New York’s Tea Drunk tea house is normally bustling with tea lovers gathered to sip and learn. Since opening in 2013, founder and Tea Master Shunan Teng, an accomplished speaker and tea educator, shared her knowledge by telling stories of her annual buying trips while pouring tea for customers at the shop’s beautiful tea bar. Last March, Shunan, who normally spends three months a year with heritage growers in China, was grounded – worse yet, her thriving business was locked down.
Online Tea Education Club in a Class All its Own
Dan Bolton: Shunan, what inspired you to create the online Educational Tea Club, a $50-per-month subscription service that delivers tea samples to home-bound tea lovers?
Shunan: When the pandemic hit it was mandatory close downs so we couldn’t really share tea with our guests anymore in person. There was this need to somehow stay connected and offer tea lovers this kind of tasting experience. Tea is a shared experience, right?
We always had an educational key club before. What we did was send people extensive ratings on featured teas.
Dan: Since the onset of the pandemic, tea retailers have created many virtual tea experiences. How does your program differ from other online courses?
Shunan: Everybody was, you know, trying to create content virtually.
We decided to create tea courses that bring a lot of essential information about the origin, the cultivar and also the processing of the tea. We supplement that with two virtual tastings that we host each month.
Our club has two tiers. The the first explores true origin Chinese teas that are historically famous. This is a great way for people to get into tea.
We also have a higher tier.
Those teas are to be had once in a lifetime. They represent some amazing vintages.
When I talk about where the tea comes from, I don’t mean ‘I drink Chinese tea’ versus Japanese tea or say, ‘I like teas from Yunnan’. We consider basically all the external environment that might affect the tree itself from the slope and direction of the sun and how the sunlight is actually dispersed which leads to temperature differences.
There’s so many different things, a whole checklist of things — all the external things that affect the tea itself.
Dan: You described a growing level of consumer awareness and appreciation for heritage tea and interest in what you call the “geeky” aspects of cultivation and production of ancient teas.
Shunan: The core competence of Tea Drunk as a company is our tea. We don’t do just any tea.
Gimmicky terms, such as “fair trade,” even organic, and single origin, don’t really apply to the Chinese tea industry. We specialize in historical and historically famous tea.
There is a long history of drinking this tea which means there is so much that we already know and can share. These teas have been highly sought after by generations of connoisseurs.
What we are experiencing is a connection with the past — passed down to us.
In principle tea certification programs have positive impacts but in practice results are highly location-specific and mixed. Farmgate prices generally rise along with gross income, but so do costs that are borne by farmers in about 60 percent of certification programs. Certifications are an imperative for marketers seeking to export tea – third-party certifications soothe the conscience of retailers and consumers, but do they address the needs and interests of tea workers in the communities in which they reside?
Certifications Soothe the Conscience, But Do They Deliver for the Communities Where Workers Reside?
Dananjaya Silva: Third-party certification is popular with EU consumers and elsewhere? How do you earn the trust of buyers without an organic certificate?
Udena Wickremesooriya: I think it’s a tough one because everyone’s used to certification and certification is the easy way to prove you are organic.
It’s how we communicate our authenticity, the authenticity of our story. If you look at CATA (Ceylon Artisan Tea Association), if you look at all of us artisan tea makers we are on ground. We live here at least 20 days per month.
So if you look for one word, its authenticity the authenticity of our story and how we communicate the authenticity of our story. Certification is more than a marketing label. It assures soil and water conservation. It limits deforestation and increases plant diversity.
Silva: Certification is more than a marketing label. It assures soil and water conservation. It limits deforestation and increases plant diversity. What steps does Kaley take as good stewards of the land?
Wickremesooriya: The first thing is being on the ground. There’s a lot of documentation control one can do, for example. I sign off on every invoice that we payout. I know what comes in and what doesn’t. So if you stop stuff coming onto the land, that’s one way of control to ensure that what shouldn’t come into the site doesn’t come.
The second is creating the forest ecosystem, building the soil. We have a diverse mix of forest trees that we plant in between the tea. We also have patches of cinnamon so we bring plant diversity which builds soil. We just started making biochar which will feed into the soil.
The third element is our cows. We have ten of them to make a liquid fertilizer from dung and urine. We apply close to 2000 liters per acre.
Silva: Udena, what are the most pressing challenges facing small producers of premium quality tea.
The very first challenge is marketing. How do we get our teas out there? I’m fortunate that I worked elsewhere before I became a farmer, I have travelled and have a network to leverage, but most farmers are locked on their farm. They don’t produce what the market needs and they don’t know how to get their product out. They don’t know how to build a brand, how to communicate. So marketing is the biggest. The key issue that stops good Sri Lanka artisan tea products from reaching the market and reaching the consumer. So marketing is the biggest.
