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Defining Specialty Tea

David Veal, Executive Director of the European Speciality Tea Association, explains the association's new approach to differentiating specialty tea and why it will prove helpful.


A rigid definition of what makes tea special has eluded the industry. Professionals understand excellence in specific styles. For example, after 45 years of competitions there is consensus on the qualities that make an outstanding dong ding oolong as judged by the Lugu Tea Farmers’ Association in Taiwan. In France, the AVPA has demonstrated skill in determining the gastronomic qualities in tea that please the local palate. The International Specialty Tea Association posts a set of universal standards such as pluck and leaf quality. Consumers mainly differentiate by price. This week the European Speciality Tea Association announced a definition that is more aspirational than dogmatic. ESTA Executive Director David Veal explains how the association adopted this approach and why it will prove helpful.

David Veal, Executive Director of the European Speciality Tea Association on what makes specialty tea special.

A field of tea in Japan

A New Definition of Specialty Tea

Aspiring to attain excellence in all aspects of tea processing and brewing from the bush to the cup

Dan Bolton – David, the European Tea Society that evolved into the European Speciality Tea Association did so initially without delineating specialty tea from the great sea of commodity offerings. That task is now complete. Will you share with listeners your process in defining the specialty tea segment?

David Veal – Three years ago, we didn’t really have a definition. [Association President] Nigel Melican had this definition in his head, but he’d never really put it down on paper. I’d been through the whole journey with the specialty coffee association of Europe. So, between us, we just lay down a fairly short definition that was open to people with different views in the industry to disagree.

We decided early on this year to set up a working group of very experienced tea professionals to really look at it and we covered a lot of ground.

Our starting point was to ask: Are we ever, ever, going to get a universally agreed definition of specialty which everybody will agree with? The answer, of course, is no, we weren’t going to do that. So, knowing that we weren’t going to achieve perfection, we looked at it from a different angle.

We still call it a definition because that has impact, but really it’s more of a description, an attempt to broaden understanding a bit and bring in words and descriptions and ideas and concepts that most people in the industry would buy into – knowing that not everybody would be happy with every part of it.

Dan – Will you summarize for listeners the fundamental concepts captured in the definition’s key phrase: “Aspiring to excellence in all aspects of tea processing and brewing from the bush the cup.”

David – We came up with a general statement that we feel is a fairly holistic view, about speciality in terms of it being a product, in terms of it being, you know the passion for excellence, the taking care at every step. Also, not forgetting the most important part is the actual sensory experience in the cup. It speaks to the education that we’ve indulged in to try and help the consumer understand more about what they’re drinking.

That indefinable subjectivity, the conceptual side of it, the community side of it, the aspirational side with the point that it is a movement as well. Speciality tea is something that some people get, and some people don’t get.

Merging all of this together we came up with a description that we feel will never be perfect for everybody, but it’s fairly close.

Dan – How will this definition make a difference?

David – Is it enforceable? No, but we’ve very firmly nailed our colors to the mast here. This isn’t just the work of the working group, it’s been endorsed by the whole of the board of European specialists, the association, and other peers as well. If you look at those parameters that we’ve actually put into the definition. A speciality tea would have to fit into all of those, for most people, I believe, speciality would have to fit into those parameters. But a tea that fits into those parameters isn’t necessarily a speciality.

Dan – Will you expand on the definition’s reference to “delicate and unique hand-crafted teas which can be categorized as speciality tea”? How does “hand-crafted” differ from “handmade” tea? Please also clarify the role of machines in processing specialty teas.

Nigel Melican [Association President] – “Hand-made” is an oft used descriptor more aspirational than actual,  If it is applied in a strictly literal sense it potentially allows the inclusion of an appallingly bad tea made solely by hand while excluding a superb machine-made tea. 

Personally, I have worked with a few CTC (cut, tear, curl) teas that I include as “Specialty” – due to their stunning make, bloom, grade, consistency, density – stunning to the senses even before cupping them: Rare occasional examples from a few factories in Rwanda and Mt. Kenya. Stunning enough to run shivers down my back in anticipation: but definitely not hand-made – no hand alone could produce that degree of excellence in a CTC tea.  Tell me that an expensive “hand-made” Swiss watch is made without machinery – lathes, diamond drills and saws, precision jigs, CNC cutting equipment – and then I will agree to exclude machinery from the “hand-making” of tea.

Similarly, the use of novel selective plucking machinery that exceeds the leaf quality of hand plucking, such as now operating in the US to produce some supreme specialty teas would, if we use the term “hand made” too literally, exclude this excellent mechanically plucked teas from the specialty tea market.

