Specialty Tea: To be or not to be, that’s the question!
Raj Barooah's Monthly Column:
When I created Rujani as a brand that would celebrate the flavours of Assam whole leaf tea, the question that came up was what category would these teas fall into. They were certainly not CTC, and to call them orthodox was to dismiss all the work that went into making them. So did they qualify as specialty teas ?
It took me on an exploration of the term 'specialty tea’. Creating a new kind of tea takes years, from selecting the right plants to experimenting in tea making. During the time I have spent creating these teas, I have also thought about the idea of speciality tea. After much reflection, I have chosen the term ‘whole leaf teas’ for Rujani. And here’s why.
But first, the backstory.
A selection of Speciality Teas from Rujani
The world of Chinese specialty tea
Although China was Europe’s source of tea, by the late 19th century, British production and commercial might overtook the Chinese tea industry. What’s more, in the early 1900s, the British aggressively promoted their teas to the entire western world. This was also in part because of the changes within China.
Mao Zedong came to power in 1949 and with his imposition of the ‘Cultural Revolution’ from 1966, even tea farms were not spared. His regime went after and completely closed the independent Chinese tea industry. The Chinese regime converted these family-owned small tea farms into government-managed tea factories.
Outside the Orient, the world predominantly drank commoditised teas from the British tea industry up until the late 1980s. Even though the Chinese tea industry is believed to be 5,000 years old and the great American War of Independence’s genesis is the outcome of ‘Boston Tea party’ and taxation of Chinese teas in 1773, the fact is that teas from China had lost their popularity in the western world with the discovery of teas growing in the wild of Assam by the British in 1838.
From then, up until about 1990, for around a century and a half, the British tea industry’s marketing might overtook the tea drinking and consumption the world over.
It was only when Chairman Mao died in 1976 that the Chinese economy opened up to the world. Tea professionals started to visit China, where they discovered the world of some 3,000 varieties of teas, and a heritage that dated some 5,000 years.
Coupled with the double-digit economic growth of China from the mid 1980s (which lasted the next 30 years), the Chinese themselves aggressively marketed their teas. I remember the 2016 World Tea Expo in Las Vegas, where 90% of the booths were Chinese exhibitors.
American tea traders were now witnessing a wide range and variety of teas from China. And these were unlike the boring commodity teas produced from the erstwhile British and Dutch colonies that they had been consuming for a century. They began to travel to Chinese tea farms, staying at length to understand for themselves the nuances of each tea. They coined the lexicon ‘Speciality’ to refer to this diverse range of White, Green, Oolong, Pu-erh, flower teas.
The creation of a new genre
I credit my friends from the American tea industry, people like Austin Hodge, Dan Robertson, Dan Bolton, who have categorised this segment. Austin and his wife Zuping who have been fellow travellers have been pioneering this journey. They have a deep interest in Chinese teas, and were one of those who responded to China’s opening to visitors in the late 80s. In 2001, they started Seven Cups in Tucson, Arizona. It’s safe to say that Austin began the movement of going to the source, engaging with tea farmers, and returning with their teas and their stories.
I have come to realise that every speciality tea has to have a story behind it, sometimes true and sometimes, a better story than the tea. The success of this storytelling as a means to market the tea is evident, and has played an important role in birthing the category of specialty tea.
In China, the tradition of tea making is old, with skills perfected over centuries. Everything from the cultivar used to make the tea, the standard of picking, the soil, the terroir, the tea maker, whom they will call a ‘tea master’… play a role in nudging the leaf to make a superlative tea. But even as the category started taking shape, it was evident that it was too loose a term and invited many interpretations. There hasn’t yet been an established standard for the category.
In 2015 Austin founded the International Speciality Tea Association (ISTA), to do exactly this, define speciality tea, and set the standards for it. It’s not an overnight task, and nothing with tea is. It took the coffee folks about 20 years to arrive at something similar for specialty coffee, so we are aware of the long road ahead.
Raj receiving the first Speciality Tea Award from Austin Hodge, Founding Director of ISTA
What about India?
At the moment, India is not a contender for speciality teas. We don’t have a history of tea tradition. Our tea industry is borrowed from the gory human enslavement ‘plantation’ industry of our colonial masters, which later, and with progression of economic evolution, was transformed by the industrial revolution and its economic movement by the British Raj/ East India Company. Our industry’s economics is run by accountants and not by the planter’s mind. Tea in India is a commodity.
While the commodity model is not going away in a hurry, there is certainly room to make good tea. Whole leaf tea. And yes, those that would be accepted as specialty tea. Darjeeling has made some inroads into it. Assam’s tea history goes back to nearly 200 years. By now, we should have had a Jorhat speciality. We don’t because we have been far too focussed on the commodity model. For me, this is the opportune time and space, especially for an Assam tea estate to spearhead this segment.
At Rujani, the process was set in motion nearly ten years ago. I began to engage with tea scientists. Each of these interactions took me to tea traditions. When we blend tradition with modern concepts, with science, we enter the realm of specialty tea. We have been planting new clones, new cultivars, reviving the Assam jat seeds, experimenting extensively with the tea making. The wait is long and agonisingly painful. But the results, hopefully, make it worth it.
A section of Aideobarie Tea Estate, the origins of Rujani Speciality Tea
Are we a specialty tea brand? We are but since it’s not a category that has yet been defined, I prefer the term ‘whole leaf tea’. Are our teas deemed a specialty? Yes, as we benchmark them against the best teas of that category, like a white tea that stands up to a Darjeeling or maybe even a Fuding white, or a green that is closer to the best Chinese green teas and one day can compete with an Anji Baicha. And yes, every new tea, new discovery comes with its own story. What we have set out to do, with Rujani, is to bring our teas and stories directly to you, our customers, as a brand new way of experiencing Assam’s very special teas.
Raj Barooah is the founder of Rujani Tea and Director, ISTA.