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Finding a Voice for Specialty Tea

Photo courtesy of Royal Tea New York

In my previous blog I mentioned I was heading to the World Tea Expo in Las Vegas, Nevada, and as it was my first show in two years, I was eager to see how it evolved. This year’s event, which took place 12-14 June, was well organized and had an impressive roster of educational classes, along with many new speakers, but overall, World Tea Expo (WTE) had not changed much. The number of exhibitors and attendees seemed to be on par with the 2016 (and 2017 from what I was told) show – around 260 exhibitors and 3,000+ attendees – with most attendees being mom and pop shop owners and those looking to start tea businesses. Conversations with Informa (which now owns World Tea Expo after acquiring Penton Media) executives at the show revealed that there has been talk about moving WTE to another city in 2020 (the show is committed to the Las Vegas Convention Center through 2019) to spark new interest.

However, WTE still seems to have an identity issue: is it a specialty tea show or is a show for both specialty and commercial/mainstream tea?

The show’s tagline was Advancing the Business of Tea, which conveys the idea of highlighting both sides of the industry, but the feel and focus of WTE was on specialty tea. Yet many within the specialty tea industry feel specialty tea –among the fastest growing segments of tea – does not have a voice in the global market. As such, two organizations have been created to be a collective, unified voice for the specialty tea industry: the European Tea Society, which was incorporated in March, and the American Specialty Tea Alliance, which is officially launching this month. The European Tea Society is “committed to raising the standards and experience of every cup of tea.” The mission statement for the American Specialty Tea Alliance (ASTA), reads, “We seek to represent and grow interest in specialty tea, in both the tea industry and the public, through education and community, by facilitating collaboration between our members, by bolstering the quality and tenability of specialty tea through research and communication, and by promoting these goals worldwide.” The member-based organizations will work together to establish specialty tea standards in terms of education and values.

Nigel Melican, managing director of UK-based Teacraft Ltd, and this year’s John Harney Lifetime Achievement Award winner, helped establish the European Tea Society, said the UK organization and the America Specialty Tea Alliance, which is being spearheaded by Tony Gebely, will not offer classes but will advise which are the better classes being offered given that the market is saturated with tea courses, but not all are offering the appropriate training or skills.

In my many conversations with exhibitors and attendees, one topic coming up, what exactly is specialty tea? How exactly do you define specialty tea? Tea cannot seem to be classified or graded like coffee, so how can it be defined? That task, according to Melican and Gebely, is being undertaken by Austin Hodge and the International Specialty Tea Association (ISTA), which aims to establish quality standards in tea making. ISTA believes specialty tea must be defined to establish value and give meaning to the term, and I agree. If standards and values are going to be set, then specialty tea must be defined so there can be criteria to adhere to and goals to meet. Per the association’s website, the ISTA “will create an unbiased process for judging tea quality. This will result in the best teas setting the bar for standards of excellence, which will thereby define ‘specialty tea.’”

If the International Specialty Tea Association can create a definition for specialty tea, and if the ISTA, the American Specialty Tea Alliance and the European Tea Society can all collaborate to give a voice to the specialty tea industry, the industry and all those involved will be better because of it.

And now, as I am in Amsterdam for the Specialty Coffee Association’s World of Coffee, I must set down my tea cup, grab my coffee cup and hit the show floor.

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