The Emperor and his new clothes (Donald Trump and his new tea)

Funny how things seem to work in endless loops in business. Something becomes popular, it becomes a success, and that success attracts big business which buys up all the little guys who made the thing popular. As the bean counters take charge, things invariably go stale when they dismantle all that made the thing a success in the first place with their love of profit … the wheel turns as along along comes a guy with passion, to start the cycle all over again. And so it is with Donald Trump and his tea, or the Emperor with no clothes.

First there was a great teaman, Sir Thomas Lipton. He and a handful of visionaries brought tea to the world. That changed a long time ago unfortunately and however much the blandly financially driven corporates who bought Sir Tom’s business insist that nothing has changed, everything has. Apart from his picture that is – that, and his story remain very much the same. The heart of his vision – tea – is irrevocably lost.

The same goes for another great teaman and his descendants. Thomas Twining founded the company that bears his name in 1706. If he knows much about tea, his descendant Samuel Twining must drink it through gritted teeth as he goes about his job as PR person for the corporation that owns the once family operated business. These businesses which once proudly advocated quality, celebrated origin and built their reputations on a commitment to authenticity, have done an about turn. That is a potted history of the tea industry over the past century. Sadly it is where we are now in the cycle.

You don’t need to be a taster to know that especially in tea, cheap things no good and good things no cheap. Just take a look at the price of Ceylon Tea relative to some of the other origins which cater to the corporations and their thirst for impossibly cheap supplies of tea. Ceylon Tea is good, and relatively expensive – if you can call 10-20 cents per cup expensive. I did say relatively but that is a topic for a separate post.

That brings me to Mr. Trump. Business magnate, casino king, and macho TV businessman he surely is, but that does not count for much in tea. Every consumer trend over the past 5 years hinges on authenticity. Call it Statusphere, Post Materialism or simply reverting to more genuine values, authenticity – defined ‘undisputed credibility – is key to what most consumers demand from the products they consume. Along comes Mr. Trump with his Trump Tea.

Living richly is about enjoying the best of the best. You won’t find a more lavish tea drinking experience in the world than with my exclusive collection of premium blends.” Proclaims Mr. Trump in a misspelled endorsement on his Trump Tea webpage. Regardless of this ode to luxury from a man who symbolizes rich and powerful, the world has moved on. Luxury is no longer about ‘living richly’, and the best of the best no longer has anything to do with champagne and caviar. Quite the opposite, for luxury is about values, taste is as much to do with the ethics, sustainability and story of tea as with its flavour. Importantly, both are inextricably linked with authenticity. In this context, Mr. Trump’s triumphantly materialistic statement, designed presumably by his advertising agency, to make tea drinkers rush to the stores to buy his tea, rings hollow.

Mr. Trump is not alone in seeking to capitalize on the renaissance in tea. A plethora of newly minted ‘tea experts’ have emerged to seize the opportunity. Possibly they may have read ‘Blue Ocean Strategy’ once too many times, for behind the beautiful websites, the eloquent descriptions, and the hair raising claims of superlative ‘noses’, supernatural blessings, ancient Greek origins, lies the same mediocrity that has devastated the tea industry and lost – for most people – the enjoyment of nature’s most inspiring and healthy beverage.

Should we care? The dangerous part about all this is that the transition from committed, owner operated business to profit-driven corporation in the early 1900s began a process of intimidation which led to severe exploitation in the tea industry. Prices fell as the dominant brands sparred with growers, encouraged new and cheaper growers, influenced aid and state policies in favour of securing ever cheaper supplies. Yet people have found tea, and learned of its healing properties, its amazing variety, and the inspiration and companionship in a cup of tea. Tea is relatively a cheap beverage – good tea, rich in antioxidants, ethical and genuinely fair – costs about 10% per cup of what you would expect to pay for a latte in most cities.

We simply cannot let the opportunity pass another generation by. A natural herbal beverage, scientifically proven to be healthy and protective against every chronic disease, inexpensive and rich with the potential to lift producing countries out of poverty. It is too important to leave the tea industry victim to predatory corporates and the likes of Mr. Trump.

When you choose your tea, demand that it is real tea (fruit and herb infusions like some that Trump Tea and most other trader owned brands use, are not real tea and do not offer the same health benefits), demand that it is packed at origin (unlike wine, tea does not get better with age, it only absorbs moisture and loses flavour and natural goodness. Most teas that are not packed at source lack both), that is is genuine (real tea is made in the traditional, orthodox manner, unlike CTC tea which forms the majority of teas on supermarket shelves today. CTC is a mediocre tea and it lacks the sophistication, and variety – the essence of luxury in tea – that traditionally made, orthodox teas offer), and that it is ethically and authentically produced (millions of tea producers around the world depend on their crop for survival. When prices are unfairly depressed as they have been for decades by the dominant brands, the money from tea goes into the wrong pockets, benefiting the multinational and other offshore brand owners disproportionately).

