As a tea educator, an organizer of multiple tea enthusiast Meetup groups, and a strong proponent of supporting local brick-and-mortar tea businesses, I have visited quite a few tearooms and tea shops in both Northern and Southern California. For the sake of brevity, I will use the term “tearoom.” I have noticed that it is getting increasingly difficult for tea enthusiasts to learn about the five major tea categories (white, green, oolong, black, and puerh) using only the tea selections offered at their local brick-and-mortar tearooms. This is because the majority of new tearoom owners are choosing to focus almost exclusively on flavored teas, and, recently, on flavored teas blended with herbals.
My position is that it is not possible to use blended, flavored, or scented teas as the starting point for learning about tea. The base tea is often not intact enough nor of high enough quality to facilitate learning. Even if it was, the flavors and scents in these teas mask the base tea, rendering any meaningful study of the base tea impossible. It is equally impossible to determine anything about the individual components of a blended tea. As a tea educator, I advise tea enthusiasts to practice brewing and tasting pure, unblended, premium, whole-leaf teas.
I am not making any differentiation based on the source of the flavors, natural or otherwise. For my purpose here, the derivation of the flavor or the traditional nature of a blend is a moot point and the relatively few established blended, flavored, and scented teas, such as English Breakfast, Earl Grey, and Jasmine, do not change my position. I have never been a tea business owner. I am speaking here as an advocate for the interests of serious tea enthusiasts and no one else.
I wonder what the trend towards the heavy reliance on flavored teas implies with regard to the knowledge and skill base of tearoom owners. Often, tearoom owners love tea and the social customs associated with the preparation and consumption of tea, but are not very familiar with pure, loose-leaf, premium teas and how to best prepare them. How can tearoom owners and their staff learn about tea and demonstrate that they are serious about tea if pure teas are not even available through their businesses?
The trend towards flavored teas is seen as a smart business strategy for a number of reasons, but it leaves the serious tea enthusiast in want of the pure, traditional teas they need access to in order to learn about and appreciate fine, premium tea. Many serious tea enthusiasts are left to “self-educate” by searching the Internet for information. They also buy books about tea to guide them. The lucky ones can learn by word of mouth from friends, through membership in tea groups, or from the few local tearooms with an adequate range of pure teas.
It is in the interest of brick-and-mortar tearooms that they supply tea enthusiasts with the pure, premium, whole-leaf teas before tea enthusiasts wind up on the Internet in search of what they need. A quick calculation tells the tea enthusiast that they can have Internet-based tea delivered to their home at a per-serving cost much lower than what they were paying for prepared local tea. Internet-based tea is often fresher and better quality than what they were getting at their local bulk tea venue due to higher turnover of product and the ability of the tea enthusiast to buy higher up on the direct importing or production chain for the tea.
Internet-purchased tea typically comes with brewing instructions and often has very detailed information listed on the Internet site it was purchased from, sometimes including sourcing information down to the tea estate level, month and year of harvest, customer appraisals, and tea-tasting evaluations by esteemed Internet blog evaluators. With this much information so easily accessed on the Internet, there is likely more information available about the tea on the Internet than at local brick-and-mortar tearooms that do not take tea seriously.
Tea enthusiasts quickly discover that they can buy their teaware and tea books on the Internet as well. They learn they can easily purchase and send gift tea and gift certificates. They can buy blended, flavored, and scented teas on the Internet, often the precise ones they were getting at their local tearooms, especially if the wholesale source is known and, if not the same ones, ones that are practically indistinguishable or even better.
The intermediate-to-advanced tea enthusiast knows that it is easier to mask low-quality, old, or poorly stored bulk tea as well as poor tea-making skills behind flavored and blended teas and it will appear, and sometimes rightfully so, that the owner of a tearoom with an overwhelming preponderance of these types of teas is attempting to avoid the challenges presented by pure teas.
Under these circumstances, what would motivate tea enthusiasts who have gone to the Internet to make purchases to return to their local tearoom? I believe they will not return – at least, not very often – and this could result in the “dumbing down” of tea services, to use a coarse but clear phrase. I am concerned about the future availability of both prepared and bulk, pure, whole-leaf, premium tea at the local brick-and-mortar level.
Yesterday, multiple staff members at a major California coffee-and-tea chain did not know how to ring up my order for a “for-here pot of tea” because the cash register button was “taken away” and a fellow customer with a British accent marveled on and on to me about how beautiful it was that I had gotten a “real” teapot and a “real” cup even though she was drinking coffee. A pair of women walked in the door together, and, smiling, pointed at my teapot/glass cup/wooden tray setup in apparent amazement. I noticed that this chain had taken its only pure, loose-leaf Oolong tea off the menu and an Internet check just now revealed that they no longer carry a single, pure Oolong tea online. These are not good signs!
