Teaching about Tea

So riddle me this:

I’ve been doing tea education for at least part of my income since 2003.  I’ve encountered a number of challenges along the way and I’m curious if the tea people here would have any good ideas.

First, I’ve found that one of the main barriers to being a teacher in the field of tea is that the vast majority of English speakers don’t even know enough about it to realize that you CAN learn something about tea.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve been asked what I do and said, “I’m a tea educator” or “I’m a tea teacher.”

The other person looks at me blankly and says, “A what?  What do you mean?”

“I teach classes about tea.”

“Tea?  Like the drink?  What do you mean you teach classes about it?”

It’s hard to get people to sign up for a class that they can’t even comprehend what it is, let alone why they might want to take it.

Second, it seems that many people in the tea industry (again, my bias is the English speaking world, primarily USA) just don’t care about accuracy.  It seems to me that the typical tea business person is very nice and very well meaning, but essentially read a few of the popular tea books such as Norwood’s New Tea Lover’s Treasury, realize how much more they know about tea than the average person, and then rely on their suppliers to tell them anything else they need to know.  The end.  Very few try to verify what they’re told.  Very few actually seek out additional tea information.  And so half-truths, mistakes (original, inherited, or amplified), little white marketing lies, and other forms of misinformation get circulated over and over again and become orthodoxy.  That leaves an army of nice, well-meaning people who consider themselves experts out there,  spreading lots of believable-but-incorrect information about tea.

How does one responsibly educate about tea?  How can tea people tip the balance towards accuracy?  What can tea educators do to more effectively move people along the path so many of us have been on–from grocery store teabags to more quality teas, and finally to a place where we realize that there’s a ton of interesting stuff to learn about tea…and that it’s enjoyable to do it?    Is good, accurate information something that the industry as a whole needs to work on providing, or is it something that tea customers need to demand?  Or does it even matter if “experts” are teaching (and customers believing) stuff that just isn’t so?

I have my own ideas on some of these, but I’m curious what others think.  Leave a comment and let me know your opinion!

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13 thoughts on “Teaching about Tea”

  1. I’m not an educator, but as someone working in the tea industry, I had to laugh when you wrote most people ask you “Tea? Like the drink?”

    I get all the time! I’ve started saying “the beverage industry, specializing in tea.” I’d love a pin that says “I work in tea. Yes, like the drink.”

  2. I love your first point. If I happen to mention I have a blog to someone, they’ll ask what it’s about… “Tea.”

    “Tea?”

    “Yeah.”

    And they chuckle. Thinking to themselves, undoubtedly, “what a freak!”

    But still, I think it’s amazing how much there is to learn about tea. I can already trace back to when I first started my blog and think of quite a few things I was just completely wrong about.

  3. I agree with you on all of this–with tea as with everything, the more I know the more I realize I don’t know–and I am often particularly irked by industry “experts” cheerfully spreading misinformation. I definitely believe that in almost all cases that’s the result of being misinformed themselves, (rather than deliberate ill-will) but it can be really frustrating!

    I get a little stumped when I start asking those same questions, though. I am of the mindset that the demand for better tea/more accurate information needs to come from the consumer, but I think that process can be sped along immeasurably by good, responsible educators. So, keep up the good fight! In this teaista’s opinion, YOU should write a book … and get on TV and radio 😉 It’s unfortunate that there are not more people doing what you do, but the fact that there are a few is heartening.

    The one thing I am pretty sure about is that is these questions DO matter. It’s a matter of pretty vital importance, in fact–in my opinion, of course. I think that it is the tea drinker’s responsibility to educate him or herself so that s/he understands some things–1) WHERE is this tea coming from? How is my tea habit impacting the planet in terms of growing, harvesting, production, and shipping? 2) WHO is involved in my drinking this tea? Who grew it? Who picked it? Were they fairly compensated? 3) HOW was this tea grown/processed? In a way that is environmentally ethical?

    Now, before somebody accuses me of being preachy, I will state on the record that I cannot answer these questions for many of the teas I drink. That information can be really hard to get! But I do make a conscious effort to buy from sources that I am confident in–sources I can trust to provide ethically, sustainably grown and harvested teas. And I’ve found there is a link in tea merchants (and not a small one) between being knowledgeable about tea in general and their tea in particular, and being concerned about ethics and sustainability.

    Also, educating oneself about tea doesn’t have to be a huge time or money commitment, and it doesn’t have to be boring. I remember the very important revelation I had the first time I looked at photographs of tea being picked and processed–the knowledge that there are people (making a living, building a life, participating in a centuries-old process) on the other end of your tea is a small but really, really important step.

