Guayusa Tea Shop was created by a tiny team of two, James and Linda (pictured above in the Peruvian Amazon)
This is the story of how their little home business came into being.
Read on and you’ll learn:
- How they first heard of guayusa
- How they started a beverage company with no experience
- About bumps along the road
- About awful bumps along the road
- The thought process behind the pack designs
- How they learned to make tea bags
- About the ‘Novel Foods Wobble’, and why they decided to keep going
- About how you can support Ilex guayusa
How it began
James had always been a fan of National Geographic’s content - years ago he used to buy the magazines every month.
Back in 2014 he decided to try a demo of the digital edition on the iPad.
Being impressed with how they had taken the format of the physical magazine and presented it with richer interaction through scrolling, tappable infographics, videos, puzzles and the usual lovely photography, he subscribed.
In addition to the above, the digital edition also streamed in National Geographic’s Instagram and website news feeds. It was on the latter that James caught the headline 'Ecuador's superleaf tea: could it replace your afternoon coffee?', some time in late July 2014.
James - a coffee drinker at the time - often tipping a third of a pack of grinds into a cafetière per session (everyone told him it was bad!) - knew drinking so much coffee wasn't the way forward, was intrigued.
He read the article and watched the video below with fascination and an instant sense of reverence towards this mysterious concoction.
It was obvious guaysua was causing a stir in the USA - there were loads of glowing reviews and news articles to read - and lots of social media noise.
James had to try it - what was this tea going to be like? - secretly hoping it would be the replacement to coffee he needed. It's true to say that for some reason he felt he wanted to build a business around it before he had even tried it; stumbling across the National Geographic article felt like it was 'meant to be'.
Especially because of strong family ties to Amazonian Peru, where guayusa also grows.
Linda, you see, was born in Pucallpa, Peru. Pucallpa is located in the east of Peru on the banks of the Ucayali River, which, further north, discharges into the mighty Amazon River. Guayusa is found in the upper regions of the Amazon in Ecuador, Peru, and southern Colombia.
Perhaps it could become a full time cross-Atlantic venture - their own guayusa farm and UK guayusa cafe, maybe?
Trying guayusa for the first time
By August, James had managed to find a source on eBay, which, upon ordering, turned up a day or two later.
Eagerly spooning some into his usual ‘coffee’ cafetière, he poured on freshly boiled water, inhaling the uniquely sweet, almost grassy flavours.
As soon as it was cool enough to have the first sip, it was love at first taste. In addition to the delicious taste, the effect from the caffeine felt so different.
It was so much smoother compared to the heart racing rush of strong coffee. Overnight it completely replaced coffee as the daily hot drink, not only for James, but Linda too.
Setting up the business
Certainly guayusa was something more people needed to know about. It wasn't long before the website name was registered, the local council was notified of a new food business selling guayusa and a myriad of other activities ensued, including, of course, the hunt for a wholesale supplier.
Eventually, James managed to order 4.5 kilos when one of the suppliers that had been contacted finally replied.
On the 5th of December 2014 the first wholesale batch of guayusa arrived!
But the tea couldn’t be sold - although it was clearly good guayusa, it had obviously not been through a rigorous post harvest production process. For example, a stone was found in it - and also a feather! Regrettably the whole batch had to go.
It was a pretty low point as there had been no luck in responses from any other supplier.
But positive tracks had been made with all the other work, such as pulling together a quick brand, packing designs, packaging, creating a website, securing social media spaces, setting up digital advertising and much more.
Not easy on top of two full time day jobs - and as busy parents.
The first packing designs
When creating the first packaging - while there was no budget - it was important to James and Linda that it tied back to some kind of ancient symbolism.
You can read more about that process here - but in short the original logo (which was always hand stamped on) was inspired by ancient rock art - and striking similarities between Ecuadorian and Scottish petroglyphs were noticed.
The stamps were originally hand made, carved into a lino block (the kind used for screen printing) which proved hard to work with using normal ink stamp pads. So professional stamps, a replica of the original hand carved design, were invested in.
These were used to hand stamp many hundreds of packs in an assortment of colours - it was important that the product had a really handmade feel from beginning to end.
Finding the supplier
Despite so much progress, everything ground to a halt for a while as a supplier was still needed. Eventually, through sheer persistence, contact was made with the supplier of their dreams, and the process of ordering the first 40KG sack of guayusa began. It was getting serious!
