Outage – And I’m Back – With Some Concerns

 - by Alex Zorach

I just found out today that this blog, SpontaneiTea, has been down.  Signing onto Tea Trade, I found that the problem lies in the theme that I had selected, cutline.  Cutline has been discontinued.  According to my Google Analytics data, it looks like my blog was down since some time on November 23rd, making it down for more than a full week.

This is somewhat distressing to me.  Not only have I lost the traffic and views for the entire week, but I’m now concerned that I may lose subsequent search traffic from having such a prolonged outage.  We’ll see how quickly my search traffic recovers.

I’ve fixed the issue by switching to a new theme, but I’m a little discouraged from using this blogging platform, following this serious outage.

I would have strongly preferred, if my blog’s theme were to be discontinued, for some other default theme to be selected.  Having my blog go down without any notice is distressing to me, as it causes me a loss than has some negative implications for my business too.

The positive news is that I selected a theme that I like more, and that I think better reflects the name (and nature) of this blog.  Now if only I didn’t get an error when I tried to customize the theme on the theme page.  I still can’t figure out how to make the main page of the blog not have an empty title tag.  Again, little things that make me slightly annoyed with this site as a blogging platform!

Kusmi Tea in Berlin – And German Consumerism

 - by Alex Zorach

I recently took a two week trip to Germany.  I travelled to Berlin, then Dresden, Görlitz, and then Regensburg.  It was very exciting, and I haven’t posted much about it yet in part because I’m still playing catch-up on the various work responsibilities I have, with RateTea and various other things in my life.

I visited numerous tea shops while in Germany.  The first one I visited was Kusmi tea:

A Kusmi Tea Storefront in Berlin

The Kusmi Tea Storefront on Budapester Straße, Berlin.

There is only one Kusmi tea store in all of Germany, and this is it.  It’s in a very new mall, called Bikini Berlin.

The Store Itself

I wasn’t terribly impressed with the store itself.  Kusmi Tea seems to focus on blends and flavored teas, whereas I’m more a fan of pure, unflavored teas.  There were a handful of teas that I think I would have enjoyed drinking, but there wasn’t anything that really struck me as unique or special.  The prices also weren’t that great.  And I was deterred by the fact that they didn’t have any small sample sizes for sale.

Since Kusmi Tea is at least as available in the U.S. as it is in Germany, I opted not to buy anything, instead reserving my purchases for tea brands that are unavailable or very hard to get here in the U.S.

The Mall: Bikini Berlin

The Kusmi Tea store is located inside a mall, called Bikini Berlin.  I find the name of this mall amusing, as it highlights something that I saw all over in Germany: Germans using English words frequently in marketing, but using them in ways where they would probably not be used in the United States or by a native English speaker.  I can’t imagine a whole shopping mall named “Bikini”, although perhaps I could imagine a store or small collection of stores that focuses on bikinis or beachy things, bearing this name.

I didn’t really like the inside of this mall.  It was big, sleek, and dark, and it had lots of expensive retail stores.  I often enjoy the experience of walking around indoor retail malls, especially in foreign countries.  But this mall seemed to exemplify the worst of consumerism: high-priced retail stores selling lots of things that I would never buy.

Germany and Consumerism

I’ve visited Germany three times, and all three times I spent time in Berlin as well as in other states of both the former East and West Germany.  I consider myself very lucky, in that when I was a child, I was able to visit both regions before reunification, the summer of 1990, shortly after the wall came down.  I then returned in 1997 when I was in high school.

The East-West divide has become slightly more subtle over the years, but it’s still very visible.  I’ve also become fonder than ever of the former East Germany.  I think one of my main reasons for this is that consumerism seems to have less of a foothold.  Associated with this, things that much of the Western World dismantled, like streetcars or trolleys, are more widespread.  All the East Germany cities I visited had trolleys.  Even Görlitz, a city of about 54,000 people, had two trolley routes:

A trolley on a city street in Germany

A trolley in Görlitz. East Germany generally kept their trolleys whereas West Germany dismantled them.

The dismantling of the trolley routes are one example of the ways in which I think West Germany picked up some negative things from mainstream Western culture.  I see the loss of streetcars and trolleys in the U.S. as one of the worst examples of consumerism–it drives consumption of resources, creating extra economic activity through getting people to switch to cars, but the economic activity is not associated with an improvement in quality of life.  Public transportation can be cleaner, safer, use fewer energy resources, and promote public health through facilitating walking.  West Germany still has much better public transit than most of the U.S., but I did notice a difference in Berlin that the West is a bit more car-oriented in a way that I dislike.

But back to German consumerism.  The mall mentioned above was in an active commercial district in the former West Berlin.  I also encountered a lot of areas populated by high-end retail stores selling overpriced clothing in Regensburg, the only other former West German city that I visited on this trip.  By contrast, the former East German cities I visited, including the eastern part of Berlin, Dresden, and Görlitz, had much less in the way of these overpriced stores.

There’s still a broad consensus that Communism, as it played out in the Eastern Bloc countries, was a massive failure.  The suffering and poverty created by Communism is still very evident in East Germany, and I’m not disputing this.  But I do want to point out that Western Capitalism also isn’t without its flaws, and there are ways in which I do think Communism, for all its problems, did protect East Germany from a few of the worst influences of Western Capitalism.

