Cold-brew tea presents several retail challenges. It is made in batches that limit the quantity for sale each day. It takes hours to steep, and conventional cold brew has a very short shelf life.
Yet for Evy Tea’s Evy Chen, one of the first retailers to launch a cold-brew tea in the U.S. market, the effort “really brings out the natural layers of flavor.”
Launched as a premium tea in glass bottles in 2014, Chen has since expanded Evy Tea to include an innovative office “tea on tap” program and will soon open the company’s second child- and “pupper-friendly” tea bar where potted greens in the courtyard play area often wind up in your cup.
The idea of planting lemongrass harvested fresh is typical of Chen, 29, who grew up amid the traditional tea culture of Southeast China. Schooled in Europe, when she arrived in the U.S. a few years ago she eagerly embraced an iced tea culture quite different from her upbringing.
“I was fascinated by iced tea culture. It was not something we had back home, more about modern convenience, grab and go. That inspired the whole cold brew thing,” she said. As Chen began experimenting with teas she quickly determined what she didn’t want: no added colors, no preservatives, no sugars, no concentrates, no powders, no artificial flavors.
The result: No bottlers would bid on her job.
One of the biggest challenges was extending the shelf life of the bottled teas to 24 months without preservatives. Chen spent three years in kitchen research and development, blending and bottling samples to achieve her vision. Eventually, she landed a bottler with a process for manufacturing fresh cold brew in 16.9-ounce glass containers. Why glass? “People who grab a product don’t often finish it right away, tea is something you can enjoy as the day goes on. A bottle designed for the drinking experience feels better, you can see the tea, feel the refreshing cold, and then cap it in the fridge,” says Chen.
Tea on Tap
Evy Tea is also sold in 5-gallon containers for $80 to $120 each, depending on blend. The tea can be dispensed or pressurized in a kegerator. Chen says that Boston is a great foodservice market for cafes, offices and fitness centers. “It’s a distribution channel that we’re incredibly excited about because of its potential for community building,” she said.
“There hasn’t been a lot of innovation within the tea industry in the last century, not only in how tea is brewed, but also in how it’s shared,” she said. “Much like we see people share their love for craft beverages like cold-brew coffee in gathering areas, we’re already seeing with Evy Tea on Tap a similar community-building effect in co-working spaces, offices, gyms and other gathering spaces,” she said.
Tea Bars by Evy
“All of our tea bars have an urban outdoor herb garden. We grow lemon grass and a bunch of other ingredients and encourage guests to try creative flavors. A city like Boston has plenty of places to drink alcohol, but not many adult options without alcohol. The Jamaica Plain tea bar that opened last June very quickly became a community center where neighbors could feel good about bringing children there.
“The concept for the tea bar helps imprint what we stand for as a brand,” she said. The new tea bar opening this month in Charlestown will conform to the neighborhood. This will be more modern looking. Each tea bar extends the concept but without duplication, explains Chen. “When you sell tea, you should see a person behind it,” she says.
“Many of our customers say that our cold brews are the most refreshing drinks that they can have during the hot summer months,” says Chen. “Since our cold brews are made with USDA organic ingredients, contain no sugars or artificial sweeteners, and have a very low caffeine content, we’ve found that they appeal to people of all ages who simply enjoy delicious and refreshing beverages. Our brand seems to be particularly appealing to millennials and young professionals.
“We definitely want to conquer that demographic,” said Chen. “They already know tea’s health benefits. We want to change the perception of tea and what it is supposed to taste like.”
Evy Tea hits home with younger drinkers, those who celebrate the social aspects, unlike traditional bottled tea beverages. Millennials want something more experiential, less boring, she said.
What Sells Best?
Some of Evy’s most popular cold brews include Black Tea Strawberry Basil, Green Tea Mango Lemongrass and White Chamomile Lavender. She likes to experiment with fruit and spice but not at the expense of the underlying tea.
“The majority of tea manufacturers don’t really care much about how tea tastes. Teavana just mixes a bunch of things together to make fruit water. Iced tea is more often about the blueberry, peach, ginger and watermelon than the tea. Then there are complete purists, who steep three times at 30-second intervals. I’m not a big fan of either,” she said.
“I was raised drinking Tie Quan Yin and fine jasmine tea.” Chen said that she resembles her grandfather in temperament, someone who was always asking questions, challenging the status quo. “He was one of the people who fought to free the province from Japanese rule. Yet he was an independent thinker who later tried to privatize the tea industry in China. My parents could have changed me into someone who conforms, or send me away to Europe to be better appreciated,” said Chen.
“I left for Europe at 15.”