The last decades have seen a boom in what the industry calls ‘Specialty Teas’, but if you ask for a definition you will come away confused.
Even, there is no specific, established and recognized definition, for most of the people a speciality tea is a value added tea, where something is special, the contrary of a commun tea, of an average quality and easily available. The notion of speciality is the opposite of mass market tea and encompasses some or all of the following notions :
- the influence of specific climatic factors or seasons on the taste of the tea at certain periods in the year
- highest production criterias
- a specific know how as well in the agriculture as in the manufacturing of the tea
- an original, quite rare blend, coming from a special « terroir » or producing area
- limited quantities which make the rarety
It is therefore a value added tea with a quite difficult or confidential sourcing.
Terroirs like Darjeeling or Uva in Sri Lanka are good examples to express the influence of climatic factors on the taste of a tea during a very short period. No chance to experiment the menthol taste of an Uva tea outside the July August month as well as the famous muscatel taste of Darjeeling teas only strongly expressed during the month of May and June.
To produce tea with highest levels and quality parameters, is first of all the decision of the planter whose goal is quality over quantity.
A special treat from A to Z, a great attention is paid to all steps of production. It begins with the selection of the location where the tea will be planted depending, for example, on the orientation. Then, it continues with the establishment of plucking standards that may affect the time of the plucking or the size of the leaves. I do remember about the production norms of this exceptional Oolong called Green Tiger in Fujian endorsed on strict technical specifications for which all stages of culture and manufacturing are going to refer. It mentions the fact that the leaves have to be plucked with a cisor as well as the necessary qualities of the best Tea Master in charge of the manufacturing. In case of common teas such care is not taken, nor so demanding standards in anything are maintained.
The choice of the cultivar is also a very import décision. With the interaction of the soil, some of them will develop a special taste. I do refer to this clone planted in a garden in the Upper Assam whose flavour remains Raspberry Jam during the second flush period or to this Darjeeling tea garden which deliberately chose only to plant cultivars that express a white flower taste as the famous PB 312.
To illustrate a special know-how, hand rolled teas or the famous blooming teas seem to be the best exemples.
Some people are requesting the establishment of standards which will exactly define « what is a speciality tea ». In France, the wine sector can be taken as exemple for a successfull hierarchy where set up standards for decades have given a “consistency” to the different types of wine, watched and checked.
Today, in the world of tea, the value of these speciality teas is difficult to appreciate for the consumer. The high price is globaly considered as a proof of the value added to a tea.
Understanding the value added of a tea passes by a solid information and in depth product knowledge that the seller in his shop has to learn and understand. To my point of vue, this understanding is facilitated by visiting tea gardens in producing countries.