• Keemun’s Hong Cha Revival

    A hundred and fifty years ago, tea exporters in China faced a dramatic shift in demand due to conflict on the high seas and fierce commercial competition. The emergence of India as Europe’s black tea supplier disrupted almost three centuries of Chinese dominance in the world’s most lucrative black tea market. China needed something new, a cream and sugar-friendly alternative to smoky old-fashioned Lapsang Souchong. That tea was Keemun (pronounced Chee-mun), a modern marvel rivaling Darjeeling at breakfast and the fragrant black Uva teas used in Ceylon breakfast blends.

    Invented in 1875, the aromatic “qi hong cha” or Keemun black tea, grown in Qimen County, quickly rose to prominence, explains senior tea master Lilian Xia, President of the Canada Tea Institute. She joins Tea Biz to recount the legacy of a Chinese market-savvy entrepreneur, Yu Ganchen, the pioneer of Qimen tea, who developed the processing method for Qimen black tea and expanded its sales overseas. 

    Lilian Xia on the revival of Keemun black tea
    Lilian Xia, president of the Canada Tea Institute
    Lilian Xia, president of the Canada Tea Institute

    Keemun, the Most Famous of China’s Black Teas Returns to Prominence

    By Dan Bolton

    Lilian Xia grew up in Shanghai, China, a region that has been the commercial hub of tea export for centuries. In China, tea artists are certified by local government officials who test their competency. Lilian is the first batch of senior tea masters and became the instructor at Shanghai Tea Institute and, simultaneously, the chief evaluator at the Shanghai Municipal Bureau of Labor. She helped compile the textbook “Senior Tea Artist” and lectures widely. She and her staff in Canada offer seven-level courses for adults and teens. The organization, she says, “is committed to popularizing tea knowledge, using tea as a link to strengthen cultural exchange among all ethnic groups, all classes, and all ages.” The society hosts educational tea parties, tea-themed activities, and tastings, including a public introduction to Runsi Qihong (Keemun) sponsored by the Anhui Guorun Tea Co. Lilian and I met at the Toronto Tea Festival in January.

    Dan Bolton: Hongcha is experiencing a revival in China as millions line up daily for their milk tea. Keemun has a special place in the story of black tea as it is the first modern market-driven tea. Tea fragrance has always appealed to tea drinkers. Jasmine is one of the world’s oldest and most famous scented teas. European royalty and the upper classes preferred tea with milk and sugar, crumpets, and dainties, limiting sales of green tea and creating an opening that Keemun quickly filled. Will you share the history of this fascinating tea?

    Lilian Xia: Let’s first talk a little bit about the history of black tea. In the early Qing Dynasty, around 1650, the Dutch and English first brought Chinese tea to the West. Most of the tea was from the Wuyi Mountains, near the eastern coast of Fujian Province. Exports were mainly green tea or oolong tea.

    The tea, called bohea (an English pronunciation of Wuyi), is dried in wooden sheds, taking on a smoky flavor. Less well understood is that after pan-firing and rolling, the larger coarse leaves from the plant are pressed into wooden barrels and covered with cloth or bruised in cloth sacks to ferment before being fired a second time. During this step, the tea develops a unique “Keemun” aroma. The dark black leaves are then finished in bamboo trays suspended above smoking fire pits filled with hot coals from locally grown Pinus massoniana and slash pine. Adjusting the height of the tray influences the intensity of the aroma.

    The tea known as zhèng sh?n xi?o zh?ng became rapidly famous within China as well, driven by the immense profits from its export. The English pronounced it Lapsang Souchong after the Fuzhou dialect for lap (pine) sang (wood) souchong (meaning small sort).

    The tea had been traded for two hundred years by 1875 when Yu Ganchen was promoted to junior Mandarin (tax collector) in Fujian. He frequently dealt with tea exporters there and knew of the large quantities of black tea exported to the West.

    Unfortunately, he was dismissed as unfit by the emperor. On returning to his hometown of Chizhou in Qimen County, in Anhui Province, he saw a nice environment spanning thousands of hectares where he could get good quality Zhuye tea leaves, so he asked himself, ‘Why not make black tea?’ Yu Ganchen returned to Fujian to study tea-making.

    Qimen County, Anhui Province
    Fog-shrouded Qimen County in Anhui Province

    Using the hometown trees, Yu Ganchen invented a process for withering and pan-firing similar to that used in making Wuyi tea. He extended the withering and slowed oxidation to yield a more nuanced aroma, producing a better tea to sell to the West. Variations include Keemun Mao Feng, made from small leaves from the early harvest, and Keemun Hao Ya and Keemun Congou (broken leaf), which are more intense. Keemun Gongfu is preferred for use in tea ceremonies. Today, the best Keemun tea is made in Qimen County in Huangshan City, Anhui province, from leaves grown in Guichi, Shitai, Dongzhi, and Yixian.

    Ganchen understood the needs of the Western people who begin their day with tea. The key modalities were color; Keemun is a deep red amber and distinctive fragrance with layers of flavor. Nowadays, many black teas are made in China, but Keemun remains the most popular.

    Dan: The strong trade between China and the UK, dating to 1664, entered a rocky diplomatic period beginning in 1839 through 1842 as the first tea gardens were planted in Assam and Darjeeling and again in 1856 through 1960 when victory in the Second Opium War gave Western powers unfettered access to Chinese goods. Keemun marketers understood that winning competitions in the West and celebrity endorsements by royalty would appeal to Europeans and colonial tea drinkers in North America.

    Lilian: He was quite familiar with the tea growers, exporters, and Importers from Western Fujian Province in Fuzhou City, so he contacted them and sold them to Western buyers. He opened a store in Yaodu to sell tea in Fuzhou and began marketing Keemun black overseas, where Indian black teas and Sri Lanka black teas were prominent.

    A breakthrough occurred in 1915 in San Francisco at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition (an early World’s Fair). Keemun, competing with the finest Indian black and Ceylon teas from Sri Lanka, won the gold medal and became the number one choice of many Westerners, including the British and Americans.

    The Queen and the royal family popularized Keemun in manuals describing the proper etiquette and preparation of afternoon tea. In London, it was known as the “queen of black tea” and is listed as one of the three most fragrant teas in the world. Keemun became quite famous in blends re-exported from London worldwide. The tea also won many national medals in China over the years.
    Download: Original Exposition Visitor’s Guide

    Pacific-Panama International Exposition
    Aerial view of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition fairgrounds in San Francisco, California
    Aerial view of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition Fairgrounds in San Francisco, California

    Dan: The tea was so popular that Keemun became the main component in English breakfast blends. In 1879, more than 70% of the tea sold in London was from China. Darjeeling was an expensive luxury until the 1930s. People acquired a taste for Keemun during the years when Darjeeling was scarce. By 1900, China’s market share at the London tea auction had declined to 10%, but even then, the most popular Ceylon and Indian blends of Assam weren’t considered complete without at least 10-12% Keemun. Early mass-market blends, including Lipton and Twinings, featured African teas to give them color. Blenders added Assam tea for astringency. Why was Keemun so popular?

    Lilian: Keemun Tea was popular because of its characteristics, like its unique aroma — it’s very special. Even now, in China, we distinguish black tea as either Keemun or not. So, what is Keemun’s aroma? It combines a floral note, a fruity note, and a honey-sweet taste.

    Tea master inspects a woven bamboo tray of Keemun
    Keemun tea master inspects a woven bamboo tray of black tea

    Dan: The process that yields that aroma is very interesting.

    Lilian: Yes, it starts with withering, then rolling, then fermentation and drying, all the uniform processes of black tea. So, how do we get this unique Keemun aroma?

    There are two reasons. The first is definitely because of the tea tree breeds and where they are planted. The proper place is Qimen, a tea-growing region between the cool, fog-enshrouded Huangshan (Yellow) Mountains and the Yangtze River. The cultivar is called Zhu-ye-zhong. It is the same plant used to make Huangshan Maofeng, a grassy and vegetal full-leaf green tea plucked from old-growth trees.

    Other critical steps involve slow fermentation and attention to drying. There’s a high-temperature step to reduce the moisture; then, it goes through lower-temperature drying, always 80 to 90 degrees. That low-temperature drying process develops those aromas.

    We know that all those tea breeds produce aromatic compounds. Lower-temperature drying facilities develop those aroma compounds to bring out fruity and floral aromas.