The second is how we change the mindset of everyone around us to say that the ecosystem is critical and that good leaf is critical because of good qualities made on the soil in the land. And how do you? How do you really manage your bushes? How do you pluck good leaf? This is a second second key aspect.
So the first is marketing, getting a product out and the second is how we grow and source good quality raw material.
The devastation along Japan’s northern coast was near total after the March 11, 2011 T?hoku quake. Four hundred and sixty five thousand people were displaced by a gigantic surge that spawned 40 meter waves towering 133 feet – higher than a 12-story building in some inlets. The toll in lives exceeded 18,000 and the 40 trillion yen in damage that day makes the 9.0 quake the costliest natural disaster in human history.
A Story of Resilience after the T?hoku Quake
Five hundred miles south of the destruction, Yasuharu Matsumoto, vice president of the Kyoto Obubu Tea Farms, called for volunteers to travel north on a mission motivated by kindness.
Ten months after the tsunami the flotsam and rubble remained, with buses and boats precariously balanced on the roof tops of multi-story buildings.
Moved emotionally by the continued suffering of his fellow countrymen months after the quake, he traveled 2,000 kilometers in a packed van in the middle of winter with a merry group of tea growers and volunteers. Their route was haphazard, their days jammed with scheduled and unscheduled stops in villages, nursing homes, relief centers and parking lots. They brought to all the warmth of tea and asked nothing in return.
Matsu: The Caravan continued for three weeks. I visited around 40 places traveling 2,000 kilometers. During the tour I met a lot of victims, I would say casualties, of the Tsunami and I poured for hundreds, sharing more than 1,000 cups of tea with them.
This is what he saw along the way.
Elyse Petersen, a former Peace Corps volunteer, was a student in Hawaii completing work on an MBA with a focus on Japan and a deep fascination with tea when she heard the call for volunteers.
Elyse: The tea Relief Caravan was my first trip to Japan. I landed in Osaka, spent the night with a friend and the next morning I took six different trains to make my way up to Tohoku to a small island village where I met Matsu.
We brought no propaganda, no message, just purely a tea party. We had gone to a nursing home. I remember that it was freezing cold. That was always recurring in my head. How not only sad the event must have been, but just how cold and empty feeling it was during that time.
We were still traveling through places where the damage had not yet been cleaned up so that sadness was in your face every day.
The tea parties brought so much light and happiness to all these communities. We were doing presentations in school classrooms with the children. We were doing them in community centers, having big dance parties and singing parties.
They had so much capacity for happiness. There was not one frowning face at any of these tea parties,” she said.
Petersen has since made tea her life’s work, beginning as an intern at a tea farm in Kyoto and later founding Tealet, a direct-trade tea supplier in Las Vegas.
The ad-hoc relief effort was both chaotic and cathartic. Matsu packed 10 into the van with chase cars joining. He said that he would phone ahead to speak to emergency services providers in the next village. Local media covered the adventure. Some calls were direct from victims, inviting them to visit. The caravan might stop at a bazaar, or brew tea at tables in a parking lot.
At the Namche Bazar, Shunsuke Matsuo, a student skilled in the violin, played selections for the crowd, leading Matsu to dance about in joy.
At each stop grateful recipients signed their name on a poster that was covered with the names of hundreds of survivors by the time the caravan pulled into Tokyo for its final stop in February 2012.
Matsu was 36 at the time. A decade later he poignantly recalls a conversation with one elderly victim.
“I now understand how tea is totally different from water,” he said.
Matsu: One of them told me so. She said that she drank lots of water in the evacuation places. ‘Since the tsunami days I survived, water is essential to life, but today when I drank tea with you, I felt a totally different feeling than drinking water. Just sitting next to you,’ she said, ‘I drank the tea and the tea absorbed [entered] my heart. So, I can live with water, but with tea I can open my heart to you, and I can tell this story to you.’ “
“That’s why tea and water are totally different,” she said.
“That story changed me,” said Matsu, now 47.
“I now know the difference between tea and water. My perception is totally different,” he said. Among the many encounters he recalls, “that conversation had the largest impact on me during the caravan,” he said.
“I now believe more in the power of tea.”
The group spent its last night in Minami-Ashigara before stopping in Tokyo to hold one last tea event “to share our love and hope with the victims in the area,” says Matsu who kept a digital journal from those days. In researching this post I discovered an archived tweet or two.
