Building a Tea Program

The Whole Leaf

WholeLeaf_Tea

When it comes to running our wholesale tea company, JagaSilk, my wife and I believe relationships are more important than flavor. We will not bring in a tea of substandard quality, nor import tea without basic data like harvest year, storage conditions, and region grown. The tea could be beautiful, but with no story and without the ability to gather information, the flavor is less impactful. It has become clear to us over the years that though it all starts with memorable flavors, it cannot finish without a relationship.

This belief in relationships extends to our client base. We cultivate relationships with cafés and roasters with the belief that a client educated in a “craft” approach to tea preparation  honors the incredibly detailed work tea farmers do. Even if we cup a tea and find it to be exquisite, and even if it has a fantastic story, there are still opportunities for that tea to be ruined along the chain to the customer’s cup. Education on origin, proper dosing, temperature precision, appropriate extraction times, and excellent customer service are fundamental to making sure teas arrive to customers in peak form. There is an incredible opportunity to access terroir and brilliant and memorable tea profiles by giving these principles credence, and our success stems from the ability to communicate these beliefs through education, training, and thoughtful collaboration with our customers.

Transcend's specialty tea.
Transcend’s specialty blends.

A good example is the relationship we have with Transcend Coffee. We work with them to curate a small line of seasonal tea selections that simplify their tea program but also provide variety. Together, we’ve  developed a method to communicate micro-lot information and preparation guidelines to their staff and customers in a way that works in their fast-paced cafés and online store.

Transcend’s smooth transition to our craft tea-brewing process is a testament to their company and to the state of the industry compared to five years ago. When we brought our tea program into an established café in 2009, the staff almost mutinied. No one in our market (that we knew of) prepared tea as rigorously as we demanded. The staff thought their customers would never forgive them for taking away tea bags nor understand tea brewed behind the bar. We worked with the staff to create a path to make the crew and customers happy. We wrote a “tea FAQ” for customers that explained this new approach. We countered the staff’s skepticism with education, a strategy we discovered is crucial to the success of our product.

Our failure with a prestigious roaster in Vancouver was another good learning experience. They had a brewing setup different from how we train. We encourage a vessel transfer system to cool water, while the café used temperature-holding kettles that proved cumbersome during rushes. This different style was the project’s undoing in 2012, and we learned that regular training seminars (like those in a good coffee program) not only strengthen a program but communicate questions as they arise. This way when we see an efficiency or quality control issue, we are able to gently inspire change. Relationships are fluid, requiring attention and work.

JagaSilk operates out of Victoria, British Columbia, while Transcend is located in Edmonton, Alberta, about a twelve-hour drive away. Before working with Transcend, we had purposefully kept our wholesale clients closer to home so we could participate in initial cuppings and keep staff trained via tea seminars. Our hopes to expand beyond Victoria and Vancouver had always been on hold because of our need to train directly. It was therefore quite the epiphany to send samples of our seasonal tea selections to Transcend, and taste them “together” via web video. We used Skype and Google Hangouts to do cuppings with the management team and to train their staff later on. Transcend’s director of quality control, Josh Hockin, said our Skype sessions inspired him to use similar technology for supplementing wholesale client coffee training.

Transcend has brewed their teas behind the bar for quite some time (even before working with us), but for some owners that is still scary. Most owners have concerns over customer wait times, space restrictions, and overall system changes. But tea awareness is growing, and our clients quickly realize that a solid tea program prepared behind the bar can be space sensitive, speedy, and a vastly improved experience for their customers and staff.

With careful and deliberate relationship building, we can communicate the craftsmanship of the farmers to the end customer through the craftsmanship of the bar staff. Together we can ensure that ownership and staff are confident, that customers feel affinity to origin, and the teas we love shine throughout the supply chain. Without these relationships, without education and communication, the quality of the tea would not matter. Tea’s story and the hands that guide it elevate this drink to something incredible.

—Jared Nyberg co-owns JagaSilk in Victoria, British Columbia