2 Years, Too Much: Perspectives on the U.S. Tea Industry

Jessica Pezak is one of my favorite tea reviewers. I love her ‘take no prisoners’ reviews, and have been trying to get her to write about her experience with the tea industry for our blog for while and here it is relatively uncensored. I’m glad she is back to reviewing on her blog.

I was asked many months ago to write about my experience with the tea industry for this blog; I have had so little time and it has taken me a long time to put my thoughts together… even now I am not sure I have done the best job, but this is more or less the story of what happened with my blog, authori-tea.com. In the span of only a few years, my small (and free-to-own-and-operate) tea blog was receiving, at its height, around 1,000 hits per day from all over the world; I was receiving up to 50 samples of tea in the mail per week… and at this pace, I managed to learn a lot about the tea industry very fast.

I began authori-tea.com because I wanted to turn a hobby into shared knowledge. I tend to really like the things I like—I took up tea blogging after 7 years in the music industry running a metal & hardcore webzine; tea seemed like something that could and would take slightly less time and would be easier to keep up with than relentless new releases from metal and hardcore bands across the globe. You of course, take the risk with turning your hobby into a job, that you’ll get burned out, or tired of it… as the dialogue from the fantastic movie Adaptation speaks of:

John Laroche: Look, I’ll tell you a story, all right? I once feel deeply, profoundly in love with tropical fish. Had 60 goddamn fish tanks in my house. I skin dived to find just the right ones. Then one morning, I woke up and said, “Fk fish.” I renounce fish; I will never set foot in that ocean again. And there hasn’t been a time where I have stuck so much as a toe back in that ocean.
Susan Orlean: But why?
John Laroche: … Done with fish.

Something just like this happened with tea… except I ended up done with free tea.

I did have some idea how this reviewing/tea blogging process would work—much like my webzine. I’d establish myself as a good writer, a timely article-poster, a person with clearly defined opinions. In the beginning, for the first two months or so, I bought a whole lot of tea. It was a small investment—most tea you can find these days isn’t very expensive. I also used Adagio, which offered a lot of small samples (of often decent tea).

Before I knew it, samples started flying in…and I’m not talking about one or two a week. We’re talking about one or two per day. Within the span of a few months, I was receiving tea from Teavana, Yogi Tea, Stash and a lot of grocery store-style outfits. I was also receiving tea that seemed like it was packaged in someone’s basement out of a giant barrel. I can’t complain; I liked some of it. I met the lovely people at Seven Cups, and got some really unique and wonderful tea from a lot of companies including Serendipitea, Boulder Dushanbe Tea House, TeaSpring, Mighty Leaf and many more.

Anyone who has read a negative review on my blog knows my style: I don’t sugar coat things. I actually believe that simple fact is something that set me apart from other bloggers… you’d see reviews that in a sweet, mild, roundabout way, suggested that the tea was not very good. Generally on my site, if I don’t like something, I tell you it’s crap. It’s not that I don’t understand what diplomacy is—I just don’t care to use it. The truth is, there is just so much tea out there, you may as well cut your losses and tell people what’s good—and what not to waste money on. We reviewers have a tremendous advantage over your everyday consumer: we get to try before we buy. How better to serve other tea drinkers than to tip them off when something is a waste of time or money?

Despite my honesty, I found myself buried in tea, even when giving negative reviews to consecutive teas from the same company. I’d receive tea that was stale; mislabeled, bottom-of-the-barrel crap that you wouldn’t even find in a store. On the other hand, I also received extremely expensive, quality tea… some had flavor profiles I even struggled to describe… that’s how good, unique, diverse, fresh they were. Unfortunately the ratio of crap to quality was about 5:1. I will say, as was pointed out to me multiple times, that even companies who have products that receive bad reviews gain from being linked on your site…if you link to them (or sometimes even mention them, under certain circumstances, depending upon your Google search), they benefit from more search engine results. So even if you hate the tea, if you link to them, these companies can and will still benefit.

But I digress. I went to the World Tea Expo in May of 2009 in Las Vegas (I happened to be heading out there anyway), curious about what would be out there. For starters, turnout was less than fantastic considering all of the publicity. I was surprised to meet two separate representatives from two different companies that seemed to give me a hard time about negative reviews of their products. I had encountered this once before with a company who sent me tea, some of which I liked, and some of which I didn’t; I was asked (quite abruptly) to take my negative reviews down.

I am a public relations person in “real life,” (as in, the job I get paid in) and I’d be ashamed to practice such censorship. In my industry (hospitality & tourism), if I asked anyone to take down a negative review of my resort property, word would travel fast, and it’d do a tremendous amount of damage to my company.

Due to this inherent pressure for positive reviews, many media outfits no longer even accept free products and services; there is unnecessary and unprofessional pressure to paint a positive portrait. I was surprised by the request to take the review down, and further surprised for the poor attitudes I saw at the World Tea Expo. Either these companies have poorly trained marketing people, I thought, or the industry standard is lower than I initially expected. This attitude kind of reminded me of veggie libel laws, passed in the late 90’s after Oprah made a big fuss about mad cow disease and was subsequently sued by a feedlot operator in the state of Texas. It all seemed pretty whack to me.

