Thursday 20 June 2024
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David Veal, Executive Director European of the Specialty Tea Association: “After 5 years we can count about 350 members”

David Veal: “The main challenge in those 5 years, has been always to convert people’s enthusiasm to invest economically into the organization and becoming a member. In a time with Covid, many companies and people were focused only on surviving and being a supporter of an Association wasn’t a priority. We’re going to grow from that in the next three years”."

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MILAN – David Veal was Executive Director of the Speciality Coffee Association of Europe (SCAE) from 2011 until 2018, and he also acted as Executive Ambassador for the SCA. Now, his work as a communicator and promoter of quality in recent years has focused on another supply chain, which always has points of contact with the green bean: tea. We spoke with him as Executive Director European Speciality Tea Association, ESTA.

When and with what goals was the European Specialty Tea Association born?

“ESTA is just 5 years old now and we’re a small organization that is still growing. My background is in the coffee industry, in fact this year I celebrated 40 years in this sector. I have been Executive Director at SCAE until 2018 and when I left I acted as a consultant until I came across an event where the European Specialty Tea Association was launching.

That’s when they openly declared that they wanted to do for specialty tea the same thing that SCAE was doing for coffee: I suggested that i could help them to do that.

After 5 years we can count about 350 members in 54 different countries around the world, not only in Europe but also in Brazil, Australia, China, India, United States, Singapore, Sri Lanka.

My work in this project really took off during Covid, because all my consultancy work in coffee that involved the producers had to stop. So I started to work with ESTA helping them to grow.

Some of the members are tea producers based in traditional producing countries but there a few from Europe too. We hope soon to open a chapter in Italy and to bring tea producers, shops and distributors all together to promote specialty teas.


While there are many differences there are also many similarities as well between coffee and tea: the journey for specialty tea is now starting and it’s very near to the one that specialty coffee has been going through over the last 30 years.

The potential for specialty tea could have a bigger impact: for instance, if you go to talk to somebody in China or in Japan about speciality tea, they don’t understand this definition because they have already a long standing tradition in this beverage and every tea they drink is already speciality.

That’s very relevant for us.

On the other hand, there’s also western culture tea, which is very important to the industry. We also saw a movement outside those two scenarios: the wider hospitality sector is interested in a better tea, in understanding the provenience of the raw material, in the concept of terroir.

For that reason as an Association, two years ago we introduced the concept of the Tea Barista: the word ‘barista’ in time has become equivalent to the word ‘coffee’, but we just thought “why should a good barista be passionate, skilfull and knowledgable only about coffee, and not tea?”

That’s why we would like to introduce tea also in speciality coffee shops and we’re already pushing this initiative.”

It is difficult to give the definition of specialty tea: which one have you adopted and shared?

“The coffee sector and organization have not agreed yet on a definition: it’s still not there for the tea sector. The american definition of specialty coffee was based on the score system and it was different from the european one, which focused more on the experience in the cup: you could have a 95 scored coffee, but then it has to be transported, roasted, ground and brewed. In those processes what was in the first place specialty, in the end it could be completely ruined.

It’s a similar thing in tea, although tea processing is done on or near the farm and so less things could go wrong. It only gets to be brewed.

So we set up a panel of experienced tea experts, and we realized very quickly that to give a single definition would be very difficult as there are so many different views, so we gave a more descriptive one that most people would agree with.

It’s a difficult question and it’s a difficult answer.

It’s a wider problem also because if you can’t define your product, you can’t measure the market. Unfortunately it’s a part of the issue, because it’s very subjective and personal to say what’s the difference between a bad and a good tea.

And therefore the grading system for coffee, whoever is using it (CQI, Cup of Excellence, SCA) has been excellent in helping specialty and especially in supporting producers. In terms of tea, we’re not there yet, although there are small initiatives and experiments, to try in introduce a grading system for specialty teas.

We’re still too small and young to do this on our own so we’re collaborating with others to study a proper grading system that could engage both farmers and consumers.”

What has been until now, the main challenge that European Speciality Tea Association had to face?

“The main challenge in those 5 years, has been always to convert people’s enthusiasm to invest economically into the organization and becoming a member. In a time with Covid, many companies and people were focused only on surviving and being a supporter of an Association wasn’t a priority. We’re going to grow from that in the next three years”.

Could we try to make a comparison between the supply chain of speciailty tea and coffee?

“First of all, both are traded as commodities, which doesn’t necessarily do any favours to producers and it doesn’t help consumers. In tea there are divergences between cost driven, price driven, low quality tea – which are floating the marketplace – and then in the other artisanal and speciality tea. The value chains are similar in coffee and tea, in fact.

But the main difference is that coffee has to be roasted and ground before it’s brewed: these processes are not in the tea chain, where there are also less people, so it should be assured more value in both hands of the supply chain.

Because the specialty coffee market is more mature than the specialty tea, now there are many ways to buy speciality directly from the farmers and producers. This small percentage of the market has helped to bring better quality coffee, to pay higher price to producers and to give better product to consumers. In tea, it exists already with a little direct trading with tea going on, but not as much as in coffee. Its’ very difficult to do that especially from China. “

Can you explain the differences between the 5 levels of membership in ESTA?

