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  • Writer's picturejohn snell

The black tea box we built and finding our "Houdini" moment.

Updated: May 18, 2022

Maybe it's because my taste buds are shot or my memory or both but the classic seasonal teas don't taste quite like they used to or, at least, they are harder to find. Croppy second flush Assams, some with distinct RJ (Raspberry Jam) character, or the "germalene" wintergreen character so evident in Uva's and Udapusselawas. These were the teas we all looked forward to tasting and buying; they made the difference in a blend of black teas, helping to raise the eyebrow and maybe the pinky of the consumer but without doubt making the brew desirable and " a good cuppa"!

There are many reasons that can be manufactured, depending on your point of view, as to why these exciting "events" have all but disappeared but I place it firmly at the feet of the dislocation between competitive retail environments and market mechanisms that have, respectively, created downward pressure on pricing and enabled the detachment of shelf pricing from value.

If you speak to anyone that worked for one of the large tea packers over the last 20-30 years they will, to a spoon, tell you that, with few exceptions, blend qualities have suffered over time, as has consumer interest in them. Quelle surprise!!!

The multinational, publicly listed CPG companies( that have held the majority of tea brands for the last 40 years) have lost their tea mojo, courtesy of various financial and "other category" focii. Quarterly returns (a laughably short period of time for a product representing a 40-80 year investment for the farmer) is a measurement more important than a cuppers score, apparently. Of course the" Other category" issue is a problem too. When tea brands were held by tea companies there was no intra-competition for capital and other resources but that is just not the case today, when tea competes alongside health and beauty products (among other higher "value" items)within the same business.

Short term commercial imperatives have trumped all and capitulated a race to the bottom with margins demanded applying the pressure, up the supply chain.

The ability for each contiguous link in the supply chain to negotiate price for tea should be an even and balanced affair, where quality and value is communicated and understood but, without a constant and agreed value equation, that is a fable better suited to the brothers Grimm than reality.

The obvious irony here is that the squeeze on COG (cost of goods) has manifested itself as a compromise in product quality. This, in juxtaposition to consumer demand results in reduced interest in a category that was, hitherto, a staple earner for supermarkets, be it directly or as a creator of foot traffic.

The hammer still rules

During this long period of decline, the main method for selling tea has been by auction (still is for most origins) and this quaint, enjoyable and exciting open outcry environment is, under current circumstances, an enabling element in black tea's decline.

The Mombasa auction, now electronic and not so enjoyable, like most auctions today

Firstly, for tea to be sold at auction, it has to have been produced and committed for sale putting the producer firmly at the mercy of buyers interest. Secondly, irrespective of what price is paid for a tea, there is no definitive reason conveyed, to the producer, for this valuation.

With an intermediary broker in the piece and no obligation for feedback, nor a vehicle for doing so, value exploration is an uncertain thing. It is unfortunate that this is despite the Broker community representing much of the cupping expertise and having a vested interest in articulating feedback.

The obscurity of procurement tactics

Anyone who has ever bought and blended for consistency (the remit of any major black tea CPG brand) can advise that not everything is bought to standard, in fact to do so would be limiting and potentially push prices up, in a sale of finite suitable offerings. Thus the buying of "Fair" (slightly inferior), "Standard" (The right quality) and "Tick/Check" (Better than the standard) qualities is entered into which, if bought in proportion, will deliver the desired outturn quality.

This procurement tactic is just one, of many, that makes opaque a tea's true value. Muddying the picture further are the vagaries of supply and demand that can see the same quality of tea selling for very different prices week to week and the propensity, for certain markets, to buy by mark, irrespective of lot to lot inconsistencies. All this leads to a "muddle" of the distasteful variety and a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions results! The lack of value tangibility compounded by the loss of commitment to quality by some markets leads to one thing, an efficiency drive.

Quantity over Quality

With no communique that the best quality is desired or assurance that it will fetch a commensurate premium, producers have to focus on maximizing their 50-80 year investment through management of input costs and productivity. This sweating of natural assets leads, inevitably, (I am being uncompromising here to make a point!) to negative impacts on top line quality, be it through increasing time between prunes, to maximizing growth through a variety of mechanisms (clone selection, fertilization...) or moving toward a number of mechanized harvesting methods. Each, apparent, saving has a cost!. A cost to the industry that is, a cost to how black tea (indeed "tea) is perceived by the consumer and therefore valued by retailers and there lies the self fulfilling prophecy.

The FAO composite index for tea shows a pretty stark and steady decline in tea prices

Those few exceptions, where quality has been doggedly pursued and maintained, are also products that continue to grow in popularity so it's not that consumers have fallen out of love with black tea, merely out of love with mediocre tea.

