Among my peers in the tea industry there are many discussions taking place about the definition of terms like specialty tea and the use of terms like “real tea.” In his recent post, A Call for Standards, Austin Hodge brings up this very subject – which can take you down a rabbit hole of tradition and semantics. There are several schools of thought, and as a newbie in the tea business (fewer than 10 years) I have been very cautious to adopt one over another. My company is attempting to bring direct trade tea to the market with as much honesty and transparency as possible. When it comes to marketing and the messages we choose, we are very careful to fully define the terms we use. There may not be one universally accepted definition of specialty tea or real tea, but understanding the existing schools of thought can bring more awareness of the terminology.
If you look at market information provided by the Tea Association of the USA it is stated that there are four segments of the tea market: supermarket; food service; ready-to-drink; and “specialty” tea. If you use this as the basic definition for specialty tea, you can apply the process of elimination to find that many types of teas can be considered “specialty” tea. This includes all loose-leaf tea (and in some cases bagged tea) sold in a retail environment other than the grocery store shelf. This includes large and small retailers alike, no matter the level of quality provided by the retailer. For this reason, retailers who are focused on high quality are passionate about better defining specialty tea because there is widespread consumer confusion about the difference between the quality of teas, since all are marketed as “specialty.”
Vendors of traditional Chinese teas who are focused on sourcing only the highest quality are in a position to define the quality of their tea even more due to the financial burden they take on to import these teas. Often times the retailer must sell the tea in the US for a lower retail price than in China. Many of these retailers have chosen to categorize their tea as “real tea” which must meet very strict specifications – which can be met only by traditional Chinese teas. The origins of this distinction are not simply economical or associated with marketing, but are deeply rooted in pride in Chinese tea production.
At Tealet we welcome all tea growers from all tea growing regions to submit their teas for review and distribution. We are in a difficult position because we are focused on high quality and the need to provide education to the consumer about tea quality as well as the need to better define specialty tea, but we can’t favor Chinese teas. Many of the producers of quality tea for the platform are not in China. Although there are many conversations happening in the tea community about developing quality standards, don’t expect anything to happen overnight. Over time, possibly decades, there will be more awareness and availability of high quality tea, which is good for the producer and the discerning consumer.
Loading and Image 1 courtesy of Elyse Petersen. IMAGE 1: