Eunice and David Bigelow are set to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Specialty Food Association for their contributions to the specialty tea industry. The couple will be recognized for paving the way for the US specialty industry through their Bigelow and Constant Comment brands, and for their leadership skills and positive influence on thousands of employees. Eunice and David were also instrumental in purchasing and reviving the Charleston Tea Plantation in South Carolina since 2003. The event will take place on June 27 during the Summer Fancy Food Show in New York City.
Devan Shah, tea industry pioneer and founder of International Tea Importers, passed away unexpectedly on April 3. Shah was a preeminent figure in the US tea industry, having set up International Tea Importers, one of the largest specialty tea import companies, over 25 years ago. Later, he was the driving force behind the launches of Chado Tea Room, which currently operates 4 locations in California and India, and the Los Angeles Tea Festival. Shah was a major sponsor of the Specialty Tea Institute and a perennial champion of tea education. He was also distinguished by the industry for being a proponent of chai tea and one of the founders of the category in the US. The cause of death remains unclear. Devan Shah was 53 years old.
A conversation about the beginnings of a grass-roots company with an unique ethos, the growing popularity of yerba mate and why it may be the next big thing.
Yerba mate is quite an obscure concept for the average consumer, yet is continuously gaining in popularity. What are some of the features of yerba mate and how does it differ from the usual varieties of tea?
Botanically speaking, yerba mate is not related to Camellia sinensis (Asian tea) at all. A member of the holly family, yerba mate is known to botanists as Ilex paraguariensis. It grows as a small understory tree in the subtropical forests of eastern Paraguay, northern Argentina, and southern Brazil.
Yerba mate has a rich history of use by the indigenous Guarani people of the region. The Guarani first developed the method of pouring hot water over dried yerba mate leaves in a hollow gourd and sipping the infusion through a filter-tipped bamboo straw called a bombilla (bom-bee-ya). European colonists learned to drink mate from the Guarani in the 16th century. For millions of South Americans, sharing yerba mate with a bombilla 'traditional-style' has come to symbolize hospitality, friendship, and cultural identity.
Although yerba mate is technically an herbal tea or tisane, it does contain caffeine. The level of caffeine varies greatly depending on the method of preparation. A brewed cup of yerba mate contains slightly less caffeine than a typical cup of black tea. However, these levels increase dramatically when yerba mate is prepared 'traditional-style' with a bombilla.
It's important to note that yerba mate contains a medley of the three forms of caffeine found in coffee, green tea, and chocolate (caffeine, theophyllene, and theobromine, respectively). In addition, yerba mate supplies abundant B vitamins and minerals. Many people find the stimulation from mate less edgy and more physical than coffee or tea. Partly due to its appetite-suppressant qualities, yerba mate is often touted as a weight-loss aid.
Yerba mate is a rich source of antioxidants. The ORAC value of a cup of EcoTeas mate is 60% higher than an average cup of green tea.
The taste of yerba mate has been described as bitter or smoky. Some people find it objectionable, especially at first. However, brewing mate requires a bit of skill. To brew good mate, avoid using boiling water (170F / 75C is perfect), moisten the herb with cool water first, and steep for no longer than five minutes. When these instructions are followed, mate tastes great. The flavor is like green tea with gumption. Also, EcoTeas yerba mate is dried with warm air instead of the usual smoke, and this imparts a cleaner unsmoked flavor that many people prefer at first taste.
EcoTeas is a grassroots company on a niche market. How did you get into this business and what were some of the key steps in your company's development in recent years?
We started EcoTeas in the kitchen of a small house in Ashland, Oregon back in March of 2000. It was originally Stefan Schachter's idea to found a company to spread the availability of organically grown yerba mate in the US. He had learned about the tea while volunteering in Paraguay as a teenager.
Early on, he enlisted the help of long-time friends Brendan Girard and myself. Brendan was a social worker at the time, and I was a high-school English teacher. We shared a passion for organic gardening and healthy living. We blended teas in our back yard and served mate at regional farmers' markets and music festivals. In June of 2000, we acquired our first wholesale account in a local grocery store. We soon found ourselves traveling up and down the west coast of the U.S. promoting our brand in natural food stores.
The next leap forward came when we formed an exclusive partnership with the Kraus family farm in Misiones, Argentina. Their unique 'unsmoked' yerba mate was simply the best we'd ever tasted. It had a vibrant flavor and a rich, mellow body. The Kraus farm invested in us in the form of two full container loads of yerba mate, which was enough raw material to launch what turned out to be our top-selling product, a one-pound bag of pure leaf yerba.