    Sugar substances and amino acids undergo the Maillard reaction, generating substances with a honey aroma. Many substances with fruity and floral aromas, such as lactones, terpenes, and alcohols, are generated, contributing to the distinctive Keemun black tea aroma characterized by hints of flowers, fruits, and honey. This unique scent is called Keemun aroma.

    Making Keemun tea
    Making Keemun tea

    Dan: One of the reasons Keemun is so important to the traditional Assam and Sri Lanka blended breakfast teas is because they are fired at a very high temperature in a furnace, which drives off aromatic compounds. Keemun adds a distinctive and pleasant aroma as you pour the hot water. Keemun tea drinkers describe the scent of honey, apple, and orchid.

    Lilian: Yes, yes. Keemun is unique. Among all those Chinese varieties, more than one hundred black teas, Keemun remains the number one because of its unique aroma.

    “Keemun is unique. Among all those Chinese varieties, more than one hundred black teas, Keemun remains the number one because of its unique aroma”

    – Lilian Xia, President Canada Tea Institute

    Dan: Will you tell listeners about the Runsi Qihong (Keemun Tea) brand? I was very impressed tasting the tea at the Toronto Tea Festival, and so were many others at your crowded booth.

    Lilian: The tea is from what used to be a state-owned company and the biggest producer. It is called Anhui Guorun Tea Company Ltd. Mr. Yu Ganchen, who invented Keemun, owned the tea house that was the predecessor of the Guorun Tea Company. Runsi Qihong is their brand.

    Before 1949, tea was mainly handmade and primarily sold to tea houses. But afterward, around 1950, China’s modern tea factories increased production, increasing exports. From the 1990s to the early 2000s, Chinese tea factories experienced another important reform, moving from state-owned to limited liability companies. In 2003, with the restructuring of its joint stock, Guorun became the most prominent company specializing in Keemun black tea. It is also the only factory producing diplomatic gift teas for official guests such as the Prime Minister from Britain or Queen Elizabeth.

    Runsi Qihong has 12 EU-certified tea gardens and enjoys the title of national standard in China. So, as Keemun black tea is frequently chosen as a diplomatic gift, the highest grade is not premium; there is another grade called gift on top of the premium. Diplomats consistently choose Keemun black as the national gift.

    Dan: That’s a prestigious role. According to the China Tea Marketing Association, 7,300 metric tons of Keemun tea are produced annually on 12,600 hectares of land. The tea is primarily for export, generating 5.52 billion yuan (about $808.6 million in US dollars in 2022). Will you explain the role growers play in the process?

    Lilian: Guorun Co., Ltd. boasts significant productivity, employing highly mechanized tea garden management, plucking, and processing methods. However, producing the highest-grade teas involves meticulous handpicking and processing to ensure their unique, superior quality. For this, the company hires tea farmers skilled in the delicate task of tea picking, compensating them with labor fees. This blend of automation and traditional craftsmanship ensures the excellence of their tea.

    Dan: Thanks for explaining that. So, let’s talk briefly about the Canada Tea Institute and its mission.

    Lilian: We created the Canada Tea Institute in 2017 as a not-for-profit organization. We want to improve the tea culture and tea education. These days, we’re also trying to improve the economic development of tea. Most of our members are tea professionals and tea enthusiasts. We have our guiding principles. They are traditional spirits of tea masters, such as harmony, humility, genuineness, and equality. Those are the four guiding principles of our institute. So, we organize tea-related events and activities, such as tea master training programs and sometimes study trips. We have organized tea trips to some tea-producing areas in China, and hopefully, we can organize trips to other tea-growing countries, such as Japan.

    Canada Tea Institute

    During the past six years, CTI has organized over 100 tea-themed events involving more than 4,000 participants. By taking these steps, we’re working to diversify the Canadian tea market, making it more vibrant and dynamic.

    Dan: I was happy to see all the young people at your booth. Will you briefly discuss your impression of young people and your role in educating those interested in your teas?

    Lilian: I found many people of different ages interested in tea, and I was surprised that there are so many young people. I’ve noticed their enthusiasm for tea in the tea courses I’m giving young folks. They might not know all the ins and outs yet, but their interest is sky-high. They’re not just into the taste; they’re curious about blending their own, which is pretty much like creating something new, and they’re super keen on diving into the tea culture. It’s not just about, “Hey, this tea tastes good,” but more about, “What’s the story behind it? Why do we drink it this way?” They’re eager to explore different types of tea, how to brew them to get that perfect taste, and even which teawares best complement each tea. Honestly, it makes me really happy to see their passion for all aspects of tea, not just the flavor but the whole culture and creativity behind it.

    Usually, in China, we use a gaiwan, a covered cup for brewing green teas, flower teas, etc.  I also demonstrated Gaiwan brewing in class. Young students use those clear, translucent glasses because it lets them see the tea right inside; it piques their curiosity about the brewing process and its cultural significance.

    I think it’s very, very amazing that since ten years ago, or even seven years ago, tea lovers have been aging. I mean, they love tea because they can feel the beauty of calm and simplicity. They are like 40 years old or 50 years old.

    At that time, young people liked sweet drinks such as coffee and Coca-Cola, But now I see maybe it is because of the popularity of milk tea and bubble teas that many young people started to drink tea. Tea has become integrated into the daily lives of young people. From the bubble tea, they will pay attention to “This is green tea. This is black tea. This is oolong tea.” Then, they will seek more information about blended teas or different straight teas, I think it’s very good.

    Teaching young tea artists how to use a gaiwan
    Lilian Xia, center, teaches young tea artists a Song Dynasty tea ceremony at the institute’s Peach Blossom Tea Party near Niagara Falls. Students from left to right are Bella, Christine, Jasmine, and Yufeng.

    Photos courtesy Canada Tea Institute | Runsi Qihong Tea

    Canada Tea Institute
    7240 Woodbine Ave.
    Markham, ON L3R 1A4
    Canada
    Phone +1 (647) 939-7311
    Email [email protected]

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      Invented in 1875, the aromatic “qi hong cha” or Keemun black tea, grown in Qimen County in China’s Anhui Province, quickly rose to prominence, explains senior tea master Lilian Xia, President of the Canada Tea Institute. She joins Tea Biz to recount the legacy of a Chinese market-savvy entrepreneur, Yu Ganchen, the pioneer of Qimen tea, who developed the processing method for Qimen black tea and expanded its sales overseas. | Episode 156 | 23 Feb 2024

    • Accelerating Sustainability

      The Committee on Sustainability Assessment (COSA) was established to measure the massive quantity of precise data and the impact of harder-to-quantify, pragmatic ways of measuring sustainability, such as living income calculations, gender inclusion, and next-generation training.

      In 2005, sustainability pioneers at the United Nations identified the need to harmonize sustainability metrics with science-based credibility. Seven years later, COSA became a not-for-profit public research organization to complete that work.

      Daniele Giovannucci co-founded COSA to counter what he called “the fluff and ignorance masquerading as development and the colossal sums wasted by well-meaning funders.” He championed the “democratization of data,” devising standard metrics for the coffee industry in 2018.

      COSA, supported by discerning philanthropists from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to the InterAmerican Development Bank, has standardized sustainability metrics for leading brands, global frameworks, cutting-edge technologies, and governments for two decades. Giovannucci retired in mid-2023, and Liam Brody was named his successor. Liam joins us on the Tea Biz Podcast to explain COSA’s role in intelligence-gathering and developing strategic tools that advance sustainable practices with “good business” underpinnings. He also shares his vision of how artificial intelligence will revolutionize and influence consumer behavior and perception of sustainable practices.

      Liam Brody, CEO Committee on Sustainability Assessments (COSA)
      COSA CEO Liam Brody
      Newly named Committee on Sustainability Assessment CEO Liam Brody

      Predictability is Around the Corner

      By Dan Bolton

      COSA Board Chairman Richard Rogers, in announcing the promotion of Liam Brody to CEO, described him as the right leader to unlock the exponential impact of the organization. Brody “is an accomplished and visionary leader” who can drive the transformative change needed to help tackle today’s sustainability challenges.”

      Liam was president of Sustainable Harvest, a trailblazing B Corporation and leading specialty coffee importer. As president, he doubled the company’s size, leading strategy and operations—overseeing sourcing, sales, finance, marketing, technology, talent, and impact. Liam spent nearly a decade with impact investing pioneer Root Capital, helping unlock $1 billion in finance for small and growing agricultural businesses around the globe. Earlier, Liam was director of sustainable coffee for Green Mountain Coffee (now Keurig Dr Pepper) and was a program manager, campaign director, and private sector adviser for the humanitarian organization Oxfam—where he played a crucial role in building the fair trade market.

