Specialty tea: Could it become popular in beverage competitions?

Esther Gibbs
October 16, 2023
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Esther-Hope Gibbs is an Authorised Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) Trainer for the Sensory Skills programme, and a certified Arabica Q Grader. She is also the owner and head roaster at Hope Espresso. After attending the first UK Tea Championships, she explores whether specialty tea could be the future of beverage competitions. 

At the recent Caffe Culture Exhibition in London, UK, the European Specialty Tea Association (ESTA) hosted the very first UK Tea Championships. The event ran parallel to the competitions for the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) Brewers Cup

The Tea Championships comprised a matcha latte art competition, where competitors demonstrated their best latte art to a panel of expert tea judges. Day two of the event consisted of Tea Tasting Championships, which ran similarly to SCA Cup Tasters Championships, with courses of triangulation under time pressure. 

So, what is specialty tea? This is what the European Specialty Tea Association is trying to define. Although there is sometimes dispute, the coffee industry has a somewhat clear definition of what ‘specialty coffee’ is. However, the specialty tea industry is yet to define a grading system in the same way. 

To learn more about the future of specialty tea in beverage competitions, I spoke with Kelvin Lee, the 2023 ESTA Matcha Latte Art Champion. 

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What is specialty tea?

Launched in 2021, the European Specialty Tea Association (ESTA) aims to unite tea professionals from across Europe. The association has collated everyone’s experience and knowledge to create some formal description of specialty tea. The hope is that everyone will agree with most of its content and encourage discourse and debate that promotes specialty tea in the future. 

ESTA’s website states that each of its members aspires “to attain excellence in all aspects of tea processing and brewing from the bush to the cup.” ESTA is a membership organisation which tea professionals spanning producers, buyers, consumers, and baristas, can join. 

The association has an innovative education programme that helps to promote knowledge, understanding, sustainability, and the development of the specialty tea industry. Beyond this, ESTA provides information on community events and research and development programmes within the sector. 

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What took place at the UK Tea Championships?

At the Caffe Culture Exhibition, the competitions were spread over two days. Competitors from various backgrounds, both tea and coffee, entered to showcase their skills. 

During the matcha latte art championship, competitors were asked to prepare cups of matcha from Matcha and Beyond. Competitors were provided with scales, sieves, bowls, and bamboo whisks to prepare the drinks correctly. 

They were then assessed on their demonstration of knowledge of the recipes, ratios, and techniques for preparing the base of the beverage. Each competitor also received marks for cleanliness, hospitality, and presentation skills. The technical judge assessed for steaming, whisking matcha, the matcha itself, hygiene, and performance, with subcategories in each. 

Competitors were required to steam oat milk and pour two separate cups of matcha latte art to present to the judges for marking and tasting. The taste was assessed in relation to sweetness and bitterness, while the latte art was marked by visual appeal, quality of microfoam, contrast size, position in the cup, and overall presentation.  

Of the nine contestants, Kelvin Lee, head barista and trainer for Nostos Coffee, came in first place. Claudiu Consferenti of Meletius Coffee came second and Lewis James Wellink from Restaurant Associates was third. Notably, most of the competitors came from a coffee barista-based background. 

When speaking about his win, Kelvin admits he feels it could have gone better. “I made some mistakes which I consider to be quite serious. But, I think it is an excellent lesson for me to grow in the future,” he says. “I wasn’t overly nervous either, as I simply treated the judges as if they were my best friends in the world. So when I conversed with them, it was more like a daily conversation.”

Kelvin believes that specialty tea competitions have the potential to become just as popular as those for specialty coffee. “There are more tea shops popping up in London, so I would definitely say the tea market is growing. When you consider the chain reaction, it is likely the popularity of tea competitions will increase as it can be so interesting and diversified.”

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Triangulating specialty tea

When it came to analysing the tea, cup tasters showed a true test of sensory skills. Each was presented with 5 sets of 3 bowls of brewed tea: two were identical and one was different. In groups of 3, they had to taste all sets of triangles, identify the odd one out, and move that cup onto the marked box at the front of the table. 

The differences in the triangles included the strength of the brew, the process of tea (for example, two green teas processed slightly differently), or origin, which refers to two black teas grown in different countries. The aim of the competition was to get the most amount of cups correct in the shortest amount of time. 

Diana Farr of Canton Tea came first, while Esther Gibbs of Hope Espresso placed second. Michael Bell of Sage Coffee Machines came in third place. 

It’s important to note that specialty tea competitions are only in their earliest days and will grow in tandem with the industry. In the years to come, the European Specialty Tea Association will work in tandem with other tea collectives worldwide to create a global competition network and calibration for tea tasting worldwide.

So, why should coffee roasters care about speciality tea? While it may be essential to offer your customers good quality, well-sourced coffee, it is just as important to consider tea offerings. Many tea companies offer a white label option for offering a variety of speciality teas. It may be worth looking into how you can get ahead of the curve to provide the best tea to your customers. 

At MTPak Coffee, we can provide you with bespoke specialty tea packaging with low MOQs to help begin your journey. Our range of sustainable packaging solutions includes kraft paper bags with transparent windows to help showcase your tea offerings. 

Images from Hope Espresso and Kelvin Lee. 

For more information on how we can help you define your specialty tea packaging, contact our team. 

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