By Lilach Manheim from TeaGschwendner

The following article was kindly written by Lilach Manheim. I had the pleasure of meeting Lilach recently over an iced tea at a local coffee shop. Over the course of an hour I learned the basics of coffee (Lilach was very patient!). There’s so much to learn. Lilach is a great resource to have at hand with any tea question. She represents TeaGschwendner in Arizona and her experience in coffee makes her especially adept at suggesting a tea line up for any coffeehouse. The photos were taken during our visit. — Chris

Did you know that worldwide sales for Darjeeling tea exceed actual production by 400%? This is a bit similar to what happened with Kona and Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee, where some vendors realized they could get better prices just by virtue of the growing region, and found “innovative” methods of increasing production. Educated consumers, however, soon began to realize that some of the less expensive available product was not 100% Kona or Jamaica Blue.

Even though tea may only be a small part of your business, taking the time to research your tea vendor can really pay off. Knowing the right questions to ask can help you cut through the jargon, and read between the marketing lines. A vendor who is passionate about quality and proud of their product will welcome your questions.

There are 3 main areas that will set apart the best vendors—quality, expertise and service.


What quality standards and procedures does your vendor have in place?

Sourcing. Most of the worldwide tea production is purchased by resellers through commodity auction. Tea gets to the auction from regional aggregators, who collect teas from local farms. Does your vendor source directly from the growers, or do they buy from resellers?

Shipping costs prevent many small independent tea vendors from importing tea directly, as these costs can sharply cut into profits on smaller volume orders. Much of the tea sold in the U.S. is brought in by an importer, and often goes through one or more wholesalers or distributors as well. It is very important then to understand where in the supply chain your vendor is, so that you know whether you’re paying for quality or for the costs of distribution.

Reading between the lines TIP: Half of the tea wholesalers buy from other wholesalers, but can afford to directly source a few of their more popular teas. Ask vendors if they directly source all teas, or just some.

If your vendor does directly source teas, what is the nature of their relationship with their suppliers? Which gardens do they purchase from, how did they choose them, and how long have they worked with them? Long-standing relationships with the tea growers can make all the difference in the quality of tea a vendor is able to purchase.

Quality controls: How does the vendor evaluate tea quality? What do they look for when cupping tea? Tea should be cupped at least twice: once before purchase, to determine whether tea should be added to collection, and a second time after tea is delivered, verifying it is of the same quality as the sample. Additionally, find out if the vendor verifies the cleanliness and safety of their product. Do they have the product tested for pesticides and other harmful residues?

Reading between the lines TIP: If a vendor has their teas scientifically tested, they should be able to supply you with test results for any of the teas you order.

Freshness. The enemies of tea are air, light and moisture. Most teas will stay fresh for two to three years from harvest if properly stored. In order to ensure freshness, tea must be stored properly during its entire life time and never opened until it is used or sold. Inquire about how tea is stored between the time your vendor receives it and the time they ship it out, as well as how it is packaged for resale. Packaging should be opaque to block out light, and hermetically sealed to keep out air and moisture. Additionally, tea should be marked with a best-by date, to ensure freshness.

Reading between the lines TIP: If you order tea today, when was it picked? This may vary slightly from tea to tea, but should be not much more than a year.

One thing to keep in mind though, is that tea will never go bad like coffee does. It will simply lose its full flavor. If tea has an off taste, it is a defect in the process, and can be tasted even when the tea is fresh.


How knowledgeable and battle-tested is your vendor?

Buying. Who is the master buyer/ master tea taster for your vendor? What is his training, and how much experience does he have?

Reading between the lines TIP: Industry recognition, awards, and organizational affiliations can provide insight into the master taster’s qualifications.

Inventory: Inventory outages, along with the average age of the tea on their shelves, will give you a good idea of how good a vendor is at judging demand and managing their inventory, and assures that you won’t be left to ride out the holiday season without a popular tea. What percent of teas were out of stock last year? Does their collection have enough depth to give you other alternatives? For example, if they were out of a particular Assam, did they have another Assam in their collection that was a suitable replacement, or another option with a similar flavor profile for you to carry temporarily – such as a blend, or even a tea from a different growing region?

Wholesale experience. Are their other wholesale customers happy? Your vendor should be able to supply you with references upon request.

Reading between the lines TIP: While written testimonials can give you an idea of your vendor’s strengths, a vendor that is truly confident in its track record should be able to supply you with contacts you can call.


How will your vendor support your success?

Training. Does your vendor offer a staff training program? What does this program cover? Do they offer any further support, such as assistance in menu and service design?

Brand. What marketing and merchandising support can they provide?

