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Bringing unexpected flavours of Greece to the teacups of the world

Marina Tzima explains how a cup of traditional mountain tea developed to become a new brand of artisan Greek herbal teas demanding a place on the international shelves of the niche market

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Creators of GREK Tea, Marina Tzima and Stephan Booi. Photos: Supplied

Herbal teas are embedded within Greek culture and it is this element of the culture that we want to bring worldwide in a contemporary format.
08 January 2018

When someone thinks of Greek produce, there are certain things that immediately come to mind - olive oil, feta cheese, wine, ouzo, and so on. Tea is very far down the list, despite the fact that 'mountain tea' and herbs have been part of the Greek diet and culture long before coffee was even introduced to the region, during the Ottoman era.

Now, a UK-based enterprise aims to change all that and introduce the fine tastes of Greek herbal tea to the world, selling it in beautiful packages that have already gained praise from international luxury publications. As most of these things happen, it all started in a Greek kitchen.

Marina Tzima was keen on sharing the 'GREK' tea back story.

How did Grek Tea come to be?
It all started back in 2013 during a holiday to Greece. Stephan, my partner, and I were having Greek coffee as part of our daily breakfast routine. One morning Stephan asked for black tea but my mum didn't have any in the house - Stephan is Dutch and accustomed to drinking black tea. So, after a mini-panic she made him a cup of traditional herbal tea using various herbs. Stephan was blown away by the delicious and unusual (to him) taste and the extraordinary aromas as he had never before tasted anything like this and the question arose why this is not available in England. This was the instigator of the idea for an herbal tea company.

How did this evolve to an enterprise?
I have always liked herbs and grew up drinking mountain tea and other herbal teas on a regular basis and combined with my knowledge of organic farming (I have a BSc in Organic Farming), it seemed like a natural fit to start an herbal tea business. As soon as we returned back to Maidstone, UK, we started to develop the idea and a couple of months later GREK, still as a concept, was born.

Over the next year or so, we contacted most of the organic farmers in Greece requesting samples. I haven't kept track of all, but we must have sampled several hundreds of herbs. During this sampling process we were still not sure whether the idea was viable. But this all changed once we had identified a relatively large number of farmers which could supply high quality organic herbs. Once we had the short listed suppliers, we visited all of them! This was a gruelling process travelling all over Greece in a short period, as transport infrastructure is often less than ideal. The large number of suppliers was advantageous in the sense that we were provided with a wide ranging array of flavours. If we take peppermint as an example, the samples we got from Crete were completely different to that from the Macedonia region. This allowed us to develop blends using various suppliers allowing us to create a unique, tasty and highly refreshing peppermint tea.

We formally launched GREK in April 2017. It took a long time to perfect all the flavours and generally there was a steep learning curve to develop a product of the quality we were aiming for. Also, despite the large number of suppliers, it wasn't easy to find the right producers to work with. Many of the suppliers looked right on paper and had great produce but just didn't have the right attitude. In business you really need people you can rely on. The brand development and packaging design also proved challenging and took longer than expected. However, we did not want to make just tea. We wanted to develop a brand of artisan Greek herbal teas and offer our customers a great product experience and were therefore not willing to compromise on either quality of flavour or packaging.

What was the greatest challenge you've had to face?
I think the design was the biggest challenge, especially to develop such a quality product within the budget we had. In a market as saturated as the tea market, we wanted to come up with a design to really stand out! We have created a brand that steers clear of Greek clichés and have instead taken inspiration from the Xysta tiles of Pyrgi, Chios, where I took childhood trips. The 'tiles' on our packaging not only provides flavour signposts for the front of the packs, but also offers a distinctive visual richness when used as a pattern across branding touch points. The result is powerful, unique, memorable and contemporary.

Expressions of quality were used throughout – from the construction of the bespoke boxes, to the flavour descriptions which take their cues from wine tasting notes. Each tea in the GREK range has a story to tell. Each flavour also comes with a booklet featuring a unique short story inspired by the Greek culture and lifestyle accompanied by charming illustrations.

Who is your ideal customer?
Over the last decade or so, a movement has developed where consumers favour exciting small-scale craft products as opposed to the monotonous mass-produced ones. This is probably best seen in the beer and coffee markets but is also seen in teas, particularly the speciality tea segment. Our ideal customers are those who favour such products and appreciate the quality they get whilst also supporting small-scale businesses who care about the environment. Also, in general the tea lovers and lovers of the unexpected who want to explore and discover new flavours and aromas like our Paradeisia (sage tea) blend or the Greek Mountain Tea (Sideritis). People who are into healthy eating and drinking. Herbal teas are a great alternative to coffee and black tea as they are caffeine free.

Greek herbs and infusions remain largely unknown internationally – and possibly underestimated in Greece; what are their unique qualities that can make them attractive and marketable to an international consumer base?
The most popular Greek drink is coffee. Greeks will drink coffee at any time of the day, even at night, especially when catching up with friends; it's ingrained within the culture. And I think that it is this side of the culture that tourists are most exposed to. Tourists don't generally see the day-to-day household activities which would include drinking herbal teas and this is probably why herbal tea is not really associated with Greece. However, herbal teas are embedded within Greek culture and it is this element of the culture that we want GREK to bring to the UK and worldwide in a contemporary format.

Besides its iconic tourist locations and rich history, Greece provides perfect conditions for growing herbs. The fertile soils, plenitude of sunshine and hot summers ensure plants develop strong aromatic characteristics gifting us our wonderful herbal teas. When this is combined with the potential story-telling with regard to Greek mythology, to the role herbs have played in Greece's rich history and to the numerous health benefits they provide, it offers a base with loads of potential to develop a truly exciting product which we think the public connects to.

We have also travelled thousands of miles all over Greece and tasted hundreds of teas to find the best herbal teas Greece has to offer. The farmers we work with are all small scale, family owned businesses which put quality before quantity while also applying organic and earth friendly farming methods. Our teas are therefore the opposite of the large-scale producers; premium, exclusive and oh so tasty!

What is your greatest aspiration for Grek Tea?
Our aspiration is to keep providing consumers with the best possible premium herbal teas at an affordable price. In the longer term, we also hope to crack the international markets, particularly the USA and Australia.

What message do you want to send to the world with your products?
The Greek climate and the fertile land have blessed Greece with food full of delicate taste and overwhelming aromas. There is nothing like the taste and fragrance of Greek herbs. From 6,500 different species to choose from, Greek herbs loaded with solar energy and rich in essential oils make delicious and versatile teas to enjoy at all hours of the day throughout the year.

What does it mean to be operating within the context of Greece's ongoing financial crisis?
Currently the main market for our teas is the UK so the economic crisis in Greece hasn't affected us directly. However, we would like to think that by promoting and selling high quality Greek produce we create employment helping those that are affected by the ongoing crisis.

What is your take on Greece's plight?
For years Greece has lived beyond its means and has ratcheted up an enormous debt. The country has gone through a painful rebalancing process to address this and this is still what we see playing out today. In our view the government's debt is unsustainably large and some restructuring will be needed in one way or another.

One other thing we think is needed is for the business environment to be made more conductive for business, i.e. reducing bureaucracy and speeding up processes. Being used to the relatively well organised systems in the UK, this is something that in our view would have a long-term improvement on the Greek economy. We, for example, would seriously consider moving some of our operations to Greece were it not for the bureaucratic and lethargic business environment.

 

For more information, visit https://grektea.com

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