Part One: The Reaction
I’m a little unhappy with a blog post by someone else. Obviously, the smart thing to do is keep my trap shut, but I’m going to invoke the privilege of the elderly (as I turned 50 a couple of days ago) to find fault with the young man involved.
It’s not something I am planning on enjoying, as I consider Geoff Norman as my goofy brother in arms.
Together, we form the heart of the Beasts of Brewdom blog. His blog, Steep Stories is a firm favourite of mine. His blogs combine humour and often irreverent photography with high level descriptive prose that makes most tea bloggers look a bit pedestrian at times. He once reviewed some of our teas via a brilliant series of off-beat posts that made Inception look easy to follow. I still go back to try to work out what happened. And love them. I have twice nominated Geoff for blogging awards. I met him in person in Las Vagas in 2013, and he was exactly as described on the label. If you only have room for one mildly mad tea blogger in your life, stop reading this and start reading Steep Stories – after you read this post.
In one of my roles, I meet a lot of Labradors, and Geoff reminds me of all of them: they seem unconstrained by normal space, with limbs that move in seeming independent directions and with an unquenchable joy in life. And Geoff approaches tea the way Labradors approach anything edible: I want it all, and I want it now. Where did that go? Is there any more?
So now, I feel like I’m about to kick a human Labrador. Or shoot Bambi. I hope I am forgiven.
Geoff wrote a post called Regarding Tea Sachets that I’m planning on dissecting. Here’s how it starts out:
In more informed tea circles, it is common knowledge that teabags are crap. Those little bags of ass-flavored tea usually contain the dust left over after the good, loose leaf tea was packaged. The taste of an average black tea from a bag is rough and bitter, like licking a chalkboard. (Yes, I’ve tried that.) But what about sachets?
It’s hard to argue with most of that. In fact, it’s hard to argue with any of it. I imagine I was nodding along at this point. It’s true that often CTC-processed tea is grown and processed entirely for teabags, so there are no leftovers from the good stuff, there never was good stuff in whatever sprawling tea operation that grew and packed those supermarket teabag brands, but that’s a minor point. Let’s move on:
Even the word sounds snobbish. The definition isn’t any better: “A perfumed bag used to scent clothes”. However, sachets (sans perfuming or clothing) have been adopted by many tea producers and vendors to package whole leaf tea in a convenient way for undiscerning consumers. Let’s face it. Not all of those that are curious about loose leaf tea want to go through the trouble of using a strainer.
And here’s where I think he’s first gone wrong. he hasn’t really defined what a sachet is, as opposed to a teabag. They are fundamentally the same thing, it’s really just what the manufacturer wants to call it. However, it might generally be considered that a product is more likely to be called a sachet if it has one or more of these characteristics:
- It is made of a material claimed to be better than paper
- It offers more room for the leaves to expand
- It contains leaves of a higher quality and/or bigger size than standard teabags.
Geoff then goes on to say:
The issue for most orthodox tea drinkers isn’t the idea of a filter bag, but rather the material – and the fact that said sachet may prevent whole tea leaves from properly . . . uh . . . breathing. (Their language, not mine.) Many loose leaf tea drinkers believe that confining the leaves to a foreign material while brewing affects the flavor.
I, honestly, never had an opinion one way or the other. Granted, I preferred brewing tea loose leaf – even so far as to just put leaves in a mug, no strainer. However, there were plenty of teas out there that were duly sacheted I liked. One of my favorite outfits, Smith Teamaker offered consumers the option of loose leaf or sachet, and I flip-flopped between the two.
It seems like Geoff is setting up an experiment here, and he is. And one imagines that it is the sort of half-arsed experiment that not only has Geoff done in the past, but that I myself have also indulged in. It’s one of the reasons we get on. A love of stupid semi-scientific experiments. I even once shot a video of myself continually re-steeping one tea. It goes for 9 minutes and 10 seconds. Probably best avoided.
But before we embrace his experiment, I’m going to take some issue with his description. These bits “The issue for most orthodox tea drinkers isn’t the idea of a filter bag, but rather the material” and “… sachet may prevent whole tea leaves from properly . . . uh . . . breathing.” grind my gears a little. Firstly, it assumes that the tea inside the “sachet is ‘whole leaf’, secondly, it suggests that room to move is a problem with sachets., thirdly, it fails to define why the problem is one of material and lastly by stating that these two problems are “the problem” it implies there are no other ‘problems’ or objections one might have.
A prominent site that sells both loose leaf and tea ‘pouch’ versions of the same teas has this to say:
Our pouches contain the same great whole leaf teas as our loose tea, just cut into smaller pieces.
