tea-cuppingThe tea industry, one of the oldest in the world, is long overdue for innovation. Activists discuss issues such as the balance of power in the supply chain, buyers’ response to the scarity of tea, resource management, and sustainability. My attempt to resolve these issues, Tealet, is a transparent retail commerce platform for tea growers to build brands and sell their tea directly to their customers. Unfortunately, the mass market is not prepared to bring its tea consumption habits online as there is still a great deal of value that the neighborhood tea shop provides in the form of curation and community. The local tea shop or retailer has a responsibility to source new and unique products for its customers. Tealet’s platform now empowers tea retailers to source tea from multiple producers through an auction for exclusive lots of tea. We looked at other commodities that have brought exclusive auctions online and found the most comparable is the Cup of Excellence, which has become the de facto purchase platform for boutique coffee roasters. There are many lessons the tea world can learn from the coffee world as the industry matures and distribution channels develop for ethically sourced, sustainable, and high-quality tea.

The Cup of Excellence is an international competition for coffee growers to submit their most prized beans for evaluation and auction. The Alliance for Coffee Excellence has developed a protocol for judging, but they adopted the cupping standards of the Specialty Coffee Association of America. The tea world does not have internationally recognized standards for cupping and grading tea. For this reason, Tony Gebely of World of Tea has proposed cupping standards that can be used in evaluating lots of tea that will go on auction. Recently, during a live cupping session, we applied Tony’s proposed cupping standards:

The judging protocol for the Cup of Excellence consists of both local and international judges. Tealet has recruited a panel of industry experts and celebrity judges to evaluate each lot of tea, including Tony Gebely, Jason Walker, and Kevin Rose. In addition, an international panel of consumer judges has been recruited to include their evaluation. Although these evaluations are highly qualitative, Tealet will begin to work with coffee chemistry specialist Joseph Rivera to provide quantitative evaluations of quality. There is desire in the market for transparency in regard to pesticide use, so lots will be tested for pesticides, so tea retailers can assure their customers that the tea is free of pesticide residues.

For single-origin, single-lot teas, the authentic story of the tea can only be properly told by the grower. For this reason, the growers are actively involved in the promotion of each lot in the auction. Rather than Tealet telling a romanticized marketing story of the tea, the grower, panel of judges, and potential buyers can discuss the unique qualities of the tea. Transparency inhibits the growers from telling false stories, while Google Hangouts allow for meaningful conversations between the grower and buyer.

This is only the beginning for a revolution in the tea world, but with technology and community, there is hope for the future. Transparency and sustainability are inspirations for my work with Tealet and I look toward connecting with a community of like-minded tea people. If you have any feedback or would like to discuss ideas you have for the future of the industry, please feel free to connect with me at elyse@tealet.com. If you would like to stay up to date with our wholesale activities, visit us and create an account. Once logged into your account, you can view upcoming auctions and order samples to taste during live tea tastings hosted on Google Hangouts.