When the thought of tea jumps into mind, even in this day where the leaf seems to be cropping up everywhere, we think of quiet solitary times, times where you may have a slight chill penetrating your bones. It’s now you realize that wrapping your hands around a mug of steaming tea is just about the best thing you’ve done all day.
This eloquent, peaceful and reflective ritual that millions partake in has recently morphed into a very wide, vast and deep corporate marketing message flogged by the largest beverage producers.
Yes, sadly, our daily “time out” has been spun by the marketing gods into something that can be bought at any café serving up any old cup of tea. “Experience the zen of matcha” as one coffee chain espouses in its hectic stores, oft at train stations and ferry terminals. Show me Zen in a train station coffee kiosk and I’ll show you the Buddha himself sitting in the corner and chuckling madly.
The transformation that has occurred in specialty tea this past decade is nothing short of extraordinary. Some of us not too long ago had a premonition, but the corporatization of specialty tea has been undeniably effective, in a yin & yang sort of way.
It seems that every viable industry spawns from a humble grassroots genesis.
They are usually bred from some burning passion or desire, a keen eye on trends and an innate sense to share the benefits of the product one loves. Many have witnessed numerous good start-ups grow and flourish well beyond their ma & pa roots. In this growth process, they are standardized and if I may conjecture, fiddled and tweaked with by corporate bean counters to the point where the concept becomes no longer recognizable to its early adopters.
Overnight, everything has morphed into a corporate milieu and is palatably different, with the keystone product taking the biggest slice in quality. You have to ask yourself when a coffee chain has 10,000+ locations, each selling the same ‘specialty’ cup of coffee, how good really are those beans? To portray this as a small farmer, specialty coffee is like saying the Whopper ranks as a premium locally raised burger.
From my vantage point, tea appears to have arrived at this stage. There really was nothing anyone could have done about it; the industry has grown immensely since the early 2000’s. With the media promoting its health benefits, its easy accessibility, and high profit margin, tea was destined to follow in specialty coffee’s footsteps.
So what does this mean in regards to quality and supply?
For quality, I would suggest you go sip a cup of tea at one of those bloated tea chains and find out. What you get is very low-grade tea wrapped up in a ton of artificial flavors. Most people I know who have tried teas from these corporate chain stores either complain about the ensuing headache from the cup they had or that the information about the tea being disseminated by the staff was erroneous. I don’t dare ever frequent them for fear that I might start interjecting and correcting the misinformed tea tenders.
Demand now outstrips supply and with the added effects of climate change, traditional growing areas are either too wet or too dry at their peak season. Yield and quality fluctuate from year to year.
There was a time I was quite determined to follow suit and adopt a ‘go big or go home’ philosophy, but that was until the noxious whiff of corporate culture entered our small organization. We had 5 outlets operating in 2005 and I flinched and turned away. I really wasn’t keen on turning Steeps into the next “Starbucks of Tea”, even though our regulars were convinced we had conceived the model for a successful rollout.
So is bigger really better? I am inclined to say no, and I mean that for most of the industries and products that service the human race. The single benefit I see from “Big Tea’s” proliferation is that young adults, who would normally grab a coke or red bull are opting now for a cuppa over a can.
This means that eventually, purveyors, blenders, and small-scale importers like us will see them in the shops we service. One headache too many & simple curiosity will lead them to our tea bars. Once we demonstrate what good tea is, the way forward will be much clearer and… more mouth-watering too.
Brendan Waye is a Tea Specialist and Sommelier for TG Tea, Inc.