By Lesley Mahoney / Photos by Kristin Teig
In the refrigerator of a shared kitchen in South Boston, oolong tea leaves steep in two 22-quart drums of filtered water. Halfway through the 16-hour cold brewing process, the leaves are starting to open up and the tea’s natural flavor has started to emerge. It’s a small-batch sample of Evy Chen’s cold brewed iced tea that she has started as a way of explaining the process to me. (Normally, she’d be brewing 10 drums, which yields close to 500 bottles of Evy Tea.)
After the tea has steeped for 16 hours, the leaves are strained with a fine mesh filter and the tea is heat pasteurized—the only natural way to preserve the product without chemicals—in a brew kettle, during which other natural flavors can be added. In the case of the oolong tea (called amber oolong), it’s rosemary extract, dried orange zest, and elderflower extract.
Chen’s philosophy for her all-natural, unsweetened bottled tea is simple. “Less is more. The less we do, the more the flavors are preserved,” she says. “I want the flavor and leaves to hug each other.”
This is not your grandmother’s tea, Chen explains. Instead, it’s a sexy and modern version with sophisticated, layered flavors. “Those different kinds of flavors, they stay in your mouth a bit, and allow you to experience the whole phenomenon.” Indeed, Chen is a pioneer of sorts in the tea industry. On the market since June 2012 (originally introduced as Tea Cuvée), Evy Tea is among the world’s first premium bottled cold brewed tea products.
Chen grew up in Fijian, a province in southeastern China featuring a tropical climate, and where the smell of ripening mangos fills the air in summer. Oolong tea grows in this region, and her great grandfather once traded tea here, among other goods, instilling in Chen an appreciation for tea.
This affinity for natural products and tea led Chen, in a roundabout way, to get into the business of making tea. “What I’ve done is brought it here and twisted it a bit to make a more modern version of it,” she says. “If you ever asked Chinese people to brew tea with cold water they’d think you’re insane.”
Chen hatched the beginnings of her business plan while a student in Emerson College’s entrepreneurship program. She won first place in a competition for her plan to sell tea drinks in a retail setting, her alternative version of Starbucks. The prize money came with a stipulation: she had to form a Limited Liability Corporation (LLC). So as she began to think more seriously about what product she’d make, she kept coming back to the fact that there aren’t many attractive non-alcoholic beverages available. “I thought, there’s got to be something sexier and healthier out there but I couldn’t find anything. So I saw an opening in the market.”
Chen didn’t want to sell loose leaf tea because of the saturated market. She had recently heard of cold brewed coffee and thought, why not cold brewed tea? “I found that when the tea soaks into cold or room temperature water, the leaves take longer to open up. And when it slowly opens up, the sweetness in the tea leaves opens up and shows the natural flavors of the teas.”
This process, and Chen’s devotion to natural ingredients, created the foundation for Evy Tea. “My commitment to making a natural product is quite simple,” she says. “If beverages on the market are made out of food coloring and corn syrup and called tea, that’s not right. My mission is to serve tea in the most beautiful way it can be.”
Meanwhile, as Chen cultivates flavors and selects leaves, she pays attention to what’s in season, working with distributors six months in advance.
When Chen first shared her idea, many friends were skeptical, something she attributes to their unfamiliarity with cold brewed tea. But she wasn’t dissuaded and spent a year engineering the product before launching it in June 2012. Shortly before the launch, she appeared at the New York Fancy Food Show and caught the attention of her first clients: Whole Foods in Hingham and Shubie’s of Marblehead. Evy Tea is now also carried at locations such as Foodie’s Market in South Boston and the South End, and Olives & Grace in the South End. And already Chen’s gained recognition: Evy Tea’s Amber Oolong won the 2013 North American Tea Championship’s best ready-to-drink flavored oolong.
Just as Chen’s tea flavors are layered, so are their inspirations. Amber Oolong’s orange zest flavor is a throwback to the smell of orange trees in Chen’s native China. Her other flavor, Moonlight, is a white tea with apricot and jasmine notes, the latter reminiscent of the jasmine her grandmother grew in her backyard. In fact, it has an even deeper history: for Chen’s grandfather, a revolutionist who was imprisoned, the jasmine that grew outside his cell represented the smell of freedom.
But Chen explains these connections are subconscious, realized mostly after she’s chosen the leaves. Indeed, the white tea leaves of Chen’s Moonlight flavor have a story all their own, one she learned only after choosing them for their natural fruity flavor. They grow on the steep mountains on the border of China and Thailand, and to shield the delicate leaves from the sun, they are picked by hand under the moonlight. “Without knowing the story behind them, I had already kind of fallen in love.”
Chen has a third flavor in the works—a decaffeinated green tea with pomegranate and figs—adding a decaf brew to her line.
For Chen to have ventured into the food business may seem surprising for the daughter of TV journalists who often ate at restaurants rather than cook at home. But Chen nonetheless managed to cultivate a love for cooking, and credits her diverse palate to the wide range of food she was exposed to when eating out as a child as well as her time attending high school in Switzerland. Coming from a creative family helped, too. Says Chen: “My parents made TV shows. My grandfather wrote books. Food is how I tell my story.”
Lesley Mahoney is a Boston-based writer and editor. Her work has appeared in South Shore Living, Cape Cod Magazine, various GateHouse Media publications, and Edible Berkshires. You can reach her at LMahoney1@gmail.com.