Q&A: Ramaz Chanturiya, Tea Masters Cup, Offers Insights on Tea's Global Competition

Ramaz Chanturiya, chairman of the Tea Masters Cup. Photo: Courtesy of the Tea Masters Cup.

Ramaz Chanturiya has been involved in the tea industry since 1991, the year the Soviet Union collapsed. Over the years, while running a family tea company, he has acquired expertise in every stage of the tea production chain – from leaf to cup. For the last 20 years, he’s been specializing in providing various services to tea market participants.

A Family of Trailblazers
Chanturiya represents a third generation of a tea dynasty that’s known in almost all tea-producing countries. His grandfather was among the first Soviet tea professionals, blazing the industry trail in the Soviet Union during the early 1930s. His father and mother are also tea specialists, who both started their professional lives as tea scientists. His father, Dr. Otary Chanturiya, started his career during the second half of the 20th century, conducting research on determinants of tea flavor. Moving up the professional ladder, Dr. Chanturiya eventually became the head of the Tea Ministry of the USSR.

Since 2001, Chanturiya has been the head of Rusteacoffee – a non-profit association of all the largest tea companies in Russia and the CIS countries. The association promotes interests of the entire tea industry, focusing on issues such as technical and customs-tariff regulations, media relations and international communications. As the head of this association, Chanturiya concentrates his energy on lobbying efforts as well as other activities promoting industry interests.

Tea Masters Cup
In 2013, together with his brother and partner David Chanturiya, Chanturiya founded the Tea Masters Cup (TMC), a framework of international competitions for tea industry professionals.

World Tea News chats with Chanturiya, to go in-depth about the Tea Masters Cup and its value to the global tea industry.

Question: Hi, Ramaz. Thanks for your time. How did the Tea Masters Cup come about and what was the original goal of the international tournament?

Answer: It will be difficult to answer briefly, since there are many nuances, but I will try to outline the main points. From the very beginning, the idea of ​​the tournament has been part of a strategy aimed at solving the main task facing the global tea market today – to restore the respect for tea in the minds of consumers. It would seem, what is the connection? But the logic is as follows.

A competitor prepares during the Tea Masters Cup. Photo: Courtesy of the Tea Masters Cup.

Unfortunately, today tea is mainly a product of mass demand. The overwhelming part of the multimillion volume is sold in the distribution channels of a mass product. This leads to the dependence of the tea business on the laws of promoting mass goods, the main of which are unification and standardization, long-term stability of quality and cost characteristics for large volumes of product, and much more, which affects the entire chain of tea promotion from plantation to store. From all this, tea becomes easier and cheaper every year. And the people and businesses that make tea become poorer. Obviously, thanks to this development of events, the respect for tea in the minds of billions of consumers has been steadily declining over the past 50 years. If nothing is done, it can lead to the loss of the tea culture as such.

At the same time, in any market there is a segment of the exclusive tea, there are thousands of people representing the specialized tea trade, various tea establishments and schools. It is this segment, ideally, that should solve the problem of creating and developing the respect for tea in the minds of consumers. But, as practice shows, the participants in this segment, as a rule, are scattered structures, even within the same city. They deal with products of high quality and great variety. People working in this segment are undoubtedly tea enthusiasts and fans, but they represent different tea schools and currents, operate with different and often contradictory / unsystematic information, which often misleads the consumer. All this does not allow this segment to qualitatively influence the change in the global negative trend.

Years spent reflecting on this topic and analyzing successful experiences in other product categories pushed us to action: We needed to create a powerful movement capable of consolidating different tea trends around itself, uniting young and creative tea fans and professionals, capable of creating and mastering a single universal language of communication with consumers, capable of becoming trendsetters and creating fashion for good tea in their countries. At the same time, this movement should be built on the basis of the segment of exclusive tea, but also supported by large tea operators of the mass market, who are also interested in solving the above-mentioned main task.

Thus, the Tea Masters Cup is more than a competition. It is a self-developing platform, a place of attraction for people and companies interested in shaping a bright future for the tea market.

