Mea Cupa

Please don’t judge me but I’m afraid I’m a tea snob.  Can there be any doubt about it? I refuse coffee. I drink only “true tea”, preferably acquired from small independent family growers and specialty shops. I assiduously avoid teabags. I generally brew in a Yixing pot or a gaiwan. I could not care less whether the milk goes in first or last because I never use it. And the thought of adding a sweetener is anathema.

So, yes, I must be a tea snob.

True Tea

It is a commonplace for us tea snobs to claim that a beverage is only tea when it comes from one of two varieties of camellia sinensis: camellia sinensis var. sinesis or camellia sinensis var. assamica. Anything else is not tea. Cannot be tea! Peach Tea? We shudder at the very thought .

Well, I can think of two problems big with our position.

First, it seems as though some products that are readily accepted as being tea (e.g. puer or Taiwnaese wild tea) in fact often come from plants other than camellia sinensis; camellia taliensis and camellia formosensis, for example. Granted, these are still species of the genus camellia but this is nonetheless a crack in our purist position.  And that’s how the light gets in.

Second, in English, the word “tea,” like the word “escalator,” has already been genericized. It wasn’t restricted at the outset so it no longer refers to a specific product. Whereas in French, for example, the term tisane is widely accepted for those beverages brewed from botanicals other than camellia sinensis, this simply isn’t the case in English. Tea has come to refer to any botanical infusion. Those of us who want to restrict the term to products of the camellia sinensis plant are simply too late. That linguistic train has left the station and it isn’t coming back no matter the protestations.

So, fellow tea snobs, let’s back off in our condemnation of those who consider Peach Tea, or Rosehip Tea or any other similar brew to be tea. We don’t have to drink it if we don’t want to but stop castigating those who like it and nonetheless consider themselves tea drinkers.

Small Independent Growers and Tea Shops

There is something inherently satisfying about knowing the provenance of your tea. And this applies to practically everyone.

We tea snobs want to get right back to the grower if we can. We want to know whether our oolongs are shaken or tumbled, our greens pan fired or basket fired and whether our blacks have had a hard wither or not. We like knowing the nuances of roasting and oxidation and discussing these with a knowledgeable grower or vendor. In short, we want to know all about our tea and where it came from. So we avoid chain stores such as Teavana (yes, I know Tevana is closing) and David’s Tea like the plague and chuckle with a smug superiority at those who don’t.

But wait a minute. How many of us began in tea by drinking organic, handmade, single-origin Nilgiris? Hmm – not so many, right.

Stores like Tevana are great ways to introduce tea to an audience that doesn’t really know the product. They provide a large selection of tea products that serve the needs of the vast number of the nation’s tea drinkers. Once on the trail, some of these “novices” will follow it to the point of becoming tea snobs in their own right. But for now, when asked about the provenance of their tea, they will just say “Teavana, down at the mall.”  And that should be good enough for us.

Avoiding Teabags

Tea bags are such an easy target for us tea snobs. It’s rather like picking on the shortest, youngest kid (me) in class. After all, what’s to love about a bunch of poor quality tealeaf particles wrapped up in a paper pouch? As one colleague has opined, “Teabag is a swear word. A teabag in a cafe is an insult.” Ever the humorist, he has even taken to writing the word as “teab*g” to avoid spelling it out completely. Another commentator has written “A Non-Judgmental Guide to Getting Seriously Into Tea” that advises after a couple of paragraphs of scolding, “ditching the bag and going loose.” So much for being non-judgmental.

If we tea snobs really stop and think about it, however, the teabag is just another infusing method. The problem, if there is one, is in the quality of the tea in the bag, not with the concept of the bag in and of itself (though the non-reusable teabag is not particularly environmentally friendly.) Recent changes in teabag manufacture (e.g. the pyramid bag or the oversize rectangular bag) allow virtually any tea to be infused using a teabag; including some of very good quality. Connie, my wife, regularly drinks a top notch Sencha from Nakane Seicha in Shizuoka that comes in a pyramid bag. At work or on the go, a teabag can be the only option available. Yixing pots, gaiwans and loose tealeaves simply are frowned upon by most employers.

Brewing whole leaf loose tea (and remember, not all loose tea is whole leaf) does vastly increase one’s options but let’s not kid ourselves; not all loose tea is wonderful either. We tea snobs need to recognize that not every teabag user is able or willing to take the time to brew loose tea. And that doesn’t mean they love their tea any less than we do ours. Just differently.

Milk First or Last? Harrumph, I Don’t Use It. And Yikes What About Sugar (or worse yet, stevia)

The issue really isn’t milk first or last (there is some recent scientific research that apparently has resolved the issue but I can’t remember which way) but whether to use milk (or sugar) at all. We tea snobs are largely no milk types. I recall that when I was living in Britain, where milk is automatically added to your tea, I needed to order “lemon tea no lemon” to get what I wanted.

Tea snobs tend to wriggle uncomfortably at the idea of milk but are positively appalled at the thought of adding sugar. How déclassé. We forget, however, that some teas, when brewed in the western manner, virtually demand milk and sugar. They are strong, tannic and bitter beasts. But the casein in milk settles the tannin and the sugar combats the bitterness. Teas like these are drunk by the cupful by millions of people.  To insist upon no milk or sugar is to place one’s taste in a position of superiority to another. I suppose that is just what snobs do; but that doesn’t make it right.

The Tolerant Tea Snob

I am no social relativist here, subscribing to the position that all viewpoints are equal. Because they aren’t. There are better and worse ways to appreciate tea; it simply isn’t important to the vast majority of people. Just as I enjoy driving my little Subaru but know nothing of auto mechanics, much less how to operate in an F1 racing situation, some people enjoy tea (of whatever sort) without knowing the best ways to buy, brew and savor it. We tea snobs should back off and let them get by as best they can (and “help” only when asked.) Harping away at this or that perceived affront to tea dignity just makes us all look silly.

Yes, I am a tea snob; but of a tolerant sort.

Oh – and I still refuse coffee.


That’s my take. What do you think?

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