SpontaneiTea

A casual tea blog by Alex Zorach

SpontaneiTea

How Not To Do An April Fool’s Joke

April 5th, 2014 · 3 Comments · Uncategorized

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?

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

February 3rd, 2014 · 6 Comments · Uncategorized

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?

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

January 30th, 2014 · 4 Comments · Uncategorized

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?

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

January 22nd, 2014 · 8 Comments · Uncategorized

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?

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

January 20th, 2014 · 7 Comments · Uncategorized

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?

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Tea Habits in Responding to Very Cold Weather

January 6th, 2014 · 3 Comments · Uncategorized

Recently, bitter-cold weather has been gripping much of the U.S.  Below is a screenshot of the weather report for Minneapolis, from Intellicast, a weather website that I’ve come to prefer to others recently.  I recommend checking it out if you haven’t yet–it’s fast and responsive, and doesn’t have as many obnoxious advertisements as Weather.com, which is incidentally owned by the same parent company.

Screenshot of weather forecast for Minneapolis, MN, showing a very cold forecast

Looking at the weather in Minneapolis makes me feel a little better about where I live.

I am a curious person, and I frequently check weather for various cities around the world out of curiosity.  Minneapolis is one of my favorite cities to check, for multiple reasons.  One of them is that I love the Midwest.  Another is that it makes me feel better about where I’m living, at least during the cold months of the year.  “Bitterly cold.  Dangerous wind chills approaching -40F”.  Makes my 10 degree low seem subtropical, which apparently it is, as I explain below.

The Weather and Climate Here in Philadelphia

We’ve had a cold week, but it’s been more inconvenient than truly dangerous or crippling.  There was a relatively heavy snow, but the inconvenience of the snow seemed more due to the city’s inexperience at dealing with snow, rather than the volume of snow itself.  I recall much heavier snows when I was living in Cleveland, in which there was less disruption to the ability to travel.  My impression of Philly’s snow response can be summed up by my experience the other day, when I saw two city garbage trucks from the recycling department driving around plowing snow.  I guess the city just doesn’t own many trucks ideally suited for plowing.  Needless to say, many of the side streets did not get plowed at all.

I want to follow up on my earlier comment about Philadelphia feeling subtropical when I look at the forecast for Minneapolis.

Philadelphia, surprisingly to people who think of it as a cold-winter city, is at the very northern border of the subtropical climate zone, according to the Koppen Climate Classification.  It shows.  While Minneapolis is dealing with lows around -20, Philadelphians are shocked when the temperature dips below 10.  Yesterday and this morning, we had a pleasantly warm rain that washed away nearly all of the snow accumulation, and today while birdwatching, I noted a rhododendron growing in the woods, a broadleaf evergreen plant like the tea plant, and sighted a lone Yellow-rumped warbler, a species that is a member of a family of birds that mostly migrate from the tropics.

A yellow-rumped warbler on a bare winter branch of a tree

A Yellow-rumped warbler, on bare winter branches, much like I saw today. Photo by Ken Thomas.

Broadleaf evergreens and overwintering warblers are both characteristic of subtropical climates–and generally absent from colder continental climates like the upper Midwest.  Last winter, I even located an overwintering Palm Warbler and an Orange-crowned Warbler, two of the next-most-cold-hardy species of this bird family.  Just as Rhododendrons are among the more cold-hardy of broadleaf evergreen shrubs, and Yellow-rumped warblers are the most cold-hardy of the New World Warblers, Philadelphia is on the coldest end of the subtropical climate zone.

Cold and My Tea Routine

Unfortunately, the heating setup in my apartment is not ideal.  My apartment has electric heat, something that I think is just stupid in a lot of ways, but as a result, heating my place is very expensive.  Thus, when it gets brutally cold out, I let it get a little colder in my apartment so I’m not faced with an astronomical heating bill at the end of the month.  I still feel grateful; I learned that a couple of my friends had their heat break during this past week–and that sounded pretty awful.  When I’ve turned the heat off in my living room (heating only my bedroom while sleeping) the temperature on the windowsill in the living room reached 49 degrees on the coldest day…pretty cold for an indoor temperature.

When it’s colder in my apartment, I want to keep warm, so I drink more tea.  Often this means resteeping my tea one more time than I normally would, and drinking a rather bland cup just to keep warm.  At other times it means brewing up a batch of caffeine-free herbal tea in between caffeinated teas, so I can keep drinking the hot liquids (and having a warm mug to hold in my hands) without getting overly caffeinated.