I believe handmade is well understood by consumers to mean hand-crafted, using relevant tools of the trade: to the watchmaker his lathe and drill – to a tea maker his rolling machine and dryer.  If the result is supreme excellence then it counts as a specialty, however, achieved. 

For all these reasons the ESTA definition uses the term hand-crafted, not hand-made – and, to further distinguish specialty tea from commodity tea we place emphasis on attaining tea excellence from bush to cup.

Dan – The coffee industry successfully arrived at a definition of specialty leading to consumer enthusiasm that ultimately benefitted growers, but it took more than 20 years to establish the protocols that differentiate the highest quality coffees from commodity coffee.

David – I think we’re quite a long way behind the curve compared with the coffee industry. We haven’t achieved the penetration of education and level of understanding to consumers that the coffee industry does. People don’t have the correct understanding to be able to value atea as well as they do coffee nowadays. But it will follow without a doubt.

We don’t mention pricing. It’s inherent in what we believe that if we can help improve the quality that’s coming into consuming countries of specialty, then prices will go up. And hopefully, a lot of that extra margin will go back down the line to give people a better living and a better reward for putting in their love, care, passion, hard work, sweat, perspiration to make better tea.

We know that we’re up against the big, big guys, the multi-nationals, the centuries-old economic model, that drives the price down, and therefore quality with it. You have to believe that if you improve the quality and give the consumer a better experience that will give the producer a better price. We’re also aware speciality will be 5% to 10% to the market, maximum, maximum. But as it improves we’ll pull along other parts of the industry.

I had a really good conversation with a well-respected, experienced person who worked for so many of the big companies over here. He told me the other day that he believes that specialty will be the savior of the tea industry. As you can imagine, I quite like hearing that.

Related: Is Tea Divisible?

Editor’s note: Updated to clarify the use of mechanical devices in producing specialty tea.

The Definition

European Speciality Tea Association (ESTA) values the science and art of tea making at every level. We value the skill, dedication and care which has been applied to create delicate and unique hand-crafted teas which can be categorized as speciality tea.

We support the speciality tea industry in all aspects of tea production from bush to cup and recognise the farmers who are aspiring to attain excellence.

We also value the following factors which we believe help contribute to being able to distinguish speciality teas from commodity teas. These can include but are not limited to:

The known supplier, the known farm, the known location, the known production dates, the known processing method.

Speciality tea can also be defined by the quality of the five criteria below:

  1. The dry leaf
  2. The aroma of the dry leaf
  3. The colour and clarity of the liquor
  4. The flavour and mouthfeel of the liquor
  5. The appearance and aroma of the wet leaf

At ESTA we also support the use of biodegradable and environmentally friendly packaging because this is an integral part of the tea industry’s future.

We believe that the consumer needs to be inspired from the moment they enjoy the aroma, liquor and taste of the tea and can celebrate in the plant’s personality, the origin of the tea, the care that has been taken in the processing and brewing of it; this being a speciality moment.

European Speciality Tea Association joins in growing an inspirational community, supporting the movement which promotes speciality tea and improving the quality of tea consumed. Speciality tea exists through the dedication of people at all levels of the tea value chain. We respect and support the person plucking the leaves, the person producing the tea to the consumer brewing the tea. Each person who touches the tea until it is finally sipped can affect the final cup and our aim is to support this and share knowledge that will improve the tea industry.

European Specialty Tea Association strives to value, support and promote the people who have this dedication and who are involved and passionate in providing perfection in every cup.

We value all of the above when considering what is speciality tea and we welcome like-minded people and or affiliates to join us in our quest for tea excellence at every level.

In summary ESTA supports and promotes speciality tea (Camellia sinensis), the community and the movement. We also support the botanical sector as an inclusive part of our organization due to its extensive synergy within the tea industry and with tea lovers and professionals.

We are a dynamic organization, we are aspirational for speciality tea, and we aim to have a positive impact on the wellbeing of all sectors of the tea industry. 

The European Speciality Tea Association

European Speciality Tea Association is an inclusive organisation whose mission is to create and inspire excellence in the speciality tea community through innovation, research, education and communication.

With members from over 28 countries representing all parts of the tea supply chain from producers to tea baristas, European Speciality Tea Association is helping to generate a vibrant speciality tea community across the world and is dedicated to promoting great quality tea in all of its forms to create a new sensory excitement amongst tea drinkers. You can join by emailing us at hello@specialityteaeurope.com

David Veal


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