Friday, December 30, 2016

Friday Round Up: December 25th - December 31st

Tea Will Change the World
Leave it to +Geoffrey Norman to end the year with a nugget of hope for us all. I couldn't agree with him more. Tea most definitely will change the world!

Saturday Morning Tea
Karen at Art and Tea has a way with words as well as pictures. In this week's post she explores a first flush Darjeeling dubbed "Snow White".

My Tea Favourites for 2016
Hannah Ruth Tea has been making some really great YouTube videos. In this installment, she gives us some of her favorite tea things.

O5 Tea Bar
Daisy from A Tea Girl's Journal visited a Vancouver tea spot that has been on my wishlist for a long time. Those cobalt blue gaiwans are swoon worthy!

A Very Merry Holiday Tea Party at Disneyland Hotel
+Bonnie Eng's description of the holiday tea served by the Disneyland Hotel makes me feel like I was sitting at the table with her. Afternoon tea isn't always my style but this festive service sounds irresistible.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Bitterleaf Teas Pearl Buds 2015 Spring Jasmine Ball Green Tea

Country of Origin: China
Leaf Appearance: tightly rolled, visible buds
Ingredients: jasmine scented green tea
Steep time: 20 seconds
Water Temperature: 185 degrees
Preparation Method: glass gaiwan
Liquor: pale gold

I don't really review flavored teas much anymore, mostly because of how my personal tastes have changed over time. I do sometimes make an exception for a traditionally scented tea if it really catches my attention. My experiences with other offerings from +Bitterleaf Teas told me that this one would be worth trying (and not just because of the adorable parakeet label!).

Some teas really beg to be photographed and this is definitely one of them. Each pearl was a clearly defined, tightly wound spiral. They were so fuzzy! I couldn't resist getting a close up shot of those trichomes. The jasmine aroma was present in the dry leaves but subtle. They were beautiful as the pearls unfurled in my glass gaiwan. I definitely recommend brewing this in a glass vessel whenever possible. Otherwise, you'll be missing out on the show.

The jasmine scenting was intense yet delicate at the same time. It always fascinates me how floral aromas sometimes translate as a type of sweetness. I really enjoyed that the vegetal character of the green tea was still able to shine through. There was just enough astringency to add a refreshing, clean finish but it never bordered on bitter or unpleasant. Following their detailed directions, I was able to brew three equally enjoyable infusions.

Note: It looks like this tea is currently sold out. I would still highly recommend it in the event that it returns!

Pearl Buds 2015 Spring Jasmine Ball Green Tea sample provided for review by Bitterleaf Teas.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Guide to Tea Blogging: The Importance of Accurate Analytics

I get a lot of questions about the ins and outs of tea blogging, especially from those who are very new to this crazy thing we do. This post is the first of what will likely be a bit of a new mini-series. I thought I would start with the issue of analytics because it can be one of the most complicated aspects of tea blogging. Those of you who are retailers might also benefit from this kind of information.

Regardless of the platform that you use to blog, it's important to know that the native analytics are unlikely to be accurate. I use Blogger and it took me a while to figure out that this was the case. Installing Google Analytics is an important step to take if you haven't done so already.

Why Analytics Matter

You might be asking yourself why analytics matter in the first place. As a writer, they help you understand things like:

  • Who your reader base is
  • Where your site visitors are coming from
  • What pages they visited
  • Which kind of content does best

You don't have to get super in depth in order to gain useful insights. Occasionally I've had tea brands ask for traffic information before sending samples for review. In cases like that it is very important that the stats you report are accurate.

What You Should Be Looking At

Looking at Google Analytics can be a bit of information overload. These are the things you'll want to focus on:

Audience > Overview

This page will show you the number of users that visited each day, how pageviews you received, the number of pages per session, the number of new vs returning visitors and more. The demographics area can be particularly interesting to poke around in.

Acquisition > All Traffic > Source/Medium

This section will show you where your traffic is coming from. This is where you'll find out if you got a link in my Friday Round Up or if someone posted your blog post on Reddit.

