The complicated task of categorising ‘specialty’ tea

In a highly complex market, the Western specialty tea stakeholders are striving to achieve a unified operational framework for ‘specialty’ tea – a high added value segment – to ensure a level playing field for the global value chain. By Barbara Dufrêne. All images courtesy of the author unless noted.

Tea and coffee have been competing for throat-share in the West for many decades and consumption patterns continue to shift. Markets are becoming more global, new generations opt for wider choices, diversification has become key to growth and social and economic sustainability are today an intrinsic part of the list of goals. There is a desire for specialty teas to move towards a more unified platform, but the path to do so is a challenging one.

In the late 1980s, tea was the leading caffeinated hot brew in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Russia, whilst coffee was the king of the morning in North America and the rest of Europe. The multinational brands were dominating with mostly blended black teas in tea bags, and the premium segment comprised the spring leaves harvested from a few world-famous origin areas, located mainly in India and Sri Lanka. When China came back to the market in 1982, with Deng Xiao Ping restoring private ownership and encouraging foreign trade, the market was shaken up with a wealth of new cups arriving in the West, all unknown and unheard of. These countless varieties of specialty teas, coming in different colours and many different shapes and grades generated a keen need for learning more about them to assess these cups and to understand their high prices.

Importing, trading, retailing & brewing premium cups

In the wake of China’s opening access to its ‘ten thousand teas’, the big issues were how to provide product knowledge for the suppliers/retailers on one side and for the consumers on the other side, how to ensure accurate information and how to manage authenticity concerning origin, process, botanical cultivar, and harvesting period etc.

Green teas were the first to puzzle the Western palates, followed by white teas, oolong and puer teas. All these cups were new and exciting with striking leaves to brew them. After generations of tea buyers, tasters and blenders having been trained in-house by the traditional tea majors and family companies the new specialty teas brought along a fully new challenge.

The big question of how and where to find complete and accurate product knowledge became a key issue in the late 1990s, with many operators doing their own sourcing travels to origin to learn about the product on the spot. Several highly renowned companies were founded during this period by passionate tea explorers and tea travellers, such as the French companies Mariage Frères, Palais des Thés, Jardins de Gaïa, and Cha Yuan; the Canadian company Camellia Sinensis; the British Fine Tea Merchants and Postcard Tea; and the Americans Seven Cups and Rishi Tea, to name a few. These well-known and fully acknowledged tea pioneers have paved the way for many more new operators, attracted by the novelty of this fascinating, exotic and high added value niche market.

Education, teaching and training

To profitably market the new cups, the urgent need for education occurred rapidly and was picked up in various forms according to national market patterns. It was in North America that the first nationwide initiatives were taken to provide accurate knowledge about these new specialty teas to the tea professionals. The Tea Association of the USA founded the Specialty Tea Institute (STI) in 2001, and the Tea & Herbal Association of Canada (THAC) launched the Tea Sommelier Certification Programme in 2006. These educational structures, vetted by the two countries’ domestic tea industry, provide fully endorsed curricula, thus ensuring that the tea professionals will acquire in depth knowledge about specialty teas.

Image: Newby Teas

Peter Goggi, president of the Tea Association of the USA, underlined the importance of the statutory tea associations, which can offer nationwide legitimation and endorsement, which is a significant competitive advantage compared to other self-proclaimed tea schools and tea training educators. STI offers certified education, which leads to graduation, giving tea professionals the status of accreditation by the Tea Association of the USA. THAC’s Tea Sommelier Certification Programme applies similar rules and offers a wide range of educational courses with certifying exams, open to tea professionals and to tea lovers.

In Europe, the tea-sourcing pioneers and specialty tea company founders acquired their tea knowledge on the ground, a learning which is not easy to access by many, hence the need to provide teaching and training to all the other tea professionals at home to prevent mis-and dis-information, and to introduce all the new cups in an attractive and fully competent way. With the national Tea Industry Federations being run by the tea majors, there was no interest to invest in specialty tea education in the early times. Therefore, the private sector followed up and the first tea school in Europe was launched by Palais des Thés in Paris, France in 1999, with the teaching open to all, however without any exams, certification or graduation. Since that time most of the French specialty tea companies have launched their own tea training lectures and tasting sessions and many tea drinkers flock there happily, to learn more about these delicious cups.

With the same objective to introduce tea training and tea education for tea professionals and to open the tea drinkers’ minds to the new and enlarged universe of the ten thousand cups (from China), renowned tea pioneer and tea author, Jane Pettigrew, launched the UK Tea Academy in London (UKTA) in 2016. In Italy, the tea expert, Gabriella Lombardi established the ProTea Academy in Milan in 2016, offering tea education and tea training to tea professionals as well as to tea lovers.

