Shabnam Weber Has Long Seen the State of the Tea Industry as a Positive One

Shabnam Weber, Tea and Herbal Association of Canada. Photo: Courtesy of Shabnam Weber.

Shabnam Weber – the president of The Tea and Herbal Association of Canada – is a leading authority and industry voice on all things tea in Canada. The association, which represents members from bush to cup, provides proactive leadership in the areas of advocacy, generic promotion, education and information in order to ensure the long-term viability of the tea industry. It also serves as a source of information and research about tea, and it offers a Tea Sommelier Certification program which can be taken anywhere in the world.

Weber will present the opening session at Questex’s upcoming World Tea Virtual Summit, taking place March 15-16, 2021. The digital engagement program (free to attend) will gather the global tea industry once again to explore opportunities, challenges and trends (registration is now open).

“Connecting with people is such an important element of the tea industry, and the inability to do that since last March has been jarring for so many of us,” shares Weber. “But connecting – even if it’s virtually – is a great reminder of a community to which we all belong.”

As a preview to the upcoming event, World Tea News chats with Weber about how she got started in the tea industry, what she believes are the most important tea issues, the state of the tea industry in Canada, and her advice for the industry during a challenging time.

Photo: Courtesy of Shabnam Weber

Question: Hi, Shabnam. Thanks for your time! First off, when did you first learn to appreciate tea and how did you get started in the tea industry?

Answer: I don’t ever remember a time when tea was not a part of my life. I grew up with tea at home – a samovar was always brewing and tea was always on. Black tea with milk and sugar to start. I would say more milk and sugar than tea perhaps when I was a child, and as I got older the ratio of milk and sugar to tea changed.

But I can’t say that I had any idea about the nuance and variety of teas until my late teens and early twenties. That there was anything beyond the black tea I grew up with, was a revelation and it opened up a whole world for me.

My start in the tea industry happened after living in Germany. Walking into specialty tea shops for the first time was breathtaking. Seeing floor to ceiling canisters of tea mesmerized me. Having the shop owner talk to me about teas from different regions, taste variations in green teas picked in different seasons made me feel incredibly sophisticated. I was hooked and intoxicated on what felt like a beautiful exotic world I wanted to be a part of.

When I returned to Canada years later, I knew I had to replicate that feeling of joy I felt walking into my first tea shop. I knew that I wouldn’t be alone in the love a specialty tea shop can make people feel towards what is truly a beautiful beverage.

So, the truth is, that I have always appreciated tea in one way or another. Even that black tea in my mother’s house with milk and sugar was filled with appreciation of what it offered – comfort. It’s just the types of tea I learnt to appreciate that changed over time.

Shabnam Weber holding the hands of a smallholder in Malawi.

Question: What do you love most about working in the tea industry?

Answer: If I had to narrow it down to one thing, it will always be the people. Being surrounded by people that truly love the work they do is a blessing I don’t think many of us reflect upon often enough. The tea industry is infectious – leaving it is difficult. Listening to people talk about tea is one of the most beautiful things in the world. There is a love and passion for this product that I believe is found in very few industries. A passion that extends from the person making the tea right through to the person drinking the tea, often thousands and thousands of kilometers apart form each other.

It is a privilege to be one of the many people around the world who are stewards to a product that has nourished mankind for thousands of year and will continue to nourish long after we are gone and have passed on the responsibility to the next stewards.

Question: Because your background in the tea industry is varied – you were the owner of a specialty tea company, a tea school and, of course, you’re currently president of the Tea and Herbal Association of Canada – it gives you a unique perspective on the industry. Based on that, what do you think is the state of the tea industry right now?

Answer: As an optimist, I have long seen the state of the tea industry as a positive one. We flourished when we communicated the health message of tea to consumers. And we will flourish again now, if we communicate the human importance of tea, the connectivity to farmers, the goodness of tea to your overall well-being – the elements that are held in high esteem by a new generation of consumers and the values that tea inherently holds as part of its identity.

Photo: Courtesy of Shabnam Weber

Question: What does the tea industry need to do to take tea to the next level with consumers? Or, is that already happening now, in your opinion?

Answer: I think that to some extent and in some areas it’s been happening and in others we need to do more – and that’s elevating the value of tea. We have undervalued tea tremendously and in turn we have created a consumer culture that expects tea to cost a few pennies. I believe we have done ourselves and our product an immense disservice. And the truth of the matter is that consumers are willing to pay more for products if they believe they are receiving a higher value.

Question: What advice do you have for tea companies that are promoting their specialty teas to consumers? Is there anything they need to do in terms of educating customers?

Answer: The first advice I give to any specialty tea company is focus on what you are doing and what you’re offering a consumer that is unique. What am I adding to the conversation? Stay away from trying to sell your product by disparaging your competitors.  It’s a really bad look and it makes me cringe whenever I see it.

When you’re communicating/educating your consumers – keep things simple. You may have an encyclopedic knowledge of tea, but your customer shouldn’t need a degree to buy your tea – and worst of all, they shouldn’t be made to feel as though they need a degree.

Photo: Courtesy of Shabnam Weber

Question: Will specialty tea ever reach the same popularity as specialty coffee?

Answer: When we talk about tea reaching the same popularity as coffee – let’s be clear that it already has in the world at large. Next to water, tea is the second most consumed beverage on the planet. We spend a lot of time in North America speaking of tea as a beverage chasing the coat tails of coffee – when in other parts of the world, we have far surpassed coffee. So, my answer is – yes, I do believe it can be achieved in North America as well!

