If you ask Evy Chen of Tea Cuvee, cold-brew iced tea is the new sexy drink du jour. “Normally, tea is a little boring,” says the 25-year-old entrepreneur, but she has high hopes of changing the image of this ancient beverage.
Chen, who was raised in Fujian, a Southeast Chinese province known for its tea production, is a wisp of a girl, stylishly dressed, with a smart pixie cut. She pitches her brand so confidently, you can imagine her holding her own against the panel on ABC’s “Shark Tank.” In fact, to begin her business, she won a college competition and her not-quite one-year-old company was already awarded first place at the North American Tea Championship earlier this year for best ready-to-drink oolong iced tea.
Iced tea as we know it doesn’t exist in traditional Chinese culture, Chen explains, though hot tea is the beverage of choice. Chen’s interest in other cultures took her to Europe, where she spent two years studying cheese, fine wines, and chocolate in Versoix, Geneva, and gained an appreciation for flavor pairings. Later, studying marketing communications at Emerson College, she participated in the Emerson Experience in Entrepreneurship (known as E3), a yearlong program. At the 2011 E3 Exposition, Chen won first place and $5,000 for her business model, which included a high-end teahouse with specially brewed teas.
Egerton Teahouse LLC is what she called her original business, but has since changed her brand to Tea Cuvee. Karl Baehr, director of business and entrepreneurial studies at Emerson, served as Chen’s professor during E3. “From the first day in the E3 program it was clear that she had a passion for really great tea. She also had the sense of purpose, focus, and drive needed to turn that passion into a viable business,” says Baehr.
What distinguishes cold-brew tea from other iced teas is the brewing method: Leaves are mixed in small batches with cold water and left to brew for close to a day. The lengthy process results in optimal flavor without the typical bitter tea taste.
Chen’s idea for cold-brew grew out of necessity as much as ingenuity. At a bar with friends, she realized there were few non-alcoholic beverage options aside from soda or water. She found the monotony frustrating and decided to work on something that would be popular enough to sell in bars, with the “health, taste, and sexiness,” as she puts it, that is already part of her lifestyle.
She just needed to add the ice. Most ready-made iced teas on the market, says the entrepreneur, are loaded with “disturbing products,” such as preservatives, sweeteners, and often, no real tea.
After testing hundreds of tea leaves, and hours of sipping, Chen narrowed down her favorites to two teas, one of which is a white tea picked by hand. After more research, she discovered that the delicate leaves produce the best tea when brewed in small batches with plenty of room for the tightly rolled leaves to bloom. The result has a distinct taste, which Chen pairs with complementary flavors.
Today, Tea Cuvee is produced in South Boston and packaged in tall, slender 13.4-ounce imported glass bottles typically used for French wines, with little black labels; the brew is made without sweeteners (bottles cost $8.99). Chen produces two flavors: Moonlight, a white tea with floral notes and hints of apricot and jasmine; and Amber, a lightly roasted oolong that tastes of orange zest and rosemary. She hopes to one day see her bottles in fine-dining establishments.
The company name has French origins: The word cuvee refers to wine designated by the winemaker for special handling. Chen decided her production methods are as detailed as any vintner’s.
Plans for a third tea include a decaffeinated flavor. If she has her way, tea time and happy hour will soon be one and the same.
Tea Cuvee is available at Foodie’s South Boston Market, 230 West Broadway, Boston, 617-269-4700; Brookline Fine Wine & Gourmet, 27 Harvard St., Brook-line, 617-734-5400; and Shubie’s Marketplace, 16 Atlantic Ave, Marblehead, 781-631-0149; or go to www.teacuvee.com.