Fresh from the 2009 World Tea Expo, I’m pleased to announce that the steady march towards higher quality teas continues in spite of the economic times.

In a presentation to roughly 100 prospective tea entrepreneurs, I posited that the greatest obstacle to the growth of the specialty tea industry is consumer uncertainty caused by bad tea, inconsistent pricing, incorrect information, outlandish claims, and unscrupulous or uneducated tea vendors.  Step into any grocery store with a solid selection of premium teas or spend a while on the Internet and you’ll see a range of claims and price points for seemingly similar products that would confuse all but the savviest of consumers.  The simple truth is that there is little relation today between the retail price of tea and its quality.  Too many vendors are only selling marketing…and too many customers are buying it.

I took the opportunity to encourage the audience of aspiring tea people to seek out quality tea and use it as a point of differentiation and customer retention.  As a large wholesaler, we often hear tea shop owners claim that their customers either A) wouldn’t recognize higher-quality tea or B) aren’t willing to pay for it.  My question for them is “How do you know?”.  I doubt many customers are responding to poor-quality tea by calling the shop and complaining.  Most simply never return.

At the end of the day, I firmly believe that the first battle in the U.S. tea war was won convincingly by companies with superior marketing savvy.  Leaders like Republic of Tea created clear brand identities and capitalized on the romance and trendiness of loose-leaf tea.  As obvious as the importance of marketing has been over the last five years, I am convinced that the quality revolution is well under way.  Case in point: while the price of a package of Republic of Tea has not changed considerably in five years, the quality has improved!

This is a good sign for all of us who either love tea or make a living from tea or both.  Consistent access to high-quality tea will lead to increased consumer confidence and interest in premium tea.  One notable side-effect of this trend is the impact it will have on the environmental and social sustainability of the tea industry.  First, premium loose teas are typically cultivated with fewer and more environmentally friendly pesticides and fertilizers.  Second, the growers, pickers, and tea masters who produce these teas are paid significant premiums over the unskilled workers producing machine picked and processed teas for the mass market.  Third, loose teas require a fraction of the packaging materials required to bag, individually wrap, and package bagged teas.

This final advantage of reduced packaging has the side-effect of allowing the consumer to purchase a significantly higher-quality tea, protect the environment, and increase the standard of living in the producing countries, while paying only a tiny premium over the mass-market, grocery-store-quality teas!!  The per-cup price of one of my company’s mainstream loose teas, like English Breakfast, Sencha, or Mint, is not much more than that of a much lesser bagged tea at your local grocery store.

So for those of you who make a living selling tea – take shortcuts on quality at your own risk.  There are plenty of companies waiting in the wings to welcome your customers.  For those of you who are tea lovers – make sure to spread the word when you find a vendor you can trust, and don’t hesitate to communicate your displeasure when you have a bad experience.  Give those tea shop owners a chance to wake up to the quality trend before it leaves them behind.

Happy Drinking!

Images: Main: jamesdale10 ::  First: mikebaird ::  Second: republic of tea