Over the last few weeks, I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in the tea community. And I mean all of the tea community. From growers, to wholesalers, to vendors, to buyers, and – finally – even to us “humble” bloggers. It seems to be a phenomenon directly related to the year prior.
2015 was a piss-poor year for our favorite cuppa. Many tea growing regions reported lower-than-average bulk sales, Darjeeling especially. Online retailers got their collective asses kicked. And even the megalithic chains had a tough time of it. This all culminated with the announcement that Starbucks would be closing several of its Teavana tea bars.
What does this all mean? Hard to say. But I can tell you all one thing. The backdraft from this slump has been anything but pleasant to witness. Human rights violations on macro tea farms. Questionable marketing practices among vendors. Vendors attacking other vendors. And, of course, everyday tea drinkers getting sucked into all the kerfuffle.
In the immortal words of Lu Yu . . .
Okay, I made that up. But if he were alive today, we’d all be getting a stern (if peaceful) lecture. Yes, me too. I’m no innocent in all of this, either. There’s a lot of bad blood in the brew lately, and I want to devote some time on this – here – blog to address some of it. From the top down.
First, though, I want to make one point plain and clear – as it will be a recurring theme for the rest of the article. You ready for it? I didn’t think so . . .
There is no money in tea!
I’ll let that sink in a moment.
You’re reading that right, and I’ll explain what I mean as we go. But first, let’s start with . . .
The old plantation model is dying. You hear that Sri Lanka? India? Indonesia? Africa? Enjoy what heydays you have left because the glory days of the “estate” are just about done. One need not look past India to see that. Oh, tea growing is still alive and well, and there’s still a market for single origin teas.
The problem, though, is that the sheer logistics of the old model aren’t sustainable. Some of the practices are a century old – totally not feasible in today’s world. Worse off, all these plantations think that the recent, lower demand is because of their size. Large gardens in Assam and Dooars (just to name a couple of regions) actually cut back their yields in 2015, and – thus – put pickers out of work; which – in turn – led to some former estate employees turning to prostitution to make ends meet.
Seriously, that’s appalling. Those that are lucky enough to have a job still make barely a pittance. Starvation and health problems are rampant. All for the sake of a perceived changing market that favors lower quality tea.
And none of that is true. Any of it. Just look at Nepal. (That small mountain country is the future, I tell ya. But that’s a whole ‘nother story.)
China, you’re no better. We’ll leave out all the talk of economic slowdown. Some of your growers and sellers carry on with time-“honored”, shifty business practices to sell tea. In many cases, outright lies. The general rule o’ thumb seems to be, “If a buyer believes the lie, it’s their own fault.” Thus putting the guilt of the deception on the drinker.
Worse off, some growers/sellers put up fake signs claiming that certain “ancient trees” are their own, and photograph themselves by them. All of this in order to trick hapless Westerners into buying a bogus origin story. Such acts are being clamped down upon, but they’re practically ingrained in the Chinese tea marketing mindset.
Until recently, I hadn’t paid this any mind. Then a funny thing happened over the last year or so. Such practices were rubbing off on sellers at home.
As stated above, tea companies were having a hard time breaking even in 2015. The only exceptions were matcha and puerh sellers, to an extent. The former stuck with their tried-‘n-true target audience – the health nuts. It wasn’t a sustainable clientele, but it was working in the short-term. Puerh, though? Things were getting ugly. Well . . . uglier.
I mentioned that the Chinese often used questionable practices in order to sell tea. This specifically applies to puerh. The market is murky at best, and black at worst. It’s hard to verify the correct age, type of trees used, and – hell – even the right mountain it’s grown from unless you find yourself a reputable dealer.
A point of contention that emerged in occidental markets, though, focused solely on puerhs produced during certain seasons, plus the age of the trees they were cultivated from. Some Western vendors either kept details vague, or didn’t have all the right information. Others made claims that couldn’t be verified, or were outright false altogether.
People called them out on it, rather publicly. Some of them weren’t just puerh geeks, either. Some . . . were other vendors.
In all my years on the fringes of the tea industry, I’d never seen vendors attack other vendors. In so public a fashion, no less. Sure, I’d run into bloggers that made critiques about marketing practices, or viewed articles on vendor sites that refuted certain claims in general. But to call out sellers directly, and in public?! I thought that was never done. Apparently, I was wrong.
Not only did it come across as unprofessional, but it also seemed rather childish. Up until recently, tea was a rather civil playground. Sure, there was competition, but in a gentlemanly/crickety sorta way. It never came down to fists – online or otherwise.
I’m not condoning the practices [of people I won’t mention] – on either side of the fence – but I will say this. All of you – yes, all of you! – committed the greatest seller’s sin. You brought your chosen clientele into the fight.