      He earned a Bachelor of Science in Agricultural Education from Cornell and holds a Master of Education in Social Policy from Harvard.

      Dan Bolton: Congratulations on your appointment. It’s an outstanding choice on COSA’s part.

      Liam Brody: Thank you, Dan! That means a lot coming from you. You’re one of my heroes in the tea and coffee community. I’ve learned so much from reading and traveling with you over the years. It’s a pleasure to be part of this conversation.

      Dan: In just a sentence or two, will you tell readers what you will do now that you’ve got the reins in hand?

      Liam: First and foremost, we plan to scale our work exponentially to help make a dent in two of the most pressing issues facing our world and the global food system: climate change and inequity. Over the next ten years, COSA will impact 100 million farmers stewarding a billion hectares of land.

      Liam: But, to go forward, it might be helpful if we first look back. COSA started with a simple question: “What is sustainability, and how should it be measured?” As we began to answer those questions, we started advising tea, coffee, and chocolate professionals on how to use the best science and practice to actually measure. But that work only introduced more questions, like, “What do we do with all of this data once we’ve measured it and, most importantly, how do we make sense of it?”

      Today, COSA finds itself helping all actors in a value chain, from tea and coffee to cocoa, palm, and more, use data to advance impact, performance, and risk reduction. Together, our work is transforming the global food and agriculture system to work and better benefit all involved—from crop to cup. We are working to climate-proof our future. And to do so in a way that is economically advantageous to all involved. That used to be “pie in the sky.” Now, with all that data, new tools, AI (artificial intelligence), machine learning, Earth Observation (geolocation and remoting sensing), predictive analytics, and more, it’s a reality knocking on our front door.

      “It used to be that no matter how smart the human was in this equation, we just couldn’t process all this data ourselves. There were just too many variables.”

      Liam Brody, CEO Committee on Sustainability Assessment

      It used to be that no matter how smart the human was in this equation, we just couldn’t process all this data ourselves. There were just too many variables. You know, old school when the world changed at a slower pace and harvest seasons and global production were more consistent—forget the new variables coming at us at much higher, seemingly unpredictable velocity.

      Today, new tools and approaches are changing the game from always being backward through the rear-view mirror to giving everyday tea professionals a new crystal ball that allows us to look around the corner and predict what’s coming. But, to harness this new power, we need good data and strong systems—and integrated tools designed for all players in the value chain. This allows us to play a granular game at scale—ultimately allowing us to invest in the right things at the right time to boost impact, performance, efficiency, deliverability, and more.

      We are leading a multi-year effort with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to use these new tools to lower the cost and time needed to collect data. No supply chain professional wants to spend all their time and money on measurement for the sake of measurement. We want to drive change. These new lean and agile approaches we are pioneering will help all of us spend the time and money saved on insights and investing in action. COSA is doing extensive published research to determine how to deploy technologies like WhatsApp, SMS, and satellite imaging to leapfrog outmoded approaches.

      The game is finally shifting to real-time. That allows us to get ahead of problems before it’s too late. And everybody wins. If a farmer learns early in the season that she is at risk of crop failure—it’s a terrible realization. But, the sooner she knows, the sooner she can act. And, the sooner she knows, the sooner a buyer knows. An enlightened buyer might decide to help make a critical investment, or offer a multi-year deal to bridge the crisis—or even partner with the local government or a humanitarian organization on stopgap measures. As a former buyer and financier, being unable to predict potential defaults or delivery delays far enough in advance could be catastrophic to our business—let alone the positive impacts so many of us in tea seek to make in the world.

      COSA mission
      COSA was founded to establish consistent indicators of sustainable practices

      Dan: Alan Lai and his team at ProfilePrint in Singapore and Dr. William Ristenpart, who heads the Coffee Center at the University of California, Davis, have developed cloud-based apps to identify raw and finished leaves, seeds, and grains. IDaaS is an authentication service that uses desktop sensors, scanners, and even cell phones to upload “digital profiles” and, in seconds, download detailed chemical and physical attributes of the sample that reveal and quantify defects, colors, shape, the presence of adulterants, and other characteristics closely correlated to organoleptic qualities assigned by trained tasters.

      Liam: Absolutely. Our ability to analyze where something went wrong in the process is key. Otherwise, too many people still assume what went wrong must have been at the start of the chain.

      But, if we can isolate variables, we better understand the problem and where it may have originated, not for blame, but for better performance and risk management. I love the idea of shortening those feedback loops so you can quickly identify issues and rapidly give feedback, and frankly, you can quickly course-correct before something goes sideways.

      Dan: You’re a 90-storefront grocer with 100,000 pounds of tea inside your warehouse. Place a sample into the ProfilePrint analyzer, and within five minutes, you learn that you’ve got four weeks to sell it before staling will force you to sell at a heavy discount.
      .
      Liam: Integrate that data into a model that starts to overlay origin data. Origin data that tracks yield, productivity, cost of product, living income, and geopolitical and climate risk. The correlations can be a roadmap for business growth—because then you are getting into predictability, which is super cool.

      Dan: Oversupply of tea is widespread. It’s a cyclical problem that depresses prices over decades. Tea multinationals exerted control over supply because they owned plantations and factories and employed large workforces. Today’s markets are fragmented, and there will never be a one-size-fits-all tea. Sellers have unprecedented access to data, and those who monitor consumer preferences could order tea on demand. In specialty coffee, Starbucks and Nespresso set quality minimums, then vet (or train) growers to meet those standards, rewarding them with long-term contracts at premium prices – achieving balanced supply and demand for their markets.

      Liam: That’s the future, but we need to stop silo’ing sustainability as if it were a standalone thing only good for glossy reports and storytelling. Sustainability data is core to business planning and performance.

      If we’re collecting the right data at the right time, we can start to understand the correlations between sustainability investments and core business ROI. We can start to see how labor availability, diversity, water scarcity, and productivity fit together in real-time with pricing with market demand and consumer profile changes. When you have access to that data — and can be sure that it’s not what the computer scientists call dark data — data just sitting there on a shelf – but rather in the sophisticated digital system, then you can move quickly to provide insights for everyone in the industry, especially the farmers and growers holding up the foundation.

      COSA CEO Liam Brody
      COSA CEO Liam Brody

      Measure What Matters

      As you said at the beginning, we can all be part of starting to understand what investments to make and when to get that tea on demand, ultimately to the right market at the right price. And, when I say the right price—I mean for producers, too.

      But to play in that space, you must figure out what you’re measuring. You have to have places to put that data, and you have to have systems that work to analyze and visualize and allow the value chain to participate. We also need to start driving these evidence-based insights back to farmers so they can make real-time, informed decisions about their own lives.

      Right now, there’s not enough of that. In stark examples, we see that the companies that have been investing in data for years are now figuring out how to harness it and are leaping far beyond those that have ignored the need, assuming it was just another cost. New regulations are motivating a wave of new brands ready to take the plunge—but too many seem solely focused on compliance rather than the true power to unlock business performance. But don’t worry. You haven’t missed out if you have started or are trying to figure out where to start. That’s why organizations like COSA exist. We can be your guide. But to be clear, the window is closing fast, particularly as the world of sustainability rapidly shifts from voluntary standards to regulatory absolutes. We also know that consumer demand is increasingly predicated upon evidence. There’s excellent new McKinsey research backing that notion around brands making evidence-based claims. We also know climate change is changing everything from growing region suitability to yield curves, quality, and pest outbreaks. And we know what that will do, from forced migration to labor shortages and human rights impacts that follow.

      If we don’t have data at the center, we don’t get to manage through that level of change and crisis in tea, coffee, cocoa, beef, palm, and more.

      And to be clear, more regulation is soon coming to tea. We all know that it’s the next wave. Now it is the time to invest—not just for PR, although impact data and traceability lead to powerful authentic storytelling—for risk mitigation, resilience, and performance management.

      In addition, we should be doing collaboratively as a sector, not just competitively, so we can compete on the things that matter. Then, we can put our collective money into investments for the future, not just backward-looking compliance.

      COSA Timeline
      COSA Timeline

      Dan: Collecting rich data is essential to traceability, which is critical for credibility in marketing, right?

