For well over year now, a small, but important, transformation has been in the works.  Starbucks – reliable coffee beacon to some, small business-squashing villain to others – has decided to upgrade their Tazo dustbags to loose-leaf tea sachets (and potentially even to bonafide loose-leaf tea itself).  It’s one small step for tea, but one giant leap for teakind.

ZachHodgson.comSteven Smith (recently featured in another T Ching post) loves starting tea companies.  He founded Stash in 1972, selling it off in 1993.  He wasted little time in launching Tazo the following year, subsequently convincing then-nascent coffee king Starbucks to buy his company in 1998.

While Smith retired in 2006, it seems he has been bitten by the tea bug once again.  He launched the Steven Smith Teamaker imprint last year, along with the first retail location in Portland, Oregon.  One cannot help but think, despite his absence, that it has been his vision influencing the recent Starbucks shift all along.  It remains to be seen whether his brand will be featured for sale at Starbucks locations – that is, whether Smith’s aims are boutique or burgeoning.  Or perhaps both?

So what exactly is Starbucks up to?  Well, even though the product introduction started in October, my neighborhood Starbucks cafés have not rolled out the new program yet.  It will be extremely interesting to see if the launch will be quiet or if they decide to make considerable noise with a campaign.  I am betting on the latter.

Starbucks has already done some loose-leaf market testing in their stores and they have used their boutique concept – such as 15th Ave Coffee and Tea in Seattle – to soft launch loose-leaf tea.  This is exactly the kind of meticulous, pinky-toe-in-the-pool kind of consideration you would expect from them.

ZachHodgson.comFanfare or not, this is a big deal.  Starbucks has over 15,000 stores around the world – and like it or not, no other brand (sorry Peet’s) has the power to transform what the average person expects from their daily cuppa.  That’s right.  Giants like Lipton can make specialty teabags (and they have), but they lack the consumer leverage to make a broad cultural impact.

Let’s put this in perspective.  Certainly, Starbucks is no vanguard.  In fact, they are tardily catching up to a trend that has been in motion for nearly a decade.  This shift has relevance for the specialty tea industry in that it will raise the quality bar – the minimum benchmark against which customers will make certain value (as in $$$) judgments.  In plain terms, expectations will change.  We are brought another step closer to a marketplace in which loose leaf is the standard.  Fall below and you had better be selling on price.

I can sense, dear reader, that you are beginning to become nauseous at the thought of good ol’ Starbucks at the helm of our tea culture, our very own Pequod (never say that I cannot resist a pun, however tempting).  But take heart, I think the Bucks will do us a great favor by bringing the average American just slightly closer to our collective passion.

Readers, also check out another recent T Ching post on Starbucks.