The following article was written by Maria Weidich and originally published on Garage Grown Gear's website on April 8, 2019.
Garage Grown Gear is an online store and magazine that spotlights small, startup and cottage outdoor brands. It sells gear, apparel and food from 75+ early stage brands and it helps to tell these brands’ stories through its online magazine.
Jim Lamancusa, founder of the world’s first premium instant tea brand Cusa Tea, wishes there was another adjective besides “instant” he could use to describe his craft. “It doesn’t necessarily mean a bad thing,” he said. “You can have instant and have it taste amazing, too.”
Since the brand’s genesis, that’s been his #1 goal.
It all started on a backpacking trip in the Colorado Rockies. While his friends enjoyed their convenient Starbucks Via instant coffee packets, Jim’s daily go-to, thanks to acid reflux, was a cup of tea. “They had a decent cup of coffee, and here I was carrying around wet, soggy tea bags,” he joked.
On that trip, the Ziploc that was carrying said wet, soggy tea bags opened up, leaking tea juice all over his gear. In this frustrating moment Jim professed, “why has nobody made the Starbucks Via, but for tea?!”
While Jim did have an extensive business background and a deep passion and unquenchable thirst for all things tea, he knew nothing about the current technologies used to make instant ‘anything’.
He connected with a Boulder-based food science consultant company, and as luck would have it, the scientist revealed Starbucks had hired her to create their popular Via instant coffee sticks. “I thought, oh my gosh, this is going to be a slam dunk.”
If only it was that easy.
Applying the same technology used to make instant coffee packets, Jim enlisted the food scientists to craft something similar, but with organic tea. He described the thrill of receiving the finished product. “I was so excited, I put it in hot water, and within seconds, it all settled to the bottom of the cup…sludge,” Jim lamented.
Even after tweaking the size of the tea leaves, it never produced a clean cup of tea. After two more failed attempts, Jim was feeling defeated and about ready to call it quits entirely.
“I’ve worked in enough startups to know you can have an innovative idea, but if the product doesn’t deliver on that promise, it’s a real uphill battle.”
Fortunately, Jim found inspiration, though in a very unlikely place: his wife’s nightly rose-infused eye cream. Curious how rose petals get into a beauty product, he began learning everything he could about botanical extraction.
As he found out, botanical extraction poses the same challenges Jim experienced with loose leaf tea. Hot or cold dehydration methods destroy the characteristics of the botanicals, in the same way they destroy the qualities of tea.
With his enthusiasm reignited, Jim researched an alternative dehydration method which ultimately led him to Cold Steep Technology – a method of evaporative dehydration that retains the tea’s flavor, aroma, and antioxidants. Since only water is lost, the remaining crystallized tea powder is starving for moisture and dissolves immediately when mixed with hot or cold water.
After nine months of trial and error and the hundreds of taste tests that followed, the brand launched five varieties of USDA organic instant tea: English Breakfast, Green Tea, Lemon Black, Mango Green, and Oolong.
Then, after considering over 60 flavor combinations, Chai Tea was added to the product line a bit later. Flavored teas are on the fast track, and using only real and organic fruit, the brand will add Peach Green this spring. The teas are packaged in convenient single-serve sachets and are free of chemicals, additives, fillers, or sugars.
Jim calls the brand ‘the next evolution of tea’.
“To be able to have organic loose-leaf quality of tea that you can make in three seconds with any temperature of water and have no tea bag waste to deal with is a total revolution,” he said.
Cusa Tea’s revolutionary approach is also health-conscious and eco-friendly, too. Not only is the tea internationally certified organic, but Jim also takes pride in knowing the Chinese tea farms where Cusa sources its leaves are off the beaten path, preventing cross contamination with pesticides from nearby non-organic farms. Also, conscious of their waste, all spent tea leaves are used as fertilizer in the organic tea farm.
Even though it just became a brand in May 2017, Cusa Tea is already found in over 1,200 retailers.
“When I first launched it, I thought it would be a backpacker and traveler tea,” Jim explained. The outcome was better than he had expected. “All of a sudden, people were telling me they’re using it for their morning tea, or in their car or office.”
Jim still grapples with the word “instant” though. Realizing he can’t just put products on the shelves and hope they sell, he works hard to drive awareness. His focus is to get people to sample the tea and change the stigma that ‘quick’ and ‘convenient’ means poor quality. Jim can still be found at grocery stores and trade expos doing demos and talking to customers, revving up that velocity for the brand.
What keeps Jim energized (besides caffeine!) is inspiration from customers and his staff. He is constantly receiving emails from happy patrons who are trying to eliminate sugary beverages for health reasons and found success with Cusa Tea. “We’ve helped people live a little healthier life.”
Jim also takes pride in providing his staff with a healthy and happy work environment. Cusa Tea employs three “tea-m” members who are all given longer than average vacation time, flexible working hours, and paid days to volunteer in the community. “It inspires me to see how well people can perform in that environment,” he added.
The outlook for Cusa Tea is budding. The next round of development includes creating a caffeine-free alternative as well as some top secret product pipelines they can’t disclose just yet.
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