Solutions are all but clear. Once on a strategy of sweating an asset, it takes a long period before an alternate philosophy takes hold , in any industry, but in tea this lag is exacerbated. The myriad excuses for poor performance have been heard over the years from buyers colluding in auction to downright thievery, down the supply chain. The finger pointing at packers and retailers, for their fat cat margins, without too much fact checking or understanding of the costs of different GTM strategies. Ultimately and most sadly is the inability of all links in the chain to act together to secure continued trade relevance from a share of throat perspective, as it's the only one that matters!

Objective evaluation, our Houdini moment?

The above is old hat and many must be wondering "What's the point?" Well it is this trade "Groundhog day" that is at the root of the issue; an inability to imagine an alternate version of the future. (Apologies to the many of you who are screaming at this with a big "Well we do!!!")

We need to take a leaf from Houdini's own book and not only think but get out of the box we have constructed for ourselves!

There is a need for disruptive change to the way that we evaluate tea, not the way we taste tea!

A metric is needed that is agnostic of region, origin, GI status or pedigree. One that is unarguably objective and that is at once meaningful to producers and to consumers while not usurping but supporting the traditional appreciation of tea on which the trade is conducted.

We have to accept that our industry has moved on from one where long term apprenticeships were served by tasters, observing historical precedent and adhering to a narrow lexicon fit for black tea alone. Now, within a few weeks one can be anointed "Tea sommelier" with all the gravitas usually reserved for experience. This is not a critique of the age but recognition of a new norm into which we must now fit. A flexible non conformist approach to tea evaluation is here and the desire to differentiate leads to the loss of a single lexicon that conveys value democratically.

A quick search of the internet finds this descriptor for a non flavoured tea from a traditional tea origin

While this state has delivered an exciting new wave of tea products, sellers and lovers, we have to recognize that this surge in appreciation does little to touch the mainstream tea market, as reflected in black tea sales and prices. For all the hyperbolae around the sustainability of teas in high end packs this dislocation threatens to diminish returns for the majority of farmers and producers in many areas.

One can, rightfully, argue that in some cases diversification away from tea should be sought but not, hopefully, as a reaction to short term price attainment but as a long term strategy based on true objective value analysis that enables a targeted marketing campaign into relevant markets, or not.

Farmers, Producers, Sellers, Packers and Retailers all have a need for a defined measurement of quality, particularly one that can ( through it's consistent capture) illuminate pathways for success , be it the plucking standard dictate in the field or the blend quality put on shelf.

So what is this magic bullet?

A chemical Marker and Imagination!

The chemistry of tea points to certain compounds (more prevalent in certain parts of the tea tree than others) that can and are influenced, knowingly, through production techniques to deliver that that we term, broadly, as quality. And, within this soluble soup there are defined groups that are very closely linked to the delivery of flavour, briskness and brightness, those attributes desired by consumers.

These compounds, important to all, can be measured, quickly, accurately and inexpensively at any point along the supply chain.

Consider a tool that analytically supports a sensory evaluation of quality, one that is objective (read "trustworthy"), universal and can be executed without recourse to a multiyear apprenticeship.

Imagine the data that this can provide, if executed in an auction environment. The ability to build consensus between objective marker, price and interest.

Imagine the value to Producer's who, understanding the correlation between field and factory activities and the production of this "Marker" may not only design parameters to attain the most desirous compound content but could automate this "quality build" through on line analytics and PLCs affecting optimal factory output.


Imagine, as brands continue to break lexicon norms( to assert individuality and ownership), there could be a subscript bringing commonality to the valuation process, to educate and support buyers and blenders while delivering a strong foundation to product development and marketing campaigns.

Initiative seized!

This may all sound fanciful and unnecessary to most but there are already significant efforts underway to make this a reality, through various entities but, if I can illustrate through the materials of one group, Fast Track Agro LLP, an impressive collaborative initiative out of India, you will see that fanciful this is not!

Project Spectral: Using Hyperspectral data for monitoring the different changes of tea during manufacture. To make outcomes of end product more predictable

Project T Eval : Using Hyperspectral and Imaging to evaluate the quality of made tea.

These are but two of an A to Z application of technology to ensure that the industry survives and thrives, during a period of ongoing pressures that are only set to grow in the future. These may represent the two most relevant offerings to the topic of this post but all should be embraced as an holistic solution set for the future.

In conclusion, this may well fall on deaf ears for, despite the opportunity that technology affords us, those that remember how it used to be are skeptical ( to the ability or desire of the trade to work as one) and those focused on building new tea offerings may not know what they are missing (who will eschew anything resembling an anchor to their perception and ownership of value) so, between them, the juice may not be worth the squeeze. However, I have optimism, that is rooted in the collective intelligence of the contacts I have in the industry (both as old as me and the, shockingly, young) and the universal P&Maternal instincts that we have for the industry.

Wine, coffee and cocoa, to name but a few relevant categories are already on this path so, if this seems as if we are discussing something far fetched, remember that, far from being a leader in chemical marker evaluation and the use of technology, we are, as a trade, at best a very slow follower!

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