An article recently raised these themes, with the "cult" idea already reoccuring once in awhile. I'll start with the broader context and then move on to more about the cult issue.
That article included an interesting summary of where the interest in the subject stands now (here). The title gives away some of his main concerns, "Artisanal Tea in America Is Having a Moment." It's really not. For the last decade people have continually said that artisanal / specialty / "better" tea is about to become the next big thing, and that hasn't happened, and it's probably not about to happen now. As someone put it in a comment in his post, the author was the one having a moment. All fair enough.
From there people might take issue with specific points made, with too many references to commercial interests (vendors), or to other parts of the perspective there. In general I see a problem with the more exotic aspects of tea making headlines (most typically in news web pages versus newspapers), tied to duck shit (ya shi) dan cong oolong, or about obscure aged tea versions that you need to visit a tea master in an isolated basement shop to even try. By appointment, maybe, screened with more care than your local drug dealer puts into keeping a low profile.
All that last part is actually a reference to one person in particular, with plenty of others coming to mind that it also fits. Forbes mentioned that 'Duck Shit' Tea Is Taking the World by Storm, in 2015, but I was thinking more along the lines of LA Times mentioning Tea Habitat in 2009 and 2016, which also relates to that Dan Cong oolong theme. Tea really doesn't need to be any more exotic or difficult to source and prepare than coffee; that can get lost in the hype over how some versions are really unique and unusual.
The article seemed fine to me, not based on a mature or balanced perspective of current tea culture or tea itself, but that is what it is. This describes why the author thinks tea is having a moment:
TEA IS THE PERFECT CULTURAL DRINK FOR RIGHT NOW. It has such a big tent -- you can like it for the caffeine kick, or the rituals, or the scientific experiments in brewing time and temperature, or the cool hobbyist gear, or the Eastern religious undertones, or the dietary benefits, or matcha's Instagram friendly coloring. You can like it because it separates you out, or pulls you into a new community, because it makes you feel simultaneously like an outsider and an insider.
Right now tea is exciting because tea feels fresh and new, which is ironic considering it is the oldest drink in the world. We're still in those early adopter stages, the energy and optimism and the hobbyist nature, but it's professionalizing slowly...
That's the thing, we were in the early adopter stages 15 years ago, back when online tea groups, blogs and reference pages, public meet-ups, source options, and the rest started ramping up. Most of the early versions of all that have ran their course, often replaced twice by other similar references, sites, vendor outlets, and groups since. This reference explains what I mean: Cha Dao: A Journal of Tea and Culture summarized input from various authors from 2005 to 2011, much more active for the first three years.
Bubble tea has had a moment in that longer time period, and Starbucks tried to make mall shops work and failed, in the case of Teavana. Better tea is ramping up slowly but it's definitely not having a moment.
a Moychay tea club in Moscow, maybe tea is having a moment there
Onto the point I did want to address instead, in this section:
...As we drank the teas from small, handcrafted clay tea cups made by an Albuquerque artist, the Tea Heads talked their shit. They talked about the intense battles fought in the Reddit subreddit/tea. They talked about Steve Odell, an influential Portland, Oregon tea house owner who created a large, cultish following with his sober basement parties. And "Po" Rosenberg, another Portland tea master who guides folks through "tea tastings" at his Heavens Tea shop, sometimes letting them try 50 year old teas...
As to the mention of "intense battles fought in the tea subreddit," that's a joke. People post pictures of brewing tea there, or cupboards full of tea-bag boxes of teas. Once in awhile snarky responses blame them for not really drinking good tea, or for thinking that their tea is better than others' when they actually do. There are no battles, hardly even any decent discussions.
To be clear on context I am active on that subreddit, posting or commenting there about every other day, but it's just not where tea is really discussed, people only post there. Discussion works out better on Facebook groups, at least for now. Like in this Gong Fu Cha group, the Puerh Tea Club related to that type, the International Tea Talk group I admin for, or in the Tea Drinkers group, more oriented towards people newer to tea, where this discussion took place.
