Tea Habits in Responding to Very Cold Weather

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?

Fixing Broken Links and Updating Images on RateTea

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?

TJ Maxx’s Tea Selection

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?

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!

Lipton Improving the Visual Design of Their Packaging for Pyramid Sachets

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?

Junk in the RateTea Contact Form

One thing that I never anticipated when I founded RateTea, and which has never ceased to amaze me, is the amount of complete garbage I get in the RateTea contact form.  I’m not talking about spam, I’m talking about inquiries that are misplaced or irrelevant.  Here is one of the latest:

Please let know whole rate of our product.

I don’t even know what this means.  I frequently get all sorts of inquiries from people wanting to buy or sell all sorts of things that are completely irrelevant…for example, things tangentially related to the tea industry, like people selling (or wanting to buy) packaging or boxes.  Most of these are from people with exceptionally poor command of the English language.  Sometimes I struggle to even understand what they’re saying.  Often, the broken language is extremely formal in construction, which is sometimes amusing.

Here’s another one I got:

Please give me more details as to how exactly this works and if there are any costs involved. Please don't have anyone call me, just send me an email reply. Thank you. Sarah.

This had an email address with a domain that had no website on it.  Typing this text into google, I see this message is a form message that’s been sent to many people.  What is this one, a scam to harvest email addresses for spamming?

People Writing as if RateTea were Customer Service for a Tea Company

One thing I get frequently is people writing to me at RateTea, as if they were writing to the customer service of a tea company.  It happens most often with people writing to Bromley Tea, but it happens with many other companies as well.  I think I have a vague understanding of why this happens, but it still seems perplexing.  For example, if you type bromley tea contact into Google, the first several results are the Bromley tea website, which clearly has an email address, but no web contact form.

If this email address somehow didn’t satisfy someone, and someone were to scan the search results until they got to the first one that offered a contact form, this would take them to the 5th or so result, which is RateTea.  Bromley tea is one of the companies for which we frequently get contacted with messages that seem like they are being written to customer service.

I always respond courteously to these messages, but I can’t help but feeling a little perplexed at the complete irrelevance of them.  Some of them are minute complaints about the quality of the paper packaging on their tea bags, or commentary on their packaging.  Isn’t it clear that RateTea is RateTea, and not one of the companies listed?  The contact form says “Contact RateTea”, not “Contact Name-of-Company”.  Our page on Bromley Tea also clearly links to the official page.  I wonder how many of the superfluous contacts I get in the form are people who are, for what ever reason, running on autopilot and not thinking at all about who they are writing to.  I sometimes wonder if they are older people who are completely unfamiliar with how the web works and perhaps browsing for one of the first times.

At any rate, some of the messages give me a good chuckle, and the ones that I think are wasting my time I just delete without thinking much about.

What do you think?

  • Can you think of any explanation for the volume of junk I get in the RateTea contact form?  Does the lack of English skills fully explain the irrelevant business inquiries?  Is my theory of older adults unfamiliar with the internet adequate to explain the strange volume of messages I get that seem to be addressed to Bromley tea’s customer service?
  • Do you think that one message I pasted is a scam, or something else?
  • If you run an online business with a contact form, have you also had a huge volume of off-topic and irrelevant inquiries (not to be confused with actual spam or scams)?
  • How would you respond to off-topic inquiries?  At what point do you think they’re wasting your time and would you just delete them?  Which ones would you take the time to respond to politely?

Cafes Mixing Tea Brands or Suppliers – Velvet Sky Bakery And Other Examples

Today I’m writing from Velvet Sky Bakery and Cafe in Jenkintown, PA. Velvet Sky has been open as a bakery (specializing in cakes and cupcakes) for some time, but it only opened up its cafe this summer. I absolutely love the cafe, which is located in the heart of downtown Jenkintown.

They seem to have just about everything pinned down.  It’s cute, comfy, has delightful baked goods, and, unlike most cafes, they serve fantastic loose-leaf tea.  There is also free and reliable Wi-Fi.  And the employees and owners are super nice.

