• Natural Tea Energy

    In the ready-to-drink category, tea-focused brands like ITO EN are innovating. Instead of concentrates and solubles, line extensions are brewed from whole leaves from sustainably grown tea and offered in recyclable packaging. Rona Tison, Executive Vice President of ITO EN North America, joins Tea Biz to discuss what makes tea the ideal base for function-enhancing blends that appeal to health-conscious consumers.

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    Rona Tison, executive vice president ITO EN North America

    New matcha and green functional tea blends from ITO EN

    RTD Teas Formulated for Function

    By Dan Bolton

    Ready-to-drink tea, both refrigerated and shelf-stable, generated $4.2 billion in sales in the US multi-outlet channel last year. RTD is the fastest growth segment in tea. Volume increased 40% globally between 2011 and 2016 rising to 37 billion liters. Sales are predicted to generate $25 billion a year globally by 2024, according to Market Research Future. In the US, the RTD segment is a battle of titans dominated by Lipton, PepsiCo, whose Pure Leaf brand is the top seller and Coca Cola (marketing Peace Tea, Honest Tea, Gold Peak); along with Snapple and AriZona.

    Cross category tea blends known as hybrids bridge traditional retail categories such as energy and refreshment; and have successfully carved out space on the shelf next to functional beverages as low-sugar organic, clean label alternatives to fortified waters and juice. Delivering a plant-powered matcha energy drink formulated with functional ingredients such as superfood acerola and yuzu for immunity, ginseng for focus, and ginger and honey to soothe ITO EN’s newly launched matcha LOVE ENERGY + (plus), provides a clean and natural energy boost with 50 milligrams of caffeine and L-theanine in an 8.28 fluent ounce can that is priced at $2.49

    Dan Bolton: Rona, when many tea brands are introducing herbals and herbal infusions, ITO EN has shown a solid commitment to traditional tea and tea blends. Will you share with listeners how the new matcha LOVE ENERGY + line maximizes tea’s inherent health benefits before adding plant-based enhancements to the shot?

    Rona Tison: Ito En’s expertise and legacy are really in green tea. Not a botanical but the Camellia sinensis plant that has not been oxidized, unlike black tea that is fully oxidized. As a vertically integrated company, we work very closely with the tea farmers tending to the soil, cultivating the tea leaf. And unique to Japan, the Japanese green tea leaves are steamed right after harvesting. This stops the oxidation and it helps preserve all the great health benefits as well as the properties of the tea leaf particularly important to taste and aroma.

    We were the innovators of the first unsweetened ready-to-drink green tea, a feat that was said to be impossible because, of course, green tea would oxidize. So, after years of research, we were able to introduce a bottled green tea that captured the optimal moment of enjoyment as if you were having a freshly brewed cup of green tea. And this revolutionized tea drinking. Even in Japan, the younger generations weren’t taking the time to steep leaf tea as their parents were. They were much more mobile on the go and so this convenient, on-the-go, ready-to-drink green tea changed how tea was enjoyed even in Japan. Our bottled Oi Ocha just celebrated its 32nd year. It’s been exciting to see the impact this has had on the modern lifestyle.

    Dan: Will you describe these plant-based enhancements?

    Rona: Our matcha brand has been doing incredibly well but we wanted to take it one step further and have a beverage that had more functionality, particularly given these times of the global pandemic. So, we decided to create a clean energy drink, that is plant-based powered with green tea and matcha, which has the goodness in the vitality of the green tea leaf. Each functional ingredient enhances this goodness by boosting immunity, or focus or it soothes. As you are aware, many energy drinks today do not have such healthy ingredients. So we’re excited to be able to introduce a clean energy drink that gives you the benefits as well as tastes delicious. And that, of course, is first and foremost, people are very conscious about boosting their health and wellness, particularly in these times.

    So, with that in mind, we created the three flavors: immunity, which helps maintain your defenses, with the superfruit as the acerola, and yuzu, which is a Japanese citrus, that is very high in vitamin C. Focus is matcha, combined with the ginseng and blueberry that empowers mental clarity and focus. Soothe helps kind of soothe body and mind. It’s made with the honey and ginger.

    Japanese Yuzu

    All share a base of green tea and matcha, which provides the natural caffeine balanced with the amino acid, L-theanine, which is very high in green tea. Together you experience a sense of calm with alertness. Combined with the caffeine and L-theanine, this is a very clean and healthy energy drink with none of the unhealthy ingredients that you can’t pronounce that are artificial and synthetic. Matcha LOVE ENERGY + has healthy clean ingredients, and only 50 milligrams of natural caffeine balanced with the L-theanine. This amino acid gives you a sense of calm and alertness, so you get your nice gentle boost, but it keeps you grounded throughout the day.

    Matcha Love Energy

    Dan: Consumer research confirms that drinks that deliver an energy boost are a top priority. In Europe, a survey of 5,000 consumers [conducted for Germany-based Beneo] revealed that half are looking for food and drink products to help them make it through the day. Eight-of-10 of those aged 18-34 said they seek energy-boosting products, but with safe concentrations of caffeine and without synthetic flavors, sweeteners, colors, and preservatives.

    Rona: There’s been a huge increase in the plant-based lifestyle, as more and more consumers are embracing a life of health and wellness. And, of course, tea is the original plant-based beverage. I don’t know if your are aware that it was actually in Japan that functional foods first were introduced. In the 1980s, a grant was given to research functional foods, which in Japan are regulated under The Japanese Ministry of Health established regulatory oversight for functional foods known as ‘Foods for Specified Health Use’ (FOSHU)* in 1991. So, we thank Japan for the fact that they’re functional beverages or functional foods.

    It’s always been a priority for ITO EN to bring healthy beverages to the forefront. Our five guiding principles have always been natural, healthy, safe, well designed, and delicious. So, whenever we conceptualize and develop products, it has to be within these five principles. And so, we’re excited about our Matcha LOVE ENERGY + line joining our portfolio of green tea beverages and award-winning teas tea organic line, which is known for its clarity and clean finish.

    Our traditional Oi Ocha line, which is very much an authentic green tea taste, refreshing. All green teas have antioxidants, the catechins EGCG and a multitude of vitamins to include the daily vitamin C. So given these times of the global pandemic, where people are thinking and prioritizing their health and immunity, it’s pretty exciting that we’ve been able to introduce this hybrid beverage that not only tastes good but has functional properties.

    *The Japanese scientific academic community defined ‘functional food’ early in the 1980s. That is, functional foods are those that have three functions. The primary function is nutrition. The secondary function is a sensory function or sensory satisfaction. The third is the tertiary function, which is physiological.

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  • Is Tea Divisible?

    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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  • Defining Specialty Tea

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

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

    A field of tea in Japan

    A New Definition of Specialty Tea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Dan – How will this definition make a difference?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Related: Is Tea Divisible?

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

    The Definition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The European Speciality Tea Association

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

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

    David Veal

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