But it didn’t turn out to be so simple for other reasons - importing at this level was not so simple as paying and giving your shipping address - there was a requirement to set up an official import account with a global shipping agency.
When the delivery turned up, they were blessed with an immaculate food grade sack of the most fully credentialed, fair trade, organic, non-GMO and perfectly milled Ilex guayusa available in the world - replete with official origin and phytosanitary certificates. This was how guayusa should be!
The business was launched online with great excitement on 29 June 2015. From first trying guayusa to launching the online shop took just under 12 months.
The initial product range had four varieties: pure guayusa, mint, lemon and cinnamon blends (pictured above) in 50g and 100g packs - the oldest customers will remember!
The first customer
A couple of weeks went by. No sales. Then, on the 19th of July 2015 - 20 days after going live - the first notification appeared to say there had been a sale - one 100g packet of guayusa tea! Gradually more orders appeared along with some really awesome comments.
Here's the first bit of unsolicited feedback Guayusa Tea Shop received:
"Just tasted my first brew, absolutely stunning, clean and refreshing. I'm a regular herbal drinker after ditching coffee and daily have Yerba in the morning and Green Rooibos at night. But this is now going to be my afternoon choice. What a find!"
As time went on blogs that unearthed fascinating information on guayusa and its history were written and published on the site - here’s some that are recommended if you are interested in learning more:
- Guayusa: Food of the gods
- L-Theanine - A goddess in the guayusa
- Learning more about the story of guayusa
- Unearthing more of guayusa’s story
- Why is holly used at Christmas?
A terrible turn
Less than three months after the launch of the business, life went off the rails when a close family member became very ill.
Linda left permanent employment and remained at home as a full time carer. James returned to his day job after taking an initial two months off.
All the while the tea shop still needed attention - they were the staff - and it was starting to get busy.
Orders would come in, during freezing December days spent in the hospital - while the world felt like it was falling apart.
Late night trips home to package orders which were posted the next day during rushed lunchtime trips to the post office nearest the hospital.
There aren't words to express their relief as the treatment went to plan, and the family are now enjoying their time together.
James is still working a full time job, and Linda takes care of Guayusa Tea Shop’s day to day activities.
The new packing design and logo
While the original packing design served a purpose, the aspiration to create an improved look and feel led to a new development for the business.
They knew one of their neighbours was a great graphic designer because they had seen the work she had done for her own business venture. They asked if she would be interested in working something 'proper' up for Guayusa Tea Shop.
In the spirit of a fresh start they decided to phase out the original flavours and introduce a new one - 'Choco' - a simple, but delicious, mixture of guayusa and raw organic cacao nibs.
What's more, they didn't just go for a brand upgrade - they combined that with their first venture into putting this revered guayusa into beautiful looking, biodegradable tea bags.
While the ethos and approach behind the old hand-stamped packaging was managable in the early days, it became inefficient as time wore on, so one of the aims of the rebrand was to move completely into printed labelling to allow more time to get the orders out around everything else.
They still kept handwriting bespoke thank you notes with each order, though.
There were a number of iterations of the new design, and lots of thought went into it - here's some of the work as it developed:
Making tea bags
Discovering how to get tea bags made was an interesting experience too - remember beverage businesses are not James and Linda's background - however their extensive experience in retail and digital leadership have been of great use!
It was hard as most factories that make tea bags demand huge runs before they'll talk to you. Luckily they found an amazing factory who would help produce the bags at the volumes they could afford - and who were also great mentors in the overall process. James and Linda can't thank them enough.
The branded string tags that are attached to the bags had to be ordered from a company in Japan. A mistake on the tag design called for last minute changes across time zones (before 48,000 were printed) - it was a tense moment!
All ended well and beautiful bags were made, sealed, and put into the lovely boxes with their neighbour's incredible designs (that had to be printed in Spain!). It's hard to believe they did this all around their day jobs, and the trauma of the family illness. But there's more to the story.
Here's a pic of the tea bags on the production line:
The Novel Foods ‘wobble’
In June 2017, after May - which was the best month of sales they'd ever had - James and Linda learned for the first time that guayusa was considered as a 'Novel Food'.
