Connecting Farmers and Producers with Tea Lovers

There are many different roles for tea people in the supply chain between the farmers and the consumers. Even though the Internet is now connecting us more directly, it has not eliminated the need for distributors who function as a bridge and, in many ways, an interpreter. Subtle differences year-to-year in conditions can make huge differences in the timing of harvests, potential for flavor and differences that might impact costs for the consumers. Will Battle, the founder and managing director of Fine Tea Merchants, is one respected voice in this aspect of the global tea industry.

Will Battle, Author of The World Tea Encyclopedia

In today’s interview, he shares some of his background and philosophy about tea.

TC: While most tea lovers have some idea of the journey between the field and the cup, the growers and the retailers. But the area of distribution is a murky area. What attracted you to work in this role within the tea industry?

WB: I knew long before I started my business that I had a much greater interest in tea as a product itself, than in attempting to build a consumer-facing brand requiring a skill in sales, marketing and distribution, none of which I had ever even attempted, let alone been any good at. It therefore seemed that, with a background in understanding tea markets, seasonality and quality patterns, wholesale was right up my street. I am fortunate currently that the market has been in the right place for businesses such as mine, and that there are a number of successful analogous tea businesses in the UK and USA to borrow from in creating my own version.

I hope there is a definite value in us middlemen but I definitely don’t begrudge those who forge direct producer-buyer relationships. We see our role as one in which we facilitate the seller in finding greater coverage of buyers as well as in enabling buyers to find enhanced variety without having to go through the bureaucracy of import documentation and the cashflow pain of holding long and wide stocks.

TC: Can you tell us a bit about your journey in tea? What training and experience was necessary to be able to source tea on such a large and global scale? 

WB: Firstly, I ought to point out that in my current role I source substantially less tea then ever I did for a large brand. So ‘large and global’ slightly flatters my more modest status!…

My immediate background is in arable farming, and I continue to live on the farm and enjoy the rural life. Although I never met him, I had always been conscious of my great uncle who had planted tea in Limuru for Brooke Bond in Kenya in the 1930s, I still have a chest of Mabroukie in my office to remind me of him. Following university, I applied for a trainee role with Tetley in 1997, my early experiences were in cleaning-out the spittoon, a role reserved for the lowliest trainee and, rather more more edifying, tasting teas appearing in the London Tea Auction during its dying days. We called them ‘first timers’.. the chance for us trainees to value the teas before more experienced buyers had their say.

This was followed by a year in India, Sri Lanka, Kenya and Malawi, working with our buying agents, tasting teas appearing in the auction, providing holiday or leave cover for local management, and visiting producers to learn and work together on quality matters. Upon my return whilst working from London, I worked as a tea blender for factories in Australia, USA, India, Pakistan and UK. We are often acutely aware of the variety in tea producing origins, but working as a blender reminded me that consumption habits are an equally broad tapestry and a vital area to understand if one is to buy and blend effectively.

 Tetley’s Worldwide Buying and Blending Team was great place to learn, producers from all over the world appeared regularly to sell tea, and our buying agents would come over for refreshers at regular intervals. The Kolkata exchanges in particular were especially informative, Bush Tea, then our agents for Assam, were a hub of enormous expertise and an opportunity to taste with the Bush buyers was always relished. Experiences gained from such interactions was invaluable, I think that the good thing about working for what would now be known as a ‘Pure Play’ tea company, is that tea professionals are usually specialists… it helps to remember what happened to the Kenyan tea crop during the last El Nino cycle, or to understand the vulnerability of the Malawian supply chain and how to mitigate it.

TC: In your book you say: “The world of tea is a glorious one, redolent with variety and opportunity; the self-evident blessings of a naturally conceived product should be the answer to our fear of what is regularly hidden in today’s ingredients list.”

But some people unfamiliar with the way in which tea is processed in remote areas of the world are fearful of contamination in the growing, processing, and distribution of tea. To them, quality assurance is not self-evident. What gives you confidence in these leaves, sometimes grown in remote areas of the world? What are some of the ways that larger distributors such as Fine Tea Merchants provide quality assurance to tea businesses and their customers?

I think what I was trying to convey by my book excerpt, was the variety that one tea bush is capable of providing and to set it in contrast against an ingredients list that, for many products, seems to lengthen by the year. For tea we remain lucky that we don’t need to add anything else to the ingredients list as this pretty amazing Camellia sinensis plant seems to do it all for us. 

(More information about “The World Tea Encyclopedia” below.)

Will Battle on “Tea Biz”

Dan Bolton of Tea Biz recently recorded an interview that adds some additional ways in which Will Battle thinks of the role of the tea distributors and what we all should understand about the global tea industry. Here are a few tidbits that Dan graciouly allowed us to include in our article.

Or you can also listen to the complete podcast interview. 

WB: . . . And that’s pretty much all stages of the chain . . . whether it’s the pruning, the approach to pruning, to leave quality stipulated to pluckers or to those buying leaf on the open market, the level of detail that the factory needs to apply to the processing of the leaf, right on through storage, shipping. All of those processes, in my experience, cost a lot more in a specialty industry. And more often than not, I don’t see that rewarded appropriately.

Ultimately, we have an obligation to make sure our industry survives, and that is reliant upon the people who grow and pluck and process tea. If we don’t pay a sustainable price. They will do something else without an appropriate farmgate price. . . .It’s our obligation to make sure that any producer is appropriately remunerated.

The World Tea Encyclopedia aims to draw tea lovers into the rich world of tea. It does this through:

Supporting tea business owners with their storytelling.
Simplifying the navigation of tea taste characteristics.
De-mystifying the world’s diverse tea drinking rituals.
Explaining the social and environmental dimensions of tea production.
Illustrating the complete origin story with the most detailed maps yet created.

Available on Book