      Liam: I couldn’t agree more. That’s where the curtain has been pulled back. There’s no more hiding. And that’s exciting. These are investments that need to be made in our future because if we’re not making them now, knowing what we know about population shifts, knowing what we know about climate, knowing what we understand about the geo-political risks, and what consumers are demanding, then brands, farmers, and entire industries will falter.

      We must get around those corners. We must have scenarios that predict what’s coming. And if you’re not dealing with that or managing these issues using sound information systems or not learning in real-time, you’re missing out.

      It’s plain and simple. There’s a place to play for people who want to learn.

      That makes me so proud to be a part of an organization like COSA because we build bridges across governments, global brands, farmer organizations, and civil society to address that essential truth. We must know what we are solving for. How are we solving it? And how will we know if we’ve done it? The data speaks for itself. You can’t obscure it if you’re measuring the right things in the right way and embracing a commitment to continuous improvement–whether that’s financial performance for a value chain, social performance, environmental performance, or how those are all tied together. And so, for many of us, it is a new day, and I’m just so excited to be a part of it.

      Photos courtesy of the Committee on Sustainability Assessment (COSA)

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      Episode 155 | Liam Brody, the new Committee on Sustainability Assessment CEO, explains COSA’s role in intelligence-gathering and developing strategic tools that advance sustainable practices with “good business” underpinnings. He also shares his vision of how artificial intelligence will revolutionize and influence consumer behavior and perception of sustainable practices. | 16 Feb 2024


    • Observations on Oversupply

      Delegates from 44 countries (and 14 official observers) who attended The 25th Session of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s Intergovernmental Group on Tea (IGG Tea) on Jan. 31 expanded the organization’s mandate beyond trade aspects, ratifying initiatives addressing all three dimensions of sustainability – economic, social, and environmental. Joining us today is Peter Goggi, the IGG TEA delegate representing the US in his role as President of the Tea Association of the USA. Peter discusses #TeaPower, a new health and wellness campaign, FAO’s ongoing support of smallholders, and the economics of oversupply.

      FAO IGG TEA delegate Peter Goggi represents the US as President of the Tea Association of the USA
      Ian Gibbs, International Tea Committee with Peter Goggi at UN FAO IGG Tea
      Ian Gibbs, Chair International Tea Committee with Peter Goggi at UN FAO IGG Tea

      There is Too Much Tea in the World

      By Dan Bolton

      Peter Goggi began his career at Unilever, where he was the first American in the history of TJ Lipton to work as a tea taster. He retired after 32 years with Royal Estates Tea Co., where, as president, he was responsible for tea sourcing, blending, and quality assurance. His last assignment was as head of tea procurement, leading a team of supply managers and analysts who spent a billion dollars a year buying tea. His encore as president of the Tea Association of the USA, the Tea Council of the USA, and the Specialty Tea Institute marks a fourth decade of service to the industry. Peter is a champion of the health benefits of tea, a public speaker much in demand, and a spokesperson respected globally for his broad expertise. His annual State of the Tea Industry report is meticulously researched and rich with insights gleaned from a lifetime in tea. He attended the BATIC 2024 Bicentenary in Assam and then three days of IGG Tea beginning Jan. 31. For the past decade, Peter has been the US delegate to IGG, an influential body of cabinet ministers, tea board chairs, academics, tea association executives, and policymakers representing every tea-growing and major tea-consuming region globally.

      Dan Bolton: The much-delayed IGG Tea gathering in the world’s largest tea-producing region showcased India. Delegates also adopted several important policy decisions to help ease a challenging time in tea. Will you tell us about the event?

      Peter: The IGG is a fabulous opportunity for all interested parties on a governmental level to talk about the tea industry. It’s very important to express their views. They all have issues that they’re facing. The issues facing countries of origin are very, very different from those facing consuming countries. But ultimately, solutions that satisfy both need to be met.

      The overriding concern of everyone in this business is the lack of profit throughout the entire supply chain. Unless the growers make money, you’re not going to have tea.

      The challenge extends the entire length of the value chain. And it’s worse than it’s ever been. If you look at the price of tea over time, it hasn’t moved as fast as inflation. We’re paying the same amount for tea as in the 50s but without the margins essential to business.

      What many people don’t realize, particularly here in the US or the West in general, is that millions of people are vested in producing the tea. They’re growing the leaf. They’re plucking the leaf. They’re manufacturing the leaf, preparing it for shipment, and getting it out of their countries of origin that benefit from foreign exchange.

      We talk a lot about sustainability in the tea business. I look at it as a stool with three legs: environmental sustainability, social sustainability, which is the cultural weaving of importance to the local governments, local producers, local towns, and, importantly, there’s economic sustainability. Unless we have that, we are going to lose everything.

      Many of the discussions focused on the smallholder not only at IGG Tea this year but also during BATIC 2024, which was the Bicentennial Assam convention celebrating 200 years of tea growing in Assam. Smallholders produce about 60% of the tea in the world today — the green leaf anyway and they are vitally important to the whole supply chain.

      Everyone agrees that unless these smallholders get appropriate monies for the work that they do, then 10-15 years down the road, we’re all going to be struggling.

      FAO IGG Via Tea Board Of India
      Delegates attending the 25th Session of FAO IGG ON TEA in Guwahati, India

      Dan: Yet the crisis among smallholders is not universal. Smallholders in China have demonstrated resilience over centuries. They enjoy good margins, provide for their families, and are rewarded for investing in growing their businesses over time. Smallholders operating as rural entrepreneurs maintain diverse farmscapes, which would provide a solid foundation for sustainable production.

      Peter: China has done an absolutely fabulous job with its tea industry. If you’re in the tea business in China, you are wealthy. That model exists nowhere else in the world, unfortunately.

      China is, in and of itself, a producer and a consumer. The percentage of exports is extremely small in comparison to what they produce. And what they do produce is really enjoyed by the population. In China, they drink tea; they know tea. Tea is interwoven into every aspect of their culture. Whether it’s health, wellness, or social. It’s a great model. I wish everybody would copy that one — but that’s just not the case.

      What you’re seeing now is that smallholders are producing as best they can. But the world, quite frankly, is inundated with tea. The amount of tea produced over the last several years is greater than what’s been consumed. Tea doesn’t go away. It sits in a warehouse somewhere. So, we have too much tea. And this is what’s really dragging the price of tea down — except for the specialty segment.

      Artisanal teas have great leaf, great flavor, great stories behind them, and well-thought-out manufacturing processes. They’re making money, but the quantities are relatively small – we’re talking on a volume basis of 8% to 12% of the world’s tea, but it’s responsible for probably 25% to 30% of the profit.

      Dan: During the past 20 years, the volume of specialty tea has more than doubled. It is encouraging that demand is growing and that people prefer to drink healthful, better-tasting tea with its artisan story and third-party certifications. Drinking good tea is a reasonably priced personal choice with untold benefits. Teabags sell for pennies, and you get what you pay for, but spending a small sum of money, perhaps $3 per ounce, about 43 cents per serving, as a floor on which higher-quality tea, priced at $8 per ounce, is the tide to lift all boats.

      Peter: That’s the hope. We saw some very good indications of a positive future coming out of COVID because, qualitatively, Gen Z was really turning to tea during COVID. They were buying specialty tea — to take your point about stories and tea’s artisanal aspects — they love that stuff. And they’re very keen on knowing that the dollar that they spend for a product is going back to help the person who actually produces the product.

      So this is where knowledge of the value and supply chains are very important to this particular class demographic, and as they age, they will continue to drink tea.

      It’s a known fact that as the population ages, the incidence of tea consumption increases. So I’m hoping that the habits they’ve grown to embrace as university students will carry through for the rest of their lives, and they’ll pass that on to the next generation.

      That’s the good news. The bad news is that that habit was very true at home, not very true out-of-home, so they drank all their tea in their houses with their personal tea ceremonies, whether it’s a particular mug or whether it’s a particular teapot or how they did it or with their friends are watching their videos, loved it, consume more, and it was hot, which in the United States is important because we’re a tea drinking nation of iced tea, and they’re drinking more hot tea.

      That’s a potential change as we go forward. But regrettably, as they go out-of-home, their incidence of tea drink drinking does not match up with what they do at home. So, this will be the challenge: How do we get that tea experience out of home?

      Tea Power
      UN Tea & Health Working Group proposes #TeaPower marketing campaign.