My Hope For The Future

In general, whenever there are two or more competing viewpoints, I’m a huge fan of synthesizing them, taking the best of each of them, and I tend to view Communism and Western Capitalism in this way too.  Both are flawed, Communism perhaps more deeply flawed.  My hope for Germany is that, rather than West Germany just overrunning all the culture and social structures and institutions of the East, the two can come together in a more intelligent synthesis.  There are a few signs that this is happening:

Ampelmann, green and red pedestrian crossing lights

Ampelmännchen, the East German pedestrian stoplights. Photos green and red, by Elya, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

These are the Ampelmännchen, the former East German traffic lights, which have become a bit of a symbol both for nostalgia for East German culture, and for positive things being taken from the former East Germany.  These lights are not only now being preserved in all of the former East Germany, but they are also being installed everywhere in Berlin and even a few cities in West Germany.

And especially pleasing to me, the M10 trolley route has been expanded into West Berlin, to connect to the Nordbahnhof.  I actually used this route many times in Berlin, always taking it on this new part of its route, and it was incredibly useful.

Now if only West Germany could ditch those overpriced retail stores.

What do you think?

  • What’s your opinion on Kusmi Tea?
  • Have you ever visited Germany and seen the East-West divide?  Before reunification?  After?  Did you notice
  • As harmful as Communism was, do you believe that Communism had any benefits, in terms of protecting countries from some of the worst aspects of Western Capitalism?
  • Do you love trolleys as much as I do?
  • Do you share my disdain for very-high-priced retail stores?

Four Batches of Iced Tea – And Some Gardening

 - by Alex Zorach

It got really hot here, and looking at the map of temperatures, it’s been hot across most of the continental U.S., excepting the Northwest, yesterday and today.  Temperatures here creeped up into the low 90’s, but most importantly, it was very humid, and nighttime temperatures stayed in the high 70’s and didn’t dip below 80 till well after midnight.

So, I made a lot of iced tea.  I have made four batches, using the same technique that I explained in my Teacology post on brewing iced tea to minimize energy usage.  Because I want to drink tons and tons of iced tea, and I don’t want to consume tons and tons of caffeine, I’ve been balancing batches of caffeinated pure teas with caffeine-free herbal teas.  Probably the most exciting one was a batch of herbal tea I made from the fresh mint growing in my garden:

A patch of spearmint, lush green plants with serrated leaves and square stems

Spearmint growing in my garden.

This spearmint was a free bonus of living in this apartment.  Our landlord gave us permission to grow a small garden along the side of the apartment, and we’ve been really going to town with this…but completely independently of this, I noticed that one of the existing flower beds bordering the next apartment unit over was completely overgrown with mint.  The neighbors who live in this apartment said they don’t use the mint, so I’m free to harvest whatever I’d like.

Here’s a photo of the iced mint tea:

A cup of iced tea on a windowsill behind a screen with green trees behind it

My most recent batch of iced mint tea.

This photo also highlights something else I really like about my new location, which is that there’s a wooded slope behind me.  Not only does this keep the area cool (a lot cooler than being mostly surrounded by concrete, blacktop, and buildings like I was in the city) but I also have been going up into this area and nurturing the ecosystems there, discovering a variety of native plants and cutting back some of the “bully” invasive plants like the Ailanthus altissima trees, which a trained eye may be able to spot in the picture above.

About The Iced Tea

I’ve made four batches of iced tea so far.  They are:

  • Fresh mint tea – Described above.  This one was excellent, as it always was.  The mint is perhaps not quite at is prime, a little bitter and stronger tasting than it was about a month ago, but it has not gone to flower yet and it is still in the better part of its flavor range.  I also think the stronger flavor can be nice to make a brisk iced tea.
  • Ahmad Ceylon Tea – This tea is one of my go-to teas of all time.  It’s excellent hot, and excellent iced.  I like brewing it strong to make iced tea, using a lot of leaf and steeping for a full 7 minutes, possibly even longer.
  • Foojoy Dragon Well / Lung Ching – This is a lower grade tea that I find quite enjoyable, but that pales in comparison to some of the Dragon Well samples I’ve been reviewing from TeaVivre recently.  What qualities are maybe less enjoyable in a hot tea though, like slightly greater astringency, I can sometimes find greatly refreshing.  This particular tea I also find tastes a lot smoother and higher-quality iced, for some reason.
  • Rooibos, this batch from Frontier Coop – I don’t drink iced rooibos as much as the minty or lemony herbs, but I felt inspired to make some last night so I made up a batch and I’m loving it.  It has a fruitiness, and a depth and full-bodied character that is usually absent from anything but pure black iced tea.  My only problem with it is that I have trouble telling it apart from the Ahmad Ceylon Tea when I look at the jars of it in the fridge.

One thing I have not yet done is cold-brew some Darjeeling First Flush teas from Happy Earth Tea.  I did this last year, at the recommendation of Niraj Lama from Happy Earth Tea, and the results were outstanding.  This year’s teas I’ve all reviewed hot but I have yet to try them iced…perhaps soon.

How about you?

  • Do you have a patch of mint growing around your home?
  • Have you ever moved into a new apartment or house to be pleasantly surprised by some food plant growing there?
  • Do you ever think about “bully” species of invasive plants, like Ailanthus altissima?
  • Do you drink iced pure teas?  Iced herbal teas?
  • What are your favorite teas and herbs to make iced tea from?

