Generalist vs specialist

Those of you who know Japan well will notice that many of the best restaurants only do one thing, but they do it really well. Whether it’s the world-famous Sukiyabashi Jiro, or Owari-ya, a 550 years old shop that specializes in soba, or your run of the mill noodle, snack, or confection shop around the streets, many of the best food places in Japan sell only one type of thing. If they have other items on the menu, they tend to be complimentary to the main dish – and not usually the reason people go. In comparison, you have these generalist restaurants like Ootoya. They do everything – nothing particularly well, but they will have whatever you fancy that day, usually for a reasonable price. They are obviously catering to a different market, but I think you can probably guess that they also represent differences in quality. The soba you will get at Owari-ya is going to be far, far better than whatever soba you can get at one of these generalist stores. That’s just how it is. Owari-ya isn’t going to be expensive either – the price for a bowl is about the same as everywhere else. Places like Jiro’s are expensive, but they also give you the best fish they could find you that day. You are, in other words, paying for world-beating sushi. Paying a premium for that is quite ok.

I think similarly, teashops tend to run in these two lanes too. There are lots of generalist stores – they sell a bit of everything, specializing in none. These have a purpose. If you’re the only shop in the area, then having something of everything is going to be useful to the local customers who may want whatever they fancy. You also want to be able to cater to the customer who is still new to tea drinking – especially for Western facing vendors who have a physical shop whose clientele might be quite inexperienced.

Then you have specialists – people who only do one or two things well. A case in point – at the recent Hong Kong tea fair I once again visited the booth of a local tea outfit that presses their own cakes every  year. They do a lot of single village teas. In fact, every year they press village teas from about two dozen different places, ranging from Yiwu to Daxueshan and everything in between. It’s actually quite impossible – they obviously need different teams of people to do the pressing, because a single person (or single group of people) can’t travel that fast and still be able to collect good teas along the way during a single harvest season. Their teas are expensive, and as usual, really not that great.

Then there’s another outfit here that spends about 6 weeks every spring and presses one cake from teas blended from around the Yiwu area. That’s all they do every year. The price of the tea is actually lower, but the quality far better and will age well into the future. I buy some from them every year, and am happy to do so year after year.

In general, I think if you specialize in one thing and you really spend time on it, you’re going to be good at it – Malcolm Gladwell already covered that, even if not everyone agrees with his thesis. With tea, you can easily why that is the case. Someone who spends weeks, or months, or years in the same region drinking the same teas every single year is going to know the teas really well, and is going to be able to identify the strengths and flaws of the year’s harvest in ways that most of us cannot discern. Producers like this, if they put their mind to it anyway, are going to be able to locate and produce better teas. Compared to generalists who may have to rely on other sources, these specialists are going to have far better products.

This is not to say the specialists are best at everything. One of the families I visited in Dong Ding is quite famous for having generations of prize winners. They know Dong Ding inside out. They know stuff about the tea we probably won’t really understand even if they tried to explain to us. They can sniff it during the roast and know whether it’s too hot, whether the tea needs to be distributed better, whether it’s time to finish up. Yet, during our conversation we talked about other teas, and I took out the bag of aged puerh I was carrying with me for drinking on my trip – some 12 years old puerh. They were very curious – they rarely drink puerh, and know next to nothing about it. We tried it then and there. They could, of course, tell me if the tea is good/ok/bad, but aside from that, it’s all very new and they can’t tell you much more than that. In fact, the people who press cakes in Yiwu every year are the same way even with teas from places like Lincang – they don’t drink a whole lot of, say, Bingdao teas, and can give accurate, general assessments, but nothing more than that.

