“Tea is usually the fourth or fifth ingredient on the label,” Lamancusa told BeverageDaily at Expo West in Anaheim, California, last week.
Launched 10 months ago, Cusa Tea is an organic instant tea that it says is even beating out loose leaf and bagged tea in blind taste tests, taking home two silver medals at Global Tea Championships, according to Lamancusa.
“I think ‘instant’ is a bit of a dirty word, but the perception is changing,” he said.
Cusa Tea comes in packs of 10 individual tea sticks available in five organic varieties: English breakfast tea, oolong tea, mango green tea, green tea and lemon black tea.
Its sixth flavor, organic chai, was launched at Expo West and will be available at retailers beginning in April.
Trial and error
Lamancusa, who spends a lot of time outdoors hiking and backpacking, became fed up with toting around soggy tea bags when his friends were enjoying the convenience of instant coffee products like Starbucks VIA.
“I wanted Starbucks VIA [instant coffee for home use] but for the tea category,” he said. “Originally I thought, 'Oh we'll use the same technology that Starbucks uses and do it for tea and we'll be off to the races’.”
However, Lamancusa found that - unlike coffee beans - tea leaves expand when placed in hot water and sink to the bottom of the cup.
“It tasted fine, but it wasn't a good consumer experience.”
Traditional dehydration techniques including spray drying and freeze drying came next, but Lamancusa found that both processes damaged the tea leaf and resulted in an inconsistent taste.
Lamancusa eventually found inspiration from his wife’s eye cream with rose extract that led him to research botanical extractions, an already advanced technology in Asia.
“It's essentially a cold brewing process. We take real organic tea leaves and we put it into room temperature water and then we pressurize the water,” he said.
The pressurization encourages the tea leaves to steep into the room temperature water, a roughly eight hour process. The leaves and fruit pieces, depending on the flavor, are strained out and composted on site to be used as fertilizer on the tea farm.
The liquid tea is moved into a vacuum dehydrator that resembles a “mini submarine” and over the course of 14 hours, the tea slowly loses all of its moisture turning into a powdered extract.
The final product is powdered tea extract with one ingredient (tea) that can be dissolved in hot or cold water.
“If it didn't taste exactly the same [as regular cup of tea] and we were losing some flavor or aroma then we would keep editing and changing the process,” Lamancusa added.
Route to expansion
Cusa Tea was launched in the Rocky Mountain region and was quickly picked up for national distribution by outdoor recreation retailer REI.
“They (REI) sell a ton of instant coffee and they've never had an instant tea,” Lamancusa said.
Recent retailer interest at Expo West will be taking the brand into Northern California, HEB, and Wegmans.
“The mission of the company is to provide healthy and convenient beverage options.”