The brewing debate around defining specialty tea…

Who knew that specialty tea could be so heated? (Sorry, it’s a lame pun but I could not resist!) I should clarify — the brewing debate (and it’s certainly ‘brewing’) centres around the attempt to define specialty tea. There was no true or even “working” definition of “specialty tea” until last week when the European Speciality Tea Association (ESTA) offered one.

In creating the definition of specialty tea, ESTA explained that they believe certain factors can help contribute to being able to distinguish specialty teas from commodity teas. These can include but are not limited to: the known supplier, the known farm, the known location, the known production dates, and the known processing method. According to ESTA, specialty tea can also be defined by the quality of the five criteria below:

  1. The dry leaf
  2. The aroma of the dry leaf
  3. The colour and clarity of the liquor
  4. The flavour and mouthfeel of the liquor
  5. The appearance and aroma of the wet leaf

Specialty tea is much more complicated to define or even categorise than specialty coffee, which has strict criteria. In terms of “specialty tea,” is it just Camellia sinensis or do blends, herbal/botanicals and flavoured teas count? Does the origin and the elevation matter? Can specialty tea be mechanically harvested, or must it be hand-plucked? And who is clamoring for the definition, consumers or the tea industry at large?

Even when issuing the new definition, ESTA’s executive director, David Veal, said the document is “closer to a description,” noting, “summarised by the phrase ‘aspiring to excellence in all aspects of tea processing and brewing from the bush to the cup,’ we acknowledge that it will be difficult if not impossible to achieve a definition universally agreed by all in the specialty tea community, so we have described our approach rather than dictate a definition, in the hope that most people will agree with most of its content. However, we acknowledge, and indeed hope, that this document will encourage an ongoing debate and therefore continue to promote speciality tea into the future.”

ESTA’s wish to “encourage an ongoing debate” has come true as there was immediate response to their definition — although everyone who commented did applaud ESTA’s efforts.

“I think they’ve tried hard to talk in aspirational terms, and I like the direction they have taken,” said one industry official. “I do note that they have purposely avoided mentioning Camellia sinensis, although the criteria they list tend to limit all BUT true tea.”

In response to ESTA’s definition of specialty tea, the Tea and Herbal Association of Canada (THAC), Tea and Herbal Infusions Europe (THIE) and the Tea Association of the USA (TAUS) released a statement (which can be seen in its entirety here) expressing concern with the language used to differentiate ‘specialty tea’ from other tea.

THAC, THIE and TAUS pointed out that the ESTA definition of specialty tea includes knowledge of supplier, farm, location, production dates and processing methods — all supply chain elements that are known and documented by all reputable companies operating within the tea industry regardless of ‘specialty’ or ‘traditional’ label. “[These] are critical to traceability requirements which are at the core of food safety laws in place around the world and must be demonstrated as part of regular audits for large retailers as well as certification programs,” they stated.

THAC, THIE and TAUS also noted that the five criteria being used to define specialty tea are “the same criteria used by every tea taster in the industry, regardless of ‘specialty’ or ‘traditional’ label. Although all the above may be a part of ‘specialty tea,’ suggesting they are not a part of ‘traditional’ tea is factually incorrect.”

Another official asked whether any form of blended or flavoured tea be could – or should – considered specialty. He noted that some Sri Lankan estates have tea fields that would classify as high-grown elevation. The same estate can have other fields or sections of fields that fall in the mid-grown elevation designation, but the estate’s processing is done at the low- or mid-grown elevation. That final product of that estate is classified according to the elevation of the processing facility. “So, if all the teas from this one estate are processed together to form one lot, is this a blend? Furthermore, what happens if this estate decides to offer some specialty tea or jasmine green tea? Does the jasmine portion have to be from a designated origin (not to mention the green tea itself) for the final product to be classified as a specialty jasmine green tea?”

In conclusion he said, “I think there are a lot of refined definitions that need to be created before a ‘specialty’ designation is useful to some significant portions of the tea industry.”

Perhaps the “specialty tea definition debate” could be a topic of conversation at the next FAO IGG plenary meeting, or a session at an upcoming North American Tea Conference, World Tea Conference & Expo or Global Tea Initiative Tea Colloquium?

However, and I could be mistaken, but tea consumers do not seem to be demanding a definition of specialty tea, rather more and more consumers are desiring higher quality tea (and are willing to pay for it). So, for the moment, maybe we should consider THAC president Shabnam Weber’s suggestion, “I think that defining specialty is like ‘nailing Jello to the wall’ — to borrow a line from Bill Clinton. Specialty tea means something different to everyone asked and if we accept that truth, then why not spend our energy on elevating the category of tea to benefit the entire industry.”

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