When I last interviewed him in 2012, Matsu told me that tea is restorative, that it brings relief in difficult times. I now see how he gained this wisdom by serving a thousand cups for a few weeks during a dreary winter as he listened to the venting of the sorrowful stories of those who survived.
A decade has passed and those who survived still live with the ghosts and grief of losing so much on a single day in a single hour. In these trying times I am certain they continue to turn to tea for solace and warmth.
“Tea is relief,” Matsu explained. Sharing a cup of warm tea is sufficient in crisis. Nothing more needs to be done.
Education is the very core of what we do and believe. We aim to become the leading authority in education within the speciality tea sector and will achieve this through awarding recognised, authentic, verified and transparent certification. – David Veal, Executive Director European Speciality Tea Association.
A one-day Introduction to the tea industry’s newest professional certification program will be rolled out in March. Initially 12 European Speciality Tea Association Authorized Tea Certifiers (ATCs) will offer this course. Certifiers are based in Sweden, Denmark, UK, Ireland, Netherlands, and Germany. Covid-19 restrictions mean that training initially will be delivered online. This enables students from anywhere in the world to enroll.
Reviews and beta testing have so far shown very positive and encouraging results.
Alexis Kaae, vice president and Head of Education for ESTA said ‘This will be an inspirational and sensory journey into the newly unearthed world of speciality tea’
Liesbeth Sleijster, one of the initial ATCs from the Netherlands, added “we are launching this course hopefully as we come out of Covid restrictions and it will be like giving birth to tea in a new time.”
Register here if you are interested in becoming an ESTA Authorized Tea Certifier or if you would like to register for the introduction to tea module. Also keep watching for further modules which will be introduced throughout this year and remember that members of ESTA are eligible for discount off the prices of certification. Full information about the Tea Certification Programme will be added to this website very soon.
The Tea Certification Programme
· Instructors are ESTA Authorized Tea Certifiers. They can be individual educators, tea schools or academies, or work for a company.
· The Authorized Tea Certifiers will issue ESTA certificates which, as the programme grows, will become recognized throughout the tea industry as authoritative and synonymous with quality. It is expected that employers will refer to ESTA certification to help them recruit, and individuals will use certification to help their career progression
· The attainment of a certificate will also carry points for the student which when accumulated will help attain the ESTA Diploma
· Apart from the first module, Introduction to Tea, all subjects will be taught and certified at three levels, foundation, intermediate and advanced
· Introduction to Tea will be available from 1st March initially due to current Covid restrictions, on line
· The next modules to be released. later in 2021, will be Camellia sinensis, botanicals, hospitality and tea barista skills, followed by sensory skills, cultivation and processing, starting and running a tea business, sustainability and tea history, culture and ceremony
Marketing is one of the most costly and daunting challenges for rural tea entrepreneurs in emerging markets. Digital marketing necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic adds another layer of complexity.
Since December seven artisan garden owners have combined their resources to present inexpensive virtual garden tours with live cupping attended by as many as 50 qualified buyers from around the world and a least one curious journalist.
The hour-long webinar on Feb. 18, hosted by the Ceylon Artisan Tea Association (CATA) and Kaley Tea Estate, is the third in the series. Buyers from major retail ventures in France, Japan, the U.S., and across Europe saw a brief PowerPoint explaining the association’s history and objectives, then set off on a trek into the tea forest where 150-year-old trees rise 30 to 50 feet toward the sky. The plot, formerly a pruned commercial garden, was abandoned and has since returned to its biodiverse tropical ancestry but this forest canopy is uniquely dominated by tea.
CATA began in 2019 as a collective based on a shared vision that focused on efficient micro-production that, in aggregate, could scale. It is a community-centric model that can be adapted by rural entrepreneurs in many tea lands.
The seven small enterprises have limited resources individually but collectively provide buyers diverse offerings in style and the distinct terroir of Sri Lanka’s growing regions. CATA expects to recruit additional gardens representing Nuwara Eliya, Dimbula, Uva, and Uda Pussallawa in the high mountains, Kandy mid-country, and Ruhuna and Sambaragamuwa in the low altitude coastal zone.
Estates are small. Amba grows its tea on only 30 acres. Neighboring farmers grow the remainder. But the price that Amba pays per kilo for fresh leaves is more than double the average in Sri Lanka. High rates encourage locals to grow tea naturally, adhering as close to organic cultivation as possible.