      Dan: During the 25th FAO Session, delegates formally adopted a coordinated global marketing campaign to promote the power of tea. The hashtag #TeaPower targets youth, portraying tea as a healthy, plant-based, beneficially bio-active beverage with scientifically demonstrated advantages over rival drinks.

      Peter: We blazed the path of tea and health here in the United States. We made a conscious decision back in the 90s that anything we would say about tea and health had to be rooted in science. Beginning with the urging of Marty Kushner, we embarked on the Tea & Health path. Pollock Communications has been a tremendous partner in coordinating our symposiums and serving as a leader in our Social Media communications. As I said, all of our messaging is rooted in science, and we’ve been lucky to have two key individuals working with us: at the beginning was Dr. John Weisburger, and for the last several years, there has been Dr. Jeffrey Blumberg.

      We’ve held six international symposiums on the science of tea and health, and they’ve all generated interest. They’ve all generated tremendous knowledge about tea and have shown different areas in which tea positively impacts human health.

      So #TeaPower is a marketing effort born out of FAO that sits on a lot of the work we’ve done, not only here in the US but also picked up internationally. I believe everybody at the FAO IGG agrees that tea and health is one of the big levers to press to help drive consumption to help people pick up and take notice that “Oh!” tea is good for you.

      Hashtags
      • #TeaPower #UnlockYourPotential #TeaTime
      • #Flavan3ols #SportAndFitnessBenefitsofTea
      • #YoungerGenerationsHealthAndPerformance
      FAO IGG Collaboration
      FAO IGG Collaboration

      And as you mentioned, there are a lot of bio-actives in tea. It’s plant-based, it’s natural, calorie-free. You have black, green, oolong, white, and dark teas that all come from the same bush; it is just a matter of how it’s processed. And when we use the word process, people need to understand that tea is very lightly processed. It’s not that we’re adding anything. It’s just we’re changing how we manipulate the leaf for the amount of time that we let it sit in a room to oxidize. The whole process is natural.

      This provides another great platform to discuss why it is healthy and how consuming as little as two or three cups of tea throughout the day can positively impact human health.

      So yeah, I’m excited.

      The FDA is very clear on what you can say about the health aspects of any food. The Holy Grail of tea continues to be what is known as a structure-function claim, which says: “If you drink tea, it’ll stop cancer, or if you drink tea, you’ll stop a heart attack. And that’s what we continue to seek. And more and more of the research indicates that we’re on the right path.

      That’s what we hope for in the tea business. That’s why we continue to encourage scientists to study tea, and we’ve seen progress in quite a few areas of human health.

      We just need some more studies to get us to the endpoint.

      International Tea Day 2024

      The Working Group on Tea & Health has the opportunity to use the established science to develop language around the topic of sport and fitness, targeting a younger generation as well as the importance of flavan-3-ols in healthy living. The language would include hashtags all organizations could use to amplify the messaging on various media platforms. International Tea Day, 21 May, would provide the perfect platform for the campaign, with all interested parties agreeing to harmonized messaging and campaign timings running up to and culminating on the day of observance.

      Dan: Is there a future for green tea in the US? Is that a style of tea that can expand?

      Peter: It’s a mixed story. Pre 1998, I worked for Unilever / Lipton in the US, and we were probably the largest green tea bag manufacturer and seller, but the total imports into the US were somewhere in the neighborhood of 3% of total tea.

      Then a study about tea drinkers in Japan was published in Reader’s Digest in 1998. That study talked about lowering the incidence of liver cancers, and the only thing they could attribute it to was a particular area in Japan. Shizuoka is the largest green tea growing area in Japan. People there consume much more green tea than the rest of Japan. They had a much lower incidence of that particular cancer, and when it came out in Reader’s Digest well, green tea sales exploded. I mean, you couldn’t find enough green tea to meet consumer demand. During the next few years, you saw a very steep curve. Green tea increased to about 20% of imports over the next four or five years and has been coming down ever since.

      So right now, green tea represents about 14% of tea imported into the US. I really think that, like anything else, you can tell someone that it is good for you until you’re blue in the face, but if it doesn’t taste good, they’re not going to consume it. And green tea just doesn’t fit the Western palate.

      Now a lot of caveats go along with that. Number one is that most people probably make their green tea incorrectly. They probably use the same amount of tea as black tea — you shouldn’t use as much. It would be best if you use about half. They’re probably steeping it in boiling water, which you shouldn’t do. Instead, you should bring the water to a boil and let it cool down to about 185 degrees Fahrenheit. Let it cool before steeping.

      Those two components alone make green tea much more consumable, much less astringent, and far sweeter than you would normally get if you produce it the other way.

      The other thing that people don’t understand about green tea is that there are two ways of fixing green tea or actually stopping the process of oxidation. The Chinese use pan firing on a very hot surface that the tea leaf passes over, destroying the Polyphenol oxidase, which is the ingredient that turns tea from green to black and oxidizes all the other constituent parts of the leaf. The Japanese use steam, and those two processes develop completely different flavor profiles. Japanese tea tends to be far more astringent with a bit more fishy taste, whereas Chinese tea tends to be sweeter and smoother.

      Those two processing elements alone drive a big flavor differential. But to your point, what can help make green tea more accepted? Clearly, we’re seeing the addition of botanicals mellowing out the tea. It’s important to keep enough of the “good stuff” (True Tea) to deliver human health aspects. That is really the way to go. Green tea blends have been well-received for years, but I think there is more interest in tea being blended with mint, or citrus fruits, or rose hips, etc. You’re getting a much more layered offering in terms of taste than you will with just green tea alone.

      It’s very interesting to see the innovation that’s going on right now in green tea and the use of botanicals and other components that help reach the consumer and create a better-tasting, more acceptable product.

      “The overriding concern of everyone in this business is the lack of profit throughout the entire supply chain.”

      – Peter Goggi

      Peter Goggi with Arun Singh, Founder Trustee at Tea Vision Trust
      Peter Goggi with Arun Singh, Founder Trustee at Tea Vision Trust

      Dan: Innovation isn’t an option when facing a diverse, aggressively promoted, competitive marketplace. You must innovate constantly because everybody with a beverage on the shelf is innovating, right?

      Peter: Yeah, I mean, this whole aspect of innovation, bringing new ways of thinking to produce a product, will help drive any industry, not just the tea industry.

      What you’ve been talking about, though, is generally limited to the country in which they’re doing it. I haven’t seen too much of that being exported simply because they haven’t had an opportunity to make as much.

      Peter: Yeah. I mean, this is what I was talking about before this particular project that you’re talking about. What do you have? You have economic sustainability; you have social sustainability. And you have ecological, which follows anyway because they’re probably diversifying their portfolio of crops that they’re growing because now they’re making more money from tea, they can maybe grow maize or something else that will help feed their family.

      You know, I mean, this is exactly what it is, and really, part of that model is copied from the KTDA (Kenya Tea Development Authority), which probably has the strictest plucking standards of any small holder that I can see and guess what, they always get the best prices, you know because they’re two leaves in a bud. And so, this, in my view, addresses several things. Number one is you get better quality. If you produce better quality, you get better prices, and everybody makes more money. But even more importantly, and that’s looking at the larger universe of tea, is that if you’re doing fine plucking, your yields go down, and if your yields go down, that means the balance between supply and demand will come more into play. And then the whole boat gets lifted, to use your metaphor, because a high tide lifts all boats, and that’s what we want.

      If we were in a much closer balance of supply and demand, it would be better, best for everyone. Everyone wins when you have a balance.

      Dan: At the heart of that balance is quality. Cultivate only lands that produce great tea. Then, limit what the factory will accept and process. Buds and a few leaves bring a better price at lower volumes. Leave the coarse leaves to reduce plant stress and minimize sorting costs. Harvest frequently to increase the concentration of tender fresh leaves. Hand pluck in steep terrain at altitude but use more selective optical “smart shears” elsewhere. Mechanization in the field and ahead of the sorting table lowers cost. Cultivate fewer hectares to deliver less to the withering trough. Invest in fermentation cabinets to achieve greater control and more distinctive tasting tea.

      Peter: All great ideas.

      This goes back to how they made tea in the 40s, 50s, 60s, and early 70s. It’s not rocket science, folks. Quality leaf means quality, which means you’re giving the highest potential to the factory to make good tea coming out. And if they treat that leaf well during their manufacturing process, you will have the best possible product. It’s just common sense.

      Dan: Why do you think so much effort, time, and money is being spent on producing a surplus?

