Maker Profile: Tyler Bennett of Hugo Tea
Meet Tyler Beckett, founder and owner of Hugo Tea. Hugo Tea crafts small-batch, certified organic tea sourced directly from tea farmers in China. Tyler shares his first adventures in entrepreneurship, why he started Hugo Tea, and how tea is often overlooked as the miracle drink that it is.
Tell me a little bit about the launch of Hugo Tea.
I tried desperately to get a job in tea when I was finishing up grad school. I went as far to track down the home address of the owner of a tea company I admired and sent him a certified packet that required a signature. I know he signed for it- but I never heard anything back. Creepy? Maybe. But, hey, it’s not like I was any worse a position for having done it.
When the more rational part of my brain caved, I decided to start a tea company from scratch. I already had lots of contacts at tea farms in China that I’d built over the years to satisfy my personal curiosity. So I started importing tea and slowly figure out what the hell I was doing.
Was this your first entrepreneurial venture?
In second grade, I printed full-color pictures of dinosaurs and sold them to my classmates for a quarter a piece during the dinosaur unit in science glass. T-Rex was 50 cents. My parents were paying for the ink, so my COGS was zero. Life’s never been so good.
Honestly, I’ve always dabbled in things. I started a nonprofit in undergrad which I sold before moving to Asia for a little bit. I had a few other crazy ideas that never panned out. One was to install vending machines across college campuses that gave free samples (like drinks or snacks or something) to students who made a free account with our company. The machines were going to play an ad targeted to the student based on the preferences on their account. A bit Orwellian, I think, but who doesn’t like free stuff? It was called Cubee.
Another was something called GloWe. It was two glowing orbs that were connected over long distance via Wifi or LTE. It was designed for long distance relationships. Basically your orb would let out a soft glow if your partner was nearby their own orb.
If someone with more time wants to take these ideas and run with them--I’d love to hear about it.
This is typically the first thing people ask. Why tea? Typically it’s asked with genuine confusion. Especially people I’ve just met. The short answer is why anything? Why do people brew beer or roast coffee? Or anything, really? In some way or another it all comes back to passion. For me that passion comes from understanding the craft of the farmers and the thousands and thousands of years of human history and culture it touches. Did you know that we (humans) have been drinking tea for at least a few thousand more years than coffee? Entire eras of human history have been predicated on tea in one fashion or another. The Boston Tea Party, the Silk Road, countless companies, kingdoms, and empires- the list goes on.
It also doesn’t hurt that tea is- by many objective measures- a miracle drink of sorts. It’s ridiculously efficient (which is pleasing for the industrialist in me). There is competing information, but it’s a safe bet to say that tea is far, far better for our planet than coffee. It uses vastly less water, land, and energy per cup. It’s loaded with antioxidants, and it’s astoundingly inexpensive.
Finally, I do find a certain beauty in the simplicity of tea. After all, it’s just dried leaves steeped in water. Across history, tea has been the drink of the rich and poor alike. You don’t need a $10,000 machine to make a perfect cup of tea. You just need hot water and a bowl.
What did you want to add to the market you felt it was missing?
For me it was, at least in part, a sort of contrarian drive to fix what I saw as an imbalance in the understanding and acceptance for tea compared to other drinks-of-habit (coffee, wine, beer, etc.) Tea is most often thought of either iced tea or an herbal type drink that you have when you’re sick. Neither of those sentiments are wrong, but both are short sighted.
So the purpose of Hugo Tea is to bring more attention to the craft of tea, while remaining accessible and light-hearted. We’re still one of few truly direct trade tea companies in the U.S.A. Most tea, even “high quality” tea, in the North American market goes through a very convoluted supply chain of traders, importers, tea retail companies, etc. All of the tea we purchase comes direct from farms that we work with every year. We’re always on site during harvest. If our goal is to connect tea drinkers with the craft and culture behind their drink, don’t we have to be direct trade? I mean, I don’t know what value we’re adding if we’re not bridging that gap.
What would you want to share with tea drinkers who can’t necessarily go and experience that culture firsthand?
This is more of a loaded question than you might think. Western audiences can sometimes fetishize an imaginary “Asian” tea experience that is not only uncomfortable, but inauthentic. It’s not malicious of course- there is something tremendously appealing about the idea of having this zen experience with drinking green tea in a grove of cherry blossoms, or whatever.
The vast, vast majority of tea consumed in Asia is drunk in a way that your average American would find immediately familiar: with a simple tea bag, possibly steeped in a rush over a lunch break or before work. Even if they’re drinking loose tea, it’s not prepared in some fanciful way by an ancient monk or a yogi- it’s made by office workers and busy moms and blue collar folks who are just popping some loose tea in a mug and going about their day. They’re certainly not searching for enlightenment in every cup.
