Text and images © 2009-2015 A.C. Cargill. All Rights Reserved. No content may be reproduced without written permission.
As of 11 March 2014, the focus of this blog is changing and will be writing more general articles as opposed to those about tea, although tea will still figure prominently in them.

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Wednesday, May 28, 2014

4 Hopes for the World of Tea as Another Tea Expo Begins

The latest tea expo – the mother of all tea expos (The World Tea Expo being held this year in Long Beach, California, USA) – is about to begin (May 29-31). Tea professionals are already gathered, some teas have already been tried and awards announced, and booths have been set up and stocked. As this expo gets under full steam, I humbly present my 4 hopes for the world of tea for the year ahead (and beyond).

http://www.worldteaexpo.com/index.php/overview

1 Set Politics Aside – That is, politics in the world in general, not the normal competitiveness between tea professionals that helps make us all better. Too many tea people get online, talk a little about tea, and spend most of the rest of their online time going on about their particular causes, sharing news articles about some issue or other, etc. I’ve done it, too, but try my best not to and am vowing as of the posting of this article on this blog to redouble those efforts. I want my focus to be on tea, and hope other tea pros will follow suit.

2 Focus on Marketing of Higher Quality Teas – Raise the bar on teas promoted in stores. Easy said. Tough to do. We live in a time where more and more emphasis is on the low end of the tea market and when the poor tea farmer is being bombarded by all kinds of restrictions on how to grow and how to get his teas to market. Some are already working to change this and are having a bit of success. Meanwhile, companies promoting dust-in-a-bag teas continue to grow, not to mention the merger of a certain tea company with a certain coffee chain with the promise of making tea awareness higher as they are credited with having done for coffee (the facts and figures don’t support this, though). Make things easier for the smaller growers to get their teas to market and get noticed (they can’t always afford certifications required by many countries, travel to expos, or enter their teas in competitions, yet their tea quality is often excellent).

3 Better Training for Tea Pros – We have organizations like the American Tea Masters Association (ATMA) in the Northeast US and the folks who put on the World Tea Expo, plus others too numerous to list. Yet, walking into a teashop or going online to the latest tea vendor site is an iffy experience. You may or may not end up dealing with someone who knows anything about what he/she is selling. I know it’s hard to find good help (as that old adage goes) and this is especially true for tea. Before I really started paying attention to what I was steeping, I knew about some teas and that black tea and green tea came from the same plant. Some teashop staff don’t even know that much. Honest! In all fairness, we all have to start someone, and ATMA, etc., can only handle so many students at a time. But you cripple your business if you have a staff member in contact with your customers who doesn’t understand the basics (we can’t all be like Thomas Shu of ABCtea.com or Ji Hai of Hai Lang Hao) at the very least.

4 More Emphasis on Tea, Not Gimmicks – Tea suffers from the same malaise as many other products do. Wine is a good example. Do you go for quantity over quality – mass productions versus smaller batches? While companies continue to pop up that emphasize smothering tea’s natural flavors with a bunch of additives, more tea lovers are seeking out the finer teas where those flavors are allowed to come through in all their glory. Celebrity endorsements seem also to be a key gimmick being employed to get people interested in tea. The problem with any gimmick is that its effects are short-term. If you’re the CEO and have a contract that says you need to raise profits by a certain amount in the coming year or else, you resort to gimmicks or hire someone who will. (I have personally witnessed this at more than one software company where I used to work so I understand.) But it doesn’t raise long-term tea sales. And people who get sucked into drinking tea by those overly floral-fruity-spicy concoctions rarely progress on to the teas who have those flavors naturally.

Well, there they are. What’s your list?

A note for the World Tea Expo site designer: Have a way right up front for us to mute the music you have playing when people go to your site. I was streaming a radio program and wanted to refer to something on your site but couldn’t find the mute button.

© 2014 A.C. Cargill photos and text

Monday, May 19, 2014

Thoughts on Our First Year in Our New Home

Pour yourself a hot (or iced) cuppa and sip while you read. It’s the anniversary of our first year in our new home (and new home town). Time to reflect on the year gone by. I hope you will indulge me here – you might just relate to our experiences (or have a friend who will).

