Specialty tea: what is it? An attempt at definition

In recent years, the term “specialty” has strongly entered the gastronomic language. Whether you know its exact meaning or not, it intuitively suggests a concept of specialty, sophistication, quality. And in the coffee world, you know what we’re talking about, special sounds more random.

Do you need a refresher? The adjective is widely used in the coffee market to differentiate, writes James Hoffman, specialty from coffee is understood as Raw materialor from the coffee that does not “it is marketed on the basis of quality, it is just coffee: it does not matter where it was grown, when it was harvested or how it was processed. This second type, however, defined how large parts of the world view coffee: a generic product that comes from some tropical country; an effective albeit bitter way to bring caffeine into the body to clear the head“.

But even this is a definition of convenience. In fact, as we have explained before, Specialty coffee is not a generic quality coffee, the origin and aromatic properties of which are known, a coffee for which extraction methods are used which enhance its most authentic taste. This is rather a bland meaning of what specialty coffee is, which is instead an evaluation system of the coffee supply chain that aims to determine what is exceptional and what is not, based on an international protocol based on shared parameters.

Can these concepts be applied without significant distinction to the tea world? On a purely theoretical level, it seems so. “Specialty tea is a high-quality loose-leaf tea from small tea plantations. It is the segment of the tea industry that produces high quality tea, usually from individual tea gardens“Writes Mary Ann Rollano and suggests that specialty is” simply “a high-quality tea.

We have already tried to briefly explain what makes a tea qualitative or not, by examining all the processing and service phases that extend from the cultivation of the tea plant, to the type of leaves taken, to the quantity of tea produced, to the methods. processing, packaging (no sachets, yes tea leaves) and finally marketing and service. However, it should be emphasized that, unlike what has happened in the coffee world, tea does not yet have a “standard” definition of specialty, although the term is widely used.

To get the pulse of the situation, there is a specific “specialty tea” label on Amazon that contains different types of products, while in quality bars around the world it is already possible to read “specialty tea” menus next to “specialty coffee” “. In the case of Italy, this term is still used a little, but it could become better known in the near future if, as expected, a revolution similar to that which took place in the coffee world takes place in the tea world, which will lead to the widespread knowledge of tea questioned, especially in countries that are historically unaccustomed to the conscious consumption of this beverage.

tea plantations from hong pao

In the meantime, however, on the theme definition of specialty tea debate it is very illuminated. It is not difficult to understand why: tea production is very large in the world and involves many regions, from millennials (like China) to newer ones (like Africa). As is often said, tea is the second most intoxicating beverage in the world after water and market demand can not be satisfied only with high quality teas. Then there is the issue of price, of official recognition (a brand for example?) Which defines one part of the market higher than the other, and cuts out the whole world of praise that is very present in large-scale distribution. And so a whole other series of problems that are combined to make it difficult to use a definition that excludes or includes one or more parts of the market and that must first and foremost be accepted by the society that produces it. An extremely heterogeneous community consisting of producers and associations that have hardly found meeting places, for historical but also commercial reasons.

Someone tried it though. This is the case with the International Specialty Tea Association which has prepared a draft manifesto with the aim of “to preserve traditional production of high-quality tea, to raise the standard of product information that travels along the supply chain to tea industry professionals and consumers, and to disambiguate the consumer market for specialty. And then, more importantly: “Currently, the term “specialty tea” in marketing communicates ambiguities. In the North American and European tea industries, the term quality only vaguely suggests. In India, the term can mean a category of teas, including green, white and oolong teas – almost all types of teas except the commonly produced black tea. The term is not used at all in the Chinese tea industry. The vague term allows the tea market to mix genuine quality tea with a wide range of suspicious offerings, all under the label “specialty”. This ambiguity is harmful because it confuses consumers. Defining the term is a necessary solution“.

For this reason, ISTA works with a definition that can be accepted by the market, transparent, meaningful and that attaches great importance to preserving the traditional and artisanal processing of tea. The process that will lead to the definition of a standard includes: the type, size and location of the garden where the tea is produced, the speed, accuracy and type of leaf collection, and then specifically which leaves are collected and when the different types of tea are realized. , then we move on to processing where we try to protect the traditional processes of creating tea that are specific to each garden, finally the training of professional tea testers who award the tea a score after testing it according to numerical parameters, which can also include very different types of tea. In short, a process under design and in various stages that will become more clear in the coming years.

The European Specialty Tea Association has also tried to provide a definition of specialty. It is 2021 when a group of tea experts gather to share what parameters are needed to consider a high quality tea. They write from ESTA: “We realize that it will be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve a definition that is universally accepted by everyone in the specialty community, so we have described our approach rather than dictating a definition, hoping that most will hold. with most of its contents“.

Among the parameters reported are the knowledge of the chain: the supplier, the farm, the location, the production dates, the processing method. Other parameters, on the other hand, are about the properties of the plant and the leaves. Or these five aspects: the dry leaf (before the infusion); the scent of the dry leaf; liqueur color and clarity; liqueur taste and mouthfeel; the appearance and aroma of the wet leaf. The need to focus on the durability of packaging and respect for workers is also emphasized. Immediately after the definition was released, various tea associations unequivocally accepted the news, emphasizing that the criteria proposed by ESTA are already widely met (even for legal requirements) by all tea producers, whether small or industrial.

Unfortunately, this is only a small part of a major debate that began several years ago and will continue for a long time to come. It is clear how the term “specialty” if used in the tea world to indicate a gray area where there are no parameters or certifications, can mislead and flatter consumers, especially in the big world where tea comes without being grown directly in practical bags to ridiculous low prices. It is likely that in contexts such as China, where production is historic, the understanding of what a quality tea is is much more internalized and widespread than in Italy or the United States.

Note: the fact that there is no unambiguous definition or “certification” of specialty does not mean that there are no other types of certifications to define a quality tea. For example, there are many certifications that focus on the supply chain and certify whether a tea is organic, biodynamic, fair trade, kosher, gluten-free, GMO-free and much more. There are also several universities that train professional tea testers, professional courses held by experts and even milder courses that can be held face to face or online to recognize quality teas or to properly infuse tea leaves according to the different types. Here, too, the range is very wide and not always reassuring. That is why it is worth noting how the debate will develop in the future.


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