How About You?

Share with us your feelings and preferences on tea and cold!

  • Are you affected by the recent cold spell?  How cold is it outdoors where you are?
  • With your heating setup, does your place stay cozy, or does it get a bit colder indoors when it’s this cold outside?
  • Do you drink more tea when it’s cold inside?  How about when it’s cold out but cozy and warm inside–do you still want to drink more tea then?
  • Did it surprise you to learn that Philadelphia’s climate is classified as subtropical?
  • Have you ever seen a warbler overwintering in a cold-winter part of the U.S.?  Would you be surprised to see one?

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Fixing Broken Links and Updating Images on RateTea

December 18th, 2013 · 2 Comments · Uncategorized

The past few weeks I’ve been absorbed with getting caught up on some maintenance work on RateTea.  This includes fixing broken links, updating information on retired or discontinued teas, and fixing the images.

Nowadays I do nearly all this work myself.  Although there are two other site admins for RateTea, Sylvia has never done much maintenance of the site database, instead doing mostly graphic design and editing, and although Gretchen used to, she does not currently do any active maintenance of the sort I’m talking about here.

I actually find some of this tedious work satisfying, as I’ll explain below.  But I want to talk first about broken links.

Why do links break?

RateTea, when possible, links to the product page for each individual tea on our site.  As we presently list some 6700+  teas (an ever growing figure), this is a lot of URL’s.  There are two main reasons that links to tea pages break:

  • The tea is discontinued, and the page is taken down
  • The company redesigns their website and changes its URL scheme, so that all old links to deep pages on their site break

In both of these cases, the broken links are unnecessary, and actually harm the company.  Links to a company’s product pages help the company, as they help the website gain traffic and visibility, and they also help indirectly influence the site’s authority and search rankings.  Both of these can lead to increased sales.  When links break, a company is losing out.

Why do I say the broken links are unnecessary?  Because they can be handled by redirects or placeholder pages.  In my series on best practices for tea company websites, on my old tea blog, I wrote about link permanence and I explain how companies can use 301 redirects and pages about old, retired products to profit from old links.  I recommend reading this if you work for a tea company (or are interested in any sort of e-commerce), and have not yet done so.

Other Maintenance: Retired Teas

The topic of broken links relates to another topic which I’ve thought about a lot, which is that of retired teas.  I want to write more about this later, but one of the things I did when going through the RateTea database is to check which teas are still in use, and which have been retired.  Some companies, like Celestial Seasonings and Upton Tea Imports, make this easy, by either publishing notices or lists of retired products, or by keeping old product pages up with a notice that the product has been permanently discontinued.

In other cases though, I have trouble finding a straight answer about whether or not a tea has really been retired…in some cases I’ve found that a tea is no longer listed on a company’s website, but is still for sale.  It gets tricky to get a clear answer when I don’t have an open communication channel with a tea company, especially with the larger, multinational brands that have different catalogues and offerings in different regions.

Updating Images and Fixing Image Dimensions

When I first created RateTea, I used a dynamic (variable) dimensions for the thumbnail of each tea.  This made the design of the layout on various pages unwieldly, and I later decided that I wanted to go over to a fixed, square thumbnail.  Unfortunately, some of the thumbnails stored on the server were still in other dimensions.  I thought these looked unprofessional, so I have been going through and systematically cleaning them out, starting with the brands of tea which get the most views on RateTea.  Now, most of the major tea companies have square thumbnails which display nicely on all pages of the site.

Many companies have also changed their packaging, so this also gave me an opportunity to update the thumbnails to reflect the newer packaging.  On some brands, the result of this change is striking.  The page for Bigelow used to look pretty terrible, I think.  Check it out now:

Screenshot of RateTea showing boxes and rankings of Bigelow teas

Bigelow’s Page on RateTea, with the new images

I like Bigelow’s new packaging, and regardless of whether or not I liked it, I think it’s important to have the thumbnails on the site reflect the packaging that people are seeing out there in the world.  As a side-note, I noticed that the decaffeinated Constant Comment is actually ranking higher than the caffeinated tea.  This was unintutive to me, and I wonder if it’s a statistical artifact of which reviewers have happened to rate one tea or the other (only two reviewers overlap).  Perhaps this can push me to tweak the RateTea algorithms to make them more accurate.