Last year the pandemic quickly decimated the island nation’s tourism sector. Tea sales to foodservice establishments declined at every level. Growers began the webinar series to maintain existing business relationships and later found ways to attract new buyers globally. Each garden sells most of its tea locally, but for overseas buyers, watching these videos offers tea retailers and wholesalers an alternative to sourcing in person during travel restrictions and mandatory quarantines.
A student intern with promising skills as a videographer followed Kaley Tea director Udena Wickremesooriya through the plucking, rolling, and processing steps, capturing Udena chatting with workers and pointing to innovations such as locally built drying racks and equipment customized to make the creative shapes.
Cuppings and the accompanying tasting notes are critical to effectively market artisanal tea. Seventy-five percent of consumers consider taste the most important consideration in choosing tea. No matter how compelling their brand story, growers rely on sampling to seal the deal, but no one has the time to sample all the tea in the world. Webinars that enable face-to-digital-face interaction and user engagement will likely continue long after the pandemic resides.
The live portion of CATA’s webinar delivered a satisfying glimpse of personality and pride a the cupping table with Kaley Tea Director Udena Wickremoesooriya and Buddika Dissanayaka, Director, Forest Hill Tea, Chaminda Jayawardana, Managing Director, Lumbini Tea Valley, and Neethanjana Senadheera, Production Manager, AMBA Estate. Each presented their best white tea, slurping and commenting. Webinar participants got a close look at the leaf and liquor along with descriptions of the tea.
When evaluating tea, considerations such as the precision of the pluck, discoloration due to oxidation, breakage, and leaf style all contribute to the buyer’s decision. Missing, of course, is the aroma, texture, mouthfeel, aftertaste, and overall organoleptic sensations. Fortunately, all this can be replicated in the buyer’s tasting room.
CATA’s webinars offer something more than samples: clues in the facial expressions, gestures, and the enthusiasm of tasters. The casual but informed banter reminded me of gaggles that formed after competitions like The Golden Leaf India Awards (TGLIA) organized by the United Planters Association of South India (UPASI) and the Tea Board of India.
These events, occasionally judged in Dubai, provided a cadre of international buyers an opportunity to discuss the results of skilled tasting judges such as Kurush Bharucha, tea expertise director and head of Unilever’s research and development, and Yahya Beyad owner of Britannia Tea.
Tasting notes with points awarded for specific characteristics motivate participants and provide bragging rights at dinner but vetting the best of the entire crop year annually also helped everyone to better understand the influence of seasonal dry spells, for example, and provided insights into the improving skills of tea makers. Artisanal innovations continuously break new ground as has been the case for centuries – but now, thanks to webinars and one-on-one tastings, innovations in tea are transmitted globally at the speed of light.
There is an interesting parallel in the growth of the organic tea segment that suggests public cuppings elevate the overall quality of tea. The TGLIA competition dates to 2005, a dozen years after Korakundah Tea Estate, part of the United Nilgiris Tea Estates Company, first produced organic tea.
Japan had begun labeling agricultural products in the 1950s and developed organic certifications by 1999. In 2000 JAS (Japan Agricultural Standard) adopted rules for “organic plant,” “organically grown plant,” “organic farmed,” and “organic” classifications. The United States Department of Agriculture organic program was authorized in 1990 but rules establishing the National Organic Program (NOP) were not finalized until 2002. The European Union first instituted organic rules in 1991 and by 2010 EU established an organic logo along with an indication of origin. During the past few years, all three certifications were harmonized but it will take even longer for consumers to understand the hidden value in organic.
To cash in on consumer fears about food safety and the environment marketers were quick to label certified organic products “superior” and “premium” leading consumers to pay a higher price for non-pesticide, ecologically produced teas, but evading an answer to the question: Does organic tea taste better?
Beginning in 2005 Korakundah won its first TGLIA prize. The garden won again in 2006 and for 15 consecutive years inspiring many growers to follow in their footsteps and demonstrating that organic farmed teas were equal in taste or better than conventionally grown tea.
Korakundah is part of a corporate network willing to invest in certification. Artisan tea growers recognize that third-party certifications help sell — but at a price. The webinars convey the hidden value of community building, educating youth, improving health care. Tea plantations economically purchase and maintain fleets of vehicles to bring their tea to market – Kaley chose not to buy vehicles, hiring trucks driven by villagers whenever tea needs to be transported. At Forest Hill, Buddika involves the villagers by commissioning packaging from them.
Transparency in action?
The webinars are the ideal media for demonstrating transparency. Buyers who witness the impact at origin of their purchases have more compelling visuals than labels on a tin.
Tea Biz Podcast
A survey by the American Marketing Association last year revealed US marketers increased spending on social media by 74%. During the pandemic, investment in social media grew from 13% to 23% of total marketing dollars spent, according to AMA.
