I’ve been travelling most of July and haven’t been able to conduct the research that is needed for an informative piece so, this month, it is grouses, gripes and other miscellany. In other words, it is a collection of opinions all of which are firmly held until I change them. Here, in no particular order, are a few.
Few things in the tea industry are more off-putting than the (usually) self-appointed title of “tea master.” The complete lack of standards for adopting such a title aside, who among us has really mastered the subject of tea. It is a vast and ever-changing domain that constantly surprises when something new pops up; and that is almost daily if not hourly. I know no one who has claim to this title.
My teacher, Chen Huan Tang, knows as much about Taiwanese tea as anyone I have met but he is at sea if a discussion turns to the tea of China. Jeff Fuchs is surely one of the West’s most accomplished pu’er experts but he leaves the selection of Japanese tea to others (not to say that Jeff hasn’t tried innumerable Japanese teas but that’s not his field.) Simply, even the most broadly experienced person has gaps in their tea knowledge.
True tea people eschew such being called a tea master; it is usually adopted by those who aren’t masters by a long stretch. If someone presents themselves as a tea master, pull out your “crapometer” and be skeptical.
Weight loss and detox tea
Rarely a day goes by without a new advertisement touting the slimming properties of some tea or other. But tea does not aid in weight loss except insofar as one is replacing a high calorie beverage with tea (a cup of tea – no milk or sugar – contains 3 calories; less than a stalk of celery.) Weight loss (or gain) is a simple matter of calories in and calories burned; it’s maintaining necessary behavioral patterns that is difficult. A healthy diet, not a magic elixir is what one should strive for.
And the weight loss propaganda actually can have severe negative consequences. It reinforces the notion that only one body type is acceptable; that of the slim, not to say emaciated, fashion model. It can help foster eating disorders and ignores the fact that there is no magic weight number or waist size that yields better health. People can be, and are, healthy in many different sizes.
The kissing cousin to “weight loss” tea is “detox” tea and it too is a nasty fraud perpetrated on the gullible. Worse, “detox” teas can be acutely dangerous to your health for most contain chemical or herbal laxatives. The only things that will detox your body are your liver and your kidneys.
I already have written at length about this but the high level of many vendors’ margins continues to rankle. Too little of the “value” in tea actually obtains to those who truly produce it. (And I don’t mean the estate owners.) Far too much of this “value” goes to a few middlemen. That it is difficult to earn a living as a tea merchant (and it is) is a function of the sheer number of vendors in the industry and does not justify high margins.
But it is not vendors alone who are profiting. Tea is far too cheap overall and consumers should brace for some healthy price increases; they are coming.
Buying “at source”
“Buy your tea as close to the source as possible” is a refrain often heard in consumer tea forums where “experienced” buyers counsel the “noobs” on how to obtain good tea. And it is a myth pure and simple. Buy your tea from someone you trust; that is how you obtain good tea.
Buying tea at source is a difficult undertaking and those who do it (and I am one) have invested years in building strong personal relationships with growers and producers. That is how they obtain the best of that grower’s teas. Showing up (either in person or worse, online) will usually guarantee you good, but certainly not the best, lots of a producer’s product; these are reserved for those with long-standing ties to a property. No matter how close to source you buy, you will never have Darjeeling at as good a price/quality ratio as that obtained by, say, Kevin Gascoyne who is arguably the west’s foremost authority on Darjeeling (and not a “tea master” so far as I am aware!)
But how does one develop trust in a given supplier of tea? Taste a lot, shop around, buy sample sizes. Know that you will get a lot of dross but also some real pearls. You soon will learn which sources to trust and you supply of good value tea is assured.
Endless discussions about water
Tea is mostly water; we know that. So, making tea with good water is important; that too, is obvious. But do we need to carry on with these tedious debates as to which water is “best?” I realize that at one level this isn’t a lot different that discussing which Lishan is best and that I can simply ignore such discussions if I don’t like them. But that isn’t the point and, besides, discussing Lishan is serious stuff. The point is that they are off-putting. If you want to know what good water for your tea is, just ask Peter Jones at Trident Booksellers and Café in Boulder. He knows.
Misrepresentation of black tea as oolong
OK, I have a vested interest here but I am moved to high dudgeon by producers who appropriate for their partially oxidized black tea the good name of “oolong.” And it all starts with the popular misconception that all partially oxidized tea qualifies as being an oolong. All oolong tea is partially oxidized but not all partially oxidized tea is oolong.
Early in our tea learning we are taught that green tea is not oxidized, oolong tea is partially oxidized and black tea is highly oxidized. This is a useful taxonomy for getting us started along our path, but it really is just a shorthand for a more accurate delineation of types; one based upon manufacturing processes rather than oxidation levels. Black tea always has been partially oxidized; oxidized to a high level mind you but never “fully oxidized.” At the other end of the spectrum, green tea is minimally oxidized but it is not “un-oxidized.” All tea is “partially oxidized” to some degree.
The real difference between oolong tea and black tea is when the primary rolling of the leaf occurs. The primary rolling is the one which breaks the cell walls in the leaf. In black tea this takes place after withering but before oxidation; in oolong tea this occurs after both withering and oxidation.
Most (but not all) of the new “oolongs” coming to market are really lower oxidized black teas; the rolling has occurred before oxidation begins. And they taste radically different than oolong teas (to the extent that anything with as vast a flavor range as oolongs can be said to have a recognizable taste profile.) This is just another case of mutton tarted up to look like lamb.
And the list goes on
There are many more grouses that can easily be flushed from the bushes: sanctimonious tea drinkers (sanctimonious opinionating, however, is a different matter;) romantic stories of valiant tea farmers used to peddle indifferent tea; the use and misuse of the notions of “organic” and “sustainable;” the cult of “transparency;” and the list goes on and on. Yet, I don’t have time or space to list all of my gripes and you certainly don’t have the patience to read about them all. So best to stop now.
That’s my take. What’s your view?