The Tea Industry Has Significant, Exciting Growth Ahead

In this Chinese Year of the Water Tiger 4027, the global tea industry can agree on one certainty: The tea industry as we have known it is coming to an end. At the present juncture, the production of tea, its sale, transport and distribution and its retailing all face transformation.

We are being forced to pay more and charge more for tea. The reasons are multiple and well known – the gradual collapsing of the plantation model, climatic catastrophes becoming the new norm, worker challenges and environmental issues. I could go on about the production side alone.

As with production, importing and retailing are also being transformed. To meet these many changes head on, the tea industry needs to focus its attention – as well as its customers’ attention – not simply on the rising costs of tea but also on its abiding value in human society.

Bulk tea will always predominate, as long as customers gasp for their indispensable chai or Earl Grey or English Breakfast. It fills a universally felt need for comfort and caffeine. But our customers also need to realize tea is not simply a commodity like salt or oatmeal, but rather a product quite as various as wine, for example.

Just as our businesses begin to reckon with hidden as well as obvious costs, we need ways to awaken our customers to the intrinsic value – and not just the cost – of our product. Here specialty tea leads the way.

Boutique Teas and Tea Cultivators Capture the Public’s Imagination

Starting in the late 1960s, “boutique” wineries began to appear in California and elsewhere. Even as they multiplied for years, they seemed commercially insignificant compared to the leading brands like  Gallo. Nowadays, the wine market belongs to imports and the thousands of now mature “boutique” wineries. When I wrote the first book on California wine in 1971, there were fewer than 70 wineries in the state; today, there are at least 7,000. Specialty coffee and craft beer have followed similar trajectories. Now let us praise “boutique” tea.

Montreal’s ever innovative Camellia Sinensis, based in Canada, is pioneering boutique tea production in India with its hugely successful Tea Studio in the Nilgiri mountains (you can find a feature article on Tea Studio at World Tea News). The European Association of Tea Growers, founded and led by Nigel Melican, already numbers more than 100 members, and the US League of Tea Growers is not far behind. Their combined production and any profit may seem minuscule today, but my point is that each of these tea cultivators is conveying their enthusiasm for tea to an ever-growing number of newcomers. Together, they are capturing the public’s imagination and transmitting the true spirit of tea, making it “special.” Sales are sure to follow for them and for all tea purveyors.

Information is important but curiosity and enthusiasm matter more, as the history of America's Tea Renaissance has shown. In 1981, John Harney had just bought the tiny Sarum Tea company, but hadn't changed the name yet; so, my first Tea Lover's Treasury listed Sarum as one of only six American specialty tea companies then in business. John and others were filled with a contagious enthusiasm for tea, and they made a market where one had not existed.

Relationships Are Key for Growing the Industry

Remember: Tea purchases and sales are not mere transactions but relationships. These relationships are inseparable from the romance of tea, upon which our business depends. Relationships multiplied with the World Tea Conference + Expo, which debuted some 20 years ago and multiplied further as tea festivals sprouted around the United States. As our nascent tea gardens mature, a good many will become centers for tea education, introducing newcomers to this fascinating plant. American tea businesses would benefit from distributing tea seedlings to hobbyists. Grow Your Own Tea: The Complete Guide to Cultivating, Harvesting, and Preparing by Christine Parks, co-proprietor with her husband of Camellia Forest Tea Gardens and Nursery in Chapel Hill, N.C., has no doubt done more to foster the love of tea than many a million-dollar ad campaign.

Indeed, specialty tea is about to become very much more abundant (and profitable), both in the United States and around the world. In a recent World Tea News article, tea expert Nigel Melican, Teacraft Ltd., introduces the next stage of mechanical harvesting – a bladeless plucking device that mimics the human hand’s “grip and break” plucking action on the two leaves and a bud, but ignores immature shoots and buds.

Speaking about one of the most prominent U.S. “boutique” tea producers to date, proprietor of The Great Mississippi Tea Company, Melican writes: “Jason McDonald [of The Great Mississippi Tea Company] has just won two gold awards for specialty teas plucked mechanically with this selective machine. This is truly the machine we have been waiting for, though I had thought it would be just a dream. Exciting stuff…”

Yes, mighty oaks from tiny acorns grow – and the tea industry has significant, exciting growth ahead. None of this is to suggest the United States can become a significant tea producing country, only that embracing boutique teas can significantly accelerate our becoming a strong tea consuming society.

In the end, tea is a treasure of the world and few products do as much to enlarge human happiness and sociability. We in the tea community are the keepers of this treasure, and it is our responsibility to find new ways to obtain and share it – current disruptions notwithstanding.

James Norwood Pratt – “Norwood” – has served the cause of tea around the world for more than 30 years. Since the first edition of his classic Tea Lover’s Treasury appeared in 1982, he has been a presence on the international tea scene, becoming Honorary Director of America’s first traditional Chinese tea house, International Juror of India’s first-ever tea competition, “Best Tea Educator” four successive years, and a John Harney Lifetime Achievement Award recipient at the 2015 World Tea Conference + Expo.

Pratt is also the author of James Norwood Pratt’s Tea Dictionary, the worldwide tea trade’s seminal reference work, and is America’s acknowledged “Tea Sage.” He is quite possibly the world’s most widely read authority on tea and tea lore, thanks to books translated into multiple languages and numerous columns, articles and print and TV interviews in United States and overseas media. His Tea Dictionary was also named Best New Publication by the World Tea Conference + Expo in 2010, and he recently presented at the 2022 World Tea Conference + Expo during the event's 20th Anniversary Celebration.

Plan to Attend or Participate in the
World Tea Conference + Expo, March 27-29, 2023

To learn about other key developments, trends, issues, hot topics and products within the global tea community, plan to attend the World Tea Conference + Expo, March 27-29, 2023, co-located with Bar & Restaurant Expo. Visit

To book your sponsorship or exhibit space at the World Tea Conference + Expo, contact:

Veronica Gonnello
​(for companies A to G)
​e: [email protected]
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Tim Schultz​(for companies H to Q)​
e: [email protected]
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Fadi Alsayegh
​(for companies R to Z)
​e: [email protected]
p: 917-258-5174​

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