      Peter: This is, you know, is one of the things that make you want to shoot yourself in the head. As a consumer nation, we’re saying listen, there’s only so much we can do to drive share of throat. You know, let’s face it, people can only consume X number of liters of liquid a day. That’s it.

      If, at origin, you decide to do just what we said to increase the quality of the pluck, make sure that you don’t chase markets when prices do go up and produce more tea to take advantage of that. Then everything falls into place as we can see in some of these demonstrated models. The challenge is that tea has been in a boom-bust cycle since I’ve been in business, and I got into the business in 1979.

      You can go back and look at historical records, and everything else to find that everybody freaks out whenever the price of tea starts going up. Producers turn on the tap and make more tea. One of the big problems with tea is that overnight, you can produce 20% more leaf just by picking more leaves further down the bush, or you forego pruning. Usually, 20% of your tea bushes are leafless and not producing. Growers stop pruning when prices go up that’s 20% more volume right there. Or you tell the pluckers to go a little bit further down the bush, and suddenly, you have all this lower-quality tea flowing into the market and depressing prices.

      Dan: A factory focused on quality over quantity will say, look, that’s a cheap way to increase volume, but the advantage is lost at auction when tea sells for so much less. A disciplined specialty grower will insist: Unless you give me the top three leaves, volume doesn’t matter.

      Peter: The factory can say that, but the dollar incentive too often overrides logic because there’s an opportunity to make a lot of money quickly.

      They have been under economic pressure for so long that an opportunity has come for them to make money to help fill the voids they’ve been accruing over the last several years. I’d take that opportunity. I mean, that’s just the laws of economics, and whether you like it or not, you feel for them.

      These are things that could be prevented. You mentioned Tanzania, their minister of agriculture came out a few months ago and said they are going to triple production to 90 million kilos by 2030. So, they’re planting new tea. Why? Why are they doing this? I mean, there’s no export demand and no domestic market that can consume all that tea in an effective, profitable way. We’re going to be in trouble for many, many years.

      Peter: Now, each country has its problems, and I don’t want to make snap judgments and say they’re wrong. They’re doing what they think is best for their people. And that’s what counts, but one can’t deny the laws of supply and demand, which is the most overarching issue we’re facing.

      There’s just too much tea in the world; if we can fix that, everything else will fall into place.

      FAO IGG Via Tea Board Of India
      Organizers of the 25th Session | UN FAO IGG TEA

      Related
      Committe on Commodity Problems (24th Session)

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      Episode 154 | Peter Goggi, the UN FAO IGG TEA delegate representing the US in his role as President of the Tea Association of the USA, discusses #TeaPower, a new health and wellness campaign, FAO’s ongoing support of smallholders, and the economics of oversupply. | Episode 154 | | 9 Feb 2024


    • Modern Herbalism from Traditional Medicinals

      Traditional Medicinals is a Northern California-based botanical wellness brand rooted in modern herbalism to inspire active connection to plant wisdom in service of people and the planet. Formulations of more than 60 teas, lozenges, and capsules are strictly limited to science-based botanical ingredients without added flavors and in quantities that meet pharmacopeia standards for efficacy. The company’s single blends and single-herbal infusions are organic, sustainable, and ethically sourced. Traditional Medicinals was launched in 1974, and in recent years, the company has experienced exponential growth as consumer demand fills the sails, expanding distribution from niche natural food stores to mass market outlets. Joining us is Chief Marketing Officer Kristel Corson. She says, “Our teas have been around what seems like forever, but herbals are having their moment, and it is important to educate folks, not just on what has been, but on what medicinal herbalism is today, and it’s very different.”

      Listen to the interview

      Kristel Corson, Chief Marketing Officer
      Kristel Corson, Chief Marketing Officer, Traditional Medicinals
      Kristel Corson, Chief Marketing Officer, Traditional Medicinals

      Harnessing the Power of Plants

      By Dan Bolton

      Kristel joined Traditional Medicinals in 2022 “to focus on building the brand for its next phase of growth, rooted in purpose, and delivering amazing products that harness the power of plants and their many wellness properties.”

      She spent more than 30 years helping beloved brands like Clif Bar, Jamba Juice, Clover Sonoma, and LeapFrog exceed business objectives through a combination of innovative new product launches, strong retail presence, and marketing programs that create positive, lasting consumer connections.

      As chief revenue officer, Kristel helped transform the century-old Clover Stornetta brand from a values-based regional dairy to a nationally recognized conscious-consumer and mission-driven product innovator. Kristel earned a BS in Business Administration with a concentration in Marketing from San Francisco State University.  

      “We’ve got a full innovation team thinking up all the different ways to bring these amazing herbs to consumers, make them more accessible, and help them understand the benefits that they can bring.”

      – Kristel Corson

      Dan Bolton: I am delighted, Kristel, that you joined us today on the Tea Biz Podcast. Will you tell us just a little about yourself?

      Kristel Corson: I’ve worked on consumer-packaged goods for over 30 years. About 20 years ago, I found my passion through working for brands driven by multiple bottom lines, more purpose-driven brands that have an impact, and a mission to do better in the world.

      I started with Traditional Medicinals about 15 months ago, and they are the most purpose-driven, impact-driven brand out there, at least that I have come across.

      It is primarily tea. However, our focus is plant medicine and bringing plant medicine out into the world in an accessible way to help with everyday wellness.

      We’ve recently launched lozenges and are looking at different ways to bring this plant medicine, but our mainstay is teas. That’s what started the company about 50 years ago.

      High quality herbal wellness

      Throat Coat

      Dan: Good Housekeeping recently named Throat Coat a category winner in coffee and tea. The kitchen lab experts and more than 1000 consumer testers were tasked with finding the most innovative, high-performing products. They chose a tea that has been around since the 1970s. The citation by the judges encapsulates several modern trends: “Warm liquids can be soothing, and this blend from Traditional Medicinals is designed to support throat health. It smells sweet and like licorice. It’s also slightly woody. It’s organic, and the brand is B-Corp certified,” said Good Housekeeping’s team of experts.

      Kristel: Consumers look to Good Housekeeping because they use consumer panels, they really do their research, and to have Throat Coat called out, as, you know, one of the best teas out there is amazing.

      Throat Coat is a product that has been around almost since its inception. It wasn’t one of the original teas, but it came out soon after. The tea helps your throat while you’re sick or when you’re hoarse, but it’s a tea that’s just for overall throat health.

      Throat Coat has been getting much recognition lately, but for many years, several artists out there, musicians in particular, seem to love Throat Coat.

      Throat Coat
      In 2020, the company built a 125,000-square-foot distribution facility in Virginia.

      Dan: The uplift from niche natural grocery and health food stores to the mass market was underway before the pandemic but has since accelerated. In 2020, Traditional Medicinals spent $30 million building a 125,00 sq. ft. distribution facility near the Port of Virginia to serve East Coast customers. What is propelling the brand forward?

      Kristel: Well, Traditional Medicinals, as you noted, has always been rooted in plant medicine. We only use medicinal-grade herbs in our teas. We don’t use any flavorings or anything but the true herb.

      This is one of the things we pride ourselves on in trying to introduce the true taste of herbs to consumers. We have a full staff of R&D [Research and Development] scientists and naturopath doctors who understand these herbs, their qualities, and their flavors.

      We create our medicinal herbs, formulas, and blends like Throat Coat, whose key ingredient is the slippery elm, a tree bark from Appalachia that soothes throats. It’s a blend incorporated with many other herbs that provide medicinal benefits, like licorice, which also gives it a nice taste. And so we’re very proud that we can bring that efficacy to our teas with blends that consumers like as well.

      Early 1970s range
      Early 1970s range

      Dan: In its Food Trends for 2024 report, Whole Foods Market named Traditional Medicinals as an example of a women’s health trend labeled “From Taboo to Top-of-Mind.”

      “We’re seeing more brands making products to support periods, pregnancy, postpartum, menopause, and even sleep that address life stages and symptoms previously swept under the rug,” writes Whole Foods.

      Traditional Medicinals co-founder Rosemary Gladstar was selling Mother’s Milk lactation tea 50 years ago. The line now includes Raspberry Leaf Tea for menstrual relief, Pregnancy Tea, and Morning Ease for morning sickness.