My Favorite Time of Year – News From May and Early June

 - by Alex Zorach

My favorite time of year is winding down, but the cool, humid breeze blowing in my window right now reminds me of the weather a few weeks back.  My favorite month of the year is may, which is now past, but early June still feels similar to me.  During early May is the peak of songbird migration, and I often scale back my work a little bit in order to get a chance to get out and watch birds as much as possible.

Less Work on RateTea

Owing both to my move, which turned out to be a lot more stressful than I had anticipated, and to the bird migration, I didn’t work on RateTea quite as much as I normally do during May.  However, I did get to work on some new features, and had some renewed free time as May closed out.

One result which I just finished and have yet to publicize in an official post (readers here will get an inside head start on it), at the request of one of our newest reviewers, Sarsonator, I added a “wishlist” feature, which allows you to add or save teas to this list, a lot like a list of bookmarks.

Birding Results

I did a ton of birding in May, and gathered great data for eBird, which is a way to turn a hobby into a volunteer bird surveying effort to advance science and conservation efforts.  By the end of May I had boosted my life list for Montgomery County, Pennsylvania to include 113 species!  My rarest find this migration season was a Summer Tanager a bit out of its native range; you can click on the image if you want to learn more about this particular sighting:

An all red bird with no crest, perched on a bare branch in a lush deciduous forest

Summer tanager in Alverthorpe Park, Abington Township, PA.

Besides the birds, another one of the things I love most about this time of year is the lush green foliage.  Here is a plant I have grown rather fond of over the past few years; this plant blooms in the fall, but I also love the foliage at this time of year:

I love it in part because it’s a native plant (I’ve been planting a lot of native plants recently, in my garden, those of friends, and in unmaintained wild areas that are overrun with invasive plants).  I also love it because it’s one of the most shade-tolerant of the plants in the aster family.  I have a strange affinity for shade-tolerant plants, a broad class of plants that incidentally includes the species Camellia sinsensis.

I also included the white wood aster on a newly published page I made on shade-tolerant asters of Eastern North America, which you can read if you want to learn about this and other similar plants.

Temperatures Are Not Too Hot, Still Drinking Lots of Hot Tea

Another thing about this time of year that I also love is the temperature, which typically ranges from pleasantly cool to warm-but-not-too-hot.  This year, the humidity has been consistently high, which is something that some people dislike, but I tend not to mind too much.

When it’s 55-65 at night and the highs get up to 70-87 on typical days, which has been the typical range over the past four weeks or so, I tend to drink just as much hot tea as I do during the winter.  This allows me to get through lots of samples and still have lots of tea that I can just drink for my own enjoyment.  Recently I’ve been most impressed with teas from TeaVivre, Happy Earth Tea, and Mellow Monk, among others.

During the peak of the summer, I do scale back my hot tea drinking a bit, and switch to iced tea, but thankfully, I’m not quite there yet.  I actually haven’t made a single batch of iced tea yet.

What do you think?

  • Do you think a wishlist feature is a good idea for RateTea?
  • Do you also like this time of year?  Or do you have another, different favorite time of year?
  • Have you ever thought much about the topic of gardening with native plants as a way to restore and protect ecosystems?
  • How hot does it have to get before you scale back your hot tea drinking?  Have you already scaled back long before this time of year rolls around, or do you go all-out even through the hottest days?

Bigelow Tea’s Website Redesign – Major Oversights and Recommended Fixes

 - by Alex Zorach

Bigelow Tea recently redesigned their website:

The new Bigelow website, highlighting different photos.

The new Bigelow website, highlighting different photos.

While I like the site design overall, they did some things that I think will harm them from a business perspective.  In particular:

  • The new site changed its URL scheme, without using redirects from the old pages.
  • Some of the old pages have been turned into “Pseudo 404″ pages, which confuse google, not to mention people who come to the site.
  • The site’s search is broken and returns frequent error messages for certain searches.

Here I go into depth about these errors, and explain how they may be hurting Bigelow, and what they can do to correct them.

Old Product Pages Become Pseudo 404 Pages With No Redirects

For example, here is the link to the old page for Bigelow’s Earl Grey.  This page returns the HTML status code “HTTP/1.1 200 OK”, which is the code browsers (and search engine crawlers) expect if the page is found as-is.  But if you look at the page, it’s not a page for Bigelow’s Earl Grey, it’s just a generic form page.

Because these pages are not being redirected, and because the HTML code returned suggest the page was “found”, rather than a “not found” 404 error page, Google doesn’t seem to have figured out the new URL scheme yet.  Look at this search result for “Bigelow Earl Grey”:

Screenshot of broken search results

The search results for individual Bigelow Teas now lead to broken links with no Meta Description and a cryptic comment about the page being blocked by robots.txt

Bigelow’s site still comes up as the #1 result, which is good for Bigelow, and which is what most people would expect, but there are three problems with this search result:

  • The link is broken, leading to the old page.  Google has not yet discovered the new page for this tea, even though the site has now been up for some time.
  • There is no description displaying for the item, under the headline.
  • Instead of a description, the result shows an error about the site’s robots.txt not allowing a description to be available.  This doesn’t look particularly professional or good for Bigelow.

