Pea Flower Tea: Sneaking Up on the Innovation Highway

Pea flower tea could be the next sneak up innovation in the beverage market, joining bubble tea, cheese tea, cold brew and kombucha and, perhaps even the SUI of the past decade, matcha. These came from outside the mainstream, relatively suddenly establishing a market base of enthusiastic customers. None seemed likely to become more than just a niche, fad or exotic outlier.

Could be the next big success in no way means will be. Today, pea flower is largely at the invention stage. Customers decide through their choices if an invention is an innovation: the difference is between what constitutes a “good idea” versus “personal value.”

Pea flower tea is clearly a very good idea. Tea innovation is increasingly paced by customers seeking (1) variety, (2) new flavors, (3) contribution to wellness and (4) new experiences. Suppliers are launching pea flower inventions that rate highly along all these dimensions.

It’s an ornamental creeper plant with a brilliant blue flower that’s been a staple in Southeast Asia for centuries. For instance, in Thailand it is widely used as a natural food coloring, an ointment and popular welcome drink.

butterfly pea tea

As a beverage, it seems almost a conjuring trick: astonishing color changes in reaction to acids, especially lemon and lime; a packed intensity of all the antioxidants that are associated with wellness (proanthocyanins and bioflavonoids) especially, and a wide variety of recipes (fruit juices, cocktail infusions, and lemon, honey, lemongrass and lime as popular flavor boosts.)

There is a lot of buzz about it in the tea industry, with a growing number of small and specialty sellers talking it up. Starbucks boosted its awareness. Teavana has been selling a three-layer pea flower lemonade cold brew in Asia since early 2018. The first layer is tea, which becomes a stunning bright, bold blue when water is added. It reacts to small differences in pH balance. When the second lemonade layer is poured, the lemon turns it violet. The last layer, cold brew, creates a swirling “galactic mood ring type of thing.”

Causal scanning of online sites shows high enthusiasm for the tea. The five-star customer ratings on Amazon for individual products are around 90 percent. That is higher than for matcha, kombucha and specialty oolongs, which are typically at 70 percent. Tea buyers are by and large satisfied with their choices.

There are occasional “1”s. A recurrent theme among these is taste, with two conflicting views: pea flower has no distinct taste and takes its flavor from the lemon or honey typically added to it or, the other extreme, it is earthy and wooden.  Most descriptions find it a pleasant green-like flavor, not too vegetal and briskly fresh.

The explanation for the difference seems obvious from online ads and blogs: brewing time and temperature.

Here are some examples:

  • Four to six petals, three minutes in warm to hot water,
  • One to three teaspoons, 3-8 minutes, boiling water,
  • Six teaspoons; bring to a boil and let cool.

There’s even a recommendation to steep it for 14 minutes.

Politely put, that’s nuts. Temperature and brewing time are critical to brewing any tea and with vague instructions that range from a few petals in warm water to a heap boiled to kill, then of course some of these will produce a weak flavor of just peas, others a mouth-searing bitterness.

The World Tea Expo in June 2018 included several vendors offering precise and knowledgeable advice. Butterfly Ayurveda’s Subrabhat Chia was superb. It is blended with lemongrass which gives a light sharpness to the very slightly earthy flavor. Joanna Wang of Zhejiang Camel Transworld served a very balanced and non-pea tasting sample. She and other sellers suggested brewing the flowers at 185 degrees Fahrenheit for four minutes as optimal.

Invention or innovation? Customers will decide but the odds look very good. Pea flower tea will at the very least find a specialty niche and skilled vendors will leverage that to capture a larger share of the mass market. Possibly a very much larger one.

Sources: Zhejiang Camel Transworld, Butterfly Ayurveda