Instant is no longer a ‘dirty word’ when it comes to tea, says Cusa Tea CEO

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

For many consumers the idea of instant tea evokes nose-wrinkling rejection due to its extensive processing, long ingredient lists and a flavor unlike a freshly brewed cup, but startup Cusa Tea wants to change this with a version made in an all-new way and with only premium organic ingredients.

“Instant is no longer a dirty word,”​ when it comes to coffee thanks to the heavy lifting Starbucks did when it launched its VIA instant coffee, and Cusa Tea hopes to show consumers the same is true of instant tea, company Founder and CEO Jim Lamancusa recently told FoodNavigator-USA at BevNet Live in New York City.

He explained that in some legacy instant tea brands “the first ingredient is sugar and the some sort of artificial flavoring and then preservatives and tea is like the fifth or sixth thing on the ingredient label,”​ which have contributed to the category’s bad rap. But, he added, “as a consumer, I want something that is nothing but tea, [and] I want it to taste like a fresh brewed cup.”

He said he also still wanted the convenience of a powder that can be made and consumed on-the-go, which is why Cusa Tea uses only organic tea and real fruit.

A long R&D road

Distilling the ingredient list for instant tea down and still delivering the same or better taste of loose or bagged tea, wasn’t easy, Lamancusa admits.

“I spent over a year doing a bunch of RD work to try and create an instant teat that tastes like a fresh brewed cup, and the first nine months were total failures and a lot of money sinks,”​ he said.

He explained that he tried traditional spray-drying and freeze-drying to dehydrate the tea, but “the problem with both of those is that because tea is really sensitive as a leaf when you use high heat or extreme cold, it destroys the flavor and the aroma and all the antioxidants.”

He hit upon botanical extraction as the solution when he discovered his wife’s eye cream, which he said smells exactly like rose and uses only an extract of the plant – not a perfume.

“I started researching botanical extraction technologies and that led me to this totally new process that has never been used for the food category before, and essentially it is cold brewed”​ at 500 PSI for eight hours so that the tea will steep at a low temperature, he said. Next, the tea is slowly dehydrated over 14 hours so “the only thing that it is losing is water. So, all the flavor, the antioxidants, the aroma stays within the tea itself,”​ he said.

The end result is packaged in stick packs that the consumer can easily tear open, pour and in three seconds have tea that “tastes exactly like the original brew that we created,”​ he added.

A growing category

While limited, Cusa Tea does face some competition from similar products, including Pique Tea and Tea Drops. Still, Lamancusa sees plenty of upside for the emerging category.

“The potential for instant beverages, I think, is enormous because I think consumers are starting to recognize that they can have it instantly, but also have it be tasty and it doesn’t have to have a bunch of crap put into it,”​ he said.

In particular, he noted, the category will appeal to millennials who Lamancusa says “is the first generation in American history that prefers tea to coffee, and so we have this huge generation of people coming up looking for tea products.”

And they want it to be convenient and clean, he added.

“If you turn a box of Cusa Tea around, all you see is organic tea leaves and real fruit. Nothing else. Zero sugar, zero calories, zero preservatives. So, it really resonates with that convenience, fast, healthy, active lifestyle consumer,”​ Lamancusa said.

To fully maximize on this potential, Lamancusa plans to proves the concept of premium instant tea by sampling heavily in stores and at events and tapping brand ambassadors to spread the word online.

As he does that, he said he will continue to focus on his core demographics in natural grocery category and the outdoor industry – both of which already get the concept.

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