The Gift of Skepticism. Why Having a Suspicious Outlook in the Online Tea World Can Be Beneficial

Occasionally I get asked what advice I’d give myself if I were starting over in tea. There’s a lot of things I could do. I’d undoubtedly point myself towards better sources and away from worst ones. I’d probably choose to travel sooner. One answer I might give to myself in this scenario is to tell myself to assume a default posture of skepticism.

Comparing Teas

An Ode to A Tea Addict’s Journal

One nice thing about tea instagram is that it tends to be very positive. This can be a reprieve and a nice break from either the real world or parts of the tea world that may be more negative or critical. I would not describe instagram as naive, but it rarely goes to a deeper level beneath the surface. One thing that is definitely not Instagram and is in many ways the opposite is Marshaln.

For my own exploration, the most influential tea blog by a long shot is Marshaln’s A Tea Addict’s Journal. I read through the blog when I first started tea and have constantly re-referenced posts throughout the years. The blog remains extremely relevant and doesn’t feel as dated as other old tea blogs do.

In my opinion there’s a few reasons for this. One reason is that tea reviews make up a small portion of the content. There’s a handful in the archives, but if you want to read reviews on teas it’s not the place to go. Review content might be mildly interesting years later but reviews tends to age poorly compared with a more generalized tea topic might. 

I find the blog’s most endearing qualities to be the critical, oft-distrustful point of view towards tea actors such as vendors. A few examples include different sorts of fakes, the vendor premium and vendor callouts. People may scoff at this. How can a skeptical, negativity be the enduring trait for such a long-running blog? But to me the tone and attitude conveyed is precisely the site’s gifts to us and has been (IMO) immensely helpful to me.

  • Not reviewing teas also frees Marshaln from the conflict of interest that a site like TeaDB might have where we are regularly bringing on vendor’s tea.

Being Wary of Tea Sources & Not Getting Married to One Source

In general I think it’s not good to get all your information from one place. Seeking out a diversity of opinions and diverse sources of tea is important in the learning process. Not all teachers are created equal and there are some excellent and ethical vendors that provide significant value to the tea community with the teas they source. Many are also very good sources of information. But it’s also important to remember there is always going to be a financial incentive and inherent biases in their opinion.

We don’t need to be tea vendor monogamists buying from a single vendor. I think the healthier approach is to explore and try different things from different sources. Talk to different people from different backgrounds!

As a default, I tend to be wary of new vendors until proven otherwise. I’ve found that this approach has generally served me well enough through the years. Statistically, most new vendors aren’t likely to last. There’s a reason why many of the vendors we talked the most about five years ago are still regularly featured on the show.

  • A reason to be skeptical is the sheer misinformation that occasionally runs rampant in vendor descriptions. Sometimes it is also more of a difference in opinion and just bad and absurd information (i.e. when tree ages veer into the thousands).
More Tea Comparisons

Skepticism can Simplify Approach

Getting rid of extraneous information or simply being skeptical of it (i.e. the storytelling/terroir) can really simplify your approach. What do we actually know? In the case of something like pu’erh information it is easy to be drowned with all kinds of information like terroir, tree age, season, etc. Taking a posture of not knowing and being skeptical helps to get you out of the dredge of details into a place that is more liberating and simple. Rather than trying to weigh complex stories against each other, it forces you to evaluate the tea for its own qualities.

The longer I’ve drank the tea, the more I am OK approaching teas with less information. You could argue this is part laziness, but I think I’ve also found that much of the information is tangential and not that important compared with the actual experience of drinking the tea..

Skepticism Continues to Resonate

Maybe the skepticism tone doesn’t resonate with you. I think that’s OK. For different people, different tones will hit different chords.

The real reason that Marshaln’s site continues to strike a chord with me is that I find the tone continues to hit home with my own experiences within tea. If the blog carried the same tone but I found my experience in tea to be the absolute opposite, I would not be giving it this praise. It is not skepticism with no end, but driven by truth and a curiosity to learn and dive deep.

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3 Responses to The Gift of Skepticism. Why Having a Suspicious Outlook in the Online Tea World Can Be Beneficial

  1. Martin says:

    This is where you nail it:
    “The longer I’ve drank the tea, the more I am OK approaching teas with less information. You could argue this is part laziness, but I think I’ve also found that much of the information is tangential and not that important compared with the actual experience of drinking the tea.”

    For a decade and a half, I’ve been enjoying tea that brings me good taste and a good experience. I’ve been amazed by cheap teas of apparently no import, and I’ve been hugely disappointed by premium teas with grand descriptions. It’s all out there.

    I’d happily drink a fake offering or buy tea with a daft premium if those teas brought me the taste and experience magic. The real bar is my personal enjoyment of tea. Not much else matters. That may well change, but it’s worked well so far.

    As for Instagram, I love how it’s mostly positive. I also love how there are other online spaces for rants, or more detailed discussion, or calling out problems.

    It’s like the difference between your website and your YouTube videos, James. I read your articles on here with a different outlook and for different reasons to when I watch your TeaDB videos with Denny. Hence why you’ll get daft comments from me on your videos compared to chatter like this!

    One thing that can be both grounding and insightful is when you get to have lengthy discussion with vendors. You get to learn a lot that way. And the more welcoming a vendor is to engaging with you, the more you can engage with their imperfections. And, if necessary, stop buying from them if you don’t like the interaction.

  2. Nathanael says:

    I think teadb is for me what Marshaln was (is) for you.

    I’ve read through the whole thing (at your suggestion!) and agree with you assessment completely. It seems to me that you’ve taken up that mantle and added your own style and take on things. So while there is a thread connecting your work and his, you’ve naturally done something different—and we are all the better and wiser because of it!

    You are this tea generation’s MarshalN, hands down. I continue to be grateful for what y’all are doing.

  3. Matt says:

    I also recently finished his blog, reading a couple posts each night. He captures the journey of a tea addict so well that it resonated with me even though we are on opposite sides of the globe. However, I really enjoy your structure of both inbetweenasodes where you dive deep into issues combined with fun reviews with Denny. Next time you travel for tea, an on-site video of a teashop or tea buying adventure would be awesome if feasible. Also wouldn’t mind a tour of your pumidor, even if it makes us envious. Thanks for offering such great content!

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