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.
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.
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.