“The first level it’s for the consumers and it’s different from all the others because they don’t have the voting rights and they can’t elect the boarders for example. We have the tea barista membership and the price for that one is deliberately low because they’re very important for the tea industry.

Then we have the professional one, for people that are working on their own as consultants, trainers, educators. Then the producing membership, for tea farmers with different range of prices depending on how much they can afford based on their income. Then we have three levels of company membership: the price is based on the annual turnover of their companies. “

What are the conditions of specialty tea producers and are they supported by the activities of your Association?

“It’s difficult to make a comparison between european producing countries and the other origin ones. The assumption is that, where there are difficult conditions for workers on farms, that’s where there are larger plantations.

Here the product is not specialty, but commodity. Generally, it’s fair to say that when you’re dealing with smaller farmers or with larger farmers that produce specialty tea, the conditions for workers are better. But even then, it’s not black or white: I’ve seen children working on coffee farms, but they’re doing it in an organized way, during school holidays with their parents, with all the safety controls. It’s a very cultural issue and we have to be aware of that. Specialty leads the way.

Our Association is just small, but we’re doing something about it: during the International tea day, we have had an online meeting, trying to break a record to raise an amount of money that went on education of women in Nepal and Malawi for tea producers. We’re promoting gender equality and as we grow we will be able to help them more.

Of course most of our members are not producers, because we’re based in a consuming area so we are more committed to the consumers issues. But it’s important to involve producers in what we do and to give them more market opportunities, bringing them in to our community.

One example: we’re very active in research and development. We produced 5 reports in tea and health, one paper about the importance of water in tea, we’re also starting a collaboration with Queens University in Belfast on tea autenticity – is it really a darjeeling tea or is it from Nepal? Is it really organic? -. It will help consumers and producers and it also could be important in terms of quality generally (there’s a lot of adulteration in tea).”

The ESTA is really oriented and connected with the final consumers?

“The story is similar in tea and in coffee: where I was in SCAE we had a membership for consumers, but we didn’t have really the resources to fully engage with them. Which is sad, because certainly both for coffee and tea it is really important to educate final consumers, knowing why instant coffee isn’t as good as specialty for exemple.

The education part, it’s possibly even more important in tea, because in most countries, teas are served in tea bags. It’s a big challenge.

But more than that, most people doesn’t know where the tea comes from. As an association we had a debate: should we only represent tea? We agreed that we deal with anything that comes from Camellia Sinensis plant and that’s what we call tea, and anything else we call botanical and we’re still representing that.”

Why join the ESTA? What are the services and benefits?

“For anybody that is interested only in profits, commodities and low prices: we don’t talk the same language. On the contrary anybody who can see that there is a better way to do thing is our potential member, joining a growing community, be they consumers, producers, a tea shop, blenders, machine manufacturers: all people that are working to the improvement of the product, giving better conditions for workers, a better experience for consumers.

The actual benefict of that is a littlle bit undefined. But who is joing a network, for sure, will benefit in one way or another. Beyond that, there are some practical benefits such as educational programs and also from our news strategies for our 5th anniversary.”

What are the numbers of the specialty tea market in the world?

“Because we don’t have a real definition of specialty tea, I can’t tell precise numbers. We could give a very good guess for coffee, talking about no more then 10% by volume for specialty, maybe 15% by value. If most people would agree with this percentage, in tea we could say that it will eventually get there, it’s in this journey too. In Europe it is 2% and it is going to 5% for specialty teas. But I can only guess at the moment.”

What can you tell us instead about herbal teas, infusions?

“We have one member in Denmark that is producing Hemp based drink and two members in South Africa that are producing red bush and honey bush. It only grows in the western part of South Africa, similar taste to tea but with no caffeine in it. If anybody asks me about decaffeinated tea, I would recommend red bush instead. There’s many red bush producers in South Africa, it’s a market growing in Europe too. We have a lot of members that are producing mint and other botanical products.”

The European Specialty Tea Association is going to build the championship system as SCA?

MLA Winners and sponsors (photo granted)

“Actually we’ve already started it: we’ve had three competitions, they started in London in September and again in Belgium in November and then Amsterdam in January with the Tea tasting competition. We’re going to be in Holland again in April at the Amsterdam Coffee festival where we wil rubn the Dutch Matcha Latte Art competition. I’m aware that one way to enter in the italian market, is through matcha latte art.

We’ve a UK champion, dutch champion and Belgium champion in tea tasting and matcha latte art, for now.

But we’re going to improve those championships, because it’s great for promoting speciality teas. As fast as we can go, we’re growing.”

In the end: what are the future plans of European Specialty Tea Association?

“We’ve already started on building more competitions for bringing locally new members and also promoting specialty teas. We’re creating an educational program because we think that is the key as well the reaserch and development.

There is a lot of innovation happening now in tea, as with the cold brew and sparkling tea and there are a few areas that coffee can’t promote as well, like health and wellness. Tea is also very good in pairing in food and it’s a fantastic non alcoholic alternative to drink. Innovation will play a huge part in our future strategies.

We just now need to move on and grow: we’re still a child of 5 years. Part of the journey is following the similar path of coffee, although there are more possibilities in tea and
infusional botanical in terms of flavours: consumers are only now starting to understand that. The market will acknowledge this growth and change is already happening.”


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