It’s unclear where things will go from here, but as-is, this is going to hurt Bigelow considerably, because they will lose a lot of potential traffic coming through search results like this.  If the problem isn’t fixed gracefully, and persists, they may even fall out of search results–Google doesn’t like to return broken or useless search results like this.  This could hurt Bigelow even more.

Broken Search on the new Website

The new website has a search box, and, if you visit the company’s webpage normally, and then type something into the search box, it works as expected.

But if you try typing something into the search box from the old, broken product pages that are still included in Google search results, you get this error:

Error message saying Internal Server Error (500)

The error shown if you type something into the search box on a broken, old product page.

Very bad for Bigelow!  The first problem above is bad enough, but this problem compounds things…if someone sees that they haven’t found the proper product page, the logical thing for them to do (exactly what I did, and I suspect most users would do this) would be to type the name of the tea they are searching for info about, into the search box.  Then they will get this error message!

Note that this error page only displays if you go to the broken product page, which lives at the old URL (which is currently being returned in Google search results, and which will likely appear on various blogs and other websites linking to the Bigelow site).  Form the new page, things work just fine.

The only way I found to navigate to the new product pages, is by manually browsing the site.  For example, the Earl Grey tea can be found under the Black Tea section.  Because there are several pages of each type of tea though, this process requires several clicks and some concentration or searching of each page to find many of their teas.

What I’ve Done To Help Bigelow

I care about Bigelow, and I’ve taken some measures to minimize the damage caused by these oversights, through some of the work I’ve done on RateTea.  I’ve been drinking their teas for years, and I still enjoy them from time to time, especially Sweet Dreams, which is my all-time favorite of theirs.  I want to see them survive and thrive.

I’ve already taken the care to quickly manually update the URL’s to the new pages on RateTea, for the most-frequently-viewed Bigelow teas on the site.  I plan to go through and manually fix all of them as time permits.  Until then, I’ve removed all broken links to the old product pages.

This will both minimize the damage from visitors coming through RateTea to the Bigelow site, and hopefully, will also help Google to find the new product pages more quickly and more easily.  But I don’t think my site has very much influence relative to the structure of Bigelow’s site itself, which is why I think it is critically important that Bigelow fixes this themselves.

How To Fix This?

The problems described above are serious, but they are easily fixable.  Some time ago, on my old tea blog, I wrote a series on Best Practices for Tea Company Websites.  I particularly recommend reading the post on Link Permanence, where I explain about using redirects.

Bigelow has already hurt themselves with this poorly executed site redesign, but it’s not too late to salvage things.  I recommend a quick course of action:

  • Get redirects operational, ideally via a 301 (permanent) redirect that automatically returns the new product page.  If they have an archived copy of the old site, this will be easy, but if they’ve lost it, this could be considerably difficult.  In this case, I would recommend using web analytics to look at what URL’s most traffic to the site comes through, and focus on fixing the high-traffic URL’s…the other ones can probably be left alone with minimal loss.
  • Make any broken pages that do not redirect, return a custom 404 error page, with a 404 HTML status code instead of the 200 “found” code currently returned.
  • Fix the search box on the broken pages.
  • Check robots.txt to see if there are any problems with the descriptions and with the crawlability of key pages on the site.  Depending on how the site is designed, this problem may fix itself if the other problems are fixed, or it may require a special fix.

Lastly, I recommend Bigelow to take a long, hard look at their web design team or whatever company they contracted with.  The site, in my opinion, looks beautiful, and is easy to navigate, so clearly this company is doing a lot of things right.  My own visual web design skills can be pretty miserable, so I want to make completely clear that this post and these remarks are not in any way intended as a put-down to the web design team.  We all have our strengths and weaknesses…and clearly the visual design and usability of the Bigelow site far exceeds my own web design ability.

But the errors outlined here are huge oversights in the realm of SEO and web marketing, which is something that I think I’ve learned a lot about over the past 5 years or so working with RateTea.  Ideally, the employees or company that carried out the redesign will not only fix the problems, but will learn from their mistakes, and grow as web designers.

If I had hired a company to redesign a website, and they made oversights like this, I’d prod them gently to fix the problem for free.  If I made such an oversight, as a web developer, I’d be going above and beyond to fix things ASAP, in order to show that I was committed to the highest level of quality.

What Do You Think?

What do you think of the topics covered here?

  • How do you feel about it when companies redesign their websites and break their URL scheme without using redirects?
  • How much do you think the oversights and errors here will harm Bigelow?  Do you think that they will quickly recover even without fixing the technical issues?
  • How big a difference do you think it would make for Bigelow if they swiftly and thoroughly addressed the technical and web marketing issues I raised here?

How Not To Do An April Fool’s Joke

 - by Alex Zorach

April fool’s passed this year, and in case any of you noticed, there were no april fools pranks on RateTea or any of my tea blogs.  I did prank one of my birder friends, claiming to have seen both a LeConte’s sparrow and a Henslow’s Sparrow in a Philadelphia city park (she believed me!).

LeConte's sparrows in habitat

LeConte’s sparrow, a very unusual, but possible species here in Philadelphia. A good example of about how esoteric something needs to be to make a good April Fool’s joke.  Photos from the Crossley ID Guide to Eastern Birds by Richard Crossley, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

But there was no big RateTea prank this year, nor last year, like the 2012 Teavana Buyout of RateTea April Fools Prank.