We had witnessed the success of the loose-tea format in Argentine grocery stores, but even we were taken aback by the incredible success of this product in North America. The US tea market is largely driven by tea bags, but our loose one-pounder now ranks consistently among the top-selling tea products in the natural products industry nationwide. We still encounter skeptics in the industry who don't believe that our loose tea can succeed in their stores, but a brief glance at the numbers usually changes their minds. By streamlining our operation and maintaining focus, we've been able to offer a unique combination of value and quality that really appeals to the natural food shopper.
We've recently been pleased to achieve official recognition for our fair trade business practices. Swiss-based IMO (Institute for Marketecology) visited our farm, audited our books, and granted us their 'Fair for Life' status. We consider this a key achievement as we seek to keep pace with the evolving natural tea market. The USDA organic label has lost some of its luster in recent years, so we knew we needed to provide our customers with additional assurances that our tea is grown in a way that is sustainable and responsible. 'Fair for Life' was a great opportunity to do just that.
As you have pointed out, a major trend in the tea industry is convenience, with tea bags and ready-to-drink beverages dominating the market. Is yerba mate suited for this role and, alternatively, how can the category evolve to satisfy this need?
Actually, yerba mate is an ideal ingredient for the ready-to-drink energy beverage category. It is unique among stimulants for its 'triple-punch' of nutrition, antioxidants, and balanced physical stimulation. In the current functional beverage environment, it's only a matter of time before yerba mate awareness explodes in this country the way it has in South America.
Rather than getting into the complex business of selling bottled teas, we made a conscious decision from the beginning to become active in the supply business. To meet this need, we currently maintain a large quantity of 40-pound bags of our signature pure-leaf, unsmoked yerba mate in a warehouse in California. We also import full container loads of yerba mate of a variety of cuts, ages, and drying/roasting methods and ship directly to manufacturing plants.
Beverage manufacturers choose our yerba mate supply for a host of reasons. Our pure leaf cut is not only potent, it is also very clean and dust-free. Meanwhile, our unsmoked taste is versatile and neutral. We are also 100% certified organic, fair trade, and kosher. We have an active reforestation program creating shade and protecting biodiversity, and of course we give our customers full access to this positive marketing story. At this point we have a decade of experience importing yerba mate from Argentina.
As the category evolves to include the bigger players, we'd love to maintain the association that yerba mate has with organic agriculture, fair trade, and rainforest restoration. Like chocolate and coffee, yerba mate can be grown in so many ways, from small subsistence plots to huge mechanized operations with lots of agricultural chemicals. Unlike those two major commodities, yerba mate has acquired a reputation from the outset in our country as an ecological tea. As awareness of yerba mate continues to expand, we intend to do all we can to keep yerba mate's product integrity intact.
The story behind EcoTeas is very inspiring. What are some of the features that distinguish EcoTeas from other players on the market and how do you foresee the companys vision developing in the future in terms of business practices, product innovations, marketing and other initiatives?
Thanks for the encouraging words! In the day-to-day grind of running a business, it can be easy to forget all the grace we've received along the way.
As far as what distinguishes EcoTeas, I believe we have a unique combination of common traits. For instance, lots of companies sell organic and fair trade teas. Likewise, many companies focus on providing high-quality loose teas. There are also quite a few tea companies that aim to attract customers through everyday low pricing. Some of these 'EDLP' brands may even state as an explicit point in their marketing plan that they want to be on people's shopping lists the same way that people buy eggs, milk, or bread. However, I don't know of too many other brands that combine all these traits into one product line the way we have. That's what makes us unique.
To elaborate, we would rather see our products in 10 shopping baskets than 100 gift baskets. Have you ever noticed how gift-oriented loose teas often migrate to the dark back corners of cupboards where they slowly go stale until they finally get thrown out when people move? I have no desire to see my own products languishing back there among the bamboo canisters of oolong and macha that sell for $20 an ounce! It's no wonder the market is dominated by tea bags and bottles when the alternatives are so expensive and obscure. We want to bring tea to the masses in a healthy, sustainable, affordable way.
Going forward, we want to do more of the same. We want to continue to increase the presence of our top-selling one-pounder. It's the kind of product that really ought to be everywhere coffee or tea is sold. We are systematically switching to compostable packaging for our entire product line. We are also excited to continue to supply the rest of the tea industry with yerba mate for all their tea bag and bottled beverage needs.