      Advanced R&D
      Advanced R&D capabilities

      Kristel: Medicinal-grade herbs have been used for thousands of years to help women through the different stages of their lives. Herbs help with hormonal balance. You mentioned Mother’s Milk, which is one of our original teas. It helps women who are nursing to produce more milk. One of the most recent trends is an herb called raspberry leaf. That is our very popular tea to help women with their menstrual cycles.

      One of the things we do at Traditional Medicinals is develop products that can become part of your everyday wellness cycle.

      Going to the doctor and getting pharmaceutical drugs is necessary from time to time, but daily for overall wellness, herbs have a place in today’s world.

      Dan: So, how’s business?

      Kristel: Our business is going wonderfully. We continue to see double-digit growth, year on year. I think it is about being in the right time and place. Post-COVID, people have taken a hard look at their overall health and wellness and have made changes.

      The younger generations are much more into plant-based products in general. Herbal tea is one of those. I think that herbal tea is something that consumers, for a relatively low cost, can bring into their daily lives and take better care of themselves.

      What’s unique about Traditional Medicinals is how we source the product.

      We’re organic, but many of our products are also Fairtrade certified. We try to bring to light how important it is for the producers and growers and the people who collect the herbs to be treated fairly. Within the retail space, consumers are asking for not only good quality products, but also products that are made fairly and ethically.

      As we turn 50, we are seen as offering a product that connects with consumers’ needs. And when you connect with consumers, retailers want you. Our roots were in the natural products industry. We were in health food stores originally, with little mom and pops, and then Whole Foods took us on, leading to other retailers like Sprouts. In the last ten years, we’ve stepped into the mainstream with the likes of Kroger, Publix, Walmart, and Amazon.

      It was old school to think that if you were a true natural product, you would stay in the natural channel. We believe we’re trying to bring plant medicine to the world, to all consumers, so that they can bring it into their daily lives.

      On display
      On display

      That connection and working with retailers to prove the case over the years that herbal teas deserve a spot on the shelf is something that we’re very focused on and very successful. Today, we’re the number one herbal wellness tea.

      Dan: You’ve seen significant online sales growth. Will you describe the role online played in transitioning to mainstream? Sales spiked in 2020. How are online sales now?

      Kristel: online sales definitely went through the roof during COVID. Selling online offers a different experience for the consumer versus brick and mortar.

      When they find you online, you can often tell the story of your products. You can go deep with pictures, articles, and videos so the consumer can be much more educated. And so, by being educated, especially with something like a Traditional Medicinals tea that has so much behind it, you know, it’s a dietary supplement, which FDA regulates. We have several certifications, which are all third-party accredited. People can read about this, get steeped in that information, and make a much better choice.

      Online retailers make it easy for you to subscribe. A lot of them offer discounts if you subscribe. And it becomes part of a consumer’s pantry.

      Convenience is a huge part. You can go online at any time to buy a product, but for us, what we’ve been able to do is tell our story. We’ve provided consumers with in-depth information about how we make our teas, where we get our teas, our ethical sourcing, and everything that we believe in that supply chain side.

      Consumers get to read reviews. And so you know, not only do you hear from the company and everything they bring forward, but many of our top products have amazing reviews that help consumers hit that “Buy Box” when they’re shopping online.

      Active website
      Educational website

      Dan: Renewed interest in herbal infusions and condition-specific and functional teas are trends that will be long-lived. And how do you see the evolution of Traditional Medicinals?

      Kristel: We talk a lot about new products within the four walls of Traditional Medicinals. We are rooted in plant medicine and bringing that to the forefront for consumers.

      Tea will always be the core of the brand because of its ability to deliver plant medicine in a way that people can consume easily. It also gives you that sense of daily ritual to take care of yourself; tea provides an entire experience.

      But as we look to the future, we also see that we can bring plant medicine to consumers in our organic lozenges under the Throat Coat brand, which is already amazing at retail. People recognize the Throat Coat as something that they’ve had in their pantry for years to help with their throat, but now in a more convenient way.

      A lozenge is the perfect product, but there are so many more.

      The future is this combination of continuing education, fair and ethical sourcing, and finding new ways to bring plant medicine to consumers. 

      And so, we’re excited. We’ve got a full innovation team thinking up all the different ways to bring these amazing herbs to consumers, make them more accessible, and help them understand the benefits that they can bring.

      We categorize our teas in two different areas; we have the ones that we’re most known for: Throat Coat, Smooth Move, and Mother’s Milk; these are all teas that the herbalist formulates. They’re all blends. And they are put together to provide specific medicinal benefits.

      But we also have a whole line of what we call single herbs. These we bring straight to the consumer. Peppermint is an example. We educate them on the fact that peppermint is amazing for digestion. We state that on the packaging and discuss the functional benefit each of our teas brings.

      Consumers can study the shelves and figure out what they need most in their daily lives. When Traditional Medicinals brought forth these medicinal-rated herbs, they honored traditions passed down for thousands of years. In addition, we explain ethical sourcing and how we respect collectors and producers. We’ve been a leader in the Fairtrade movement.

      The next level is our Fair for Life certification, which examines the entire supply chain and how we bring products to market. The emphasis is on “responsible supply chains” that incorporate long-term vision. Fair for Life was created in 2006 by the Swiss Bio-Foundation and taken over by Ecocert in 2014.

      As we look to the next 50 years, in addition to educating consumers on plant medicine, we strive to be a role model for other companies doing business in the most ethical way possible. We’re very proud of that.


      Photos are courtesy of Traditional Medicinals. Thanks to Kristel for sharing.

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      Episode 151 | Traditional Medicinals is a Northern California-based botanical wellness brand rooted in modern herbalism to inspire active connection to plant wisdom in service of people and the planet. Formulations of more than sixty teas, lozenges, and capsules are strictly limited to science-based botanical ingredients without added flavors and in quantities that meet pharmacopeia standards for efficacy. Chief Marketing Officer Kristel Corson says, “Our teas have been around what seems like forever, but herbals are having their moment, and it is important to educate folks, not just on what has been, but on what medicinal herbalism is today, and it’s very different.”

    • World Tea Academy Partners with Australian Tea Masters to Refresh Online Curriculum

      World Tea Academy is making a fresh start in the new year, unveiling a new website and a refreshed portfolio of online and on-demand classes at lower fees. The curriculum spans the interests of tea enthusiasts and offers five certifications for those employed in tea. Australian Tea Masters Founder Sharyn Johnston designed the new curriculum and developed the website. She is with us today to talk about joining forces with Questex, owners of the World Tea brand. “This partnership marks a landmark moment for us, offering an extraordinary opportunity to showcase our deep commitment to tea education on a global stage,” she said.

      • Certifications include Tea Specialist, Tea Professional, Tea Sommelier, Tea Health Expert, Tea Blender, and Tea Aroma Expert.

      Listen to the interview

      World Tea Academy Head of Tea Education Sharyn Johnston
      World Tea Academy Head of Tea Education Sharyn Johnston
      World Tea Academy Head of Tea Education Sharyn Johnston (CEO Australian Tea Masters)

      Low-Cost Foundation Course is Key to Training Baristas

      By Dan Bolton

      Sharyn Johnston is the newly named head of education at World Tea Academy. She was the founder in 2011 and remains CEO of Australian Tea Masters, a global resource for tea training, tea blending, tea consultancy, and tea education in Australasia. Sharyn has authored two handbooks on tea, one defining the role of the sommelier and the other explaining the basics of tea blending. She is a skilled taster who buys, sells, and blends millions of kilos of tea annually as the head of Australian Tea Masters Wholesale and Blending—the company’s trading arm. With offices in Singapore, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia, it was launched in 2017.

      Sharyn is a member of the advisory board and Head Judge of “Tea Masters Cup International.” Sharyn has traveled to more than 20 countries, where she often speaks at conferences and festivals attended by tea enthusiasts and professionals. Tea Masters offers a portfolio of approximately 30 tea courses across all sectors with a strong focus on specialty teas.  Australian Tea Masters has organized and will operate the newly updated education platform the World Tea Academy uses.

      “This partnership marks a landmark moment for us, offering an extraordinary opportunity to showcase our deep commitment to tea education on a global stage.”

      – Sharyn Johnston

      Dan Bolton: What do you enjoy most about teaching people about tea?

      Sharyn Johnston: Number one is the people I meet worldwide when we run a class; they’re all so different. They’ve all got different likes and dislikes in tea and different backgrounds. It’s just a great opportunity to travel, meet people, and learn more about tea every day; I always learn something new myself.