Acquisition > All Traffic > Social > Network Referrals

This area will show you what social media platforms brought traffic to your site. Although I sometimes get frustrated with Facebook, I feel better when I see that they are consistently my top social referral source.

It's Not About the Numbers 

It might seem illogical but keeping track of your analytics is not actually about the numbers. What I mean by that is your blog's analytics should never be something to stress over nor should they be used to compare yourself to others. Every blog is completely different from the next, even if we are in the same niche. Over the years I've seen several blogger friends burn out and completely leave the world of tea for this very reason. Knowing where you stand can be a good source of motivation but don't let your inner critic use analytics as ammunition!

Important Filters to Put in Place

There are a few filters that you'll want to set up in order to ensure that your stats aren't thrown way off base. They can be tricky to set up at first but once you get the hang of it, you can usually successfully use a Google to figured out how to achieve the desired result.

Remove Your Own Visits

No one visits your blog more than you do. While that's not a bad thing those visits should definitely be removed when measuring your site traffic. Here's how to do that:

Admin > All Filters > Add Filter

You can set the filter name to anything you'd like. Set the filter type as predefined and select "exclude" from the drop down menu below that. On the next drop downs select "traffic from the IP addresses" and then "that are equal to". In the IP address field you'll need to fill in the IP address of the device you are viewing from. To find out what your public IP address is, simply do a Google search for "what is my IP address". Yes, it's really that easy! Select your blog from the list, click add and then save.

To test it out, visit your blog while having Google Analytics open. Select Real Time and then Overview from the menu on the left hand side. If you don't see your location listed on the map, you should be all ready to go.

Removing SPAM Bots

Another big issue is removing SPAM bots. I'm not an expert on the topic so I can't really explain how this part happens in depth. I can tell you that there's a jerk face named Vitaly Popov who makes things like "Secret.ɢ You are invited! Enter only with this ticket URL. Copy it. Vote for Trump!" pop up in your Google Analytics. Not only is this annoying but it can make your data very inaccurate. To help cut down on this, follow these steps:

Admin > All Filters > Add Filter

Set the filter type as predefined. From the drop downs select "include only" then "traffic to the hostname" and "that are equal to". In the Hostname field just type in your blog's address. Then select your blog from the list, click add and then save. Theoretically this should stop SPAM bots that ping Google Analytics rather than directly visiting your website.

Fixing Past Traffic 

Unfortunately filters are not retroactive so they will only fix future statistics. What you can do is set up segments on your dashboard that will remove SPAM traffic. I'm not super versed in doing this but I found a segment in the Google Analytics Solutions Gallery that did all of the work for me. You can import it directly to your own analytics at this link:

Segment to Eliminate Spam Referrals (2016-12-22)

Once it is installed, click "Add Segment" on any of the statistics you'd like to view. Select your new segment from the list and click apply. One big advantage is that you can see multiple segments at the same time.

This turned into a bit of a lengthier post than I thought it would so I'll stop things here. As always, I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments! Let me know if there's something you'd like to see covered as part of this series.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Friday Round Up: December 18th - December 24th

I Heart Hario
I don't own one of those neato Hario fishbowl type set ups but ThinkTeaNYC's post reminded me of how much I wish I did. There's just something special about really being able to watch the leaves unfurl.

The Wall Tea Infuser from Boreal Wildcraft
Speaking of teaware I wish I had, +Charissa Gascho wrote about one of my World Tea Expo regrets. Apparently, I am the only blogger in attendance who did not pick up one of these neato grandpa style mugs.

The Best of 2016, A Year in Review
+Amanda Freeman just might drink more tea than anyone I know, and that's saying a lot! Somehow she managed to narrow down the multitude of leaves to a list of the best that 2016 brought to her teacup.

Recipe: Chai Infused Sugar Cookies
One of the things I enjoy other than tea but don't get to do very often is baking. I'm actually quite good at it, or so people tell me in between mouthfuls of Christmas cookies. This recipe from Amy Lee Cup of Tea is one that I'll definitely be filing away to make at some point in the future.

