What are the most important issues in the tea industry today? Sustainability? Transparency? The decline of specialty retailers, or educating consumers about specialty tea?
In part one of this multi-part series, World Tea News asks some of the industry’s leading experts and influencers to share their thoughts on the subject.
Here’s what they had to say.
“The tea market faces four key issues: 1) Supply continues to outstrip demand 2) international trade is becoming much more of a challenge to the entire supply chain 3) underleveraging of tea’s healthfulness and 4) sustainability. Arguably, sustainability can be viewed as the key concern going forward. Sustainability can be viewed as a three-pronged strategy – ecological, social and economic. Tea has demonstrated a strong commitment to ecological sustainability and, while the latter two need action, economic sustainability is the biggest threat. Producers (generally) are not making money. The realized prices of tea have not moved since the 1950s, when taking inflation into account. This marginalizes workers at origin and allows for unsustainable economic models, impacting the means for people to maintain the social fabric in their towns and villages. Meanwhile, large retailers advertise and speak about sustainability, yet do nothing about allowing the price of the product in their stores to rise, disallowing the opportunity for producers to realize a reasonable margin. The time has come to put pressure on retailers to ensure that EVERY player in the supply chain receives fair value for the work they do. While we continue to face these challenges, I remain wholly optimistic. The tea supply chain is resilient; producers generally want to produce good product and consumers want to receive good value. These are not conflicting goals. A great model to use is that of specialty tea. Quality, uniqueness, terroir “stories” and price/margin make this a great business. The challenge is how to adapt this model across the entire tea supply chain.”
Sharyn Johnston, CEO, Australian Tea Masters:
“I think the most important issue in tea right now is tea transparency. We must make tea interesting, make people more aware of specialty tea and the varieties and types available, and make tea easy to serve and easy for the consumer to take out. There needs to be a better-quality offering for the tea drinker in a cafés or restaurants than a 10-cent tea bag containing a poor grade English breakfast, peppermint or chamomile. Great food deserves great tea and, unfortunately, this is often not the case; instead, the consumer is often offered poor tea and minimal options. When a farmer is producing a good quality tea and is taking care for the environment, they need to rewarded with being paid the right price for the finished product. Consumers need to be educated to ask, “What tea do you have on offer today?” – just like many offerings available in specialty coffee. They need to know what is actually in the “English breakfast” blend and that it all starts with the manufacturer and not fancy packaging and heavily flavored blends covering up poor quality tea. This is not the future of tea and it is not acceptable for the consumer. Education is key, growers are key, ingredients are key, origins are key, manufacturing is key, no artificial flavorings are key, service is key, brewing is key and simplicity is key. We can all be the keys to the success of tea through the education of the tea consumer and by supporting the tea community with good quality tea, good offerings of tea and good tea knowledge.”
Kevin Gascoyne, Owner, Camellia Sinensis Tea Houses and Tea Schools of Montréal and Québec City:
“As we ride out these unpredictable chapters of our story, there are a few principal points, both logistical and less tangible, that come to mind immediately as essential to our survival as an industry. Having or developing a stronger web presence and capability has been a saving grace for many companies. Constant and deep appreciation of our trusty staff – and those loyal clients that keep coming back to keep us in business – is essential. But above all, I believe the key is remaining agile and adaptable as the ground moves around us and the rules constantly change. Tirelessly rising to the new challenges of an unpredictable commercial landscape. Don’t wait, complaining that the existing business model that slowly evolved over many years is struggling, outmoded overnight. Be ready for the sideways leap and perhaps another if necessary. Tea and crisis have been longtime partners, and the punters still need their tea one way or another – perhaps more than ever.”
Lydia Kung, Importer, Exporter and Expert, Verileaf True Teas Corp.:
“As consumers become better acquainted with a wider variety of teas, sound product knowledge becomes essential in elevating the overall experience. For example, why are beautifully uniform Keemun leaves called ‘brokens’ by those who make the tea? A bit of knowledge about the beginnings of this signature black sheds light on the intent in the making of Keemun, and on how a resurgence of interest in black teas led to Keemun Maofeng, a very different style. Our goal is to provide more substance to the cupping experience. Another example: Much of the appeal of green teas lies in their minimalist processing, as evidenced by the open leaves in some green teas. Yet, we find the largest range of styles in this category. What was the intent here and how did processing affect the finished flavor? There are some high-end teas that have no buds, and we find some semi-balled Greens that resemble oolong. From brewing to the first through the last sip, knowledge fortifies the cup. Another type of back-story can add layers to the product: What happens when a cultivar traditionally associated with one place and one tea is moved thousands of kilometers and made into a different tea type? The tasting experience here can expand from a single dimension (flavor) to a wider context that includes the leaf’s potential and the craft. As specialty-tea purveyors, our responsibility is to provide education that enhances the overall sensory and cognitive experience. Small incremental gains will ensure further exploration, so that even an interested novice, when presented with a flight, will not only be able to evaluate the teas but to understand the why.”
Linda Barberic, Tea Designer, Soma Tea, Inc.:
“Herbal remedies are an important component in alternative medicine today, which is one of the fastest growing markets in our culture. Consuming teas and tisanes play into this significant movement of herbal supplements to maintain or improve health. In this popular and growing tea market, we must stay on top of the public’s demand for natural, healthy alternatives. There is a transition where western medicine is now accepting and including many natural healthy alternatives of herbal supplements. The key is what herbs are trending and how to best integrate them into your tea and tisane blends.”
Maria Uspenski, Founder & CEO, The Tea Spot:
“I think the most serious issue in the premium tea industry today is the decline of specialty retailers. Although the global tea market continues to grow, many tea retailers – particularly in North America – are now in survival mode. This does not bode well for the future of premium tea, which is still an emerging category in our part of the world. Without the sensory exposure and educational component – which Teavana brought to the category and many smaller purveyors excel in – consumers may never even get the opportunity to have their first cup of specialty tea. Grocery and large online retailers are very thin on the premium category because of price. Premium tea is becoming more scarce and more expensive each year, due to environmental and social instabilities at origin. Lower end machine-processed teas are available at much lower prices and are produced at the expense of the workers upstream in their supply chain. Our advice to specialty retailers is to be willing to consider stretching the boundaries of their current business models. The struggle of getting customers into brick and mortar tea businesses began several years before the current pandemic, but this year has been particularly brutal for specialty retailers. Those who have not been able to make rapid adaptations could be crippled by the economic fallout of the pandemic. David’s Tea, who filed for creditor (bankruptcy) protection, made a strong transition to online sales, which resulted in a positive 3rd quarter. We see cafes in Colorado moving to pick-up windows, food trucks or pop-ups. Companies like ours have a vital interest in helping ensure success here, and are working closely with those businesses who are requesting additional support to bridge the coronavirus gap.”
Note: Watch for Part Two of this series at World Tea News. What do you think is the most important issue? Email Editor Aaron Kiel (contact info here).
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