I love Sundays.
It’s usually my day off from the perpetual work grind, and – by some de facto decision – my DRINK TEA ALL DAY!…uh…day. By happenstance, it is also the day when Michael “Tea Geek” Coffey hosts his weekly Google+ Hangout dubbed “Tea Salon”. The hour-long online discussion is often the highlight of my week – the one time I can geek out on all things tea (and un-tea-related) with like-minded cuppa-folks. This Sunday in particular, we discussed Yunnan Dian Hong (black tea), and – as per usual – the conversation sidetracked often.
I mean, there’s only so much one can say about Yunnan black tea. It’s black tea. It’s from Yunnan. Next topic. But the counter-discussions toward the end were what fascinated me the most. The subject segued to supply-and-demand, and a tea vendor’s adaptability to the market. We all lamented and commented on the state of tea consumption in the United States. Consensus? There seems to be a growing emphasis on flavored tea concoctions rather than orthodox teas (i.e. single-source, unfettered offerings from specific regions/varietals).
The subject came up because there was an event – if it can be called that – known as the “Pu-erh Bubble” that occurred in the first decade of the 21st century. For a shining moment, people took a zealous interest in aged teas from Yunnan, and the regions they stemmed from. That splintered into interests in other orthodox teas as well, particularly oolongs from Taiwan and other parts of China.
Said pu-erh bubble, however, burst somehow in 2008, which I find ironic. Why? Because that was the time when I became a tea reviewer and started taking an interest in orthodox teas. One of the first companies I ever reviewed sourced the first Himalayan-grown black I ever had. They were also the company that introduced me to one of my favorite herbal infusions – Greek Mountain. As the years went by, though, their direction and philosophy changed. Slowly but surely, they placed more emphasis on their flavored blends.
Let me iterate that I’m not against blends. Some of the best teas I’ve tried have been blends – some even flavored ones. I need not look any further than The Devotea’s Lord Petersham or Joy’s Teaspoon Lemon Zest (a rooibos monstrosity of awesomeness) as key examples. What I was irked by was the primary focus being placed on these. Orthodoxy was slowly taking a backseat with a lot of vendors.
I won’t name names, but one of my favorite local haunts in N.E. Portland – one I visited frequently – scaled down their oolong and pu-erh lines in favor of flavored blends. While I liked a majority of them, I was sorry to see some of those oolongs go the way of the dodo bird. Again, I reiterate, I love their blends, and I still visit for their awesome Earl Grey, but I loved their orthodox stuff more.
During the Tea Salon discussion, though, the ever-reliable (and folliclely blessed) Jo Johnson brought up an interesting point. I shall paraphrase what she said slightly, “So what if the U.S. market aims toward flavored teas?! That means more for us!”
And she nailed it.
We orthodox tea drinkers are a niche market; we are not what the average tea vendor aims for when seeking profit. However, there are those that do source their teas from single estates and specific regions. They’ve tailored their business plans to meet that need. Leaving the normal, flavored tea drinker to their generalist sellers.
To them, I say, “Have at it.”
The niche market isn’t going away, it’s just becoming more secular. We don’t want everyone drinking up all of our orthodox stores. That would cause a price hike, and I – for one – can’t afford a damn scaled-up Golden Needle or single estate Darjeeling. The less of a market there is for those, the more there is for me…and for a whole lot less.
So, to the undiscerning tea drinkers out there…drink up. Keeping consuming your Maple Cheesecake Derpdeederp. I salute you. Because of you, there will be more Sikkim Temi for me. My cup clanks (and gives thanks) to thee.