Moving is quite an experience. Having to sell a house at one end of the move and buy a house at the other end of the move are probably the most stressful parts. Will the house sell for a good price? Will the agent who has the listing take her/his job seriously and get you the best deal or twist your arm so you agree as the seller to pay buyers’ closing costs, leave expensive items like super nice refrigerators in the house, and pay for repairs that aren’t even there? Will the agent helping you find a new house know enough to guide you safely through the snakepit of homebuying? Or will he/she care more about going to a sports event at their college alma mater? Combine all this with trying to keep up with editing a tea blog for an online tea store, reviewing tea samples that seemed to be coming in faster and faster, and writing articles for a couple of other blogs. It was quite a juggling act. But some how or other I managed to keep my sanity.

First, on the selling side: Our listing agent was busy appearing on HGTV’s House Hunters, and everything we told her we needed to have an agent do for us went in one ear and out the other. She was one of those agents who schmoozed you to get the listing and then didn’t want to take your calls. She is the second such agent we dealt with in the Raleigh, NC, area (both work for ReMax), and her negligence cost us 3 times as much ($7,100) as the first agent did ($2,300). She threatened to walk away from the listing if we didn’t agree to pay $5,000 in buyers’ closing costs (why were these people even making an offer on our house if they couldn’t afford to pay closing costs?) and let the buyers steal a $2,100 refrigerator that she knew we had planned to sell. Guess what? We also ended up paying commission on the $5,000. Sweet deal – for her. And since she was such a prima donna, she couldn’t be bothered to show at the closing, nor did her assistant. We had been assured that one of them would be there to be sure all went well (when we brought it to her attention, she came back at us with “I have so many important deals closing the same day, so you couldn’t expect me to drop them to be at yours”). So much for professionalism. The closing attorney’s assistant had us vacate our home a day early (we had to pay for a night in a motel) so she could attend her brother’s wedding on what should have been our closing date. Why not just have someone else in the office handle things? Why put us through the inconvenience and expense? But we are seeing that such lackadaisical approaches to one’s job are typical these days.

Meanwhile, I was writing 2-3 articles a day, packing at least 3-4 boxes of stuff, and searching online for a place for us to live (hubby was mainly in charge of this, but I was helping as time allowed). Little Yellow Teapot and most of his Tea Gang had to get put away to keep them safe, and we told tea vendors that we would not be able to accept more samples for awhile. This move was important to us, relieving the financial burden of a house we could no longer afford and getting us to somewhere less costly to live. So not getting to try some of the latest teas available was a small thing for us to endure.

As for buying, once we found the town, we located an agent. Sadly, we ended up with one who was – surprise, surprise – less than professional. When a Realtor treats her job like a hobby or something to do between feeding/bathing/etc. her very cute young children, things aren’t always done properly, if at all.


Add to that her inexperience and almost total unawareness of some very basic things about her job (how to confirm square footage, number of bedrooms, and other items in the listing, for example). The results can be less than satisfactory for the house buyers/sellers dealing with her (or him). We certainly found some nasty and expensive surprises with our house due to our agent’s lack of professionalism and experience. In all fairness, we were on the East Coast U.S. and she was in the middle of the U.S. and was willing to work with us from that distance (we didn’t have the time or money for a house hunting trip).

We generally liked our realtor since she was a fairly nice person and was willing to work with us from halfway across the country. But the thing that drove us nuts was her treating the very serious job of helping us with the biggest expense most people have in their lives (buying a house) as more of a hobby. She also has two of the cutest little children you’d ever want to meet (we know because they showed up in almost every photo she took for us of houses we wanted to considered) and said she was doing real estate so she could spend most of her time with them (not a good thing to tell your client).

What became apparent later, though, was that she missed some important issues in the house since she was busy keeping watch over those cute kids (they were very lively and active, getting into various drawers and cupboards – hey, we understand, it can be pretty boring following mom around while she looks over a house for her clients half a continent away). The other annoyance was her taking off without a word to us to go to Tulsa or Oklahoma City for a college football game. We didn’t mind her going – we just minded not being told that she would be out of reach during that time. Our emails and phone calls asking about this or that on the property listings she sent us went unanswered until she got back. Meanwhile, our clock was ticking away, with our house under contract and the closing date for the sale quickly approaching. Tough to deal with when you’re half a continent away (she had assured us she could deal with us not being there). But if that had been the worst of it, we wouldn’t be all that disappointed in her.


