May the Force Be with You, Specialty Tea!

Have you ever wondered why all recent attempts to single out a certain category in tea, analogous to Specialty Coffee, look so unconvincing?

In our opinion, this is happening for one single reason. Currently, there is no institution in the consumer tea culture that is strong enough to force a significant portion of the global tea market to play by its own rules and to impose on this large portion of the market its ideas of what is good and what is bad.

When there were even hints of such an institution — in those days, for example, when the world tea market was dominated by British companies — there was an absolute analogue of Specialty Coffee in tea. Notable representatives of this category of selected teas were, for example, single estate Darjeelings. With their terroir characteristics, vintages, maximum transparency for their time and the real confidence of many tea connoisseurs that these were the best teas in the world.

As soon as the tea culture (first of all, the consumer tea culture) became decentralized, and the world became global, the idea of ​​what is good and what is bad ceased to be general and moved to the level of specific styles of tea, sometimes very small and local. And now this idea is perfectly realized in the framework of Chinese, Taiwanese and Japanese tea competitions. A bit less perfectly — in tea competitions held in tea-consuming countries.

At the same time, attempts to introduce a category similar to the category of Specialty Coffee into the consumer tea culture have been made over the past years on a regular basis with varying degrees of enthusiasm. This enthusiasm is perfectly understandable. Anyone would be happy to establish rules, if not for the entire tea market, then at least for some part of it. But no one has the resources to impose their own rules on the market. Notions like “now we’ll come up with a cool idea and a good term and everyone will ask our opinion about how best to spend money” look frankly naive. Well, ideas and terms can work in their pure form — but only in a small market or within a small community. In order to impose your vision on a large market or community, successful ideas need to be supported by completely different resources.

Even the fact that there has not been invented a unique and special tea term for unique and special tea and instead ‘Specialty Tea’, imitated from coffee, is most often used to denote it, directly confirms the weakness of the existing tea institutions. They do not even have the resources to impose any new term on the market — so they are forced to use the publicity resource of an established term from a neighboring culture.

At the same time, as soon as any really strong structure appears, with which it will be advantageous to work and disadvantageous not to work, a significant part of the professional tea community will happily accept any terminology it offers. Be it Fine Tea, Professional Tea, Master’s Tea, Specialty Tea, or Gongfu Cha. Should we become such World Tea Dark Lords, we’d take a pleasant phonetic ending of the phrase Specialty Tea and name the special tea category simply -tytea. That’s right, with a hyphen, to read it like [titiː] — it’s short, hyper-cute and sexy.

In our view, the emergence of such a global structure which would be able on the part of the consumer tea culture to impose its own rules on the entire tea market is unlikely in the near future. The tea world is fortunately multipolar. And the tea world has a self-sufficient China with its huge manufacturing tea culture, serving the same huge domestic consumer culture. The self-sufficient Chinese tea culture is able to easily ignore any attempts to impose external rules for the evaluation of tea; and, if necessary, it easily integrates these rules and makes them work for itself.

However, the lack of prerequisites for the appearance of an analogue of Specialty Coffee in tea does not deprive the development of this very concept of academic appeal. For example, all known to us attempts to separate special tea into a separate consumer category experience noticeable difficulties with a formal definition of this category. Simply put, so far no one has been able to clearly and consistently answer the question of what Special(i)ty Tea is. (Further we will use this term, for all its disadvantages it has already taken root and is understandable to everyone as much as all this can be understood at all). Although, in our opinion, this definition is very simple. It’s just that when formulating it, you need to abandon the senseless attempts to associate Specialty Tea with the quality or any other characteristics of tea.

More on this in the next article.

Olga Nikandrova & Denis Shumakov. 2021