Follow the Leaders: Defining Specialty Tea

How Do you Define What’s Special about Specialty Tea? Pioneer specialty coffee trader Erna Knutsen, who passed away this summer at 96, was among the first green coffee buyers to champion the skills of coffee growers and to recognize the taste benefits of quality processing techniques. In her catalog of offerings Knutsen described characteristics inherent in terroir and priced them into transactions. She calculated the value in the cup to make the coffee she traded not just defect-free, but “distinctive.” It was she, in 1974, who coined the term “specialty coffee”, setting in motion an industry-wide effort to define what exactly makes specialty coffee special. It would be another 20 years before the Specialty Coffee Association of America (now SCA) crafted a definition both rigidly technical and flexible enough to capture the qualities that convince consumers to pay a significant premium for quality coffee. The payoff has been spectacular. Consumers increased their per capita spending on coffee by 30% in the past 10 years, expanding sales to $300 billion globally. In the U.S. specialty coffee now accounts for a 60% share of the coffee market, up from 40% in 2010. This means that of the hundreds of millions of cups consumed daily, 6 in 10 are specialty brew. According to the SCA, “consumer perception is critical: after all, the effort put into attaining and preserving quality is meaningless if the consumer cannot perceive it.” A similar opportunity awaits specialty tea. World Tea News asked industry leaders to define specialty tea, a challenge that generated a lot of head-scratching. There’s no correct answer of course, but here’s my attempt:
  • Specialty tea celebrates ‘character’, the collection of attributes that makes a tea unique; be it the appearance, aroma, taste, or physiological effect.  Commodity tea strives to be ‘neutral’, i.e. free of defects, and a lack of unique character is often regarded as a positive.
  • Specialty tea generally is produced in limited quantities, shows unique characteristics due to its origin (people & nature), and is difficult to substitute for.  Commodity tea is generally larger quantities, has few unique characteristics, and is easy to substitute with another tea.
  • Specialty tea commands a higher price on the market vs. commodity tea.
  • There are low quality specialty teas; teas that are unique but unpleasant, or have had production mistakes, or are stale.  Conversely, there are high quality commodity teas; teas that exemplify the (modest) pinnacle of quality of that particular type, and are not surpassed by their peers.
  • Culture has a say, too.  Specialty teas are associated with ritual, stories, teaware, history, and art.  But nobody ever wrote a poem about a 40’ container of off-grade CTC.
  • There is a vast range of specialty teas, while commodity teas are much smaller in range (though larger in volume).
At the end of the day, the differences are obvious at the extremes of each category, i.e. the best small lot whole leaf teas in the world vs. the crappiest off-grade mass-produced extract grade tea.  The question really is: What about the middle?  Where is the line drawn?  That’s where the market comes in, and inevitably (like coffee) there is downward pressure on what constitutes ‘specialty’ if there is a marketing benefit to be had.  Maybe specialty tea’s definition ultimately will be what the Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart said on the topic of obscenity: “I know it when I see it.”

—Eliot Jordan Tea Master, Mighty Leaf

In the introduction to my book, Tea: A User’s Guide, I avoid the issue of defining specialty tea yet I still give the reader enough to understand the concept. Note that I said that specialty tea is a concept. We do not yet have a construct for defining specialty tea across the many producing regions, tea types, and tea styles. Here’s the excerpt I use in my book: "Specialty tea production prioritizes quality over quantity. Teas that fall beneath the specialty moniker exhibit a diversity in flavor that cannot be matched by coffee or even wine. Yet most of the world is only familiar with commodity tea—production that prioritizes quantity over quality. This is typically cheap black tea (sold in individual tea bags) that most consumers know. The goal of this book is to celebrate the diversity of fresh, complex loose-leaf specialty teas." I often find that the easiest way to get to an understanding for the purpose of education and how we handle the concept with the American Specialty Tea Alliance is to approach specialty tea with a “negative definition,” that is, defining what specialty tea is not. Thus, from the above excerpt, specialty tea is not commodity tea. How do we determine when a tea producer prioritizes quantity over quality (and vice versa)? We must scrutinize the journey from seed or cutting to cup. We can begin with… oh wait! My tea is done steeping, I need to run!

—Tony Gebley Founder, American Specialty Tea Alliance