A few years ago Tracy and Rory Bell had a cancer scare in their family, and they were told by health professionals to find the most antioxidant-rich teas you can, “and drink them all day long,” says Tracy.
Rory did a “deep dive” into learning about the healing properties of tea and a “powerhouse” antioxidant called Epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG). As he read through papers and medical studies, he learned that the levels of EGCG were highest in the hours after the tea leaves were picked.
“So Rory says, ‘We need fresh tea leaves.’ And we couldn’t find anyone who could sell them to us, who could get some to us in the time frame we needed,” said Tracy in a recent interview at Locavore Café in Saint John.
“And that was when Rory said, ‘Well there must be a way to get fresh-leaf tea.’ “
Well, it turns out there wasn’t a way unless you happened to live near a tea plantation. Fortunately for the Bells, the cancer scare turned out to be false, and the ordeal had given birth to the Bells’ new business – a company called Millennia TEA with an innovative flash-freezing method that preserves the freshness of freshly picked leaves.
“We learned that tea was considered medicinal when it was discovered a millennia ago – which is where the company name comes from – and was made with fresh leaves back then,” says Tracy. “So we thought, why don’t we go back to that period and bring people fresh-leaf tea.”
“When [industry] people go to tea-producing countries each year to buy tea, they drink it fresh from the fields and that’s a special experience. But most people, as consumers, have never had it fresh.”
After doing some more research, they hit upon the idea of flash-freezing the tea leaves, much like producers already do with fruits and vegetables. “It safeguards the [freshness],” says Tracy. “So that’s what we set out to do.”
They incorporated Millennia in the spring of 2016, sourced tea leaves in the U.S. near flash-freezing facilities and hired bioscientists to conduct lab tests to make sure their theory was credible, and “it was,” says Tracy.
Their flash-freezing method, she says, produces tea with four times the level of EGCG antioxidants as you would find in a conventionally produced white tea.
The leaves are hand-picked in farmers’ fields and taken to a nearby processing facility. They are washed twice and then placed in a flash freezer, an innovative process in the tea industry, says Tracy, from beginning to end.
“[This] safeguards the maximum amount of antioxidants, and delivers a fresh-leaf taste,” says Tracy. “It’s something that’s not being done by anyone, anywhere in the world, which is shocking.”
Flash-freezing hadn’t been tried with tea until the Bells came along, but she says it is a tried-and-true process that works.
“The production facilities have to make some adjustments,” says Tracy, “but they’re already used to flash-freezing spinach or other vegetables that would be close [to tea]. Our treatment piece is a bit different, but not so far off of what they’d be used to doing.”
International food broker sourcing tea growers
At the outset, the Bells were working with small, independent farmers and using dry ice as a method of flash-freezing. They’ve now started working with an international food broker who is helping them source global supplies of leaves that are close to processing facilities. The broker is looking after everything on that end, from food safety to distribution.
The broker already works with factory farmers around the world to bring in frozen fruit and vegetables, and is building connections with tea farmers in the big tea-producing countries: China, Sri Lanka, India, Japan, and Kenya.
And they are already breaking through in those markets, says Tracy. They’ve found a farmer in China’s Hangzhou region, which is known for its prize-winning white teas. They’ve also begun product trials with a co-op of farms in Kenya. Both the Chinese and Kenyan farms are close to production facilities that do the cleaning and flash-freezing. The tea is then shipped in containers to North America.
Developing retail sales and direct-to-customer sales
The Bells are working on two models for distribution. They’re lining up retailers in the U.S. and Canada, with 80 freezer units en route from China to provide to participating tea shops. They have 15 interested retailers in the U.S. and several others from across Canada, including Camellia Sinensis in Montreal – “a giant in this industry,” says Tracy.
Millennia will also do direct-to-consumer sales over the internet, with distribution centres in Montreal and New York. They will also ship to consumers from their home-base in Saint John.
They’ve been living in Dieppe with their two young children, but Rory is a pilot who just got a job in Saint John. Tracy was the senior manager of communications with Ambulance New Brunswick before she left to work full-time on Millennia. “At one point, we had to decide, we’re either in or we’re out,” says Tracy, who knew she couldn’t continue to work on the business part-time.
Millennia wins award, will appear on Dragons’ Den
They’re ramping up for a fall launch of the business, and Millennia is already getting buzz in the industry. They recently attended the World Tea Expo in Las Vegas, and experts and buyers showed an early enthusiasm for their products.
“It was fascinating to go to the premiere convention in the world for high-end teas, and watch expert after expert after expert come by our booth and discover something new about tea,” says Tracy.
They won the “Best New Product” award in the innovation category at the expo. Brian Keating – one of judges who was the first tea blend master and tea buyer for Whole Foods Market – said the Millennia teas were ground-breaking products in the industry.
“Most consumers have never seen fresh tea leaves,” said Keating. “Millennia cleans, freezes and delivers fresh tea directly from the fields. The leaves are antioxidant-rich and besides being used for tea preparation, the potential uses in cooking and nutritional brews is fascinating. Millennia is pioneering something truly innovative we’ve never seen available before globally.”
At the expo, the Bells met with the head of R&D for Bigelow, the number one specialty tea company in North America, who called what Millennia was doing, “the future of tea,” she says.
They also captured the attention of tea experts like James Norwood Pratt, author of the Tea Dictionary; author Kevin Gascoyne of Camellia Sinensis, who has become a mentor and potential customer; and Dan Bolton, editor and publisher of Tea Journey magazine, who is writing a feature story on their flash-freezing method.
Millennia is also being featured on the Dragons’ Den in the fall, so the Bells are ramping up fast knowing that will bring additional attention and business after they launch.
“Those are the moments where we think, ‘We have something,’ ” Tracy says about the external validation.
Ultimately, though, she finds her inspiration and motivation in the cancer scare that kick-started this new business.
“We just want to do good,” says Tracy. “At one moment in time, we would have done anything for this tea, and so to be able to create that product feels good to us.”