The items she messed up:
  • She never confirmed the square footage as requested (we doubt that she even knows how to do this). She thought that the enclosed back porch was supposed to be a part of the house square footage (which is how the listing agent had it) even though it was not connected to the heating system in the rest of the house.
  • She couldn’t even tell that a room had been added onto the back of the house between it and the enclosed porch.
  • She didn’t know the difference between the original house foundation and the area under the enclosed porch and back room addition.
  • She did not seem to know the legal definition of bedrooms and bathrooms in Oklahoma and was not able to confirm if the number in the listing was correct (the house appears to have only one bedroom, not three as the listing stated).
  • She stated that she never noticed that the doorway to the only bedroom in the house was one-third blocked by the walls around the 30-year-old furnace (see photo above). Oddly, she managed to miss photographing this for us. How do you manage to miss this except on purpose?
  • She missed a rust spot in the bottom of the cast iron bathtub that had been poorly disguised with white paint. No one who had been paying attention to her job would have missed it.
  • She missed that a double window in one room was half blocked off by the enclosed porch on the back of the house. Again, her inexperience and unprofessionalism was evident.
  • There is some dispute between her and the inspector on whether she stayed around during the entire inspection as she said she would (she had her children with her and probably left to take care of something they needed – she won’t admit to not being there, but the inspector said she left halfway through and came back just as he was finishing about 3 hours later). Gee, it’s just a house inspection to tell us the condition of the basic components of the house. Nothing important – sigh!
  • She did not notice nor alert us to the numerous mouse bait bowls sitting around and the substantial amount of droppings throughout the house.
  • The inside of the metal cabinet base for the sink unit in the kitchen was all rusted out. She hadn’t even bothered to look in there.
  • She presented to us information that she said was about two different title companies in town so we could exercise our legal right to choose. However, they were actually the same company (they had merged a few months earlier and everyone in her office knew about it, including her). Legally, we were denied our right to make a choice here and ended up dealing with the stuck up title agent who wouldn’t take time to deal with us on the phone instead of the nice person who worked with us on the preliminaries.
The agency was quick to get us to sign something saying that we could not hold the realtor liable for any such oversights, but all it takes is the right lawyer willing to pursue something like this.

The real problem, though, is the state realtor licensing. It gives a false sense that the realtor is competent. Sadly, she is in a profession where approaching her job like a hobby can seriously harm others (financially). She knew how important it was to us to get the right house. We ended up spending twice as much on fixing things as expected, a main one being the furnace (it cost as much as the other items all put together). We couldn’t just replace the one that was there. It had to be removed and a new unit put under the house (this almost doubled our cost), so that the bedroom doorway could be fully open. (The bedroom doorway had only about 20 inches open. We needed more for safe exit in case of a fire.) We also spent 50% more on electrical upgrades since there was far more knob-and-tube wiring than we had been told about (that’s an issue with the house inspector at Gold Star Inspections). And the plumbing upgrade costs just kept climbing. We’re not done and have already spent twice the budget. Knowing these things up front might not have deterred us from buying the house, but they sure would have given us leverage in renegotiating the price – the realtor’s incompetence denied us this leverage.

Bottom line: Avoid agent’s who treat their jobs like a hobby or who are too busy being a star on a house hunting show or who just plain don’t give a damn like the plague and go with someone who treats the real estate profession as just that – a profession, not a hobby or something to do in-between takes!

By the way, a year later, we have made things quite cozy and find that we like the house in spite of all this. We just want to save you and others from going through the same hassles.

© 2014 A.C. Cargill photos and text

Monday, May 5, 2014

The Teavana Dilemma

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.

The future of tea drinking?
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). Rajiv Lochan of Lochan Tea is one. He is helping to steer tea production in India away from the low-grade teas ground to a fine powder (or ‘dust’) and then bagged. He along with a son and a daughter are also reviving a tea garden that was left to die. They named it ‘Doke’ (located in the Indian state of Bihar) and have steadily improved the quality of the teas from it over the past few years. They are also working with a start-up called ‘Tealet’ that focuses on getting their teas to markets they might not be able to reach on their own. We have been honored to receive samples from Lochan Tea for awhile now and to experience this improvement in Doke teas first-hand. Very exciting!


