Knowing my preference for unsweetened tea, a friend and fellow tea-drinker brought me a couple of cold tea beverages to check out: Honest Tea “Assam Black”, and Tea’s Tea “Rose Green” (to be reviewed in another post). Was I excited? You bet! I have had a nearly impossible time finding cold non-alcoholic beverages of any kind that aren’t sweetened to death. I chilled both down in the fridge so they would be ready to go for lunch.

I was drawn to the Honest Tea by the packaging: Glass bottle, simple, elegant label, and of course the name (“Real tea. Real taste. Honest”). Surely there wouldn’t be any hidden surprises here? And there aren’t exactly, but if you were expecting simply brewed black Assam tea in a bottle (which I naively was), you’d be disappointed (which I also was).

As I took a swig of this honey-colored, sediment-laced drink, the sweetness hit me right smack in the front of my tongue, and it wasn’t just any kind of sweetness, but a maple-sugar taste that completely obliterated anything to do with black tea. I mean it was flavorless, except for the maple sugar taste, with none of the natural tannins I expect in black tea to clean up the sweetness. If I had tasted this blind, I might have guessed it to be an anemic apple juice infused with maple sugar. Tea would not have crossed my mind.

The makers of this drink are being completely honest, though; on the back label, they make the statement that “Honest Teas are just barely sweetened—and never with high fructose corn syrup”. Further down in the ingredient list, I saw two sweeteners listed; cane sugar and, lo and behold, maple syrup! Honestly. It’s all on the label for everyone to see.

I went to the Honest Tea website to see what I could learn – which was quite a bit. They have a charming story to tell, and a bunch of different tea-based products. These include juice-infused teas geared towards kids, in a foil pouch with straw that they claim have “less than half the sugar of most other pouch drinks.” I have yet to see another tea drink made especially for children, so this is pretty big. And among the 17 different tea drinks in their “Glass bottle” series, two are unsweetened: “Just Black Tea,” and “Just Green Tea”. I will look for those in the future. Meanwhile, their mission seems to be to wean us slowly off of our sugar habit with their “barely sweetened” drinks. At least they are being honest; you just have to look for the full story.

Two days after I wrote the above post, I was looking at a complimentary copy of Beverage World magazine (April edition), and guess who was on the cover? Honest Tea. They were the lead story because of their recent partnership with soft drink giant Coca Cola. The hard facts are this: Coca Cola gets a 40% share of Honest Tea and the option to buy them out after 3 years. Until the buyout, the current owners of Honest Tea will manage the brand and make all decisions, using the Coca Cola backing to increase sales and distribution of their product (exponentially, probably).

So the questions are: Will Coca Cola’s backing (and subsequent purchase) help to bring tea consumption to the American people? Will the product line benefit from the global beverage giant’s influence? What kind of changes will occur, and will they promote tea in a positive light, or will Honest Tea become just another watered-down sweetened and adulterated tea beverage? Did Honest Tea sell out, or make the best possible deal for the product?

What do you think?