Friday, April 28, 2017

About taking up the role of a grumpy old man in tea culture

I'm inclined towards inclusiveness related to tea culture, to accepting different perspectives, so for the most part whatever direction different people are taking the subject seems fine to me.  A post in the Tea Addict's Journal on the downside of people visiting tea producing areas triggered re-thinking some issues that keep coming up, about the limits of being able to relate to a broad range of perspectives.  The title is a reference to something one of my favorite tea bloggers said.  Maybe it will make more sense related to the rest of the post.

In that Tea Addict post his point wasn't exactly what I'm getting at in the rest of this, discussing an old tree that died due to too many people visiting a tea growing area.  That also related to preference for old tree source based products overtaxing the output of the limited number of old trees.  Of course the blame for the latter is on the producers; it's in their best interests to not kill those trees by harvesting too many leaves.  The point is really about economic pressures driving them to do that, or at least to test those limits, and sometimes fail in stopping short.  The author's main point could have been clearer, since it wasn't written to say simple things in a logic-oriented structure, it was conversational in style with a focus on covering background, but this is part of it:

In the last few years as tea-tourism has increased exponentially (I read one account that said this year 500,000 people are visiting the tea mountains during harvest season) there is an increasing number of people who really have no business going to the mountains in there, buying tea.

people in a tree (photo credit)

The obvious next thought:  on what grounds do those people have no business there, and who has such business?  Leaving that aside, there are lots of valid points in the piece, great food for thought.  He includes discussion of local tea industry history as context.  In spite of leaving potential for a bit more development even that general point still works, about possible impact of tea tourism.

this could be concern, and the outfit is Hawaiian

I discussed that a little with a Hawaiian friend, related to some areas only being able to support a certain number of visitors before there is an impact.  I lived in Honolulu for two years, in school there, and those islands definitely had experienced both the positive and negative effects of tourism.  They've done fairly well limiting the environmental impact of visitors, of course with the potential for some exceptions.  Per  my understanding Hanama Bay, the main snorkeling area on Oahu, is being damaged by visitors swimming in it, just due to being there, likely related to sunscreen components as a contaminant.

The economic benefits of that tourism in Hawaii aren't always shared by everyone in the communities, and some locals have moved away due to pressure from cost of living increases.  Some issues must parallel those in tea growing areas but it's as well to circle this back to different tea related concerns.

One related tea culture aspect I struggle with is accepting so many people becoming what one online friend called "pressure-cooked experts," related to going on vacation and becoming a tea specialist.  I just wrote a blog post about group buys, and it came up there that the line between tea vendor and tea-oriented tourist is now blurring.  To me that's no problem, although it might seem like a concern for established vendors and physical shops.  So what is the concern?  I think it's  partly about the volume of seeing such mentions, maybe even more than in the conditions in any one of them.  Every week I run across notice of a new person who has spent time in China, or wherever, and now they're bringing tea to the West.  Sometimes it's a gofundme venture instead; they're about to do that, and need money to.  It can become a relentless background noise.

large tea tree (credit)

It's like that controversy over tea-tree ages; it's not only a problem that there is a problem, or that people make and discuss dodgy marketing claims online, but at some point you just have to look away from the issue, to get space from it.  It's like US politics; it's important but it gets to be too much.

That recent commentary post I've just mentioned was so clear and offered so much background that I didn't find the theme problematic there (the part on tea tree ages, which I just also went over with a Yunnan tea producer about in an interview), even though it was already familiar ground.  It helps that I like reading posts by that author, that his ideas have been informative in the past, and the writing is clear with a nice flow to it.

I feel like I could be clearer on why hearing about new tea start-ups is a bad thing, since it is also about the content.  I'm working towards raising awareness and consumer demand as a goal for writing a blog about tea myself, it's part of the point, and in a sense new vendor market entry is just a sign that is moving forward.  Of course that's not substantially due to my own efforts, but a shared goal all the same.

Here is one example of why new tea vendor start-ups aren't necessarily tone-neutral:  I just ran across a new tea business themed around a health-oriented tea product, a claim that mixing shou pu'er and longjing and drinking those brewed together is a good thing.  Given that as background I'm not going to cite a link; good luck Googling that.  Of course that health advise is coupled with a significantly higher than market price offering of both teas, packaged as a set.