Photo: Courtesy of the Tea Masters Cup

When we were preparing the pilot championship, we immediately invited our colleagues in other countries to participate and received a very positive response. Belarus, Latvia, Turkey, Ukraine and then Australia, Italy, Korea, Vietnam and so on. The success of TMC is our common success. Success which is the result of the participation of each person or organization. And it doesn't matter in what form – a participant, a judge, a coach, a sponsor an organizer or even a fan.

Obviously, the championship is just the first part of the strategy. Other efforts and developments will follow soon.

Question: Right now, more than 26 countries participate in the Tea Masters Cup. What other countries are currently interested in hosting a Tea Masters Cup competition?

Answer: From the very beginning, TMС gained high popularity and, at some point, we began to realize that it was even necessary to "slow down" a little. After all, it was necessary to constantly improve the rules, introduce uniform standards for holding competitions, create from scratch a universal basis for judging – after all, under one TMC umbrella we had four independent competitions with different emphases. But despite the fact that we are holding back the process a little, more and more countries are joining us. Recently, Mexico joined the system, negotiations are underway with India, Kenya, Bhutan, Nepal, Germany and Chile.

Today, we can confidently say that TMС has truly become the Olympic Games for tea professionals from all over the world.

Photo: Courtesy of the Tea Masters Cup

Question: How has Tea Masters Cup benefited or impacted the global specialty tea industry, specifically?

Answer: 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. But this is a separate topic.

It is too early to talk about any large-scale impact on the exclusive tea industry. We are still at the very beginning of the journey. But the main thing that we have achieved at this stage is we have shown that the tea market and tea people are waiting for joint efforts to solve the main problem. Today, with the tea masters participating in the tournaments, the foundation of the international community of tea specialists has actually been formed, ready to solve the main task - the return of the respect for tea in the minds of consumers. As I said, in the near future we will launch new initiatives that will allow us to move forward to the next stage, a stage that I am sure will already be more significant for the exclusive tea market, and in general for the global tea market.

Photo: Courtesy of the Tea Masters Cup

Question: What challenges did you experience in getting the competition off the ground in 2013? And what challenges do you face now with the global pandemic? When do you plan to return to the in-person tournaments, in light of COVID-19?

Answer: There were many difficulties. First of all, of course, it is mistrust or skepticism. The participants did not believe that it was possible to create a fair competition that did not promote any commercial interests. They also did not believe that the experience of participating in the competition would allow them to significantly advance professionally. The sponsors did not believe the event would attract enough attention. There was no general framework for judging, and we had to rely on the experience of experienced and respected tea professionals. But gradually everything worked out. The masters began to see very real results from participating in the championships, both in terms of gaining new experience, and in terms of expanding the circle of professional acquaintances, and even benefits for serious career growth. Today, we already have a fairly well-developed system of rules for holding competitions in all categories, general requirements for judging competitions have been formed, a certification system for international judges has been launched, and we have begun to gradually certify national level judges. Of course, in terms of competition, we still have a lot to improve. There are also challenges with stimulating more active involvement of institutional partners so that competitions in countries can be held at a higher and more attractive level.

Of course, the pandemic is the main challenge right now, given that our competitions use primarily the offline format. It is obvious that the schedules of world championships have been disrupted, in most countries the competitions of the current cycle are not held. However, we do not despair. Immediately after the end of the global pandemic, we will hold a joint world championship and continue moving in accordance with the previously outlined plan. By the way, while there is currently no opportunity to hold face-to-face championships, we have conducted a very interesting online competition with the support of the Sri Lanka Tea Board – the Tea Masters Sketch contest. It was a virtual competition in which masters from 13 countries took part. We received very creative videos featuring the use of Ceylon tea in various drinks; you can watch them on our YouTube channel. The winner received the invitation to attend the next world championship free of charge as a guest of honor, and all participants will receive sets of exclusive Ceylon tea.

Question: The Tea Masters Cup debuted in the United States in 2019 at the World Tea Conference + Expo. What do you think it will take for the competition to be successful in the United States? Do you think the event will return to the U.S. in the future?

