Industry Viewpoint: In Support of the ‘Specialty’ Descriptor in Tea

Photo by: 977_ReX_977 /

Editor’s Note: 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.” As a result, Chanturiya will share his insights on the topic in an upcoming edition of World Tea News. In the meantime, industry expert Nigel Melican offers his viewpoint on the term specialty tea, and whether or not it needs to be changed.

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.

A while ago, when naming the European Speciality Tea Association, we agonized for weeks over the name. Should it be premium tea? Single origin tea, Excellent tea? Artisanal tea? High end tea? Loose leaf tea? Fine tea? Quality tea? Which of these?

Specialty tea combines the meaning of all of these fine words, yet singly no one of them fully describes the profound breadth and depth of a specialty tea. And perhaps even more importantly, while specialty tea may be difficult to define, the consumer at least does understand the term sufficiently to differentiate it from lesser quality commodity teas.

So, we settled on specialty as the only adjective that really and acceptably described the tea we associated with – though ignoring that the U.K. latched on rather late to what was very much a U.S.-initiated trend, we used the English English variant – speciality. Vive la différence! Vive the European Speciality Tea Association!

Specialty coffee may have been established ahead of tea, but should that preclude our use of the word for our tea? Specialty coffee in all its guises has in 30 years transformed the coffee sector; it has put half-decent coffee on every street corner; it offers dozens of types and presentations; it has raised consumer awareness and expectations.  More importantly for the business, the move towards specialty coffee has persuaded the consumer who was paying 90 cents for a cup of Joe back in 1990 that $5 is now a reasonable everyday price, and even a $75 a cup coffee will sell (viz. Klatch Coffee, LA: Panamanian Gesha).

I do believe specialty coffee has overall some important lessons to teach us in our journey to promote and develop specialty tea. We will not lose credibility by continuing to use the same specialty descriptor that the better-coffee sector has made its by-word – but we will for sure shoot ourselves in the foot by consciously ditching a word that the beverage consuming public associates with excellence.

Spell it specialty or speciality, it is the acknowledged word for excellence; it is the word we should cherish for describing our special teas.

What are your thoughts on the term specialty tea? Is there another term that’s more appropriate or does “specialty tea” work as-is? If you would like to share your opinion, email Editor Aaron Kiel.

Nigel Melican is owner and managing director, technical services, at Teacraft Ltd. He’s also the 2018 recipient of the prestigious John Harney Lifetime Achievement Award from the World Tea Conference + Expo. Teacraft Ltd. provides comprehensive service to all sectors of the tea industry, including equipment and machinery supply, beverage consultancy, training and research and development. Melican has more than 30 years of experience in the tea industry, and he’s assisted clients in 26 countries – from green tea in Australia to antioxidants in Zimbabwe. His particular interest is in planting tea in non-traditional countries, assisting small farmers with techniques for handmade tea production and marketing, and encouraging the use of sustainable tea growing and manufacturing methods. To learn more, visit