What? Size matters, guys. Change the piece size, you change the surface area. You change the teas. So Geoff’s left out the point here that many of these manufacturers aren’t just stuffing the tea in a sachet or pouch or bag, they are macerating it first. Which means it’s no longer the same.
Some of the pouches do offer room for the tea to infuse, twist grow and swell (I don’t think I’d say ‘breathe’, except as a metaphor) so as an objection, it’s not really one I think applies universally. It’s certainly not my main concern.
Onto the material: This material is usually bio-plastic, a plastic made from organic sources such as a small conifer tree or corn starch. As it has a slippery, shiny feel, it is often described as “silky” or “silken” in a very cynical, and highly successful ploy to have customers believe the product is actually made of silk. This single fact should be enough to have you question the integrity of those selling these things. So yes, the material is a problem. It’s allegedly inert. It allegedly does not affect the taste either through storage or usage.
Does the sachet or even the string -which are sometimes glued or stapled -add anything to the tea:- if a tea leaf can add 30,000 compounds to hot water, surely a bit of string and some ‘100% polyactic corn based compostable material’ (or just polyester, if you switch marketing speak for wikipedia) must add something. Let’s not even think about glue.
I know that last sentence is not exactly good science but it just feels like it should be asked (my apologies to Michael Coffey for using one of the fallacies he hates).
And to wrap this bit up, what about the other problems one might have with these things? Is the tea going to stay as fresh when effectively stored in tiny quantities with a higher surface area? What effect does the extra processing: maceration, stuffing, wrapping and packing have on the tea?
So, onto the experiment. Geoff makes tea. Twice. Once with a sachet, once without. And compares. And finds no difference, despite his excellent palate and penchant for oolongs.
But wait one cornstarch-plastic-picking minute there.
Geoff acknowledges the basic flaw in his experiment: He has undertaken the ‘loose’ brew by simply removing a serving of tea from one of the sachets. And while he does acknowledge it, he does not state why this is a flaw. Well, here are just some reasons why his experiment is deeply flawed:
Tea that has been processed, bagged, packed and unbagged cannot be considered to be the equivalent of loose leaf tea.
- It might have been cut up
- It has been handled a great deal more, possibly even by robots, which never ends well
- It may have taken on some characteristics of the sachet through contact with it for many months
On top of that, consider these factors:
- An oolong might well have been brewed at a bit less than boiling.(Geoff doesn’t say). What if the tea was black, does water at boiling point react differently to the sachet than at a 10% below?
- Much of tea that goes in bags/sachets/pouches/envelopes/organic-certified free trade kale based quinoa molecule tea wombs* is not grown or processed to the highest standard, but created to a price point and for maximum colour in the cup.
So, let’s look at Geoff’s conclusion:
But as I see it, there was no glaring detraction from the sachet. No trace of “silk” on the palate.
My subjective, semi-informed verdict: A teabag is bad, but a sachet is okay.
And there we have it. Part one done. And before you can draw breath, it’s-
Part Two- The Reactor
As I implied at the start, this post is about not just one blog post by someone wlse, but about my reaction.
And my reaction to Geoff’s post was this:
I laughed, and I started to add a comment.
And while I was doing so, I read this comment on the post:
Now that worried me a bit. And then there was this.
This is where I lost it.
Geoff, you are a Front Line Commander in the Army of The Leaf. Did you seek tea greatness, or was it thrust upon you? Who cares. The fact is, you are a thought leader, and opinion leader, and you need to understand the basic tenets of human nature: People are often dumb, or just don’t care about the subject matter.
Your blog is widely read. With that comes great responsibility. Despite you adding some quite reasonable qualification that to ‘tea people’ basically reads as “this is just Geoff larking about’, your blog has the power to inform opinion. Or to reinforce opinion. Bad opinion. And in 24 words, Catherine manages to feed back to you the message that she had read in your blog: “Hey, loose leaf tea is just snobbery. I thought so”.
I know this post is far more about me than it is about your post, Geoff. I’ve stood behind the counter in cafes and restaurants, suffering the “Oh, haven’t you just got ‘normal’ tea” and stood at markets where people tell you to get with the times and get your tea into a bag, because no-one has time for loose leaf any more. Or just look at me blankly when I say I’m in the tea business.
We must never give an inch in this war, Commander Geoff. We take bags and sachets and pouches and we burn them, or we throw them across the room, or we disparage them with all the malevolent sarcasm we can muster, we must fight them on the beaches and in the tea rooms, but we must never surrender to the Catherines of this world. We cannot allow ourselves to be painted as just dilettantes who are making tea in a pot or gaiwan because we are hopelessly out of date.
We simply must.
We. Simply. Must.
*’organic-certified free trade kale based quinoa molecule tea wombs!’ I might set up a company under an alias to sell dodgy tea to the unwary, and call my teabags that, just out of sheer malice.