The Best And The Worst April Fool’s Joke

My 2012 fake post about RateTea being bought out by Teavana was simultaneously the best and worst April Fool’s joke I’ve ever pulled off.  It was the best, in that I “got” more people than I’ve ever gotten before, with the prank.  But it wasn’t necessarily the best, because it may have caused RateTea some harm.

To understand why it could have done some harm, I first need to explain why it was such a “good” joke, why I tricked so many people.  The main reason was due to a basic fact that happens on the internet with nearly every blog post or news article: many people read the headline, but most people didn’t read the post.

I don’t know exactly how many people read the headline, but my best guess is that it was in the thousands, possibly tens of thousands, because the post itself got about 250 views, and click-through-rates on articles as low as 1% are quite common…so it is very likely that as many as 25,000 or more people saw the headline.  Most of these people formed a mental association, taking note: “Oh, RateTea was bought out by Teavana.”

Years later, I’m still talking to people who saw that headline, didn’t read the post, and still believe that RateTea was bought out by Teavana.  These people include old friends and acquaintances, people I haven’t kept in touch with, but who loosely keep in touch in the sense of occasionally scanning my Facebook posts.  These people also include people in the tea industry.  At the Philadelphia Coffee and Tea Festival this year, and at World Tea East last year, I encountered numerous tea people who also had been tricked by that April Fool’s joke.

How could this hurt me?  Because many people don’t like Teavana.

One thing that I found interesting was that many people reacted positively when they learned that my post had been a joke.  People also expressed a greater desire to work together with me, after learning that I still owned and managed RateTea.

A large Teavana sign over the New York Stock Exchange

Teavana is a big corporation, which many people don’t have the most favorable impression of.  Photo by David Shankbone, licensed under CC BY 3.0.

I’ve heard numerous people complain about Teavana, on many different grounds.  Most people who have set foot in a brick-and-mortar Teavana store have experienced their pushy sales tactics first hand.  Yes, I’ve been to that exact store, in Willow Grove, PA, referenced in that post; it’s quite near where I live.  But then there is also the buying out and closing down of SpecialTeas (one of my friends, a former loyal SpecialTeas customer, is still shopping around to replace some of the products he used to buy from SpecialTeas), and there’s the general issue of being overpriced, something that nearly all tea connoisseurs seem to agree on.

And then there’s just the question of Teavana’s size.  I get the sense that, all other things equal, people prefer to work with smaller companies.  A lot of businesspeople I know have expressed that working with big corporations can involve a lot of headaches, roadblocks, and hoops to jump through, and the payoffs aren’t always worth it.  And people like to work with people with whom they have a personal connection.

Some Positive Takeaways Too

The impact of this prank was certainly not strictly negative–there may also be some ways that I have benefited by people falsely believing about the Teavana-RateTea buyout.  I think there is a degree to which people may reason: “If this site is big enough to be bought out by Teavana, it must have a certain degree of influence and importance.” and this impression could certainly benefit RateTea.

And of course, there’s also the inspiration and boost in my confidence, just knowing that so many people could believe that the site was bought out by Teavana–which confirms to me that most people now have an impression of RateTea being big and influential enough to be bought out by a company like Teavana.  That makes me feel good, at least, and provides some additional encouragement to keep working on the site.

Lessons Learned?

In the past few years, I’ve come to learn a lot about how the internet works, and also, how to pull off a really great April fool’s joke.  Next time I get people on this large a scale, I want to be more careful.

I want to pick a headline, an idea, which will cause only good to come, and do no harm, not to me or to anyone, if people are tricked into believing it.

What do you think?

  • Are you one of the people who I tricked with the April fool’s prank about RateTea being bought out by Teavana?
  • Have you ever pulled off an April fool’s prank that you think inadvertently caused some harm by people believing your joke?
  • How do you feel about Teavana as a company, vs. RateTea?  Regardless of whether or not you knew about the original prank, do you think that you’d be any more or less eager to work together with RateTea, knowing that I still own and manage the site, and not Teavana or some other bigger corporation?

Republic of Tea’s Caffeine-Supplemented Teas: No Thanks

 - by Alex Zorach

I’ve recently seen a few promotional items about a new line of “high-caffeine” teas from Republic of Tea.  But be warned, these are not teas that have been chosen to be naturally high in caffeine, they are teas that have been supplemented with isolated, pure caffeine.  These teas have been gathered together under the HiCAF label, a (currently unregistered) trademark of the company.  These teas also contain green tea extract, an ingredient which I am cautious and skeptical of including in any product.

Screenshot of Republic of Tea's website, showing their new line of HiCAF teas

Republic of Tea’s HiCAF Teas

These teas are marketed as having a whopping 110mg of caffeine per serving, which the company compares to 50mg a cup for “premium black tea”.  This is not a hugely excessive amount of caffeine; it’s a lot less than some of the stronger coffee drinks you can order in a typical coffee shop.  But it’s the fact that this tea has been supplemented, rather than being made with whole ingredients, that makes me a bit uneasy, and would keep me from buying or drinking a product like this.

I also think it’s a little misleading that Republic of Tea is marketing these as “High Caffeine Teas” rather than “Caffeine Supplemented Teas”.  There are lots of naturally-occurring teas that are high in caffeine, and when I first saw the headlines being put out by the company, I was not sure whether or not they were referring to naturally high-caffeine teas, or supplemented ones.  I had to read the fine print to find this out.  I think that because supplements are a bit unnatural and have some health concerns, it would be important to very openly market the teas like this.