On Tedious Work

One thing that has been interesting to me, over the past week, is how much I’ve enjoyed doing the tedious, repetitive work of updating the RateTea database.  A huge portion of what I do with RateTea is writing and research, and I find writing in particular to be very draining (although I also find it very satisfying).  It’s nice to do something relatively mindless, yet also mentally stimulating, for a change.  It’s almost a little bit like playing a video game.

I also have noticed, though, that doing an extensive amount of tedious work can often spark valuable innovations.  I noticed this a long time ago, in a summer job I had working in the fiscal office of the Children and Youth agency in Lancaster County.  In that case, I was given tedious work involving TANF (Welfare) paperwork–filing papers, pulling records from, and entering records into a database, and sending mailings.  After plowing through weeks of this work, I began to develop skills to automate.  I used Microsoft Access and VisualBasic to automate some of the work, and by the end, I had reduced about 7 hours of daily work to taking about 3 hours, giving me time to help automate tasks for others in the office.

Lately I’ve been doing the same for RateTea.  For example, I realized that I was spending a fair amount of time cropping, resizing, and adding margins to images that weren’t being handled gracefully by RateTea’s existing server-side code for resizing images…so I took a peek at the code and started adding more analysis of the image, reflecting the same process that I used when working with the images manually.  It worked beautifully–the Bigelow images seen above are ones that would have tripped up my old code, but which worked beautifully (and were able to be generated automatically, server-side) by my new code.  This saved a tremendous amount of time.

The pattern, regardless of the job I am working in, is essentially the same: by doing several hours of tedious work, just buckling down and focusing on getting it down, I develop insights that help me to later automate the work.

What do you think?

  • How valuable do you think it is for me to continue putting effort into maintaining the RateTea database?  Do you currently use RateTea often to look up information on teas from different companies?  How important to you is it that such a database is accurate and frequently updated?
  • What do you think of the new Bigelow packaging?  Do you like it?
  • Do you notice when a website has thumbnails that are awkwardly distorted?  How much of a difference do you think it makes to have thumbnails with proper dimensions?  For unusually narrow or wide images, is whitespace around a tiny thumbnail always preferable to a distorted image?
  • Do you enjoy tedious work tasks?  Have you ever been able to automate your work in the manner I described above?  Do you think it’s only really possible for people with programming expertise, or have you found other ways to save time or automate repetitive tasks?

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TJ Maxx’s Tea Selection

December 11th, 2013 · 7 Comments · Uncategorized

I sometimes find good tea in unusual places.  One of these is TJ Maxx, a chain of discount stores that primarily sells clothing.  TJ Maxx is not the sort of place I normally think of buying any sort of food products, let alone tea, but the store sells a small but rather variable and diverse array of teas back in the food and kitchen section of the store.

It was actually through this chain of stores that I discovered several brands of tea, including Hampstead Tea.  I also picked up about 100 grams of loose-leaf, single-estate Darjeeling tea from my favorite garden, Makaibari estate, at one of these stores, under the Hampstead Tea brand.  In other years I’ve seen a variety of loose-leaf teas there, not quite as high-end, but solid brands of British-style black teas like The London Cuppa.

This year the selection wasn’t anywhere near as good.  While the photo below looks impressive, all those tins are actually tins of tea bags, not loose-leaf:

TJ Maxx's tea selection in December of 2013.

TJ Maxx’s tea selection in December of 2013.

The selection is highly variable from year to year, but tends to be pretty similar from store to store.  The photo above is from a store in Abington, PA; I had checked a store in Maine about a week before, when up there for Thanksgiving, and their selection was nearly identical.

What is in this year’s selection?

The theme of this year seems to be pyramid sachets.  The shelf above has boxes of pyramid sachets of numerous different brands, often as low as $4 or lower for 15 sachets.  This price is half or even less than half that of what pyramid sachets of tea typically retail for, but to me, it doesn’t seem like much of a deal because I am comparing it with loose-leaf, which is a much better deal.  A lot of these boxes though come in reusable metal tins, so you get a little bit more value for your money.

If you’re going to buy pyramid sachets, it might be better to buy them here and get a metal tin, rather than at full price (and in a cardboard box) at a typical store.

What does the selection above say about the tea marketplace in the US?

I find it interesting to think about why the products we see here are available.  TJ Maxx functions a lot like a “mixed brand” outlet store…stores like this sell rejected or overstock lots of products at marked down prices, things that didn’t sell at their full retail price in fancier stores.  As such, it plays the role of recouping losses for wholesalers (and thus producers and suppliers in the long-run), while filling a lower-end retail niche.