There are company tea courses and private tea schools also in Spain, Denmark, Czech Republic, and Poland, etc., all with the aim to allow the customers to learn more about the many fine cups on the market to foster consumption.

It is important to note that very sophisticated training and education is also sometimes made available by origin country operators, which have established their tea houses in the West, such as Thés de Chine in Paris, and others who come from Taiwan, Japan and Korea, where tea is not only a fragrant cup but intimately linked to ancient cultural traditions.

With the desire to share their own professional experience with tea lovers to foster an in-depth knowledge of these fine cups, many valuable tea books have been authored by well-known tea pioneers since the early years of the new millennium, a further useful tool for spreading tea knowledge in Europe and North America.

Exploring new cups from the Far East

In the early years of the new millennium, black tea producers in Darjeeling, Malawi, Rwanda, and Sri Lanka, etc., became so fascinated with China’s silver needles that they launched their own white teas to display their abilities and skills. White teas were arriving from many new origins at that time, always beautiful, whilst not always brewing to expectation. Responding to a need for ‘good order with basic processing steps properly defined,’ an ISO-tea technical report, ISO/TR 12591 White Tea Definitions, was published in December 2013, after several years of discussions, which defined and enshrined terms and definitions for these beautiful teas. Finally, the white tea-frenzy calmed down as production costs were huge for the untraditional white teas, and today, most of them come from China as before.

Spring harvest from Sikkim Temi Tea

With highly proactive promotion by Japanese major Ito En, matcha was introduced to North America over the last few years, and it has created a true craze for premium green tea powder in the USA and is now gradually gaining ground in Europe too. As some producers in Korea and China were keen to join the matcha-boom, there arose again a need for having some agreed basic rules for the sake of ‘good order’, hence the ISO sub-committee on tea convened a Matcha Tea working group in 2018 and a technical report, which lays down basic rules and requirements, published as ISO/TR 21380:2022 Matcha Tea in April 2022.

There is no end to this yet, since one also finds today puer tea made in Malawi and Laos and elsewhere and Oolong tea from India and Indonesia, therefore two new working groups have been organised by ISO-Tea to continue drafting basic definitions and terms to complete the framework of ISO standards for the new tea categories.

The international level

In 2013, Ramaz Chanturiya, CEO of the Russia Tea & Coffee Federation launched the Tea Masters Cup with the focus on promoting specialty teas with the end consumers through highly educated and knowledgeable tea professionals in the Russian tea market. Highly successful domestically, he then introduced this benchmarking scheme on an international level, embedded in a high-profile event, Tea Masters Cup International (TMCI), in 2015. Up to the Covid disruption, there have been four TMCI competitions in Turkey, Korea, China and Vietnam.

In 2015, the first Teas of the World contest was run by AVPA, a not-for-profit agency, based in Paris, France, with the purpose of promoting terroir food products, such as edible oils, coffee, chocolate and tea. The concept targets the promotion of fine teas, submitted by the producing companies at origin, for a quality assessment carried out by professional tea tasters and tea experts, and awarded with medals for commercial purpose, attracting the media, Western retailers and customers. The fifth contest took place in July 2022 and the number of samples submitted has increased hugely since inception.

Premium sencha cups from different cultivars

In 2018, the European Specialty Tea Association (ESTA), was launched in the UK, with the purpose to create a European-wide platform for the promotion of specialty teas. The plan follows the lines of the Specialty Coffee Association of Europe (SCAE), founded in 1998, and unified within SCA in 2017, with a structure of national chapters and accredited tea Certifiers who train, educate and assess.

Outlook for the post-Covid times

With the unending stress generated by the sanitary crisis, tea is becoming the sought-after soothing, relaxing and restoring cup, attracting many new consumers. However, the premium and specialty teas continue to require educated retailers and tea professionals, hence the need to maintain the ongoing efforts for more training, authentic and qualified storytelling and improved competence for brewing practices.

Despite many attempts, there is not yet any fully agreed definition nor an approved set of criteria required for a tea to belong to the category specialty tea, although origin, cultivar, harvesting period, and manufacturing process are most likely to figure somewhere on the list. The market share of specialty teas varies greatly throughout the Western consumer countries, which impacts the degree of consumer awareness and the growth potential. It may well take some more years of training, educating and promoting before reaching comparable market patterns to build a federating platform on European level with the support of the national federations for tea and herbal infusions.

  • Barbara Dufrêne is the former Secretary General of the European Tea Committee and editor of La Nouvelle du Thé. She may be reached at: b-dufrê[email protected].

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