I don’t know where you get your tea. But unless you’ve got lots of options and have thoroughly explored them, I bet I can tell you something about the place where you shop: they don’t care about tea.
Let me explain. I mean that your local tea seller doesn’t care about tea because if they did, they’d actually know something about what they sell.
Not only do they probably not know much about what they’re selling, they recognize that shoppers expect them to be experts, so they make something up. That’s right—if they don’t know the answer, they won’t say they don’t know. They won’t look it up. They won’t take a class to be ready next time. I would say that 80-90% of the tea shops I go into answer my warm-up questions wrong.
I’ve gone into tea shops and been told that the tea is called Oolong because it was grown in Oolong Province, China. It wasn’t—that’s a processing style, or maybe a cultivar, but certainly NOT a province. Anywhere.
In another shop, I overheard untruths as the guy behind the counter told a customer, “Oh, if you’re worried about caffeine, you should totally drink white tea because it’s got the least.” No, no, no! It’s got the MOST caffeine on average. Are you trying to kill her?
Yet another shop saw an employee telling me their Qilan wulong was from the “maofeng” region of China. It wasn’t. There is no such place. This time they’re chosing a leaf style—most often associated with green or black tea, not wulong—and pretending it’s a place (or ignorant enough to not realize it’s a leaf style, even though it’s one of the more well-known tea terms out of China…the motherland of tea).
If you go into a shop that sells French wines, you would expect that they may not speak fluent French or Italian, but might be able to tell France from Italy, and recognize the difference between places in France and terms used to describe how the wine is made, right?
I had a Tea Geek member recently ask me about tannic acid because they’re frequently hearing people have been told by local shops that tea has tannic acid in it. No! By international definition of “tannic acid” it cannot come from tea because that definition specifies which plants it can come from and be called tannic acid and Camellia sinensis isn’t on the list! For crying out loud, Wikipedia even says:
“Commercial tannic acid is usually extracted from any of the following plant part: Tara pods (Caesalpinia spinosa), gallnuts from Rhus semialata or Quercus infectoria or Sicilian Sumac leaves (Rhus coriaria). According to the definitions provided in external references such as international pharmacopoeia, Food Chemical Codex and FAO-WHO tannic acid monograph only tannins sourced from the above mentioned plants can be considered as tannic acid.”
So there’s a tea shop who didn’t even bother to look it up on Wikipedia. Wouldn’t you hope that a specialty tea shop gave better answers about tea than Wikipedia?
“But surely those are special cases, right?” No. Before I founded Tea Geek almost eight years ago, I was already teaching the specialty tea shops where I bought my tea about the very products I was buying from them. The average tea shop worker just doesn’t know much about tea. They just memorize the pitch, the one interesting story, the health claim, or whatever they’re told about each tea to sell it, and that’s where training ends. Sometimes not even that much. Often times, they’re just regurgitating what the supplier told them or printed on the package. Or repeating what they heard another worker and/or customer say.
Now, there are exceptions to the rule. Sometimes it’s just one employee who knows what they’re talking about and everyone else is just trying to get your money (or trying to make it until quitting time). Sometimes—very rarely—there’s a company where everyone who works there actually participates in a training program, and/or somewhat rigorous self-study.
But if you are someone who likes tea and curious about your choices, the sad truth is: you will be told things that simply are not true by someone posing as an “expert.” It’s just going to happen, and it makes me furious that the tea industry as a whole is so careless about the facts.
But there is hope.
Ignorance is a curable condition. In part 2 of this series, I’ll rant a little less and give some pointers on how to separate the wheat from the chaff. I’ll throw some education in there so that if you’re a tea drinker, you can start to figure out the relative quality of different purveyors’ answers so that you don’t get taken for a ride by someone that’s woefully uninformed or outright dishonest.
(Caveat: I always try to go with Hanlon’s Razor: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity. I’m far more likely to assume someone is woefully uninformed than dishonest unless I have evidence of the latter.)
Image source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/zachklein/54389823/