What Does 'Specialty Tea' Mean?

Trying to define a category of high-end teas

Various tea samples on display
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When someone says 'specialty tea,' what do they mean? In a general sense, it often refers to a higher-quality of tea or one that is a rare blend. And yet, as more tea drinkers seek out high-end teas and importers sell more teas marketed as 'specialty tea,' the lines have blurred. 

The real answer to the question, 'What is a specialty tea?' is complicated.

What is Specialty Tea?

In general, we can define 'specialty teas' as those that are either hand processed (like orthodox tea) or unique (like dessert teas or scarce white teas).

Specialty tea usually costs more than commercial (or commodity) tea.

Though extremely broad, the specialty tea industry is a segment of the tea industry that produces:

The specialty tea industry has seen substantial growth in the last decade and there are no signs of it slowing. Specialty teas are showing up in supermarkets, big box retailers, and many other stores and the internet has opened up new doors for specialty tea companies to sell directly to the consumer.

  • An example of specialty teas would be Makaibari Estate Second Flush Muscatel Black Tea. It is an organic, biodynamic, Fair Trade Darjeeling tea from a single tea garden.
  • In many circles, a loose-leaf custom tea blend like those sold by Art of Tea are also specialty teas, though some people prefer to classify these as dessert teas.

    In a nutshell, you might simply think of a 'specialty tea' as any tea that is fancier than the average box of teabags found at the supermarket. Most specialty teas are sold as whole-leaf though some offer tea bags as a matter of convenience for their customers.

    There is No Real 'Specialty Tea' Category

    The problem with trying to define 'specialty tea' is that there is no official definition.

    Even organizations like the Tea Association of the USA use 'specialty tea' as a very broad category. The tea industry is very diverse and in the international market, one country may have a different standard of 'specialty tea' than another. Much of that may be as simple as a tea that's uncommon to the culture.

    This dilemma is causing some in the tea industry to call for an organized definition of 'specialty tea.' Some high-end tea importers and retailers feel the term has become overused and have begun to opt for 'artisanal tea' as a descriptor for their teas instead.

    It is not uncommon for a tea importer to label what some people believe is an inferior tea as a 'specialty tea.' This tea may have faulty standards in production (like spraying extra flavor on the leaves) or lower quality leaves, but nothing stops them from adding a label that appeals to customers' desire for 'the best tea.'

    As the demand for high-end tea grows throughout the world, it is likely that we will see specifications for specialty (or designer) teas. Other beverage industries have already done this and it has benefited both manufacturers and drinkers alike. 

    Finding a Great Cup of Tea

    The great news for tea drinkers is that you are reaping the benefits of an imaginative and competitive industry.

    The only caution is that you should read tea labels very carefully and look into the background of the tea blender or importer if you can.

    There is a lifetime of new tea experiences awaiting you, you just have to be adventurous and aware.