We are at a point now in the timeline of tea culture that is as worrisome as it is exciting. With the internet, we tea drinkers are more interconnected than ever. Able to share our thoughts, feelings, and experiences with each other at a rate previously thought impossible. Our access to good tea is greater than it ever has been thanks to the development of online commerce, and our ready access to reviews and information allows us the peace of mind that comes with knowing what we are about to buy.
However, despite these undeniable conveniences, the state of tea culture has never been put at a greater risk of recession and shrinkage. The precarious position at which we now find ourselves can be attributed to the copious amounts of poor-quality, low-cost tea on the market today, sold by large firms who employ clever and expensive marketing strategies and do indeed feed off of the success of the community surrounding “good tea” to sell their products. The success of the business of so-called “commodity” tea poses many serious issues to us, the discerning tea drinkers.
First, the poor quality of commodity tea is more than likely to turn away and discourage many potential tea drinkers from exploring the beverage, as well as the vast world of tea further. Second, the low cost of commodity tea makes it an easy option for first-time tea drinkers and those looking to get into tea as a beverage. And finally, by using marketing and branding strategically and deceptively, the commodity tea industry erodes the progress and reputation that the community of discerning tea drinkers has worked so hard to establish and protect.
A trip to your local supermarket will tell you quite a bit about the current state of the majority of the tea industry. With our tight-knit community online and easy-access to great online vendors, it is easy enough to forget that we make up a very small minority of the tea consumer base overall. So, with that in mind, a trip down the coffee and tea aisle at your local supermarket can prove to be a lugubrious affair. Shelves of tea bags packed with bitter dust, waiting impatiently to be purchased by the unknowing and innocent customer. Supermarkets are arguably where non-tea drinkers have the greatest exposure to tea, if that exposure does not come from friends and family members.
As such, the supermarket becomes the decisive frontier on which tea must make its first impression. Unfortunately for us, good tea is woefully underrepresented on the battleground of supermarket aisles. When a potential tea drinker walks by the brightly-coloured boxes of tea dust on the shelves, perhaps after hearing about its health benefits on the internet, they receive a misrepresentation of tea in general, and one that is more likely than not to turn them of the beverage, or worse, force them to take their tea sweetened with sugar or other harmful chemicals. This damages the greater tea community as a whole as we lose our ability to expand as quickly and as efficiently as we can, instead forcing us to focus our efforts on convincing the victims of this deception that there is so much more to tea than the bitter bags of dust sitting in the backs of their kitchen cupboards. It becomes a major roadblock to our progress that we need to address and prevents tea from benefiting countless lives.
As word of tea travels around the web with numerous articles and websites (including our own) exalting tea for its marvelous taste, history, and health benefits, those who are exposed to the well-deserved hype are often inspired to seek tea to try for the first time. What does the first time tea drinker look for in a tea? They look first of all towards the area of affordability. If a tea is not affordable, it can be instantly crossed off the list of potential introductory teas. Affordability becomes the imperative criterion for the first-time tea drinker to which all other teas are put to measure. This is understandable. The first-time tea drinker is questioning whether or not they will enjoy the experience of drinking tea enough to seek it again or even for it to become a mainstay in their lives.
As such, the amount a potential tea drinker is willing to spend on their very first tea is an amount as close to zero as possible. Unfortunately, to the detriment of small tea businesses and small tea gardens and farms around the world, the only firms able to offer tea at the lowest possible cost are those able to pump out elephantine volumes of tea while paying no mind whatsoever to its quality. Therefore, it follows logically that the majority of first tea experiences are unpleasant, at least in comparison to drinking high quality whole leaf tea.
The position the commodity tea industry has made for itself as the patron saint of inferiority has not appeared to affect its success. This can best be attributed to two things: the first being its strategic pricing position as I just discussed, and the second being its admittedly astounding ability to appear to those looking in at tea to be the standard of tea to which all other teas are compared.
One particularly egregious advertisement from the Lipton Tea Company (one of the leading firms of the commodity tea industry) reads, “unlock the natural energy”, a statement that, when considering the products they sell are pretty much as far removed from nature as tea gets, is not only misleading, but dangerous. As many loyal and faithful readers of this website can attest, drinking loose leaf tea can offer a true connection to nature. One that is impossible to achieve with the use of tea bags.
The industry’s efforts to position themselves as the prophets of natural holism undermines the efforts of far more respectable firms who provide a more or less direct line between the consumers and growers of tea. Firms like Yunnan Sourcing, White2Tea, and Crimson Lotus, for example, offer small, often family owned and operated producers to sell their meticulously grown (and frequently organic) hand-processed teas. The teas they sell are the true providers of “natural energy,” and as similar to a Lipton tea bag as a Montblanc fountain pen is to a Bic ballpoint. For many of us who enjoy a good puerh tea, for example, the use of this admittedly clever marketing seems to be a blasphemy of sorts. The efforts in branding of the tea industry megaliths like Tetley and Lipton, not to mention the astounding wells of resources at their disposal, undermines the hard work of those at the smaller businesses like Yunnan Sourcing, White2Tea and Crimson Lotus. Apart from the economic concerns of megalithic tea companies, the question of sustainability is still left for consideration.
According to ethicaltrade.org in June of 2016, it is predicted that within 50 years, the tea region of Assam “will have barely any land remaining that can grow tea due to the declining rainfall levels and rising temperatures.” This fast-approaching crisis in the availability of usable and fertile land will displace the factory tea farming operations into buying out smaller, independent gardens and farms unable to compete. Many of these smaller gardens and farms are the growers that provide the tea community with the amazing tea we enjoy, and have been family owned and operated for centuries. This in itself is not terrible, seeing as firms fighting with the brute force of buying power for limited resources is a natural and healthy function of capitalism and the free market. However, from the perception of the drinker of fine teas, it is problematic and raises the question: what can be done to prevent it from happening?
It stands to reason that with the risk commodity tea firms pose to the community with their undercut price, widespread availability, and inaccurate marketing, not to mention the risk it poses to currently independent tea growers, something must be done. While there is certainly no fast-track solution to the challenges we face, it is clear that those of us who regularly enjoy fine teas and the community built around them have the moral obligation to provide for its preservation. This can be done in a variety of different ways, perhaps the most obvious and most effective being voting with the dollar. By choosing only to support high-quality tea and high-quality tea producers and buying only from caring and involved retailers, we preserve the sanctity of our hobby and noble pursuit, while demoting those teas that fall below our standards. The next, less obvious, but still equally as important thing to do addresses the issue of our communities growth. Simply put, we must expose first time tea drinkers directly to fine tea using affordable, reliable, yet great-tasting productions of superb quality. Doing this takes away the power of supermarket tea to turn away as many potential tea drinkers as it most certainly otherwise would and instead promotes great taste and high standards of quality within the industry as a whole. The final thing we have to do to ensure the future security of the greater community of tea drinkers is to constantly hold accountable those firms and institutions established in the tea world.
We must give our money over only to those businesses that support the values that we all share. The values of high quality. The values of the ethical treatment of growers and producers. The values of sustainable farming practices, and the values of honesty and fairness in business. We must read only blogs who perpetuate honesty and accountability in the industry, holding farcical businesses accountable and calling them out for their deceptions.
In doing these consistently and with determination, we ensure for ourselves the slow and steady advancement of our cause. In doing these things, we protect the standards of fine tea and we hold them high. In doing these things we ensure that the beverage that has enriched the lives of billions of people for centuries enriches the lives of billions more for centuries to come. In the words of Thomas Jefferson, “In matters of style, swim the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock.” We must stand like a rock together against bad tea and bad tea businesses to protect the future of good tea and good tea businesses. It is true that we must be willing to adapt with the times and adopt new ways and new technologies, but it is also true that we must be steadfast in the values we hold as tea drinkers and in doing so we protect the beverage that has stood proudly as a cultural symbol for centuries.