Everything I know about tea, I learned.  Deep, right?  I began my tea journey with Bigelow’s Constant Comment.  No, I’m not getting on my “bagged tea tastes like crap” high horse here.  I drank it for years and was happy as could be.  I didn’t one day put a bag in my cup and think, “I should switch to loose leaf.”  It was an evolution, one that included a great deal of exploring and education.

While trolling through my overwhelming number of chat board updates, I came across a note regarding Tazo / Starbucks opening their first shop in University Village, Washington.  It’s the hot news in the tea world right now and I love to see what people are saying.  However, I was really taken aback by one person’s take on the situation: “When an industry has to educate its customers to enjoy the product you know it’s in trouble.”  Wait, what?  Did this guy just say that?  In public?  For others to read?

Let’s start with the fact that wine has seen tremendous growth over the past 30-something years.  A large portion of this growth is due to the immense amount of education that has been generated by wine producers.  Those silly lushes got it all wrong 30 years ago when they decided to start doling out information about the quality of the grapes, growing regions, processing and flavor components, ways to drink it, and different drinking vessels.  Their reckless approach to education now allows them to captain a yacht worth $20 billion a year.  Oh, and that’s just California’s wine growers.  The Wine Institute recently posted a study presented by San Francisco State providing an analysis of the U.S. wine market.  One interesting quote from the study reads: “As consumers gain more experience, they may not necessarily purchase more expensive wine. Indeed, one of the advantages of knowledge is the ability to spot a bargain and the confidence to experiment – or at least resist the pitch that a wine must be good because it is costly.”  Note to self: Why would the “tea sheeples” want to know any more than if it’s expensive, it must be good?

Let’s talk coffee.  We could start with the fact that education has created an interest in coffee in the United States that is unparalleled in any other country.  That scene in which people run from one Starbucks to the other to escape the giant gingerbread man in Shrek was not accidental.  According to Charles Cain, VP of Tazo Merchant and Operations, in 1991, there were 1,650 coffee shops and by 2012, that number had grown to over 25,000.  Thanks to coffee education and awareness, the United States’ fair trade movement could be hoisted onto the backs of coffee growers.  Coffee companies covering 50 states have begun focusing on getting that financial power back into the hands of those who grow the beans and allowing them to make changes in their own communities.  Note to self: Why would the “tea sheeples” care about where and how their tea gets into the cup?

All this coffee and wine talk makes me thirsty, so I’m diving into tea.  Earlier I mentioned my love of Constant Comment.  I haven’t had it in years because I have a new love in my life named Oolong.  Oolongs are complex.  They’re fragrant.  They’re freaking awesome.  But I didn’t just pick up an oolong and start drinking.  I developed this palate via green, black, and white teas.  Now I am slowly warming up (see what I did there) to pu-erhs.  My tastebuds have expanded, and will continue to grow, as I expand my knowledge of the tea world.  The availability of good tea is expanding too!  Consumption of tea in all of its forms is expected to surpass coffee consumption by 2017.  Loose-leaf tea demand is on the rise for the 19th consecutive year, a trend that portends well for the tea industry as a whole.  Note to self: American “tea sheeples” only like flavored, sugary black teas, so only offer those.  

Tea education is vital and it’s an exciting time to be a tea drinker.  For those who have an interest, it’s important to work with companies who approach tea in a responsible and honest way.  Tea drinkers need to know whether the pickers, the growers, and even the environment are being wronged in order for them to enjoy those five grams of tea.  We need to know more about the cultures and conditions in which the leaf was raised in order to truly appreciate its trek around the world and into your cup.  This knowledge will pour through countless outlets (books, blogs, websites, and festivals) and will continue to spur the popularity of tea over the next 20 years in the United States!

Editor’s note:  this post was first published on 6 July 2012.  Still relevant, no?