Sustainable practices are very important to EcoTeas. How do such initiatives tangibly contribute to improve the conditions of plantation workers and the environment?
This is a great question. I think about it a lot, actually. If fair trade certification doesn't produce tangible results for the workers and the environment, it's just a hollow logo affixed to the front of package labels. We're glad to finally achieve the certification, but we can't be complacent now that we have it.
First of all, the fair trade model provides farmers not only with a better price, but also a guaranteed price. Before they even start planting, farmers know exactly what they will be paid for their goods. Farmers working outside the fair trade model must often contend with fluctuating prices on the world market. This makes it very difficult to run a successful operation, pay employees, invest in the future, etc. With stabilized pricing, our farmers can turn their attention to growing the best yerba mate in the world.
We also provide our farmers with technical assistance for certifications and logistics. We have helped them acquire more land and expand their organic certification to this land. With our assistance they built a new warehouse to age their tea. Our farmers themselves have contributed to the construction of a local school and health clinic for their workers. Rather than treating our farmers like mere producers of an ingredient, we see the relationship as a long-term, mutually-beneficial collaboration. As they thrive, so do we.
A new innovation that arose through the certification process was the development of a special fair trade fund. A portion of the sale of each kilo of tea we purchase from our farmers goes directly into a special fund for the workers. The workers actually get to vote on how this fund will be used. For my part, I'm super curious to see how this fund bears fruit in the coming years!
The final piece of our fair trade puzzle is our reforestation program. We plant thousands of diverse native trees on our partner farm each year. These trees provide shade, protect soil, enhance biodiversity, and generate additional income through fruit and timber. We've experienced a steep learning curve about what, when, where, and how to plant, but we've had some great assistance from universities and NGO's along the way.
When you consider it from a broad perspective, fair trade is more than simply a cost of doing business in the natural marketplace. It's an investment in a superior product from an assured long-term source.
And from your company's perspective, how has the interest in Fair Trade and Organic products, which usually carry a heftier price tag, been impacted by the economic downturn?
I don't think anyone has really thrived in the recession, but the natural products industry has weathered it better than many other industries. In general, the economic downturn slowed the expansion of natural products into new demographics that have not traditionally enjoyed them. We saw fewer new store openings. Foot traffic in existing stores seemed to slow a bit. Meanwhile, many of our supply customers grew cautious about launching new products. A major supply customer of ours actually went out of business due to their inability to find new sources of venture capital during the height of the crunch.
Fortunately, the recession didn't really hurt us among our core customers. Due to our pricing structure, product format, and explicit brand message, our products generally appeal to the segment of the natural market that is deeply committed to the organic lifestyle. These are not people who are exploring organic foods because they recently read an article about growth hormones in milk, for instance. Our core demographic is younger, more highly motivated, and less affluent to begin with than the new wave of natural shoppers. They hold a deep concern for the health of their bodies and the planet. They likely grew enthusiastic about natural foods while they were still adolescents or in college, and at this point natural foods are an integral component of their identity. The economy would have to get a lot worse for these folks to give up on organics.
Our sales actually stayed steady during the recession. We didn't grow as quickly as we had been growing, but the slow-down gave us a chance to catch our breath, tighten our business model, and get ready for the next big growth spurt.
Looking ahead, how do you see the Yerba Mate market evolving several years from now both domestically and internationally? What trends will drive the market?
I have no doubt that yerba mate is going to continue to expand in popularity in this country and beyond. It has so much going for it, and it appeals to so many different people for different reasons.
Yerba mate has been flying under the radar in the US for decades. It has gained a firm foothold in US college towns, urban centers, and other progressive bastions. In the coming months and years, ready to drink beverages are going to help yerba mate spread beyond this core into the suburbs. I bet we see it showing up as a stand-alone or flagship ingredient in bottled tea flavors from the major conventional brands in the next few years. Also, I foresee big growth in yerba mate powder used as an ingredient in supplements for weight loss and natural energy.
A lot of this initial growth is going to leave our EcoTeas brand behind, but we're excited to help supply the companies that do expand into these niches. And as the ready-to-drink and supplement sectors expand, we'll be there to provide high-quality loose yerba to the recently converted.
Combining his love of healthy living, travel, and organic agriculture, Stefan Schachter founded EcoTeas in the year 2000 in the kitchen of a small house in Ashland, Oregon. EcoTeas' winning formula of great price, superior quality, and unwavering commitment to organic agriculture and fair trade has propelled their one pound bag of yerba mate into the upper echelons of the US natural tea market. Year after year, it consistently ranks among the top-selling organic tea SKUs in the nation.
