The story behind our journey to fresh tea – Pt:2
I’m a pretty positive person, generally speaking. I believe things are always working out for me (and for all of us), regardless of what is unfolding in this red hot moment. I believe appreciation for what we have is the most effective way to get what we want. And by now I have the faith to know when something I think I REALLY want doesn’t manifest, it’s probably for the best – and the quicker I can take the lesson from that experience, the faster I can get on with doing the good I was put on this earth to do.
But don’t tell that to the “me” of 2016. Back then I was riding the rollercoaster of ups and downs of early entrepreneurship.
And what a ride.
Sitting down to write this second installment of our story (Click Here to read Part 1), the events of four years ago came rushing back like they had happened yesterday. I opened my computer and started pulling up emails from our inception, as Rory and I hatched this idea about sharing tea in its purest, healthiest form and becoming a force for wellness and a source of comfort and healing for families like ours. Sitting in our place of worry and fear, we needed tea to show up as functional medicine … fresh leaves you could consume in full .. not dried bits, robbed of many of their life-promoting properties during processing to land in a box that sits on a shelf and never expires.
I don’t say this to bad-mouth conventional dried tea. Not at all. It is the most consumed beverage in the world after water for good reason. But the sentiment above is absolutely how we were feeling at that time … confused and more than a little frustrated with what was available in the market given our new understanding of tea’s immense potential as a superhero for health and healing.
The immense body of scientifical and medical research told us tea is unequivocally a powerful ally in preventing / fighting illness and increasing wellness. Studies concluded that the least processed teas are the healthiest (i.e. green and white) … that antioxidants degrade with prolonged exposure to heat, light and air (i.e. processing), and that consuming the full leaf is best (think matcha).
It seemed only logical that keeping the tea leaves in their most natural state and not cooking them at all would preserve the most antioxidants, and the research available supported that belief.
So why wasn’t anyone doing this? Why did no one sell “fresh tea”? It became the question that consumed us.
We had wonderings: Maybe fresh tea doesn’t brew up a nice, golden “tea” colour?
Maybe there’s no caffeine in the raw leaves?
Maybe tea sommeliers are like wine sommeliers – the pride of their craft comes in manipulating the raw material to bring about different flavour notes?
All guesses. There was only one way to find out so far as we could tell. We had to get our hands on some fresh tea leaves.
As it turns out, that was no easy feat. And when I was talking earlier about the emotional roller coaster of getting a new venture of the ground, this was the example that flooded my memory as I started re-reading emails that took me back to that part of our journey.
The search for fresh tea.
In April of 2016, three months after the health scare that rocked our family and set us down the path to understand the medicinal properties of tea, we reached out to the president and CEO of the #1 specialty tea company in North America.
Our ask was simple: sell us a cooler full of fresh tea. We’ve got this theory and need to test it out. We’ll be respectful, transparent and share the full results. Who knows, maybe there could be a beautiful partnership down the road and a good news story for a lot of families fighting illness. (I was more eloquent than that, but you get the idea)
We were thrilled to hear back the very same day.
“I just love your idea! Very interesting and unique. I have asked my associate to give you a call ... I called him as well as emailed him about your idea … you will be in great hands.” Was the response.
We were over the moon!
Then, later that week, the most confusing call. Two men called. One from head office; the other, a tea expert from the company. The man in charge of the tea leaves shut us down hard. He said what we were proposing would never work. That there would be no health benefits, let alone enhanced benefits, and what we were proposing was not logistically possible. He schooled me hard and then said goodbye. The call lasted nine minutes.
Then they called back. This time it was the administrator who spoke. His message was clear: do not reconnect with the CEO. That called lasted less than a minute.
We were surprised and confused. So we ABSOLUTELY wrote the CEO again. Why? Because in the absence of complete information your mind will fill in the blanks (often to our detriment), and, at that point in our journey, we imagined the worst. Were they planning to steal our idea? Yep, that’s where the mind will take you when you don’t know any better.
In fact, they didn’t intend to run with our idea. We had challenged their beliefs on tea is all. And they wrote us off as a couple of novices who clearly had a lot to learn about the business of tea. We spoke with the CEO and got a commitment to procure a quantity of fresh tea. We were overjoyed.
We made plans for all of May and June and imagined what we might do together. Everything felt really solid. We shipped a big cooler and freezer packs to the tea farm. We made the arrangements with an international courier service. The tea would be plucked and shipped on one day, and arrive at a research facility in Canada the next day where Rory and the bioscientists would be ready to complete a series of analyses. The night before the big day, the CEO sent a note around to the company’s senior leaders saying, “Maybe we will be blessed to have a whole new way to sell tea … fingers crossed.”
The next day, two hours before the courier was scheduled to arrive, we got the call. They had reconsidered. They didn’t want us diving into their leaves in this way, or to potentially create a competitor to their dried teas.
