Expo East 2017: RTD Tea Innovates with Ingredients

Young entrepreneurs are often told they need to think of something no one has ever done before, and make it. And no one needs to be told that’s easier said and done. But the person who does it stands to gain a lot.

Even in the world of ready-to-drink cold teas, where dozens of flavor profiles are possible, it can seem as if there’s few stones left unturned when developing a black, green, white, or even and oolong product. But at Natural Products Expo East 2017, held Sept. 14-16 in Baltimore, Md., several beverage entrepreneurs showcased what have until now been largely unseen types of tea, as well as innovative herbal infusions, in the U.S. market.

Martin Kabaki, founder of Kabaki Kenyan Purple Tea, is bringing another color to the pallette of cold teas on U.S. store shelves. The new product is sourced from a strain of tea grown at high altitudes where the closer proximity to the sun’s ultraviolet rays produce a purple coloration and increased levels of antioxidants and anthocyanins. Though it has long been available as a loose tea, the company presents the first available RTD option. While presenting the product at Expo West 2017 in March, Kabaki met former Nestle marketing manager Vera Adamovich, who began working with him to develop the line of flavored and unflavored teas which officially launched at Expo East last week.

According to Kabaki, the health benefits and unique flavor of Kenyan purple tea present an opportunity to attract tea drinkers looking for better-for-you options. The current line includes sweetened and unsweetened plain tea, as well as sweetened lemon, peach, and raspberry flavors.

“My biggest passion is to build this into a million dollar company, because it has that potential,” Kabaki said.

Kabaki also hopes to grow the brand to give back to the farmers in Kenya who are losing work due to increased competition in the market for black tea. The company has committed to donate 10 percent of its all sales towards health care initiatives aimed at serving its farming communities.

Adamovich told BevNET the company sees the products as an antioxidant beverage more comparable to brands like POM Wonderful than many of the other iced teas on the market. But the hope is to attract tea-drinking consumers looking for a refreshing, better-for-you beverage with a sweeter flavor profile.

“Any consumer product has to taste good, I don’t care how healthy you are it has to taste good at the end of the day,” Adamovich said. “The need state that we are fulfilling is that it’s important to stay hydrated, it’s important to stay refreshed throughout the day. But there are a lot of consumers, like me, who don’t like to drink water. So what is the alternative?”

Another brand seeking to disrupt the existing RTD market is ASI Yapoun Tea. A crop indigenous to North America, found mostly in Georgia and Florida, yapoun tea was consumed by Native Americans but later fell out of favor with European colonizers seeking to profit from importing foreign teas to the New World. Since then, yapoun has remained untapped in mainstream CPG beverage, an opening that presents a major opportunity for ASI but comes with the strain of needing to build a supply chain from scratch.

Speaking to BevNET, president and COO Scott Silverman said utilizing an indigenous tea helps shrink the company’s carbon footprint by removing the need for international shipping. The company has utilized dormant pine plantations to farm the yapoun.

“We’re handpicking it, drying it, roasting it, and we’re doing all the cutting and sifting of this tea, which is a typical process, all in the southeast of America,” Silverman said. “So in terms of carbon footprint we’re already reducing the amount of energy being used. It’s not on another continent, it’s here.”

According to Silverman, the pioneering of the yapoun supply chain is comparable to the growth of yerba mate and guayusa, two ingredients that have made the transition into mainstream RTD beverages. He said company is also working to develop more efficient harvesting techniques and plans to collaborate with universities to better understand the plant’s botanical properties.

For consumers, Silverman said yapoun brings functional “superfood” benefits. The tea is an antioxidant as well as a source of caffeine comparable to green tea. The company has also developed research into further functional and wellness benefits of the tea, however results are not yet ready for publication.

While Kabaki and ASI are bringing rare leaf teas to market, YOOT is turning to the roots — literally.

Inspired by the herbal remedy drinks her parents made for her growing up, founder Nansee Kim-Parker said she sought to develop better tasting versions that could appeal to everyday consumers. Working to suit her own tastes, as well as requiring caffeine-free and clean beverages while caring for her newborn daughter, Kim-Parker developed a line of sugar-free, functional root teas sweetened with monkfruit for a clean and palatable taste.

In some ways, YOOT blurs the line between medicine and beverage. The brand’s three SKUs – Licorice Root, Dandelion Root, and Prickly Ash each promote their functional benefits on the front label. The core ingredients, Kim-Parker said, all have long traditions as medicines. Licorice, an adaptogen, helps to regulate stress as well as serving as an expectorant (licorice extract can commonly be found in cold medicine). Dandelion is high in iron and promotes digestion, and prickly ash promotes blood flow and energizes.

“Herbals have been utilized as medicine for thousands of years and I’m actually quite surprised it’s not utilized more in beverage and food,” Kim-Parker said. “But the U.S. has restrictions on what is classified as food and supplements, so that’s why some of the lines I wanted to come out with I couldn’t because I had to stick with food ingredients.”

All three brands are positioned to appeal to younger health conscious consumers, using traditional but new-to-market ingredients to pique their interest.

“Our target consumer is the millennial, consumers who want more from food, more from beverages,” Adamovich said of Kabaki Kenyan Purple Tea. “They see food as medicine, and that is really what we are.”