Hampstead Tea has been a pioneer of biodynamic products from its beginnings in 1995. How did the adventure start and what was the company's vision at the time?
I was looking for something to do that related with food - I was a strategic management consultant and had 2 small children and was becoming very concerned with the quality of food available in the UK. In 1987, I had a chance meeting with Rajah Banerjee, the owner, manager of Makaibari and was so inspired with his story that I was determined to tell people about it. I began by selling Makaibari tea in bulk to tea packers in Germany, Japan and the US and soon decided to launch my own brand, Hampstead Tea. Hampstead was named after the hillside town in London where we first met. Having seen how Makaibari had evolved using the principles of Rudolph Steiner (biodynamics), I was determined to remain true to these origins even though it has proved challenging over the years..
What do biodynamic farming practices consist of and how do they differ from organic agriculture as it is commonly known?
The best way to describe biodynamic farming is that it is organic plus i.e. a more proactive system of agriculture using inputs in the composting that dynamise the farm. It is also a far more holistic way of farming. See the Demeter website for more details.
You describe your agricultural practices as organic plus. How big of a challenge has it been differentiating your philosophy from "standard" organic products and how has the consumer responded?
It has been very challenging without big advertising budgets to communicate the differences but we do have a strong following amongst communities where biodynamic is recognized as a higher quality standard. The problem has been in our interusage of the terms biodynamic with organic as the consumer has become aware of the organic standards far earlier than biodynamic.
We've witnessed amazing gains of awareness and interest in organic farming standards these past few years. Have you experienced a similar buzz in the biodynamic arena?
The organic trend has benefited us hugely as it has helped us to capture the attention of environmentally conscious consumers. And as biodynamic is also organic there is no inconsistency in our message.
Do you feel there is a danger of biodynamic standards being overwhelmed by organic ones in a "war of formats" (as we've experienced with video and DVD)?
No I don't thinks so - biodynamics is a totally different and unique philosophy.
Hampstead evokes a beautiful town in London and pays homage to the company's roots. What role does "britishness" play in your company's identity and where else does Hampstead Teas draw its inspiration from?
The roots of Hampstead are in the bohemian Hampstead town. This is where Karl Marx, Daphne du Maurier, Keats, Shelley all lived parts of their creative lives. It is a town where free and unfettered thinking and progressive ideas are encouraged and prosper. Makaibari, our partner estate, in Darjeeling, has also been a deep source of inspiration for me personally - to see what Rajah Banerjee, the owner, has achieved there is truly life changing.
Hampstead Teas continues to grow on an international level and can be found in faraway countries such as Japan and Australia. How receptive have foreign audiences been to your message and commitments?
As with all markets, you win some and lose some... we try and seek out the "Hampstead customer" wherever we are present and this is the most exciting and challenging part of venturing overseas!
Speaking of overseas, your exposure to the US has thus far been limited. What challenges does this market represent in your experience and how receptive has the American audience been to your philosophy?
It is a challenging market as the area is so diverse and consumers trained to buy on deal - something we at Hampstead avoid doing. We believe that our products already represent great value as they contain the very best in class and we therefore stay away from discounts and promotions. We cant really justify these as we believe in ethical behavior throughout the supply chain and that includes the consumer.
Finally, looking forward, how do you plan to reach the "Hampstead customer" in such a vast and competitive market?
We are working on it slowly building relationships with retail groups who support our philosophy.
Your first teahouse has recently celebrated its twelfth anniversary. Has the popularity of tea in this country matched your original expectation, or have there been surprised along the way?
The growth of tea and our business has certainly exceeded my expectation since I didn't really know what to expect 12 years ago. It has been a wonderful twelve years (actually thirteen since it took one year to open the store).
You now have a second location in the Ferry Building. What changes in format have you made based on your experience with the first?
We try to offer a pure tea experience in our original store and after 12 years, we are somewhat successful. The second location offers more traditional food items to be served along with tea to ease the initial "shock" for new comers to tea since food are easier to understand, and to Chinese, food and tea are both art forms to be presented. We are in the process of opening a third location in Berkeley, CA, which will explore even further the idea of food and tea presentations.
Mixing tea and food is a formula that's working well for Ten Ren's Cha for Tea. Might the efforts of those trying to be the Starbucks of tea be misplaced, and the tea-inspired restaurant prove the formula that prevails in bringing tea to the masses?
I am not sure, but it seems to work for our Gerry Building store. I am sure some people only come for the food but it opens the door.