Bringing a tea garden back to life!
The other tea vendor is JAS-eTea.com. This 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 Thunderbolt Tea, a small business owned and run by a great guy named Benoy Thapa 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.)

One of many fine pu-erhs they carry. This is 2008 MuYeChun 99801 Premium Ripe Pu erh.
Whether Teavana and others like them succeed or fail, folks like those at Lochan Tea and JAS-eTea 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

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Reality of Tribute Tea

There is a lot of talk about things like fair trade and minimum wages for tea drinkers. Yet, only about 300 years ago a system of forced servitude for creating “tribute teas” ended. At one time about 3 million Chinese were indentured to cultivate, harvest, and process these teas for the Emperor and his court. The best teas in the land were mandated away from the tea garden owners and those who took time to produce the finished products. The system had endured for about 1,000 years, starting in 700 A.D. Thankfully, free trade with Europe helped end this horrible system but preserved those high-quality teas.

The practice of gongcha (the Chinese term for these teas) appears in the chronicle Hua Yang Guo Zhi, written by Chang Qu around 4th century which states that around 1,000 B.C. people in the ancient Bashu states offered tea as a tribute to the Emperor. However, at that time it was strictly voluntary, a sort of honorarium. Tea was an important crop during the Song Dynasty (between 960 and 1279 A.D.), the height of the mandated tribute tea era in China. Tea farms covered 242 counties. This included expensive tribute tea and tea from Zhejiang and Fujian provinces.

So what ended this system that amounted to forced servitude? Free trade. (Yes, free trade, not “fair trade.”) It supposedly started around 1,000 years ago and was building up even more around China. Teas were going to Burma, India, and Tibet along the famous Ancient Tea Horse Road. In 1610 the Dutch arrived and heated up that trade by introducing tea to the Netherlands, France, and here in the Western Hemisphere. It was the beginning of the end of tribute teas, with wealthy customers willing to pay a premium price for these premium teas and the workers rebelling against what was regarded as a burdensome tax on their labor as well as propping up the feudal system in place there. The system petered out in the 1700s.

Personally, I would like to see the term “tribute tea” dropped in favor of just calling these “premium” teas as a way of removing that aspect of these teas’ history where workers plucked and hauled and spread leaves out to wither and all the other laborious steps needed to make these teas.

© 2014 A.C. Cargill photos and text

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Need for Better Tea Knowledge

Making a bit of a change in my personal approach to writing about tea. Hubby and I are cutting back on doing tea reviews, with the very capable assistance of our buddy Little Yellow Teapot & the Tea Gang (they will be having their own tea adventures on the side). We’ll be finishing off reviewing samples on hand and then be very selective on any further samples we accept. There are just so many tea review sites out there (and a new one just starting) that we feel the need to address a very different side of things: tea knowledge.

A tea factory from their video.

One thing that got us rankled and spurred us on to make this change was a video from Bigelow Tea that I saw on LinkedIn by the merest chance. Here the vendor claims their teas are “hand-crafted” in Sri Lanka. “Hand-crafted” is another buzz term to get you, the tea drinker, to think “better,” “worth a higher price,” etc. Again, this is not an ethical approach to marketing (rather odd from a company stressing their “ethical partnerships” and support of “fair trade” with the tea growers/processors). My article about every tea vendor slapping “artisan” on their teas, which is an unethical approach to marketing that takes advantage of a lack of tea knowledge in their target market (basically, you), shows another such deception.

The intro text that Bigelow Tea posted on LinkedIn about the video: “Third generation CEO Cindi Bigelow of Bigelow Tea visits Sri Lanka which produces some of the world's finest teas. Join Cindi as she visits some of the factories that have been producing hand-crafted fine teas for her family business for nearly 70 years.” [Watch the video.]

