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

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!

10 thoughts on “Q&A With Alex Zorach About Tea Blogging, Dreams and Hopes”

  1. Even if this is not your cup of tea, it was nice reading about you and your travel through tea.

    Regarding tea and its industry, I think your goals are noble but I am afraid there will always be two kinds of industry: the hand-made Rolls Royce and the industrial Ford T.
    Why? Supply and demand or in other words, can the suppliers keep up with the demand? Or will they have to use industrial resources to do so?

    1. Thank you!

      I think what you say makes sense, in that the high-grade artisan teas will only be available on a smaller scale, due to supply.

      However…I think there are many ways in which the current setup could be improved. The current tea industry adds unnecessary steps and work in a lot of ways. For example, the individual variability and seasonal variability of flavor and aroma in single-origin and single-estate teas are “blended out” in the commercial blends. Also, the whole packing and tea bag industry is, to a large degree, unnecessary in the global scheme of things.

      I think CTC tea and low-grades of tea can actually be quite good. As a case in point, check out Ajiri tea. That’s some pretty top-notch CTC tea if you ask me. I even would prefer a basic CTC tea like Yorkshire tea, over a Lipton tea bag. And, as I recently reviewed on RateTea, Lipton’s basic loose-leaf yellow-label is way ahead of their tea bags.

      I regularly drink and enjoy broken-leaf black teas of moderate to low grade…some of them can be really good. And in many cases, like white teas, I actually prefer low grade teas. I would rather drink a lot of shou mei than silver needle…silver needle I enjoy as a rare treat, but it’s not just because of cost, but also because of flavor and how I feel after drinking it. Shou mei is just a tea I feel like I would want to drink every day and silver needle isn’t. Maybe this is a good thing–because the supply and demand matches up with my desires in this case.

      So I think the tea industry could undergo the shifts I described above more fully–yes, many people would still drink low-grade tea, but I think that the industry could move pretty far away from tea bags, blending out regional variability, and flavoring teas.

      1. As for variability, this is not something we like: we want our apples/tomatoes/… to look the same and taste the same.
        The same goes for our teas, we prefer to have something that we know will taste like that.

        As for tea bags, I think it is now a marketing trap as people are convinced it is easier to do: after all, you warm water, drop one bag, wait/move it, pull it away and here you go. What is easier than that?
        And most of the times, it doesn’t cost that much to produce.

        1. Who is “we”?

          I think culinary tastes and preferences in the U.S. are already changing, and I would say, have already changed pretty far away from uniformity. I notice that both I and my girlfriend eat a radically different diet from our parents, and I think in general, we demand greater diversity.

          I also see people making buying choices that back this up. For example, I attend a local farmer’s market, and there is a stand that sells a lot of unusual varieties of produce, like carrots in different hues, from dark purple to raspberry-colored to pale green, and similarly for sweet potatoes and various other types of produce…and there’s a huge line at this place. In the summer, nearly all the stands are selling diverse arrays of heirloom tomatoes.

          And it’s not just small farmer’s markets in urban areas. In Newark, Delaware there’s a massively successful store called the “Newark Delaware Farmer’s Market”, which is not a proper farmer’s market, but it has a massive array of different types of produce. Incidentally, this store also stocks some unusually good loose-leaf teas, like Dong Ding and Alishan oolongs of the Tradition brand, as well as some Japanese and Chinese loose teas. I think this market is hugely successful in part because of diversity–it’s situated in a region with large Mexican, Korean, and Indian populations, as well as other ethnic groups. The ethnic diversity creates a demand for a diverse array of produce, but the diversity ends up becoming a thing in and of itself.

          I frequently go up to the register at this market to find a Mexican whose cart is full of Chinese vegetables, or an East Asian person buying Indian spices or Mexican hot peppers.

  2. Thanks Alex for taking me up on my tag. I agree with @xavier that it’s really nice reading about your personal story.
    By the way, I really should try Ahmad again sometime, when I had some (several years back) I wasn’t impressed. It wasn’t bad but it wasn’t good, or exciting. Perhaps things have changed now, or my tastes have changed. Not sure where to get it now, can’t remember where I bought it at the time.

    1. Which one did you try, and was it loose-leaf?

      I really like their straight Ceylon most of all, and I also like the Ceylon OPA and Kalami Assam. I also find they take very long steeping times to really bring out their true character. The Kalami Assam, in spite of being a strong tea, I steep for 8 minutes.

      It comes out like a punch-you-in-the-face breakfast tea but with a lot of interesting nuances that equally strong teas usually don’t have.

      Interestingly, I’ve found some of the Ahmad Teas are oddly sensitive to water quality. For example, that very strong tea, if I brew it at Saxby’s coffee shop, which has their own proprietary water filtration system, comes out tasting smoother, milder, less astringent, and brews up a clearer cup…and has much fruitier tones.

      Sometimes I think I pay way too much attention to the nuances of tea haha…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *