The Rationale

Hi everyone, I am back from an amazing trip of which crown jewel was Tuscany, Italy. Soon I will published some of the pictures and stories.

Some time ago I sent some tea samples to friends of mine.
The tea samples arrived only labeled by colored stickers.
One reason for sending them like that is very much like my dear friend VL described. But there was another reason.

This is the story of the other reason

Every tea house has a menu. Mine was almost done, so I thought.
A very good Taiwanese tea vendor with lots of very good online reviews. Interesting Chinese teas and very good Indian Black tea vendors. 'Other teas' (herbal, fruits and blends) were also to appear on the menu.
Having tasted the teas, I was pretty happy (relative to the price and overall quality I wanted to achieve in my future tea house).

It all crushed during a very long week not too long ago.

I tested a 'mini menu' (the menu consisted of teas that were to be offered on the menu, as well as some scarce teas -where by I wished to see the tester’s reaction to some more special teas- and teas which most tea blogers would considered unfit for consumption. I did not test any Taiwanese or herbal on that occasion). All together there were 19 testers.

The testers represented what is most likely to constitute my future customers’ demography.
I placed on the table all the tea tools that will be present in the tea house i.e. Gaibei, yixing pots, English tea pots, kettles, measuring tools etc. Each person was told to use what he/she preferred to use with the given teas. They were not told what the teas were or how to brew them. The results were eye opening - despite the fact that I spent most of the time closing them in despair and disbelief.

Putting aside the fact that almost everyone asked for sugar, things went from bad to really bad. Most teas were over brewed - people are used to brew their teas here for some 5-7 minutes and put a huge amount of sugar or some sort of sweetener (needless to say tea bags is the norm here). Expensive pots were almost broken, 1 Gaibei broke!

Tastes that I consider as unfit for consumption were liked because they were " different!" - think of those Puerh that smell and taste like the bottom of a very dirty pond - it's a hit here! The findings were numerous, some were funny others depressed me so much that I considered to give up the whole project - perhaps there is a need to reconsider the business model… .

Back in Taiwan the best teas I had would taste great despite over brewing (or bad brewing techniques in general). But these teas are too expensive and so scarce that it is almost impossible to get even for own consumption.

Yet, it is obvious I need to do something about all the problems that I encountered, specially the "brewing problem". After a short email to a friend living in Beijing I received 4 samples of Chinese teas that my friend suggested "might be something worth looking at". These teas can apparently be brewed for longer time and are very cheap (when asked how much the testers were willing to pay for the experience of sipping tea in a traditional tea house setting it was lower then expected - no premium for the experience in theory).

I tasted the teas after sending them to my friends. Two of them appealed to me very much and I absolutely hated the other two. There were some similar and very differing views but more about this on perhaps a different day.

Since I received the samples as I was packing the olive-oils, I decided it would be a good idea to hear what my friends think of these teas. The fifth sample (not yet saying which label, but it is obvious) is a sample Bao Zhong tea I bought on my trip to Taiwan. Why did I send it? Simply because I was drinking it on the day - and I like it :-)

Having said this, getting what some might consider weaker tasting teas is not what I consider to be the ideal solution , but it is one and I have not ruled it out completely - this is "the rationale" for getting these teas in the first place.

Needless to say, I am currently working on brewing notes for each tea so as to simplify the brewing instructions and achieve better results - these notes also include pictures as well as a stop watch to be placed on top of each table. Although trained stuff members is a must, I am not planning on having them sit at tables brewing teas. At least not the second pot...for free. Tea brewing demonstrations to improve the customers knowledge are also considered.

Any recommendation as to how to improve the brewing ability of customers sitting at the table will be most welcome.

As I said, I did not test with brewing instructions, but perhaps a short booklet will be sufficient to do the trick.


Anonymous said...

Hello Ido,

I’ve been keenly following your blog for a while now, and felt compelled to comment on this wonderful post. Your plans to start a tearoom are admirable.

Far from being “crushed”, I think you should take the results of your little tea test as a tremendously positive development. Not many people even take the time to do what you’re doing. The fact that you gained significant insight into your potential customer’s preferences *now* is so much better than you finding this out in, say, 6 months -- after you’ve poured your heart and soul (and wallet, presumably!) into your vision of the ideal tea room. Course-correcting now is always cheaper and you’ll build a better, more enduring product in the future.

Simplifying what is often a very complex beverage is no easy task. I can guarantee that you will not hit on the perfect approach right away – I think it will be through a series of missteps and errors that you will have to refine your approach to find the right balance. Someone much wiser than me once told me that you need to “quit often in order to be successful.” I know this runs counter to what most people think – but I think he meant that you have to accept that you are going to make mistakes, and it’s better to find out about them early on, quit making them, and move on to the next idea. Experimentation is key.

On a tactical note, I think a small menu with simple brewing guidelines for each type of tea will go a long way. The timer is a great idea. But don’t expect your customers to “get it” right away. You and your staff will have to work long and hard at it every day – and continue to refine your approach until you can see the customers eyes light up in that one “a-ha” moment.

Best of luck! You’re going about this endeavor the right way, and I’m sure you’ll be successful.



Vladimir Lukiyanov said...

Heh, welcome back...

Ah, one was a Bao Zhong? Was it a roasted one, out of curiosity? :)

I've written my review of the olive oil too; but I just haven't had the time to post it.


Ido said...

Hey VL, hope all is well with you.

Nikhil - I am not quite sure what to say except for thank you for your warm, kind and inspiring words.


Anonymous said...

It was visits to a local, now closed as the owner had to relocate, Chinese tea shop that got me really hooked on great tea.

The owner was dealing with customers who had almost no knowlegde of anything but typical poor quality red or green tea.

The set up, which seemed to work, was to pick from the menu and then the relevent equipment would be brought to the tea sea at each table - a glass jug for green and a yixing for anything else, fair cup and drinking cups with water at the correct temperature. The first round of tea was prepared by the owner/staff who then asked the customer if they would like another prepared, if they would like to prepare themselves under supervision or if they would like to be left alone. I never seen any customers who could not repeat what they had been shown.

The owner would also offer a mug of whatever green tea she happened to be drinking at the time for a very low price to entice those people scared of the tea sea/yixing set-up.

I think the owner did not use a gaiwan as it was much easier for people who do not have heat proof fingers to brew with a pot or jug.

With regard to the the brewing time - Enough leaf was used for the customer to be told that the brews should be poured out straight away no timing required, only when the tea tasted weak should the time be increased, perhaps not the best but better underbrewing than overbrewing, it also gives the customer more attempts at brewing when first starting out without wearing out the tea.

Different grades of the same tea seems to encourage people - you try many cheaper ones and start paying for the high grades of the ones you like. It also may help not to overwhelm them with variety, which is where different grades can fill out the menu

Good Luck

I look forward to visiting the Scottish franchise soon!

Ido said...

Proinsias - thank you for sharing your experience, it is very helpful.
I found it interesting that the owner did not use Gaibei/gaiwan. What is so obvious in Taiwan and China is not so obvious here.

The few who chose to brew with Gaibei over brewed the most as they waited until it was cold enough for them to hold by the side (not rim). Unsure how to hold and the extreme heat a lid fell and broke.
Only one person drunk directly from the gaibei.

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