Posted by: ben | May 19, 2009

aye tea part three: some thoughts

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Ben: My chance encounters with teahouses in Glasgow and Edinburgh have made me reconsider the status of tea. In the final part of this little series, I want to share a few thoughts I’ve had about our little hobby and why I think we’re potentially at quite an exciting time.

There’s a couple of overall important points I’d like to raise, if you’d allow me. Firstly:

header1Availability
When I left Glasgow back in 2007, I was aware of only one teahouse in the country: Tchai Ovna (which, to be fair, at that time also had another ‘branch’ on the south side of the city somewhere). There were plenty of cafes and tea shops but if you wanted to try loose leaf teas, you had to go down a very hidden lane in a very quiet part of Glasgow’s west end and sit on ricketty seats.

What a change in just two short years! Tchai Ovna is still there (and still has its own wonderful charm) but it’s now complemented with a major cafe slap bang in the middle of the town’s major shopping district. Edinburgh, not content with one such cafe, has two that I managed to find and, allegedly, others scattered about, too.

It feels like this could be the start of a trend – I’m certainly hoping so, at least. Over the past few years there’s been a very noticable decline in the quality of the major coffee chains – branches of Starbucks with their 17-year-old baristas and sloppy cleaning standards feel more akin to a McDonalds. These new teahouses feel like a reaction to that, a few people wanting to start cafes but wanting them to stand out from the crowd. What could be more different to a crude expresso drink than an elegantly brewed tea? With the current ubiquity of such coffee chains, there’s nothing more appealing for those seeking something different.

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Accessibility
Just setting up a teahouse isn’t enough, though. Of the four cafes I visited, there were notable fluctuations in the number of visitors. I don’t put this down to a difference in the quality of the teas or that people don’t want to drink there – it’s a problem with the nature of the drink itself.

Do you remember when you first went into a branded coffee shop and you were confronted by the menu, offering frappuchinos, mochas, lattes and dozens of other variations? I do – it was intimidating. For a good few years I only drank cappuchinos because I didn’t know what anything else was. After a while I got brave and tried other things but I had to do that of my own volition.

Imagine being in the shoes of someone who has never tried a loose leaf tea. You walk into a cafe and see the menu board. There are endless arrays of black teas, white teas, green teas, yellow teas, blooming teas, rooibos teas and herbal infusions. From experience, all you know is that you like PG Tips. Where do you begin?

All the folk behind the counters of the places I visited were pleasant and happy to answer any questions I had with ease. They would happily guide anyone towards the ideal tea for them – but why should people have to ask? There’s nothing more intimidating than walking into an environment you’re totally unfamiliar with and having to ask for help. People don’t want to do that in their leisure time – they want easy access.

This is a major area that teahouses need to work on. There’s a couple of ways they could do this but as far as I can see, none of the cafes I visited did this perfectly. I like Brewhaha’s ‘tea-cher’ menu which offers guidance and advice, but they were placed on the tables you sit at after you make an order. There should be a large version of this displayed prominently at the door, easy to peruse before even stepping into the shop. I like how Eteaket split their menu into starter, intermediate and advance but there’s still no ‘base’ tea to choose.

I think the industry, in general, needs a benchmark. Something nondescript, made readily available everywhere and cheap to produce. If everyone got together to push, say, Earl Grey or a smoky Ceylon, the public at large could go into these cafes and have those drinks, hopefully venturing forward after time.

Make these places as unintimidating as possible!

header2Class
If you ask most people what they think of when they hear the phrase ‘loose leaf tea’, I’d wager that most have connotations of upper-class, afternoon tea, porcelain cups and saucers, butlers etc etc.

Bit of a pain, that.

The teahouses I visited had a very diverse demographic but, generally speaking, they were largely populated by students and – in Eteaket and Brewhaha’s case – extremely posh ladies. That’s very exclusionary and doesn’t help make these places any less intimidating. I’d hope that the students key into these places more and help make them more mainstream – the busier places we visited (most notably Tea Tree Tea) seemed to be overrun with students and managed to ooze a certain coolness.

tchai-headerCommunity
My final point, this. If you read this blog (and if you’ve made it to the end of this article!), it’s almost certainly because, like me, you love tea. There’s great little tea communities all over the web – the active folk on Twitter, those over at Tea Reviews, active bloggers like Lainie Sips – and it feels like there could be groups now scattered throughout the country.

This, frankly, is brilliant. Everyone benefits from more people being interested in wonderful teas – more is sold, there’s greater demand for better blends, more rivallry creates a more competitive marketplace.

For this to happen, these teahouses need to act as ambassadors to lull people in.

To be fair, some are already good at doing this. Tchai Ovna acts as a music and poetry venue most evenings and can be loosely included in the Glasgow hipster scene (the cover of Belle & Sebastian’s Dear Catastrophe Waitress was photographed there). Eteaket have made some comments about starting tasting evenings. Tea Tree Tea have areas for people to leave flyers and things.