Answer: The USA is the key tea market in the world. We were glad that our national coordinator in the country – at that time, the Specialty Tea Alliance of America and Tony Gebely – chose the World Tea Conference + Expo, the main event in the world of tea, as the platform for the first national tournament. It was the right decision. The first competition is always a presentation of the project – to masters, sponsors, the community as a whole. And the championship was held at a very good level, which laid the foundation for success in the future. However, the USA is a huge country, and in order for the project to develop qualitatively further and be able to benefit the entire market, it is necessary to expand the geography. For example, in Russia, before the national finals, we hold a series of qualifying competitions in the regions. Thus, we increase the involvement of tea specialists, improve the quality of the finalists and, accordingly, this is one of the reasons for the success of Russian participants in the world championships. I have no doubt that after the end of the pandemic, the United States will become the most active country participating in the TMC project.

Question: The competition features tea professionals as well as tea enthusiasts. Tell us about these two groups of competitors. I think it’s interesting that tea enthusiasts can compete or “those who wish to expand their horizons,” as you mention on the competition’s website.

Answer: Yes, it may seem strange, but the competition has been open as a challenge to individuals we call “advanced consumers.” For example, consider Tea Tasting. This is important, because in order to solve the main task, mentioned in very beginning, we need to build a chain in which advanced consumers will also take part. Their participation in tournaments for professionals will allow them not only to expand their horizon of knowledge about tea, but also create the necessary level of trust in those professionals who are engaged in the tea industry.

Question: How has the tournament grown or changed over the years?

Answer: When we first started, we only had three categories. We have defined these categories in such a way as to cover all possible market segments where specialty tea is presented and where it has good prospects: Tea Preparation – for masters who work mainly with tea; Tea Pairing – for those who work in establishments where tea served with food; and Tea Tasting – for teatasters. Over time, we realized that we had overlooked another sector, where the prospects for tea are also good. We've added another category, Tea Mixology, which attracts bar professionals. Thus, today we have covered all the main segments of the tea sector, where there should be opportunities of growth and an active involvement of the tea community is necessary.

Question: What’s your best advice for tea professionals or tea enthusiasts who want to participate in the competition in their country? And what are you looking for in a champion?

Answer: My advice is simple – try to convey your love and respect for tea during your performance. Plan even the smallest details of your presentation thoroughly. And don't be afraid. Just remember that with the TMC, as with the Olympic Games, the main thing is not victory, but participation. Participation is the main benefit, because only in a competition you can test your professional competence fully, acquire a concentrated amount of knowledge from other participants and judges, and get a boost of energy for many years to come! Believe me, the atmosphere of TMC (and I have attended a lot of competitions) is incomparable!

Of course, winning at any stage of the competition is an honor. You immediately find yourself in the spotlight. After all, a champion is a tea ambassador. And of course, the main qualities of the champion are the ability to make delicious tea, conveying the unique value of each sip. More details about the specifics of each category and the parameters for assessing the masters can be found in the Rules & Regulations on the official website of TMC.

Question: How does the competition benefit the professionals who compete?

Answer: TMC credentials allows masters to become more in demand in the labor market. Throughout our history, there are very different examples – competitors received a promotion in their own company, accepted an invitation from larger companies with a move to another country, etc. There is even a case when the world champion in Tea Tasting, working in one of the world's largest tea companies – Orimi – was made the face of the brand. Today, his portrait adorns every package of one of the most popular tea brands in Russia and the CIS countries.

Question: You refer to the Tea Masters Cup as an “open project.” Can you tell us about that?

Answer: Yes, TMC is an open democratic project or, more precisely, an open system. Open to any interested persons or organizations to join. Easily scalable and flexible. And also, if we use an analogy from physics, TMC is an open system that exchanges matter – i.e. tea – and energy with the outside world. After all, our task is to concentrate all the positive energy of tea and bring it to the world.

Question: Thanks for your time. Last question: What does the future hold for the Tea Masters Cup?

Answer: I would like to believe that TMC has a bright future. I hope that we will overcome the challenges of the pandemic, due to which competitions cannot be held in most countries. I also very much hope that more and more institutional partners will begin to support local TMC projects, primarily large brands and tea-producing countries. I believe that over time, we will be able to integrate different tea cultures and different tea experiences into a single value system that can increase the overall efficiency of communication between tea professionals and consumers.

To learn more about the Tea Masters Cup, visit TeaMastersCup.com.