For Matt Thomas, contentment can be as simple as a good cup of tea.
Inspired by newfound health consciousness, the beverage entrepreneur began exploring tea in college and first came up with the idea of a tea-specific café in business school. Though his first brick-and-mortar location of Townshend’s Tea Company in Portland, Oregon took a bit of time to draw a large customer base, the company now boasts seven tea houses and continues to expand. His next venture, Brew Dr. Kombucha (which relies on his organic teas as a foundation), took off immediately and is now available all throughout the US and Canada.
Here, Thomas explains why the process of making tea—and even kombucha—can offer a mindful moment:
Live The Process: To what do you attribute your interest in health, tea and now kombucha?
Matt Thomas: I grew up in the small town of Keizer, 50 miles south of Portland. My mom and dad kept my brother and me very active in both academics and sports. However, like most children growing up in the suburbs in the 80s, we ate very bland, Americanized food with no regard for where or how it was produced. While we were a middle class family, my father in particular had come from very humble beginnings, and my parents always prioritized price above all when grocery shopping. I had a weekly chore of cutting out all the coupons in the Sunday paper and alphabetizing them in my dad’s coupon organizer. Until I went to college, I remained unaware of the greater wide world of delicious food, as well as how bad fast food and boxed/canned food can be for human health.
My grandfather on my mom’s side had been a daily tea drinker. He died a few years before I was born, but my mom kept the teapot he used daily and had it on display in a cabinet in our living room. That is the first memory I have of tea, which remains a powerful one. I would look at his photo next to the teapot and imagine him reading the newspaper while enjoying his morning pot of tea.
I began paying attention to wellness during college at the University of Oregon, after falling in love with a vegetarian (who is now my wife of fourteen years). She exposed me to good and healthy food and explained the problems with what I had grown up eating. At the same time, we started seeking out and enjoying more and more varieties of classic and herbal teas. I became much more intrigued by the world of tea than she did, which led me to create a decent-sized collection of teas in my tiny campus apartment.
LTP: When and how were you inspired to found Townshend’s Tea Company and, ultimately, Brew Dr. Kombucha?
MT: During my senior year of business school at the U of O, I was tasked with creating a business plan for a new company to target an underserved niche customer base. I had personally experienced being in coffee shops and only having the choice of a small handful of bagged teas, and I knew by then that tea was better than that limited offering. So I developed my business plan around the idea of serving all the different forms of tea in a casual coffee house setting, with absolutely no coffee. I enjoyed creating the business plan and believed in the potential of the idea.
When I went to my professor during the last week before graduation (after having received a solid B+ on the assignment) and told him I was considering making the idea a reality, he told me that I would not succeed without serving some coffee. So I shelved the plan and went to work in a couple different entry-level sales and marketing jobs. For the next year, I saw what my future might be like if I continued working my way up within a company and I didn't like what I saw. So I continued refining the business plan on nights and weekends and eventually presented it to any friend or family member that would listen. In late 2003, I raised $45,000 from a mix of twelve friends, family and acquaintances and that was enough for me to start my very first teahouse in Portland.
For the first four years, I struggled to attract a large customer base. I persevered because I believed in the business and because my friends and family had placed their faith in my ability to make it succeed. Finally, in 2007, the teahouse had built enough business for me to step away and start a second teahouse—this time with $35,000 of personal credit card debt. Happily, the second teahouse took right off and I was able to pay down that debt, albeit slowly.
By that time, I had learned that my best-selling teas were the ones I had crafted after listening to my most enthusiastic customers. So, in early 2008, when some of those same customers began asking if I was thinking about making kombucha, I knew I had to honor them and add it to the menu. I self-educated about the process of making it and chose teas as bases that I thought would make for interesting kombucha flavors. I had already curated a tea list of great tea blends (tea mixed with dried botanicals), so that was a big advantage for me. The kombucha we made turned out to be extremely unique, with a balanced profile of sweet, sour and herbal. We started making small batches of our kombucha in the kitchens of the two teahouses. Those batches would quickly sell out, so we leased the 800 sq. ft. basement of my first teahouse and began making it down there.
