Q&A with the American Specialty Tea Alliance

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By now you all know how passionate I am about tea. One could even say that I am obsessed. I do everything that I can to help the industry grow, both through this blog and other efforts. There are times where I am frustrated by certain attitudes (like closed-mindedness), outdated policies, and resistance to change that hold things back from getting to where they could or should be. For several years fellow bloggers and I have commiserated, telling each other that someone needs to do something. 

Recently I had the opportunity to be part of a group that is working to make positive change, helping the specialty tea industry to grow here in the U.S. When deciding if I would join in the cause, a quote that is often misattributed to Gahndi came to mind.

You must be the change you want to see in the world.
— Gandhi (but not really)

It turns out that Gandhi never actually said these famous words but it doesn't make them ring any less true. If I want things to change, I need to do what I can to make that change happen. I'm incredibly excited to announce that I am a serving as a member of the board of directors of a brand new organization called the American Specialty Tea Alliance. You'll find a number of familiar names and faces among my colleagues there. We are a 501(c)(6) non-profit trade association and I could gush for several more paragraphs on all of the exciting things we hope to do. For now, I'll just share our mission statement:

We seek to represent and grow interest in specialty tea, in both the tea industry and the public, through education and community, by facilitating collaboration between our members, by bolstering the quality and tenability of specialty tea through research and communication, and by promoting these goals worldwide.

Now that the cat is out of the bag, I thought that it would be a good time for me to share a bit of a Q&A about ASTA and what we plan to do. Suzette Hammond of Being Tea, the Deputy Executive Director, took the time to provide thoughtful answers to a few basic questions about ASTA.


Q: What is specialty tea?

A: Oh, we know we'll get many questions about this! That's totally fair and relevant; it's a distinction that causes a great deal of back and forth in the industry. It's worth noting that the term is not used in a unified manner anywhere in the world; in some markets, it means basically anything that is not the "bread and butter" bulk teas - so like oolong or white tea might be considered "specialty." In other places, the term does not exist. So one might also ask, are we opening up the American industry to create a problem where one doesn't exist? We don't believe so. In an oft-made comparison, specialty coffee is held to be different from commodity coffee - via a score-based system. This is not about painting a picture of superiority or Us vs Them - it's about clarity for establishing true marketplace value, increasing viability of business opportunity, advancing sustainability, and preserving culture. As such, we do believe specialty tea should simply be understood to be teas that have a different need for support. The customers who buy them are different, the businesses who want to sell them are different. The producers who make them are intentionally doing something different. A tea which can be bought for $5/kilo is simply not the same product as one that is bought for $100/kilo. However, for our purposes, we at ASTA are not creating a definition for specialty tea. That work must happen at origin, and our non-profit structure is local market business-facing.

We are, however, creating the home where these teas can be supported as that market shift is taking place - and this is already happening. We are very aware of the definition work already being done in this effort through the ISTA (International Specialty Tea Association, which is a producer-facing, non-profit entity) and we support their research. One of their members sits on our board, and I collaborate with them, too. Currently, their research with tea producing colleagues overseas is pointing toward the creation of a score-based system, like in specialty coffee, that could align around establishing specialty tea as a tier of distinction. That work will take time, however. For ASTA, we are looking at "specialty" as teas of higher marketplace value and distinction, often identified by the specific place, producer and season of production, typically available in far smaller quantities and produced by smaller tea makers. We are open to tea and botanicals. We are not disqualifying anyone who produces blends and flavors, nor are we policing anyone who also sells commodity market or "factory" tea (cut teas, fannings/dust, coarse leaf material, homogenized source teas, etc). In other words, we are allowing members to self-identify. Through looking at our benefits of membership, the type of work we do, who their fellow member peers would be and who serves on our boards, we believe a new member should be able to judge for themselves if they and their teas would be at home here.

Q: Why does the specialty tea industry need a new organization?

A: All markets are changing right now. Nearly every sector feels it. Most of the members of our board are involved in sourcing or wholesale sales, and they have felt it for many years. Their customers come to them with questions or in need of support for their business, but there hasn't been anywhere to direct them. Not to mention the enormous shift in how business is conducted now compared to 10 years ago, with the ubiquity of online sales and the expansion of regulatory compliance requirements. Additionally, this comes at a time when, while unemployment is at a record low, underemployment is rising.

There are many people pursuing formal tea education, via certification programs, with no real prospects on where to take that knowledge. The certifications, while well-intended, don't seem to align with what the market needs - or the market doesn't have clarity around what the programs technically offer, so they can't say whether they support them or not. (compare this to specialty coffee, which has education tracks that are more vocational and specifically aligned with end career goals in mind - barista, green buyer, roaster, technical cupper, etc) Those who do go on to create their own tea businesses are at risk of becoming their own little island, with not much support from their peers. ASTA was created because we looked around and saw too many people being left out and left behind, and we wanted to do something about it.

