Saturday, 10 March 2012

King's Teagarden on the Kufürstendamm in Berlin

There are many way I can write about this shop and this tea seller's philosophies, but I've decided to make this about how one sells tea. It's easy enough to say, 'the customer is king' or 'the customer's always right', but what if said customer isn't knowledgeable? What if part of having a tea shop is educating your clientele?

But let's start with the shop where my thoughts on this began. If you search for tea online in Berlin, one of the first results you'll find is King's Teagarden on Kurfürstendamm. This shop has been here since before the Berlin Wall came down. Herr Werner F J Schmitt has been at this for more than thirty years and I'm sure he could tell you some stories about tea trends.

Actually, he told one story about a local tea place who'd been celebrated in the media for the brilliant idea to sell tea in to go containers. Tea isn't something to be hurried, he insisted, and of course I had to agree with him. There were a lot of things I agreed with. I'd looked at the King's Teagarden website before my visit, and he has some very strong beliefs when it comes to the preparation of tea.

I considered reprinting his Ten Golden Rules, but then I carefully reconsidered this. I'm trying to be as nice and polite as possible about this, but I don't want to attract his ire. So instead of posting his clever Ten Golden Rules, I'll simply link to them here.

He's very proud of his packaging, and from what I saw it looked like he had every reason to be. He told me another account of the history of the development of his 'special compound foil bag', and the high praise he'd gotten for how fresh his tea stays as a result of this state of the art technology. I've seen tea sold, as well as delivered, in some questionable packaging, so I was pleased to hear of this gift to the world of tea.

Let me be clear at this point: I was excited to come to Berlin partly because I wanted to see what sorts of tea shops and tearooms the German capital had to offer. I looked at the King's Teagarden website, and chuckled at the 'No Teabags Please' on the homepage. I thought to myself, 'This is going to be nice. This guy is passionate about tea. He's one of us.' Really, I did.

I hadn't read his website carefully enough. Some of the surprises that were in store for me would've been avoided had I really paid attention to his Provokation, which is exactly what it sounds like. If you scroll to the bottom of that list, and click on fordern Sie sie! then you can see his argument for all of these things. They're very meticulously and carefully thought out. I heard him quote some of these things verbatim while I was in his shop, and quite honestly I didn't know where to start.

So I went to this shop very excited, was not prepared for what happened next and really tried to be polite while I was on the premises. As I'm being right now. I think a lot of passionate tea lovers could get overly emotional about something like this and lose their composure. I have no intention of letting that happen.

A very brief recounting of the story is that I went into the shop, ordered both an Oolong and one of his tea blends that included mostly Ceylon and a bit of Darjeeling.

I must divulge that I respect good blends immensely. As he was making the tea, I perused the different varieties on offer and was really curious about them. Positively curious. I wanted to know what many of them tasted like, but especially the one he named 'Kanzlerin' after Chancellor Angela Merkel, which is described as 'black and white leaf tea, first and second flush Darjeeling with leaf buds and Oolong from China'. There were others...there were plenty others that struck my fancy. I couldn't even begin to name them all.

The tea arrived, and it was poured very nicely. Just so. And I sat down to savour it, and took the first sip. There was something about it...I'd never had such sweet Oolong. I really wondered if my taste buds were deceiving me. It was a delicious Dong Ding Oolong, but the sweetness was really doing my head in. After finishing the first cup, I turned to the black tea blend and had a sip of it. At that moment I was absolutely certain that there was sugar in the tea.

I've got nothing against sugar. Really. Later in the conversation, he mentioned something about the irrational opposition to sugar that many people have, and I wondered how often he'd had the argument where a customer insisted, 'I didn't ask for sugar in my tea.' But like I say, I'm not necessarily against it. And I'll try most things at least once. I finished the Oolong, and then asked if I could have a second infusion.

Here's where things took a turn for the worse. The feigned look of surprise on Herr Schmitt's face was probably well practised. As if no-one's ever asked him for a second infusion. He politely smiled and insisted that once tea has steeped in 100°C water (for exactly 3 minutes, as it states on his website) that all the best part of the tea was gone. The leaves were now useless.

I was a bit taken aback, but it was his shop. I had no intention of being rude. At this point I asked him about all the Chinese who infuse tea multiple times. He informed me that the people in China are very poor. As a rhetorical device he asked me if I was very poor.

This is the point I think some of you would just pay for the tea you'd drunk and leave the shop. Not in a huff. You might smile and nod and wish him a good day. Then step out of his shop, shake your head and think to yourself, 'Well, I need never go there again.'

Although that was my first inclination, I was really curious about some of his ideas. I asked about whether there was sugar in the tea and he not only said that he'd added sugar, but then made an analogy to the culinary world that still has me baffled (You can see this in his fordern Sie sie! section that I mentioned above). He posited that  no-one questions a chef when he enhances a dish with sugar. The logical corollary of this was that someone brewing tea should be given the same latitude.

This is where we had the spirited discussion about the above-mentioned irrational opposition to sugar, and I wondered about Diabetics who stumble into his shop unaware that they're getting sugar they hadn't expected. But that's just irrational, right?

Because I want to give him the benefit of the doubt, I'll say that I believe Herr Schmitt really sees himself as a serious tea expert. And like I said at the outset, he's been doing this for decades now. There's a guy on Steepster who says nice things about the Claudius blend from King's Teagarden. His long-term customers, in all likelihood, love his expertise and appreciate the authority that he has when talking about matters of tea.

Most importantly, he's not rooted his ideas on feelings. He mentioned a professor with whom he'd done significant research, and he wrote a book that's prominently displayed both in his shop and on his website which purportedly details and supports his philosophies of tea. He proudly stated that the book has had multiple printings and nothing he wrote had ever been disproven. Like I say, I'd like to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Although I don't have thirty years in the tea business, I've learned a bit about tea. I wonder how many people who know something about tea have smiled and nodded as they were backing out of the King's Teagarden door.

Which brings me back to my original thoughts on all of this. How much of tea selling is educating your customer? Can one afford to disregard the conventional wisdom on tea preparation? What about if you've done a lot of research and have written a book about it? One than no-one has disproved?

It's a bit sad that I'll never get to try all those delicious tea blends that were on display in King's Teagarden. I suppose I just can't handle the sweet aftertaste. 


  1. Expect a whole blog from me soon, but for now... The guy's a nutjob!

    1. Can't wait to see your reaction. Truly can't wait.

  2. The owner is what we call an "Original". Just ignore him. I wasn't aware that he serves sugared tea there - why not just put a bowl of sugar on the table? That's really inexcusable. He sells some reasonably good tea, though.

    Interesting that my tasting note at 71 comes over as "raving" - makes me wonder what would say if I was really excited about a tea ;-)

    1. Good point Christoph. I should probably have toned that down.

      Glad you saw this. Thanks for the comment.

    2. I've altered 'raving' to 'say nice things'.

      Am really pleased to be backed up on this. There were several online message boards where I saw similar perspectives about this tea seller.