How I read the products here is that it seems like this year, a lot of new brands experimented with pyramid sachets, and didn’t do so well with them.  Pyramid sachets seem to be the “hot new thing” these days.  Over the past few years there has been a growth of brands selling them, and some of them, like Two Leaves Tea (formerly Two Leaves and a Bud), seem to be doing quite well.  But just because other companies have been successful with something doesn’t mean it’s good for every business…and it makes sense that a lot of companies trying out this new approach might either fail or over-produce or over-stock their products.  I suspect that this may be what happened here.

I’m curious to see what next year’s selection looks like.  This year, I didn’t buy anything.  I was really looking for loose-leaf!

What do you think?

  • Have you ever visited TJ Maxx and checked out their tea selection?
  • Does my speculative explanation about new brands experimenting unsuccessfully with pyramid sachets seem to explain the prevalence of these at this store this year?  Or do you think there’s another explanation?

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Q&A With Alex Zorach About Tea Blogging, Dreams and Hopes

December 5th, 2013 · 10 Comments · Uncategorized

I rarely respond to chain posts like this, but I found this one interesting and thought-provoking.  Here is my response to being tagged by @Jackie in her post The joys of tagging or how global warming melts my tea blog.  Apologies for taking so long to answer this–I wanted to write thorough answers, and it’s taken me quite some time to get to this.

Large-leaf oolong tea leaves after brewing, on a ceramic plate

Whole-leaf oolong tea leaves after brewing. I’d like to nudge the global tea culture more in the direction of loose teas, especially artisan teas like this oolong from TeaVivre

1) First, let’s start with how you were introduced & fell in love with the wonderful beverage of tea.

My parents are huge tea drinkers, making a pot of strong black tea every morning, and always using loose-leaf.  When I was growing up though, I only drank caffeine-free herbal teas…and I got very interested in them, in part through getting interested in growing mint-family herbs in the garden.  In college, I began trying different  tea bags, and a key moment was trying a high-quality oolong in a tea bag from Ten Ren.  Years later, the discovery of Upton Tea Imports with their huge catalogue, focus on tea regions, and affordable samples was another key moment.  And of course, RateTea has gotten me more into tea than I ever was before.

You can read more about this whole journey in my old blog post how I became interested in tea, on my old tea blog.

2) What was the very first tea blend that you ever tried?

I don’t think I remember this, but the stuff at home that my parents drank when I was growing up was mostly from Murchie’s.  My parents drank a lot of Russian Caravan, and other strong black teas.  The first teas I remember being conscious of sampling on my own, drinking regularly, and forming an opinion on were the Bigelow flavored teas.  I think I became fond of their Earl Grey before the others, although to be honest it was their herbals that first drew me in, and I was most fond of the Sweet Dreams blend.

3) When did you start your tea blog & what was your hope for creating it?

I started RateTea in September of 2009 and my old blogspot blog shortly thereafter.  But I first wrote online about teas on Cazort.net, earlier in 2002.  The high amount of views and interest on those tea reviews were one of the things that inspired me to create RateTea.  More recently, I started this blog earlier this year, February of 2013, and I started Teacology in November of 2012.  Oh, and my newest tea blog is the RateTea Tumblr, started May of 2013.

My hope / purpose for each of these was somewhat different..  On Cazort.net, I hoped to see how much people online were interested in reading tea reviews.  I was surprised to find that there was a ton of interest…and this inspired me to create RateTea.  With RateTea, my hopes and dreams were (and continue to be) ambitious.

I ideally would like RateTea to grow into a large business with multiple full-time staff (it’s well on its way there) but more importantly, I want RateTea to be a unique resource that can transform the tea industry, and play a small but important role in the transformation of food and drink culture in the US and the world.  In particular, I want RateTea to inspire people to pay more attention to their tea, and to food and drink in general–how it tastes as well as where it comes from and how it is produced.

My main hope in creating my first tea blog was to engage with the community of tea bloggers–and it was very successful in doing this.  My hope in moving away from Blogger/Blogspot and shifting to Tea Trade and WordPress as blogging platforms, was to reach a broader audience and avoid the problems of spam and stagnation that had plagued Blogger.  And this has been largely succesful.

Lastly, my hope in the RateTea Tumblr has been to engage with the audience on Tumblr, which is uniquely young and internet-saavy.  The RateTea Tumblr has been very successful, getting a lot more engagement than I had expected or anticipated, and I am hoping to keep it up!

4) List one thing most rewarding about your blog & one thing most discouraging.