I think that perhaps because the industry is young in this country, because people are so intent on turning a profit, it is misrepresented as focused on quality, when it is really just like any other sector of the American economy. Business owners are, in general, much more concerned about quantity versus quality for obvious reasons: more money, faster. You see, there is no real tradition of tea quality in North America; even English tea may be good quality at times, but squeezing lemon or adding sugar cubes to tea is still diminishing the quality of the initial product. Then again, the English still have something we in America do not: tea history & culture. Even if it imperialist, they still have a history of enjoying this drink. Our strongest link to tea is the powdered funk that comes in a big can and can be mixed with water to make “sweet tea,” “sun tea,” or whatever else.

Further, I promise you that after a few years of drinking artificially flavored tea every day, you will become very tired of it. This is really a property of tea in general that has become so Westernized—we cannot seem to manage to enjoy anything plain, in and of itself. This property is, for the most part, distinctly American: we douse our vegetables in dip, slather mayonnaise on our bread, we dip our pretzels in cheese or mustard. Nothing can be enjoyed without salt, pepper, sugar, barbecue sauce, ketchup or some other condiment.

Much like food, tea seems to be gaining mass appeal to Americans because it’s flavored—vanilla, chocolate, almond, coconut, mint, orange, mango, whatever else. It took me awhile to find this bizarre, but when you taste real, genuine, fresh tea that is not flavored, not sweetened, it will be like eating grass-finished beef or wild fish for the first time. I compare a lot of the tea on the American market to the giant slabs of salmon at Sam’s Club—farm raised, artificially colored to look healthy and delicious. Really it is the product of cheap production hinged on quantity over quality. You can pay $10 for 3 lbs of farm raised artificially-dyed salmon, or you can pay $10 for perhaps 1 lb of wild caught, never frozen wild Alaskan sockeye salmon, caught from the Yukon River. So I guess in the end, it’s up to the consumer: do we want quality, or do we want quantity?

Unfortunately it seems that in this day and age, we want quantity. Or rather, we want quality, but we don’t want to have to pay for this. We see this in agribusiness, in the growth of Wal-Mart, in deforestation and CAFOs and corn subsidies. That said, America’s future in tea seems disappointing to me; there will always be boutique opportunities for outfits that offer real, quality tea (TeaSpring, Seven Cups, etc), but much like an organic market competing with Wal-Mart, your growth will be slower, though your customers more loyal.

We’re seeing, ever so slowly, that things are changing… but it takes a long time for palettes to change, and for people to take the long, scary leap from spending less and moving fast to spending more and stopping to enjoy. Personally I don’t wait to lie in wait, writing reviews for vanilla flavored crap while I wait for more companies to really care about the product they are offering, and to sell more than candy in a filter bag. I am tremendously lucky to have learned that there is quality tea out there, unflavored, because it doesn’t need to be—truly unbelievable tea needs no artificial flavor; it does not need streamers of who-knows-what to make it visually appealing. Perhaps my favorite tea of all time, Seven Cups Iron Arhat, is beautiful… with long, crisp, gold-brown leaves, and when you steep it, it smells to me like sweet bakery dough. Like the base of an apple pie, before you add the filling. This is what real tea should be… it should have enough purity and diversity that to add anything would be butchering it.

In February 2010, I announced that I’d be shutting down authori-tea.com, only to be met with hundreds of e-mails, Facebook messages, blog comments and the like asking me to keep going. I decided I would continue, but on my own terms; and I would only be reviewing tea I found to be worthwhile to review. I decided I would not review garbage anymore; I would pick and choose the best of the best, and maybe throw in some marginal teas for good measure. Any and all garbage tea I got would be thrown out immediately. I e-mailed all tea companies and asked for no more tea to be sent. What I noticed is that there were many e-mails from purists, like myself, encouraging me to continue to review good tea, to provide a filtering service for all of the stuff that would be a waste of time for people looking for quality.

I still do receive a sample or two here and there, but I review at my own pace, and if I don’t like something, I throw it out. Life is too short for s—t tea… and there are people out there who want quality. There are, of course, uses for mediocre tea—as iced tea, as alcoholic drink bases. You can use some mediocre lapsang souchong and Russian Caravan Teas for pot roasts; there are uses out there for “just OK” tea. But really, why drink it in tea’s pure form? Spend some time hunting around, learning how to use Yi Xing ware, a gaiwan, learning how to steep and enjoy beautiful, pure, unadulterated tea. I am lucky in that it only took me a year or so to become tired of all of the coconut-vanilla-mint-chocolate-almond-marzipan-hazelnut-pumpkin spice-flavored stuff on the market. It might take you longer, but when you get there, you’ll see what you’ve been missing… and what you’ve been wasting your time drinking all the time.

-Jessica Pezak