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Specialty Tea | The Complete Guide to Artisan Teas

Article by Sharyn Johnston.

It appears everyone has an opinion regarding what “specialty tea” means, and yet when you ask different people around the world, there are so many conflicting answers.

Let’s look at some of the results.

Firstly, what do some people in the coffee industry say defines “specialty coffee”? This may help us in our quest for an answer.

We decided to check out what some of the big global coffee companies had to say.

What defines “Specialty Coffee”? The coffee industry answers:

“When you ask a specialty coffee roaster that sources their own coffee beans, you’ll find that in the case of specialty coffee every stage of processing can be traced all the way back to its origin. Meaning not just the country of origin but the region and farm or estate where it was grown, and in some instances down to micro lots on individual farms. Factors affecting quality including the coffee varietal, growing altitude and terrain, method of processing, dates of harvest and processing, transport and logistics, as well as how and when it arrived at the roaster’s premises, are all traceable. These known quantities guarantee we are getting a quality product.”

– Veneziano Coffee


Comment:
How can a consumer prove these factors?

“Specialty coffee can consistently exist through the dedication of the people who have made it their life’s work to continually make quality their highest priority. This is not the work of only one person in the life cycle of a coffee bean; specialty can only occur when all of those involved in the coffee value chain work in harmony and maintain a keen focus on standards and excellence from start to finish. This is no easy accomplishment, and yet because of these dedicated professionals, there are numerous specialty coffees available right now, across the globe, and likely right around the corner from you.

Standards used by SCA (Specialty Coffee Association):

Allowable Defects for Specialty Grade Coffee

  • Green Grading Sample Size
  • Lighting for Green Grading
  • Surface for Grading
  • Water Activity Standard
  • Water Activity Standard: Background Information”

– Specialty Coffee Association


Comment:
How can a consumer prove any of these standards, and is there this traceability in coffee? How traceable is the coffee once it has been scored? How can everyone in the coffee value chain be monitored and checked for verification?

“Defining specialty coffee isn’t hard, but humans agreeing on that definition certainly is, and herein lies the complexity. An average consumer isn’t going to go down the rabbit hole to understand this or calibrate their senses just to enjoy a product. They just want something that tastes good to them and makes them feel good while they’re drinking it.”

– Seven Miles Coffee


Comment:
For consumers of coffee and tea, could this thought be agreed?

In a recent World Tea News interview, Ramaz Chanturiya, co-founder of the Tea Masters Cup, noted:

“I must confess that I don’t really like using the word ‘specialty’ in relation to tea. This concept is too closely related to coffee. I think that exclusive tea deserves its own definition.”


Comment:
How can a consumer know what “exclusive” tea is, even when it has its own definition?

“Some would say that because it is so difficult to define specialty tea that we should call it something different. Others might believe that as the value end of the coffee industry already calls its products specialty that we need to use another word, less tainted by the influence of the bean. I would argue against both views and contend that the top end of tea products are just fine with the specialty descriptor.”

– Nigel Melican


Comment:
How can the consumer determine for either coffee or tea what is a “top end” product unless they are educated in tea or coffee?

Some clarity on the specialty tea and coffee industry:

1. Q: Is there the opportunity in both coffee and tea to call the end product “specialty”? Absolutely, but is there real transparency in either industry?
A: Absolutely not!
2. Q: Is there poor quality tea and coffee being produced around the world and being called “specialty”?
A: Absolutely!
3. Q: Does every small farmer who is trying their best to produce high-end, quality, delicious tea in an ethical manner deserve to call their tea specialty tea or exclusive?
A: Absolutely!
4. Q: Is the use of ethical branding transparent?
A: Absolutely not!
5. Q: Do some unethical coffee and tea producers want to label their tea or coffee specialty?
A: Absolutely!

So, what does specialty tea mean?

I asked some of my trusted, experienced tea friends around the world for their opinions on what they think defines “specialty” in the context of tea, and these are some of the comments:

“Crafted single estate, origin specific.”

– Eva from Hawaii, passionate producer of high quality tea


Comment:
This is definitely a defining factor, but how can we keep this transparent?

“Specialty tea is judged by skilled experts and tasters. The five qualities that determine specialty tea are:

  1. The style, colour, category of the dried leaf (eyes)
  2. The aroma of the brewed tea (nose)
  3. The colour and clarity of the liquor (eyes)
  4. The flavour and mouthfeel of the liquor (mouth)
  5. The appearance of the wet leaf (eyes)”

– Alexis from Denmark, tea professional


Comment:
How can an inexperienced consumer tell, and how can farmers have their tea evaluated to prove this?

“Limited edition, high quality teas.”

– Rajiv from India, single origin tea producer


Comment:
How can the consumer confirm they are limited edition and high quality?

“Speciality tea has to be from a specific varietal (rare / old / unique), grown in a unique method (shading), harvested at specific time (spring / early morning plucks), produced specifically (hand rolled / hand dried / machine), and contains mostly pekoe grade from fine plucks.”

– Ronald from Indonesia, single origin producer, biodiversity teas


Comment:
How can the consumer or buyer know these specifics?

