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?


  1. Last summer a customer regaled me with stories of tea stands in India. on her way up to our remote place in the Vermont woods, the dirt roads are green and lush, and she kept imagining she'd see little shacks selling tea every half mile or so. Don't think Howie and Oprah can replicate that in a shopping mall. It'll be one more way to sell sugar and milk, at a delicious markup.

  2. What's funny is that these articles presume nobody has experienced quality tea before... like this is something wholly new and undiscovered.

    Owning the LA Clippers is a far more intriguing news story, really.

  3. Quality tea IS pretty much undiscovered, with a tiny handful of exceptions. I can't think of anyone on the tea retail side who is offering single garden, seasonal teas in a way that mirrors what the better Third Wave places are doing with coffee. Intelligentsia of course thinks they are, but really Peet's is about as good as it gets among coffee places that do tea, and I've yet to see a stand-alone tea place that wasn't dominated by flavored crap.

    1. Good morning,

      What expertise does Oprah bring to tea? It is an honest, though a naive question. I just do not get celebrity endorsements as regarding consumer interests. This business should be deemed false advertisement.

  4. Hi Kevin, I came across two articles on green coffee buying recently and they both paint very different pictures of the process and relationship with the coffee farms. I'm curious on your take.

  5. Hi Patrick,

    The topic is worthy of a lengthy article, but here are a few thoughts.

    The first article is pure fluff by well-intentioned guys who are having great fun traveling. The second, by Mark Overly, someone I know reasonably well, is a lot closer to reality for a smaller roaster.

    Another angle on this is on an old post of mine over at Coffee Review:

    As Overly says in the article, the main point in going to origin for buyers or other employees at small to medium sized companies is to experience the work that goes into growing coffee and thank the farmers. Beyond that, their very limited time and money would be spent in honing their (usually) even more limited cupping and sourcing expertise AT HOME. It's not like these folks have the agronomic or scientific expertise to actually help farmers, and as for buying direct and such, coffee is sold commercially in containers of 33,500 pounds, so unless you're buying all your coffee in that quanity or more you are in fact dependent on having your interests pooled with those of many other buyers by the exporters and importers who are doing the actual trading on your behalf.

    I've written about this extensively elsewhere, but isn't it interesting how no one (except me) points out what a seriously negative carbon footprint is created by small-time buyers flitting about the globe making a pain in the ass of themselves by going on tours of farms? Doing that kind of travel if you're the size of Illycaffe or Peet's is one thing, but for microroasters the hard fact of that matter is that huge travel expenses spread over a miniscule number of pounds translates into a substantial and entirely unnecessary expense that their customers have to pay for.