This week we're shining the spotlight on Genuine Tea, a small company that is leading the Third Wave Tea movement in Toronto. Genuine Tea is dedicated to "clos[ing] the gap between the tea in your cup and the people who dedicate their lives to producing it."
We recently sat down with Sarah, one of the co-founders, to learn more about what makes a great cup of tea, and how they got their start in the tea business!
What is Genuine Tea and what do you do?
Genuine Tea is a farm-to-cup tea company: we deal directly with plantations in Asia as opposed to purchasing from wholesalers. We sell direct to customers, through farmers' markets and events, and curate wholesale programs for coffee shops, cafes, and restaurants throughout Ontario.
First off, what does it mean to deal directly? Is that the same thing as fair trade?
Some of the plantations that we deal with have fair trade certification, but not all. Many are family-run estates that don't do a lot of exporting. But we do our best to work with people who value sustainable agriculture and treat their employees fairly.
How did you two get the business started?
David and I lived in Taiwan for almost five years, and while we were there we were drinking a lot of tea. And we got this idea of bringing good quality tea back to the west, especially in light of what other big companies were doing, like taking low-quality teas and adding a lot of artificial flavours and colours. We thought we could do better!
We first started touring around Taiwan. Also, we had been studying Mandarin for almost four years, so we were quite fluent at that point -- our language abilities, and our different contacts, allowed us to travel to a number of different tea estates in Taiwan, and to develop relationships with these estates.
Eventually, we thought why not take this idea and travel to other countries as well, so we've since partnered with plantations in China, Sri Lanka, India, and most recently Japan.
Was it speaking Mandarin that unlocked these relationships for you, with these family estates?
There's usually one person in the family or working with the company who could speak English, so there was a back and forth. But having that Mandarin ability definitely helped us navigate and understand a little more about what was going on, and to form those relationships.
We went out to dinner with a lot of them, with the whole family, and it was a great experience getting a firsthand look at how the tea is processed, how it all works over there.
Did you hit the ground running, or did the business start as more of a side project?
When were living overseas, it was still just a concept, and we were using the trips to these tea plantations partly for pleasure and partly for business.
It was when we returned to Canada that we decided to start building the brand, and selling at farmers' markets, which was a great introduction for us to connect to different communities. We were doing 4 days a week the first summer and then, this summer, six days a week.
Clearly, Genuine Tea is doing something a lot different. But what is it specifically that separates you from the kind of tea most people drink? That is, from the Red Roses and Tetleys of the world?
There's a big difference! Red Rose, Tetley, those kinds of companies are working with commodity tea. It's done on a huge scale, where a lot of the tea is purchased through auction houses by the ton.
You never know the origin; it's often a blend of many different estates. It's also very low quality. In the tea world, they joke that commodity tea is the dust that's been swept off the floor after they make the good stuff.
You talk on the Genuine Tea website about how you're leading the Third Wave movement of tea, so where does commodity tea fit in? What "wave" is that?
That would be the first wave of tea, the commodity tea -- like Tetley, Red Rose -- the companies that have huge reach, selling around the world. But there's no connection with where it came from.
The second wave of tea would be companies like David's Tea, Teavana, who bring in low grade tea and add all these flavours and colours, like "birthday cake" tea, for example, from David's. It's getting away from actual tea, and it's more the added flavours that you're getting when you drink that kind of tea. And often the tea is old and stale, because they don't need to have high quality tea if they're just going to be spraying artificial or natural flavours on it.
The third wave of tea is about trying to go back to the source, to close the gap between the farmer and the tea in your cup. It's focused on origin, harvest date, and the region the tea comes from.
More and more people are appreciating different styles of tea, and are interested in that more transparent, authentic taste, which is what we're trying to offer.
What were some of the biggest challenges you two faced as you were starting the business? What stands out?
Our biggest challenge is just the fact that the third wave of tea is not quite here in Canada, in North America, yet. When we first started, we went to farmers' markets and had all of our high mountain oolong teas and first flush darjeelings -- things that we thought people here were ready for -- but we realized, after being out in the community and talking to people, that people do value that, but they're still looking for the flavoured style, the second wave teas.
How about the flip side of that: what are some of your most memorable experiences in starting out?
One of my favourite things is when we're at a farmers' market or something and someone tells us they had our tea at such and such coffee shop, or I've seen you here before, and just realizing that Genuine Tea is bigger than just the two of us. We're in over 50 cafes now in Toronto, and people are selling our products, and people are able to recognize our brand, and know that it stands for quality. Just hearing those kinds of comments from our customers is pretty rewarding, I would say. We get a lot of emails from customers appreciating what we're doing and that feels good as well.
Thank you for speaking with us, Sarah!
The first three orders over $25 this week will receive a complimentary bag of Genuine Tea's Matcha Uji.
This is a ceremonial grade, summer harvest Matcha from the finest tea growing region of Uji, Kyoto. Genuine Tea works very closely with the Kato family who have owned their plantation for generations and follow strict guidelines for making authentic, pure ceremonial Japanese Matcha.