Consumers also fall into these two categories. Some of us are generalists – we drink everything and try everything. At the same time, however, most of us end up specializing in something, just like producers and vendors. A vendor might stock some of everything, but has a particularly wide selection of one type of tea because, well, that’s where their strength is. Tea Habitat, for example, is one of these, focusing on dancong even though they do have some of the other types. Drinkers also tend to gravitate towards certain tea types – whether through experience or preference. It’s human nature to do focus more on what you like or find interesting, and ignore what you dislike or find uninteresting. Matching the right vendor with your particular interests is a pretty important component of finding one’s tea happiness.

Knowing one’s own limitation is quite important here – in other words, knowing what you know and what you don’t know. We all only have so much time and ability. As I’ve said before – there are only so many ten years in one’s drinking life. Best not waste it.


Comments

Generalist vs specialist — 12 Comments

  1. One thing I’ve noticed with generalist shops, though, is that there is still usually one type of tea that they tend to do better than the others. I think the reason for that is just that the sourcer still has their preferences, and that draws them to become more knowledgeable/experienced in that one tea. I’m sure that makes it harder to get sources of particularly good tea, when they have to keep moving to get the others, but it seems like there’s often at least one tea that stands above the rest.

    • Which is to say that even the most generalist shops still specialize to some extent, although I saw later that you covered this somewhat at the end of the post.

  2. “Knowing one’s own limitation is quite important here – in other words, knowing what you know and what you don’t know.”

    “But there are also unknown unknowns.
    There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”

    Donald Rumsfeld
     

    • Well, Rummy wasn’t wrong, but I think knowing the known unknowns will help you get a sense of what unknown unknowns might be out there. Tea isn’t national security.

  3. wish you would name the specialists. that way one could support them, and specialize drinking special tea. i am in portland oregon. here are only tea stores specializing in everything, but with access to fedex etc. one could presumably buy wonderful, delicious pu-erh, as per your recommendation (you being the expert, the one in the know)would you please make a recommendation, as it is very difficult to select from teas blindly via mailorder.

    • Well, I did name one (Tea Habitat). As for pu – there’s always Yunnan Sourcing, who might sell everything but they really only specialize in one type of tea (puerh). I think Scott is now based in Eugene OR. Maybe he’s open to drinking tea with people? I have no idea.

      Buying tea blind is always hard and sampling is one way to alleviate that problem, but it doesn’t resolve it entirely.

      • thank you for your reply.
        i will look into yunnan sourcing and try for a choice.
        is scott your oregon specialist? i don’t know him, but given an email – and a possible recommendation – i would be happy to see what he has to say.
        again, i appreciate your answer, sincerely
        michael

        • I think these days it’s hard to pinpoint any regional specialist – you might have to seek them out online, especially for tea in the US. Scott (the guy behind Yunnan Sourcing) is definitely knowledgeable about the puerh tea market. I don’t know if he entertains in-person business or if he only wants to deal with it online. Maybe you can try asking him.

          • thanks for your advice. i bought a cake from yunnan sourcing, blind, except for the price. regardless, one can never tell until the brew is tasted. i’ll give you a progress report, hope you don’t mind.

  4. This is an interesting topic. Aside from the question of how many categories of tea a vendor offers, I think a further distinction can be made between the generalist stores with huge selections within each category and more selective ones.

    With some noticeable exceptions, my impression is that within the “generalist” camp the stores with fewer selections usually offer better quality teas. I’d say jingteashop.com is a point in case. They sell several kinds of tea, but the selection for each is fairly narrow and most of the teas they sell are really quite good. Compare this to vendors that have 15+ teas for each category and you can be pretty sure that for every good one there will be several mediocre/bad ones. I’d put Yunnan Sourcing in the “noticable exceptions” category. I don’t think all of their teas are top notch but I’d still say most of them are good value for the money, and some are indeed very good.

    Then there are the more specialized stores, such as Chawangshop, that have quite a large selection, but does not try to cover all bases (focusing mostly on puer plus liubao and other heicha). Just like “some of most things” is usually better than “lots of everything”, so too is “lots of something” better than “lots of everything”. At least that’s my experience.

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