      I’ve gone to origin in so many different countries, I’ve trekked around the tea farms, I’ve met the small farmers, I have put a huge amount of energy in the last seven to eight years with at least half a year each year I have spent traveling to tea farms and meeting the people at the ground level. I wanted to experience making tea with them and understanding the processes. I want to be able to share that through education. That will probably be my big focus, showing the real world of tea, not the commercial world, but showing the real world of tea through education.

      Dan: Tim McLucas, VP and Market Leader of the Bar & Restaurant Group at Questex, writes that Australian Tea Masters is “uniquely positioned to support the growing demand for online tea education, plus provide new opportunities for professionals to meet and learn in person and connect face to face with the tea community including producers, retailers, suppliers, and other key industry stakeholders.”

      I hold World Tea in high regard, and as the first editor and publisher of World Tea News, I have followed their competitions and education programs since they were created.

      It sounds to me like you are well-paired in this new venture.

      World Tea Academy Head of Tea Education Sharyn Johnston
      Sharyn Johnston

      Sharyn: Oh, thank you. I’m honored to have been asked to collaborate with The World Tea Academy. Twelve or 13 years ago, when I started in tea, I went to the World Tea Expo to try and learn more about tea. I was so impressed with the classes; having people together all love tea was such a great experience.

      I’ve attended almost every World Tea Expo since then, and I’ve always loved it, so I can’t believe I have this opportunity to work with and collaborate with World Tea Academy. I see great opportunities in the education side of tea.

      Dan: How will you differentiate your program from others? I’d like you to share your vision of how the academy might evolve with readers.

      Sharyn: We’ve built a new website that is very modern, enhanced all the content, and added more than 1,000 new photos, images of tea plantations, and things like that. We’ve got a long way to go.

      We’ve got some amazing ideas for the future, and we want to build on that. One of the things we’ve already introduced is a new Basic Foundation course in tea.

      That was one of the important things missing from the academy curriculum. We developed the world’s first tea 101 course online about nine years ago before it was the thing to do. And we’ve just had so many positive comments from that course over the years.

      World Tea Academy Foundation Course
      World Tea Academy Foundation Course

      Dan: The Foundation Course is only $85. It is a self-paced course in eight lessons that covers a broad range of topics from tea types and origins to cultivation and processing, brewing techniques, and tasting tips, as well as ceremonies and culture, serving etiquette, health benefits, and even food pairing.

      Why is basic education in tea needed more now?

      Sharyn: If you look at coffee, the specialty coffee industry has gone from instant to granulated freeze-dried coffee to professional baristas.

      When people walk into a cafe and want to know about a coffee product, where it comes from, how it is processed, and how to prepare it, all that information is available.

      We’re still so far behind in tea. Go into a café and the only thing you usually get offered is English breakfast, Earl Grey, Peppermint, or Chamomile. And that’s why education is critical to the tea industry moving forward.

      We want to change that. We want World Tea Academy to be the best education platform in the world and to have a lot of exciting content so that we inspire younger people. I think that’s the key to moving forward. So that’s one of the things we want to focus on: how can we make tea a bit trendier and easier to understand? We want to share the amount of different teas out there and how fascinating tea can be.

      We’ve got some really good ideas, especially on the specialty side, that we’ll release in the next month or so. That’s one of my key focus areas.

      World Tea Academy Core Courses
      World Tea Academy Core Courses

      Dan: Retailers rely on well-trained staff. Kevin Gascoyne, a partner at Camellia Sinensis in Montreal, told me that the amount of information most clients need is quite small. But he said, “All this in-depth information helps to drive the company culture and inspire the staff to sell it.  It keeps their geekiness and enthusiasm for the product alive. It also drives that percentage of the tea-drinking population that is really thirsty to know more and more because it’s become an intellectual, learning, and collecting hobby, not just a gourmet hobby of consuming.”

      Sharyn: We are so grateful to the coffee industry because the baristas are already there. They already understand what it takes to educate people in specialty coffee. If we can educate the baristas, many are already doing pour-overs, and they are using AeroPress. They’re using all the modern tools for serving coffee to brew tea. We’ve been doing this now for, you know, for four or five years in Australian Tea Masters. We’ve been educating our students in using the alternative brewing methods that they use for coffee with tea. So, you don’t need to go and get an extra tea person. Often, these businesses can’t afford to hire a tea specialist, so we must try to train the hospitality staff.

      We want to show them their options without changing how they do things in the cafe.  For example, they can serve tea using coffee equipment. When I did one of the classes last year in Singapore, we put tea in the group heads on the espresso machine and ran some trials, and it was quite an amazing experience. So, there are lots of things that just haven’t been done. And I think once you show the baristas or the staff in a cafe, they’ll be excited when they realize what can happen with tea.

      It becomes easy to serve tea with just a bit of knowledge. This is where the Foundation Courses are very important because the Foundation Course will give a barista some good basic knowledge about tea, and that’s why we’ve chosen that to be one of the priorities. It is also a great tool for beginners in tea and the public.

      So yes, I think the people are already there — they just need to be educated. We don’t need to go and look for people; we need to utilize the people already there within the hospitality sector. Of course, don’t forget the bar staff. The idea of integrating Bar and Hospitality with the World Tea Expo is a great opportunity to cross over into education.

      Dan: I experienced that in Australia, where shop owners present themselves as specialty beverage retailers instead of dedicated tea or coffee shops. There was always an expresso machine and a selection of high-quality tea. Retailers assume their customers prefer premium beverages of all types.

      Sharyn: The American market is very different. I’ve educated tea enthusiasts and professionals in many countries, and consumer preferences in each country are very different. Take Singapore; we have offices there, and flavor profiles for clients are very different than flavoring levels in the US. Australia, in contrast, prefers minimal flavor levels. You also have as much as 30 to 40% higher flavor levels in the US and Canada. There’s a big gap compared to the specialty tea market, where you’re trying to have pure teas. Flavored teas are a great stepping stone to more sophisticated teas. I think there’s a massive opportunity for the specialty tea market now.

      World Tea Academy Advanced Courses
      A sample of the 14 Advanced Courses offered by World Tea Academy

      Dan: You’ve designed it to be broad-based. Who benefits from this training?

      Sharyn: I think the hospitality sector, you know, number one.

      The basic course is for the general public and the hospitality sector, so they will start asking questions like: Why can’t we have good quality tea?

      So, education in general. Just educate them to realize that tea is quite an easy beverage to serve, and hopefully, with a bit of knowledge, there’s some new excitement happening. Also, educate them about the varieties; I mean, we literally have thousands of different tea types available, so we have so many opportunities to excite people.

      Dan: In announcing the refresh, Questex said there will be new opportunities to conduct face-to-face training. I owe a lot to STI volunteers like Suzette Hammond, who invested thousands of hours in face-to-face instruction. Norwood Pratt once told me that to really understand tea, “each one, tea one.”

      Sharyn: I’ve been teaching mostly face-to-face for the last ten years. We did develop the online course about eight years ago, but, you know, all our courses are about tea mastery in the modern sense of tea mastery. You know, this is one of the reasons I got involved in education. I tried to learn about tea. It was just so difficult to learn about the global perspective of tea in one location, and that is where we really want World Tea Academy to be the best education platform in the world.

      You could go to China and learn about their teas, and you could go to Sir Lanka to learn about their teas, but pulling it all together was very difficult.

      So, I think that has been helpful. And we will continue with those face-to-face classes. We still hold those classes in Singapore, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and Australia. But you know, the thing is, people are busy these days. So online is very helpful. We want to make the courses much more self-paced so they can really sit and relax and enjoy their education online.

      They both have their place. They’re both very important. And, well, the World Tea Expo is still a great venue for people to come in and have a great experience, cram knowledge for two to three days, and learn a lot about tea.

      I will be there. This year is exciting, of course. And it’ll be exciting to see the new speakers that they’ve got because they always manage to pull a good lineup of speakers. Anyone interested in tea will find it a great place to go.

      Photos are courtesy of Australian Tea Masters — all screenshots are from the World Tea Academy website.

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      Episode 150 | Australian Tea Masters CEO Sharyn Johnston, the new Head of Education at World Tea Academy, says her company built a modern online education platform with enhanced content for the Academy to train waitstaff and advance the quality of specialty tea in food service. “One of the things we’ve already introduced is a new Basic Foundation course in tea. We’ve got some fantastic ideas for the future, and we want to build on that,” she said.

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