The counter at Velvet Sky's Cafe
The counter at Velvet Sky’s Cafe

I’m super excited to see any cafe serving high-quality loose-leaf tea.  One thing that particularly stands out to me is that this company has decided to mix up their suppliers.  For one, the tea and coffee are totally separate–they serve Counter Culture Coffee, a company that doesn’t deal in tea at all.  Most of their teas are supplied by Octavia Tea, but they also currently have a decaf tea from Republic of Tea, and they use Adagio Tea’s Ingenuitea infuser to brew their teas.  They also recently placed an order with Rishi Tea at my recommendation.

The way tea is served here allows customers to control the steeping time if they want, and it also allows you to make multiple infusions of your tea leaf.

Adagio's IngenuiTEA infuser, in use at Velvet Sky
Adagio’s IngenuiTEA infuser, in use at Velvet Sky

Mixing and Matching Brands of Tea and Suppliers

I have noticed that a majority of restaurants and cafes stick with a single brand or supplier of tea, but I don’t think this necessary makes sense as a business decision.  It makes sense in terms of simplifying things, to a degree, but I also think that it limits your choices.

Having sampled hundreds of teas now, I can say with great confidence that different tea companies have different strengths.  If you find a tea company that excels at one particular type of tea, it’s likely that there are other teas your customers might enjoy that that company does not excel at.  I especially think this is true of companies that specialize in coffee–a lot of coffee shops use the same supplier for tea and coffee, and this is rarely a good idea, as the companies that are best at tea are usually not the companies best at coffee.

If you want to be the best you can be, as a restaurant or cafe serving tea, and you want to have more than a small, specialized selection, you may wish to consider buying from different companies or brands–especially separating your coffee and tea, but perhaps even using more than one source of tea.

Some suppliers may provide a mild pressure for you to buy everything from them.  I recommend resisting this sort of pressure; just because a company does an outstanding job in one area doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best choice to supply all your needs.  If a company offers tea, you can always ask to sample it and then sample a bunch of other options too, and then make your choice.

Another Example of More Than One Tea Brand: Cafe Clave in West Philadelpia

Velvet Sky is hardly the only example of a cafe using more than one tea supplier; one of my old favorite cafes in West Philly, Cafe Clave, which unfortunately closed due to reasons unrelated to the businesses’ success, also combined brands.  Cafe Clave primarily sold Novus Tea in tea bags, but for their chai, they made a house blend which was a secret proprietary blend of loose-leaf Ahmad Tea and Caykur-brand Turkish Tea.  You can read about their masala chai in this post on my old tea blog; it was a delightful blend that went heavy on the anise and cardamom, giving it a unique signature that, unfortunately, I may never be able to replicate again.

A Customer’s Perspective

I’m hardly a typical customer, due to my connections to the tea industry through my work on RateTea, but I do fill the role of customer in a cafe more than an insider.  I can’t speak for everyone, but I will say that when I see a company that shows evidence of an intelligent mixing-and-matching of brands.

For example, the now-closed Phoenix Coffee shop in Lakewood, Ohio, used to use two separate suppliers for their true teas and for their herbal teas.  The true teas were sold by a company that did coffee and tea, but the herbal teas were provided by a local woman who mixed her own herbal blends, many of which contained locally-grown ingredients.  The herbal teas were fantastic!

Phoenix Coffee in Cleveland; I miss these folks and this cafe, which sold loose-leaf teas and herbal teas from two different suppliers.
Phoenix Coffee in Cleveland; I miss these folks and this cafe, which sold loose-leaf teas and herbal teas from two different suppliers.

A company can take it too far though; there’s one cafe in center city Philadelphia that has so many different brands of boxed tea bags that I can’t even count them, and they don’t seem to be selected for quality.  I’d rather a coffee shop or cafe stick with a single, high-quality brand of tea, rather than including variety for its own sake.

What do you think?

