My blog will be four years old in the next week, which is a good excuse for
looking back. I don’t really want to talk about me so much, or this blog; more
about tea culture, and perhaps a little about how perspective towards the subject
How much did tea culture seem to change over those four years? Given that the
subject of tea is thousands of years old not that much, relatively speaking. Matcha
is bigger now, and trends come and go, like people putting different types of
cheese on tea, or mixed in with it. Hybrids styles develop, people trying out new
things in existing areas but traditional teas wouldn’t change much decade to
decade. I’m in the middle of reviewing an Assam oolong now, and covered
a Japanese smoked black tea this year (it was ok, a good bit like a Lapsang
Souchong, but different).
Beyond tea itself I am interested in shifts in online tea culture, for example in older
style forums moving towards Facebook group activity. I suppose there wasn’t
much for Facebook tea groups four years ago compared to now so things do
transition, but the function isn’t so different.
It’s not as much about evolution but interesting how tea culture means different
things to different people, how it fragments. One meaning is embracing old
traditions, ceremonial practices, collecting traditional gear, etc. One running
theme is that given that the experience of tea is either generally positive or
somewhat value-neutral, the shared interest should help people come together, to
share experiences without conflict. Then divisions and conflict come up, related to
commercial interests as much as anything else, but also just to people taking the
ideas and practices in different ways.
I had written out a bit about those splits, and transition in how people perceive tea
differently over time; about a typical personal experience/learning curve, and how
those go in general. But I’d really like to keep the focus here on how I think tea
culture is changing, more than about how it fragments into sections or about
personal experience transitions.
In talking to people in tea groups one main theme is that tea awareness is just now
ramping up where the person commenting lives. I guess in the US in the
Northwest or parts of California it may seem like a lot of that really started a
decade ago, but in a different sense it’s probably true in those places as well, just in
a different sense. Bangkok has gone from only having local Chinatown shops and
two others in malls– beyond booths and smaller stores, or Tae Tea outlets– to there
now being a modest number of other cafes and loose tea outlets. But beyond
matcha and bubble tea (really not the same thing) it’s only now getting started.
A friend bought Nepal tea through a source that was hard to access roughly four
years ago and had luck selling or trading some of that because it was far less
accessible then. I’ve talked to a good number of people starting tea businesses related to Nepalese tea in the past year or so, enough that it’s hard to keep track of
how many. Two used Kickstarter approaches, and one of those talked of opening a
physical shop, a couple visited Nepal from the US, and two based their businesses
out of Nepal.
There are less and less unexplored corners of the industry. I first visited Laos
almost 10 years ago now– the time just flies– and later returned and bought tea
from a local farmer. It occurred to me that someone could do a great business by
helping those farmers process teas better, and now Kinnari Teas is more or less
selling doing exactly that, working with Laos producers to raise standards.
A recent post on more direct tea sourcing options covers a trend that all but didn’t
exist four years ago. Others might rattle off counter-examples, of a plantation with
a website, or related to one-step- removed sourcing going on a decade or more ago
(in some cases a small vendor going on a sourcing trip, buying from a farm there),
but now actual producers are setting up sales websites. It’s rare, and in some cases
what’s being sold is still really being re-sold, but it’s starting.
New types of tea interest groups are evolving, a subject I’ve not had space to
develop here. At the level of the individual tea drinker culture change really does
reflect one person after another moving through an experience curve. Every week
lots of discussion forums see posts about people just now moving from tea bags
into loose tea, asking how they might get started on brewing and sourcing, about
types, and all the rest. It’s a slower process but every year people who were only
first introduced to loose tea the year before push further towards the middle of the
learning curve, switching types and preferences.
The online associations tend to be a bit loose, but those are an expression of tea
culture. It has been nice for me to be a part of that, conversing here and there,
researching different themes, and rambling on in posts in TChing and Tea in the