Little glitches in that article, like that one, probably put off plenty of tea enthusiasts, but in general it's not a problem for me to read past them. The author just passed on what he was told, and a majority of the references described real tea themes, just in light of such perspective biases.
What is a cult?
1. a system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object. "the cult of St. Olaf"
2. a relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or sinister. "a network of Satan-worshiping cults"
3. a misplaced or excessive admiration for a particular person or thing. "a cult of personality surrounding the leaders"
All so negative! There must be a more positive form of cult to balance all that. I think the definition of "cultish" might lead back towards that:
1. relating to or characteristic of a small group of people having religious beliefs regarded by others as strange or as imposing excessive control over members. "weird cultish beliefs"
2.relating to a person or thing that is popular or fashionable among a particular group or section of society.
That last definition captures what I'm after; the negative value judgment isn't essential to the concept. Even in "cult," as I see the concept range, but related to "cultish" Google's definition agrees.
The Wikipedia definition is the same:
In modern English, the term cult has usually been used in reference to a social group that is defined by its unusual religious, spiritual, or philosophical beliefs, or by its common interest in a particular personality, object or goal. This sense of the term is controversial and it has divergent definitions both in popular culture and academia and it has also been an ongoing source of contention among scholars across several fields of study. It is usually considered pejorative...
I'm probably interpreting the concept more broadly than most in wanting it to also have positive range, which raises a very problematic "private language" concern. Word meanings that aren't shared are meaningless.
I'll skip ahead to an example; Crossfit could be considered cultish (although per the Google dictionary definition here not as a cult).
A close friend was into working out in a similar capacity--just not actually doing Crossfit--and at one point he posted about his workout routine daily. Dedication to that pursuit took over his life, most of his daily social connections related to that, and most of his life's meaning was tied up in becoming very, very fit. I don't necessarily see that as a problem. It's shared obsessive behavior, for sure, but on a couple of different levels it is very healthy.
Another example: in the late 70's when I was growing up in Western Pennsylvania fandom for the Steelers football team took on cult-like aspects. People painted their houses and cars black and gold, wore the related clothing regularly, regarded the players as more important than typical celebrity status, and planned their lives around following the games. It became one of the more important parts of a lot of people's reality. Was it too much? That seems like a judgment call. That degree of frenzy was temporary, based on several years of unusual success, and it was harmless enough.
Tea as a cult
Tea can't be seen as a cult in relation to those Google and Wikipedia definitions. There's not enough religious tie-in, and bias towards mind-control and other negative aims. It's just a beverage choice, although it can relate to subculture. A tea circle could be "cultish;" it could "relate to a person or thing that is popular or fashionable among a particular group or section of society."
The closest it seems to get is in the example of the Global Tea Hut. That is a Zen-based group led by a single individual (Wu De, formerly Aaron Fisher), that puts emphasis on shared subject interest and perspective, and ceremonial aspects, based out of a central location, with some degree of financial interest.
Wu De (photo credit the Global Tea Hut Youtube channel)
This web page lists their subscription packages, and this Go Fund Me account shows them to be $156,000 towards meeting their million dollar goal to build a new retreat center. Commercial enough. The first link also leads to past issues of their monthly magazine on tea background, a great reference.
An online friend wrote a nice, neutral-tone article about visiting there for a lifestyle and travel blog. It's probably as well to move on here rather than to try and force my own interpretation of to what degree this is or isn't a cult. It doesn't matter.
Again, I don't necessarily see that "cult" concept as needing to be negative, as I think of it, so the discussion doesn't clearly mean any one thing. If you strip away the negative connotation and leave the rest, about shared interest and perspective, underlying common philosophical themes, and so on, what concept remains? Interest group? They're definitely an interest group then. Their goals and overlap with being a cult are perhaps best identified by the first paragraphs of their Go Fund Me proposal:
Imagine arriving at a retreat center to find you feel instantly at home. The smiles of all your new friends from around the world welcome you. Imagine the first bowl of tea, and how it warms and refreshes you after a long journey. You start letting go of the vicissitudes of daily life and the quiet rhythm of this amazing place takes over. Along with insights and wisdom, you find a stillness in yourself you didn’t even know was there.