Q: What would a small tea business gain by joining ASTA?

A: We are entirely set up for small businesses! That's really the inspiration for what started ASTA. Several of us are also small business owners, myself included, and we know just how hard it is to make it right now in tea. For starters, we believe small businesses benefit from connection - to resources and to peers. Business tier members will be better connected through bi-annual calls with a member of the ASTA executive team to discuss their business needs, goals and what they need to get there. Our growing Advisory Board consists of members who themselves also offer specialized services; they will both help us create need-based programs and services for ASTA members as well as be available to members who have pressing concerns and need a resource.

Education is likely to be a big part of that for small business owners, so we'll be creating a robust webinar program hosted by vetted subject experts (including sourcing, regulatory, food safety, marketing, etc) and specialized vocational-based training of our own that fill in the gaps for clients coming from the academic structure of tea schools. ASTA members will also be connected through ASTA Chat, which is a platform that allows them to interact and engage in various topical forums. In short, ASTA is about connection as a means to ensure the viability of specialty tea businesses. Being in the business of tea shouldn't be a risky niche endeavor - it should be tenable and sustainable.

Q: Why should tea bloggers consider joining?

A: Similarly to what we've seen with small tea business owners, we also believe our blogger community has been sharply left out of the conversation of the business of tea. There's been a lack of acceptance for what it means to "work in tea" in the industry, that it means one must have a full-time company position to be working in tea. That is simply not so, nor is that at all an ideal goal for everyone to strive for - that's a very dated way of thinking. Bloggers are people driven by a personal, committed interest in tea, and a gutsy confidence to express their creative vision. They sharply understand the patience it takes to build audience and company relationships. With their positioning directly between the selling business and the tea consumer, it's not wise to cut this community off from being able to engage with the industry of tea. With ASTA, we want to invite bloggers and other independent tea freelancers into the fold by connecting them with the many stakeholders on the other side - including producers, retailers, wholesalers, importers, supporting services, event and festival organizers, etc. We believe this helps both the industry at large, as well as bloggers and freelancers by improving their audience visibility and positioning to take on projects and sustainable tea work.

Currently, more than 36% of the US workforce works freelance to some capacity. It's estimated that in less than 10 years, should those numbers keep rising, that number will be more than 50%. If the tea industry is to survive, our thoughts around being employed in tea need to dramatically change, as well.  This means not only supporting small business endeavors more seriously - it also means embracing freelance work more seriously. ASTA wants to guide industry stakeholders to see bloggers and freelancers as the multi-talented, well-researched, highly knowledgeable, employable resource that they are.  (source: https://www.forbes.com/sites/elainepofeldt/2017/10/17/are-we-ready-for-a-workforce-that-is-50-freelance/#280142f33f82)

Q: What do you hope ASTA will be able to accomplish in the future?

A: We are dreaming big, and not embarrassed to say so. There's a lot of work to be done, and we acknowledge that we're going to try a lot of things that may not work as we thought. More than anything, we want ASTA to be adaptable and responsive to membership because that is the biggest thing we have seen that's missing. So, if we try one project and it turns out members want it delivered a different way, then we want to respect that and believe there's a reason why they're asking - and make it work. We see a future where being a small business owner is not only described as "brave" or "risky", but "smart" and "timely." It's a new age for business and for tea, and we want the beauty, passion and creative culture of specialty tea to truly thrive in this environment. We want to see a future where specialty tea is as understood and celebrated as specialty coffee, with events and festivals, business and career opportunities, that feed on and thrive because of that creativity and innovation.

Tea should not be relegated to being a food trend of the year - it's a lifestyle, a means of work, a calling and a community. We want ASTA to reflect that, to be a place that we can call home and feel truly supported in our tea work life. I've worked professionally in tea now for 15 years, but for the last 3, I've been freelance myself. It's my first time owning a small business, and I've been truly scared to see just how wide the gap is for others like me. I don't think the stability we should settle for, as small business owners, is just making it through month to month, year by year. There is so much need out there for tea, we can do better! Our industry can do better. We need all of these voices and experiences at the table to make this work.


By the way, anyone looking to learn more about tea should definitely check out and consider supporting Suzette's incredible Patreon program. She shares educational videos and informative newsletters every month. Her background as a tea professional is seriously impressive and I've found her insights invaluable.

Are you as excited as I am about ASTA? I'd love to hear about it in the comments below!