But they could all be doing so much more! Unlike American businesses, few of them have any kind of meaningful web presence other than the obligatory website and crude online shop. Tea Tree Tea are on Twitter but they don’t do anything with it, updating their status once in a blue moon. There is very little online community interaction online and, Tchai Ovna aside, very little in real life either.

These teahouses shouldn’t just be a business. They should be venues, places to meet, places where – crucially – the people who own the shop and are passionate about tea can interact with everyone else. I loved Tea Tree Tea, not for the branding or the decor or the style of cup or anything else but because the guys behind the counter sang at you with happiness, knowledge and a genuine desire to interact. Brewhaha, by comparison, had no physical interaction, a very poor web presence and no desire to talk tea by email other than to correct errors. It feels like a way to make money and nothing more.

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I don’t want this series of posts to end on a negative note. I want to reiterate my genuine excitement – we’re drinking nice teas and it feels like the rest of the world is beginning to do the same! These teahouses are all ideal places for people like you and me to go and enjoy and I really hope that they encourage others to visit, too.

Ben visited Tchai Ovna and Brewhaha in Glasgow, and Eteaket and Tea Tree Tea in Edinburgh. If you’re ever in either city, he humbly asks that you visit them and sample their wares.

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Responses

  1. I feel inspired but I don’t know what to do.

    *puts kettle on*

    • Neither do I, to be honest. Generally being positive about teahouses and sellers is the best way to go, I reckon. Be evangelical!

  2. Lovely, inspiring post! You lads are doing your bit by posting about teas and getting people excited. What I might suggest is sending this post to the various tea rooms that you have visited.

    I have found that most business owners are eager to improve their service and want to know what dedicated “mavens”, people who could really bring in a lot of business, think.

    • Thanks!

      I’m a bit loathe to send this article to all four teahouses because it’s a bit brusque to do so. All four are aware that we’re talking about them in some degree – I only hope they come back again. Mind you, since writing this article, eteaket have started using twitter apparently because of us! You can follow them at http://www.twitter.com/eteaket

  3. I saw that, Ben! Very good.

    I want to contribute somehow, but all I’ve managed is to enter the lipton’s competition you mentioned on twitter to get a tea sample.

    Not really the point. I’ll look around Newcastle. There’s an indie coffee-house that has a herbal tea selection, but that hardly counts. Yes, I’ll do some digging. Consider it a cause.

    • Good luck! I’ve been desperately scrabbling around the internet in search of anywhere in Berkshire, and then the South of England for a proper teahouse. Apart from a few cafe’s that ‘also sell tea’ or have a ‘selection of teas’, there’s really very little that comes even remotely close to a teahouse. Tearooms don’t count, as they’re mostly hotel foyers with a choice of Earl Grey or teas with added fruit flavours. It’s horribly disappointing.

  4. […] to investigate the specialist tea shop situation in my home city of Glasgow by a recent online blog, I attempted to merge the investigation into my normal shopping routine. Therein lay problem number […]

  5. Hi Ben

    Thanks so much for such an interesting and useful blog. I agree with your points above. The first step was to start selling and serving quality loose leaf tea on the high street but the next step is to make it as accessible as possible. It’s going to take a while to educate customers about different kinds of tea but I guess it’s all about finding creative ways to do this – all ideas welcome.

    We’re recently started sampling a lot more to let people try things they might not otherwise have tasted. I’m also training our staff to offer recommendations to customers (without being asked). We have found that by colour coding our tea list, adding more descriptions and introducing a staff pick of the week, people are already experimenting more and venturing into the unknown. It’s amazing to see people from all walks of life try something different and really getting into it.

    Our next tea tasting evening will be in September (it’s Festival season in Edinburgh at the moment) but my aim is that they’ll run once a month after that. We’re also launching our Book Club in September.

    I agree that tea shops should be part of the community and my aim over the next year is to make that happen. We’re already doing community events – like supporting SuperJam at a Tea Party for 200 housebound elderly people at Meadowbank Stadium on Thursday. What I’m realising now is that ‘community’ is not only physical, it’s also online to a large extent. We’re trying to get better at letting people online know what we’re up to and to give them a chance to have their say. We’re slowing getting to grips with things like blogging and Twitter but it’ll be an ongoing learing curve. Think I’ve rambled enough but thanks again for all the feedback and ideas in your blog. It is appreciated.

    • Hi Erica;

      Thanks for commenting – and thanks for reading my (very rambly) thoughts. What it ultimately comes down to is the passion of the teahouse owner, really – your love is infectious!

      I’m hoping to get back up to Edinburgh in October or November. If I do I’ll be sure to drop in and say hello!


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