That's off-putting on a few different levels, beyond the overcharging:  1) it's surely a baseless claim, all but made up, regardless of an original source; 2) that would be disgusting, a waste of both teas.  I guess you could brew both and drink them side by side; still only a little better.  Even if that health claim is accurate--which is highly unlikely, since more general claims are usually tied to traditional wisdom, which wouldn't relate to blending teas types--that still doesn't justify mixing those particular teas together.  That traditional wisdom could be accurate.  But then, people have been selling teas since tea was discovered, so the claims being old might only relate to old forms of marketing (what people do now), and not confirmed knowledge passed down from a time when people lived closer to nature.  Who knows.  If tea is healthy I'm in good shape; if not it still tastes good, unless you screw it up by mixing things that don't match.

Other examples are endless, of people making nonsensical claims.  Or being so new to tea that they have next to no grasp of the basics before "bringing tea to the West." Hopefully they at least have enthusiasm and good intentions.  But one gets the sense that many of the same people would be selling rat poison instead if they thought it could bring the same revenue for them.

One guy I met in person here asked me if I wanted to go into business together selling tea, because he found out that he could buy it in wholesale quantity at lower prices than retail.  He'd not yet even tasted all the different Thai teas he wanted to resell.  He had no idea what "oolong" is, never mind Jin Xuan, or if the one in his hands was any good, but it still seemed a good idea to sell it.  After enough of cases of bad claims and cliche business ideas, drawing on random aspects of unfamiliar cultures, people randomly sourcing pu'er and bumping the supposed source-tree age up to 1000 - 1500 years old seems normal enough, only a minor insult.  After all, maybe the person selling it to them told them that.

I remember when I first got into tea, or at least more serious about it, I read from a tea-industry veteran that they wouldn't share a particular tea with novices because they just couldn't appreciate such a tea.  I felt turned off by that idea.  It's a little offensive that people would need to be a member of an informal club to drink a beverage.  One sees lots of variations on that related to using certain teaware, or words to describe a tea experience, or embracing ritual aspects, especially related to some types.  I really could be more positive, to just live and let live.  I'm not getting burned in tea deals, or slighted in online discussions, so I really don't have anything to complain about.  I wouldn't exactly say that I'm grumpy, maybe just not as positive about how it all the related culture sorts out as I was early on.

upset woman, and tea (credit)

It makes more and more sense why long-term bloggers eventually go quiet, talked-out related to sharing experiences of discovery mixed with other discussion that isn't as positive.  It makes me value the tea-veteran input even more, and to relate better to a bit of negative tone creeping in from time to time.

Often it's not about there being a good guy and bad guy among vendors, it's more the experience of a continuum, and about differing perspectives.  It's not clear that anyone needs to pay any learning curve related level of dues before they should sell tea, although to some extent that would be helpful, and respectful to their customers and the tradition.

There's a fine line between just practicing a fair trade, using ordinary marketing spin, and ripping off customers by making false claims.  Different vendors nudge closer to that line in lots of different ways.  There are some clearly better and worse examples, people selling quality products at a good value, providing as much information as possible, with others cutting corners, but many just fall in the middle.

my future tea teacher, hopefully

I value my tea friends and contacts that really are the good guys, to the extent it works out like that. I can't completely let go of the idea that people that like tea are somehow typically better people than those that don't, even though that's absurd, and counter-examples keep coming up.  I especially value people that keep teaching me.  Some feel a need to raise their voices about problems from time to time, but I won't be doing that much.  I'm just another guy who drinks tea; it's almost never my place.  Although it's hard to relate to whoever is reading this blog--I just see stats--I also appreciate being joined by readers in experiencing tea.


  1. Had a pleasant read about the puer+longjing "entrepeneur"
    He was smart enough to use his same Reddit account to post to both the tea subreddit, promoting the product, and other subreddits discussing his business.

    Quote below are his words.

    The business is "100% drop shipping direct from China".
    He got motivated by a shopify post, that as example shows how to create a matcha business without knowing the product, because matcha is currently trendy.
    And he "didnt spend a dime besides the $13 for [his] domain in setting this all up."
    Now for the final bonus:
    He has not once seen or tasted the product he sells.

    End of story.
    You can insert all sorts of colorful words, and they probably all describe how I feel about this guy and his business. It is nothing short of bold betrayal.

  2. That really does take the biscuit, selling tea without ever trying it. He mentioned in discussing his post about the tea that he thought a tea enthusiast wouldn't mix those two teas, because of the taste, and because they need to brew for different lengths of time. The teas might benefit from brewing at different temperatures too, but if the idea is only health benefits, not taste, maybe it hardly matters which temperature to use. It's not really about health benefits either, of course, it's about blatant opportunism. It's all just nasty.