There is no way that the teas coming out of a tea factory like the ones shown can be classified as “hand-crafted.” Anyone who has visited various tea processing locations in China, Taiwan, Thailand, Japan, and India will certainly know what I mean here. Even I, who have learned of these things from afar, know the difference. The goal for me, therefore, on this blog and on my Little Yellow Teapot & the Tea Gang blog will be transitioning from reviewing teas and writing more light articles about tea enjoyment to some real useful information for you, the tea drinker, to get the really good deal.

As for “hand-crafted,” that will be another article, and I’m not picking on Bigelow Tea or Cindi Bigelow here. I want to be sure to get all the facts straight and consult with some of the more knowledgeable tea processors out there. Meanwhile, beware of any tea vendor who makes such claims, especially when most of their teas are sold as dust in bags.

A note about tea reviewing: hubby and I have discovered that few of the teas we have been sent are truly exceptional (most tend to be versions of the same thing that are a little better or worse than another version); what has been truly educational is seeing the different approaches to selling tea, the various claims being made (a lot of it just hype), the marketing tricks employed, how open they are with their customers about themselves and their products, and how they react when such things are pointed out.

© 2014 A.C. Cargill photos and text

Friday, January 24, 2014

Another Skewed Tea Vendor?

Re: Chash Tea, Owner is Dan Rook.
 
A new tea vendor has popped up online (at least new to me). The name is Chash, a company based in London, UK, and owned by Dan Rook. The company has been around 6 years and has adopted an attitude of infallibility, it seems. Always eager to greet those new to selling tea and help out by sampling their teas, I am equally disappointed when a vendor turns out to be off-base and worse yet when they will not acknowledge this. His reaction to my correction of his misstatement about caffeine (he became very defensive and started attacking me personally) got me wondering, so I thought a bit of investigation was needed.

First, a bit of explaining of the situation: Being the helpful sort, I speak up when asked for input or when I see a need. I helped a new tea vendor with information for her web site and was pleased that she was open to some very well-intentioned suggestions. The same has been true of others along the way, too, including a vendor I have come to regard as the source in the U.S. for fine Chinese teas – JAS-eTea.com. But Dan has turned out to be some guy who doesn’t like anyone issuing him a correction. He calls it “not playing nice,” as if he were still in elementary school. A recent tweet series I had with him showed this mindset. I had noticed an exchange on Twitter where he told someone that white tea has the most caffeine. I had pointed him to this report from Nigel Melican of Teacraft which clearly states that caffeine levels vary according to several factors. Melican shows that while white teas that are composed mainly of tips are generally among the highest, others are high, too, and no one type is necessarily stated as being highest. The issue of caffeine (more correctly, theanine) is an important one. Such misinformation does a disservice. I pointed out the error and was promptly pounced on as a big meanie. Yeah, that’s me, a big meanie, someone who isn’t “playing nice” in the Twitter sandbox. Bwahahahahahahaha!

This reaction got me curious about who this person was. What was more worrying is the journey it took me to find out. Something to hide here? Anyway, obviously I did find out after a bit of searching as follows:
  • The “About Us” page on the store site doesn’t have a name on it (always a warning sign). (What is stated on the “About Us” page is a claim that they have been in business for 6 years. It makes their misstatement about caffeine (that white tea is highest) all the more puzzling.)
  • One of his Twitter pals called him “Dan”.
  • The company Facebook page shows an email address for “Dan”.
  • On Google+, the owner is listed as “Dan, Leaf Executive.”
  • Another site that tracks their business traffic shows virtually none outside the UK.
  • A business info site has a “planted” review about the company (that’s when someone gets a buddy to post a good review about them to counter the bad stuff being posted). I know because once again “Dan’s” last name is left off.
  • A couple of sites posting reviews of their teas also lists the owner simply as “Dan.” Why he doesn’t use his last name is another puzzle. (Previously, I had heard that another vendor who did not put his name on the company site or elsewhere was dodging the tax collector. Not saying that’s the case here, though. Maybe he’s like Cher or Madonna. Just uses one name.)
  • There is even an article about the company that was obviously written by some PR person (possibly one they hired), has no author name, and again does not say who owns Chash. The article states: “Chash work on the principle that like a good wine, the taste of tea can be influenced by the plant, the farming, the climate and the production.” (Gee, I think they got that statement off of some other tea vendors’ sites. And if they are sourcing such high-quality tea, why smother that wonderful flavor? They might as well buy the leftovers from the tea auctions and be done with it.)
  • Finally found an article that gave the owner’s full name but read again like a PR announcement.
For a company that’s supposed to have been around for 6 years and have such a glowing reputation, they are fairly closed about who they are, unlike Lochan Tea, The Devotea, Thunderbolt Tea, Yunomi.us, and a host of others I could name who carry truly great teas.