It sounds complicated, all this for a good cup of tea. Unfortunately that is the reality of a world where the price of a bar of chocolate consistently rises, whilst its quality consistently declines and its producers receive consistently less for the same effort. Authenticity is the key to unlocking the potential in tea. It means authenticity in the brand’s commitment to the product, it means authenticity in the product itself, in the brand’s commitment to sustainability of the industry and human service. This is nothing to do with how many paid certificates each brand has to its credit. Only genuine commitment and investment in these fundamental aspects can offer authenticity in the taste of tea, chocolate, or coffee. Taste and luxury must have meaning far beyond what the self proclaimed ‘Emperors’ of the tea and other industries could understand. Shielding the reality in beautiful websites, certificates and lofty claims are not the solution.

As the child cried out to the Emperor, you have no clothes on. To really shine, go garb yourself in what really matters.

1 Comment The Emperor and his new clothes (Donald Trump and his new tea)

  1. Bruce August 25, 2010 at 3:04 am

    Nice post, Dil! The only part I’d disagree is the CTC vs orthodox bit. They are but two methods of making the same raw material. A great CTC is as hard for the factory manager to get right as a great orthodox. Poorly made raw material will yield a lousy CTC just as it will a lousy orthodox.

    I remember the first CTC teas I’d ever liquored – Assams, not Kenyas; over in East Africa, the early KTDA, UTA, TTA, OCIR and OTB were still making (more or less) exquisite orthodox.

    The Assam surprised me – it was a rich, malty and juicy second flush low grown which a sparkling liquor, every bit its orthodox equivalent. Normally, I’d buy the factory’s orthodox small broken grades in season for select, demanding blends but this CTC PF was quite new, the maker had done a bang-up job, it easily met or exceeded standard, so I snatched up the 10 MT on offer. I asked the maker = a 3rd generation Assam planter named Khaitan = if he might prepare me a second batch of 10 MT of additional but graded in the traditional orthodox make, which he booked. He had maintained dual lines at the factory just to oblige such eventualities. The second batch of GOF was also fully up if not pref to usual seasonal std and the price was just the same as his CTC PF.

    He hand wrote me a note that he was glad I could support his CTC, because at the end of the day, the CTC PF at price X offered the estate and its workers a preferable nett profit versus the orthodox GOF at the same price X. And as long as they did the same job in my buyers’ blends, he was happy. He did suggest it was difficult learning how to make a quality CTC – just as difficult as making a quality orthodox – but because the CTC yielded a higher proportion of clean maingrades and less offgrades and powdery dusts than the orthodox, he could afford to reinvest in R&D.

    That guy ended up helping me arrange the shipment of some of the first CTC machinery from Calcutta to Mombasa and Dar for the East African parastatels who were very interested to experiment with the new Assam CTC machinery for the reasons Khaitan had stated. Although there’s very little lowgrown tea in East Africa, the results were after some effort quite the same as in Assam. It was just new rules for how to use this new tech – keeping the cutters sharpened on a weekly schedule without fail and so on.

    Now, the past is back to the future once again. Many of the African makers are running dual lines in the Assamese method in order to oblige demand for both sorts of makes. A bit of retraining back to what they had used to do so brilliantly back in the 1950’s / 1960’s and here we are once again. I do sense some teas are better suited to good CTC make than to good orthodox make – specifically, the Assam / East African varieties that need throw off a sparkling and rich rosy red colour in the liquor that the buyers of top quality in certain markets like Ireland absolutely require. We can’t get that same hue from any CTC or orthodox Ceylon or its poorer substitutes from South India and Indonesia no matter how hard we try.

    Some of the best teas I’ve ever bought, Dil, have been CTC and particular beauties stand out in my mind from factories as far afield as the PNG Highlands to eastern Kenya’s slopes of Mt Kenya to the teas made up at the sources of the Nile at 6,000+ ft from select Burundi and Rwanda factories where rows by force must be terraced at a highly angled grade somewhat like Nuwara Eliya or Darjeeling.

    Otherwise from that, your’s is a great article which I greatly enjoyed as usual!

    Best always,
    Bruce . .

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