Thursday, May 1, 2014

"Doing for Tea What They Did for Coffee:" Threat or Promise?

In this post from awhile back I gave a bit of the back story of tea at Starbucks, which went from fabulous whole leaf single origins and blends to discontinued category during my time there. 

Only a few years later the company, after toying with acquiring Republic of Tea, instead bought Tazo out of Portland, largely on the strength of the creative brilliance of Steve Smith - someone I greatly admire. The back story for that can in part be found in this article.

The good old days: no espresso, great coffee, Hao Ya Keemun and Namring Darjeeling, and saffron for your paella

Fast forward to today and we have stories all over the press, including this piece in today's Forbes, about the joining of Starbuck's more recent tea acquisition, the Teavana chain, with the substantially more formidable brand that is Oprah Winfrey. Today both Starbucks and Teavana stores are awash with Oprah Chai Lattes and gift sets, and anyone who knows Howard's tastes can easily imagine some of the additional products and co-branding opportunities surely waiting in the wings. Chopra Oprah chai incense? The Color Purple Lavender Earl Grey? 

Bad jokes aside, those who care about the actual taste and aroma of origin tea probably ought to take very seriously Teavana/Starbucks promise (or threat), to "do for tea what they did for coffee." We already have a "specialty" tea business that, even more than specialty coffee, has almost no representation of the actual taste of the unadulterated thing itself, and is instead awash in chemical flavorings ("natural" or otherwise) and scents. 

Appropriately the core product in the Oprah Teavana line is Teavana Oprah Chai. Now the transformation of Indian chai - the lowest-grade of non-exportable tea heavily doused with spices and sugar for local consumption - into a "gourmet" beverage for wealthy white folks (sorry, Oprah) is itself the perfect example of what Agehananda Bharati called "the pizza effect" in which a humble product accorded no particular status in one country is exported to another, re visioned as an upscale or special thing, and then re-exported to its host country which then proudly claims to have invented it in its new and prestigious guise. 

Bharati himself cited the Hare Krishnas, Transcendental Meditation and yoga as perfect examples of the pizza effect, and Oprah with her enthusiasm for the likes of Eckhart Tolle and Deepak Chopra has clearly been a masterful modern exponent, albeit unwittingly. 

Less amusing, and more to the point, is the simple fact that any sound, strong black tea will do as the base for this premium-priced tea product, just as any sound, dark-roasted arabica coffee will suffice as the base for the upscale beverages going out the door at your neighborhood Starbucks. In both cases there is a pervasive training or conditioning of the palates and perceptions of millions of consumers to associate premium pricing and value with products that are in fact mediocre in quality, and whose consumption over time almost guarantees that, in the unlikely event a great cup of actual origin coffee or tea crossed the customer's palate they'd spit it out. 

Third Wave Tea anybody?