German Tea Milestone
Headquarters of the Deutscher Teeverband, in Hamburg, Germany
Celebrating the German Tea Association’s Centennial
By Hans Niebergall
It was a desperately dark period in European history… millions already had lost their lives when American President Woodrow Wilson’s cabinet voted unanimously to declare war on Germany. The year was 1917.
Remarkably, 56 passionate, resilient, and entrepreneurial tea traders convened in Kassel, Germany, that year to establish the tea association, known as “Deutscher Teeverband.” These men were intent on rescuing and nurturing the tea trade well beyond the defeat of Germany and the end of World War I.
One hundred years later Deutscher Teeverband remains a vibrant promoter of the tea trade, operating from impressive corporate headquarters nestled in the bustling seaport city of Hamburg.
Maximilian Wittig, Deutscher Teeverband’s secretary general and state-certified food chemist, is excitedly putting the final touches on the agenda for a spectacular event to commemorate the association’s centennial, to be held in Hamburg, April 25-26, 2017. Germany’s tea trade has much to celebrate, according to Wittig.
Thirty-five full members, 19 associate members, and guests are expected to take part in this exclusive celebration. Highlights of the grand affair include a festive welcome party, an international tea symposium, and an elegant dinner, culminating in an official State Senate reception in Hamburg’s historic City Hall.
Asked about the Teeverband’s mission, Wittig explained: “We strive to provide dedicated and robust support to our members on a host of issues relating to legalities, quality control, and the nutritional aspects of tea. We’re keenly sensitive to our members’ concerns, providing technical guidance on tea subjects widely ranging from the safe use of pesticides to the introduction of tea to new markets.
“Tea compositions are becoming increasingly complex, requiring exceptional care to achieve the ideal balance of ingredients,” he said. “Fittingly, as many as 13 of the Teeverband’s 19 associate members represent laboratories. Based on amazing technological advances, we are now able to examine tea elements (whether a leaf, fruit, berry, or herb) in much richer detail than ever before,” said Wittig.
As tea is not grown in Germany, is the Deutscher Teeverband collaborating with tea growing countries?
“Very much so,” Wittig explains. “We enjoy close partnerships with the tea boards of Kenya, Sri Lanka, and India. We advise our international partners on emerging German and European trends, and provide information on many key shared topics of interest, albeit from different perspectives, serving the unique information needs of both our valued tea growing partners overseas and our members at home.”
“Deutscher Teeverband has instituted a code of practice for quality control, to which all of our members have committed,” he said. “The code stipulates guidelines for tea sampling and tea inspections for pesticide residues. We regularly monitor tea for traces of plant protective substances, and maintain an extensive database for rigorous research and reporting.”
German Tea Milestone
A TeeGschwendner outlet
Olav C. Ellerbrock, senior partner of Hälssen & Lyon, one of Hamburg’s most prominent and venerated tea companies, and whose grandfather, J.C.F. Ellerbrock, was a founding member of Deutscher Teeverband, reminisces…
“I was told that when the Hamburg tea merchants traveled to Bonn in the early days by train, they each sat in separate compartments to avoid having to communicate with each other; they viewed each other as fervent competitors, rather than cherished colleagues,” said Ellerbrock.
“Dismayed by this, when I became chairman of Deutscher Teeverband in 1974, I felt it was imperative to engender a spirit of collegiality throughout the tea community,” he said. “To foster harmony amongst our members, we met regularly at the Anglo-German Club in Hamburg because of their excellent food… and tea! Reluctantly at first, each member was required to draw a number from a hat to discover his luncheon seating assignment,” he recalls.
“Over time, the transformation was truly heartwarming. Even staunch competitors collaborated willingly, ultimately uniting in a successful bid to elevate Hamburg’s stature as a tea center of the world, surpassing Rotterdam and London,” said Ellerbrock.
“Throughout my tenure with Deutscher Teeverband until 1998, we made great strides in generating professional opportunities for those of our colleagues just starting out - actively welcoming young tea merchants and fledgling tea companies to become members,” he said. “To this day, and to our delight, this mentoring outreach has proven to be mutually beneficial, vastly expanding the horizons of our members and infusing Deutscher Teeverband with fresh ideas!”
Dietmar Scheffler, Hälssen & Lyon’s c.e.o. and a member of the Deutscher Teeverband board of directors, adds: “Tea today is not only the most healthful beverage but also the cleanest beverage one can imagine, especially in Germany, where we are ever mindful of our ethical responsibilities in the tea trade.
“We respectfully insist on proper conditions for all tea-growing planters, for them to take every precaution to protect the environment,” said Scheffler. “We fully honor best practice procedures at every stage, collaborating with our tea partner countries on product safety, supply chain, sustainability, and implementations of certifications such as UTZ, Fairtrade, and Rainforest Alliance,” he said.
“Realistically, although most members are, indeed, competitors, in the context of the Deutscher Teeverband, we manage to transcend our individual interests, serving as a strong alliance to ensure the highest levels of satisfaction for our esteemed customers – tea enthusiasts both in Germany and abroad!” he said.
“Germany and Japan are the two countries where tea connoisseurs indulge in the most expensive and coveted teas in the world. As approximate annual figures show, Germany imports 50,000 metric tons, consumes 20,000 metric tons, and re-exports 30,000 metric tons of tea.”
One can find many charming tea boutiques throughout Germany - to savor and purchase fragrant, artfully packaged loose tea and tea bags, as well as beautiful tea accessories. TeeGschwendner, the most visible tea retail chain in Germany, operates 132 franchise tea shops throughout the country, with additional locations in Austria, Luxembourg, Chicago, Prague, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia.
As TeeGschwendner general manager Thomas Holz points out: “Our most expansive 55 sq.m. (500 square feet) shops offer as many as 350 varieties of teas. Our franchise partners are continuously informed, with up to 90 days of training per year on products, product development, sales techniques, and strategies for optimal tea shop layouts. We empower our franchisees to be knowledgeable tea proprietors and competent business owners, and, of course, to operate with the highest levels of integrity.”
“At the corporate level, we take care of the sourcing and purchasing of the best teas, to ensure that all of our affiliates sell coordinated and consistently appealing, safe products,” he said. “We’ve implemented a sophisticated communication system among our franchise partners, which includes annual meetings, intranet with exchange possibilities, and customer relations management.”
Mathias Kloth and Axel Köhnken, each a tea taster and trader, joined forces in 1992 to build one of Germany’s largest tea import operations exclusively for black and green teas. Kloth and Köhnken Teehandel is situated in the quaint, old port city of Bremen in northern Germany, delivering original goods or blends to wholesalers and packers.
Asked how the tea trade has changed over the last twenty or so years, Mathias Kloth replies:
“Sustainability is very important all over Europe, and there is a growing demand for organic tea. We’re working with tea growers, especially in China, to use fewer pesticides and to qualify our teas to be certified by UTZ and Fairtrade.”
In terms of customer demand, Axel Köhnken adds: “We see a growing demand for more green tea which has already reached a market share of 30%.”
Wittig said the association’s longevity and success emanate from inspiring industry leaders, like those quoted above, who shared their valuable insights and achievements on the occasion of the 100th anniversary and the centennial celebration.
Anniversaries are just as much about the future of the Deutscher Teeverband as it is the past.
Olav Ellerbrock fondly and aptly quoted Robert Scheibler, his predecessor as chairman, who proclaimed at his farewell speech in 1974:
“Tea is not only a commodity but also a philosophy!”