For some tea businesses, it will not matter much to them financially that tea enthusiasts turn to Internet purchasing as long as new walk-in, flavored-tea-consuming customers come to “fill the void” and their Internet sales remain high enough, but that seems unlikely for most small, independent, brick-and-mortar tearooms that rely on local sales.
In order to hold the business of tea enthusiasts longer and to increase the appreciation of premium teas, I now encourage independent tearoom and tea shop owners to consider expanding their tea selection to include at least one representative of each of the five tea categories in a pure, unblended form. I encourage them to offer in-house tea education on a regular basis and to participate in Tea Meetup and other face-to-face tea activities that Internet-based companies cannot offer. Oddly, it is only businesses that offer pure, whole-leaf, premium teas and face-to-face tea education that will stand out from the pack in the near future.
Ideally, to educate and appeal to introductory-level tea enthusiasts and to supply staff with a wide enough range to begin to understand pure, premium tea, I suggest that tearooms carry a White Peony/ Bai Mu Dan (Fujian, China White), a Long Jing/Dragonwell (China Green), a Sencha (Japan Green), a High Mountain Low-Oxidation Oolong (Taiwan Oolong), a Heavier-Oxidized Oolong/Wuyi Yan Cha (China Oolong), a Ceylon (Sri Lanka Black), a Darjeeling (India Black), a Keemun (China Black), an Assam (India Black), and a good quality, Shou/Cooked loose-leaf Puerh (Yunnan, China). As a minimum, one of each category should be carried.
The only scented tea that I would consider adding to this short-list is a Jasmine Green or a Jasmine White (China Scented). Lapsang Souchong (Pine-smoked China Black) is a useful an option.
These selections demonstrate enough of the basic differences between and within the five tea categories to be useful to tea enthusiasts as introductory self-learning tools and to brick-and-mortar tearooms as teaching tools for staff and customers. The black teas are sufficient to teach Breakfast Tea blending once the characteristics of the individual teas are understood. The addition of Lapsong Souchong allows for making Russian Caravan-type tea blends. It can also be used in food recipes for its smokey flavor. For those that want to include blending with traditional flowers, red bud roses, whole yellow chrysanthemum, osmanthus, and lavender are versatile offerings to combine with pure teas and to offer as caffeine-free alternatives. Their addition also lowers the caffeine level of blends since their volume displaces some of the caffeine-containing tea.
The list of necessary teas would lengthen for intermediate-level tea enthusiasts to include at least Bai Hao Yin Zhen /Silver Needle (Fujian, China White), Bi Luo Chun (China Green), Gyokuro (Japan Green), Matcha (Japan Ground Green), Tie Guan Yin/ Iron Goddess of Mercy (China Oolong), Dian Hong/Chinese Breakfast (Yunnan, China Black), and a non-aged, Sheng/Raw Puerh (Yunnan, China).
Matcha and the usual accoutrements are admittedly expensive to stock, but it is extremely easy to use matcha in cooking, beverages, and body care lotions due to its fine, ground texture and a little goes a long way. The inclusion of matcha allows the tearoom owner to easily broaden the range of possible tea classes and tea cookbook offerings and maintain the attention of intermediate-level tea enthusiasts.
Advanced tea enthusiasts need access to a wider range of pure teas that would further demonstrate the nuances of region, cultivar choice, rolling style, oxidation level, roasting level, roasting method, age, and more. Others might argue for other specific teas that they consider essential for the different levels of tea education. Also, an alternative advanced approach for a tearoom would be to offer a comprehensive range of teas from a specific tea category or a specific geographic region. I describe this as a “depth-versus-breadth” approach.
Unfortunately, I have witnessed a tearoom that used this latter approach go out of business even though it was selling very high-quality pure, whole-leaf, premium tea and authentic teaware. I do not know all the issues the business faced, but I venture to guess that such a business probably needs to have extremely strong Internet-based wholesale and Internet-based retail sales. A walk-in customer base is probably not be enough to sustain it in most cities.
The needs of the advanced tea enthusiast are beyond the scope of what small tearooms that are currently selling a high percentage of blended, flavored, and scented teas can offer. The tearoom that is able to fulfill the educational needs of the advanced tea enthusiast is unlikely to be offering a preponderance of blended, flavored, and scented teas, and, of those three, may only be offering a small selection of naturally scented teas.