  • What do you think of the idea of mixing and matching brands or suppliers of tea for a cafe or other business?  How far would you take it?  At what point do the costs or inconveniences start outweighing the benefits?
  • Do you know of any brands or suppliers of tea and coffee that truly do an outstanding job of both?
  • If you live anywhere near Jenkintown, do you know of Velvet Sky?  Have you ever been there?
  • How do you perceive the mixing and matching of brands of tea when you are a customer in a cafe?  Where do you draw the line between an unprofessional-looking mishmash, and a carefully-chosen combination?

Interest in Green Tea: Search Traffic and the Health Hype Factor

In this post I want to show a peculiar pattern that is strongly evident in the statistics of Google searches related to green tea, which I think demonstrates a cultural association between green tea and health.  This association is one that I am not a fan of–which is why I refer to it here as the “health hype factor”.

Researching Online Search Trends

I periodically do research on trends on search traffic.  One of the tools I use is Google Trends, which allows you to graph seasonal and long-term changes in search traffic.  For the searches below, I have limited the searches to the United States, in part because I want to focus on a phenomenon that I think is more evident in the US, and in part because I want to exclude Tropical and Southern Hemisphere countries that have different seasonal patterns of tea drinking.

Here is a screenshot of a graph generated by Google Trends for the search term green tea in the US:


This graph has a peculiar shape.  Rather than a gradual seasonality, this graph shows a sharp jump followed by a general decline.  Every year, the graph is at its lowest in November and December, and then jumps up to its highest in January; the decline is often steep but continues even through the fall as the weather is getting colder.  Contrast the shape of the graph above with the graph of the general US search tea:

google-trends-teaThis graph, besides showing an upward trajectory (good news for people in the tea industry, probably reflecting growing interest in tea) shows a mild seasonality.  The peak isn’t always exactly the same, but it tends to peak in December.  Furthermore, the increase consistently starts about when the weather starts getting cold, with the graph tending to increase from September through December or January.

What is going on here? My theory, and how I reached it

When I first saw this graph, it was completely unintuitive to me.  Why would green tea peak in January, not December, and why would it be lowest in December, a time when general interest in tea is peaking?  The answer actually came to me in part through talking to my girlfriend’s cousin Amanda, who works at a gym.  Amanda was talking with us about how at the beginning of each new year, in January, their gym is always flooded with new memberships–people who have pledged to “get in shape” as part of their new year’s resolutions.  She also said that these people don’t tend to stick around at the gym very long–after a few months their membership levels are back to normal.

Then the lightbulb went off in my head–the green tea peak is probably associated with new years resolutions to “be more healthy”, and possibly lose weight.  Just like these people don’t stick around at the gym, they don’t seem to stick to green tea either (at least to searching about it online), as the graph shows a really steep decline in February, well before the weather has begun to warm up in most of the US.

Google Trends’ info about “related searches” also echoes this explanation; here are the top 5 terms:

  • green tea benefits
  • green tea caffeine
  • caffeine
  • green tea diet
  • green tea extract

The association between green tea and health

On some level, I feel a little sad making the connection between the search trends about green tea and new year’s resolutions–I really want people to be interested in green tea for its own sake, as a beverage, but it seems that the data suggests the interpretation that most people in the U.S. are primarily interested in it due to its health effects (and primarily in response to New Year’s resolutions), at least most people who search for info about green tea online.

I also think that there’s a large degree to which the association between green tea and health is a cultural myth, promoted in large part by marketing hype. This is not to say that green tea isn’t healthy: there’s a lot of evidence that tea is healthy, but not much evidence that green tea (or any other type) is universally much healthier than black tea (or any other type).  There is also not much solid evidence that tea alone (whether green or otherwise) provides an effective tool to lose weight, although there is some preliminary evidence that it might have some positive effect.  I trust what the Linus Pauling Institute’s page on tea says on this matter.  They conclude:

It is currently unclear whether tea or tea extracts promote weight loss

The NIH’s Medline Plus pages on green tea and black tea both report Insufficient evidence to rate effectiveness for weight loss.

