The husband-and-wife founders of Mighty Leaf Tea explain that when done correctly, sipping a cup of perfectly brewed artisan tea is comparable to sipping fine wine. “Think of tea how you think of wine,” explains Jill Portman, owner of Mighty Leaf Tea. “Look for notes that dance on your palate and leave long lingering finishes. Like wine, tea complements and completes a meal.”.
Mighty Leaf’s signature teas stem from a unique approach to blending. Sourcing from the finest growing estates and regions in the world, the owners of Mighty Leaf Tea ensure consistency by tasting and cupping each shipment of tea to evaluate aroma, freshness, integrity of the leaf, flavor and the color of the tea’s liqueur. Whether it’s Ceylon black tea from Sri Lanka blended with black tea from China, just as it is with wine, each location, climate and processing method imparts its own flavor and aroma. A classic wok firing of its Organic Green Dragon tea produces a delicate chestnut-like flavor while a pan-fired and slow-roasting process of Mighty Leaf Tea’s Organic Hojicha yields a rich, nutty brew. The same care is taken when selecting herbs, fruits, blossoms and spices as flavoring ingredients.
A New Concept
Portman and her husband, Gary Shinner, founded Mighty Leaf Tea in 1996 with a teahouse on San Francisco’s Fillmore Street. The passionate duo wanted to introduce a new option to the market. When Mighty Leaf began operations, there were two major tea categories. The convenient tea bags composed of small leaf particles and dustings were practical but the ingredients lacked substance. Whole loose-leaf teas, on the other hand, provided better quality but with more hassle, especially for foodservice operators. Mighty Leaf created a patented tea bag designed for whole leaf tea, marrying the concepts of convenience and quality.
“We sought an alternative that would meet the needs of both retail consumers and foodservice clients,” Portman explains. “We wanted to take a whole leaf tea and maintain the integrity of the leaf and blend and deliver it in a single-serve bag or pouch. In addition to that, we felt that there was an opportunity to increase the artisan quality of tea with our blends.”
Convenient quality tea became its niche, and the company’s growth would be a result of that focus. Even after closing its teahouse, which Portman and Shinner say helped educate customers on artisan tea traditions and benefits, Mighty Leaf Tea remains a leading player in both retail and foodservice settings. Its artisan products have been heralded by Gwyneth Paltrow, Rachael Ray and the James Beard Foundation. The company’s products have also been featured on The Dr. Oz Show and its line of Tea’s Mfusions won the award for best new Food and Beverage product of 2012 from the National Restaurant Association. Shinner says the interest in artisan tea continues to grow with no sign of slowing down. In fact, tea drinkers today are yearning for a deeper knowledge of the process.
“I think what you’re finding with tea consumers – the aficionados and first-timers – is that they’re looking back to the land,” Shinner says. “They want to know where the tea is coming from so the experience comes alive. Whether it’s black or green or oolong, people are developing an artisan sense and recognizing variations of flavor of the base tea and the nuances between them. Our approach is artisan from the inside out –from the tea to the bag – and customers are very interested in artisan products today.”
Working as Partners
Mighty Leaf Tea continues to innovate and design retail products that resonate with consumer tastes and it works closely with foodservice clients to do the same for them. Mighty Leaf Tea is sold in more than 20,000 locations across the United States including hotels, restaurants, grocery stores, cafes and spas.
“In regards to foodservice, a large part of our effort goes into understanding what the client’s needs are and how the tea program fits into their overall foodservice program,” Portman explains. “We are there to complement what they currently do. Once we design a program that fits into their culinary objectives, the next step is educating the waitstaff and educating management.”
Whether it is a national retailer, fine-dining restaurant or vacation cruise line, Mighty Leaf Tea’s R&D team works alongside foodservice clients to create one-of-a-kind products. The company develops customized drink solutions to fit each restaurant’s demographics, themes or cuisine and help implement the ideas. Among its high-profile clients is national department store Nordstrom.
Mighty Leaf has been the high-end retailer’s preferred tea supplier for the last 12 years and in recent years the relationship has turned into a greater partnership with the rise of custom-made tea drinks such as tea cocktails and mocktails.
Bill Wilson, director of specialty coffee at Nordstrom who oversees the company’s 120 coffee bars, says that Mighty Leaf’s artisan appeal syncs well with Nordstrom’s dedication to hand-crafted products. Its baristas work with manual espresso machines and use all-natural ingredients in its beverages, which include not only coffee and tea but also smoothies, juices and specialty drinks.
When Nordstrom approaches the tea experts with unique ideas, Mighty Leaf transforms those concepts into concrete products. For instance, when pomegranate reached its prominence a few years back, Mighty Leaf helped Nordstrom introduce a pomegranate iced tea sweetened with an all-natural blackberry syrup.
“It’s something we do to separate ourselves from the competition,” Wilson says. “It’s unique to us. It’s our recipe and no one else can make it or carry it. We like to put a twist on our drinks such as our Plantation Tea or the Ms. Palmer. We can take a familiar base tea or something unique that Mighty Leaf carries and build a new drink from scratch. It fits with our concept of hand-crafted beverages and it causes people to seek us out because they can’t find it anywhere else.”
Nordstrom quickly read and responded to the signs that consumers are looking for unique tea experiences, and Shinner says it’s a trend happening not just here in the United States, but across the world.
“Global demand at the consumer level for a quality artisan, innovative tea product is growing,” Shinner says. “We’re getting interest from buyers and consumers of our products from all around the globe – Asia, South Korea, the U.K., Europe in general and Russia. There’s a renaissance going on that is perfectly aligned with the artisan and premium nature of Mighty Leaf. So even societies that have been traditional tea drinkers are out there looking for a premium artisan tea experience and they are coming to an American company called Mighty Leaf Tea to find it.”