I will be the first to admit that I have been . . . uncivil in some of my narratives. Sometimes to individuals, sometimes to groups of people, and often with overly generous doses of snark. Like I said, this rant also includes me.
Tea was supposed to have a calming effect on people. It was supposed to bring out the best in us. As the caffeine/theanine combo whispered velvety promises of better days to our brain, we were supposed to drink . . . and listen.
So, when did we stop listening?
I’m not sure if it’s the influence of Internet anonymity, or some other caged beast, but people have been downright mean to each other lately. Well-mannered debates have been replaced with blatant verbal harassment. If an affront is detected, people glomp! on it like so many circling carrion birds.
Recently, I was dragged into one such torch-‘n-pitchfork situation. (Albeit not exactly kicking and screaming.) Everyone had a reason to be angry, and the culprit deserved at least a swift slap on the wrist.
I gave them one . . . in private!
Whadd’ya know? The issue was dealt with.
And, yet, the masses still demanded the heads (or whatever other body parts) of the souls responsible. Two weeks in, and the issue still hasn’t died.
As I prepped for this article, I even brewed up the controversial tea in question. And you know what? It’s still a damn good tea. Do I condone the practices of the seller? No. Do I condone the attacks from other sellers? No! Do I condone the public shaming from everyday drinkers in the aftermath? Well . . . that’s just a silly question.
What I’m asking for is not that difficult – for everyone to be excellent to each other.
To coin the question of a fellow tea friend, “Why can’t everyone just be kind and truthful?”
I couldn’t agree more. Tea is my happy place. My beverage-y security blanket away from the ugliness of reality. I’d like to keep it that way. I clean toilets for a living. Please stop turning my teacups into toilets.
The tea industry/community is experiencing major growing pains. Many are clamoring for that mythical “piece of the pie”, and the entrails left in their wake are gruesome to behold. Somewhere along the way, we’ve all missed the point of what it means to be tea drinkers.
Tea is just tea. It’s dead leaves in hot water. Nothing more. There is no money in it.
The value lies in the way we – as people – experience it. The value is in the story of the person who picked the two leaves and bud . . . in the person who did the withering, rolling, and drying . . . in the artisan who shaped it . . . in the merchant who hocked it . . . in the wide-eyed seller who bought it . . . and in the drinker who experienced it. Sell that. Buy that. Share that.
And lastly . . .
Don’t be a dick.
This was a great read, (as you damn well now being the genius who held the pen!)
Being a newbie of only 6 months and enjoying my crazy-childish enthusiasm requires me to be putting my fingers in my ears, yelling LALALALALA and not reading reddit or steepster or any forums, and just trying to play out my enchanted enthusiasm as long as I can, which, being very immature has the potential to go on for years. I do not even know the names of the people/companies you so kindly did not fill in, and I pledge to continue to be a drinker and a thinker keeping the thoughts on the tea on my tongue at the moment, my full concentration on experience, and will continue to keep it that way. Your thoughts here make my conscious choice to be ‘very dude’ very validating.
Thanks for that.
Keep that honeymoon phase for as long as possible.
You make me laugh and smile, but also think and be more observant. Thanks! Loved the article.
Appreciated. Love a good smile.
Haha, excellent. well said . Truth is the tea business has always and continues to be a very dark business. You can only believe one or two things about tea sellers that sell mediocre tea and call it quality tea, either they are lying or incompetent. There is no getting around that fact. I felt a bit sorry as I watched the recent flurry of online attacks going on. It seemed to be that the folks getting attacked were just incompetent rather than dishonest. They did have some serious arrogance to back things up that poured gas on the fire.
The tea business is a very difficult business that favors post colonial corporate powers. It is ugly out there, and customers and tea makers get the short end of the stick.
It isn’t fair to blame the ‘Chinese’. It makes as much sense as blaming the ‘Americans’ if American auto mechanics are cheating customers that don’t know anything about their cars.
The tea industry is packed to the eyeballs with amateurs. Tea is not just tea. I have never been cheated in China, because I took ten years before starting my business studying tea, Chinese, Chinese culture, and making a lot of friends in China. I still realized I was just beginning to learn. I would not start an auto repair business unless I knew a lot about engines and had a lot of experience fixing them. I certainly would not do it just because I could through up a website and fine a wholesale parts dealer. Tea businesses get started everyday like that. It is the right thing to question their professionalism, even if they have good tea. Getting mediocre tea at the source is still great tea compared to what might be available from Teavana or David’s.
