Vol. 127 - NO. 39

Blog Startup CPG

SINCE 2019

Taste, Pivot, Repeat

Pauline Ang is the Founder + CT(ea)O of Twrl M!lk Tea.

As you probably would have guessed, I LOVE milk tea and have been obsessed with it for more years than I care to admit.

What I don’t love? All that extra sugar, barely-there tea taste, carbs and bloat-inducing dairy. After hundreds of plastic cups, thick straws and too much caffeine, I struggled to find a better milk tea that was healthier and didn’t compromise on taste. After a full career and in an entirely different field and starting a family, I decided it was finally time to create my own product.

My goal: to create a tastier, better-for-you alternative to the typical overly-sweet, empty-calorie milk tea that could be enjoyed anytime, anywhere, meaning it had to be shelf-stable. But creating a product that lived up to that vision? Let’s just say I’ve never worked harder in my life!

The challenge: creating a better-for-you m!lk tea without compromising on flavor
To create a beverage I felt good about, I had very high standards for our ingredients.

  • Clean (no weird chemicals)
  • Plant-based
  • Low-sugar (& low-carb)
  • Sustainable and responsibly sourced
  • Organic & non-GMO

As a tea brand, the tea itself needed to be perfect. A lot of people don’t know this, but tea is like wine: it tells the story of where it was grown. I wasn’t just looking for a bulk off-the-shelf tea; Twrl M!lk Tea needed to deliver complex and nuanced flavors.

Initially I sourced the teas from a knowledgeable local wholesaler of organic tea, and tested many variations of teas to nail down the perfect flavor profiles. I spent months brewing, testing and tasting the tea to make sure we had the perfect profile. At one point I even had to get a 2nd fridge to hold the many samples of tea as I was taking over the family fridge (which coincidentally became extremely useful since it was around the time COVID cases were up and shelter-in-place was enforced!). During that time, I had already made significant investments in taking this version of the formulation to commercialization..

With the initial formulation, Twrl M!lk tea should have launched in September 2020.

However, when I received the first manufacturer samples I’d worked so hard to perfect, the taste just wasn’t there. To be honest, it was devastating and a big disappointment. How could something I’d worked on for so long still not taste the way I wanted?

The problem? The tea. It turned out, the tea from the local wholesaler just didn’t make the cut. For one thing, we needed to add natural flavoring to boost flavor. As I worked on the commercial formulation, I was told most CPG drinks/products that are shelf-stable use flavoring to enhance their flavors, and that “everyone” does it.

In order to make a beverage or food shelf-stable, the product literally needed to be “cooked” so that it kills all bacteria — a process known as retort. However the retort process is also notorious for cooking out flavors as well, and every shelf stable product on the market has to go through this process. I should’ve known that was a red flag — from the start, I’d wanted the tea to stand on its own, without any additional flavoring.

With lower quality ingredients, the flavor loss can be pretty significant, but I had to find this out the hard way. I tried to convince myself this was normal, and tried looking for an alternative but hit a wall very quickly.

At the end, I made the tough decision to reformulate, to make sure the product was perfect. The launch would have to wait.

But where would I find a tea that gave Twrl M!lk Tea the flavor I’d envisioned?

I reached out to as many peers and people in the food industry as I could to learn about flavoring and sourcing. In the year of work-from-home and zoom meetings, I actually found that I was able to connect with people that I wouldn’t have found otherwise

Ultimately I ended up connecting with several amazing family-run tea producers, who have owned and operated their tea farms for multiple generations. These families grow their teas in a biodiverse, pesticide-free environment, and they only grow in season so they don’t drain their home’s soil of its nutrients, and this method produces truly the best tasting tea. Their “beyond organic” farming techniques make the teas so much more complex and flavorful than what we’d originally sourced. This is the type of tea that could hold up through the retort process.

Working with these farms means all our teas are ethically sourced and fair trade. In fact, we can name every single person that touches the tea during production! The new teas produced a much better-tasting m!lk tea, with no additional flavoring, and one that matches our social mission.

My takeaway? Taste, Pivot, Repeat
  • Remember what inspired you in the first place: When faced with the option of going to market with a less than ideal product or making a major pivot, take a step back and remember what inspired you to create your product in the first place. Does moving forward compromise that inspiration? If so, it’s very likely worth the time & reward that will come from getting it right.
  • Hold yourself accountable and commit to your goal: When your livelihood as an entrepreneur depends on your launch date, it is almost physically (and financially!) painful to delay it. At the end of the day, I knew I owed it to myself and my customers to get the product 100% right. After all, if I wasn’t committed to my product’s quality, who else would be?
  • Get support from your peers: As entrepreneurs, we often think we can just do it all ourselves. And we can, but it never hurts to talk to someone else who has gone through a similar journey, a shared interest, or an expert who can help guide through the process. What I’ve learned through COVID and talking with so many people virtually is that people love to connect — it’s amazing what 30 minutes over zoom can lead to!

For a more in-depth story of our tea journey, check out our blog post: The Incredible Story of our Tea Producers

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