The Case For Whole Foods and Against Supplementation or Extracts

Over the past few years, I’ve developed a pretty strong conviction that it is much healthier to eat whole foods, rather than processed foods that have been supplemented with refined ingredients.  There is a growing body of scientific evidence supporting this conviction, with a pretty strong consensus now that green tea supplements are harmful.  This article in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives explains how there is evidence that while heavy consumption of tea itself (a whole food), as much as 10 cups a day, shows no evidence of harmful effects, there is significant concern about potential negative health impacts from the consumption of green tea supplements.  Even Vitamin supplementation is now beginning to be considered unnecessary and harmful; this Op-Ed in the NY Times, Don’t Take Your Vitamins, explores these issues.

With supplementation with pure caffeine, there are more concerns.  Caffeine is a drug, but in high doses, it is also a poison.  There is at least one documented death associated with caffeinated mints (in someone with impaired liver function), and there are also some nasty interplays between caffeine and other drugs, like how caffeinated alcoholic drinks can lead people to stay awake past when they would normally pass out, and be more likely to die of alcohol poisoning.  This 2009 journal article in Drug and Alcohol Dependency explores this issue in more depth.

Caffeine pills

Caffeine pills are widely known to be dangerous and warrant caution.  Supplementing food or drink with caffeine seems to me to be moving in the direction of these pills.  Photo by Ragesoss, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

There are no such known risks associated with consumption of tea or coffee, even in large quantities.  The more dire health risks appear only in the case of supplementation.  I think this is in large part because coffee and tea are strong-tasting foods which have many other substances, and are naturally bitter.  I think it would be hard for people, even people with impaired liver function like the man in the study above, to drink a lethal dose of caffeine using tea or coffee.

I’m not saying that these teas, which are supplemented with both caffeine and green tea extract  are necessarily dangerous…just that I think that supplementation is something that can become dangerous, and that I think is best avoided.

What About High-Grade Teas?

There is another reason that I’m not a big fan of this newly-launched line of teas is that they’re unnecessary–and they are a bit distracting from what I think is one of the best ways to experience a high-caffeine kick from tea, which is to drink high-grade tea and brew it very strongly.

High grade tea, which contains a higher portion of tips or leaf buds, is naturally higher in caffeine than lower-grade tea.  It also tastes milder and smoother, which means that you can brew it much more strongly, using more leaf and longer steeping times, if you desire more caffeine.

Loose-leaf, high grade black tea

High grade black tea, like this SFTGFOP1, is naturally higher in caffeine.

If you’re looking for a caffeine kick it’s pretty easy to get it from tea.  I’m actually feeling pretty wired right now, as I write this; I just drank two rather strong cups of the Ceylon Estate from Octavia Tea.  This tea is pretty outstanding and I recommend it highly–it’s a very complex, rich black tea.  And to get back to Republic of Tea, I currently have one of their teas in my cupboard right now, Temi SFTGFOP1 First Flush Black Tea, which is quite high is caffeine, and which is mild and smooth enough to brew very strongly if you want a real caffeine kick.  I also recommend that tea.

Not The Only Example Of Such Teas

Lastly I want to point out that, for better or worse, Republic of Tea is not the first tea company to try supplementing their teas with additional, refined caffeine.  Celestial Seasonings Fast Lane tea is a black tea supplemented with caffeine, also 110mg per serving, and it’s been around for quite some time.

What do you think?

  • What do you think of this new line of HiCAF teas?
  • Have you ever tried any caffeine-supplemented tea?  How did you feel after drinking it?
  • Are you skeptical of supplementing teas or other food or drink with pure, isolated caffeine?  Do you think this may pose any health risks, relative to consuming tea as a whole ingredient in food  or drink?
  • Would you, like me, prefer people to focus on high-grade teas that are naturally high in caffeine, rather than caffeine-supplemented tea?

What Makes Tea Articles Hit It Big? Keurigs, Astringency, and Tannins

 - by Alex Zorach

I never know ahead of time which articles on RateTea are going to blow up in popularity, vs. which ones will fall flat or languish in obscurity.  This post is a bit of a case study, comparing three recently published articles on the topics of Astringency, Tannins, and Keurigs / K-Cups.

A graph showing a sharp spike and then gradual up and down following it

This graph, from Google Analytics, shows the typical shape of a newly published article on RateTea. The spike corresponds to when I share the article on social media and move it onto the site’s homepage.

Astringency vs. Tannins

I published two articles in early January, first one on astringency, and later one on the tannins in tea.  The astringency article attracted roughly twice the interest / audience of the tannins article, which was unintuitive to me, given how often I see and hear the general public discussing tannins, and how little I see or hear people discussing astringency.  In retrospect, the disparity of interest may make some sense, however, as the people who would be reading RateTea are more focused on tea tasting and tea reviews, and astringency is a key concept for these–arguably a little more fundamental than the topic of tannins.

Massive Unexpected Interest in an Article on K-Cups

One thing I absolutely did not expect, however, was the massive success of the article I recently published on the topic of Keurig K-Cups and Tea.  It’s barely been out three days and it’s had almost five times as many views as the other two articles combined.  It also got reshared on Facebook and retweeted on Twitter more than the other two articles combined, and on the tea subreddit, it got massively upvoted.