I crafted rebuttals and key messages addressing their concerns, but there was no changing their mind. After nearly three months of planning and high hopes, it was back to square one.
Reading those messages now – a full four years later – took me right back to that feeling place. We alternated between disappointment and determination to bounce back quickly.
We found another source of fresh tea.
There’s a single tea farm in Canada. We don’t have the right climate in this country to support hearty tea growth; but we were desperate to get our hands on some fresh tea – just to complete some initial proof-of-concept tests to know if we were on to something or wasting our time.
The owners, a couple, were on board at first. We told them we were East Coasters looking to complete analyses on tea and were keen to get our hands on some raw leaves. Again this time, we said we would happily share the results. They were excited. On the heels of a fresh breakup, Rory and I debated whether we should give them full context into our business idea. We saw where that had gotten us the last time.
The debate was short lived. We had to share full context. It was the right thing to do, and a core value for us and people and of our company is that we do the right thing no matter what. But, frig, sometimes doing the right thing sure feels like taking scenic route on the way to your goals.
We organized another call and told them about our hypothesis on fresh tea. Their response was incredible. The co-owner said his mind was blown … that someone he knew had recently been diagnosed with cancer and he had brought them a basket of fresh tea leaves from his garden (not his dried, processed, finished teas) because that my friends is what using tea as medicine means.
We were all high fives after the call. It was finally happening.
Until it didn’t.
Our follow up calls went unreturned and then they were too busy to send the tea. We offered to fly out and collect the leaves ourselves. The tea season is short here (that’s totally true) and they had so much to do. Again this time, there was no changing their mind.
Back-to-back blows. We wondered if we weren’t meant to do this. We had months of energy into getting fresh tea. We couldn’t get it to Canada from the big tea-producing countries overseas in the timelines we needed to maintain the freshness, and the North American producers weren’t interested.
That feeling of defeat passed pretty quickly because we now had more information that we were headed in the right direction. So we kept digging.
Rory found a nursery in North Carolina that sold Camellia sinensis seedlings. We didn’t mess around this time. It was October by now and the growing season was coming to a close quickly.
We booked vacation time (both of us had full-time jobs at that point: me in corporate communications and Rory as an air medevac pilot), got a sitter for our kiddos (Sydney, 8 and Lincoln, 5), jumped in the car (a rented Jeep) and hit the road to North Carolina from New Brunswick – a 2,000km trek (1,250 miles for our US friends).
We felt like pioneers on a trek into the unknown – with a definiteness of purpose and a level of almost electric excitement I have scarcely experienced before or since.
These weren’t the mature plants from a long-established producer we had dreamed of working with. They were two-year-old seedlings, grown in a greenhouse. Even so, we knew this was a big step and it might alter our future in a very real way.
Driving up, I remember feeling equal parts nervous and excited. We had told the owner of the tea garden we would be taking the plants back to Canada with us. That prompted them to call in an FDA (Federal Department of Agriculture) inspector. Knowing the plants were for export to Canada, he sprayed them with some kind of pesticide to kill any bugs that might want to hitch a ride to the Great White North. We found out when we arrived at the farm.
Shoot. We hadn’t anticipated that (our bad), and now our samples and saplings were pretty much useless.
Fortunately, the owner let us pick a small quantity of fresh tea leaves (like, literally, a Tupperware container’s worth of leaves) from the nursery plants when we promised to use them within the US. It was far from an ideal scenario. But we had what we needed to create samples and start to at least get some initial data.
**Oh, can I just add here that the experience of being with real, raw tea plants for the first time is an incredibly special experience. For me, it felt like simultaneously living in the past and seeing the future all at once. It was almost spiritual, and it comes back to me every time we’ve stepped into a tea field since.
What we did then feels like a blur. We let the fresh-picked tea sit out for seven (7) hours to simulate the real-life scenario of how long it would take from first plucking to arrival at the facility where the leaves would be washed and flash frozen. Then we “processed” the leaves in various ways to simulate how a lightly-processed green tea would be made, along with some other treatments, including a rudimentary version of our now-patent-pending freezing method.
We labeled the samples A, B, C, D, E .. put them on dry ice, and shipped them off to a lab experienced in testing catechins in tea. And then we drove home.
It was quite the adventure.
A side note worth mentioning: we had managed to harvest just enough leaves to prepare our samples. We didn’t have any tea left over – not even enough to prepare a cup to enjoy ourselves and get a sense for how fresh tea tastes / appears in the cup. Those curiosities would have to wait for another time. I’ll look forward to detailing that experience (as well as the reaction to our entirely new concept from the industry’s most important figures globally at the World Tea Expo) in an upcoming post.
In my next entry though, let’s dive into the data: what we learned from the lab results and why you should care if you drink tea for health.
Till then, with love + appreciation,