We had a regular customer who worked at the local Whole Foods, and he said that we should bottle it and get it on their shelves. I set about getting a barcode and nutrition facts and, in June of 2008, we delivered our first cases (funnel-filled, hand-capped, inkjet-printed labels) to Whole Foods. We grew every month from then on and, in October 2009, received a Whole Foods Local Producer Loan that enabled us to move out of the basement and into a brewery. Since then, we've grown the teahouse side of the business to seven locations, with plans to continue to open one to two locations per year. Brew Dr. Kombucha has grown much faster. We are in 34 states and all of Canada. We now have 60,000 sq. ft. of production space. We'll grow about 100 percent this year and we have big plans for the next three years.
LTP: How do you develop your Brew Dr. Kombucha formulations and what are some of the health benefits?
MT: The health benefits of Brew Dr. Kombucha are focused around digestive health and detoxification. Our kombucha contains two common types of yeast: saccharomyces and lactobacillus. It also contains beneficial bacteria (acetic acetobacter) that together with the yeasts help populate the gut with healthy flora to aid in digestion. On the detox side, there is a mix of organic acids: acetic acid, lactic acid, propionic acid, glucuronic acid and gluconic acid. These organic acids are known to improve bioavailability of vitamins, prevent accumulation of heavy metals and insoluble oxalates, inhibit pathogenic bacteria, support joint health, modulate immunity and prevent cancer proliferation.
We have the benefit of having already gathered a collection of over 120 high quality teas for service in our teahouses. We pull directly from that tea list much of the time. In the case of our newest flavor, Citrus Hops, we employ a white tea we serve at the teahouse, but came up with a recipe that includes organic hops, dried oranges and coriander, as well. We knew we wanted to offer hops in a non-alcoholic way. There are so many interesting IPA's out there now, and so many different hop varietals, it was fun to play with a lot of them and find the flavor profile that worked for us. We ended up using Chinook and Crystal hops, both grown on an organic hop farm only 40 miles from our brewery.
I love all our flavors. That’s a theme at Townshend’s and Brew Dr. We don't release something until we absolutely love it and feel we can do no better. Currently, I drink a lot of the Citrus Hops, along with Clear Mind and Love.
LTP: What differentiates Brew Dr. from other kombuchas?
MT: It’s kombucha made by a tea company and that really matters. We craft it from the beginning—meaning all the flavor is a result of the recipe of high quality organic tea and botanicals that is specific to that kombucha flavor. We like to say it’s a “no shortcuts” approach. It requires that we have dedicated tanks for each flavor, that we maintain a consistent supply chain of a lot of different herbs and other botanicals and that we pay close attention to each batch as it progresses through fermentation. Most commercial kombucha is made by adding flavors or juices to essentially one type of “plain” kombucha. That results in more vinegar flavor from over-fermented, lower quality tea, or more sugar content from the juices used. Our method of not adding anything after fermentation keeps our kombucha 100 percent raw with the most naturally-occurring probiotics possible. So you're getting the most benefit out of every bottle.
LTP: Aside from drinking tea and kombucha, how do you keep yourself feeling healthy and balanced?
MT: Definitely time outside. Having three sons (ages 2, 5 and 7) gives us three great reasons to get outside to enjoy our community and our natural environment. Portland is filled with great people and is located close to the ocean as well as the mountains. It’s also a bit of a foodie hub. We have no problem finding inspiration for making delicious, healthy, interesting meals at home. Living healthy and well and instilling those values in our children is one way my wife and I feel balanced, for sure.
LTP: What does happiness look like to you?
MT: Taking time to enjoy friends and family is what jumps to mind immediately. My boys are my biggest source of both joy and frustration—I’m sure that is the definition of parenthood. For me, happiness stems from having found a work/family balance too, with work that allows me a creative outlet and brings positive and motivated people to my team.
LTP: What does it mean to you to “Live The Process” and how can we all do that more each day?
MT: I think it is a lot like making a good cup of loose leaf tea. That is, you shouldn't rush the process or multitask around making it. Take your time. Get the temperature of the water right, use the right amount of leaves, watch them unfurl in the water and stop the infusion at the right time. It only takes a few minutes, but that is a few minutes of being present and living calmly within your day. To put it more broadly: Take your time and perform well in all aspects of life, from your work to your interactions with other people.