You stay here for ten days — meditating; eating nourishing, healthy food; connecting with wonderful humans from around the world; wandering the gardens; learning and practicing tea brewing; and drinking lots and lots of the finest organic teas on earth.
And it’s all free. When you leave, you pass by the donation box and quietly leave an offering from your full heart and send a good thought to the future people that will be nourished here, as you have...
Sounds great; no concerns there.
That original article never unpacks why a tea circle was interpreted as "cultish."
That idea was passed on by the people discussing it in the article, and may well have been the author's interpretation, versus something they actually said. If either of those circles of friends shared a strong interest in tea (as many people really do; an obsession even), a general perspective on life, a take on ethics, and maybe even aesthetic sensibilities (taste in clothing) then that would seem to fit. Religious interest, personality-centering, negative goals, and mind control wouldn't need to apply.
Actual tea culture
Another criticism was that real tea culture wasn't fleshed out in the article, which I completely agree with. The individual fragments of "what tea is" kind of worked towards that, but in some of those cases people were forwarding their own agendas instead of sharing perspective. Or the two were the same thing.
There's no way I can do justice to what tea culture is here, and I'm probably not the right person for the job anyway. I drink tea alone, almost all the time. I have tea friends but not many living locally, so the idea of a culture base seems to not imply. Still I should say a little. I've been active in discussing tea online for quite awhile, and have met lots of people related to tea over the last two years, so some perspectives and generalities definitely apply.
Which perspectives should I describe though? That article spends a few sentences on individual people and cases; that's as far as a review would typically go. The snap-shots and limited reference frameworks would need to knit together into a continuum of what tea culture is, or could be, which would always leave out more than it actually includes, and lack depth for boiling perspectives down to a couple of sentences. Groups would gain importance, as if one person obsessed with tea, working back through older cultural influences and new experiences, wouldn't be as important as any given dozen associated people doing the same things. Hundreds of those somewhat isolated, partially networked-in tea enthusiasts are as much the story of modern tea culture as anything else.
Groups like the Global Tea Hut and Tea Masters (mentioned in the article; it's a long story what that is) do promote relatively universal background information along with their own perspective. Facebook tea groups are exactly what you'd expect, diverse in nature. There it's interesting how vendor specific tea groups can also serve as a way to share common perspective (like this Yunnan Sourcing version). Other online tea groups come and go, as references do; the Tea Chat forum more or less morphed into Tea Forum.
Online discussions don't do an experiential subject like tea justice. People gathering in person to share the experience really is a much more complete, and therefore valid, expression of tea culture.
In an initial comment on that article post I mentioned how furthering tea awareness is a common goal that such articles promote, maybe even more effectively than tea blogs, like this one. The reason for why people want to promote tea interest may not be clear. For vendors it is; increasing income. Beyond that, and beyond sharing an experience enthusiasts themselves value, there is desire to promote tea consumption to help producers. That subject gets covered here to such length I'll not add to it in this.
All of this reminds me of guessing that other interests I've pursued were surely the next big thing. I was amazed by the intensity of the experience when I took up rock climbing, and thought for sure that would catch on. It's clear enough why it didn't, and never will: it's difficult, dangerous, hard to train for, and gear intensive. I was a vegetarian for 17 years and never even considered that might become more popular someday, and now some years after I gave that up it has.
There's no telling what critical mass of acceptance subjects require before something triggers broader interest in them, or how that all works. Tea may or may not ever become the next big thing, it may never really "have a moment." Whether or not that happens doesn't seem to matter. It's an interesting, multi-faceted, essentially bottomless subject that means a lot to some people, and that's enough.