You have been working in the food industry since 1996. What attracted you to this industry?
“I love LOVE hospitality, that is in my nature and my gift. Pairing good food with drink is addictive, and this led me to tea. While in college I worked at the Ritz Carlton in Laguna Niguel in the lounge serving drinks and when I covered the Tea Room shifts I would serve High Tea. We served loose leaf teas from Harney and Sons. Being a plant grower, I have had a garden since I was about 8 years old and I fell in love with the leaves and infusion of ingredients. Customers had questions, I had to research to give them answers. They wanted to know more about loose leaf tea and so did I. I began to research all concepts of tea - it’s many interpretations and celebrations - in the US and abroad.”
You started your career 11 years ago, by working as an owner in a franchise ice-cream shop. In the meantime, you founded a tea company. How did you combine ice cream and tea products? What is so exciting about tea?
“What isn’t exciting about a multifaceted beverage that is celebrated by many cultures and interpreted in many ways? I made a deal with my husband that if I helped him in the ice cream business, he would help me build my tea concept. I was excited to see how we could celebrate tea and teach about it ‘American style’ which is really an adaptation celebrating all cultures, ages, and types - and mainly over ice. Could we blend tea or herbs in ice cream pies and serve it? You bet. Could we apply QS (quick service) to a tea concept without losing the call to take time to slow down and sip? Yes again. Could we even inspire local surfer boys (grommet) and their grandmas to sip and bond over tea? Mission accomplished. No one else was really doing it yet. Would tonics of herbs pumped into a cup with soda water work? Now we are bringing back the soda jerk ice cream in the Pharmacy days, right? We even iced rare teas (yikes!) and poured it over Asian sweet coconut jelly cubes (like widely used in boba shops aka nata de coco). I blended my own tea blends and flavoured them. We held tastings, started a Masters’ Chest club of rare teas for a select elite list, shipped to the members of our tea clubs, served pots of tea in house, scones, snacks. Used (demo’d) and sold our accoutrements and tea ware (now you know HOW to do loose tea!). I had wholesale channels in Wholefoods, Albertsons, local restaurants, a spa chain in Singapore and many more. That’s pretty exciting.”
Tell us a bit about your current role. What is that you do? What does your regular day look like?
“I now work behind the scenes and sell B2B to brands and companies that buy botanicals, blends, and finished tea products. I do everything from sourcing and selling contracted teas and herbs to writing recipes for commercial tea blends for brands. I also sell my own Wellness and Trending Blends online and in other wholesale channels, match and reverse engineer blends, all the way to finalizing a private labelled tea line. Understanding the supply chain (as well as every part in between) helps to create a scalable product. I am a judge for many tea industry platforms and serve on the committees with AHPA for Sustainability and Tea Infusions. I am very passionate about regenerative agriculture, composting, and permaculture. That is where I am headed to ultimately - using my experience and getting closer to the basics. Ultimately, if you drink tea - you are ‘in to’ health. I am the real deal. Closed loop and my hands in the dirt. I believe plants heal us and we have a responsibility to be good to our soil and planet. Healthy soil = healthy plants = actual medicinal teas. Now we need more growers that can support this, and I am working on getting the message across domestically.”
The matching of teas, herbs, and spiced (tea) blends must require creativity and knowledge. What is a blend that you made and are the most pleased with?
“Lately it has been one I have not released online yet - all herbs called Female Ease - adaptogens, herbs that help women, with a warming taste – very, very close to the earth. With that said - we drink Assam tea blend by the pound at home and my kids love my Apricot Black tea blend. I even made a bubble-gum hibiscus blend – and I actually liked it too. If you saw my lab and office, you would understand - I am a plant / herb / root /leaf / fruit lover.”
Which consumer trends do you observe when it comes to the tea market? Do consumers prefer simple or more elaborated flavours? Do they prefer hot over cold versions of the drink? Does it differ based on the region they are from?
“Definitely Wellness Blends: Sleep blends, Detox, Cleanse, Energy - Functional types. Organics and socially responsible ingredients and teas are also on the rise. With all that said - larger sales are mainly in flavoured teas, especially iced and packed in ready-to-brew bags for restaurants. Overall - iced teas sells best in the US especially in coastal states. In RTD - bulk organic teas sell well still, especially Kombucha RTD. I would sure love to sell to some more beer brewers.”
You are also a certified expert tea taster. Could you tell us a bit more about that role? Are you being hired to taste the tea, or do you organise the tastings yourself?
“I am certified at the highest level with the Specialty Tea Institute. I could teach the classes if I volunteered to, but I also love all botanicals, not just Camellia Sinensis. It is important to know what all the leaves, teas, flowers, fruits taste like - as well as their functions, availability, and pricing to create blends for brands. I do get hired to give my opinions on formulations created for example by an internal R&D team or by herbalists and the like – to rewrite the recipe for commercial use and get it into manufacturing. I have served on boards that judge and give awards and stamps related to their products. I cup (taste in professional cupping sets) hundreds of ingredients and blends per week. Not a bad gig, never a dull day. Aromatic and colorful (but lots of dishes).”
Do you think that COIVD-19 has affected the demand for tea blends with calming effects?
“Wellness and ingredients for immunity have taken off. I have container orders for Organic Elderberry. My sleep tea blends - and custom ones are the most requested right now. One brand hired me to do a sleep/calming tea, for which I used Butterfly Pea Flower (that is blue in the cup), which is really unique as it has melatonin powder and other calming powders blended in, using a proprietary method of granulation or pelletizing the powder right into the blend. It looks good, smells amazing, tastes fabulously relaxing and works well too.”
Desirée Nelson, Founder, ECO HUB INC / DBA BUILD A BLEND / DBA INGREDIENT HUB.
Pictures: Courtesy of Desirée Nelson