Tea marketers increasingly realized that traditional strategies such as advertising and attending tradeshows, while important for branding, convert only a few leads into buyers. This is because consumer expectation has evolved over time, making personalization and customization of marketing strategies essential.
In mid-February, the Ceylon Artisanal Tea Association (CATA), a collaboration of seven Sri Lankan tea farms, hosted their third garden tour webinar. Those who attended travel virtually to see the garden processing facilities at Kaley Tea Estate attend joint live cuppings where they met the principals, and asked questions face to digital face.
Simon Bell, managing director of Amba Tea Estate and a co-founder of the Ceylon Artisanal Tea Association, writes that digital marketing is often one of the biggest challenges for small growers and rural entrepreneurs in emerging markets. In this report, Bell discusses the effectiveness of this new approach.
Tea Biz:CATA has now hosted three online webinars introducing tea producers to buyers globally. Have these webinars been effective in achieving your objectives? How so?
BELL: Absolutely, ironically, for many of the association’s founding members, finding global buyers has never really been a problem. Nearly all tea in Sri Lanka is made in large factories, so when we started producing teas by hand the products themselves were so unusual that many of the world’s best tea merchants actually tracked us down from day one before we’d even begun any marketing. We’ve always had more orders than we can handle. However, with the advent of the global lockdowns, it was apparent that we were going to lose a lot of our sales locally as the market shrunk due to the absence of visiting tourists at hotels and restaurants around the island.
And it seemed like an ideal time to bring our teams to the attention of a wider audience, and frankly, the response has been far greater than we ever expected. In normal times if you asked a tea buyer if they’d like to join a virtual tea tasting where he or she would not even get to taste the tea, I think they would very politely tell you to stop wasting their time and to send them a sample. But with everyone around the world in lockdown, including our own customers, we were amazed that the CEOs, the chief tea buyers of many of the world’s most prestigious tea merchants have been joining the webinars – and are begging us for more.
Perhaps even more important, than simply showing off our teas, what’s great about the webinar format is the ability to tell the story behind the tea. You know when it comes to artisanal teas, it’s the terroir, the climate, the provenance, the social and environmental impact that is so important to our customers in terms of why they love these teas. And so, you know, during the webinars, we walk around the estate we show the plucking, the rolling and the other steps of the process actually happening, and that’s what makes the teas so unique. These videos show you the land and the people behind the tea. And as such, they can say so much more than static images or text.
Tea Biz: Collaborating on projects like the webinar series is one example of small growers pooling resources, explain other ways that banding together benefits buyers.
BELL: I spent much of my career advising small businesses all over the world about the virtues of combining their resources and combining their efforts through associations and cooperatives and so on, not just in tea but in other areas of agriculture, in tourism, in manufacturing and so on.
Our buyers want variety, but they want that variety in terms of terroir and technique. That doesn’t mean that we can’t pool our efforts in virtually every other aspect of operations.
Joint investments in research and development in developing new varieties and planting and testing new varieties in designing new types of equipment that suit our micro-scale teas. In commissioning equipment from engineering companies which wouldn’t be interested if we were just commissioning on our own from joint purchasing of packaging and certification services and other types of inputs like that that would typically only be affordable to larger enterprises. All across the chain, including, you know, making our voice heard with the government we are much better working together than we are separately. And perhaps most importantly, from a buyer’s perspective, we offer the opportunity to pool their purchases and their shipping, lowering costs. Two or three of our members are already working together and jointly shipping product to several customers around the world saving the customers time and money that they otherwise would be spending having to coordinate orders and shipments from multiple suppliers while giving them the variety that their consumers demand.
Ultimately, we hope to be able to offer buyers a one-stop shop where they can order a whole menu of different Ceylon artisanal teas representing all the different varieties in all the different growing regions of Sri Lanka.
Do webinars work?
The novelty of webinars waned from a time when 73% of B2B marketers and sales leaders identified webinars “as the best way to generate high-quality leads” yet 76% of B2B buyers used webinars in 2019. Last year the number of webinars soared, accelerated by the pandemic. Businesses all over the world are using webinars to attract customers, promote products, and build loyalty.
The Big Book of Webinar Stats, published in 2019, found that webinars were most commonly used by software, financial services, and consulting firms. Since that time travel and tourism, real estate, and retail use have increased. Health care webinars surged in the past year. Agriculture has lagged but travel restrictions, the additional costs, and the inconvenience of flying make webinars an ideal opportunity for small tea ventures to inform and attract buyers.