Despite their company motto (“If ‘Tea Makes Everything Better’ shouldn't we be drinking better tea?”), they don’t necessarily offer better tea. They do offer 26 herbals (the majority of their product line it seems), 19 teas that they claim are “rare & prized”, 3 pu-erhs where they don’t specify raw or ripe nor the factory (I’m spoiled by the folks at JAS-eTea.com), and a miscellany of other teas presented in a fancy manner. Their store site seems more surface than substance (focus on visual impact versus real info for you).

On a final note, I got a big laugh out of them listing a tea as a “white oolong”!! Their listings of an Aged Assam and a Darjeeling Oolong were also amusing. Small wonder that tea experts like Phil Mumby are flustered at tea vendors out there, and I have to agree with him.

© 2014 A.C. Cargill photos and text

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

There Are Tea Clubs and Then There Are Tea Clubs

Some tea clubs want to make you feel like you are in some kind of exclusive, elitist enclave. Others truly want to help you broaden your tea horizons by jolting you out of your comfort zone to get you to try some teas you might not otherwise try. I’m not sure yet which The Devotea’s Tea Club is, since the teas we recently received are doing both. We have that Tea Elite Vibe going big time and at the same time these aren’t snooty teas presented in some pretentious fashion but are simply tasty teas presented in a cheerful manner and that are just coaxing us to put that little teapot of our to work!


The Tea Maven behind these teas is Nicole Schwartz, working on the U.S. side of the company. She states her goals in selecting the teas for each month are, “I am hoping to have one special blend each month, feature one fabulous Lochan tea, and the rest will depend on the season, but since my mother subscribes each box needs to be amazing” — sounds like the pressure is on here!

It also sounds like this will be one of the funner tea clubs around.

© 2013 A.C. Cargill photos and text

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Good and Bad of Pre-Mixed Masala Chai

Recently, I tried one of the very best pre-mixed masala chais I have yet to taste. Considering that I have been drinking this style of flavored tea for about 20 years, that statement seems even more impressive than it otherwise might. You can read the full review here. Sadly, a lot of folks in the U.S. think that "chai" means "spiced tea" and that it should be loaded with cinnamon. That's okay, I used to think so, too, mainly because I would have that "chai latté from the local Starbucks (made with that syrupy type of instant chai that Tazo produces by the vat-full).

My experience with this much more authentic-tasting masala chai, from the folks at Lochan Tea who are proving their years of experience with tea, brought me back to the true masala chai taste I had first experienced all those years ago in a restaurant in the Washington, DC, area. It also prompted me to write an article about it for their blog, which you can see here. Good things should be heralded whenever we find them!

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

My Final Tea Room Experience

This Tea Princess has had her last visit to one of those fancy tea rooms. Absolutely, positively the last. And the reason? They all disappoint. This last one most of all. Time to tell my tale of Tea Princess woe.


The tea room in question was Chantilly Tea Room in Tucson, Arizona, but this really isn’t directed at them. In fact, it’s more about me and my journey of tea discovery over the past several years. There was a time when the service there and other such places would have been very satisfying. That whole “ignorance is bliss” thing. Now, though, they just won’t do.

