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  • Writer's picturejohn snell

One man's meat is another man's poison!

As an industry, the tea world is full of expertise and generous practitioners who are ready and willing to share their knowledge with their counterparts; we are such a friendly each other but sometimes not so responsible to parts of the trade on which so many rely.

I will start by stating that I greet the morning with exceptional Darjeeling, Nepalese and other leaf teas, revert to excellent teabag varieties during my busy day and recline to oolongs, among other leafy varieties late on. But this is not about me, it's about unnecessary and downright dangerous divisions that need some thought paid to them before we go further.

"Specialty vs Commodity tea" an unhelpful phantom

Can we agree that apart from artisanal tea producers that the majority of tea leaf, when processed, delivers particulate matter that is both large and small and that this, by itself, is not a good measure of quality, given that the same chemistry is observed in all?

Of course, we can point to larger particles enduring less oxidation and mechanical damage and being more aesthetically pleasing, sometimes! But that is where size stops being a useful narrative for the industry.

I have yet to be adorned with a meaningful, complete and universally accepted definition of specialty tea or commoditized tea for that matter; it appears to be more about convenient truths than about a scientifically substantive classification; Linnaeus must be turning in his resting spot.

Various "wisdoms" cleave these two definitions as follows

  • Blended vs straight line

  • Larger leaf vs smaller leaf

  • Better quality vs Poorer quality

  • Artisanal vs industrial

  • Smallholder vs organized sector

  • Ethical and Sustainable vs Not

I could go on but my blood is reaching a temperature and a head pressure that even the best tea in the world will not mend.

For those with an inquisitive mind and a moment to reflect, we should question all and every definition, and the merits of such distinction, other than to propel one's own brand forward.

Blending takes place in the field before a leaf is harvested, when hybrids (clones) are created to adopt the best characteristics from two differentiated parents.

If that is too pedantic for you then again, blending takes place:

  • During harvesting when leaves of more than one variety are delivered to the same withering trough.

  • In small factories where it may take several days to produce enough tea of a particular grade for a chop/invoice

I think the point is made.

Larger Leaf: Really, you are going to hang your hat on that? If you ask a Sri Lankan teaman where the classic Uva and Udapusselawa quality has gone, bright, golden, "Germalene (If you are old enough!) cups of extreme pleasure , he will tell you that the days of rotorvane quality focused production have given way to the production of "Leafies" for the Middle East (among other markets) and along with it that flavour! This is a specific instance where good things came in little packages, BOPF, BOP not OP and Pekoe.

Better Quality: Is difficult to define but to do so, we have to consider from whose perspective? If we consider tea from a purist standpoint, we must consider

(a) natural quality potential (of the green leaf), a combination of leaf stock, terroir, seasonality and harvesting/plucking standard among others.

b)Post harvest handling and production; was the full potential of inherent leaf quality preserved through processing?


c) Was the resultant tea delivered to the consumer in best protective packaging and in a timely fashion to ensure optimal in cup performance?

Irrespective of whether the final produced tea is an SFTGFOP1 or a PD (Pekoe dust) from CTC manufacture, these producer choices cannot elevate the inherent quality of (a) above. So a leaf tea from a fast grown low altitude, equatorial region is unlikely to out-perform a high grown, post dormancy, seasonal leaf, irrespective of the "make".

Highgrown East of Rift Kenya CTC teas, illustrating bright infusions and glorious cups, courtesy of intrinsic quality virtue of elevation, climate and care taken in this neck of the woods

Artisinal: I can understand this, as it has a pretty succinct definition but it does not, in the world of tea, fit with many of the other classifications and is not by itself a guarantee of elevated quality.

Smallholder: Mmmm and No! This is not a distinction that makes any sense and I am not going to give it the space to breath. Smallholder Farming is touted as being part of the Specialty creed for it's pseudo romantic imagery. It is true that the majority of tea is produced by smallholders but that is ALL tea not one descriptor or another. There seems to be a social justice approach to the support for independent farmers and I agree but have to advise that the organized sector, described as darkly as Darth Vader and heralded as the last vestiges of colonialism, has many points to recommend it, which I urge you to explore and we will touch on, at a later date.

Ethical and Sustainable: Err no! Irrespective of my belief that many of the CPG companies have destroyed the quality of tea delivered to consumers, they have also invested more in certified tea sources than anyone else. Grudgingly, I have to admit that these initiatives delivered these concepts to the consciousness of the consumer and paved the way for others to extol their own product virtues, while differentiating from the "green washing" of the big boys. And there are many very commendable programmes out there and virtuous individuals engaged in bringing about real change at origin but, in truth, the impact of fractured competitive altruism is not going to lift living standards, equity or environmental protection, for the majority of the industry.

Not worthy? Hands deftly plucking two leaves and a bud for the manufacture of CTC Teabag tea!

So, am I a killjoy for anything anti-establishment? Not a bit of it, I rather believe that the "Specialty" trade, defined by these myriad ways is more and more the establishment and as such cannot divest itself from pan-trade responsibility, for the sake of good spin.

We must, as a trade, consider the potential and considerable damage that such definitions can befall large sectors of the industry on which, ironically, all rely. It is laudable that great efforts made, by the majority of the trade, is elevating the tea experience for consumers it just does not have to be at the expense of a sub-categorization of tea. It may not be your cup of tea but so called "commoditized tea" is consumed at very high per capita consumption rates that almost any other and any brew compounds the ubiquitous nature of tea on which we all rely for our products recognition and success.

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