Like many out there, our life plans didn’t include a radical change in professions, but as we like to say, ‘tea chose us’, not the other way around. We imagine that many people in specialty industries – coffee, wine, food –have had a particular experience that changed everything. The awakening was triggered by one memorable experience. Like an avalanche, the complex flavours and aromas in our first ever Gong Fu Tea ceremony engulfed us, something we never expected from tea.
A specialty tea experience like this can still be incredibly hard to find. Since the 1950s, clever marketing and misinformation due to the ‘colonisation’ of the tea industry and the rise of capitalism have pushed the culture of quantity over quality. This created unsustainably low prices and standardised the end product. One of the defining traits of our time that has affected the rise of specialty tea is the particular value we assign to speed. Speed has gone from being a supplementary property to define distance, increase leisure and denote importance, to a commodity in its own right. Speed assigns false value to things that are of little worth just to the extent that can be consumed quickly. From food, coffee and information, speed has made our lives shallower, more divided, more visceral, yes, more convenient, but also less reflective.
Speed and specialty tea unfortunately, do not mix well. With tea, the joy is in the slower more immersive experience, which mirrors the skilled process in which it was made. People are looking for ways in which to slow down, and through our observations, we know that tea drinkers will pay more for these experiences. The question is, can this fit into our current café model?
There is a movement building among the specialty tea industry. Because many of us don’t have our own spaces to reduce overheads, we are reaching out to cafés, roasters, restaurants and workshop spaces to offer modern tea experiences so that we can inspire and drive a new tea culture. Tea business have opted away from fighting over the crumbs and instead are reaching out to one another, creating alliances and hosting collaborative events to convert the wider audience to a new, modern tea experience. Festivals such as the Brisbane and Melbourne Brewin’ aim to make high quality teas more accessible to the average punter. Tea meet-ups and social events, such as the newly formed Specialty Tea Social in Sydney, also focus on education and a slower more immersive experience with tea. We are finding new ways of letting specialty tea speak for itself – by making it accessible, educating the consumer, and facilitating memorable experiences that stay with people forever. We are sharing its story, our knowledge, and our passion. In doing so, we are not just creating customers, we are creating ambassadors.
A recent article caught our eye, about sociologist Ray Oldenburg’s concept of a place that humans need in their lives, besides work and home, which Oldenburg refers to as “the third place”. In his book, Celebrating the Third Place: Inspiring Stories about the great good places at the Heart of Our Communities, tea houses fall into that category of places that “host regular, voluntary, informal, and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work.” In the past, the Chinese have given credit to tea houses for their social evolution. It was only after tea houses opened that people from all casts had a place where their social standing had no importance. It was a place they could share their ideas, music, art and poetry freely while simultaneously building on each other’s opinions and insights.
Perhaps that is what specialty tea is moving towards, a cultural shift. Perhaps soon we will be surrounded by spaces that accommodate a slower more immersive experience. Our belief is that both specialty tea and coffee need spaces like this to reach their full potential. Only then, will we be able to fully appreciate the products story, flavour, as well as, personalise the customer’s experience. We need to better engage with our consumers and we need to work together so these products are more accessible to everyone