Tea Shines at the Coffee Show

SEATTLE, Wash.

Specialty tea sales at coffee shops number billions now and baristas embrace the fact that consumers view specialty beverages as a taste continuum that is no longer segmented into coffee or tea.

The Global Specialty Coffee Expo, hosted by the Specialty Coffee Association, drew several thousand attendees to its three-day conference last week. There were 25 tea companies exhibiting at the event, several for the first time like Caraway Tea, in Highland, NY. The majority are U.S. based including Maya Tea, in Tucson, Ariz., David Rio in San Francisco, or they maintain U.S. offices like German-based Haelssen & Lyon in New York and Aurora, Ill.-based Dethlefsen & Balk maintain U.S. operations but Suki Tea traveled from Belfast, Ireland. Rishi Tea, Numi Tea and Republic of Tea, all present in previous years, did not exhibit.

During the first two days of the show all reported meeting a lot of inquisitive baristas. The tats on their forearms reveal their first allegiance is coffee but tea is more than a curiosity for those lined up at Millerton, NY-based Harney & Sons, Mighty Leaf, in San Rafael, Calif., and Basalt, Colo.-based Two Leaves and a Bud. Customers who approach the counter expect wait staff to know a thing or two about tea.

Donna Fellman, Suzette Hammond, Brian Keating, Shelley Perkins and FaithAnn Bailes at World Tea Media booth.

“We were approached by many coffee companies and coffee shop owners who were extremely interested in learning about tea,” reports Penton Media marketing specialist Shelley Perkins. “Several mentioned the tea industry’s rapid growth and their eagerness to learn about tea. We spoke with a couple representatives from Starbucks who wanted learn more about World Tea Expo to keep up with the industry through our robust conference schedule and innovative vendors,” she said.

John Chaffee with Metropolitan Tea in Montreal, Canada, has been attending the Specialty Coffee Association (formerly SCAA) events for 25 years. In those days coffee shops offered tea bags and did little to promote their tea, making it difficult to find a good cup of tea at that time, he explained. “Quality tea is mainstream,” he said. “It is much easier to get today thanks to the coffee people in the industry,” said Chaffey, whose company wholesales 1,000 varieties of tea. Cafés see that they are in the beverage business and promote tea with coffee. “The two are complementary,” he observes, and as they step up their coffee to the next level they are looking to do the same with tea.

Teas are selling well in cafes and coffee shops; green, white, matcha, whole leaf and a new generation of biodegradable pyramid style bags deliver the same quality as loose leaf for almost every product, he said.

Nitro coffee, sparkling tea, cold brew and ice tea, puer and dirty chai, espresso and matcha blends, it’s becoming apparent that corner coffee bars that only serve espresso and lace doily tea rooms that serve only tea are the outliers. Sales of mixes, blends, fusions and botanicals are driven by taste, not tradition. Consider that Tipu’s Green Tea Chai won the SCA’s best new products category for specialty beverages.

Japanese firms AOI, and AIYA America, and Sencha Naturals, in Los Angeles said they are riding a wave of interest in matcha. Flying Bird Botanicals in Bellingham, Wash., noted the growing interest in premium botanicals.

Michael Caraway, of Caraway Tea Company and Herbal Packer, offers private-label packing, wholesale, and fulfillment services. He said that tea specialists offer invaluable help in sourcing for coffee specialists.

At the World Tea Media booth, Community & Conference Content Manager FaithAnn Bailes said World Tea Expo is the place where anyone involved or interested in tea can come together and share ideas and learn from each other. “The established professionals help the new comers and the new comers bring in fresh ideas and energy to the expo,” she said.

Ground Control brewer steeps coffee

One exhibit caught the eye of the crowd. Ground Control is an eight-foot-tall automated stainless steel batch brewer with two large filter-lined trays to accept ground coffee. The coffee is then steeped and stirred. Water is drawn through the trays and lifted into one of two large glass bulbs above the equipment. A second, timed steep of the same grounds yields an infusion with different taste notes. Coffee drinkers praised the natural sweetness, balance, lower acidity and layered flavors. Tea drinkers familiar with the multi-steep gong fu process noted with a smile that Ground Control’s San Francisco inventors had simply automated gong fu coffee.

See how it works: Ground Control Brewer