How do you traverse the fine line between keeping the experience of tea pure and tinkering with tradition so as to broaden its appeal?
I don't feel there's any problems since Chinese view tea and food as part of everyday life and there's never a wrong time to have tea or food. However, the sensible use of tea and food items not only compliments but help appeal as well.
The bubble tea phenomenon is most pronounced in your state. Do you find yourself tempted to appeal to this audience by sacrificing some of your products' authenticity?
I do not believe that you need to sacrifice anything, if I choose to do bubble tea it will be done well, if I am making teabags or flavor tea it doesn't mean a good job can not be done. I never have any issues with others using or doing things that are not the "best" or "traditional", I just do not agree with people who decides NOT to do a good job simply because of a price issue etc.
So might we one day see an Imperial Teappuccino?
I am trying to decide if I want to live in the US or China as I get older. If I continue business here, you will certainly see something different from me, however, I won't go as far as a "Teappuccino", there's plenty to do with good taste and within tradition.
If you return to China, might you consider developing a Chinese tea brand? Consumers are sure to pay extra to be assured of consistent quality from one year to the next.
it is a possibility, I am not sure what I will be doing just yet but I wanted to live near a tea farm some time in my life to really be in tune with tea and nature, it's impossible here in the US but I can virtually make it happen the next day I arrived China if I so choose. I am not a marketing person, rather I want to be a tea "artist."
How does the tea artist in you react to China's rapid development and urbanization? Will modernity adversely affect the art of tea?
If it's not one thing it's another, the current rapid development brings opportunities and distractions. I feel like there's so much to do that there's no time to worry about it. In due time, I just put my head down and go forward.
That doesn't sound very optimistic. Given your keen sense of the Chinese tea industry, what positive developments do you observe that give you cause for optimism?
Certainly the fact that people are willing and able to pay for high quality teas as well as all the new tea enterprises that are going up everyday are all good news. All of these things bring tea to a more important place in peoples' lives. There are also obviously many problems like pollution and overproduction, but those are facts of life. I choose to deal with it and let the chips fall where they may...
a conversation about where the industry has been, where it's going, and the pitfalls to avoid along the way.
Tea's conquest of America has often been predicted. Earlier expectation, unfortunately, proved greatly exaggerated. Are we now finally seeing the fulfillment of this prophesy?
The word "conquest" seems much too strong when talking about tea. Tea influences; tea suggests; tea invites new consumers to discover its wonders. Tea appeals to the intellect, to consumers sensibilities. Like its flavor profile, tea takes a more subtle approach to market expansion. Tea prefers gradual gains to explosive growth and it prefers to win over consumer's minds & bodies as opposed to attacking its competitors.
It is a strategy that is a bit more "plodding" (deliberate) than many would like but it is steady and it is lasting. Over the last decade or two, tea has made many inroads into America driven by new forms, new availability, the promise of health benefits, the appeal of its varied flavor profiles, the promise of profitability, and its tremendous versatility.
While significant gains have already been made, the industry remains under-appreciated by many consumers and the "fight" to expand its presence in America has a very long way to go.
Political Science students have a saying that Brazil is the country of the future, and always will be. Are you not worried that tea's "civilized" pace may consign it to a similar role?
It has long been my contention that if our competitors had only half as much going for them that tea has going for it then they would command the marketplace. The Tea Industry is a conservative industry and has been since the beginnings of recorded time. While this has served to slow down its rate of growth it should be noted, with a bit of surprise, that next to water - tea is the most popular drink in the world.
Over the last decade or so tea has become more popular in the US as well spurred by new product innovations, the promise of health benefits, as well as the discovery of myriad flavors and variations from around the globe. Growth is not explosive but it has been steady and promises to be long lived.
So while the Tea Industry has virtually unlimited potential, it is also making solid gains in the area of beverage popularity. As time passes the very nature of the Tea Industry will change as non-traditional tea companies begin to market tea beverages or use tea as an ingredient in other products. As these changes occur, the speed of progress will inevitably increase spurred by entrepreneurs and innovators who have few, if any, ties to the traditions or culture of the old-line industry.
The entrepreneurs and innovators you describe are primarily engaged in the specialty tea segment. How much of that energy and vigor is reflected among the industry's more traditional players?
