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Time to Set a Benchmark and Define Specialty Teas?

Tea consumption has surpassed coffee consumption in bottom, from premium grade single-origin to various quality the world and further growth will be driven by tea’s reported health benefits, by cup convenience and by cup quality. The latter refers to overall quality improvement and moreover to the continued discovery of high-end specialty teas grown in the many origin countries.

Tea market operators and tea experts tout the specialty tea segment’s huge potential for incremental consumption, and tea education and tea sommelier trainings focus on premium grade specialty teas, yet there is neither an agreed definition nor a benchmark for these teas.

Time seems to have come to investigate this important issue and to table proposals for discussion with the ultimate target set up a global concept. Two existing models could help to structure an approach:

  • The coffee industry has segmented its market into a mainstream cup and a specialty cup by creating SCAA and SCAE more than 20 years ago;
  • The Chinese tea industry has an approved list of registered terroir teas that have to comply with a set of precise requirements and prove the ancientness of their traditional characteristics in order to be included.

Riding on the specialty coffee wave has allowed Starbucks to create their current 18,000 stores, has generated the “Alliance of Coffee Excellence” and the “Cup of Excellence” program, which is not only for the satisfaction of Western consumers, but also for more added value and better rewards for the coffee farmers.

In China, the longstanding awareness of the exceptional quality of special terroir teas has revived the premium tea auctions, where small batches fetch astronomic prices of more than USD $20,000 for 500gr of a terroir tea spring pick, or around USD $100,000 for a 375gr cake of vintage Puer tea.

Why would the North American and European tea market not build on these models to set up their own structure of definitions and rules? Indeed agreeing on a core definition for specialty tea would enable the classification of all the other teas within appropriate categories, ranking them from top to bottom, from premium grade single-origin to various quality grades for mainstream teas.

The return of the Chinese tea production towards their many traditional terroir teas as well as their recent and massive replanting in new areas, the longstanding traditional terroir teas from India and Sri Lanka, and the introduction of Chinese-type teas like Wulongs and white teas in other countries such as India, Sri Lanka, Kenya or Rwanda, all make it a challenging trip into uncharted areas—but they also underline the need for rules, definitions, reference and benchmarking data.

Why not agree that a specialty tea has to provide:

  • the Place it comes from (Origin), which should be a named and limited terroir, a region, village, hill side, estate, a special place—P1;
  • the Plant it was picked from, a specific botanical variety,
    there are thousands of them, which have naturally adapted to specific environments or have been developed through crossbreeding or by science—P2;
  • the Period and way of Plucking, be it first flush, monsoon, winter frost and whether it is “bud only,” bud and one leaf, etc.—P3;
  • the Process, be it parching, steaming, sun drying, wet piling or long-term storage—P4.

All specialty tea should have these 4Ps properly attached to them with full transparency from the bush to the cup. And then incorporate all the other tea categories, the traditional ones and the new tea types, by ranking them down to their number of “P” indications, with the mainstream grades to follow. Such a rank- ing scheme will introduce better transparency, will allow for the assessing of cup quality within homogenous product categories, and will help consumers to understand why they have to pay more for specialty teas.

Let’s open the discussion and clarify the concept of specialty teas.

Editor’s note: Barabara was the first to bring up this issue, in Tea ans Coffee Trade Journal, July 2014. It is only fitting that her article should be the first published here.


Barbara Dufrêne, editor of La Nouvelle Presse du Thé, Paris, France, is a tea consultant and tea writer. Trained as a lawyer, she was in charge of the European Tea Committee from 1992 to 2004.
Barbara Dufrêne

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