A Cup of Cultural Cringe

There’s a thing in Australia called the Cultural Cringe, and if you’ve not heard about it, it’s kind of a national chip on our shoulder; an inbuilt inferiority complex when compared to selected foreign cultures.

It manifests in many ways, from TV programming to architecture to education. It even has it’s own Wikipedia page, so you know it’s a thing.

It’s a function of being a colony and also of rapid migration, and I think over my lifetime we’ve gone a fair way toward getting over it. It’s the flip side of the jingoistic joy we feel in the sporting arena when we win internationally, for example when we are basically the winners of every Olympic Games ever, adjusted for population.*

As an Australian, I think we have a choice: to lose the cringe and just enjoy our diversity and the fact we do draw from every corner of the globe, and take part in “the most successful multicultural society on Earth”***

Of course, one can enjoy, or one can rant, and I know my audience well enough that all this boundless goodwill will leave you, Dear Reader, wondering where it’s going to all blow up. Soon, I assure you.

To me, tea drinkers and the tea industry are quite prone to some cultural cringe of our own. There are many examples, such as elevating sitting on your backside looking at a single blossom on a twig in a jar whilst someone in a kimono pours you two tablespoons’ worth of horrid tea and you contemplate the true meaning of the seventeen winds of austere reflection of self-discipline and inner joy (AKA Japanese Tea Ceremony) over sitting on a chair having a fruit scone or three and a mug of Lord Petersham and gossiping (The Devotea Tea Ceremony****).

To me, the worst of our collective culture cringe is the feeling that we have to define ourselves in terms of other beverages. Most notably coffee, wine or beer.

WHY? A learned scholar has already explained that more tea is drunk than any of these beverages.

And so, we come to what has really ground my gears this week: An article in Tea Journey by Jennifer English.

Now Jennifer is a quality writer, and is certainly more accomplished and knows more about tea than me. But in this case, I find the whole article counter-productive. Assumption is built upon assumption. And the biggest assumption is that the readership of a tea journal somehow thinks that wine is superior to tea. Or even cares about it.

The link I followed started with this sentence:

Think of your personal relationship to wine. When you first discovered wine and how you learned to appreciate it.

Well, I don’t drink it. I don’t like it. I can appreciate it on some level, but at the end of the day, my opinion is that every glass of wine is a chance to have a cup of tea that has gone begging. Jennifer’s lead-in sentence, however, allows no wriggle room. OF COURSE YOU LOVE WINE, it implies. So please, please, like us a bit as well. 

One contention of the article is that in the mid-seventies, one event suddenly catapulted Californian wine into prominence when two of them out-scored two French wines in a blind tasting. The net effect was that everyone suddenly re-evaluated their thoughts on wine: “Zut Alors! I have been blind but now I see! It’s the TASTE that matters.”

And Jennifer opines that now that event is happening for tea, the proof of which is the growth of specialty tea shops and the rise in availability of truly excellent teas for the average punter via the Internet.

I really dislike that comparison. For starters, I don’t buy into the “seismic shift” theory of the 1976 event, no matter how much it suits the Californian vintners to draw that line in the sand. Here’s just one example: my hometown has a little wine called Penfolds Grange (Hermitage). Made since 1951, by 1971 it was consistently beating all comers, including French Wines, at international wine competitions*****.  It’s one of the most collectible wines in the world. Yet we are expected to believe that in 1976, a whole bunch of people thought: “These French wines that have been beaten by an Australian Wine for 5 years have just been beaten by an American one, we better change our thinking”.

I believe Jennifer has a wine background and so has incorporated the “conventional wisdom” into her article, but nonetheless, allowing for the fact that most of us see things through the prism of our own experience, it grates on me. However, I do think there is a comparison to be made.

Look at where wine shops went in the two decades from 1970, look at the uptake of new drinkers, look at how they have successfully wormed their way onto menus and into people’s thoughts by having great products, education of the average drinker and sheer hard work. That is the real comparison, and so I side with Jennifer when she compares the trajectory of wine a short while ago to the trajectory of tea today. I feel it’s not the seismic shift that bears comparison, but the assimilation of better business models and new technology and the dedication of the industry.

I also agree that we now have access to a bewildering array of teas, and within that range there are gems for you to discover.

I hope tea does not go quite down the fashionable road that some wine has, where fashion or celebrity endorsement is a substitute for using your own taste buds, And of course, wine has really not had to put up with being sold as a cure for cancer, shingles, broken legs, obesity, anorexia, dental caries, bad breath, morris dancing, chronic fatigue syndrome, Phil Collins Syndrome****** or dropsy*******.

I am certainly a beneficiary of the online tea renaissance. Just consulting ONE wine tasting guide, it reviews wines from 163 different wineries within twenty minutes drive from our house, whereas the number of tea gardens in the same area is zero. We are lucky that wonderful people from around the world send us tea all the time.

Let’s hope our renaissance also sees, like in wine, a switch from high-volume, low-quality being the only way to make money to  more segments, more niches and the profit margins to match. In my childhood, local wineries made “flagons” of white wine to sell to alcoholics to drink in the park for $2, now they serve snacks on a terrace paired with wine at $25 per bottle and ship crates around the world.

And good on them. We can learn from wine, but we don’t have to be Wine 2.0. Tea is NOT the new wine, any more than wine is the old tea.

But I believe we need to enjoy our renaissance our own way. We don’t need “tea sommeliers”, we need tea experts or guides. I’m going to stick with SFTGPOP1, not “Grand Cru Darjeeling”. And while we’re at it, stop calling Darjeeling “The Champagne of Teas”.  Let’s not get the begging bowl out at wine’s table, lets have our own table. Let’s stop “Please try us, we’re really nice” and move to “Come to tea, if you have what it takes”

I’m yet to see articles on beer, coffee or wine that say “We’re almost as good as tea, please try us” and we need to have the backbone, the authority, the confidence to stop the cringe from our side of the fence.

Let’s stand up for tea. Tea should stride boldly into the room, not trail behind wine, clinging to its coat tails.

Tea, in all its glorious variety, is tea. That is it, in a nutshell. The other beverages and their aficionados can please themselves.

*By head of population, Australia nearly always wins the  most medals at the Olympics, assuming pointless tinpot countries with virtually no population such as Gibraltar, Luxembourg or New Zealand** don’t accidentally win a gold medal. If so,  we change the way we squint at the data.

** Everyone knows that New Zealanders who win anything or get famous for anything automatically get upgraded to being Australians. Even Russell Crowe.

*** Our Prime Minister said that yesterday, so it must be true.

**** well, there’s the next blog post right there

***** Wine Shows OR the Olympics, we win them all on the population argument.

****** Where you crop album covers to disguise your baldness. It’s rare.

******Actually, tea does cure dropsy according to the most recent research from Thomas Povey.

2 thoughts on “A Cup of Cultural Cringe

  1. Robert, I enjoy wine; but if I did so at the rate that I enjoy tea, I’d have to go to rehab! I like fine wine and I like fine tea, but heaven help us from all the snobbery that often attends both.

  2. Robert, I don’t drink wine at all (I know, I know) but I think that wine and tea have more in common than you might think (even in terms of marketing) or that you want us to think that you think and if having Grands Crus in teas is a way to make people aware of the quality of teas and help them go for something else than the usual tea bags I say “let’s go for it”.

    I do agree that we must all fight against snobbery but this doesn’t mean that everything is bad.
    Wine is wine, tea is tea. But one can inspire the other.

    And if I remember the 1976 contest, the thing that made some people change their minds was that everything was either in France or French and at that time, French thought that the only good wines were the French ones.

Comments are closed.