These Cold Brew Teas Will Change How You Feel About Tea
Evy Chen wants us to fall in love with tea. Not sugar-laden iced teas or bitter hot teas, but something entirely new: cold brew tea.
But the organic, sugar-free and icy cold teas her company, Evy Tea, is the first to bring to market are only the beginning. Chen wants Americans to build a culture and community around tea-drinking, one that is as warm and welcoming as the beverage itself.
Chen grew up in China, where drinking hot tea is a part of daily life. But she says she didn’t feel quite at home in the country. “I have a bit of a revolutionary spirit,” says Chen. “I remember protesting in kindergarten that we shouldn’t be taking naps. I’m not a mellow personality, and it was not a place where I could thrive.”
Her parents agreed, and sent Chen to Europe as a teenager. She later enrolled in college in the United States. “The first thing that shocked me here was the iced tea culture," she says. The bottled teas in every store and at every summer BBQ were bland and loaded with sugar—“fast-food tea."
Chen's dissatisfaction with the quality of popular iced teas inspired her to enter the idea for a cold brew tea in a startup competition at Emerson College. She won first prize and received $5,000. “Then I had to actually start a company,” says Chen.
Chen looked for someone to make the teas she had in mind, but came up dry. Iced tea is typically made with concentrate and mixed with sugar and flavoring, and manufacturers didn’t want to change their process for a startup. So Chen perfected her recipes herself, brewing dozens of loose-leaf teas at home and exploring different temperatures and brewing times. “I didn’t really understand the chemistry at first, as the process is so different,” she says. “I had a couple of hundred teas and brewed in different kinds of water and played with time and temperature.”
Eventually she found a formula that worked. She used high-quality whole tea leaves and steeped them in cold, filtered water for 16 to 24 hours, depending on the tea. Unlike boiling water, which can burn and damage tea leaves, cold water allows the tea to bloom slowly and release its flavors without bitterness. (Its the bitterness that requires most tea-makers to add so much sugar.)
Cold brew tea has a lower acidity than hot tea, no calories, and little caffeine, and Chen says her process releases twice as many antioxidants. She added herbs and spices to create three flavors--green tea with Meyer lemon and basil, Earl Grey with vanilla, and white tea with peach and ginger.
After knocking on more doors, she found a company outside Boston, where she lives, to bottle them. “I’m stubborn and determined, as any entrepreneur needs to be,” she says. “I had a vision, and I had to just get through one day at a time, keeping putting one foot in front of the other.”
Chen took her first batch of bottled teas to the Fancy Food show in New York, where a buyer from Whole Foods stopped to taste them. She soon had her first retailer, and it was a big one. Evy Tea now sells in about 33 Whole Foods stores in the Northeast, and at 200 other retailers. The company has a food-service arm that sells cold brew on tap to offices, hospitals and the like.
From the idea’s inception, Chen wanted to do more than sell great teas. She wants to change how people think about tea, to build a community around drinking it. “Offering someone tea is a gesture of friendliness around the world,” she says. “I want to bring that spirit to tea-drinking here.”
Last June, she opened a tea bar in Jamaica Plain. Making sure that the bar felt comfortable for everyone who came in was crucial, and she trained her staff to make people feel at home, regardless of what they know or don’t know about tea. “When you walk into a hispster coffee café, if you are not expert, it can be cold and overwhelming, and the barista isn’t interested in you," she says. “We are inclusive and welcoming, where people feel part of a community. I love seeing mothers and families, and that the children will grow up drinking tea and that this is the tea that they will get to know.”
Evy Tea has opened a second location in Charleston, and the company has converted an Airstream to create a mobile bar to go to events and festivals. The company has 15 employees, and though Chen has funded the company herself since it began in 2014, she’s now closing a seed round. “My philosophy is that I wanted to know fully what I was doing before taking investment,” she says. “It makes it possible to find the right partners now.”
In a few short years, she’s opened up a category and is running a profitable business. Her advice to others comes down to the focus that she’s exhibited since she was a kid impatient to learn. “Now that I think back, I think it was a combination of determination, a good idea, and timing,” she says. “When you are so clear and specific about your story, people understand that what you are doing is not a hobby.”