  4. As you might expect, I have opinions and ideas about this topic, since an enormous amount of what I do involves disseminating information about tea, and I consider accuracy to be of paramount importance. To your point about people not understanding what a “tea educator” is, I’d describe my topic of education as “tea culture” rather than simply “tea” because that immediately calls to mind in the reader/listener a broader context. That goes a long way towards immediately getting someone to see that you’re learning and teaching about something bigger than the stuff in a Lipton tea bag.

    The internal struggle for me is deciding how combative I want to be about correcting inaccuracies among tea people. Not that I know everything, but I know enough to identify entirely too much bad data floating around and to want to fix it. I also have an immediate distrust of “information” that strikes me as unsubstantiated hyperbole and facts based on hope rather than knowledge. I think that sometimes corrections of people’s bad tea facts can be done diplomatically without sounding preachy or arrogant, although it’s rarely easy. And if the other person/company/group is particularly evangelical in their beliefs about tea I usually don’t try to engage them in debate. Maybe I should, in order to contribute more to the fight against disinformation. But my tactic is usually to focus on producing correcting/contrary data independently, without directly contradicting people perpetrating the bad information. I’d like to believe that research and good references go a long way towards getting people to start differentiating between what is true and what is not, and every piece of good, accurate, research-supported fact that we put out there tips the scales further to the side of good. In any case, I believe that the more that people who are concerned with scientific, historical and cultural accuracy get involved in discussions about tea, the more benefit there is to the tea world at large.

  5. Hi Tea Geek! Thanks for another thoughtful post!

    In this post you ask us (your tea educating colleagues): “How does one responsibly educate about tea?” – While this is a no brainer for you an I… I’ll answer the question in case it helps anyone else out there:
    1. Plan tea classes that will be fun, engaging, accurate and informative.
    2. Cater the classes to your students. (If they’re going to mostly be newbies I’d stick with tea basics.)
    3. Provide samples of freshly brewed tea. (The best way to get a proper tea education is to taste a lot of tea.)
    4. If you call yourself a tea educator, you must always continue your own personal tea study.

    I believe the problem of tea vendors repeating false or out-dated information is slowly rectifying itself. Everyday tea vendors are “waking up” to the facts, realizing that they must truly love tea and fully immerse themselves in accurate tea knowledge, if they want their business to last more than a year or so.

  6. First, I’m 1 of those “well meaning” tea vendors that have read a few books, attended a few seminars and rely a lot on my suppliers for tea info and education as well. I admit that my learning process is ongoing but being a tea business person, I do know a bit more than the general public on tea.

    Information that I pass out today is based on what I’ve learned as of today and can be superceded by new learnings tomorrow. As a tea retailer, my focus is to operate a tea business – although self education is a very important part of that business. I rely on others, including tea eduactors like yourself, to do the research and to pass that knowledge to me via classes etc. I suggest customizing some of your classes to the small tea busineeses might minimize misinformation and bring more people on the same page.

    I agree that some tea businesses might “jazz” up the tea facts a bit just to sell more tea but isn’t that the same in many other industries?

    More to follow, got to run and have tea with friend. Cheers.

  7. Ok. Back from having a raw and a cooked pu-erh. Too rushed for time but greated to be connected with my friend.

    Back to your 1st point on vast # of english speaking people not appreciating the depth of knowledge behind tea. Let’s narrow it down somemore to the vast majority of educated, english speaking health professionals not embracing the enjoyment of tea as part of a healthy lifestyle.

    So often I see these health professionals running around with a water bottle but not with tea inside. When they say they drink tea, many of them are in fact drinking yerba mate. They will do yoga, shop organic produce, watch calories & trans fat, eat raw food, etc but real tea for them is often on the back page. This is my observation from Canada – at least you can claim a tea renaissance in some parts of USA.

    Now, to tea knowledge and misinformation.
    Even in your own interview with Sherri Miller, you asked what resource is good for a tea novice and New Tea Lover’s Treasury was mentioned. In it was mentioned “the 30 sec decaffeination rinse” which you have shown us to be a myth. So, even a well respected reputable source can provide outdated tea information. To research tea facts and to accurately communicate such facts are challenging and ongoing.

    I’ve suggested customizing tea classes to tea vendors. Another initiatives for tea educators would be to bring on board the well respected and knowledgeable spoke person or body (like James Norwood Pratt, STI, WT News and even the ISO). Otherwise I can say that the 30sec rinse is a myth and someone else can just open his book and “prove me wrong”. Use the big names and the health professionals to be the megaphones to shout out Tea to the rest of us.

