In drinks, less sugar is the key, and what sugar there is should be good. Hence my interest in Honest Tea.
Iced tea is the most refreshing of summer drinks. In the South, of course, it is a commodity, served from upright metal tanks with spigots. Usually it is very sweet and laced with lemon, and the tea flavor practically vanishes; or it is harsh and bitter, like Nestea’s powdered mix and most bottled iced teas. Small wonder that in many bottled versions tea is a nearly forgotten background to blaring fruit flavors. Anyone whose summers meant powerful, not overly sweet homemade iced tea knows that tea should be the primary flavor, and that a glass of iced tea is as refreshing and pure as a swim in a cool stream.
Honest Tea has many virtues, all of them implied by its punning name. But the primary ones are that it tastes like tea, isn’t too sweet, and doesn’t use high-fructose corn syrup. Among commercial iced teas it is the closest to the homemade tea of my childhood—and in some ways better. That tea—carefully steeped for what my grandmother called “tea essence,” sweetened while hot, and chilled so as not to cloud it—started with bags of indifferent tea. Honest Tea starts with very good Indian and Chinese loose-leaf tea, steeped exactly as tea experts dictate: loose, in just-boiled water.
The stories of Honest Tea’s trial and error—sediment at the bottom of early bottles; big, laundry bag–like tea balls bursting and spraying hot, wet tea leaves all over the factory floor and ceiling—have appealed to journalists and the tea’s many fans. So have the doughty attempts of Seth Goldman and Barry Nalebuff, two idealistic men with a business plan, modest start-up funding, and no experience, to establish a new bottled beverage with a do-good image in a fiercely competitive industry not known for its charitable deeds.
Goldman, the son of the Russia scholar Marshall Goldman and the China scholar Merle Goldman, went to Yale’s School of Management, known for the use in its curriculum of the nonprofit sector, where he heard Nalebuff, one of his professors, pose a question during a discussion of cola marketing: Why were soft drinks either way too sweet or artificially sweetened, with nothing in between? Nalebuff later looked into the tea industry in India and found that very good tea cost almost nothing more to brew than bad tea. Several business plans, rounds of family and personal fundraising, and many kitchen tea tastings later, Honest Tea rolled up to supermarkets and convenience stores. (Often it rolled around downtown Bethesda, Maryland, where Honest Tea has its offices and modest test kitchen, in Goldman’s U-Haul, or in the trunk of his wife’s car to and from the homeless shelter where she then worked.)
Now in its ninth year, Honest Tea comes in eighteen flavors (two new ones, Just Black and Just Green, are unsweetened) and is on the shelves of stores across the country, including the entire Whole Foods chain and some Target stores. (Starbucks owns its own tea company, Tazo, which makes a lightly sweetened, organic iced tea that tastes fine but is not as pure-flavored as Honest Tea.) Goldman says the company will break even for the first time next month.