Go Hug Your Tea Reviewer

by Jason on November 9, 2009

in Uncategorized

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Lately a lot of electronic ink has been spilled about blogging, product endorsement, and the quality of tea reviews.

I can’t resist adding to the conversation.

The are three assumptions that get stated or implied in most of the comments on product endorsement and tea reviews:

  1. Tea review bloggers are mostly passionate amateurs with limited resources who rely on tea retailers a lot of information and (affordable or free) sources of teas to review.
  2. Tea retailers (and drinkers) lament the shortage of professional quality tea reviews offered by tea bloggers.
  3. Tea review blogs provide a space where consumers can get more diverse, honest feedback from other tea drinkers. A retailer’s product review page talks (mostly) about that one company’s tea. A company can selectively accept more favorable reviews, or ones that reference other companies.
  4. Tea consumers (retailers as well) express concern that tea review bloggers have been bought by tea retailers who give them free tea samples or tea products, thereby botching the objectivity of the blogger.

What is the lowly tea review blogger to do? You can see that tea review bloggers provide consumers with information about teas on the market. They allow consumers to comparison shop. They share information that consumers may not be able to get by themselves as conveniently. But what happens is that tea reviewers get malaigned by both sides.

A modest proposal:

  1. Tea retailers invest in the development of tea review bloggers. Tea bloggers help consumers make decisions, so why not help bloggers share better information? If most tea retailers supported bloggers in a relatively equal manner, there would not be retailers exherting excessive influence. Tea bloggers would have more time and resources to develop their profession and deliver professional quality reviews.  Retailers could provide samples and commissions for referrals. If commission percentages were standardized, the tea blogger is not incentivized to review one tea over another. Professional bloggers would arise, incentived to provide quality reviews that help consumers make real decisions.
  2. Tea consumers contribute to the blogger’s sense of community. People are social creatures and take cues from others about who to trust. If a tea reviewer helps you make a decision, let him/her know. If you’ve got a question, drop them a line. If you disagree, give constructive feedback. Your comments make other people return to the site. The result is greater social pressure on the blogger to provide quality, and a greater chance she/he is getting the resources she/he needs to continue improving the blog’s quality. You get a review blog you can put greater trust in.

A look at the wine world can serve as an example of how these principles work. Robert Parker began as an amateur who sold a wine review publication. Parker started with the idea that he could provide quality reviews that did not come from wine producers or the retailers who sold the wines. As he generated trust among a growing, loyal audience, his Wine Advocate became a seal of approval that helps wine retailers promote their goods.

Differences in media and technology require modifications. While Parker started with print, the Internet age challenges the old model where consumers are the direct source of the reviewer’s revenue. Affiliate marketing models take money from the retailers’ marketing budget and place it in the hands of bloggers who perfect the craft of tea review.

A recent, more social media savvy approach can be seen in Gary Vaynerchuk’s Wine Library TV. Vaynerchuk builds a community of people by using his person as his brand. Although a wine business owner, he has built a trusted community to the work of wine evangelization. People follow him because he is honest and forthcoming in his approach. He knows that reputation is everything. In an Internet world, a serious gaffe can destroy a reputation faster than you can say “viral marketing.”

jasonSo next time, give your tea review blogger a pat on the back. We’re not profit hungry, but we do want the resources to refine our passion into a professional skill. As we do so, we walk a fine line, building trust with the tea community we seek to defend and the tea retailers who hold keys to the development of the tea community.

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

TeaBoat November 10, 2009 at 21:12

Glad I could help you. đŸ™‚

Neil Desai November 10, 2009 at 14:50

I definitely agree that tea vendors should invest in tea bloggers. As a blogger, I pay for everything out of my own pocket and it gets tough but I do it because I love it. If things were standardized it’d make my job a ton easier.

TeaBoat November 10, 2009 at 17:21

Are you serious? I think I shall start a blog about candy, gourmet food, and France! Should I expect the candy companies to pay me to eat candy? For France to pay for my French lessons? Come on now. Really? “I do it because I love it.” If you get more than happiness out of writing about what you love, you are lucky! To expect it, is arrogant.

Jason November 10, 2009 at 17:52

Teaboat- depends on the purpose of your blog. Simply telling the world whether you like/dislike something has lower educational value and doesn’t necessarily help consumers make decisions, unless they know they like the same things you do.