This meant that the future of guayusa in the UK and EU was unclear due to the competent authorities coming to the conclusion that, as guayusa has apparently not been consumed in the EU before 15 May 1997, it is considered - in the UK/EU - as a 'Novel Food'.
Products that fall into this category are subject to a rigorous, long and expensive assessment before they can be placed on the market as a food item.
They understand though, that this applies to large, or 'scale' economies, rather than a small online businesses that haven't yet turned a penny's profit.
Selling in supermarkets, for example, is something that would be impossible at the present time.
Ilex guayusa's close South American relative, Ilex paraguariensis (Yerba Mate), has been widely consumed in the EU before the above date and is available in mainstream health shops such as Holland and Barrett. There is a strong case to be had that Ilex guayusa and Ilex paraguariensis are effectively equivalent in their makeup.
When James and Linda saw this classification, they were shocked, worried, and took the decision to temporarily remove the products from the website on the 16th June 2017.
It was truly horrible given their passion for guayusa, the time and money invested and the fact that they’d had so many positive reviews. Since opening, they have not had a single piece of bad feedback (as long as you don’t count a fake one on Google which they have flagged accordingly!)
When they closed the shop, it wasn't long before customers were asking where they can now get the tea they love so much:
"Sorry my supply of your great tea is ended. When guayusa will be again available?"
"Hey I used to buy guayusa from this shop but it looks like you're not selling anymore? Let me know where I can buy it."
"...just checked the shocking info on the website!! Oh no! So sorry to hear. Is there no way round this debacle...?"
What were they supposed to do? What would you do? It felt so strange to close the shop and make it look like they had done something wrong, or indeed that there was something wrong with their guayusa - or guayusa in general.
James and Linda were desperately thinking of the best way to keep going. Can you believe they were even considering making customers tick a check box to acknowledge that the guayusa was not being sold as a food item?
What's more they also got stickers printed to go on the packs to say it was a specimen, ‘intended for study or display only’.
However, to actually have done this would run counter to all their values and it was terrible to think this could be something that made guayusa look bad, when it isn’t, or that they were selling something that was somehow dangerous.
Morally, James and Linda have been happy selling the guayusa they stock because they know it is a popularly consumed beverage in modern times.
They of course know, too, that it is incontrovertibly provable that it's been consumed by human beings for hundreds - if not thousands - of years in its native lands. It has been cultivated by human hands for so long it is believed that it doesn't even reproduce on its own any more. It only survives by the propagation of cuttings. Plants like these are sometimes called 'Ghost Plants' - Ilex guayusa needs us to stay alive!
They also know the tea they are selling comes from exactly the same source as that which is popularly consumed in modern times and rightly deemed safe overseas and drunk by people like you and me every day.
It just turned out that there was this inconvenient hurdle that seemed to only affect the sale of guayusa in the EU.
You see, later in June 2017, they discovered that Australia's equivalent ruling bodies had another view.
This is the website of the Australian Novel Foods regulators. If you download this document, linked from this page - you will see clearly guayusa entered as a recent listing in black and white from their competent authorities declaring the super leaf 'Not a Novel Food' and carrying no safety concerns when consumed as a tea.
|Food or food ingredient||Outcome View||Justification/Comment|
(leaf – infusion in hot water)
Not novel food
|Plant native to South America. Leaves are used in preparation of hot beverage (similar to tea). No safety concerns identified when consumed in this way.|
So, with a resolution that they are doing the right thing for guayusa, the people who have toiled to grow, harvest and process it, the air miles to transport it here, their own efforts and aspirations, and their beloved customers who have a human right to buy and experience it, they re-opened the shop on 10th July 2017 - the same day as their 8th wedding anniversary.
James and Linda want to apologise for how bizarre this must have all looked. James and Linda started to sell guayusa with an open and honest heart, albeit naive to this regulation. They'll continue with an open and honest heart.
In the longer term James and Linda will do what it takes to get the necessary approvals to take the UK’s first Guayusa Tea Shop to the next stage in its development, and are committed to keep spreading the word about this wonder leaf.
Update for January 2018
Hey all, news just in - guayusa has now been approved! Yay!!! You can see it listed here on the Union List of Novel Foods. Stay tuned as we dial things up :)
How you can support Ilex guayusa
You could support by sending in your positive feedback and support for Ilex guayusa which will be added, with your permission, to the reviews section of this website. You could tell your friends and family about this incredible plant and why it so special.