This past World Tea Expo, I had the great honor of joining a panel of experts that discussed the need and opportunity for standards of excellence for specialty tea. The panel as well as the presentation that I gave on Direct Trade was well attended with fresh and veteran faces of the industry. Through the group’s response to the proposal for quality standards I was able to see some very important terms involved in quality tea production and distribution. Many have used the term “specialty tea”, but from the response of the audience in both the presentation and panel I have learned a new word needs to be used and adopted to explain high quality tea.
The only official use of “specialty tea” is in The State of the U.S. Tea Industry market report published by the Tea Association of the U.S.A. There is no clear definition given, but by process of elimination you can see the broad depth that can cover the segment of specialty tea in the market. It is all tea that is not sold in the traditional market (supermarket, drug and mass merchandisers), ready-to-drink, and foodservice. What you are left with is tea (loose leaf and bagged; pure and blended; scented and flavored) sold by large and small retailers.
During the panel we were using the term “specialty tea” to be high quality tea produced with great care. These teas are typically unblended loose leaf teas that are sourced from a specific terroir. They are just a portion of the category addressed by the Tea Association of the U.S.A. above. Towards the end of the panel session an attendee raised their hand to ask if the quality standards for specialty tea would also include specifications for teas that are blended with fruits and flavors. I realized that there was a miscommunication between this attendee and perhaps many other attendees at the expo in regards to the meaning of “specialty tea”.
After this experience on the panel I gave a presentation on Direct Trade tea. I introduced the concepts of direct trade as they apply to the specialty coffee industry. As I was speaking I immediately felt the need to explain that specialty tea is not the same in the tea industry as specialty coffee is in the coffee industry. I publicly questioned the need for new terminology to explain the new segment of the market that will be comparable to specialty coffee for the tea industry.
Since the World Tea Expo I have continued to have conversations with peers in the industry about this subject and think it is time to develop the terminology for quality tea. With the growing popularity of pure, loose leaf tea many people are going to start demanding teas made with quality in mind rather than quantity. Retailers will seek to source high quality tea rather than commodity tea. If you would like to be a part of this discussion please fill out this survey. You can also contact me directly to ask questions and give feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image provided by the author.