As the New Year commences, we either look back to reflect on the past year or we start putting forth our wish list for the year ahead. For those of us in the tea industry – or more precisely in the specialty tea segment – we often look at our counterparts in wine and coffee and wonder when (or if) tea will get there.

hot_tea_questionHere is a novel thought – an innovation that will transform the tea industry and spark the explosion that many have been waiting for. Are you ready for it? It’s very simple really, summed up in this acronym: WYSIWYG – “What you see is what you get.”

Sounds simple, but it’s astoundingly hard to achieve. What it means is that tea merchants – be they farmers, wholesalers, retailers, or journalists and writers in the industry – should call a spade a spade, to use that hoary phrase. For example, the words “premium,” “extraordinary,” “artisan,” and “boutique” have been bandied about wantonly and indiscriminately. I, for one, am guilty at times of using some of them a tad too liberally, something I consciously have to guard against. One of my favorite bloggers, MarshalN, has written about this in his trademark no-holds-barred manner.

Of course, one could argue that it is relative – a crummy low-grade Tieguanyin can be considered “premium” compared to CTC tea bag grade, but that is stretching it. When someone tries a “Competition Grade Tieguanyin” that is actually the stuff that props up the basement in the Chinese tea markets, he may think: “If this is the best, then I guess I’ll stick with coffee/wine/soda/etc,” even worse, if its price is in line with the label, but not the quality. In the short run, you’ve made extraordinary profits from a sucker, but lost a chance to gain a lifelong convert.

The next point applies to producers and farmers as well. Sometimes it’s a case of passing on misinformation right from the source. When we are learning about tea, which is constantly, we often try to relate certain characteristics to its source and production methods.

For example, we could try various Qingxin wulong cultivars grown across mountains with different elevations in Taiwan to help us understand the effect of elevation on the taste of tea. Of course, this is provided the retailer doesn’t sell Alishans, Lishans, and Dayulings that were grown at low elevations in Zhushan, Taiwan, or Quanzhou, Fujian, or even Thailand or Vietnam.

Tea is a wonderful odyssey with new discoveries at every turn, if only our knowledge acquisition is not hampered by misinformation. Naturally, complete WYSIWYG might be at best a utopia, but we can do much better than mislabels plaguing virtually every other product. As owners and operators of an online tea shop, our main value-add to our customers should be to weed out the untruths and provide the best information possible.

That is not to say that every piece of information on our site is the truth and nothing but the truth or that we would stake our entire reputation on our teas and their authenticity. The reality is that there are lots of very well-thought-out scammers in the market – Anxi leaves in pu-er cakes, anyone – and I can’t pretend we will never fall for them. For example, in June, we slashed the prices on two of our teas by about 30% because, upon further investigation, we were fairly certain we overpaid for them.

It may not pay immediate dividends, but when we – the tea industry in its entirety – provide more information and knowledge to our customers on the teas we sell, selection and storage guides, and how to prepare those teas, we help our customers to enjoy their tea more, deepening their love for tea. These smitten customers, in turn, will convert their friends and enlarge the pie for the industry as a whole. That is far more rewarding than fleecing customers for maximum short-term gain.