Steeping It Real: Asheville Tea Company brews a sense of place in every cup
Jessie Dean’s relationship with tea goes back to her childhood in Boone, N.C., with nostalgic memories of her grandmother brewing tea, pouring it over ice, sweetening it, and adding a fresh lemon wedge. As a young teen, she tried coffee but found it too bitter; instead, she and her best friend bonded over mugs of hot tea.
While still in high school and later in college at UNC-Greensboro, Dean worked in outdoor education and discovered that tea was the perfect warmup drink, convenient to make at a campsite. Her senior year of college, she met her future husband, Barney Caulfield, a native of Britain, where tea is the national beverage.
All of that laid the foundation for Dean to eventually start Asheville Tea Company. But it was her extensive travels after graduating in 2003 that introduced her to teas of the world. She saw how strongly teas identify place — black tea in England and Australia, yerba mate in Argentina, coca tea in Peru, and chili infusions in Mexico.
“I saw plants and herbs I had never heard of, and how they were used to make teas,” she remembers. “Local was a way of life.”
Dean began her professional life with a startup wilderness therapy company, which took her to California and then, homesick for Western North Carolina and her family there, to Asheville in 2006. Before long, she and Caulfield started a family of their own, a son, then a daughter. She was full-time momming but couldn’t shake her long-held desire to start her own business.
Kicking around ideas with her mother about a locally sourced product she might make, jams and jellies came up. Then lightning struck. “Somehow, we started talking about tea, and I said that I could never find local, farm-to-teacup tea,” she explains. “And it hit me. ‘Of course! That’s what it is!’”
Dean connected with the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project to find farmers growing the herbs and botanicals she would need to blend with leaves from organically grown camellia sinensis. She discovered yaupon, a caffeine-containing relative of yerba mate that’s indigenous to WNC.
At a shared commercial kitchen in Barnardsville, she conducted research and development to create blends and recipes. In 2016, Asheville Tea Company launched at the West Asheville Tailgate Market with eight blends of tinned loose-leaf tea. “Our very first sale was a tin of G&Tea, a blend inspired by gin and tonics,” Dean says. “It’s a green tea with juniper and locally grown lime basil.”
ATC also began selling at Asheville City Market downtown and the North Asheville Tailgate Market, building a devoted local customer base, which fairly quickly included Rhubarb restaurant and The Rhu bakery. “They were the first to approach me about serving our teas and purchasing wholesale,” Dean says.
Dean says ATC’s growth has been organic, but its rapidity made strategic planning crucial. In response to customer demand, it contracted with another tea company for co-packaging tea bags and moved to its own space in West Asheville for blending. As growth continued, Dean got involved with Mountain BizWorks for courses, coaching, and guidance on fundraising, and three years ago moved into the A-B Tech Business Incubation and Small Business Center.
As part of the company’s commitment to sustainability, Dean switched in 2021 to plant-based biodegradable, pyramid-shaped tea bags and bought ATC’s first major piece of equipment to bag in house. “We’re so proud of the herbs and botanicals grown right here that we wanted our customers to be able to see them in the bag and watch them brew,” she says.
In addition to restaurants and cafés, Ingles, Fresh Market, Earth Fare, and Harris Teeter supermarkets carry ATC’s black, green, yaupon, and herbal teas.
Asheville Tea Company kicks off the summer of 2023 with two new developments. Just in time for iced tea season, it’s introducing Cold Brews, a trio of blends packaged in large tea bags designed to steep in a pitcher. And Dean can look forward to enjoying that tall glass of iced tea at Asheville Tea Company’s new production facility, which is slated to be online by summer solstice.
“Having grown up in Western North Carolina and knowing the herbs and botanicals in our own backyard and experiencing the strong culture of farm to table, I love that Asheville Tea Company showcases the traditions and terroir of our beautiful region and lets people experience it through tea,” she says.
For more on Asheville Tea Company, visit ashevilleteacompany.com.
Written by Kay West
Photos courtesy of Asheville Tea Company