What I’m trying to say is that the ideas that Westerners associate with “tea culture” in the East- while unabashedly positive- aren’t all that accurate outside of historical or demonstrative purposes. Of the hundreds (thousands?) of cups of tea that I’ve had in Asia, not a single one was a zen-type experience. But there are some things worth knowing, independent of culture, that will further anyone’s appreciation. I touched on most of them before, but here’s a more straight forward breakdown:
First, realize that tea is craft product. Some might say artisan. Tea is fundamentally different than most agricultural commodities because the process to turn it from a raw, fresh tea leaf into a finished green tea (for example) is a hands-on process that is very similar to making wine from grapes, or beer from grain and hops. There’s a transformation, which is a very real reflection of the tea maker. It takes practice and art to do this right.
The second is to realize that tea is a drink-of-habit just like coffee, wine and beer. Don’t put tea in a different category. Don’t think of it as medicine. If you make a cup of green tea in the morning and all you’re thinking about is what health benefits you’ll get out of it, then you’ve already lost. No one drinks their nightly scotch because it has a lot of antioxidants (it does!). They drink it because of the enjoyment. Maybe they know something about the distillery. Or maybe they’ve been to Scotland! The same is true for coffee. Sure, coffee might have some health benefits, but it’s not the core reason why people drink it. They drink it for caffeine. They drink it for pleasure. For flavor. They drink it for habit. Tea is a wonderful habit. It’s a wonderful everyday pleasure. It’s good for you, and it’s amazingly affordable (far more so than coffee or scotch). Develop an appreciation for it and you’ll find much much more in your cup of tea than some antioxidants.
Third- and finally we are back to culturally driven ideas- tea is best enjoyed together. This is admittedly more subjective than the first two points, but I do think it’s true. This is something that Asia gets right that we have huge trouble recreating. Most of the tea I’ve have in Asia is shared with friends. It’s far more experiential and experiences are best when they are shared.
Is there anyone in the industry who you look up to?
The tea farmers, everyday.
What is your favorite thing about what you do?
My first reaction is to say that I like everything about what I do. But a more concise and honest way to say that is to say that I am very lucky to be able to structure my work around how I’m feeling on a particular day or week. Some weeks will be pure creative. Some will be hands-on packing. Others will be accounting, and so on. And that’s the way I prefer it. I’d get bored otherwise. In fact, I could go in a deep dive here about how unproductive I think it is to be too rigid with one’s work. That’s not to say that having a schedule and routines are bad- but siloing yourself into a particular type of work is a drain on both creativity and productivity.
How many cups of tea do you drink a day?
Two to four
What do you do with your free time?
I typically work 12-14 hours each day. Since so much of our work happens in Asia, I find myself working most nights with the farmers and other suppliers after I get home in the evening. There’s always a new project or a new tea that we’re tinkering with at the farm. Recently we’ve been neck deep in our upcoming teaware line- elegantly designed in Kansas City and hand-made by some awesome people in Hangzhou. I’m looking forward to that...what was the question again?
That’s so exciting! I can’t wait to see that. What was the collaboration process like for that line?
Since we’re not engineers and don’t know anything about 3D modeling, our design process is always iterative. Basically going back and forth through dozens and dozens of pieces with different weights, different spouts, different handles, different shapes, etc. Then we did the same thing with steel. There’s several things that seemed like a great idea but couldn’t be done for one reason or another. To give a specific example, we wanted a certain type of screen to be used but it turns out it caused the water flow to be too turbulent from the spout--we wouldn’t have thought the effect would be that great. We ended up finding a new screen factory to make a heavier gauge screen that resisted the sort of “wobbling” that we were getting before when water gulped out of the spout. Like I said we’re not engineers--so that was probably an awful explanation of what’s actually going on.
If you could live anywhere, where would it be?
Kansas City- no joke. It’s the perfect place to have a homebase. I love Asia and my time at the farms. I love traveling. But there’s a difference between places I want to live and places I like to visit.
What are some of your favorite spaces or places in KC?
I’m almost obligated to say that cafe culture in Kansas City is killing it. But it’s so true. There’s so many awesome cafes in Kansas City that I won’t even try to name them all. If you’re a coffee or tea drinker and you’re getting your morning pick-me-up from national chains- give your local shop a try. Even if it’s one of the larger Kansas City cafe brands, give them a try. These folks work their asses off every day to make exceptional products and experiences and they’re worth a detour from your normal routine.