A Look at Transparency, Authenticity and Fairness in Tea

A new report, The Next Wave in Tea: Trends, Issues & Opportunities, from World Tea Media, features tea experts offering insights on various subjects about specialty tea. Three hot topics stand out as they relate to the success of tea’s next wave: transparency, authenticity and fairness in tea. Below, Tony Gebely, executive director of the American Specialty Tea Alliance, Jane Pettigrew, industry expert and author, and Nigel Melican, industry expert and proprietor of Teacraft, explore these issues.
Compiled and arranged by Aaron Kiel

Transparency: An Opportunity for Growth

Connoisseurs in any industry drive innovation and growth. This is especially true in the world of tea. Simply by their discerning taste, they play an important role in marketing, educating others, sharing their favourite teas with friends, and acting as influencers in real life and on social media.

Connoisseurs are captivated into action by exciting teas. Perhaps a traditional tea that exudes supreme quality, a tea that has a very interesting story, or one that is new and experimental.

Thus, cultivating a connoisseur culture will lead to growth in the specialty sector of our industry, which will in turn lead to a rise in all sectors of the tea industry. I believe that true transparency is the key here and as an industry, unfortunately, we’re off the mark.

It is no secret that the connoisseur culture that exists in the wine industry dwarfs the connoisseur culture that exists in tea. The main difference between the two products (other than one contains alcohol and gets you drunk), is access to provenance. Aside from a counterfeit here and there, in the consumers hand, wine is packaged in a bottle and labelled. Provenance is known.

Provenance is typically concealed for tea. And one doesn’t have to look far to discover that there are many companies selling teas made by the same producer under different names, or different prices. And no doubt some even falsifying place of origin.

This is troublesome for connoisseurs. How can we do comparative tastings of similar teas? How can we discover the soul of a tea? How can we determine the value of a producer’s vintage from year to year? How can we expand our palate? All we have to rely on is our trust in our supplier.

We achieve true transparency when the name and the specific location of the producer is shared with the consumer. Additional information may supplement this information — such as elevation, cultivar or processing methods used, adding value.

If this information reaches consumers, we’ll see marked growth in the connoisseur culture surrounding tea, as tea epicures will be able to better educate their palate and further their interest in and knowledge of specific teas. As a result, our industry will prosper. This benefit will outweigh the perceived detriment of revealing a source. And a great side effect of true transparency, is that the producer receives the accolades they deserve.

Tony Gebely is the executive director of the American Specialty Tea Alliance, a non-profit business association aimed at growing the specialty tea industry in America. He is also the founder of Tea Epicure, a global producer-focused tea assessment platform, and founder of the blog World of Tea, and author of Tea: A User’s Guide.

Authentication Testing for Tea

In recent articles about transparency along the tea supply chain, DNA fingerprinting has been claimed to be the way to give tea consumers accurate and honest information about the teas they buy. It has been stated that DNA testing can give accurate information about which varietal or cultivar a tea has been made from and where it was grown.

However, according to Dr David Burslem, of the School of Biological Sciences at Aberdeen University, Scotland, although DNA testing gives very precise information on a plant’s genotype (ie variety or clone), if that variety is grown in multiple locations then it says nothing about geographical origin. For example, a Georgian tea variety grown in Georgia and Scotland will come out as identical using this method.

In order to prove whether a tea was truly grown where it is claimed to have been grown, Dr Burslem, working together with the Scottish Tea Factory in Perthshire, has developed an “ionomics” test that can be used “to differentiate teas grown in different locations based on differences in the elemental profile of the soil.”

A pilot authentication project successfully demonstrated that tea grown in Scotland can be clearly distinguished from within a group of 80 tea samples sourced from elsewhere overseas. The term “ionomics” refers to the unique elemental profile in any organism and the understanding this gives of the ways in which this profile has been determined by external environment and sources of nutrition. Similar recent studies in China have also shown that the geographical origin of tea can be authenticated using techniques that analyse multiple micronutrients and trace elements within samples, and this identifies differences in the concentrations of elements between teas sourced from different locations with different soil conditions.

This method of analysis is relatively cheap and simple to carry out and has very important implications for the tea industry, particularly for the increasing number of new growers with regard to provenance and authentication. Such authenticity testing paired with an appropriate labelling system would differentiate genuine single origin teas from “fakes” and blends and will help dispel the confusion and misinformation currently associated with some single origin teas.

Jane Pettigrew has worked in the world of tea since 1983. After owning her own tearoom, she became a freelance editor, writer, trainer and consultant to various organisations and tea companies, including the UK Tea Council, the Indian Tea Board and Twinings. She is the current director of the UK Tea Academy, and has published 17 books on tea, the most recent of which is Jane Pettigrew’s World of Tea.


Fairness in Tea

We have all at some time purchased a pack of fairtrade tea, believing or hoping that some of the higher price percolates down to the small farmer. Very often, however, the premium you pay evaporates down the value chain and never reaches the intended origin. There is a better way that’s trending to ensure everyone along the chain is treated fairly – a new twist on an old idea – the cooperative.

Tea-grower cooperatives are common; the Kenya Tea Development Agency is a co-op of 560,000 smallholders, and 400,000 Sri Lankan small farmers are in co-operatives. These groupings are beneficial agriculturally but, in common with most grower cooperatives, they are only open to direct participants – the farmers. This separates farmers from the downstream value chain; it isolates them from the ultimate customer – the source of wealth entering the chain.

For the past three years, I have worked with the Hawaii Tea Cooperative, which operates on a much fairer system, the Consumer Cooperative. This type of not-for-profit organization allows membership of all players in the value chain: grower, processor, packer, retailer and even the customer, thus bringing very broad expertise into the organization. As all players along the chain can be members by buying at least one co-op share, then each link in the chain is active in promoting the interests of the whole chain, because to benefit one is to benefit all. Under US law, the Consumer Cooperative can pay dividends to its members, who can even be purely financial investors, but for the protection of all its members nobody can own more than 19 percent of the shares. And regardless of the number of shares owned, whether an individual farmer or a large corporation, each member has only one single vote.

This seems to me the very essence of fair trading — a transparent way for consumer members to ensure fair play for the tea growers.

Nigel Melican is proud to boast having manufactured black tea on six of the world’s seven continents. He now concentrates on helping to develop non-traditional tea growing origins – in the United States and Europe – and innovating to solve the novel challenges of growing fine specialty teas under some very marginal climatic conditions. For more information, visit his website: TeaCraft.com.

World Tea Expo takes place 10-13 June in Las Vegas, Nevada, at the Las Vegas Convention Center. To learn more about the annual World Tea Expo and the sessions at which these industry experts will be presenting, visit www.WorldTeaExpo.com.


Aaron Kiel, who occasionally writes for Tea & Coffee Trade Journal and is a past contributing editor, is a freelance public relations consultant who’s worked within the tea and coffee community for 15 years. He may be reached at [email protected] or visit www.akprgroup.com.

Related content

Leave a reply

Tea & Coffee Trade Journal