Weighing the Tea
+Cwyn N brought up some excellent points concerning weighing tea. Leaf ratio can have a big effect on the outcome. This is something really important for bloggers to consider as the way we brew a tea can change how we feel about it. I tend to be a little too heavy-handed with leaf volume but have been trying to trust my intuition a bit more.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Golden Tea Leaf Golden Red Tea

Country of Origin: Taiwan
Leaf Appearance: long, spindly with some golden buds
Ingredients: black tea
Steep time: 30 seconds
Water Temperature: 212 degrees
Preparation Method: porcelain gaiwan
Liquor: dark reddish amber

I'm a complete and total sucker for Taiwanese black teas. This one caught my attention because Golden Leaf Tea referred to it as "small leaf". Nearly all of the Taiwanese hong cha that I've tried has been made with var. Assamica but this one appears to have been made using var. Sinensis.

The name of this tea can be a bit confusing for westerners that are new to the world of tea. In most of Asia black tea is actually called red tea. This is because when you brew it, the liquor often has a reddish hue to it. This can get even more complicated because rooibos, an herb from South Africa, is often sold as red tea. Puerh tea (particularly the ripe kind) is called black tea because it brews up a very dark, inky black color.

The dry leaves were long and spindly with a few golden buds scattered here and there. While there was quite a lot of stems it's important to keep in mind that this is not always a bad thing. Stems have flavor too and sometimes it is important to the tea making process that they are left attached to the leaves.

Taiwanese black teas are interesting because although the taste could be described as mellow, they also offer a lot of complexity. This particular one was malty and sweet with notes of dark chocolate. Mild spices, something along with lines of nutmeg and cinnamon, popped up in later infusions. There was some astringency but only enough to add a pleasant briskness to the finish. I didn't push this tea too hard but I think it would be a great candidate for "grandpa style" brewing.

Golden Red Tea provided for review by Golden Tea Leaf.

Monday, December 19, 2016

5 Things to Do When Contacting a Tea Blogger

Last week I wrote a post called 5 Things to Avoid Doing When Contacting a Tea Blogger. The response was surprisingly awesome (big thank you to everyone who shared it on social media!). It was only fair that I put a positive spin on it now. It can be hard to know what proper etiquette is, especially if you're new to the industry. The steps below should set anyone off on the right foot.

Do Your Research

It's really important to do your homework before hitting send on that email, tweet or Instagram message. Reading through several weeks of posts will give you a good picture of what that blogger specializes in. What are their likes and dislikes? Many of us have review policies posted. It is particularly important to read these because it will save both you a lot of time. I field a ton of emails that I inevitably have to turn down because what they offer isn't relevant for myself or my readers.

Retailers often ask me about where to find bloggers that they might want to work with. One place to start is the Tea Bloggers Roundtable or the list of blogs I follow on Blog Lovin'. For those specifically seeking product reviews, the 2016 Tea Blogger Directory is a very handy resource.

Make It Personal

The best way to make your brand stand out for bloggers is to make a personal connection. We want to know who you are, why you do what you do, and how that translates to your product. Almost all of the emails that I receive are something along the lines of:

"Hi! My name is John Smith and I sell X tea. Would you like to receive some so that you can write about it on your blog?"

While not intrinsically bad, there is nothing about this approach that captures my attention. Tell me a story about why you're so passionate about tea. That will stick with me for far longer. One memorable vendor sent a two-page handwritten letter. I immediately felt like I knew him and it made me that much more interested in what his company had to offer. You don't have to go those extremes but a little bit of a personal touch can go a long way.

Think Outside of the Box

Ask not what the blog can do for you, ask what you can do for the blog. Tea writers receive a ton of inquiries and almost all of them have to do with a simple exchange of free product for reviews. Rather than just offer samples, Emilio from The Jade Leaf reached out to ask if I would be interested in interviewing him for my podcast. I immediate sat up and took notice because he provided value for my readers first. Even if the blogger doesn't have a podcast, they'd probably be very interested in an interview or even an informative guest post.

Keep It Simple

It can be tempting to send one of every item you carry when shipping off samples for review. The truth is that this easily overwhelms the blogger and makes it less likely that your teas will get the spotlight. My advice is to pick your personal favorites or the ones you consider to be your "flagship" teas. You can always send more teas at a later date when the blogger is ready to do so.