It may seem like an uphill battle to challenge the association between green tea and health or weight loss, but it’s an ongoing cause that I’m interested in working with.  In part I want to do it by actively challenging the scientific reasoning of this association, but I also want to do it by promoting the idea of approaching green tea as a beverage, getting people to focus on how it tastes, and on the different types, and getting people to seek out high-quality green teas and enjoy them for their own sake.  I think that problems like this are most effectively tackled from multiple angles, and I think it’s important to build something up (the idea of green tea as an enjoyable drink) rather than just breaking something down.

What do you think?

  • Do you think the explanation of new year’s resolutions explains the shape of the green tea graph shown above?
  • Do you think this association is obvious?  Do you think you would have realized it a little sooner than I did?
  • What do you think about the widespread cultural association in the U.S. between green tea, health, and weight loss?  Do you think it’s backed by much scientific fact or truth?  Or do you think it’s mostly hype?  Is it an association that you like, tolerate, or actively want/try to change?

Pure Teas with Chocolate / Cocoa-like Aromas and Flavors

I love chocolate.  As I write this, I’m just finishing a dark chocolate hazelnut chocolate bar that I bought at ALDI.  ALDI is a veritable desert for tea, but if you live near one, they have fantastic imported German chocolate (and sustainable seafood too).  Among chocolates, I tend to like ones that are stronger and less sweet.  The dark chocolate sold at ALDI is about as sweet as I get…I love the stronger stuff, the stuff that makes some milk chocolate lovers cringe and make funny faces.  I like stuff that is more bitter than sweet and has a very high cocoa content.

Dark chocolate, the sort that I’m more a fan of; Photo by Lablascovegmenu, licensed under CC BY 2.0.


I also like preparing unsweetened hot chocolate or cocoa and not adding any sugar or sweetener.  Sometimes I add milk but often I just drink it straight.  Frequently I add spices, usually nutmeg and mace, rarely cinnamon, and often cayenne pepper (for a kick).

Interestingly, I have found that there are numerous pure black teas that have aromas and flavors strongly resembling the qualities of the types of chocolate I like, including those that resemble a cup of unsweetened cocoa.  These are not sweet, “dessert-like” teas the way some chocolate-flavored teas are…they’re bitter, strong, and have a dry flavor and sometimes leaving a moderate astringency on the palate, almost reminiscent of a very dry red wine.

I want to highlight two teas; one is what I’d consider an “everyday tea”, and the other isn’t.

Ahmad Tea’s Ceylon OPA

The award for my favorite “everyday” black tea with cocoa tones goes to Ahmad Tea‘s Ceylon OPA.  I talk about this brand of tea a lot, and that’s because I think it’s top-notch and I want people to know how it offers such outstanding value.  This particular tea has consistently high reviews on RateTea; it is ranked 91st percentile among all teas on the site and is currently the 2nd ranked Ceylon black tea on the site.  I can also testify that numerous people who neither review teas on RateTea nor blog about tea on the internet also love this tea.  My friend Anna’s dad is a fan of this tea, as are both of my parents.

This tea is a robust, strong black tea with tones of both cocoa and spice.  It’s not a “hit-you-in-the-face tastes-like-chocolate” sort of thing, but it’s more subtle.  I recommend it for

Harney and Sons Panyang Golden Tips

The other tea that I’d like to highlight was one I sampled last year at World Tea East: Harney and Sons’ Panyang Golden Tips.  For this tea, I don’t have a big audience of reviewers–you’ll have to trust my word (you can read my review if you’d like).  But this tea is intensely cocoa-y.  Unlike Ahmad’s Ceylon OPA, for which the chocolate resemblance is subtle, the resemblance here is of the “hit you in the face” variety: brewing this tea yields a cup which, to me, tastes very similar to a cup of unsweetened, brewed cocoa.

Interestingly, not all Panyang/Panyong Gold teas have such a strong cocoa-like character.  I tried one recently from Tea Horse which was outstanding, but had only hints of chocolately characteristics.

