In the business of selling specialty tea, I see two camps that – while not mutually exclusive – could be seen as opposing.  On one side are those who emphasize tea’s propensity to slow down time and invite participants to be more present in each savored moment.  On the other side are those who are busy proving to the world that specialty tea is just as quick and easy to prepare as a Lipton bag, and just as portable as a bottle of water.

World Tea News’ contributing editor, Lindsey Goodwin, returned from some roving reporting recently with an interesting story about specialty tea in quick-preparation formats, such as wands and three-dimensional sachets.  It seems some specialty tea snobs have been busy lately making their products more accessible to the masses!

That’s understandable, from a business perspective.  This morning, I had a conversation with a new colleague at World Tea who told me that, had he not started working here, he never would have tried loose-leaf tea.  He explained that it just seemed “daunting” and a “hassle.”

I don’t get this.  Most people are willing to brew their own coffee, which requires approximately the same time and equipment.  Many of them are even willing to grind it themselves – and pretty much everyone I’ve seen grinding coffee at Trader Joe’s appears willing to change the grinder settings according to the type of roast and machine they have.

But boil some water to pour over tea you’ve put in a special bag or pot…  Nooooooooo!  That’s scary.

For argument’s sake, though, let’s assume that most people will only try good tea if it’s in a bag.  If you own a tea company, then it would behoove you to put your tea in bags.

I doubt I’m the only one who imagines certain specialty tea developers holding their noses or gulping hard as they make this decision.  The “special” nature of specialty tea derives, in part, from its status as above the masses. Last year, when Teas Etc introduced its line of tea canisters with tea sacs attached, under the tag line “Ditch the Old Bag,” we all got the joke.

Some people in the industry are constantly extolling tea’s Zen virtues.  I can’t tell you how many times, during interviews, I’ve heard retailers say how much customers appreciate the chance to unplug from their busy lives, measure some tea, warm a pot, heat the water, and so on.  Entire marketing campaigns have been based on the concept that tea is not convenient; rather, it’s an unassailable excuse to indulge in some time to do just one thing slowly, patiently, and mindfully.

This is where the psychology gets interesting.  Frankly, the industry seems downright fickle.  On the one hand, wanting everyone to know and appreciate high-quality tea, we persuade them it’s convenient.  On the other hand, wanting to emphasize tea as an affordable luxury, we tell them it’s time-consuming.

Hence the “gateway” mentality; i.e., the belief that introducing consumers to high-quality tea in convenient formats gets them hooked to the point where they’ll learn more complex preparations.  It also partially explains the widespread adoption of consumer education: We have to teach them both that obtaining a quality infusion is not as hard as they think and that it’s worth the trouble it takes.  Not an easy message to convey, which may be why some brand developers and marketers focus on one side or the other.

Yet the fact that many companies don’t choose sides – or choose both sides – speaks to the diversity of the tea experience.  It means such different things to different people at different times and in different places that it can offer businesses success both as a quick treat and a lengthy engagement.

This article by Heidi Kyser was originally posted to T Ching in February of 2010.

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