Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Tea People: Beth Johnston of Teas, Etc.

This week we're talking with Beth Johnston, owner of one of my favorite tea companies, Teas Etc. Settle in with your favorite cup of tea for a very insightful & informative interview.

Q. What kind(s) of tea/tisanes do you sell?

A. We sell a range of specialty teas. Green, white, black, pu’erh and oolongs ranging from single estate, blended and flavored in conventional and organic varieties. In the Tisane category we offer herbs that are single ingredient as well as blended types. We also have a broad selection of Rooibos again conventional and organic, single ingredient flavored and blended.

Q. Where do you get your teas from?

A. We source teas from around the world focusing on the major growing regions such as China, Taiwan, India, Sri Lanka (Ceylon) and Japan. The origin of our herbs is much broader and includes the US. Rooibos and Honeybush come only from South Africa so that is obvious.

I think the most important point to make when talking about where our teas come from is our direct trade status. Direct trade means simply that we purchase teas from the growers and/or processors. Purchasing from “origin” is a loosely used term in the US industry and implies direct trade but often is not. Trading Companies are frequently the source of so called garden to you teas and US purveyors may think they are buying direct but it is a far cry from actual direct trade. This is a topic that is stirring up a lot of conversation within the industry particularly amongst those of us that have been at it awhile and have built a true direct trade network. The popularity of tea in the US has brought about an influx of budding tea companies, particularly online. There seems to be a big attachment to being “direct” among tea people. There is a lot more involved than most people understand. Frankly buying in the US from a reliable source whether wholesale or retail is a much wiser move economically and logistically.

Q. How do you decide which teas to carry?

A. Our tea variety is always changing and is based solely on cupping. While spring is a busy buying season for us we import tea throughout the year. We offer the signature famous types of “must have” teas such as Dragon Well, Ceylon & Assam blacks and Jasmine green teas.

We also have fun creating signature tea blends, combining teas, herbs and Rooibos depending on what we are trying to achieve. Cupping is the key to quality regardless of whether you are purchasing or blending. The more you do it the better you get at it. I spend a tremendous amount of time cupping and have really honed my palate. Our ability to cup and select premium quality teas became apparent when the results of 2009 World Tea Championship were announced in May, an event that made me extremely proud.

While we watch trends we avoid getting caught up in fads or what other companies are doing. We focus on our own values maintaining the integrity of our vision and products. We may miss sales opportunities but I feel like I have to be able to look at myself in the mirror in the morning and be pleased with what is looking back.

Q. What made you decide to go into the tea business? How many people work for your company?

A. The story of Teas Etc began over 11 years ago. Newman and I were married and went on a ski trip for our honeymoon. I was not a coffee or tea drinker but as a native Floridian found a cup of mango Ceylon black tea in an attempt to stay warm. Everywhere we went, spas, bars, restaurants, literally everywhere there was this mango tea. I found the supplier, went to their warehouse walked in and declared that I was going back to Florida and opening a tea company. Three short weeks later my mother passed away and while out walking by the water one morning something said “if you are going to do this then do it” and in July of the same year, 1998, Teas Etc was born. Newman joined the company full time in 2002.

We have grown up from having our business set up in a second building behind our home. In 2003 we moved into our first commercial space. We have expanded to 3 locations increasing our main facility to 5000+ square feet of production, warehouse and offices in West Palm Beach, FL which I am proud to say is “green.” We opened a small office in China 3 years ago and a 600 ft permanent showroom in Atlanta at AmericasMart in January 2009.

We have 9 full time employees in West Palm Beach with 2 additional offsite employees. Amy Zhang works for us full time in China. Our Atlanta location is manned during specific times of the year when there are shows at the Mart. We are currently looking for additional staff in West Palm Beach and one person that we can employ part time in Atlanta to help with opening and closing shows.

Q. What is your stance on Fair Trade teas?

A. I don’t know a lot about Fair Trade when it comes to other industries but in the tea industry I am not a fan and I have strong, not always popular, opinions. As a direct trade supplier we in some circumstances pay higher prices for teas, than say a trading company. However these long term relationships give us the confidence knowing that we are paying a fair price so that those responsible for planting, harvesting and producing the teas get a fair wage for their hard work.