Policies and logistics. What are their wholesale policies? Find out all the little details about guarantees, returns and minimum orders. Additionally, find out where their warehouse is located, what shipping will cost, and how long it will take to get to you.

…and don’t forget the tea!

Always cup tea before making your decision. If you cup coffee regularly, your palate is already well developed. While tea is different, your palate is already a pretty good judge. Compare both similar teas from different vendors to judge quality, and teas with different flavor profiles (i.e. Japan Sencha vs. China Lung Ching vs. China Gunpowder) to determine which would appeal most to your customers.

Remember, just like with great coffee, tea earns its quality during every step of its journey, from garden to cup. How you take care of it, from storing to brewing, has just as much impact on the quality as any other step in the process.

Once last note about price. Over and over, studies have shown that consumers choose quality over price when deciding on their coffee shop. When you serve your customers a premium tea, not only will you sell more cups of tea, you’ll also sell more retail tea. The difference, per pound, between a mass market tea and a hand crafted, small lot tea may seem large, but per cup it’s often only a difference of $.10 to $.30! While it is important to watch your bottom line, it is generally easier to increase sales (significantly and sustainably) by focusing on building demand, not minimizing costs. What are your customers more likely to rave about: the most affordable cup of tea in town, or the most phenomenal cup?

Final reading between the lines TIP: Is the vendor invested in your success? If a vendor has a quality product, they will view you as a long term partner, and will want to provide you with the support you need to succeed, as long as it makes financial sense.

*** The above questions are largely based on Charles Cain’s presentation “Procurement and Merchandising Strategies” presented at the 2008 World Tea Expo New Business Boot Camp***

Lilach Manheim
TeaGschwendner USA, INC
Phone: 847.229.5435 ext 211

Arizona Coffee

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  1. Wow. What a great article. I have met Lilach a couple of months ago and I am delighted that She still working on the tea sales. It is admirable to see this level of passion and commitment. I have been selling tea to some of my coffee houses for more than 10 years and I know the founder of Maya Tea in Tucson, by interacting with Him and other tea professionals, I found that the tea equipment is also a driver in order to make a choice on a vendor. Per example we have China Mist (based also in Arizona) that will give you a free tea brewer and dispenser if you buy from them. My advice has always been on buying your own equipment, so you do not “have to” buy if there is a quality issue. Also a very important factor is the water quality. Good tea and bad tea differences are not clearly detected when the water source is tainted. Pretty much like coffee. Thanks Lilach for telling people that tasting before buying is a great practice.

  2. Good information on tea quality, but what about brewing technique? Nothing worse than getting served a cloudy glass of tea whether it be high or low quality. Cleanliness of tea brewing equipment is at least as important as coffee equipment.

    I know of many a non-coffee drinker that go to coffee houses to drink teas. Some cafes really have this figured out, some haven’t. The two really go hand-in-hand.

  3. Thanks, everyone. I’m glad you found this useful. Victor, I absolutely agree with you that brewing tea correctly is crucial- a great tea, much like a great coffee, can be ruined if not made well- but that’s a whole other subject.
    A basic approach, that we’ve used in many customer training sessions (wholesale customers) is the 3 Ts: tea, temperature and time. Measure the tea, use the correct temperature water, and brew for the appropriate amount of time. Without going too much further into the complexities and nuances, sticking to these basics provides your staff all they need to brew a great cup of tea.
    Equipment, and care for it, is of course very important. In terms of brewing tea, it can be as simple as you’d like to make it- scooping tea into a paper tea filter is quick and easy.
    I’d say the one piece of equipment really worth investing in is a hot water dispenser, especially if you will be serving high quality green and white teas.
    If you are looking to upgrade your tea offering, check out the world tea expo website, which has a list of the finalists and winners of the world tea championship ( , ). It’s a great resource- not only does it give a ranking of the top teas, it also rates each one, and has pricing information.

  4. My suggestion is to brew tea by the cup and avoid using a brewer. Much less expensive and less trouble in terms of keeping things clean, etc. May not make your tea vendor happy but if this is the sort of thing that upsets your tea vendor, get another one.

    Also, while paper strainers/filters are certainly convenient from the standpoint of making a brewed pot of tea or one or two cups–using standard but high quality metal filters is much more economical and easier to reuse…especially for the coffeehouse owner.

    Good quality tea often requires less quantity in the cup than some vendors recommend. Make your teas the way you like them and not the way the vendor may necessarily recommend.

    And, if you’re using anything besides actual loose leaf teas, you haven’t really broken into the real specialty tea market. Remember too that there’s just as much politics in the tea world as in coffee so verify everything with your own experience and those you trust.