The Specialty Tea segment is fortunate to have its share of innovators and entrepreneurs although it accounts for only about 10% of the volume of the total market. It is interesting to note that one of the fastest growing segments of the market for tea and the single largest segment of the mass market is Ready-To-Drink. It accounts for about 40% of the market with an impressive amount of innovation and marketing pizzazz coming from traditional players and their soft drink partners as well as newly formed companies seeking to come into the marketplace.
The efforts on the part of the traditional marketers to capitalize on the health message for tea far out-pace anything that is happening on the Specialty side of the business. In fact, the health effort, which is credited for the revitalization of the tea industry, is entirely due to the efforts of the traditional tea industry.
The traditional segment is also responsible for establishing a selling environment that is conducive for the entire tea industry to flourish including the appeal of specialty teas. Were it not for their stabilization effect, today's market for tea would not be nearly as vibrant.
The Tea Industry is made up of many parts and its overall success or failure is dependent upon each of the component parts contributing to the well-being of the total entity.
Are there any pitfalls that you would advise the industry to avoid in order to realize the glorious future that is so often predicted?
While the future looks very bright for the entire Tea Industry, there are certainly issues that must be addressed if it is to continue to gain sales momentum and consumer interest.
The first cautionary note concerns the tea & health message. It has multiple parts.
1. The trade must exercise restraint in how it communicates that message to consumers.
a. It is dangerous to over-promise. If ever the industries conservative nature could serve it well, it is here. By making extravagant claims about the health contributions attributed to tea the message becomes watered down and becomes unbelievable. Stick to the facts and, whenever possible, quote some other medical authority, the Association, a specific study, or a particular article as opposed to embellishing what you think you know.
b. Be very careful about what you say on your packaging. By law, the only thing that we can currently say is to factually state what the antioxidant levels are on a per saving basis. No other comments about the health benefits of tea are approved by the government for use on packaging other than some very generic comments about the role of antioxidants in the diet. Companies going beyond these limits do so at their own risk but, more importantly, they risk generating negative publicity which could affect the entire industry - not just their own company.
c. Don't convert tea from a pleasurable beverage into a medicine. Remember the primary reason why consumers drink tea is because they like the taste or how it makes them feel. In all of your marketing efforts, the sensory appeal of tea should be the priority message with health playing an important secondary role.
d. Don't attempt to diagnose your consumer's medical conditions or offer advice about how tea may play a role in alleviating any condition. The only advice that is suitable under these conditions is to suggest that they follow the advice of their own medical doctors.
e. Whenever possible let the medical professionals and scientists talk to the media about the health benefits of tea as the message is perceived to be much more credible than if coming from someone with a vested interest in selling tea.
2. The second concern is relative to tea being sold away from home. I am not talking about the quality of tea being served in tea rooms because presumably it is of high quality and properly prepared. I am referring to the quality, preparation, and presentation of tea sold in diners, restaurants, hotels, and institutions across the US. In many cases it is far from ideal and serves to constrain the consumption of tea in these outlets.
The entire tea industry needs to be concerned with this issue and needs to be part of the solution; either directly through educational materials or indirectly through their complaints as consumers.
3. The next issue is one of social responsibility. In the past, allegations of the abuses of the rights of workers, especially children, have been made by various authorities. While the allegations have never been proven they could generate negative publicity which is never good. The key here is to make sure you know who you are buying your tea from and that you have challenged your suppliers to certify that they are abiding by all applicable laws of their respective countries. This is one area where it pays to do your homework to ensure that each one of us and the industry in general is on solid ground.
This does not mean that you should necessarily obtain your tea from some sort of third party organization (this is more of a marketing decision than anything else) simply that you have an obligation to ensure that you are dealing with reputable suppliers.
4. The forth and final concern is one of education of the trade and consumers. Many people are coming into the tea industry with little or no formal training in the business of selling tea. True, they are bringing a passion which propels them forward and is transmitted to their customers but passion alone is not enough. It is important for each of us to be communicating the same information about tea whether we are talking about health benefits, types of tea, caffeine levels, preparation method, storage conditions, nuances of taste, or any other question that may come up. By communicating the wrong information or half information, consumers become confused which could easily translate into reduced consumption.
The Tea Association of the USA and the Specialty Tea Institute offer several opportunities throughout the course of the year for newcomers to tea to obtain a formal education through our Certification program. Now there is no excuse for anyone within the tea trade not to have at least a fundamental knowledge of tea to ensure that consumers will hear a consistent message.
No one coming into the industry should expect that these Certification Programs will entitle them to be called a Tea Master (a title which is probably properly applied to only a handful of people in the entire world). However, it will certainly help them to achieve a level of professionalism that will increase their credibility amongst the peers in the trade as well as their customers.
