Tea innovation continues at Fancy Food Show

Beverage firms at the 2009 Winter Fancy Food Show at the Moscone Center in San Francisco continue to delve deeper into worldwide tea traditions.

Banner brand Honest Tea unveiled a new Honest Mate line at the show, which marks the first time that a brand affiliated with Coca-Cola or PepsiCo has produced an RTD in the South American yerba mate tradition. Honest Mate differs from other mate brands, according to Melanie Knitzer, Honest Tea’s vice president of sales for natural and specialty foods, because it’s brewed from un-smoked tea leaves. The three-SKU line focuses on South American flavors – including one sweetened only with agave nectar – and could clear the way for more RTD tea innovations to make its way into the mainstream.

Other tea innovations also blossomed at the show.

Two brands, Numi and Golden Star Tea Co., unveiled their own divergent variations on fermented tea. Golden Star used a high-quality tea (company founder Edward Carden said the tea sells for $50 per pound wholesale) as a base for an alcohol-free champagne substitute. At $11.99 to $14.99 per 750 ml per bottle, this product is decidedly a luxury. In a somewhat more affordable range, Numi showed off a soon-to-be-launched RTD brewed from puer tea – a Chinese variation on tea that uses tea leaves fermented in a process similar to composting – which imparts an earthier flavor than other tea varieties. The 12 oz. glass-packaged product will retail for $2.99 per bottle when launched.

Three other brands – with retail prices from $0.99 to $1.99 – focused on blending real tea with juice. Khong Guan Corporation aimed for young consumers with its CX2 line of Philipino tea/juice blends that offer a low price tag and heavily sweetened taste. Noyu Teas created a more mature five-SKU line with three straight tea/juice blends, and two tea juice/blends with functional ingredients. Tropiking, best known as a juice brand, aimed for tea enthusiasts with its four-SKU tea/juice line focused on traditional Asian flavors. Noyu and Tropiking also cite their insistence on using Taiwanese green tea, which they say is more mellow than Japanese green tea, as a point of difference between them and other brands.

The core current through all of these brands is that they use real tea instead of extracts or powders. With banner brands like Snapple and Lipton also debuting premium, real tea offerings in the last couple of years, and real tea-based brands like Sweet Leaf rapidly growing, consumers may be forming higher expectations for RTD teas.