One user on reddit commented on this picture in the article:

The internals of a Keurig coffee brewer, showing numerous colorful tubes and electronics.

The internals of a Keurig do resemble The Terminator. Photo by Charles (CakeAndTea), licensed under CC BY 2.0.

The user noticed that this pic bears an uncanny resemblance to The Terminator, and this remark started a thread of bad Terminator jokes.  I must say I agree, and was thinking the exact same thing when I first saw that pic.

But, besides the amusement factor of the “Terminator” pic, I suspect there may be some deep reasons for the unexpected popularity of this article.

Could it be that there is a latent anti-Keurig sentiment?  One of the reasons that I wrote this article is my own latent anti-Keurig sentiment.  I’ve lately become frustrated with the degree to which Keurig machines have become mainstream to the point of being ubiquitous in office environments, and even in many people’s homes.  I find myself having such thoughts as: “This is so sad.  Why can’t people be taking an interest in loose-leaf tea instead of something like this?”

I’m frustrated because I see Keurigs as a symbol of fast-paced, instant or fast-food culture, and disposable consumer culture in general.  I am concerned about the waste they generate, and the way they push the culture of coffee and tea away from whole foods and artisan food and drink.  And I also think it’s sad because people are pumping a lot of money into these things–K-Cups are darn expensive as my article explores.  I think this symbolism has been there for some time–I even explored it in a dream I had back in 2012.  I’ve been processing these thoughts for a long time, and talking about them with others, and that grew into the RateTea article.

What do you think?

  • Do you have any theories as to why there would be more interest in the astringency article than the article on tannins?  Do you think this trend will continue to play out in the long-run, or do you think that it may reverse, given the obsession in the broader population with health properties of tannins in tea?
  • Are you surprised, or not, by the massive interest in the article on Keurigs?  Do you think it’s explained by latent anti-Keurig sentiment?  Do you share this sentiment yourself?

Harvest, Packing, or Expiration Dates on Boxed and Packaged Teas

 - by Alex Zorach

One thing that I think is a really great idea, and that I’m surprised is not universal, is the idea of putting expiration dates on teas.  Here is a box of Prince of Peace Organic White Peony tea, clearly showing an expiration date:

Back of a box of tea bags, showing an expiration date, circled in red

Prince of Peace is one brand that puts expiration dates on their teas.

It’s pretty obvious why an expiration date is important.  At the risk of earning the label “Captain Obvious” as some of my friends have called me, I want to state that tea doesn’t stay fresh forever, and if a company doesn’t put an expiration date on their product, they risk people buying (and drinking) a product that is not fresh, and not liking it.  This can alienate potential customers who might have been impressed with the tea if only it were fresh.  Captain obvious or not, I’m amazed at how many companies don’t print any dates on their tea.

Lot Number

The box here also shows a lot number.  This can be useful if responding to customer inquiries.  Displaying the lot number shows a commitment to a certain level of quality control, because a lot number is often necessary (and at a minimum, very helpful) for troubleshooting a bad or spoiled batch of tea when responding to customer complaints.

Packing Date is Better Than an Expiration Date

Ahmad Tea, one of my favorite brands, does an even better job than what is shown above…they not only list an expiration date but show the packing date as well.  I think this is more important or useful, because I don’t necessarily know how each company decided on an expiration date–it could easily be arbitrary.  Showing both demonstrates freshness and also communicates how long you expect the product to stay fresh.  Given how inexpensive Ahmad Tea is, I think there is no excuse for other companies to not print the packing date on their boxes.  If Ahmad can do it, nearly anyone can.

Lastly, I want to say that I think a gold standard, which I have seen with some companies, is to list both harvest date and packing date.  This is probably only practical for single-origin teas, but it’s something I love seeing and I encourage any company able to list this info to do so.

Date-Stamp Each Tea Bag When Bags are Individually Sealed

As much as I don’t like increasing resource usage in society, I think that stamping individual tea bags is one expenditure that would be worth it.  I also think that, when I look at the showy and involved packaging and print on tea bags, a basic stamp of the date would be a relatively inexpensive addition to the printing and packing process.

The fact is, many people don’t keep teas in their original packaging; they empty the original boxes into another box or basket, and they frequently trade individual tea bags with each other.  Several of my friends who are casual enthusiasts of bagged tea, keep big baskets or cupboards full of tea bags of all different brands.  Very few of the tea bags are stamped with dates; you can look at the wear and tear on the bag to get a rough guess at its age, but that’s about the best you can do.

I actually have a basket myself of tea bags that I’ve been sampling and sharing with other local reviewers on RateTea, and I checked through them and not one of them has an expiration date stamped on the bag.

I have seen an expiration date stamped on a tea bag before; it was actually recently, and it was what inspired the thinking that led to this post, but I’m blanking on the specific brand.  Looking through my tea cupboard, I was able to find, however, a single-serving loose-leaf tea packet, recently given to me by Evan Draper, which has a date stamped on it, presumably the packing date because it is from last year and the tea is very fresh:

Single-serving loose tea packet with chinese characters and a date stamped on it

This single-serving loose tea packet has a date stamped on it, presumably the packing date.

This tea, incidentally, was very yummy…bitter and grassy and very fresh…not the sort usually preferred by mainstream tastes in the U.S., but definitely the sort that I like.