I have to say that the conspiracy of niceness that exists in the tea world is sickening at times. I don’t think it has to be brutal as the exchanges you are referring too. It is after all a very difficult business where winning depends on the size of your marketing budget and has almost nothing to do with the substance of the product being sold. It is naive to think that people can make this kind of judgement of a tea company because their tea tastes good. That is the lowest possible bar, especially when you can add flavorers and sugar and palettes don’t evolve intellectually.
Being kind is an act of compassion that comes from a deeper understanding of difficulties faced, not being nice for the sake of it. There is a lot of suffering that comes out of the tea industry, especially cheap tea. Understanding the issues is the first step to making things better.
Thanks for your rant.
There is a great deal of
Very well stated Austin, especially since we know you are a person who did your homework before starting a successful tea business. When wanting information or advice I always look to a person I know knows tea. Thank you for having taken the time to be knowledgeable.
Great to hear from you as always, Austin. I didn’t expect you to agree completely . . . what’s the fun in that?
Excellent post Geoff! You sum it all up perfectly. As you said “tea is my happy place” too. Recent events have impacted all of us and for the first time the experience has on occasion actually made me “mad.” Before now that hadn’t really happened. Maybe upset here and there but not outright anger. Here is hoping each of us try not to be “dicks” and turn this trend around. I want my tea back.
What Hannah said – especially because I’m very much in the honeymoon phase with tea, but am working toward the staying in love even when tea leaves it’s socks in the floor (or in my cup – I’m looking at you, shou pu’er!).
Thank you for the long timer’s words of wisdom.
And as I said to Hannah, that’s the very best phase. I kept mine for a good five years.
My wife and I serve tea every day in our Joyful Teahouse in Mt. Shasta for free. It is not a business. It is a gift if love. We have never charged for tea ceremony and we have never sold tea. Tea is our life. Our life is Cha Dao.
You have it far more figured out than we do, sir.
Well ranted, Geoffrey! As you know, my eyes have been opened wide as of late. It’s a good learning experience, and it has caused me to be more intentional with my tea purchases and even what I write about. I think you summed it up best, “Be excellent to each other.”
And party on, dudette! (You have an excuse; it’s your birfday!)
Thank you for taking the time to post a very thought provoking blog. Although I may not agree on all points you made, I admire the fact that you took the time to blog these points and perhaps one more end-user of tea will be more aware of what they are buying and consuming.
I appreciate your reply, and never expected full-on agreement from anyone.
Glad I am just a “drinker” and get to just enjoy the flavor and experience of tea!
I still think it is the beverage for relaxation and a few minutes of peace in the world.
I buy tea so some folks are making some monies. i am optimistic and believe there will be profits to be made. Carry on.
Yes, be glad at that. Cherish that.
Just some observations:
(1) You and I used to be known as the rudest, naughtiest tea bloggers. Look at our early posts. Comments like “I can’t believe you said that”. These days, there is so much spite with no wit or grace that we are starting to look like the polite gentlemen we try to pass ourselves off as at times..
(2) There is no money in tea
(3) I have now put back my next blog a few weeks. It covers my recurring theme about the growth of lies as a tea marketing tool, to give some space to your own airing of it. Dr Oz is gonna get it big time.
(4) Having just worked out that 5% of my own tea blog posts since 2010 mention cricket, I’d like to congratulate you for overcoming the handicap of being American and slipping a mention in. We just need to get your ratio higher.
(5) You mentioned tea workers turning to prostitution. It’s also common on African tea plantations, NOT because of not enough work, but because the work is so drastically underpaid. It’s the very ugly underbelly of the capitalist system: like your President Reagan’s ‘trickle-down” economics, it works in theory, but over 60% of tea workers on some plantations having AIDS and chronic malnutrition indicates the theory needs some work as there is not enough trickle and the bottom is too far down.
(6) Some bloggers can be just as appalling as vendors. I called one out years ago and even though I get on with him now, his boorish description of great swathes of the industry still rankles. (“Bullshit tea Companies”, eh, Tony?)
(7) Some vendors actually do deserve public condemnation. We could bring back stocks and pillories.
(8) Austin’s comment above “mediocre tea is still better than you’ll get at Teavana or David’s” is spot on, and it highlights that quality
(9) There is some money in tea. Not for growers or vendors, but in companies with consumption taxes, such as Australia where the loose leaf tea attracts no tax but serving a cup does, the mere act of making a cup of tea for a paying customers suddenly creates about 40c worth of taxation out of thin air. There IS money in tea, but possibly only for the taxman.
(10) Reading Ganga Nath’s comment about makes me feel warm and fuzzy. Onya, as we say in Australia.
(11) While your last sentence is great, it is the paragraph above it that shines. Great work.
Dammit, I forgot to mention Africa. Good call, there.
In though times, some competitors rely on not so nice tactics and when a market is rising while facing some quality problems is a though time.