This question would be very different applying it to different sites and blogs.  I think the most rewarding thing is knowing that people are reading, appreciating, and being influenced by my ideas.  I think that I’m someone who cares, more than anything else, about influencing the world.  I have ideas that I feel passionate about and I feel like they’re a lot more important than my own money, fame, or recognition.  I just want to get the ideas out there.

Some of these ideas include things about food culture, like how we eat and drink and think about food.  Others of them include how we think about the internet, about information, or about money or business.  Still other ideas, possibly the most important of all, pertain to how we communicate, and to what sorts of communication and ideas I see as respectful and/or truthful.  I feel like all of these different issues come up in my tea blogging and my work on RateTea.

I think the thing that I find most discouraging is when I feel like I’m not getting much attention for my work.  I sometimes get especially frustrated when I create or share multiple posts or works, and the ones that I feel most passionately about attract the least attention, when I see posts that either I or others have created, that I see as more superficial or less important to me, attracting more attention.

5) What type of tea are you most likely to be caught sipping on?

It’s funny because, in writing this post, I had copied-and-pasted the text from Jackie’s post, and I see her reply below this as I’m typing, and this is the one point where her first sentence could just as well have been mine:

“8.9 times out of 10 it’s black loose leaf tea.”

Okay, maybe not quite 8.9 times out of 10, but I definitely drink loose-leaf black tea more than any other kind of tea.  But in my case, it’s nearly always a pure tea (unflavored) and it’s nearly always without any milk or sugar.

If there’s any one brand that I drink most frequently, it would be Ahmad Tea, and the type of tea of theirs that I drink most often is their Ceylon Tea.  Ahmad’s Ceylon is really hard to beat…and of all the teas out there of similar quality, it’s the least likely to break the bank.

6) Favorite tea latte to indulge in?

I’m going to again quote Jackie on this one:

Ugh. Shudder. I’m not even going to find out what that may be.

7) Favorite treat to pair with your tea?

Nuts or fruit.  I love munching on nuts…I often make a trail mix which I call “Anna’s Parents’ house mix”, which consists of about equal parts (by weight, not by volume) of almonds, walnuts, cashews, and raisins.  I eat that a lot.

I also love eating fruit.  As I like to say, “I’m a fruit person.”  One of my favorites is baby bananas, but, especially in season, I also love strawberries, juneberries (serviceberries), plums, or my favorite fruit, black raspberries, or second-favorite-fruit, blood oranges.  There are some fruits, like pineapple, kiwi, and grapefruit, which I love, and eat frequently, but which I avoid pairing with tea.  I even wrote about what grapefruit does to my taste buds; pineapple and kiwi aren’t quite as bad but have similar effects, ruinous if I want to write a serious review.

And I sometimes eat chocolate with tea…sometimes Trader Joe’s 70% dark chocolate…other times Aldi’s dark chocolate with Hazelnuts…or possibly their Marzipan bars coated in dark chocolate.

And lastly, sometimes the south-central Pennsylvanian in me comes out and I’m caught eating pretzels with my tea.  My mainstream brand of pretzels is Snyder’s of Hanover, preferably the sourdough nuggets, but “en mi corazon” I’ll always have a special place for the truly exquisite hard pretzel, Hammond Pretzel, rarely available far from my hometown of Lancaster, PA.

8) If there was one place in the World that you could explore the tea culture at, where would it be & why?

I’d love to explore the culture of tea production anywhere and everywhere.  Most of my exposure to tea culture has been the culture of tea consumption.  I honestly am more interested in production than consumption when it comes to tea, I think in part because the way I usually like to enjoy tea is pretty minimal–just by myself with a mug.

But tea production is pretty far removed…and I read about it and research it so much and so deeply.  I have created this huge encyclopedia of info on RateTea, and I frequently browse the region pages on the site and wish I could go to these places…but it’s very expensive.  Maybe some day!

If I had to pick a single place to visit, it would probably be a more remote part of China, probably Yunnan province.  I’m really drawn by the permaculture with ancient tea trees, the fact that the tea plant is probably indigenous to that region, and to the ancient cultures and traditions of tea production there, as well as the amazing diversity (and weirdness) of the teas produced there.

9) Any teatime rituals you have that you’d like to share?

For how into tea I am, I think my tea rituals are pretty boring.  I usually brew a cup of tea with my breakfast, usually not a tea I want to review (more often than not it’s a black tea from Ahmad Tea).  I usually brew it really strong, and I let it sit and cool when I’m eating my breakfast, which usually includes a bowl of unsweetened shredded wheat cereal with milk, and some fruit.  And then I drink it once I’m done eating.  I often like to look out the window when I’m drinking it, although sometimes I drink it at the computer and start doing a little work before I head out for a morning walk or bird survey.