Question: What are the most important issues in the tea industry right now and why?

Answer: My answer here is going to be on two ends of the spectrum. On one end of the spectrum is the field, where tea faces two critical challenges: climate change and labor shortage. The first is one being faced by all agricultural products – the realities of a planet being 1.5C warmer by the year 2050.  The second, labor shortage comes with the desire of every generation wanting more and wanting better for their children. As young people leave rural life for the promise of improving their lives, in countries where most our tea is still plucked by hand, a shortage of labor is already being felt and that will only accelerate.

On the other end of the spectrum is the marketing and promotion of tea. Tea is a very traditional and “old fashioned” industry, which is in part its charm. But when it comes to marketing and promotion, we cannot afford to be traditional and old fashioned. In fact, we need to be the opposite. We need to adapt to how we communicate with consumers – new consumers – in innovative and exciting ways.  I’m not sure we’ve quite figured out how to do that.

Question: What advice or words of encouragement do you have for tea business that have faced challenges during the pandemic?

Answer: Some in the tea industry have thrived during the pandemic and others have felt great pain.  That line has often been drawn between those catering to in home consumption vs. out of home consumption. So, for those who have faced challenges, I encourage you to look at the lessons consumers are teaching us in areas where purchases haven’t been hindered due to lockdowns.

In-home tea consumption is up largely because consumers have told us that tea makes them feel good. They have sought comfort in a very troubling time and tea has been one of the sources that has provided that comfort.  How can we continue to build on that message – because THOSE are lifetime tea drinkers. As vaccinations roll out and lockdowns eventually ease up, people are going to be desperate for experiences outside their home – how can you provide that through your tea business? Planning ahead and being flexible in your planning is what I would encourage everyone to be doing.

Question: Tell us about the Tea and Herbal Association of Canada and its members. What’s the organization’s mission?

Answer: The Tea and Herbal Association of Canada was established in 1954 as the Tea Council and has existed since then in various iterations. We took on herbals in 2016, becoming the Tea and Herbal Association of Canada.

We act on behalf of our members, which include a wide range of categories throughout the supply chain. They include Producing Countries, Importers, Packers, Allied Trade, Retailers and TAC Tea Sommelier Professionals.

Our Mission is to be the absolute voice of the tea and herbal industry responsible for government relations/issue management, advocacy and providing PR and communication to consumers and the industry.

Our Vision is to be the leading authority and industry voice on all things tea and herbals in Canada. But really, in a nutshell, I see our role as making the work our members do in their day-to-day business a little bit easier. If there are government regulations we can interpret for you, then we will.  If there is research that will help you make decisions in your company, then we’ll provide them. If raising the profile of tea to Canadian consumers will help increase tea consumption, then that’s what we’re here for.

Question: What’s the state of the tea industry in Canada?

Answer: Canada as a country is always steady and the tea industry is quite consistent with that. We have continued to see slow and steady growth of tea over the past 10 years and I don’t see that declining. The past year, tea has seen tremendous growth in at-home tea consumption here in Canada, and that is encouraging. I say encouraging, because at home is where people form habits.  We need now to translate those habits into food service consumption as we eventually see our economies open back up.

Question: You’re the author of the Tea and Herbal Association of Canada’s Tea Sommelier program. Tell us about that and the career opportunities for tea sommeliers.

Answer: The TAC certified Tea Sommelier program has been my baby for well over a decade. I wrote the program long before I was in my current position, and I did it solely based on my strong belief in the need for centralized industry tea education.

I wrote the program for THAC and sold all rights for $1. So, believe me when I say, it was not for the money. The program is a comprehensive overview of tea – where it comes from, how it’s processed, how it’s consumed etc. It provides students with a solid foundation, and I’m obviously going to be biased when I say that it does an excellent job of that.

I will also add, that I don’t believe your education in anything is ever complete with just one program.  Tea is so incredibly nuanced and layered that one single program will never capture everything. I have always encouraged students to use this program to build on others they may be interested in. Our graduates currently work in major tea companies, others have started their own tea businesses – online nor physical stores. I would say that the opportunity, as with any form of education is in what you choose to make of it.

Question: What advice do you have for someone just starting out in the tea industry?

Answer: Stay humble. Remember that no matter how much you know about tea, someone else may know something you don’t. The only way to be better is to maintain humility in knowing there is always more to learn. And most important, don’t assume to know who and where you’ll learn something from. Some of my most important lessons have come from areas unexpected.

Question: Thanks for your time! Last question: Do you have a favorite tea or tea ritual?

Answer: I have a deep love for Oolongs, lightly oxidized ones. The sweet fragrance, the layers of flavors, they always make me happy. But I have to say that ironically, with all the fabulous teas I have access to, my favorite ritual remains my childhood beverage – strong black tea with just a splash of milk – sitting in a big armchair with a blanket and my book. 

To learn more about the Tea and Herbal Association of Canada, visit Tea.ca.

Connect with Shabnam Weber
Hear more from Shabnam Weber at the upcoming World Tea Virtual Summit, March 15-16, 2021. Registration is now open. Visit WorldTeaExpo.com/VirtualSummit (the event is free to attend).

To inquire about the World Tea Virtual Summit or to become a 2021 sponsor, contact the World Tea team at [email protected].

And be sure to follow the March 2021 event on Twitter (@worldteamedia) and Facebook and Instagram (@worldteaexpo), or via #WorldTea2021.