Monday, June 04, 2012

Tea Business Spotlight 11 - Breakaway Matcha

Breakaway Matcha
San Anselmo, CA


Welcome to the eleventh of our Tea Business Spotlights, in which we allow tea people to share insights on running their business. If you're a tea business owner and you'd like to take part in an upcoming spotlight, please contact us.

How long have you been in business?
The website went live in March 2011 (we’re online only).

What is the size/scope of your business?
We ship globally to matcha enthusiasts in many countries, and provide matcha to some of the best restaurants in the world, including The French Laundry and Manresa. Our matcha is also served at the White House.

Why tea?
I’ve been a matcha aficionado since the 1980s, when I first began living in Japan. There’s plenty of cooking matcha to be found on the internets, but I wasn’t able to find any artisanal matcha that tastes amazing just straight up, as tea, and not as a cooking ingredient. So I set out to find it, mostly because I just wanted to have a steady supply (it’s somewhat addicting once you discover it). But when I served it to friends, everyone wanted some, and voila, the business was born.

How did you get the ball rolling on your venture?
I spent a good two years scouring Japanese tea farms for the best of the best, and collected samples of their highest grades, all of which were collated and tasted blind. There were three left standing in the end, chosen for their umami content, color, finish, and frothability, and these became my Blends 94, 97 ,and 100. Each of these blends was then further tweaked by the producers especially for me, again with those four elements in mind.

Once I had the tea secured, I moved on to packaging design and logistics, and finally on to custom ceramics to enjoy this very special matcha. I also designed a process for making this matcha that’s quite different from the traditional Japanese wide shallow bowl and bamboo whisk. I like to froth it up in small creamers, using a handheld batter-operated Aerolatte milk frother, and pour the creamy, espresso-like matcha into small, handle-less cups. It’s probably closer to Italy in design and serving spirit than it is to Japan. I absolutely adore great matcha, but I found that the Japanese tea ceremony—which is where most matcha is consumed—and all its choreographed complexity to be a kind of barrier to entry to true enjoyment of matcha. So my “breakaway” idea was to lose the traditional tools and ceramics and choreography, and to showcase this incredible beverage in a more modern, accessible way.

And then, of course, an easy-to-use, minimalist, and aesthetically pleasing website had to be designed and implemented. The whole process, start to finish, took about three years.

What do you feel is the biggest strength of your business?
I’ve not tried to be all things to all people. I offer a very special, and specialized, product, and the associated teaware to enjoy it to its fullest. It’s a hyperniche, if you will; most tea companies have far too broad of a selection in my opinion. I’d much rather buy tea from one guy who specializes in, and gets really obsessed about, just a few types of tea. Or even just one. I feel this is a feature, not a bug.

What were/are the biggest challenges of getting into/being in the tea

Sourcing truly great product and designing and building a brand around them. This process quickly weeds out everyone who isn’t focused and obsessive. And, that focus and obsession have to come from some place other than the desire to “start a business” – you have to genuinely love and adore the product you sell; there’s no other way to present it in a convincing manner. Profits will be slim to nonexistent for a long time, so you certainly won’t be doing it for the money!

What would you do differently, if anything?
Gather a little more capital so that everything wouldn’t be such a struggle to stay open in the beginning. Then again, scrappy, cash-strapped companies often produce a very compelling business culture that serves them well later on.

How's business?
It’s fantastic at the moment, and I expect to grow at 40 to 50 percent a year for the next few years.

What advice would you give to someone who aspires to be in the tea business?
Three words of advice: specialize, specialize, specialize.

Cuisinart TEA-100 PerfecTemp Programmable Tea Steeper

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