recommend it mainly to interested consumers at this point.  Over the coming weeks, I’ll be extensively revising and expanding the content.  We will be using TeaClass to train our own employees as we embark on our journey into opening the first Adagio Retail store.  It will be 100% the information we teach our own people, and will remain completely free of charge.  You just have to promise to give us your feedback and help us keep improving the content and the delivery.  The goal is to see the U.S. tea industry boom…and that starts with good information in the hands of great retailers.

Good luck!