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Specialty tea vs Commodity tea

 

Throughout tea’s long history, the term 'commodity tea' played a significant role.  During the industrial revolution, and the shift to globalisation, society began to change its focus from small scale production to large scale efficiency. This new era of industrial production is what caused the creation of commodity tea.  

Specialty tea is a relatively new concept, the term ‘specialty’ was first coined by the coffee industry around 30 years ago. Although it might be perceived as the latest buzzword or marketing term- it’s important that we are able to define this type of tea clearly, as the market begins to divide into these two main segments. 

 

WHAT IS SPECIALTY TEA?

At this point in time, there isn’t really one solid definition, which is agreed upon. The tea world, seems to be catching up with itself, when it comes standards and grading on a large variety of teas- however, in places like India and Sri Lanka the grading methods are more developed, standardised and accepted.  So the best place to start is by looking at the two extremes of the spectrum. For a tea person the difference between the two is quite obvious, ie: Specialty tea = Hand picked, hand processed, pure leaf tea vs Commodity tea = CTC or tea dust/fannings used in tea bags.

Where it starts to become confusing is, somewhere around the middle of the spectrum.  So, the question is... 

Where the lines become blurred, can we unequivocally, separate the two?  

 

 

After scouring many websites, tea blogs, and tea books, we have put together a list of points that rang true and seemed to be agreed upon by most tea industry professionals.

 

Commodity tea:

  • Commodity tea is, commonly, big tea plantations, larger quantities, big factories or processing plants.
  • Commodity tea is, generally, processed by machines (machined picked, processed and sorted).
  • There are very high-quality commodity teas, which have a unique character and stand up way above their peers.
  • Commodity teas, normally, have a very limited complexity range, since they have been curated over the years to be standardised and without defects
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    Specialty tea

  • Specialty tea is produced in limited quantities, generally, from smaller tea gardens or even wild grown tea trees, always going for quality over quantity.
  • Specialty tea is seen as a representation of origin -that moment, place and time- from the picking season, terroir, picking method, tea cultivar, altitude- they all influence the final taste which is allowed to change from year to year, like wine.
  • Specialty tea, like specialty coffee, celebrates character- this encompasses all the things that make that tea unique, from the aroma, taste and even the psychoactive effect.
  • Specialty tea commands a higher price on the market vs. commodity tea.
  • There can still be low-quality teas, within the specialty tea category- these may be unique and carefully processed but might be stale, with no complexity/flat or even unpleasant to the palate.
  • Specialty teas have a vast range of variations within each tea type.
  • Specialty teas, are culturally significant and tied in with stories, people, history teaware, art, ceremonial and ritual.
  • Some in the industry believe that plucking and finished leaf uniformity, are also a major component- a necessary one- to belong in the specialty tea category.
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    Why is defining this important?

    When sourcing specialty tea from a producer, a tea professional must determine the intention behind the tea ie: if the producers are prioritising quality over quantity. We have to scrutinise not only the flavour, but every step of the journey, from seed to cup. This can be a difficult task, especially if you don’t have the privilege of sourcing direct from the plantation.

    In order to create a sustainable and transparent industry, it's important for us, to communicate with both our customers and partners, where these teas came from, why are they so special, and why they demand a premium price. This comes back to education and sharing of information. At the end of the day making these teas is an amazing artform, and hopefully, by giving these products the value and status they deserve, we can work together not only to preserve this art form for years to come, but also to help raise the standards of tea and conditions of people working in tea production, worldwide.

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