The American Specialty Tea Alliance (ASTA) is a newly registered non-profit founded to champion the tea industry’s small business segment.
Its mission “is to 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.”
Founder Tony Gebely floated the idea last year and since then has quietly recruited leaders from well-established companies like G.S. Haly, Adagio, Seven Cups, Young Mountain and Haelssen & Lyon to serve as the founding board of directors, representing an intersectional group of voices and sector stakeholders within specialty tea. Suzette Hammond of Being Tea is deputy executive director. A still-growing cadre of both national and international experts, many of whom work as consultants and service providers, will serve on ASTA’s Advisory Board, including Nigel Melican at Teacraft, Kevin Gascoyne of Camellia Sinensis, Tony Tellin of Steven Smith Teamaker, and specialty importer Lydia Kung.
Gebely, who started an online tea retail business in 2010 and owns the award-winning World of Tea blog, explains that during his years in tea he has “seen how difficult it has become for small businesses and new tea professionals to navigate the changing environment of regulation and food safety requirements, shifting retail climate, access to trade-driven education, and sustainable career pathways.”
This led to the idea of evolving the concept of World of Tea into an association, focused on smaller tea businesses and independent participants in specialty tea. Now, as ASTA, Gebley and the team will create an online directory with personal profile pages, a job board for company-level members and enable members to upload resumes. A feed will display the latest posts from members who blog, content that enriches the website and helps members promote their skills. World of Tea, meanwhile, will continue as a free resource, available to all, folded into the umbrella of ASTA’s website structure.
Another member feature, ASTA Chat, is an app that consists of topical, ongoing channels where members can share information, submit queries, and collaborate with like-minded tea folk, explains Gebely. Live and recorded webinars “are an ever-expanding resource” that will cover topics such as tea economics, science, agriculture, business, and marketing, he said.
The organization does not yet intend to host an annual gathering, opting instead for a one-on-one biannual call for each business-level member with ASTA executives.
ASTA is also assisting the Tea Masters Cup (TMC) in finding a suitable venue to hold the first Tea Masters Cup USA competition in 2019. Since its founding in 2013, TMC has hosted competitions in 25 countries. “We’re very excited for this development,” says Hammond.
Hammond, the 2018 recipient of the World Tea Award for tea education and one of the industry’s most respected tea educators, says that education is a “main pillar of what inspired ASTA – it’s even written into our bylaws and much of our board has experience in hands-on education at an industry level.”
“ASTA will not create a new certification program, at least as they currently are known now – there are plenty such programs in existence,” says Hammond. “Our objective is to bring the industry together, not divide and make people choose sides. Thus, our immediate focus will instead be to help members navigate the variety of existing programs to find the best match for their needs, as well as to review these programs for base quality and applicability. Programs that meet specified criteria will be endorsed by ASTA,” she said.
The alliance will also create supplemental programs and materials to fill in identified vocational/ skills-based gaps to better prepare members for marketplace demands.
Melican, ASTA’s liaison in Europe says “there is a need for international validation of teaching and course standards in the fast-developing tea educational sector – to ensure that new entrants into tea get a square deal.”
“I hope that the newly founded European Tea Society and the newly founded American Specialty Tea Alliance will work together in validation of standards. Here specialty coffee is well ahead of us,” he said.
ASTA is a trade organization set up as a 501(c)(6), explains Gebely. It is not registered to lobby Congress or regulatory bodies on behalf of the industry.
Individual members pay $70 annually to join, consultants pay $150 and fees for business members start at $300. Founding members pay a one-time contribution of $1,000 in addition to their standard membership level; participation is limited to 20.
Recruitment is underway. “We anticipate 300-500 members by 2023,” says Gebely.
ASTA intends to change the paradigm of membership benefits – by being truly accessible and service-focused on what our members want, directly need and ask for to support their lives in tea, he said.