Tea production goes through a number of steps during which individuals with varying skill levels determine the final taste of the tea. At each step of the journey, from the selection of the tea plant varietal for the growing region to the leaf processing to its preparation and serving, decisions are made with one of two goals in mind: produce the most consistent cup of tea or produce the highest-quality cup of tea. In an ideal world, these two goals are combined into a single goal – producing a consistent, high-quality tea. But in reality choices are constantly made between the two with the end product having a dominant characteristic of one or the other.
Consistency is the “raison d’etre” for black tea blends popular in Western tea-drinking countries, among them the breakfast and afternoon tea blends. While blending for the best taste is certainly a factor, the primary reason large tea companies promote these blends is that it allows them to deliver a consistent flavor profile regardless of changes in quality in any particular tea from one year to another. The primary driver of the product is that every time you make a cup of their brand, the flavor of the tea matches your expectations. This desire for consistency trickles down to teabag teas as well; PG Tips wants to deliver the same cup of black tea over and over again.
At the other end of the spectrum are the teas where quality is paramount. The artisan nature of the tea and the creative skills necessary to bring out the best flavor in the leaf make consistency elusive and perhaps not necessarily desirable. A brilliant Darjeeling, Silver Needle, or Gyokuro tea is a tea to be cherished in that moment as there is no guarantee what the next season’s version will bring. While there can also be some “blending” of different areas of the tea estate or different harvest dates to achieve the optimum flavor, all of the efforts that make these pure-leaf teas exceptional come with the added risk that there will inevitably be great years and only good years. Tea lovers have to be willing to tolerate a little variation in the taste profile and have the patience to develop their own tasting appreciation for these teas to be able to discern quality levels. It is this tolerance, or frustration depending on your point of view, that makes it difficult for some tea drinkers to step outside the consistency of their tea comfort zone and be receptive to new tea-tasting experiences.
Many smaller tea companies or specialty tea shops wave the banner of “quality” over their teas as a point of difference between them and larger tea companies. It is an easy claim to make as their small size doesn’t warrant a focus on consistency across a large network of distribution. Are some of them Camellia sinensis outliers trying to deliver a level of quality that reaches beyond a tea market in the U.S. that is still at the toddler stage of development? Could be. While it is never a surprise when a tea merchant selling lower-quality teas goes out of business, we’re always surprised when a small tea company with great teas disappears, and sadly many have left us over the past few years. Is there a magic formula, a reasonable balance between consistency and quality? We always remember what we read once about Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, the well-regarded maker of high-end outdoor clothing, on the matter of quality. His assertion was that if 100% was the highest level of quality for a product, the struggle was in getting that last 20% to move up from 80 to 100%. Ultimately, the expense and effort needed to get that 20% was rarely viable, as too few customers would support (read: pay for) that level of product.
If an esteemed company already noted for producing some of the highest-quality products can live with 80%, is that good enough for tea? Arguably, we still have a ways to go in the U.S. before we worry about that ceiling. Ultimately, it is the tea customer who will make that determination, hopefully with help from tea companies willing to guide them along the right path.