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Home / Articles / Boulderganic / Special Editions /  Brewing for wellness
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Thursday, June 16,2011

Brewing for wellness

Local tea business hits the spot

By Sara Kassabian

Tea can be more than just a beverage or a business. For some people it’s a tradition, a ceremony and representation of a lifelong dedication to the social promotion of wellness.

The Tea Spot began as a retail location but now operates as an exclusively wholesale business. The company sells loose-leaf tea and Steepware, innovative filters the company designs to steep tea leaves. Maria Uspenski started the business after tea aided in her recovery from ovarian cancer.

“I wouldn’t be in this business if I hadn’t gotten better from my illness, and I feel that tea had a lot to do with it,” Uspenski says.

The company follows a unique business model that dedicates 10 percent of every sale to cancer wellness programs in the community through donations of tea and Steepware.

“That’s what we can afford to do, and that’s the whole point, putting tea in people’s hands,” she says.
Uspenski says this provides a good opportunity for introducing products to large audiences.

“We make sure that when we do donations that it is something that benefits us to get into a new person’s hands,” she says.

Steepware is an example of unique product that The Tea Spot seeks to distribute through these donations. Steepware is designed to make loose-leaf tea more accessible to consumers.

“Loose-leaf tea kind of lacked the tools in the U.S. to make it really easily, and Americans are all about convenience,” she says.

The Tea Spot has four main channels of wholesale distribution: online stores, natural foods markets, small businesses and large chain stores, all of which buy tea or Steepware from the company, Uspenski says. A complete list of vendors can be found on the Tea Spot’s website at http://theteaspot.com.

The Boulder Army Store is a local business that sells The Tea Spot’s Tuffy tea steeper, a silicon-based and collapsible infuser.

“They’re small. They’re compact and easy to use,” says Lenny Enloe, the Boulder Army Store’s manager and buyer. “We sell probably four or five different things that will do the exact same thing, but, you know, it’s a local company. I figure I’ve got to buy one and check it out.”

Enloe says he owns one and that they also sell pretty well in the store.

The Tea Spot’s most recent innovation is designed for drinking tea on the go. The product is a compostable and biodegradable tea steeper designed to easily fit in recyclable to-go cups. It was developed with the aid of a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and will be released this month, Uspenski says.

“There are compostable tea bags, but this would be sort of the most premium presentation of a compostable tea product,” she says. “It really would give the leaves a lot of room to open up, and it’s certainly the biggest volume infuser that you would ever find in a to-go cup at this point.”

Uspenski says that ideally the tea and Steepware are used together, but she is happy to sell the products separately.

“Most natural food stores would have the tea and no Steepware, and Sur La Table has the Tuffy steeper, and not our teas,” she says.
Some consumers might expect the unique qualities of the company’s Steepware to overshadow the tea, but Uspenski says sales volumes on tea and Steepware are fairly similar.

“Our tea business has grown a lot more aggressively than I would have expected, because there are a lot of tea providers out there and not a lot of Steepware providers out there, but our teas are really good,” she says. “We’ve really paid attention to making sure we have good blends, and so our tea business continues to grow.”

Local café Amante Coffee is one shop currently selling tea blended by The Tea Spot. Merrilee Tobin, the assistant manager for Amante’s Walnut Street location, says the entire staff drinks the tea.

“I think it’s really high quality,” Tobin says. “So we sell it loose-leaf. It is the best when you use the instructions you are given exactly, and it turns out really well. The green and white teas don’t have a lot of bitterness if you prepare them properly. The Green Roasted Mint has a really good, earthy roasted flavor.”

Jessica Burtenshaw is the director of product marketing and development for The Tea Spot, where she sources and blends the ingredients for the teas.

“I sought out working for the company,” Burtenshaw says. “I wanted to get into tea in particular, and I have a background in research and just a personal passion in tea.”

At The Tea Spot, a lot of research goes into sourcing and blending high-quality organic certified tea. Uspenski says the company sources internationally, looking for teas, herbals and florals that fulfill the company’s standards for flavor, aroma, appearance and the bottom line. They are then hand-crafted at The Tea Spot.

“Our chamomile comes from Egypt. Our rosebuds come from Morocco, but our mint comes from the U.S. Our matte comes from Brazil, and then our teas come mostly from China, Japan, India, Sri Lanka,” she says.

Burtenshaw explains that employees taste batches of blends and come to a consensus before a tea blend is finalized.
She says the freedom to implement new ideas is her favorite aspect of working for a small business like The Tea Spot and that the company is unique because it offers all the materials necessary for an enriching tea-drinking experience.

“Probably one unique thing, if you look at other tea companies or Steepware companies, is that we do both. We do the tea as well as the Steepware, and so offering that full spectrum — here’s the great teas, and here’s what you need to steep them — is something that a lot of other companies haven’t done.”

The Tea Spot has a booth at the Boulder Farmers’ Market and invites the community to stop by to learn more about the health benefits of drinking loose-leaf tea.

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