Issues:
  • Oversteeped tea — The tea leaves were loose in teapot but no empty teapot was provided to strain the tea into once it was ready, so it got oversteeped; the waitress made things worse by adding more hot water. Small wonder that many people don’t like teas. The steeping process need to be stopped at a certain point so the tea does not get bitter or worse. This was a big learning point for me and why hubby and I now use the 2-teapot method when steeping tea.
  • Choices not premium — Most of their “teas” were highly flavored concoctions, including herbals. We ordered Irish Breakfast and their version of Masala Chai, which was heavily cinnamoned and got bitter since we had no way to strain the liquid. Once upon a time my favorite tea was Earl Grey (still very popular) and a close second was anything fruity flavored or even a bit spicy. Now I just see the flavorings as getting in the way of the tea and so stick with straight teas with a few exceptions.
  • Fancy menu not worth the price — The food was very overpriced but not bad. I had a small quiche made with mushrooms and bleu cheese accompanied by a pile of raw lettuce and other items that they called a salad. Hardly worth the almost $12 price. Over the years I’ve just gotten away from that salad stuff and like to get more for my money that little tidbits.
  • Strange eating utensils — One thing for me that really made the meal troublesome and annoying was the flatware provided. I had a small salad fork and a butter knife instead of a dinner fork and a dinner knife. It made cutting and eating my food quite awkward. In all fairness, I began eating my meals in a more European style about 20 years ago. That’s where you hold the fork in your non-dominant hand (the left in my case) and cut with a knife in the other hand. This requires the proper utensils.
The good points:
  • A nice albeit somewhat overly pink décor. Color is a very personal issue. All a tea room manager can hope for is something that will appeal to a broad enough spectrum of people to maintain enough customer traffic.
  • A well-stocked gift area, including the teas shown above and lots of teawares ranging from cute and kitschy to elegant. The only drawback is our lack of space to store anymore teawares, at least until we get some things better organized around here.
  • Adequate parking. Very important! If you overindulge, nothing is worse than a long hike to where your car is parked.
My increased knowledge of tea and higher standards for the value I want to get from the money I work so many hours to earn have made me less accepting of the experience at places like this. Since many tea rooms are set up like this one, I have pretty much decided to forego and further such forays. It’s a personal decision and one that you may disagree with. That’s the beauty of personal choice.

The rest of our visit to Tucson, though, was a fabulous experience. Nevertheless, this Tea Princess was glad to be back in her “tea home.”

© 2013 A.C. Cargill photos and text

Monday, November 18, 2013

Simplex Kettles — An Example of How NOT to Respond to a Customer Complaint

Recently, I won a tea kettle from Simplex Kettles in the UK and was quite excited — until the problems arose. I should say “problem” — singular — because as it turned out there was really only one problem. His name was Graham Tweed, CEO of Simplex Kettles. Someone that I’m sure is in person a really nice guy but who came across very differently in our email exchange regarding my “prize” kettle. So much so that hubby and I are now quite pissed off with him and the company.


First, let me say that the kettle, despite some minor dents, is gorgeous. And we missed on their site that it is not tarnish-proof so have only ourselves to blame there. Trying to be very fair here. On the other hand, we did make sure to select a tea kettle that would work on our hotplates (we don’t have a stove — a trend that is growing here in the U.S. and elsewhere). We took this screenshot from their site on 11 Nov 2013 9:59:39 AM my time showing that it was supposed to work (click on image to enlarge).


A kettle is no good if it’s just pretty, so we had to test it out, following the Simplex instructions very carefully. Sadly, the test didn’t go well (details here) and so we contacted Simplex through Facebook. Imagine my surprise when the CEO, Graham Tweed, responded! The company isn’t huge, but they’re not a one-man operation either, so I had expected them to have a social media or PR person who would address customer concerns. A lot of times these people are more diplomatic and are much better at paying attention to what the customer is saying. In this case, it would have been a good idea. You see, this isn’t about the quality of the kettle but rather about the how this company responded to us.

It’s kind of tough to write this. We were so happy to win their contest and even more happy when the prize kettle arrived. We had hoped this item would be all that the company site said it was. It wasn’t and the CEO didn’t like hearing that. First, he blamed the hotplate, sending reviews he found somewhere online saying how bad it worked (we had to point out that it worked fine with our other kettle). Then it seems WE were the problem, using their kettle wrong. At my age I’ve used lots of kettles. Again, I think the real problem was Tweed answering my Facebook message. It was Sunday but he could have waited and let that more diplomatic person handle things. Just a thought. And answering via his cell phone meant he probably didn’t read my messages thoroughly (some of his responses were non-sequitor) and the brevity of his responses made them seem terse.

Oh well, our tried and true tea kettle will serve us just fine until we found a truly usable replacement.

