The Pathway to a Definition for Specialty Tea

The international tea industry is struggling to find its footing. The post-colonial plantation model is teetering on collapse as the emerging economies that produce its tea are faced with rising labor costs. Markets must also address the growing demand for higher quality loose leaf tea. Makers, merchants, and consumers of this tea must find its appropriate value and accompanying price in a market context where standards for quality either do not exist, or remain shadowed behind barriers of language and cultural difference.

In response to this uncertainty, the International Specialty Tea Association (ISTA) has extensively researched the formulation of an evaluation process for specialty tea. The organization posits that an evaluation, as outlined in this text, can be used to define ‘specialty tea’ in a way that provides measured quality and an authentic product.

The ISTA’s evaluation is concerned with two objectives: Firstly, to authenticate a tea’s origin beginning with the tea maker, and secondly, to evaluate the skill of the tea maker. In this process, the tea maker is central regardless of the country where the work happens. In so doing, the door is opened to an international context, and favors — but is not limited to — small producers.

The purposes of this evaluation are threefold: to preserve high-quality traditional tea making, to raise the standard of product information that travels down the supply chain to tea industry professionals and consumers, and to disambiguate the consumer market for ‘specialty’ tea.

Traditional tea making is in need of preservation as an art. There is little debate that traditional tea making results in superior quality. Encroachment exists in the tension between quality and quantity. For example, in China, where traditional tea making techniques are the most widespread, there is government pressure to plant high yield cultivars like Dabaihao and Longjing 43, which choke off traditional cultivars with limited yield. In other regions, the rising cost of labor leads the way to fully mechanized production according to industry forecasts. Currently, the market plays a very limited role in counteracting the process because of a pervasive lack of transparency. Merchants and consumers often only see (and taste) that their tea is changing, but have little understanding of what accounts for the change. Tea makers who invest the time, effort, and skill to use traditional techniques will find little reward for it if our industry does not aid in identifying them.

A viable specialty tea market can be developed by raising the bar for tea professionals. This can be achieved by providing education to increase the knowledge and skills necessary to establish a repeatable evaluation of quality. It will take time for producers to start supplying the expanded information that ISTA is suggesting, and tea companies may also be resistant to change.

Finally, a definition is necessary to make the term ‘specialty tea’ meaningful to a consumer. Currently, the term ‘specialty tea’ in marketing communicates ambiguity. In the North American and European tea industries, the term implies quality only in a vague way. In India, the term can mean a category of tea types, including green, white, and oolong teas — nearly any type of tea except commodity production black tea. The term is not used at all in the Chinese tea industry. The vague term allows the tea market to lump truly quality tea with a wide range of suspect offerings, all under the label of ‘specialty.’ This ambiguity is damaging in that it is confusing to consumers. Defining the term is a necessary solution.

Before defining ‘specialty tea’, it seems logical to look at the work of the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA). It took around twenty years of discussion before the SCA published a comprehensive definition of ‘specialty coffee.’ The term was first coined by Erna Knutsen in 1974. Since that time, the SCA’s definition has evolved to include the many factors that require evaluation for a coffee to earn the ‘specialty’ designation. Their definition serves as a meaningful model for us, both because the SCA’s definition has proven successful and useful to its industry, and because both industries have specialty artisanal markets developing in the shadow of a large and well-established international commodity system. Those familiar with SCA’s standards for grading coffee will see how they have inspired ISTA’s proposal for tea.

It might be hard to think of the specialty coffee industry without the professionals that support it now: the roasters, the baristas, the small quality growers, as well as the packaging and the influential force of the Special Coffee Association, which has recently partnered with its European counterpart. But like the envisioned specialty tea market, the specialty coffee market passed through an evolutionary phase where there were few professionals and seemingly no market, and came out the other side as a powerful economic force. It is logical to assume something similar will happen with specialty tea. 

In addition to taking inspiration from what has worked in the coffee industry, we must also take consideration of the specific needs of our own industry. The ISTA affirms that supplying detailed information about a product’s source and processing is a prerequisite to an evaluation of quality. To establish a product’s value, we must first identify the product in question as authentic and unique. The specialty coffee industry recognized this principle, so direct trade and authentication of the source was present from the beginning. In the tea industry however, opacity of the source is the default business practice, and has been for centuries. The identity of a tea’s makers often remain hidden as a trade secret.  

We must also consider that tea making uses a team of people: growers, pluckers, and tea makers. Quality tea requires a significant amount of skill from each of the roles, in each phase of the process. Like any other art, these skills require honing over a lifetime. As a result, the costs are also much higher for making a quality tea. A meaningful definition of ‘specialty tea’ must speak to the work of each skilled artisan who contributes to a tea’s production.

With gardening comes the first element to examine. The character of the tea begins with the soil. An evaluation of the tea should include information about the composition of the soil, whether it drains well, and the application of nutritional maintenance. Also, plant spacing, pruning, and method for weed and pest control need consideration. The cultivar used and the age of the plants needs to be supplied.