Other Teas

These are not the only teas I’ve tried that had suggestions of chocolate or cocoa in their aroma, just two that stood out to me.  I’ve found that traditional Lapsang Souchong, not the overwhelming campfire-smoke stuff that the British drink, but the more subtle stuff, can also have these qualities.  Life in Teacup (which is closed till Oct. 18) is one source of such traditional Lapsang Souchong that I’d recommend: look on their page on red tea.  I’ve also found some of these characteristics in Yunnan teas.  Interestingly though, all the teas that have exhibited these characteristics have been black tea: not green, white, oolong, nor Pu-erh or other aged teas.

What do you think?

  • Do you like chocolate?  Do you like the sweet stuff, or do you, like me, prefer the bitter sort?
  • Have you tried either of these teas?
  • Are there any other particular teas that stand out to you as having that unsweetened cocoa / bitter chocolate quality to them?
  • Have you ever had any type of tea other than a black tea exhibit these qualities?

Tea Horse and More Yaupon: The Price of Yaupon vs. Yerba Mate

I’ve received some samples recently from some new companies that I had never even heard of a few weeks ago.  One of them is a UK-based company, Tea Horse.  Although the company mainly does business in the UK, they were nice enough to ship me samples of three of their loose-leaf teas, which I’ve already reviewed on RateTea.  Tea Horse offers subscriptions, which is something that doesn’t appeal to me as I’m not really able to predict the rate at which I use up tea, but they do also have a regular online tea store.  I am super impressed with the quality of the samples I’ve received from them though.

You can read the reviews of Tea Horse’s teas on RateTea; so far Sylvia and I have both reviewed them.  I think it says a lot when both of us like a company’s teas–our tastes are so widely different (she always drinks her tea with cream and sugar, and I never add sugar and only very rarely add milk), and I’ve noticed that in the past, when we both consider a tea top-notch, it seems to have nearly universal appeal.

Another Domestic Yaupon Producer

Another surprise has been that I’ve been contacted by a third producer of Yaupon.  This one is called Cat Spring Yaupon Tea, and is named after the town of Cat Spring, Texas, a town between Austin and Houston where the company is based and where their Yaupon is grown.  I have brewed up a single cup of the dark-roast Yaupon, which was my first experience with this caffeinated drink.

On the Business and Price of Yaupon

I think domestic Yaupon production is a great idea, but so far, I have made one really sad observation about it: it is very expensive.  Very expensive as in all three domestic producers that I’ve located are selling it for about the same ballpark price, which is around $10-$12 for 10-15 tea bags.

At this price, I think there are two possible ways these products can be viable: if it’s really, really amazingly good, like mind-blowingly good, like something I’d rate 90/100 or above on RateTea…or as a novelty product.

As this is a new, very young business, even before trying any samples, I thought it’s unlikely that any of these businesses would break into the “mind blowingly good” category, and it’s sort of sad for me to conclude that these businesses will only really be able to survive as a novelty product.

Yaupon, from the cup I’ve tried, tastes a lot like Guayusa and Yerba mate, and Yerba mate in particular is very cheap.  I  just saw some for sale in a little convenience store in Baltimore, for the price of $7 a pound.  This price is pretty typical…I’ve seen organic certified Yerba Mate for only slightly more expensive than this.  When there’s this big a disparity in price, it just makes me sad.

I understand that there are factors of economics that lead to price disparities, but I don’t think this disparity alone can explain the difference in price.  According to the World Bank data in this list, Paraguay had a 2012 per-capita GDP of $6,138, whereas the US’s was $49,965.  That’s a factor of about 8.  That’s actually much smaller than the disparity in price between the Yaupon producers.  This makes me think that these companies might be able to lower their costs and prices substantially, and thus develop a more viable business plan.

What do you think?

  • Have you heard of the company Tea Horse?  Have you tried any of their teas?
  • What do you think of companies offering subscription services?
  • Have you ever tried Yaupon?
  • What do you think of the price of Yaupon, vs. the price of Yerba Mate?