It's also a great idea to do everything you can to make the blogger's job as easy as possible. Make it clear how the tea should be brewed and provide tasting notes if they are available. One company provided a Dropbox folder full of images and other info. I could kiss the person who put that together! It wouldn't have taken them long to do but I was able to get the reviews done faster because of their effort.

Be realistic

One of the biggest struggles that I've had as a tea blogger are the unrealistic expectations that many companies seem to have. First and foremost, it is important to know that tea reviews do not automatically equate to sales. The ROI on blog reviews serves a similar function to social media. They increase brand awareness but must still be utilized properly in order to be effective.

Here are some rules of thumb that will help avoid issues when working with bloggers:
  • Be upfront about any and all expectations from the get go.
  • Be prepared for an honest review. It may not be the result you were looking for. 
  • Do not expect the blogger to pay you for the product used in a review or for a giveaway, even if it is at a discount.
  • Do not badger or pester a writer that you've sent products to. 
  • Keep communications respectful, just as you would in any other business relationship.

There have been times where I had to remove blog posts after they were published or return the product because a vendor suddenly made demands that were not discussed ahead of time. This has included requiring spammy SEO links and other things that would compromise the integrity of my blog.

Keep in mind that most bloggers juggle writing along with jobs, family and everything else that life throws at us. We do what we do because we love tea. Be respectful of our time and efforts.

Retailers and fellow bloggers, I'd love to hear your thoughts on these points in the comments below!

Friday, December 16, 2016

Friday Round Up: December 11th - December 17th

The Tea Squirrel interviews Geoffrey Norman
+Anna Mariani interviewed fellow tea blogger +Geoffrey Norman. Tea filled nerdery and hilarity.

Cup of Tea Ornaments
I'm thoroughly convinced that +Bonnie Eng is the Martha Stewart of the tea world. These cute and creative ornaments are definitely something I plan to make eventually.

It's Tea Leafster Launch Day!
Please welcome brand new tea blogger Jelmer to the fold! His introductory post is a far better read and much less awkward than my own was many moons ago.

The Parts of Portland's Tea Culture that The Oregonian Missed
+Geoffrey Norman did a great job of pointing out some of the parts of Portland's tea culture that The Oregonian missed in their recent article.

I've been avidly following the adventures of Lisa from +Tiny Pinecone Teahouse and Bakeshop. In this week's post, she shares a bit about her experience shadowing tea master Fu Chen. One of my favorite lines is, "At this point, I know the steps, but I am a long long way from knowing the magic.".

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Jalam Teas He Kai Sheng

Country of Origin: China
Leaf Appearance: varied greens, loosely compressed
Ingredients: puerh tea
Steep time: 30 seconds
Water Temperature: 212 degrees
Preparation Method: porcelain gaiwan
Liquor: deep gold

One of the things I love most about +JalamTeas is that their service gives the opportunity to really get to know the terroir of Yunnan. Two years ago I reviewed another He Kai from them and found very similar tasting notes to this one. Each cake they send is accompanied by a beautiful photograph. There are times that I miss my old lightbox because it was wider which allowed me to include them in my pictures. This month's card featured a shot of one of the last remaining yak skin boats in operation in Tibet. The fact sheet on the reverse side explained that this is a mid-altitude puerh made by the Lahu people in the Bulang Mountains.

After a quick rinse, I brewed this tea using my standard 30-second infusions. That method can get a bit dicey with young sheng but this one has had some time to settle down a bit. The initial taste was a powerful vegetal, bitter edge with a wonderfully floral finish. Later infusions brought a hint of tart citrus fruits. There was a lot of natural sweetness to this tea but it definitely has a good, strong backbone as well. It stood up well to at least six consecutive infusions and probably could have given a few more.

I don't keep a lot of tea on hand for practicality purposes. There's always more tea arriving to replace everything that I finish. That being said, I do have a small cloth bag where I stash smaller sheng cakes that were really enjoyable. This tea is definitely getting added to that select club. I have a hard time waiting for tea to age but this is one that I'm looking forward to trying again in a few years.

