When my first partner and I started looking at what we wanted to include in our concept back in early 2004, one of the options was bottling a tea beverage I had developed. We visited two reputable bottling companies in our area and hired a food chemist to help us. He had wonderful credentials and was extremely knowledgeable. One of the things he
did was to send us home with a number of preservatives to taste for ourselves. Bottling required something as natural and neutral as possible in taste; we settled on malic acid over citric acid and some of the other choices. Malic acid comes from fruits such as apples and, since this was to be more than just simple brewed tea in a bottle, the malic acid seemed to work best with the recipe.
However, the more we tasted the preserved beverage as compared to the original, freshly made version, the more we realized we just couldn’t bring ourselves to have it bottled. As it turns out, we might be farther along today financially if we had. By bottled standards, it was “really good.” But we couldn’t get past two things:
1. The lack of “life” in the taste after a preservative had been added and it had been sitting for awhile
2. The lack of antioxidant value
Recently, on Twitter, a company began following us who does an “antioxidant-infused” bottled beverage. Their promos show stars drinking it and the publicity is all about health. They then emailed me and asked if they could send a rep to show us their line. I asked them how they kept the antioxidants alive after bottling. She said no one had ever asked and she’d have to talk to their R&D department and get back to me. She got back to me, stating that the R&D department would have to look into my question. Then she asked again if they could come and show us their line. I said they were welcome to after the answer was available. She’s never gotten back to me. My tea vendors can tell you how many questions I ask and how I’ve been known to keep asking about any change to the blend until I finally get to the master blender, if that’s what it takes to get an answer.
A few months ago, a beverage rep from a multinational corporation, one that has recently purchased a line of bottled teas, came in to see if we were interested in bringing in some of the line. He was especially excited about the well-known, great-selling, loose-leaf bottled tea, since we are a tea-centric store. As he opened the pages of his sales book to show me photos and the wholesale pricing, I asked him what preservatives were used. He didn’t know. I asked him if I could make him a freshly brewed iced tea while he was looking up more of the information. When he tasted it, he closed up his presentation book and said “I don’t think you’ll be wanting our bottled tea. I’ve never tasted anything like this iced tea you just gave me, ever in my life!”
Friday, a bottling company executive and his wife were in our area visiting, and stopped at our store just to relax and have something cold on a very hot day. He has diabetes, so he wanted something healthy and without sugar. We made them our newly arrived green Rooibos blend with citrus, iced. He tasted it and said, “How can we get THIS taste into a bottle?! I’m always looking for the next new thing.” I answered that they couldn’t. As they were leaving, they stopped to say that when they had arrived they had both been feeling quite poorly, but after drinking the Rooibos they were feeling much better. Maybe a coincidence. Maybe anything iced would have worked on that hot day. The next day, a young man came in and had the same Rooibos, his hot, and as he left, he stopped and said exactly the same thing. Is there possibly something that a freshly brewed, healthy tea or herbal contains that causes that reaction in our bodies that bottled beverages just can’t match?
At any rate, I understand that RTD (aka “ready to drink” aka “bottled”) is a monstrous, profitable, growing category in specialty tea. I also understand that the tea trade associations need money coming into the industry, so they promote RTD and defend it as, if not full of antioxidants, at least better than sodas. And I know that there are investors who would go for a really great-tasting line of Rooibos or tea beverages. But, it’s just not for us. And, truly, I’m hoping it never will be. Because if we did bottle a line of tea, I couldn’t believe in my heart that the consumer was getting the experience I delight in giving them – the one that startles them and makes them smile in surprise. I enjoy making money as much as the next guy, mind you, and so I won’t rule it out entirely. Hopefully, we would be honest enough to put something on the bottle stating “there is no real antioxidant value in bottled tea” … unless someone can prove to me otherwise, of course. I still keep Dr. Li’s study on file and would like to see any opposing studies.
The masses are easily sold on convenience and they love brands that can market well with flash and panache, or sell a look or a feeling or an experience or the perception of health and freshness. But, there are also riches in tiny niches and, at least for now, that’s where we find our joy. In the tiny niche, we brew every single tea, hot or iced, by the cup, and hand it to a smiling consumer who knows he has gone out of his way on purpose to get peak freshness and the most antioxidant value. California Tea & Coffee Brewery brand “Think Healthy, Drink Healthy” TM iced teas. Has a nice ring to it.