By Desiree Nelson
In the 10-plus years I’ve worked in the specialty-tea industry,
I’ve heard one particular question many times: How do we get
kids to drink more tea? It’s a worthwhile topic to explore. For
one thing, tea is a much more healthful beverage than soda and
energy drinks. For another, the Millennial generation (those born
from the late 1980s to the early 2000s, depending on whom you
ask) is huge in numbers and is coming of age in a culture that values natural, good-for-you products. And third, a younger person
excited about tea could potentially turn into a lifelong tea drinker,
which is good for all of us who sell tea and genuinely want this
wondrous product to continue to evolve when it comes to quality
Before I joined QTrade, I owned a couple of small tea salons
and tea bars in Southern California, where I hit upon a menu
item that resonated with kids: tea “jelly.” It’s a cousin of bubble
tea, and I offered it in flavors including sour apple, lychee and
mango, as well as a vanilla variety called Choobee. The jellies
were made from nata de coco, a clear, chewy item originating in
the Philippines that’s made through coconut water fermentation. They added texture, sweetness and a hint of flavor to the
bottom of an iced tea, and were slurped up with a wide straw. We
called our version of the product Textured TeaZe.
We found that the jelly texture was a fun way to encourage
people (mostly tweens and teenagers) to explore tea and get
used to its taste over ice. Once they embraced that profile, we
could then walk them toward education about the leaf and consuming tea hot. This sort of gateway beverage is good for our
industry, as it reaches out to a customer demographic that might
otherwise ignore us.
My interest in tea began in the late 1990s, when I was drawn
to the drink after consuming an oolong with jasmine from
Harney & Sons. The flavors fascinated me and fueled my journey to explore loose tea and what it meant to every culture.
What motivated my exploration was the realization that every
culture has an interpretation, a tradition and a twist on tea.
I wanted a place to celebrate those rituals together in that
wonderful “American melting pot” sort of way, and I began my
pursuit to launch a tea business.
During that preparation, I traveled to every type of tea
school across the country that I could find and afford. Around
that time, I happened to read a newspaper article in my small
town of San Clemente, Calif., that bemoaned the fact that local
teenagers lacked a health-oriented place in which to hang out.
I envisioned starting a business that would make tea “cool,”
which would in turn attract those youths and give them a safe
place to spend their time. One of the classes I attended discussed Taiwanese culture and
mentioned that children there
frequented “tea stands.” These
roadside outlets offered a tapioca product with just a hint of
tea and tons of sugar. At the
time, bubble-tea shops were
surfacing around the United
States, and I was intrigued with
the idea that this could attract
that younger generation. But
bubble tea was too sweet for
my taste (and, I reasoned, too
sugar-loaded to actually be
considered healthful for kids),
so I kept looking.
After much research, in 2002
I opened the Lavender Lounge Tea Company in San Clemente. It
was a small tea salon and tea bar tucked in an upstairs location.
One element of my recipe for success was to use what we sold
and sell what we used—I wanted to take the “mystery” out of
loose tea. I demonstrated its ease by utilizing a range of pots,
strainers and cool tea gadgets. That approach was great for
moms, dads, grandparents and even 20-somethings, but what
about teenagers? And tweens?
This is where the jellies came into play. Inspired by stories of
the Taiwanese tea stands, I experimented and eventually settled
on the nata de coco. Jellies are also used in bubble tea, but
in that concoction they’re mixed with the round tapioca balls
known as “bobas” to create an ultra-sweet mixture. Our use of
the jellies was more for texture and color—we’d scoop the premade gel squares into a cup, add ice and tea, and then serve. The
bright colors and slight sweetness resonated with our young
demographic, and before I knew it, that group was hooked.
I found the only drawback to serving the jellies was that they
contained synthetic dyes. I’m no longer working in the retail
tea world, but I’d advise current shop owners to explore a
natural version of these jellies.
In my store each day, I saw that
Millennials responded to the
taste, look and feel of jellies,
and from what we already know
about that generation’s values, I
can only assume they’d be even
more excited about them if they
knew the products were good
for the planet as well.
If we can catch tweens and
teenagers while they’re still forming their tastes, we could potentially create lifelong tea drinkers. I don’t want to assume that
young people’s tastes are not frequently changing—they certainly
are—but turning them onto tea is the first step, and nurturing
them with education about the product and different taste experiences can help deepen their relationship with the beverage. Maybe
they could progress from jellies to non-flavored tea or even singleestate leaves. Maybe they could fall for the drink and hang out in
your store, exploring the leaf and geeking out with their friends.
All it takes is one product that speaks to them and gets them to
start down the rabbit hole of exploration.