I would recommend lowering your water temperature to about 195 or possibly even lower if you prefer to have less astringency. If the tea still has too much bite for you, dial back your leaf volume a bit. I use about 8g of leaves since that is what Jalam Teas usually recommends.

He Kai Sheng provided by Jalam Teas.

Monday, December 12, 2016

5 Things to Avoid When Contacting a Tea Blogger

+Tea for Me Please turned the ripe old age of 8 this year. As far as tea blogs go, you could say that I've been around the block a time or two. In that time I've experienced the best (and the worst) of tea company PR. A good portion of the faux pas have been committed by marketing firms but occasionally it was industry folks who should know better. This is a topic that has come up at every Tea Bloggers Round Table that I've been a part of so I thought it was about time that I talk about it here on the blog. Here are some things to avoid when contacting a tea blogger:

Getting our names wrong

This seems pretty self-explanatory but it happens more often than you would think. A PR firm has their intern send out mass emails and somewhere along the copy and paste they forget to change the name. While it's not really a huge deal it does have a smack of cold, impersonality to it. Sometimes it's more of a language barrier issue. They call me by my last name and assume I am an American male named Martin (despite the fact that I consistently use a picture of my face across all social media channels).

Neglecting to read our blog and or/review policies first

I spend A LOT of time responding to emails from companies that very obviously never even looked at my blog or my posted review policy. Other bloggers consistently tell me that they deal with the same thing. I can't help but wonder why they would waste their time (or their client's money) in this way. After writing hundreds of tea reviews, the blog has grown and changed to reflect my own tastes. It has now changed to a singular focus on directly sourced, unflavored loose leaf teas. Although this is the case I still field lots of emails from folks wanting me to promote their flavored rooibos K-Cups and skinny tea blends.

Adding us to your email list without permission

My inbox is a neverending pile of junk that needs to be sorted through in order to find the good stuff. Part of this is because a ton of tea companies and PR firms have added me to their email list without my permission. In a lot of cases, there is no opt out and I don't receive a response when I ask to be removed. Not only is that illegal but it's really annoying (and makes me much less likely to be interested in their brand).

Having unrealistic expectations

For some reason, tea companies get the idea that a good review on a blog will magically equate to a ton of sales. The truth is that this is not really the way that things work. What I do is a niche within a very small niche. I am no Michelle Phan and my influence is not that large. While some readers tell me they do use the search function on my site if they're curious about a particular company, most of them are not clicking "Buy Now" as soon as I publish something. I felt guilty about letting companies down for a long time but eventually realized that their expectations just weren't achievable.

I also get a lot of messages, especially on Facebook, from people saying that they want me to promote their brand. This immediately makes me recoil because that isn't really what I do. I simply love tea more than the average person and sometimes that involves sharing my experience with a particular tea. These kinds of communications usually contain very little information about the person or what their brand even does. It also bother's me a bit because brand promotion is something bloggers in other niches are compensated for but that is never part of the conversation.

Information (and/or tea) overload

I love it when companies are excited to share what they do with me. However, sometimes they tend to overdo it. Sometimes this can take the form of four copies of every press release. Other times it's sending more tea than logically makes sense. If they send me thirty samples at once, my mindset quickly goes from "Yay, tea!" to "OMG, how am I going to get through all of this?". Complaining about too much tea probably seems a bit odd but it can really get out of hand at times.

Sorry to be a negative Nelly guys. At some point, I think I'll write a post that is the opposite of this one. I've withheld the names of the guilty for their own protection. Fellow bloggers, have you had experiences like this? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

Friday, December 9, 2016

Friday Round Up: December 4th - December 10th

Tea Gift Guide: What to Get the Tea Lovers on Your List This Christmas
+Lu Ann Pannunzio's gift guide definitely added a few things to my wishlist. I definitely recommend picking up her new book while you're taking a look!

The Tea Happiness 2016 Gift Guide
+sara shacket is a tea friend who has great taste, If my stocking was filled with everything on her list, especially the teaware, and I'd be a very happy.

