Listen to this episode.
Preroll note: After we published this podcast and notes, Cyndi called to let us know that we’d made some errors. So as you read, you’ll see spots where we decided to add her notes as an addendum rather than simply making the changes, because we want you to experience for yourself just how precise and passionate she (and her family) is about this business!
Today’s podcast comes to you recorded live from Simpson & Vail in sunny Brookfield, Connecticut. If you’ve been listening to our podcast then you’ve heard us talk about tea a lot (usually accompanied by talking about pie a lot) and we’ve recently developed a love affair with Simpson & Vail teas.
So we thought, what better way to ring out 2015 than by visiting our new friends to talk about tea, what makes a good cup and how they grew their business?
Today’s episode is a bit longer than usual but it was a ton of fun so grab a cup and settle in!
A Family Affair
Simpson & Vail is a family-run tea importing company that blends and creates myriad flavors (350 by the last count on their website) from dessert teas like Apple Cinnamon Coffeecake to herbal blends like Currant Explosion.
We spoke with four family members – Jim Sr. (dad), Joan (mom), Cyndi (daughter) and Jim Jr. (son) – plus Connor who is one of the geniuses behind the blends.
Mike Brooks of Nuclear Chowder Marketing joined us as well which makes for quite a cast of characters in this episode!
Did I mention it was a ton of fun?
Mike Makes Us Love Tea
You might wonder, why tea? Well, we’ve always enjoyed tea, and in fact we have an entire shelf full of various flavors of bagged tea. But Mike loves loose tea and for a long time he tried to convince us that it was the way to go.
And for a long time we weren’t convinced. Bagged tea was good. And easy. Loose tea was too complicated. And would take too long to make.
And this might have gone on indefinitely except Mike took matters into his own hands and bought us a couple flavors of Simpson & Vail loose tea.
It took about one cup before we were hooked.
Now if you visit our kitchen, you’ll find a huge pullout pantry shelf devoted to nothing but tins of loose tea.
Turns out it’s better than bagged – and it’s not all that complicated either. But we’ll get to that in a minute.
Meet Mr. Tea
Jim Harron Sr., aka Mr. Tea (by my reckoning), originally purchased the business from THE Simpson and THE Vail in 1978. But the company existed long before that. In fact, it’s one of the very oldest tea companies in the United States.
How old is it?
Its roots go back to 1929 and if you want the full history you can listen to the podcast or check out their evolution on their About page.
But even more than being the oldest company, it was (and is) the most highly respected. SO respected, in fact, that when we asked Jim why he didn’t rename the company to “The Harrons”, he said that he thought about it but then realized there was way too much clout in the brand to mess with it.
Here’s an interesting tidbit:
The head of Lipton Tea’s buying division was quoted in a New York Times article as recommending Simpson & Vail for a good cup of Darjeeling. After he retired, he travelled speaking on the topic of tea and consistently mentioned Simpson & Vail.
Need more proof of the strength of the brand?
When green tea hit the market hard and customers of Lipton, Tetley and Nestle asked for it, those companies (who didn’t carry green tea) recommended that their customers shop with…. guess who?
Ok, so the company has some serious cred.
So why do I call Jim Mr. Tea?
Because this guy is a walking encyclopedia of tea. If you want to be fascinated like crazy, you really need to listen to him talk, but I’ll highlight some of the things he shared.
- When he bought the company, it offered 18 teas and 9 coffees. Now they offer 65 coffees and hundreds of teas.
- A great majority of those teas are custom blends that the family developed over the years.
- What makes this all quite impressive is that all tea derives from a single plant. That’s right, one.
- The Assam province in India provides nearly 65% of all tea in the world. Its tea gardens take up space approximately the size of the area between New York And Chicago.
- If there is only one plant, how do we get white, green, black and others? Turns out it’s all in the processing. The more moisture you take out of the leaves, the blacker it gets.
- In fact, there is a broader spectrum than you may think – from white to green, oolong, yellow, red and black.
- The rest – like herbals – are not really tea at all. Rather, they’re called tisanes.
- Jasmine tea (one of my favorites!) isn’t flavored with Jasmine flowers. Dried Jasmine flowers actually have no flavor. The tea gets its flavor because it’s grown next to a Jasmine plant and that infuses flavor into it. The same is true for Lychee and Rose Congou.