These are the major concerns that come to mind and the areas where the entire Tea Industry needs to pay close attention to ensure that positive momentum for tea continues uninterrupted.
Rishi Tea has clearly positioned itself as a leader in the organic and fair-trade segment. Has this been the company's focus from inception?
From the start, Rishi's mission has been to deal directly with smallholder producers of connoisseur caliber teas and botanicals. The path of our mission led us to organic teas as we found that the best tasting and purest teas from most origins are organic.
Many people in our industry swore up and down that organic teas are inferior and more expensive than conventional teas. We never believed this and quickly realized that commonly held idea to be a fallacy only true to those brands and wholesalers dependent on the standard stocks of domestic brokers. Dealing directly with Asian producers allowed us to keep our organic prices in line with conventional premium tea prices by cutting out the middle men.
We also felt that much of the increased demand for tea was riding on the heels of medical reports. We recognized that our teas should not only taste good but should have a positive impact on the health of society and our environment. Fair Trade and Organic was a perfect fit with our philosophy and the demands of our customers.
Has anyone studied the affect of the pesticides found in conventional teas on the human body? Some have argued that the caffeine in tea might be more harmful. Is there any data to reconcile these views?
There have been reports that synthetic pesticides and chemical residues found in conventional tea "are not so bad" due to the fact that many are not water soluble and do not get into your cup. I think it is total rubbish. It only perpetuates the sort of non-sense that it is o.k. to go on polluting the environment and living conditions of the workers who pick our teas so long as the damage does not flow into our cups a world away.
We must think about the planet and those that live in the areas that make our teas. Even if synthetic chemicals (i.e. pesticides used in tea) do not cause "so much harm" to us we must think about the tea regions where the agri-chemical pollution truly takes its toll. These chemicals are not good for the land or the water supply so how could they be OK for us? There exists a choice and I think organic is the right choice for us and the planet.
US tea drinkers should be aware of the following before buying into the idea that chemical residues in tea are o.k. The EU has regulations on allowable residue levels in conventional teas that cover a broad range of common and not so common chemicals. The US does not have any regulations thereby teas that can not enter the EU because of high residue or impurity make their way into our cups in America. I think the US needs to regulate residues on imported food products like the EU. Tea is food and we should learn from the EU regulation. Until such time, I will stick with organic and low residue tested teas.
I think caffeine is a choice and can be a good thing or a bad thing based on your rate of consumption, diet and body constitution.
Tea has a more mild caffeine effect when compared to coffee. Tea also contains an amino acid known as L-theanine that relaxes the nervous system and contributes to the more relaxing effects of tea. It is known as a counter balance to caffeine and many feel that this is the key difference between the calm energy from tea and the hard coffee buzz. This is well noted in Japan and explains why most people do not fear the caffeine that comes with moderate tea consumption.
The idea that caffeine is as hazardous as chemical residues found in conventional tea seems crazy to me. I do not think anyone that knows the true facts about chemical pesticides and their impact on the planet and farm workers can say that the caffeine in tea is equally worrisome. I think that argument is weak.
Concern for the environment is luxury that the West adopted relatively recently. Are we being fair to the aspirations of the world's poor by applying our high standards to them so early in their development?
We have decimated forests and extracted resources with reckless abandon to achieve technological and economic dominance. Why should those in the so-called Third World not be allowed to follow our path?
I think it is pompous and totally unfair for the various illuminati to demand that people in the developing world remain in the Stone Age while our society continues to sacrifice the global environment to fuel our growth. These effete intellectuals continue to buy up tracts of virgin forests for their "natural preserves" that produce little more than a trickle of tourist cash for local people. This shallowness is quite different from the economic incentives offered by the organic trade movement.
I think organic trade will bolster growth for the developing world and not retard it. The organic movement encourages development and offers financial premiums and incentives for those in the developing world to produce what we, the rich Westerners, seem to want. The trend in US is toward organic and the producers must respond.
I think it is right for consumers to demand what they want from producers. Now, the market demands organic and many of the producing nations must deliver to survive and grow within the trend.
Maybe it is not fair but that is the way it is. I do not think that demanding organic is holding back the developing world's producers in any way. In fact, I see the opposite. Small holders that go organic tend to band together in order to strengthen their positions. Small holders that work together for organic production have a better chance at survival through joint networking and building long-term relationships with organic specific buyers. We have seen this within the Rishi supply chain and have never felt that demanding organic holds poor farmers back. Our organic farmers seem to have a more stable position and dependable prices than many of the conventional producers who are always at the whim of the spot buyers who are without loyalty or long-term relationships.