Conceptually I think fair trade has its heart in the right place. Unfortunately I think it is form over substance. In my experience when I purchase teas that are certified fair trade I have to pay more money for them. Those extra dollars go in part to the farm co-op which I assume happens. But the other part of the extra money goes directly to the fair trade organization. Consumers are not clear on what they are paying for but demand fair trade products? Truth be told anyone that I have personally spoken with that is an actual importer/exporter of tea feels less than warm and fuzzy about fair trade, whether they participate or not. Another little known fact is that fair trade serves cooperatives and only 3rd world countries leaving small single farmers, including those in the US, out in the cold.

We are exploring an opportunity to work with a new not for profit that has been created to aid the development of greater social responsibility and ethical working standards both here at home and abroad.

Q. Are your teas organic? Why or why not?

A. We are a USDA certified organic processor and take pride in going above and beyond the NOP standards when it comes to internal policies and our organic system plan. Organic is a topic I am passionate about because for a long time I, like so many others in the industry, was unclear on the required rules and regulations. I gave the organic class at this year’s World Tea Expo to share what I know and help other tea companies meet the necessary regulatory obligations to sell certified organic teas. Certified is the optimum word here. Consumers have a right to request and receive a company’s organic certification. We post ours right on our website.

As part of our organic system plan we have made an organizational decision to refer to, market and sell organic teas only when 100% of the ingredients are organic. This is NOT an NOP rule! We made this decision in an attempt to reduce consumer confusion.

We sell both conventional and organic teas, herbs and rooibos.

Q. Is your company environmentally friendly? If so, how?

A. Teas Etc has been a partner for 3 years. This partnership means that we make an annual financial contribution to offset our company carbon footprint. We also created an optional online opportunity for our customers, 2 years ago, where they can make a .25 cent donation to “green” their tea shipment. 100% of that donation is sent to quarterly and we have about 47% of our customers opt in, both wholesale and retail.

In addition to this partnership I personally oversaw the renovation of our headquarters last year making the space as “green” as humanly possible. I worked with the contractors to make conscious environmentally friendly choices throughout the facility. We utilized low or no VOC paints including “leftovers”, scraped up all the nasty carpeting and glue making use of the raw cement underneath, recycled and re-used materials whenever possible, took great care to consulate with energy experts selecting 7R insulation for our 24 ft high ceilings in the warehouse and carefully planned our temperature controls making smart, efficient use of our energy resources. We have dramatically reduced our energy consumption and initiated a recycle program for the entire business park. Every desk and kitchen has recycle bins and we encourage conservation globally throughout the organization. We are dedicated to giving back to the planet that so generously gives us our teas!

Our recent award winning Get Real, Get Loose is another example of our commitment to the environment utilizing compostable filters and earth friendly inks, laminates and adhesives.

Q. How many pots of tea do the people in your office consume each day?

A. It depends on the day but on average I would say we drink at least 5 to 6 pots and/or servings each per day. Cupping days are real different and while I “spit” sometimes I can burn out when I am cupping a lot.

Q. Do you remember the first cup of tea you drank? How was it?

A. My first cup was life changing as the story of the company illustrates, it was that cup of mango Ceylon and yes I remember it like it was yesterday!

Q. Do you drink tea predominantly for health or enjoyment – or both?

A. I drink for pure enjoyment, any health benefits I am getting are just a bonus…a great bonus.

Q. What tea would you recommend for a coffee drinker considering a switch?

A. Never having been a coffee drinker I defer to Newman for this answer and I quote “Pu’erh seems to be a good segue tea. It is full bodied and may be brewed strongly. Some other choices would be full bodied black teas such as Assam or Irish Breakfast.”

Q. What’s your favorite pairing of food with white, green and black teas?

A. I like pairing tea with different cheeses, it’s interesting and tasty. I have to say that I don’t drink with my meals so I generally drink tea without food, food. While I love to eat I cook very infrequently due to time constraints and so I don’t experiment much with tea and food.

Q. Is there anything else you’d like to tell us?

A. “Tea is so much more than a beverage to quench thirst…it soothes the soul and nurtures the spirit one sip at a time.” Beth

Special thanks to Beth for your thought-provoking answers, especially as to the fair trade topic. And thanks also to Newman, for getting the interview to Beth and recommending "transition teas" for coffee drinkers.

For more information, Beth's blog, and to shop online, go to Follow Beth & Newman on Twitter: @TeasEtc @TeasEtc_Newman Comments are open below for further discussion.


  1. What an interesting interview!
    The comments about Fair Trade were very enlightening.
    I love Teas Etc, I've been drinking their tea for over a year now.

  2. Pretty interesting, I like getting to see an inside take on the industry
    I like the new layout Jamie, can't wait to see some of the other interviews and features you have coming up.

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