Cyndi update! According to Cyndi, it would be more accurate to say that some Jasmine tea get its flavor because the tea plant is grown next to a Jasmine plant. But strong Jasmine teas and other scented teas like Rose Congou and Lychee Congou are made using fresh flowers (not dried, which don’t have flavor) that are mixed with the tea. (See Jasmine information – a really fascinating process.)
- Flavorings are added to tea as well. They’re artificial flavorings and in the case of Simpson & Vail they are all chemical-free.
Cyndi update! Simpson & Vail actually uses both natural and natural/artificial flavorings. And while they are processed using chemicals, they are all FDA-approved and food-safe.
- Sometimes dried fruits are added to impart flavor – like apple, pear, papaya, strawberry and more – and sometimes they add other ingredients like coconut, lemon and orange peel and cocoa nibs.
Cyndi update! Not all dried fruits add flavor. Some just look great in the blend. Coconut, lemon peel, orange peel and vanilla beans add flavor, as well as flowers including Chamomile, Lavender, Hibiscus and Rose petals. Many herbs/spices add flavor to blends such as Lemongrass, Lemon myrtle, Anise seed, Cinnamon, Cardamom, Carob beans and many more.
- Some things that are added to tea are purely for aesthetics and don’t affect flavor. Dried flowers, for example, don’t add flavor but they look pretty cool!
Are you starting to understand how much Jim knows about tea? You’d think he was born into it. But he wasn’t. And he didn’t always have this love affair with tea…
In The Beginning
Jim’s entrepreneurial journey is just as fascinating as his knowledge of tea. Turns out he had no particular interest in tea at first. He was in the textile business for some time and travelling a lot. After a while he decided he’d had enough of travelling and wanted to spend more time with his family. He was working hard, and long hours, and decided, hey, you know what? If I’m going to work this hard I may as well work for myself!
It was around that time that a friend and neighbor told him about this business for sale. It was mainly a mail order business at the time and Jim figured he knew all about mail order so he partnered with his friend Dave to buy the business.
By his own admission, he realized shortly after that he didn’t know as much about mail order as he thought. And he certainly knew nothing about tea.
But Dave did, and Dave had connections. So Dave took Jim to tea tastings, introduced him to everyone in the business and taught him everything he knew. After a few months Jim bought out Dave’s shares and subsequently his wife joined him in the business and later Jim Jr. and Cyndi.
What I find most fascinating about Jim’s story is that it’s quite the opposite of much of what we hear today about being an entrepreneur. How often do you hear someone say, “Follow your passion!”
“Find something you love to do and make money doing it!”
People are very big on passion and this idea of creating the perfect life.
But Jim went into business for far more practical reasons – and passion came later. He learned to love tea, to love its history, to love its possibilities. And he absorbed everything he could about it, making himself a true expert. He is a master mixologist of tea and dedicates himself to providing the highest in quality tea experiences.
The result? Even if you have never heard of Simpson & Vail before now, if you drink tea there’s a good chance it’s been theirs. They are one of the largest tea importers in the country and they provide tea to coffee and tea houses, cafés, retailers and even other brands.
A Cool Side Note
In the early days of Simpson & Vail, JP Morgan asked Vail to create a special tea blend for the family. To this day, they carry the Morgan Blend and still provide tea to JP Morgan Chase bank for their Christmas tins.
Actually, Simpson & Vail carries every single one of the original tea blends from the company’s earliest days. That says something about quality right there.
What Makes A Good Cup Of Tea?
It starts with the leaves, of course. And even though all leaves come from the same plant, there are quite a few variables that come into play. First-picked leaves are sought after because of course everyone wants to be first! But that doesn’t mean they’re the best. Much like grapes used to make wine, tea leaves gets better with age.
Leaf quality is also affected by the growing season, temperature and rainfall. Jim doesn’t buy leaves picked during monsoon season because they are least appealing. He samples every single tea that he imports and keeps a sample to compare it to the actual product he receives to be sure it’s of the same quality.
Ok, so you have great tea leaves. But it turns out you can still brew a nasty cup of tea.
If you add water at the wrong temperature, it can ruin a good cup of tea. For example, green teas need to be brewed at cooler temperatures than black teas or you’ll get a bitter result.
And tea is only half of the equation. The other ingredient in a cup of tea is water. And if yours is full of minerals it will affect the tea flavor. For best results use filtered or bottled water that has fewer minerals.
Jim tells us that he often receives calls from customers who retire from the northeast to Florida, who complain that his teas are no longer very good. But it’s not his teas. It’s actually the significant change in water from one location to the next. When those customers use bottled water to brew they’re in love all over again.
