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SNAK: a tea importer flourishes in Italy: "from the tea-bush to the cup"--SNAK's slogan. Georgina Gordon-Ham, born in Assam, with tea and Tuscany in her veins, follows the Italian tea trail and speaks with the Carrai Family, one of Italy's leading tea importers.

The family business is known both as SNAK srl, the registered company, and LA VIA DEL TE , their brand name. Their's is the story of a family passionately in love with tea. Alfredo Carrai, who founded the business SNAK srl in 1961, became involved in tea in the late 1950s with Lyons of London based in Turin. Carrai was a young salesman in his early twenties at the time. Using his sales skills, he soon availed himself of the opportunity to become sole agent for Lyons in Tuscany. His family merchant background in the Chianti wine growing area of Tuscany, together with a strong desire to be independent, soon led him to set up his own business which he began together with his wife. He understood it was time Italy had its own brand and recalled those early days when "we began to work in a single room and ordered our first tea packs with our brand name. I was then able to travel about selling our own tea." Carrai adds an interesting anecdote: "The logo we chose was a snake from Ceylon which is a sacred symbol to the Indians--but to the Italians the snake is against Catholicism. So we had to change the name from Snake Tea to SNAK."


"There was something still missing," says Carrai. "Italy was only buying Twinings and Lipton tea. The most popular flavors of tea were Gunpowder and Earl Grey. Green tea was hardly known." What really marked a turning point was his discovery of China, which changed Carrai's whole approach to tea.

"One day I was visiting the American Market' in Leghorn where I happened to come across an original tin of Jasmine tea from the People's Republic of China. This was around 1976, 1977. That was when I understood that China was the real tea world, not England. I immediately got in touch with the Chinese Embassy, and six months later I was visiting China. There I discovered green tea, white tea, Lapsang Souchong--the various tea leaves and flavors in a wide range of varieties."

Alfredo Carrai stresses how Chinese green tea in all its varieties led the way for SNAK srl to go ahead and stand out against competition in Italy. It gave him more room to work on and promote its consumption. Green tea seemed to meet more favorably with the taste of national consumers. It also helped to further foster his passion for tea, which he conveyed to his six children--five of whom work in the family tea business.


Alfredo Carrai now takes a back seat in his role as president of the company consultant and tea taster: his wife Amelia is in charge of the business administration; Regina, their eldest, is in charge of quality, training and PR; Paolo is the general manager in charge of imports/exports, sales and marketing; Leonardo is tea taster and blender; Anna is graduating in pharmacy and is involved in analysis; Giulia is Paolo's personal assistant; Valentino is studying Art but is still a partner in the business. They all went through a period of apprenticeship, which follows the Tuscan tradition of the artisan workshop passed on from generation to generation. The Carrai family work as a team and have all inherited this passion for tea.

Alfredo Carrai is proud of how the business has expanded with their own trade name and brands thanks to new ideas and contributions from the younger generation.


La Via del Te, the Florence tearoom, was set up in 1997 at 22-23R Piazza Ghiberti, a short stroll from the famous Piazza della Signoria and Piazza del Duomo. It is located in Sant'Ambrogio's market place in a 19th century style teahouse. It is an ideal place to stop and relax with a cup of tea. It offers a range of over 250 varieties of tea, including flavored teas, herbal teas and fruit teas, which are also for sale. Teas come from China to India, from Japan to Nepal, from Brazil to Argentina and from Turkey to Africa (the most popular African tea being from Kenya). The adjoining show room displays teapots and tea cups of various shapes and colors as well as other tea accessories from different parts of the world. Regina Carrai insists on mentioning: "They are all original traditional articles." Here Italian creative flair is unleashed both in the variety of blends and items on display.

"One does not need much to prepare a good tea," comments Regina Carrai. "People think teabags are easy and fast," she goes on to say. "Our firm tends to insist on loose tea. Tea leaves give the best flavor. You can never have the best tea from a teabag."

Paolo Carrai commented on how the idea of setting up a tea room helped them to be in direct contact with the end user which is also important in order to gain a better understanding of the product and people's taste. He said that working there was also used as a stepping stone for his sisters to get to know and enter the family business. "We are pleased to get to know people's taste, train our staff and promote our brand, " concluded Paolo.


As regards tea and its derivatives, Regina Carrai commented that although "derivatives are not so widely used as abroad, green tea extract is to be found in certain Italian diet products. She added that they have noticed "green tea appearing more and more in health shops." Hence the Italian tea market is heading very much towards green tea, especially "flavored tea, Earl Grey, Chinese tea, Japanese tea--Bancha being a popular choice." As regards organic tea, SNAK included a range "quite a while ago before this was hardly known in Italy." Then, of course, "there is the health factor of green tea which has made it even more popular."