One final note: Online shopping, especially from companies based in another country, are a bit risky with the biggest issue being customer complaints. Avenues of recourse available to us here when buying from a U.S.-based company do not apply to these other offshore firms.

© 2013 A.C. Cargill photos and text

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Tea Time Musings — The Bollywood Movie Experience

Hubby and I got to see our first full-length (3 hours) Bollywood movie recently, thanks to Dr. Brian Cowlishaw, a professor at the local university. It was called Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi and starred an actor quite famous in India: Shahrukh Khan. His co-star was the beautiful Anushka Sharma in her first starring role. While plot elements were well known to us from other movies, the overall effect was rather unique and fresh. The acting was much better than expected, the dance numbers and music were full of great rhythms, and the boy-girl conflicts, while a bit cliché, were still entertaining. Khan’s performance was very moving in several scenes and purposefully annoying in other scenes. When his co-star’s character Taani shows annoyance, the audience is in total agreement and understanding with her.

One criticism: making Shahrukh Khan look nerdy never really quite worked, but that also goes for many Hollywood movies: handsome men are cast in roles where they should look unhandsome or at least ordinary (see my article Tea Kettle Philosophy — The Too Handsome Actor) and beautiful women are cast in roles where they are meant to look plain (Joan Fontaine, a much acknowledged Hollywood beauty, cast as Jane Eyre, for example).

Bollywood movies are a phenomenon in the film world that are very cultural and very specific to India. The genre began in Bombay, which is now called Mumbai, having thrown off it colonial name, but now the movies are filmed elsewhere, too. In fact, a scene or two in this movie were filmed in the Alps. (The majority was filmed on location in Amritsar, which is the city used in another Bollywood movie Bride and Prejudice, a delightful twist on the Jane Austen classic Pride and Prejudice, and in studios.) Therefore, you get to see a very real view of the city and some of the countryside, not a moviedom version. That in itself is a refreshing treat.

The musical in Hollywood died with such films as Star! and Darling Lili (both Julie Andrews tour-de-forces and ones I personally enjoyed immensely due to her tremendous talent and almost unbelievable vocal range) but lives on in Bollywood!

See my article related to this on The English Tea Store Blog: http://englishtea.us/2013/10/07/tea-and-the-bollywood-movie/

© 2013 A.C. Cargill photos and text

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Tea and a Book: “The Map of Time” by Felix J. Palma

I’m rarely surprised anymore when reading a book or watching a movie. It’s not that I’m jaded. It’s that they have become formulaic. Expected. Commonplace. This novel appeared to be the same. However, the author at one point managed to surprise — in fact, more than once in the first half of the novel — while entertaining. I had some “aw geez, don’t go there” moments when things started getting a bit cliché, though. Then, it seemed to get better, then near the end…well, getting a bit ahead of myself here.

The good points of the novel: 1) the use of a literary device of omniscience and the rather cute way he has of informing his audience he is doing this; 2) the use of language (I have to point out, though, that this is as much due to the translator as the author, since the novel was written originally in Spanish); and 3) the historical references being tied together in an artful way. Considering that the novel takes place in England but was written by someone born and raised in Spain, the novel has a very authentic British feel to it.

The bad points of the novel: 1) overly graphic in some places; 2) just plain silly in others; and 3) rather disappointing overall, sort of like sitting down to a meal that smells good and initially tastes good but that ends up being rather mediocre.

Some reviewers have “ooh”ed and “aah”ed over this book. I cannot join their chorus. After leading readers through an almost tortuous labyrinth about the myth of time travel, and after making sure his readers know that time travel is not possible, he twists around and proposes the opposite. Rubbish! And very disappointing. This is presented as a murder mystery, not fantasy fiction. When I reached that point in the novel, I kept hoping that Senor Palma was once again going to reveal the hoax, as he had done twice previously. Sadly, those hopes were dashed. Worse yet was the fizzling nature of the last chapter or so. After all that winding back and forth previously and involving such historical figures as H.G. Wells in his journey, the nature of the ending was a huge let down.

One final note: there was one good thing about the novel, and that was the wonderful tea I enjoyed while reading it.

© 2013 A.C. Cargill photos and text