Tribute to Specialty Tea Visionary Brian Keating

Brian Keating

Brian Keating Memorial

A celebration of life for Brian R. Keating will be 4 – 8 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 16, at the Golden Gardens Bathhouse, 8498 Seaview Place Northwest Seattle, Wash. A second gathering will be 2 – 5 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 7 at the Dushanbe Teahouse, 1770 13th St., Boulder, Colo. A light afternoon tea will be served. All are welcome. Donations to a legacy fund can be made at GoFundMe. Funds will finance celebrations in Seattle and Boulder, Colorado, and to assist his family with closure of his estate, if needed. The remainder will become a legacy donation to KEXP, Brian’s favorite local music radio station, for an annual remembrance on his birthday each year and to honor his love of local music.

Tribute to Specialty Tea Visionary Brian Keating

Three decades ago specialty tea was a faint apparition in an American market inundated in tea dust and iced fannings.

Brian R. Keating, a tea visionary who passed unexpectedly of a heart attack on Sept. 2, saw the potential in fine loose leaf tea so clearly that his marketing insights inspired thousands to invest in what is now a multi-billion-dollar industry. He was 62 and lived in Seattle.

“Always behind the scenes, Brian Keating has played a major role in America’s tea renaissance,” writes James Norwood Pratt, author of The Tea Lover’s Treasury and recipient of the John Harney Lifetime Achievement Award. “The tea Immortals have prepared great feasts to welcome him after a lifetime well spent toiling in the tea field here below. He was a friend and I loved him.”

In his youth Keating enjoyed tea, but he first turned his full, and at times frantic, attention to mastering tea as a proprietor of The TeaCup in Seattle. He believed that tea was not a commodity but an artisan product. He tasted and tested a lot of tea, learned the distinctive characteristics of origins first hand, and fell forever in love with oolong.

His tea shop metrics demonstrated that selling high-margin broken- and whole-leaf blends was very profitable. This was long before the science-based revelation of tea’s health benefits that would supercharge sales. In those days tearooms shunned greens in favor of Darjeeling, Earl Grey and English Breakfast blends, spending more money on clotted cream and dainties than tea. Keating and manager Donna Fellman sold Dammann Freres teas, Keemun Hao Ya, Evening in Missoula and Pamplemoussse Blu. There were only 17 Starbucks locations at the time. Keating noticed those in Seattle sold significant amounts of pretty good tea under the brand name Infusia (long before the acquisition, or even existence of Tazo Tea). He believed tea could rival coffee as the first choice of taste- and health-conscious consumers.

Defining an Industry

By 1993 Keating was so convinced that specialty tea was surging that his fact-based enthusiasm spilled onto the pages of the first of 10 Specialty Tea is “Hot” reports. Keating became the principal at Sage Group and left the shop behind to consult as a blender, formulator, marketer and wholesale expert.

Michael Cramer, co-founder of Adagio Teas, says that Sage Group became “an authoritative voice in describing, analyzing and often predicting the trends that affect our industry. The tea report has guided our product selection, marketing focus and current expansion in retail. It is an indispensable guide for all seeing success in the world of tea.”

Mike Spillane, the third-generation owner of G.S. Haly Co., praised Keating for being “on the leading edge in reporting on specialty tea with all of its emerging niches, types and formats. As one of America’s oldest purveyors of specialty tea, G.S. Haly Co. has found Sage Group to be the go-to source for reliable forecasting and trend analysis when it comes to developments in the tea industry or products involving tea.”

“Like doting parents always looking to expand it but not at the expense of the industry’s integrity,” he said.

In short order Keating became the business spokesman for tea, citing numbers of interest to the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, The Economist, Newsweek, NPR, and landing clients on the Fortune 500 list. Sage Group created more than 200 beverages that included the first sports energy drink SPORTea, formulations for functional and nutraceutical beverages and many innovative teas. He also dabbled in culinary ingredients based on his extensive knowledge of herbs, spices, and flavorings.

He helped write the culinary arts book Spices covering global cuisines and gourmet salts and would also co-author in 2016 How to Make Tea published globally by Abrams/Quarto-Ivy. His latest reports were on trendy matcha and kombucha.

Leading Tea Expansion

In 2006 he became the first tea buyer and blend-master at Whole Foods Market via its subsidiary Allegro Coffee Co. located in Thornton, Colorado. There he worked with company president Jeff Teter to establish an in-house line of beverages including 40 new tea products in a lab of his own design.