This is when the perfect information of the economists would be useful.
And those tricks are a shame but remember when the Chinese painted their teas in green (because the people in Europe liked their tea leaves green), leading to the rise of India and Ceylan as producing place? As said Austin, those are shameless tricks used by bad sellers.
Could you tell me a bit more about what is going on on the other side of the pond?
In the end, it’s money that makes people become jerks.
Can I post a thumbs up for the dying art of the long form blog post and the blogger who writes and the readers who can read?
You can make a case for it, yes.
Thank you, Sir.
“But to call out sellers directly, and in public? […] Not only did it come across as unprofessional, but it also seemed rather childish”
The accusing vendor in question had solid proof the accused vendor was lying about their product.
It was not a pointless and unprofessional flamewar in the hope to get more customers, it was a service for all friends of tea to search for definite proof and post it for everyone to verify.
Not even gonna touch this subject again. I made my position – about all sides – pretty clear.
One of the problems with publicly calling out a competitor is that YOU as a company immediately benefit. The loss of that competitors sales directly affects you.
A couple years back I read a “report” made by a company that claimed that all of Teavana’s teas were laden with pesticides and other chemicals. That company in it’s own report stated that it owned tea companies, but that it wasn’t trying to boost their own sales. They said that anyone could do the same tests that they had done to see the same results. However the tests cost thousands of dollars that no Average Skeptical Joe could afford, so that also shed some shady light on that company. Because they directly would benefit from Teavana losing business I took those claims with a grain of salt the size of a moon. It’s better when non-tea vendors or people with no ties to the tea industry discover these things. Why do you think an independent company went in to investigate Apple’s factories working and living conditions? Because no one would trust anyone with ties to the company or would benefit from Apple losing sales. It’s common sense.
The other problem with a public shaming attempt is that it might not actually affect their bottom line or status quo. In both the cases I vaguely eluded to in the article, companies were called out for dubious practices, people got riled up, but – in the end – it didn’t actually do anything. A swifter approach would’ve been to go to a trade publication with the information, or some other press source. Albeit, after presenting said “data” to a third party.
That would’ve done a bit a good, other than getting the Internet all riled . . . which ultimately does nothing.
Indeed! Like what about that news article about how working and living conditions on the estates that Twinings, Tetley, et al. purchased from were horrendous. I don’t know if it actually affected most of the end customers or if they just skimmed the article, but I imagine some tea drinkers after that swore off those teas until those companies cleaned up their acts.
Dharlene Marie Fahl
A good read. Thank you for “calling it as it is” in many cases. Disheartening in some ways — spot on — in many others. If I knew how to do needlepoint — I’d be stitching your last line on a little pillow. Good words to live by. Maybe the other side of the little pillow could say, Tea is my Happy Place. So you could turn it around when need be.
I LOVE that idea.
I appreciate this post, a lot. The experience of tea drinking is the reason why I got into the industry, it’s the reason why I’m so excited about it. I definitely agree there are some growing pains, but I think most industries go through this (thinking coffee). All we can hope is that we come out better on the other side, with some industry standards and guidelines.
Agreed on all fronts. It’s finally getting noticed, and with that comes the notice of flaws. I just hope everyone realizes that we’re better as one united fist, rather than one lone middle-finger.
Would the above article still be valid if the word “tea” is replaced by another merchandise?
There aren’t very many merchandise items with a 5,000 year-old history in various permutations. All with the benefit of making people feel good . . . without drawbacks.
Closest I can think of is beer. And that has a LOT of drawbacks.
I personally don’t think you are being particularly fair in all this. I simply asked the question “does anyone believe this?” with a link to the competitor’s product. I have only ever done this on one occasion in the 12 years I have been a tea vendor. I had literally dozens of responses from people and eventually it snowballed into a big deal with two very active threads (originally reddit, and then steepster). I felt given the huge response from people, the absurd nature of the lofty claims involved, and the intentionally mis-leading response from said tea company that somebody had to do do something. Who else was educated enough in the Yunnan tea industry and knew intimately the ancient trees in question other than myself? Nobody really. Not to mention people literally begged me to stand up to the claims being made because they were sick to death of being lied to.
I doubt I will ever open my mouth again. Vendor or not. People are right to suspect my motivations but if you could see it from my unique perspective you’d know that I could generally care less about what other vendors are doing. I am used to seeing Pu-erh sold in a ignorant or dishonest way. It happens in the west and in China to such a degree that I’d be spending all of my time policing claims and none of my time sourcing teas. Maybe I’ve lived in China too long, but I find it shocking that people are so averse to the truth and so jaded that they think anyone that speaks the truth must be motivated by money to do so. It’s really quite insulting.