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Defining specialty tea.

For at least the last three years the news about tea has been a kind of mixed blessing. The overall tendency of the market is decreased consumption, while a tiny segment designated as "specialty tea" is consistently inching its way up the charts. High-end specialty teas are doing well but they constitute such a minute part of a large industry that their progress is hard, if not impossible, to document through statistics. There are, in fact, only a few tea brokers who manage to make a living from sales of rare teas. This has meant that the growth of specialty tea has received little notice except by a few magazines such as this one. What exactly is specialty tea, why and how does it continue to experience growth, albeit small, in an otherwise slowing market. And finally, what does the future hold for this elusive beverage.

What is specialty tea?

Mike Spillane of G.S. Haly stated that to define specialty tea is to define tea. Specialty tea is a label which is generally affixed to higher quality offerings of loose varietal teas. At its narrowest definition, specialty tea does not include the vast array of products available to the tea drinker; no flavored teas, no static blends, and no herbals. In our research however, most retailers carried at least a token example of these categories to keep in line with customer demand. For this article's purpose specialty tea is understood to be more widely defined as high-quality loose tea offered in a variety of ways. However, we will be referring most often strictly to the varietal teas, unadulterated by flavorings or processes other than those naturally associated with tea production.

Although frequently compared to specialty coffee, specialty tea is a vastly different product. Each specialty tea, and depending on where you draw the line there are about a dozen of them, constitutes a distinct beverage. For instance, a broker will consider one Keemun, one Jasmine, or one Oolong to be the best representative of that category, judging each on those characteristics specifically attributed to that varietal. This value judgement is not undisputed fact, rather, it represents the perceptions of the broker or importer's trained and experienced palate. Retailers and consumers alike should be aware that just because a group of people say a tea represents the best, doesn't mean that it is the best tea for them. The rarity of a tea does not guarantee a good cup, there are many teas hard to get, yet not worth getting. Consideration of the best in tea should likewise not be a function of price. What does get considered in deciding what makes a tea the best in its class is how it measures up to a set of well-defined characteristics.

As an example, let's consider Darjeeling and Oolong. Darjeeling is the most popular specialty tea on the market. Demand for this varietal has filtered into the lines of many commercial tea companies, and bags of Darjeeling tea may now be found on supermarket shelves. While it is the most frequently cited varietal among consumers, it is also the most complex. In fact, the complexity of the cup is quite important in determining the quality of Darjeelings. The specific things one looks for in a cup of Darjeeling are a lingering distinctive aftertaste, and a predominantly clean tasting first note. A first flush Darjeeling should ultimately be a light cup with powerful character. The biggest selling, most well-known, Darjeeling estates include Castleton, Namring, Selimbong, Margaret's Hope, Thurbo, Balasun, and Runglee. While a great Oolong will have some of the properties of a cup of fine Darjeeling, it also must meet a set of criteria unique to Oolongs. The best of Oolongs should taste extremely light, the liquor should have an amber cast, and there should be a dry sweetness, like sucking on a peach pit, in the taste. Oolong at its best has a kind of flowery sweetness that lacks any kind of sugariness, and does not leave a film in your mouth.

Slow and steady wins the race

There has definitely been a keener interest in specialty tea among retailers, restaurateurs, and the food-service industry in general. However, brokers like Spillane are cautious about growth in the market, "This increase in interest does not constitute a fad but, is more a groundswell of acceptance for tea among retailers." There is a growing realization that tea is considered a healthier product in a purchasing environment that cherishes health issues.

Inquiries to G.S. Haly have been coming from many different areas of retail, most of the interest can be fairly easily typecast into those who want to get into tea because they love it, and those people who see they can make money at it. As Spillane points out, however, these two groups are not in opposition to one another, but paradoxically are supporting one other. "Rather than competing, retailers in specialty tea create business for one another because they are both touting the higher-quality specialty teas." The more specialty teas find their way into the market, the more opportunity consumers have to discover the world of possibilities available in this versatile beverage.

Specialty tea is a subtle beverage. Retailers wishing to make the most of their tea lines have to spend more time and energy educating their customers. For this reason, the very high end of varietal teas, such as the estate Darjeelings and Oolongs we discussed are showing increased volume. What many retailers discover is that the road to higher sales is paved smoother with specialty teas. The best teas require less sales effort because the products sell themselves.

Selling varietal teas does, however, have some difficulties. Customers can often feel uncomfortable and intimidated buying specialty tea when they are confronted with an array of odd sounding names. Demystifying tea, making it a user friendly beverage, is a sure way to reap financial benefits. At Peet's Coffee & Tea in Berkeley, Eliot Jordan has a practice of explaining to customers that their English Breakfast is a blend of Indian teas which includes the Nilghiri varietal. Nilghiri tea, no longer a deep, dark, mystery cannister, becomes a natural purchase for the customer already enjoying English Breakfast.

The mystique of fine teas need not be entirely lost when marketing varietals. Unlike commercial lines which by necessity must maintain a specific flavor, specialty tea blends with truly fine varietal types are a seasonal offering. Building on the cachet of limited release blends for those customers in the know can be as financially rewarding as dissecting their contents for the wary drinker.

By far, the most important avenue to winning over any tea drinker to specialty teas is to have them experience why specialty tea is worth the extra effort. And the easiest way to educate your customers is to begin serving the products. Customers will buy a pot of tea long before they will buy bulk, and liquid sales over-the-counter have a traditionally high profit margin, which allows retailers to offer the highest quality teas at a reasonable price. Whereas in bulk sales the customer might balk at the price tag, by the pot or the cup some of tea's greatest treasures become an affordable luxury.

Green tea is the one area of the specialty tea market showing dramatic, rather than steady, upward change. Boosted by various articles claiming numerous health benefits, the sales of green tea have experienced a tremendous boost. Previously considered only as an accompaniment to Chinese food, or a connoisseur's brew, green tea is quickly making its way into the mainstream market. Green tea's benefits are said to include increased longevity, cancer prevention, use as a digestive aid, as an anti-bacterial, a way to cut cholesterol and help excrete lipids, and even as a help preventing tooth decay. It's no wonder then that customer's are walking into most specialty tea retailers and asking for this miracle beverage. Even the larger commercial companies have taken notice are now adding green tea to their regular lines.

The future of specialty tea

Specialty tea will certainly continue its long slow journey into higher sales, and may even make a bigger splash than expected through the efforts of specialty coffee merchants already used to educating clientele and eager to diversify.

There are also the beginnings of some effort on the part of farmers to establish name brand recognition for their estate teas. Darjeeling and Ceylon are currently selling direct, and Darjeeling specifically has begun to market itself more carefully, increasing the restrictions on using the Darjeeling logo. There are even a few gardens in Darjeeling actually pushing for better grades and higher quality.

The problem with marketing estates is that there are entities which exercise buy options on crops and are granted first refusal rights on a lot of these finer teas. If you're not a broker in line with the garden you'll be the third or fourth person offered that tea. The tea auction therefore remains the great balancing center which enables average values to emerge in the tea market, deflating or inflating the cost of the product according to buyer interest. Because of this inherent advantage of auction, and the confidence it builds into buying decisions the direct marketing of farmers is likely to remain a small influence for consumers.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Lockwood Trade Journal Co., Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Author:Castle, Tim
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Date:Mar 1, 1992
Previous Article:Espresso travels.
Next Article:Rare tea gardens - Tian Mu (Peo Hou, Zhejiang Province, China).

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