10) Time of day you enjoy drinking tea the most: Morning, Noon, Night or Anytime?

Definitely morning; I’m relatively sensitive to caffeine and I tend to drink little tea after the mid-afternoon.

11) What’s one thing you wish for tea in the future?

I hope RateTea continues to grow and thrive, but more importantly, whether or not RateTea is successful, I would like to see the goals and purpose of the site to be achieved…the goals of sustainability in the tea industry through a greater appreciation for tea.  What do I think this would look like?

  • People shift away from tea bags and become more focused on loose tea; the industry as a whole shifts to loose tea from tea bags.
  • The focus of the tea industry shifts away from low-quality, bulk teas, blending, and flavored teas, over to high-quality, pure teas, and artisan teas.
  • The tea industry becomes more transparent, with companies providing more information about where their tea comes from, and how it is produced
  • The infrastructure and support aspects of the tea industry become more sustainable–in terms of everything from the packaging of consumer products, to the behind-the-scenes shipping and packing, and the tea production itself
  • Tea culture stays diverse and becomes more diverse…and the marketplace is dominated by small companies and small producers, rather than large brands and multinational corporations with standardized products

What do you think?

I’m not going to tag specific people because I think a lot of people have already been tagged in this post and Tea Trade isn’t a big enough community for us to continue tagging the same number of people, but I’d encourage anyone who wants to answer this post!

Did the questions, or my replies, bring up anything for you?  Let me know in the comments or with a follow-up post!

I’m especially interested in knowing what people think of my goals and hopes and dreams for the tea industry and global tea culture!

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Lipton Improving the Visual Design of Their Packaging for Pyramid Sachets

November 21st, 2013 · 3 Comments · Uncategorized

It is common for brands to change their packaging.  As I run RateTea and work to keep the site up-to-date, I frequently notice changes in packaging.  Most of them are changes I see as improvements, some are ones I see as neutral, and sometimes I see changes that I actually dislike.

I want to highlight an aesthetic change that I particularly like.  Unfortunately I just have the thumbnails of the old image, so I’ll show it together with an equal-sized thumbnail of the new packaging.  Click through to Lipton’s site to see a full resolution image.  The tea I am focusing on as an example is Lipton’s Mandarin Orange Green Tea, part of Lipton’s line of pyramid sachets.  Lipton changed the packaging on both their flat tea bags and pyramid sachets, but it’s the pyramid sachets that I think exhibit the most noticeable improvement.

The old packaging:

A green box of Lipton pyramid tea sachets

Old Packaging

The new packaging:

New Packaging

New Packaging

I think the new packaging looks a lot better.  I think it looks warmer, and I also think that it looks more professional.  At a glance, I think the new packaging really strikes me as having the look-and-feel of a high-end brand, whereas the old packaging looked more like a typical supermarket brand.

Notice that instead of the small, scattered Mandarin oranges in the top graphic, there is instead a closeup of a lucious, juicy-looking mandarin orange.  I find this much more enticing.  I especially like the beige color at the top of the new packaging.  I think that this, combined with the closeup of the orange, creates a warmer color-scheme.  I also like the change of green-on-white lettering to white-on-green lettering for the tea’s name.

Also, note that the pyramid bag in the bottom picture now shows the leaf floating upwards, almost as if the tea is in the process of being steeped.  I think this is subtle but smart–it is an illustration of the primary benefit of the pyramid sachet, the fact that it gives the leaf room to expand.  Also note how the bottom package, which shows the pyramid sachet overlapping two layers of distinct color, illustrates the transparency of the sachet more powerfully than the old packaging.

In the end though, packaging isn’t very important to me.  I notice it, and I may use it to make an initial guess about a new brand with which I’m unfamiliar, but in the end I care most about how the tea tastes, its price, and its sustainability.  I suspect packaging makes less of a difference in whether or not I buy a tea, than it does for the typical person.  I definitely notice and pay attention to the packaging, but I also go out of my way to sample a wide range of teas, and choose what to drink on the basis of the tea itself.

What do you think?

  • Do you like the new packaging on this Lipton tea more than the old one?
  • Have you noticed any other brands of tea changing their packaging recently?  Did you have an opinion on the change?
  • How important is packaging to you?  Do you think it makes a big difference?

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