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Is Tea Divisible?

Is there a dividing line that separates the enormous varieties and styles of tea into commodity and specialty or is tea quality best viewed as a continuum?


Is tea divisible into commodity and specialty categories? Or is tea quality best viewed as a continuum? Should mainstays of the industry rest easy meeting consumer preferences for inexpensive tea while small-volume specialty producers and boutique brands supply the market for premium tea?

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Shabnam Weber, president of the Tea & Herbal Association of Canada

White tea drying in the sun in China’s Fujian Province

Is Tea Divisible?

In 2009, determined to increase production and grow earnings from tea exports, China’s Ministry of Agriculture observed that “seventy-thousand Chinese tea companies are equal to one Lipton in terms of turnover.” Twelve years later Lipton anchors a $3 billion tea portfolio and parent Unilever annually buys 10% of the world’s tea output, but collectively China’s 80 million tea growers have long since surpassed turnover of even the largest multi-nationals. China has excelled by adding value to its entire range of teas, differentiating premium from everyday tea without defining specialty.

Joining us today is Shabnam Weber, president of the Tea & Herbal Association of Canada. In 2000 she co-founded the Tea Emporium, a chain of Canadian specialty tea shops. She served as a member of the THAC board for many years before selling her company to lead the association. In this conversation, she represents not only the Canadian tea industry, and is also a spokesperson for the Tea Association of the USA and the Tea and Herbal Infusions Europe, an apex group that in turn represents tea associations in Ireland, the UK, Germany, Spain, France, Austria, The Netherlands, and several other European countries.

Dan BoltonCan specialty tea be defined or is tea quality best described as a continuum?

Shabnam Weber – Trying to find a definition for tea is like “trying to nail Jello to a wall.” That’s not my quote, I’m quoting Bill Clinton.  If we all accept that to be an absolute truth, which we seem to agree on, then why are we putting our energy and trying to differentiate, in what appears to be dividing up the industry into good and bad?

Our objective as an industry should be working together, in order to capture share of throat, from coffee, from water, and from soft drinks. That should be our objective.  So let’s pretend that in some magical world, we actually managed to find a  definition that everybody agrees on. My question is, so then what? What’s going to happen?

Have we actually converted a single coffee drinker over to tea? Have we converted a water drinker or a soft drink consumer over? We haven’t.

Have you bettered the life of a single tea producer on this planet? No. And are they going to appoint themselves the tea police, and say, well, you’re specialty, and you’re not specialty?

Dan: Two weeks ago the European Speciality Tea Association (ESTA) described specialty tea as “attaining tea excellence from bush to cup.” The association cited tea characteristics and supply chain attributes such as transparency and sustainable best practices.

“Speciality tea can be defined by the quality of the criteria – not the use of the criteria,” wrote ESTA executive director David Veal. ESTA “believes that the degree of excellence that a tea reaches in each of these criteria determines specialty versus commodity,” writes Veal, and that “the very point of defining speciality, is to differentiate it, and so to further distinguish speciality tea from commodity tea.”

Shabnam: These are the same criteria used by every tea taster in the industry, regardless of the “specialty” or “traditional” label. Traceability is not unique to specialty teas, “Traceability requirements are at the core of food safety laws in place around the world and must be demonstrated as part of regular audits for large retailers as well as certification programs.”

Although all the above may be part of what defines specialty tea “suggesting they are not a part of “traditional” tea is factually incorrect,” reads a joint press release of the three associations (Canada, US, and Tea and Herbal Infusions Europe).

Associations are here to represent the industry as a whole. We’re here for the betterment of an entire industry. These conversations make me really uncomfortable. I just don’t see what we as an industry gain from it.

We don’t.

Dan: What value additions favorably influence consumer perceptions? What are the characteristics or aspects that make tea more valuable, and therefore more worthy of consumers spending a little more of their pocket change?

That’s an interesting question because, you know, we can look at it on an analytical level and any tea taster regardless of what part of the industry they’re in, will tell you that value is placed on pluck, on size of the leaf, on seasonality, perhaps depending on where the teas come from, on aroma compounds, on clarity of the liquor on, you know, just overall flavor We can look at it on a very analytical level that way and every person within the industry, regardless of if they’re working in traditional or specialty will agree that there are higher quality products within the industry, you will not find a single person that will object to that.

On the flip side, when you’re asking, Where does the consumer place value? The consumer places value in all different aspects. We can take a look at the packaging, we can take a look at marketing, we can take a look at how we communicate tea. You will not find an objection from me, when you make the statement that tea is undervalued, it is undervalued. Absolutely.

As an industry, we need to do better as a whole to improve that message. That comes in communicating to consumers not only why it is good for you, but why it should be part of your lifestyle, your everyday, the way that we’ve seen it in the past year with COVID-19.

People have been attracted to tea because it makes them feel good.  I practically screamed that from the rooftops when I heard that. Hallelujah. This is a long-term lifestyle change, that people are actually communicating to us beyond, you know, vitamins and antioxidants and all the rest of those good things that are also part of it.

There are some teas that do set themselves apart, people drink them and it’s a revelation, it’s beautiful.  Where I’m uncomfortable and where we as associations take issue is when we are celebrating that at the expense of something else. When in order for that to be good or great, something else has to be bad.

Tell me why specialty is good. Tell me your product is a premium pluck, and it’s rare, that it’s only available for this window of time. Tell me about how it was crafted. Tell me about the flavor profiles. Tell me about those things. Because we’re celebrating why this is good.

There’s a problem when we go down the road of splitting and splintering the industry, it’s dangerous for everyone.

Dan: Is tea undervalued?

I think that as an industry, we should together be working on elevating the value of tea for the betterment of every part of the supply chain.

It is an absolute problem when any retailer is putting a two-cent certified product onto the market. As an industry, we have allowed retail to undervalue our product. It’s happened over years. And the assumption then is that the product is of no value. And that is fundamentally wrong.

Tea has been undervalued. But that doesn’t mean it has no value. We have to do better. I have to honestly say, and you can quote me on it, shame on us as consumers. Shame on us as retailers in consuming countries that allow that to happen. Because the truth is that tea is of great value.  And to understand the entire supply chain, the work, and dedication it takes to produce ALL tea is to understand that absolute truth.

* State-supported production dominates, generating almost $80 billion in domestic sales and $2 billion from exports. In 2020 China held a 28.7% share of tea export value globally. In May average export prices rose 15% to $6.41 per kilo year-on-year. China has excelled at adding value along its entire range of teas.


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