Chief tea officer Tina Chen speaks with NutritionInvestor about launching a social enterprise while disrupting the UK soft drink space with the first ready-to-drink plant-based tea lattes made with fair-trade organic ingredients

By Murielle Gonzalez

Tina Chen holds two cans of HumaniTea
Hot off the production line, Tina Chen of HumaniTea vegan tea lattes

Tina Chen is the driving force behind HumaniTea, the social enterprise she founded in 2018. The company produces tea lattes made with only organic, plant-based ingredients, and it’s hitting the market on Sunday – Chen is setting up a ‘pop-up’ near Bond Street tube station in London to sell its first production run of 10,000 cans.

The sale on Sunday is the latest milestone in a journey that Chen started two years ago. After arriving in London from Los Angeles to gain an MBA degree, she saw a gap in the market for ready-to-drink vegan iced tea – and brewed from real tea leaves.

Taiwan-born Chen moved to Los Angeles when she was four. At that age, she already had learnt to love drinking bubble tea, the traditional Taiwanese iced milk tea. Her love for tea lattes continued in the US because the drink was popular in the market. In London, however, she found nothing like it.

“Bubble tea and milk tea shops were popping up across London, and throughout the UK, but when I looked at retailers, I didn’t find anything similar in a ready-to-drink format,” says Chen. “The iced tea drinks on shelves were full of sugar and artificially flavoured – none were made with brewed tea!” At that moment, Chen decided to combine her culture and interest in tea into a healthier alternative to soft drinks.

UK iced tea market

Chen embarked on market research to fine-tune the product she would be making. “I went to a lot of farmers markets for about a year, sampling the different teas on sale, talking with consumers, and from there I got to understand people’s taste preferences,” says Chen. 

In this process, Chen discovered that iced tea drink products have not done well in the UK. “Lipton iced tea, for example, had problems launching in the UK because consumers traditionally drink hot tea,” she says, recognising that changing the consumer mindset towards iced tea was the hardest part of positioning the product as an alternative to caffe latte and soda as opposed to an alternative to hot tea.

Market research led to choosing the flavours of the HumaniTea product range: matcha, Earl Grey, and rooibos – and she is sourcing the leaves from fair-trade suppliers in Japan, Rwanda, and South Africa, respectively. Chen put together a recipe of her own and started producing home-made tea lattes using oat milk, agave, and organic teas.

Selling at farmers market HumaniTea’s first-generation products

“Matcha is a strong flavour, like umami,” says Chen, noting the ingredient she uses is the powder form of the whole leaf. “People like it because it delivers energy, like an alternative to coffee,” she says. “The Earl Grey is a very traditional tea flavour, liked by people who prefer a more floral, citrusy taste. Rooibos is a caffeine-free tea very light and sweet.”

She spent most of last year selling vegan tea lattes under the myTEA is Mighty brand at the canteen of her university, at farmers markets, and then to vegan cafés and healthy food restaurants across London.

“I was making the product by hand at a commercial kitchen I was renting in Hackney – that’s how the product was registered with food safety certification and hygiene rating 5, the highest,” says Chen. “Since I was making the product there, the kitchen added the range to its menu. It was an efficient way of selling and gave them an alternative to soda.”

Crowdfunding for HumaniTea

The first-generation products were packed in glass bottles with a limited shelf life. In April, Chen launched a crowdfunding campaign on Crowdfunder to finance manufacturing scale-up, including packaging with longer shelf life, and go-to-market strategies – HumaniTea raised £13,141 from 125 supporters in 142 days.

The cash injection funded the contract manufacturer and the marketing specialist that helped Chen rebrand the company HumaniTea – the name change was needed because myTea was already trademarked.

Tina Chen

The campaign on Crowdfunder went live in March, two weeks before lockdown started in London. “It wasn’t the best time to ask for money to people. So, as a social enterprise, I decided to donate 5% of the amount raised to the UN Solidarity Response Fund,” says Chen.

Chen set up the business as a social enterprise seeking to have a positive impact on society. She explains: “I started the drink business not for the money but because I wanted to create a healthier alternative to soft drinks, promote wellbeing and sustainability, and encourage people to take tea breaks to find mindfulness – we all know sugary soft drinks are among the main causes of obesity.”

Chen says HumaniTea will continue to donate 5% of its profits to support wellbeing and sustainability initiatives. “These are two values close to my heart,” she says.

HumaniTea in a can

Expanding the product shelf life was among the reasons HumaniTea now comes in a can – the other reason is sustainability. Chen had decided to use Tetra Pack aseptic packaging, but she changed her mind following a conversation with the UK’s food authority.

HumaniTea product range. Photo as seen on Tina Chen’s LinkedIn profile

“In a meeting with DEFRA [the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs] and challenger brands, we were told that the UK wanted to implement a deposit return scheme. Also, DEFRA was encouraging brands to use cans as there were more recycling plants across the UK than those for Tetra Pack packaging,” says Chen. “Jimmy’s Coffee, for example, recently launched new products in cans, and you can see many kombucha products that were in glass launched in cans, too. I think cans are lighter and also more efficient for transportation,” she adds.

Health and nutrition

With the mission to offer a healthier alternative to soft drinks, Chen has carefully selected the set of ingredients to make HumaniTea. She is also aware of being accurate when it comes to promoting the nutritional and health benefits of the product.

“Drink brands that use matcha talk about L-theanine and amino acids, which are good for brain functions and help you focus. This is true for matcha, but as a business, you can’t claim your product can do that unless you get it tested for the duration of the shelf life – that costs a lot of money,” explains Chen.

“The most you can do is to show the nutritional values accurately, and the ingredients, being honest about what’s in your product,” says Chen, noting she went for oat milk as a plant-based, eco-friendly alternative to dairy. The recipe also uses agave as a sweetener to keep the product organic

Chen, a finalist in the Woman Who Achieves Solopreneur Awards 2020, has built a four-figure follower base on Facebook and Instagram for the HumaniTea brand, keeping them up to date with the progress on the market launch through regular posts and newsletters.

She is laser-focused on launching the HumaniTea website on 2 November to start selling direct-to-consumer. Chen is also in talks with online stores and brick-and-mortar retailers and hopes the dialogue will come to fruition soon.

Date published: 28 October 2020

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