The Teavana Dilemma

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Teavana is poised to dominate the tea world the way Starbucks dominates the coffee world. Whether this is a good thing or not remains to be seen. I had a virtual ‘chat’ on one of the social media sites with Charles Cain, who was with Adagio at the time but then went to Teavana, about the flavored tea craze and its effect on tea drinking. He said in essence (I can’t find his exact words) that if it got more people to drink tea, then it was good. Which missed the point entirely. If you get more people to drink tea because you’re putting a bunch of flavorings in the tea to smother the tea flavor, then you are not getting them to drink more tea. You are getting them to drink a bunch of flavorings. Why bother including tea in the mix?

This is not to say that I hope the whole Teavana venture fails. Quite the contrary. I wish anyone well who has the guts to go out there and bring new things to consumers, especially where tea is involved. My hope is that when people get tired of the flavored gunk being dispensed that they turn to the tea vendors online specializing in more premium teas. So I hope they fail to inure people’s sensibilities for really good tea, but I hope they succeed in arousing more interest in tea in general.

Speaking of those other tea vendors, a number of hard-working tea pros out there are doing their best to bring a different kind of approach to tea drinking to a higher level of awareness in the world. Premium teas that are still hand-processed by true tea masters are a key part of this. Thus I am partnering (in a kind of ad-hoc general way, nothing official) with two tea vendors who are knee-deep in this area of tea (there are many others but we wanted to give more time and go deeper with the teas and the companies than a quick try of a their samples would allow, so a limit had to be set). One is helping to steer tea production in India away from the low-grade teas ground to a fine powder (or ‘dust’) and then bagged. They are reviving a tea garden that was left to die and have steadily improved the quality of the teas from it over the past few years [recently, they had to turn over some of that production to the tribe whose land they are using].

The other tea vendor is a small business poised to make a name among those who appreciate orthodox style teas from China, Taiwan, Thailand, Darjeeling, and elsewhere. They carry only the best, with most of their teas being pu-erh, a little-known and rather varied style of tea (the debate is still ongoing about whether there are more different oolongs out there or pu-erhs). Their Pu-erh Tea Club group on Facebook is one of the fasting growing tea groups and keeps its focus on pu-erh. Of all the tea vendors out there, large and small, that I have been so honored to try teas from, this is one vendor whose teas have never failed. (Another was a small business owned and run by a great guy who rides his motorcycle on sometimes treacherous mountain roads to go from garden to garden in the Darjeeling region of Bengal state in northern India.)

Whether Teavana and others like them succeed or fail, folks like those referenced above will keep soldiering on to bring their fine teas to the rest of us. We wish them a lot of success and hope to contribute to that success in whatever small way we can. Cheers!

© 2014 A.C. Cargill photos and text

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