HALIFAX, Nova Scotia
Tracy and Rory Bell, founders of Millennia Tea, are working with Halifax retailer Philip Holmans at World Tea House to offer customers freshly plucked, quickly frozen tea. The tea is transported thousands of miles from tea lands like Fujian and Hangzhou, China. No one else has confronted, much less worked out all the complications for retailing fresh picked tea. Until now.
The challenges of maintaining a cold food supply chain increase as temperature declines. Heat accelerates spoilage and complicates storage and transport of any fruit, vegetable, or leaf.
The tolerance for error handling packaged vegetables is much greater than ice cream, for example. A deep-deep freeze buys additional time since the food itself prevents immediate harm during storage and transport and from the unexpected such as a temporary power outage.
Flash-freezing preserves the freshness of the leaf and its powerful mix of antioxidants. These chemicals, known as catechins, provide a lot of medically proven benefit. They are fragile however and degrade when tea leaves are heated and dried. Levels of epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), the most highly prized of the many variations of catechins, are highest in the hours after the leaves are first picked, explains Tracy Bell.
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Holmans says “customers are using it mostly for conventional tea drinking, same style as a dried loose-leaf tea. They are VERY curious about it when they see the Millennia Tea branded freezer and wonder what’s this “frozen tea” all about.”
“We engage our customers by offering free samples, and often have a sample station with Millennia Tea brewed,” he said. “This summer I even featured it as an iced tea feature drink. It’s very easy to use on a service side because of the low-no tannins and flexible brew times,” said Holmans.
“Storage is not an issue,” he adds, “we have a chest freezer at the shop for cold tea storage and their branded freezer fits most of our inventory. The biggest challenge is telling customers they need to treat it like frozen food… think ice cream. It needs to go home directly after purchase,” he said.
Once plucked tea quickly degrades. In most of the world tea leaves that are not processed within four hours are classed as low grade no matter how fine the leaf. Oxidation discolors the leaves and the aroma and full flavor never develop. Millennia Tea offers a freezing alternative. Literally the tea is plucked and twice washed, then surface dried and frozen. The tea is then packaged in air-tight pouches and left in the freezer until brewed.
Getting the tea from the tea lands to your table is a complex journey. In India for example only 8 percent of produce sold is processed and only 1.07 percent of fruits and vegetables are delivered via an uninterrupted series of storage and distribution activities capable of maintaining a given temperature range, according to Global AgriSystem Pvt. Ltd. This leads to 40 percent waste. In the U.S. 80 percent of fruits and vegetables are processed. Efficient cold chains ensure the value of the crop is passed on to the consumer.
The chain begins at harvest where produce (in this example, bananas) are pre-cooled to 13 C. The fruit is moved to cold storage, processing and packaging, transported to the storage and distribution center and then to the retail point of sale. Chilled foods are kept at a temperature of 2 C and frozen foods are kept at -18 C. Deep frozen foods are cooled and maintained at temperatures of -29 C.
“Flash-freezing delivers a fresh-leaf taste,” says Tracy Bell. “It’s something that’s not being done by anyone, anywhere in the world.”
Production facilities need to make some adjustments but many vegetables, such as spinach, are pre-cooled and flash-frozen using dry ice. “Our treatment process is a bit different, but no so far off from what they are currently doing,” she said.
The company is now working with an international food broker who is busy identifying tea gardens near processing facilities. The tea growers are mainly small farmers in China and the U.S. (Mississippi and Hawaii). Kenya is promising as the farm is near production facilities that do the cleaning and flash-freezing.
The last mile
Holmans suggests customers return to pick up their tea after their shopping excursion.
“I tell them to treat it like ice cream,” he says.
Millennia sells the tea for $22.20 for a 100-gram bag that retails for $45. Individual servings of hot tea are profitable at $5 per cup. The company has ordered 80 branded freezer units to display the tea. The company is also exploring direct-to-customer sales online with distribution centers being set up in Montreal and New York.
The last mile can be a challenge because, if left out for a long time, the integrity of the leaf can be impacted.
Millennia was awarded the Best New Product for innovation at World Tea Expo and the couple are very excited at a scheduled appearance on Dragons’ Den a television program that tests the ideas of entrepreneurs before a panel of experienced investors (Canada’s version of the popular U.S. Shark Tank).
Few consumers have enjoyed the pleasure of watching fresh plucked tea transformed into a flavorful cup. The experience is unique. It reminds some of Long Jing and others of lightly processed Japanese green tea. Flavor depends on style, cultivar and terroir, but the texture and fragrance as it thaws during steeping are very like what one experiences on a tea farm.
Source: World Tea House, Millennia Tea