Organic certification of the farm and facilities is in many cases paid for by companies like Rishi and not the farmers. This encourages long-term relationships with farmers and helps to secure the farmers prices, position and sustainable development.
We as tea buyers or consumers can define quality as more than taste, aroma and leaf style. We can demand strict control of the agricultural inputs such as chemical pesticides and fertilizers. We can demand "organic", "shade grown" or "Fair Trade" products if that is what we want. The producers will provide the consumers what they demand, that is the nature of the marketplace, and I do not think we should feel guilty about that.
We are using the laws of economics to force change, conservation and organic development. The producers are getting paid for their goods. It is not the same as the tree huggers who demand that the cute, little, poor indigenous people remain stuck in their thatch huts only to preserve the Rainforests as theme parks and their so called "noble, un-spoiled identities" for rich tourists. Must they remain poor to be noble and true to their culture? I do not think so!
Most of the "utopian visionaries" in the conservation movement offer no economic development programs or viable means for the local people to enjoy sustainable economic growth. The organic movement offers much more than that. You can conserve natural resources and develop non-timber forestry products to bring economic prosperity to the developing world. In fact, many organic players like Rishi Tea, Forestrade and Guayaki Yerba Mate are able to use the revenue from organic, non-timber forestry products to support on-going conservation and sustainable development programs in the developing world. The organic movement, in my experience in fair and well suited to the needs of poor farmers.
Your products and marketing materials have among the finest designs in the industry. Has good design always been your focus?
Yes. When the decision was made to enter into the retail environment we concluded we needed to design the brand to look completely different from all the other tea products. Our approach is to present our premium tea as a modern and refreshing beverage. We place a high importance on the consumer's emotional connection with our "look and feel" which serves to support the entire Revolution Tea experience.
Some might argue that your designs appear too cool, and might not connote the warm feelings consumers have historically associated with tea. How do you reply to such critics?
We are intentionally trying to depart from what is historically associated with tea. We want the consumer to think of the Revolution brand in the context of new, refreshing and innovative. For a brand to brake out in an over-saturated marketplace it can not follow the herd. Moreover, we believe that consumers want to be a part of something new and "cool", look at the success of the Apple iPod as a perfect example.
Apple's marketing of the iPod is conspicuously aimed at teens, though the average age of its owners is much higher. Are you similarly positioning your products to tap into the desire for youth that appears in us all?
To some extent yes. There are several emotional triggers that we want to touch. Youth and the desire to live better longer are certainly among them.
Speaking of youth, what profession did you aspire to when growing up?
Was it Shakespeare's prescription to "first, kill all the lawyers" that made you reconsider?
Something like that. Quite by accident I took a few fine art classed at the University of Arizona which I really enjoyed - I never looked back.
Tea has always had substance. The work of companies like Revolution and Tea Forte has also imbued it with art. Was art the missing ingredient that prevented tea from finding a wider audience up to now?
Art is only one of the missing ingredients. Innovation is the other. Without the flow through silken style bags there would be no full-leaf tea in a bag. The package alone may entice the consumer to pick up the box and purchase the tea but that alone may not inspire the second purchase, nor will it encourage word of mouth exposure or build customer loyalty. Only the potent combination of art and innovation can broaden an established market.
For decades most Americans only thought of coffee as a commodity brand like Folgers (no offense). Then came along several creative and innovative companies like Starbucks that put the "art" into coffee. The consumer shift was significant and it changed the entire category.
Tea may never hit the same stride that coffee has enjoyed but it is evident that pent-up demand for something new, refreshing and innovative is surfacing and a significant change is about to take place.
A combination of art and innovation is also evident in your RTD line of products. But will it suffice to compete in the hotly contested bottled-tea market?
We believe the answer is yes and the initial sell through data also suggests so. We are just now entering the 2nd and most critical year for the White-T market introduction and should be able let you know the verdict by this time next year.
You've mentioned Apple and Starbucks as companies that you admire. Both achieved greatness by famously challenged their industries' convention. Are you seeing something similar stirring these days in the tea industry?
I do and there are a several companies I see making the investment for change. We see it in the adoption of the flow through silk style bags. We see it in the abundance of creative flavor blends entering the market and we see it in those who are daring enough to market unsweetened bottled iced teas. I have been told by many in the RTD arena that if it doesn't have sugar it won't sell - we'll see about that.