If your blog helps an industry grow or develop, that’s a different story. One thing I learned living in China was that there are teas of higher quality than offered by some online vendors. Other retailers offer that quality. There are US consumers that don’t know the difference. A reviewer can serve consumers and the industry by helping consumers recognize quality and appreciate that quality when they find it.

In the end, a professional reviewer is not simply drinking tea or eating candy for the pleasure of it (although there is a requisite passion for the subject). The professional reviewer is shaping a community that makes smarter tea choices.

Jason November 9, 2009 at 20:34

vtknitboy Thanks for clearing that up. Glad you replied and corrected my misunderstanding.

It sounds like were talking about the same or similar things.

Tasting teas (or wines or chocolates, etc.) is about sensory perception, and therefore subjective. What can be made objective is an understanding of how teas are processed to create certain tastes.

A tea reviewer’s main job is to reflect the quality of tea, and how taste and other characteristics reflect that quality.

To evaluate quality, a reviewer needs an internal collection of experiences of a tea. To get those experiences, a reviewer needs to be able to go to the source, into the fields and experience the differences in teas that result from climate, soil, processing, time, and other factors.

In the end, we are left with more questions: What are those requisite experiences a reviewer needs? Who determines what those experiences are?

vtknitboy November 10, 2009 at 12:00

Yes! Your last paragraph is basically what I was saying. My original comments were via twitter, so I place the blame on lack of clarity on th 140 characters limitation!

vtknitboy November 9, 2009 at 16:35

No. U used the term professional. I was responding to ur suggestion. I was saying unless there were minimum standards or benchmarks of knowledge the process of reviewing is subjective. Since there is not a body that creates or establishes any standards, we r where we r now–contemplating how to set up a system or methods for reviewing & benchmarks for doing so. My final comment was a suggestion of what I would like to see on reviews. The person’s background relating to tea, experience, where th tea is from & any relationship with th tea co

Michael J. Coffey November 10, 2009 at 18:11

There ARE standards and a body that creates them–it’s just that Americans in general don’t know about them. The International Standards Organization (ISO) has 50+ published standards regarding tea and tea evaluation. Many are related to testing, which are only valuable if you have a lab, but others such as ISO 3103 “Tea — Preparation of liquor for use in sensory tests” and ISO 6078 “Black tea — Vocabulary” would be very useful to tea bloggers and other reviewers because if everyone followed the standard brewing methodology, used the standard-defined brewing equipment, and described the tea with the standard terminology, readers would get a consistent message about various teas.

As it is, most bloggers, reviewers, etc., don’t even know these standards exist, let alone use them. The Specialty Tea Institute, America’s largest tea education organization, teaches a brewing style that is similar to the standard but uses a lower steep time, and a lower tea-to-water ratio.

The ISO standards are frequently used by professionals in Europe and to a lesser degree in Asia, but are virtually unknown in America.

Jason November 10, 2009 at 23:55

Shouldn’t we be wary of mechanically following a standard practice?

I think of wines for example. A wine tasted straight from the bottle may not be as good as its taste after it has properly decanted.

True, a tea reviewer should be able to brew a tea according to a standard methodology. A tea reviewer should also seek to bring out the best in a tea, and that will require some skill in altering steeping parameters to tease out a tea’s finer points.

Jason November 9, 2009 at 15:52


Thanks for the comments-

So basically, you’re saying that professional tea bloggers should not have universal minimum standards of competency like other professional groups?

If standards were created, wouldn’t they be created by professionals, and preferably by tea professionals who were not all tea sellers or tea producers?

And yet you seem some have some form of expectation or assumptions, wanting to know a reviewer’s background and education.

Without getting into semantics of “subjective” or “pure objectiveness,” how do you resolve the paradox of professionalism, standards & subjectivity?

Jason November 9, 2009 at 15:41

Comments from @vtknitboy via Twitter:

“gotta start someplace! key item 4 me: professional= subjective. no consortium or “world body” streamlining or compiling info”

“or standardizing info, creating benchmarks, etc.”

“at a minimum i would like to see tea background info/education/experience stated on the review, along w/ tea source/$”

Lisa B November 9, 2009 at 14:28

Interesting article and I beleve for you as well as others if you keep on doing what you are doing, you’ll grow to be what you are looking for.

It’s not always about placement and money but passion and enjoying what you do.

But I sure could use that hug…Maybe we should endorse a hug day on national tea day? What do you think?

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