  8. I’ve run into this with my own topic. It’s hard for people sometimes to understand that tea can be spiritual for one of the biggest reasons it is–there’s no intoxication. But I know that those people are unlikely to ever understand and I have to pass them by to reach the people who can be enlightened. –Spirituality of Tea

  9. Tea Geek, I understand the frustrations of teaching non-tea drinkers about tea. We have owned our store for about 5 years. The first few years were tough. The samples we gave out sometimes drew blank stares because no one knew what to expect, or what good tea tasted like…one even said to me, “It tastes like Lipton” when in fact it was a wonderful loose leaf Assam single estate tea. But then, slowly but surely, those that sampled our teas would come back, maybe days, sometime weeks later. “I started drinking your tea, and when I tried to go back to my old teabags; they were undrinkable!” I’ve since learned that understanding tea cannot be forced, nor is its appreciation instantaneous. Sometimes it takes time, and more often than not, it takes external sources, like news and magazine reports on the health benefits of tea, to get the spark started. Our job is then to take them along, at a pace they are comfortable with, and teach them just enough, but not so much they are overwhelmed. That way, you can establish a trust and credibility that corroborates with what they learn on their own. Of course, any statement we make about tea is first researched ourselves for completeness and accuracy.

    I think, like tea, teaching tea takes time, which sometimes contradicts the American notions of “instant gratification” or “making sales with the sense of urgency.” There is no answer here, but just one tea person’s observations.

  10. Michael:

    Please forgive me for coming late to this topic, but I’ve been thinking about it awhile and wanted to give you my feedback.

    I can see why people would be confused by the concept of someone being a tea educator, because there is no correlate (that I am aware of) in other enjoyments, such as beer, or chocolate, or barbecue, wine, exotic fruits, artisan cheeses, and so on– except in culinary school. Now, the point of culinary school is to create chefs and food professionals. But what would be the point of tea educators? To create tea masters? That’s something that *might* be achieved after 20 years of concentrated study under great teachers, as you’ve told me, and not a short stint in night or correspondence school.

    So, again, why would someone want to be taught by a tea educator? There are basically two varieties of tea people: Those who make a living (or wish to) in the tea industry, and those who drink it for pleasure. Not that there is no cross-over between them, but you get my drift.

    So the question is: Who is your core audience? If tea professionals, then you have to show them why they need what you have to offer. And the questions they might be asking themselves include: How will I use this information? Is there a certification involved? In what? And who would take it seriously, if I got the certification? Will this help me get a position as a tea sommelier at the Ritz Carlton, or as the manager of a TeaGschwendner branch, or. . . ? If I am using it to make myself more knowledgeable and able to run my own business (now or someday), how is this going to make me more profitable? More able to provide better product than my competitors? More attractive to customers and able to communicate my tea vision to them? More able to weed out fake bi luo chun or dragon well from potential suppliers?

    And for drinkers and connoisseurs, they would need to know why this? How will knowing the chemical make-up of the tea leaf add to my enjoyment of it? Will I learn to find great deals on superior pu-erhs? Will I learn which tea gardens make the best second-flush Darjeeling? Will I learn how to find truly good finds in Yixing pottery? Will I discover the best way to make wonderful tea without breaking the bank on useless teaware that I don’t know how to use properly anyway? And why would I want to spend my money on this, rather than on just trying to buy the best tea I can afford, and figure it out on my own, using the books and the Internet for reviews and recommendations?

    Back to the original question, though: Who is your core audience? If you are trying to reach tea professionals, your approach will be very different from trying to reach out to interested connoisseurs (or wannabe connoisseurs) and students of tea. Because there are more students than professionals, it would make sense from a business perspective to figure out how to reach those types of people; and in the U.S., where tea culture is all but unknown, this would obviously be challenging. But how to take a foodie-type person with a desire to experience Great Things? Those people are willing to shell out big bucks for kitchen items, gourmet and whole foods, and so on– so there should be an enormous market there for the person who can place himself as a reliable guide to one of the world’s Great Things.

  11. Michael:

    I hope that didn’t come off obnoxiously. I’d been giving this some thought, and more than anything I’d love to see your business take off like a rocket and be a great addition to tea culture in the U.S.

  12. Jason—I suppose that either (a) you’ve never been tea-drunk, or (b) you don’t count that as intoxication? Some consider tea-drunkenness to be enlightenment of a sort. Consider Lu Tung’s famous “seven cups of tea” poem where even after the sixth cup, the speaker feels himself one with the immortals and after the seventh feeling like he’s flying. Is that spirituality of tea, or intoxication? 🙂

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