What do you think?

Share your thoughts and feelings about harvest, packing, and expiration dates!

  • Do you think packing date is more important than expiration date?
  • Have you ever brewed tea from a sealed tea bag, and wondered how old it was?
  • Do you think it would be worth it for companies that sell individually-sealed tea bags to stamp packing or expiration dates on each tea bag, or does this seem like overkill?

Jumping the Gun – Companies Self-Promoting on the Web Without A Functional Website

 - by Alex Zorach

Today I’m writing about something I see surprisingly often, a form of “jumping the gun” when it comes to marketing, that yields wasted effort and can even form a negative impression of your company.  The way I most often see this manifest is when a company promotes itself through social media or even outreach to other webmasters, before it has a functional website.

I do not believe that tea companies need to have a website in order to be successful.  I wrote some time ago about tea companies without websites.  But I think that if you are engaging in web marketing or social media networking, and especially if you’re giving out the URL of your website, it is jumping the gun to do so without having a functional website.

One example of this sort of wasted promotion

Today someone followed me on twitter, and they had a URL listed in their twitter profile.  When I followed it, it led to a parked domain on GoDaddy, displaying the following page:

Screenshot of a Godaddy parked domain

Clearly, this website isn’t up yet.

This is hardly the first time this has happened…I see this happen surprisingly often.  It seems like a big waste of effort.  When someone follows me on twitter, especially if it’s a tea company or other user with a direct interest in or relationship to tea, and I don’t know them or their website, I nearly always check out their website.  In some cases, a new user merely following me has sparked me to research their company and add it to RateTea.

When people follow me and they have a broken link, I feel like it’s wasting my time and I think it sends me the message that they are jumping the gun like I described above.

Another example of jumping the gun

A while back, I added a new tool to RateTea that allows tea companies to submit a brand application to list themselves on the company.  You can find it at the bottom of the brands page on RateTea, and here’s a direct link.  The idea was for me to streamline the process for listing new brands on the site–allowing companies to format the information I want to show on the site, in a format that makes it easy for me to quickly add them.  The goal is for it to save me time, and also get the brands listed quicker, which benefits the companies being listed.

Several companies have already used this successfully, and I’ve added them.

I’ve been sorely disappointed though, with the typical use of this form.  It’s not that people are submitting overt spam in the form, so much as that they’re submitting incomplete applications, or applications for companies that aren’t even launched and don’t have a functional website.

For example, today a company submitted an application which was almost completely empty, providing no information about the company beyond its name, website URL, twitter handle, and Facebook page, and the fact that it was based in China.  When I followed the URL to check out the page, I found the website wasn’t even up yet, and it just had a few Chinese characters redirecting to a Google+ page.  This is a waste of my time, and it makes a negative impression on me.  It’s clear to me that the person did not follow the instructions on the page.

This is probably the worst example of behavior I’ve seen in using this form, but I’ve found that the norm is for companies to not fill the form out completely.  The questions I ask on the form are very basic: where is the company located?  Who owns the company?  If a business owner or representative of the business is not forthcoming about these basic questions about their company, I don’t see why I would want to list them on RateTea.  I am cautious of listing companies that aren’t real tea companies, i.e. sites that make money off affiliate links (I saw one “tea company” just “reselling” Teavana teas through affiliate links) or operations that just drop-ship from other companies.  To me, a lack of openness about ownership and location send up red flags and make me suspicious.

Even if the company in question isn’t suspicious, it’s a missed marketing opportunity.  I ask questions about the location, ownership, and history of a company because I want to highlight the company.  I want to share interesting facts and details and write a captivating mini-story about the company, and share these things with an audience of people interested in learning about the company.

When people don’t fill out the form, it makes me think that they’re not prioritizing effectively–they’re cutting corners to get the company listed quicker, and passing on an opportunity to talk more about their business in such a way that will benefit them much more in the long-run, by making it seem more personal, captivating, and appealing.

What do I recommend instead of jumping the gun?

My recommendation for best practices is simple–hold off on marketing until you have a working website.  It doesn’t have to be the most extensive website, it doesn’t even have to be fully-featured.  A basic placeholder page with basic information about your business, perhaps a contact form and about page, is much better than a parked domain, broken link, or referral to a Google+ or Facebook page.  If your web development is complex and involved, but you’re really itching to promote your company on the web, then whip up a quick, bare-bones site to start, and then make the full site come later.  But don’t market on the web without any website at all!

What do you think?

Have you ever seen companies jump the gun in web marketing, promoting a website or distributing materials with its URL, before the website is up and functional?  Do you think that this represents a missed opportunity, and can harm the company?

  • Have you ever seen companies jump the gun in web marketing, promoting a website or distributing materials with its URL, before the website is up and functional?
  • Do you think that this represents a missed opportunity, and can harm the company?
  • Do you think that the practice of creating a very simple, bare-bones website, doing promoting, and then rolling out the elaborate, full-featured website later is a good approach, or do you think that’s still jumping the gun?  Do you agree that that’s at least better than having no website at all?
  • How do you feel when you follow a link to a dedicated domain, only to find it redirects to a social media page like a Facebook or Google+ account?  Does this seem like jumping the gun, or do you think this can be a valid model of business or marketing?
  • Are you suspicious of companies that don’t identify basic business information, like location, ownership, and history of the company?