Holiday Gift Guide 2016
Tea Kitchen's list is full of stuff that's great for a tea lover on your list. The Old Havana Teapot from Anthropologie definitely caught my eye.

2016 Gifts for Tea Lovers
+Bonnie Eng's gift list reflects the beautiful aesthetic that her blog is known for. The Maccha Bar Chocolates and Mason Jar Tea Time are definitely things I'll keep in mind for tea friends.

Effie's Tea Offerings
Ok, so all of the other posts in this round up are gift guides. I couldn't not tell you guys about this post from +Geoffrey Norman. It's sort of about Christmas because it features a mutual friend of ours, Effie, who loves the holiday more than anyone else I know.

Monday, December 5, 2016

The World Atlas of Tea: From the Leaf to the Cup, the World's Teas Explored and Enjoyed by Krisi Smith

This book arrived in my mailbox just in time for a long road trip to a wedding in upstate NY. That worked out for the best because although it isn't exactly a coffee table book, it's a little too large to carry with me on my commute.

The first thing that caught my eye was the large, beautiful photographs. Many of them spanned more than one page. The chapters follow what seems to have become the typical tea book formula: how tea is made, how to brew it, and a description of various teas from around the world. The small guide to growing your own tea was an unexpected but welcome addition. Important topics such as sustainability and organics were addressed in an easy to understand way without being too doom and gloom about them. I also really enjoyed the nicely illustrated chart of tea processing. Smith's writing style is conversational and easy to read without dumbing down the content.

As an obsessively read tea nerd, I do have to mention a few things in the book that rubbed me the wrong way. Let me preface this by saying that I have great respect for anyone who successfully takes on the challenge of writing a book.

In the list of tea varieties, it says that the best oolong teas are from Taiwan. I love my Dong Ding just as much as the next person but I hardly think that it's fair to dismiss the oolongs that are produced in other countries as inferior. Teas are not better than each other, they're just different.

In the short section on tea history, there are several myths which have largely been proven false. Thomas Sullivan did not invent the tea bag and Anna Russel did not create the ritual of afternoon tea. To be fair, these are repeated in nearly every book that I've read on tea. The section on Japanese teas also states that matcha became popular with the Samurai and Buddhist monks drank it because of its high antioxidant levels.

Please, don't take my nitpicking as overly negative. I can't help doing that sometimes (as anyone who was my partner on peer reviews for papers in school will tell you). I actually did enjoy the book and would recommend it for those who enjoy building a library of tea reads. Complete newbies might want to start off with something a bit more in depth though.

I was really glad to see that there were no food recipes included. Publishers seem to insist on this being added to the end of every tea book. Maybe they are finally beginning to understand that there are a lot of people who enjoy tea for its own sake.

Have you read this book? I'd love to hear your thoughts about it in the comments!

A review copy of this book was provided by Firefly Books.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Friday Round Up: November 27th - December 3rd

Google Is a Lazy Co-Author
+Robert Godden isn't one to sugarcoat his feelings, especially when it comes to something related to tea. In this week's blog post he highlights the myths that are perpetually repeated in tea books. This is one of my biggest pet peeves so we're definitely in agreement here.

5 of the Best Chai Brands You Should Try 
Tis' the season for chai. +Lu Ann Pannunzio put together a great list of some of her favorites. I never got around to trying the chai from Blue Hour Tea at World Tea Expo earlier this year and now I am definitely regretting it.

Helping an Aged Oolong Touch Up his Stinky Navel
I recently started following Funky Leaves, a new-ish blog written by an apprentice at Floating Leaves Tea. I have an electric tea roaster but for those who don't the method he shows for refreshing old tea could definitely come in handy.

The Tea Squirrel's Holiday Gift Guide for Tea Lovers - The San Francisco Edition
+Anna Mariani highlighted some really fantastic local companies, making a gift basket that would be a tea lover's dream. I would definitely be snatching all of these items up if I lived on the west coast.

Things You Should Know About Matcha
+Eleonora made some important points about the poor quality matcha that is available to most tea drinkers. She also puts the spotlight on Nohohon Tea Room, my go to place for matcha bubble tea when I'm near St. Mark's Place in Manhattan.