“Brian’s incredible creativity and deep knowledge of teas, herbs and botanicals brought us in contact with him,” recalls Kelly Amoroso, tea buyer at Allegro Coffee Co. “He was committed to the industry and its peers. Brian generated such enthusiastic knowledge about tea that customers instantly felt a trusting connection and liking toward him.

“In a way, it’s like tea was Brian’s life companion. We appreciate him for his talent and commitment to it and have gratitude for sharing with others the joys of this beverage,” she said. “We continue to honor his intentions and creativity today. His passion for tea and legacy lives on through the Allegro teas and thank him for introducing us to our tea family.”

Connecting the Tea Community

A skilled promoter and longtime attendee at Natural Product Expo, Keating immediately saw the potential in a new event proposed by tea-novice George Jage.

“I met Brian even before I held the very first World Tea Expo in 2003,” recalls Jage. “In researching potential speakers for a first-time event, his name kept coming up as he was already publishing the famous Specialty Tea is Hot report.  Knowing he was collecting data no one else had, collected or analyzed, we immediately made him our go-to lead-off speaker at almost every show.

“It didn’t take long for Brian to become one of my most trusted advisers, second only to my wife Kim, in building World Tea Expo.  He was a driving force behind creating the tracks that attracted Nestle, Unilever, Pepsi and many other big consumer product manufacturers; he was a judge and adviser to Kim for the North American Tea Championship, and he introduced us to dozens of the best speakers we had over the 12 years we ran the expo,” said Jage, now CEO at DOPE Media.

Tea Industry Remembers Brian Keating

“Any friend of Brian’s will tell you: you could not have a better friend. You could see and feel his deep empathy and caring for people every time you talked to him. I know I’m in good company  when I say that Brian is one of the finest people I have known and one of the best friends I’ve ever had.

“Brian was fascinatingly multi-dimensional, and those who knew him beyond his Tea King persona might know him as a passionate lover of music, especially guitar music, as he was himself a guitar player. He was also a lover of fine food of all types, and the originator of the International Hot luck, an international spicy food party that I had the honor of hosting with Brian for much of its nearly 40 year history.

“He was a cool product hunter and trend-spotter, always with his finger on the pulse of what’s hot and what’s not in the world of foods, beverages and health. He was smart and fun and funny, with a quick wit, a sharp eye and an even sharper mind. We will miss him every day for as long as we’re still here.”

—Rob McCaleb
Natural Healthcare Inc., owner
Herb Research Foundation president

“The unexpected loss of my good friend Brian Keating has not fully set in. Brian and I go way back to his TeaCup days. Through the years Brian and I shared many a phone call about the growth of the specialty tea industry.  With Brian’s passing the tea industry has lost a thoughtful, caring friend and a little bit of its soul. God bless you Brian.”

—Mike Spillane
G. S. Haly Co.

“Brian’s contribution to the tea industry cannot be underestimated. Few reports on the industry were anticipated as eagerly as his annual Sage report, which lent both qualitative and quantitative insights to the tea industry and its members. Rooted in tea expertise, his views were always interesting, challenging and helpful.  The tea industry will miss him.”

—Peter F. Goggi
Tea Association of the USA president

“For the 27 years I owned the Perennial Tea Room in Seattle, Brian was a regular customer, friend and adviser. He always arrived with stories to tell, advice to provide and suggestions of ideas to advance our business. When he bought his own tea shop we collaborated to bring Norwood Pratt to Seattle on a book signing series of events. Eleven years ago, when I started the Northwest Tea Festival he was there with ideas and referrals of potential vendors.  He tracked them down and got them committed to participate and he came and enjoyed every one of them. He was always friendly and open with his energy and certainly committed to tea. I can’t say how much I will miss him.”

—Julee Romanoff
Northwest Tea Festival organizer

“My heart sank at the news. I can’t take any more of these devastating blows to the tea industry.  Over the past year I had gotten to know Brian very well as we were collaborating on several projects including purple tea, Colombian tea and World Tea Expo.  He was a true steward of the industry and will be missed. May his soul rest in peace.”

—Bhavin Shah
hief sommelier at Waterfall Tea Co. 

“I speak for myself and all of World Tea Media. Brian touched our lives and our business in a significant way. He was counted on for his extraordinary knowledge, vision, support and guidance. Brian was committed to making a difference in both the tea community and World Tea Expo and its associated businesses. His knowledge and influence helped direct the course of our conference development, online education and growth of World Tea Expo. Our respect for the man he was and the contribution he made will not end. Brian’s influence throughout our industry will remain steadfast even in his absence.”

Samantha Hammer
World Tea Expo event director/ World Tea brand leader