How Things Begin: Tisano Tea

Tisano Tea, based in San Francisco, sells chocolate tea. It was started in 2010 by Patrick Pineda, Leonardo Zambrano, and Lucas Azpurua. I was curious about the company because I like two chocolate tea blends very much: Red Cloud Cacao (a black tea/chocolate tea blend from Peet’s, no longer available but they will bring it back) and CocoMate (from American Tea Room).

Patrick’s father was an ambassador from Venezuela. Patrick grew up in California and England and went to college at the University of East Anglia. After studying for a Master’s in Film Production from Columbia University (New York), he started working for Al Jazerra in Venezuela making documentaries. He also worked for a local TV station making segments for a children’s program. One segment was about cacao. He learned that Venezuelan cacao beans were among the most highly-valued cacao beans in the world. The cacao beans from one valley (Chuao) sold for ten times the usual price.

While making the segment, he met cacao farmers. He discovered a group of cacao farmers whose beans had been organically certified by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) due to local NGO sponsorship (the NGO paid for it). The farmers saw it as free training. The organic certification took lots of paperwork to maintain. The farmers had hoped that the certification would allow them to sell their beans at a premium. However, after four years, this hadn’t yet happened. At the end of each harvest, they’d had to sell their beans at the conventional (non-organic) price.

This struck Patrick as an opportunity – a niche (organic) within a niche (Venezualan). In the US, there was a growing demand for organic products. The co-op grew about 16 metric tons of organic cacao beans each year. In 2009, with the financial help of his older brother and friends, he bought 10 metric tons ($40,000). A month earlier, he hadn’t known that chocolate comes from cacao.

He soon realized there was a problem: How to get it out of the country? If taken straight out, the government would fumigate it and it would lose its organic certification. It would have to be processed in Venezuela. There were several cacao processing plants in Venezuela but to them 10 metric tons was nothing. Patrick finally convinced one of them that organic might be the future. He taught the employees how to process the beans organically while learning it himself. After that it was relatively easy to get the processing plant certified organic.

During processing, 12% of the weight is “lost” in shells that are normally discarded. Patrick took the shells with him back to America hoping he could do something with them. In Venezuela, he had met an indigenous tribal community that drank tea made from cacao shells as remedy for asthma and to sooth coughs. He looked academic journals for other uses. He eventually found about 120 published papers. The shells had been used as toothpaste and to increase the Vitamin D content of milk by feeding them to cows. The only common uses, it turned out, were as fertilizer (due to the nitrogen content) and animal feed (due to the fiber and Vitamin D content). Neither use was high-price.

What about tea? Patrick sent samples to his partners. They were unenthusiastic. “This tastes like grass. Why would anybody drink tea from a by-product?” However, he was selling chocolate butter and nibs online. With each order, he included an 8-ounce pouch of cacao shells with instructions how to brew the tea. His customers – at least, some of them – were enthusiastic: How unique, how great, they emailed him. A German woman said she hadn’t drunk such tea since World War II ended. During World War II, cacao shells had been added to tea to extend it. His customers wanted to buy more.

He convinced his partners to go to a trade show. In 2010, they went to Expo West, a natural and healthy food product show in Anaheim. Out of all of their products, the tea got the most attention. It won Best in Show for tea. Out of about 500 new products, it was one of four that won Best New Product of Show. People from Twinings Tea and Stash Tea complimented them on their product.

After the trade show, Patrick decided the tea was a good concept and decided to make it a separate brand. Dark chocolate without the guilt. No sugar, no caffeine. He launched Tisano. The name comes from tisane (herbal tea in French) and artesano (artisanal in Spanish).

When I tasted Tisano’s chocolate tea, it tasted very familiar. That’s because Tisano’s cacao shells are the cacao shells in both American Tea Room’s CocoMate and Peet’s Red Cloud Cacao. There is no doubt that Patrick has created a new niche within the American (and maybe world) tea market: chocolate tea. I don’t know how well CocoMate is selling at American Tea Room but I decided to buy it after smelling maybe 40 teas. At Peet’s, Red Cloud Cacao sold surprisingly well and they will bring it back seasonally.