“When the aroma, liquor and taste of the tea in front of you is a celebration of the plant’s personality, the place it grows, the meticulous processing and the great people who made it, then that is a specialty tea”.

– Boaz from Kenya, producer, encouraging education of small farmers


Comment:
All true.

“Human, judgement, learning, heritage, innovation, art, craft, passion, history, culture, joy.”

– Anil from Sri Lanka, auctioneer


Comment:
All true.

“Handmade, good liquor. There is nothing special about something coming out of a machine.

– Graham from Sri Lanka, tea educator


Comment:
Can a consumer tell whether a tea is from a machine or handmade? Can machine-made teas be high quality?

“Beyond conventional, attention to detail, effort with the highest quality of raw material”

– Charmara from Sri Lanka, respected senior tea broker


Comment:
Experience will show this in the tea quality, but does that make it “specialty” or is it just carefully produced and appreciated?

“It is a tea that does not go through orthodox manufacture and hence varies in the appearance and profile in the cup. It is the type of plucking and manufacturing process that makes “specialty” tea.

– John from Himalayas, tea purveyor and broker


Comment:
How can an inexperienced consumer know whether the pluck is good and how the tea was manufactured?

Is this a specialty tea?

Is this a specialty tea?

Other discussion points came to mind:

1. Q: What about blends, herbals and CTC? Can they be considered “specialty tea”?
A: Whose right is it to make that decision?
2. Q: Does tea and coffee need to have a clear definition relating to the word “specialty” to be applied?
A: Actually, does it? That’s a good question.
3. Q: Should herbal teas fit into the category of “specialty tea”?
A: In my opinion no, they are tisanes, they aren’t made from the tea plant. What is your opinion?
4. Q: Should heavily flavoured teas fit in the category “specialty”?
A: In the consumer’s eyes if they enjoy them, it’s a possibility. After all a heavily flavoured tea may count as “specialty tea” to them.
5. Q: Do blended teas fit in the world of “specialty tea” classification?
A: Possibly, some consumers only drink blended teas and there are some very expensive brands out there at over $1000 per kilo. Some are even blended with gold leaf.
6. Q: What about CTC? Should CTC be put in the category of “specialty tea”?
A: Why not? I’ve tried some amazing CTC teas.
7. Q: How about the effect of bad brewing in both tea and coffee, and the end result of the effect on the taste?
A: You can have an amazing specialty tea or coffee, yet if it is brewed incorrectly with either poor water, incorrect temperature, incorrect extraction, or incorrect brewing time, then the tea or coffee can be ruined no matter how good it is.
8. Q: What about the preference of taste? Someone from the Middle East or a South Asian country might absolutely love a strong, black tannic tea, and they would perceive it as “specialty”.
A: Are they wrong?

So, who is right?

This article was written to help create some discussion on the use of the word “specialty”, and whether we should categorise tea in this way.

The results of my questions show that everyone is correct in their opinion in some way, and if they are not in someone else’s opinion, who is the global authority to decide? I trust implicitly the people I have asked. To me they are very knowledgeable in tea and are trusted friends.

It’s an interesting question, but who has the qualification to create the standards for so called “specialty tea”? Should it be a collaboration and if so, who chooses the people that decide, who decides who trains them, what knowledge should they have?

The coffee world created their own standards yet there is much evidence now of non-transparency across the globe, and so many people are calling their coffee “specialty” when it is clearly not, especially if you know their story. Some people using the set of standards created have never even visited a coffee farm.

I have been lucky enough to see coffee specialists select coffees which were not highly scored using the set of standards as defined. So why were they selected? It was because of the specialist’s coffee knowledge, actual farm experience, origin trips, knowledge of processing methods, bean-to-cup experience, thousands of tastings, and appreciation of cups with a difference. This could be a good example of using a person’s experience to define the coffee as “specialty”.

There are many smaller tea farmers producing small batches of elegant, delicious teas around the world who are not recognized or appreciated, people who have all of the above knowledge, and yet there are many people selling teas as “specialty” which are clearly not. In many countries, how can you even guarantee traceability? Was the tea even produced in the country that it says it was?

So who can define “specialty”? Is it the tea farmer who grows it, the tea producer, the tea factory manager, a tea company, a tea broker, the tea wholesaler, the tea retailer, the tea consumer?

Whose opinion is the most important? All are, in their own way. All opinions matter, but are any actually wrong?

As I’ve travelled globally with Tea Masters Cup and have been lucky enough to be selected as head judge, I have shared in the passion of young Tea Masters in the Tea Masters Cup competitions. I count myself privileged to have been able to experience some beautiful handmade, rare teas brewed to perfection by these Tea Masters, all of which have been served with love and dedication.

Even when we are away from the competitions, these “tea masters” are often sitting together for hours serving different teas and discussing the flavours. They care about tea, they show passion and interest, they want to be educated and find out where the tea came from, who grew it, about the farmer, the altitude, how was it processed. They want to know everything about that tea, and then most of all, they want to share that experience with others.

I believe this is one way tea can be appreciated, evaluated and truly valued, not necessarily through simply applying the word “specialty” to tea.

When it all boils down to it, your personal opinion on a tea is the most important. Will adding the word “specialty” make you enjoy the tea more, or will it make it taste better?

You decide.

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