SNAK offers their clients free tailor-made training on how to appreciate the different types of tea and blends so as to, in turn, guide their own customers when choosing an appropriate tea. This is one of the tasks carried out by Regina Carrai in order to encourage a better understanding of the product. Her clients include, "Restaurants, bars and tea rooms as well as large-scale buyers." She says, "It is not only a matter of knowing the product you are selling, it is also a matter of how to advise the end customer."

The course includes history of tea, processing, classification, tea tasting different types of tea, infusion time, suggestions on which types of tea go with which occasions. Training is not for private individuals. It is only for clients who purchase large quantities of tea. To others, they offer advice and suggestions.


Paolo Carrai, who is in charge of sales and marketing, is also the person in contact with the tea plantations. He stresses "the importance of being well prepared in the field. One must believe in the product and understand it, as well as understand delivery time and the various related problems, such as quality control, laboratory tests related to health issues such as pesticides, metal content, lead, etc."

A health issue, which could not be avoided, was "How has SARS affected tea from China?" Paolo Carrai says he has had "people phoning up concerned about the current situation." However he reassured them by mentioning SNAK's strict quality control policy and the importance of counter checking products before any European directives came into force regarding tea. He said: "It has always been our policy to carry out quality control. We have even had to cut down on the number of producers for this reason.

"We insist on receiving samples with certification from the authorized bureau on the part of the seller. We send these to the two laboratories in Tuscany, which are authorized by the Ministry of Health. If everything is all right we go ahead and sign a contract on condition that we retest the tea when it arrives in Italy. Each delivery has to be tested again and certified in Italy before going to our plant, and whenever the results are not up to standard the tea is sent back to the country of origin at the cost of the originator."

SNAK offers a flexible approach to their clients. For instance, third parties can buy the raw material on its own and take care of their own packaging or, if they wish, SNAK can also handle packaging.

As regards special markets, Paolo Carrai said: "We are able to personalize blends to the extent that they are exclusive to a specific client."


Alfredo Carrai compares tea to wine in so much as "tea is one of the few drinks in the world which is subjective." He believes that tea is for everybody, not just for an elite, and yet it can be personalized. It can be strong or weak according to personal preference. Another element that tea and wine have in common is that "they are both agricultural products; they both go back centuries representing the East and West, and they both have a large variety of flavors."

Carrai notes an interesting trend: "Tea rooms in the U.K. have reduced in number to be replaced by wine and coffee bars, while Italy is moving more and more towards tea rooms," concluded Alfredo Carrai.


The annual volumes for the whole of Italy for 2002 and 2001 were as follows:

Total tea imports in 2002 were 6,235,024 Kg against 5,098,577.6 Kg in 2001.

SNAK srl sales volume percentages are split as follows:

* 30% blends and flavored tea (English Breakfast, Earl Grey, Cinnamon, Vanilla, Bancha, the Orange Flower Zagara, etc, are amongst the most popular);

* 30% Split between classic green teas and black teas (Gunpowder, Bancha, Chun Mee, Darjeeling, Ceylon, Keemun, and Assam are the most popular);

* 10% Special high quality tea

* 20% Flavored fruit tea blends

* 10% Herbal teas, Rooibos, and other products.

A 20% increase in sales volume for SNAK was reported in 2002 compared to 2001.

As regards product range, SNAK SRL imports around 400 different types of loose tea subdivided as follows:

* 110 classic teas, which include black, green white, pressed and scented teas

* 90 blends and flavored teas

* 65 fruit tea blends

* 30 organically grown and decaffeinated products

* 40 herbs and herbal teas

* 60 fannings (divided between classic teas, flavored teas and fruit and herbal tea blends).

Then if you consider their whole range of products, the figure rises to over 1,500 products, which include backed tea, food products and tea accessories

Exports are a more recent venture. They include countries such as Canada, Greece, Spain, Lithuania and Israel. A rise in volume was also reported here.

SNAK do their own packaging (aluminum bags, metal tins and packets) which is dual layer thermosealed.

SNAK's market includes selling to third parties as well as having their own brand called La Via Del Te (The Tea Route). The latter is mainly sold to tea rooms, health shops, leading restaurants and hotels.
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Title Annotation:Tea International
Author:Gordon-Ham, Georgina
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Article Type:Company Profile
Geographic Code:4EUIT
Date:Aug 20, 2003
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