A general description of the location completes the gardening portion of the definition. For example, “The garden is located on the side of the mountain, at (longitude, latitude), at 1000 meters above sea level, and the plucking time, April 4th, receives 4 hours of direct sunlight before noon.” Additional information both increases value and supports legal protection to the tea maker. There are teamakers that consider such detail. Its safe to assume that teamaking is an art for them.

The next aspect to be considered and evaluated relates to tea plucking. Plucking leaves for quality tea requires a skilled worker. This worker has a very challenging job. Speed is essential because leaves grow in sunlight. It may take tens of thousands of pluckings to make up a kilogram of tea. Plucked leaves need to be uniform in their maturity. Leaves should be unbroken and plucked with a snap, as a fingernail-cut stem will produce a black ending. In the early spring, conditions are cold and often overcast and rainy. Overcast weather functions to slow growth, but a poor light demands a sharp eye to pluck small leaves showing green over green. The plant growth can vary, so ensuring uniform maturity of leaves provides another complication to plucking. Breaking the leaf causes preventable bitterness. One of the original goals of tea making was removing bitterness from the tea.

Along with the challenges for pickers, there exists a plucking leaf configuration standard that requires adherence and evaluation. The plucking standard is the primary element that defines the tea’s character. The plucking standards configurations—one bud, one bud and one leaf, and two leaves and a bud—apply to all teas except wulongs, which require more mature leaves for their processing. In today’s market, common practice to reduce picking time and labor costs is to remove the bud from a plucked sprig with leaves attached. The result is an inferior tea when compared to the tea made from a single bud plucking. The resulting tea doesn’t have the body. It is an essential insight that slight variations anywhere along the tea making process can produce recognizable changes in the character of the tea.

From plucking, we move into the domain of the tea maker. Tea makers have the right to keep their own developed techniques protected from the requirement for full transparency. However, there are transparency requirements that need addressing. The disclosure of machinery used is vital to distinguish handmade tea from the artisanal use of simple machinery. As mentioned above, one goal of the effort to define specialty tea is to preserve traditional tea making. It may be that modern outcomes in tea making may improve using more modern implements instead of more traditional implements. For example, the heat in an electric frying pan can be controlled better than a pan heated by fire, which prevents blistering the leaf. Perhaps the skilled rolling machine operator achieves a better result than a hand rolling. Still, we should consider that handmade Persian rugs are more valuable than machine made rugs, though the latter may be free of defects. Rarity is always a factor when value is assessed, and disclosure of these details has obvious value.

All modern whole leaf tea making derives from a method that became codified about six hundred years ago, sometimes known as the Songluo Method. The multitude of tea types demonstrate variations of this tea making method. A wide variety of teas have resulted as variations of these simple and inexpensive processing techniques. The steps comprise plucking, withering, frying, rolling, roasting/drying, and fine sorting. The finished leaf holds many clues to the skill of the tea maker. Some of these indicators lend themselves to objective evaluation—for example, the condition of the leaf, assessment of the picking standard adherence, the uniformity of the leaf, and the percentage of moisture remaining in the finished tea. Other indicators, such as color, aroma, and taste, lend themselves to a more subjective analysis by trained professionals. Each of these items should be evaluated before a tea can be considered ‘specialty.’

Defects can appear in every step of the tea making process. Sometimes defects arise from a tea maker’s decision on when to transition from one step in the process to another. A skilled tea maker knows from experience when that point comes. The decision is made with her senses, and she recognizes when the leaves have the right look, smell, and feel. As a tea maker works, the surrounding environment is not static and can change dramatically in a short period of time. During the tea making season, each hour of the day has its use, for most teas. It is not so much that there are secrets waiting to be revealed, but rather it is the skill of the tea maker and the other supporting skilled workers that provides for the specialness.

With an evaluation encompassing the factors above, the answer to the question, “Does this particular tea rise to the level of ‘specialty’ or not?”  is now known. A rating score provided by tea professionals utilizing a matrix based on standards for the variable elements addressed above substantiates the definition of ‘specialty tea.’

Understanding must be clear that limits exist for this definition. Excellent teas that score 100 points can be substantially different. The same tea maker could make a tea using simple machinery and score 100, and make a better tea entirely by hand that is appreciably better. We are not capable of judging variations of excellence, and on the other end of the scale, we cannot provide a grading system for tea produced by the commodity model. The commodity tea industry has its own standards that are evaluated by professional tasters, and its teas are authenticated by auction brokers. Our effort focuses on defining the dividing line between specialty tea and non-specialty tea.

It is important to note that this definition and the standards supporting it are works in progress. There is ongoing research to strengthen and fine tune these statements. ISTA is also developing a training curriculum for professional tasters/evaluators. While the overall project will of course take time to develop, our progress will be significantly streamlined by considering the experience and model of the Specialty Coffee Association, a program that since its beginning in 1974, has benefited countless coffee producers, professionals, and consumers.


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