If this is starting to sound too complicated, trust me, I thought the same thing – until I started brewing tea. There are instructions on every package and the rules are fairly simple. Greens and whites at lower temperatures, blacks and herbal at boiling.
Brew a shorter time for small, fine leaves and longer for large or long leaves.
Once you taste the difference you may never buy bagged tea again. If you’re like us, you’ll even start bringing your own stash to diners and restaurants and asking for a cup of hot water.
“Do No Harm.”
Jim has an incredible business ethic. Not only does he want to bring the best in tea to his customers but he has also adopted the motto “Do no harm.”
What does that mean?
It means he chooses leaves that are processed without chemicals. His flavorings are all chemical-free. He avoids pesticides and imports all his tea through Germany because it’s the only country in the world that inspects 100% of the food products that go through the country. So he knows he’s getting the best in quality control.
It also means that all of their teas are gluten free so he can ensure that customers who need those types of products will be safe.
Finally, it means that he doesn’t jump on the bandwagon when it comes to trends. Just because something is popular, he says, doesn’t make it a good idea. (Now where have we heard that before? Hm…)
Some herbs and flavorings may be the newest, hottest things on the market but if he isn’t sure of what impact they will have on his customers’ health, he won’t use them.
If I could sum up everything we learned from Jim in one sentence it would be this: know your market, test your product and make it the absolute best it can be.
How About Competition?
After our history and business lesson, we switch from speaking with Jim to speaking with Cyndi, who works closely with Mike on their marketing.
And we want to know: is it harder to sell tea now than it used to be? Back in the day when Simpson & Vail was the “It” company, there was very little competition. But now tea is everywhere.
Cyndi says that it might seem counterintuitive but in some ways marketing has gotten easier. Even though the competition was sparse in the beginning, so was interest. Now there is quite a lot of interest in tea and it’s growing all the time. One of their most recent new audiences is college students who have been coming in droves to stock up before the new semester.
The interesting thing about this is that their store doesn’t have that coffee-shop-college-student vibe you might think “the kids” would like.
It’s a little bit like walking into your kitchen at home (but probably decorated a little better, with some pretty fun tea ware.) It’s warm, cozy, homey, welcoming. There is tea brewed on the counter and cookie samples, too.
The more I think about it, the more I understand the allure for college students! Who doesn’t want that taste of home?
The Literary Line
We talked with both Cyndi and Connor about their newest teas, the Literary line. They have a series of teas named after famous authors, from William Shakespeare to Charles Dickens and we got to taste them all right on the show. If you listen, that’s probably the part where there was a lot of slurping and us forgetting what we were saying as we enjoyed the amazing flavors.
Jim Jr. joined us, too, to explain how an actual tasting works, which is a whole lot like wine tasting where you’re supposed to sip and spit. We decided to break the rules and drink the cups dry instead, because why waste those delicious teas?!
As for the Literary line, Cyndi recognized the natural affinity between books and tea (one of MY favorite places to be is curled up with a blanket and a book beside a hot cup of tea).
So she picked out a few authors and with the help of Connor they researched the herbs, fruits and flowers that each author either wrote about or had some affiliation with.
For example, their Bronte Sisters tea contains fruits grown in the orchard where the three sisters grew up and Jane Austen’s tea is flavored with lilac because that was the one flower she wrote that she couldn’t live without.
Cyndi update! The Jane Austen tea was originally to be scented with lilac but the flavor proved to be too difficult to master. Instead, it’s a combination of black teas, spearmint, lavender flowers and vanilla flavor. Also, I spelled Austen wrong. Some bibliophile I turned out to be. (Corrected that one in the original though!)
From their research they blended and tasted flavors until they hit on the perfect combination.
In fact, that’s how they create all their blends – try, taste and keep on going until they’re happy with the result.
That’s why I keep referring to them as mixologists. They’re the artisans and chefs of the tea world and from the flavors I’ve tried so far – apple cinnamon, carrot cake, English toffee to name a few – they’re spot on.
Cyndi says that people often ask her if she ever gets bored with tea, tea, tea. But as you may be able to guess by now, tea in the hands of Simpson & Vail is never “just tea.” The endless possibilities for flavors and blends keeps her job exciting.
And The Marketing?
Since Mike handles their online marketing, we have him jump in to talk about how Simpson & Vail gets the word out about their teas.
In the end, it’s not all that different than what we all want to do – tell a great story, create great content and get active on social media to tap into a growing fan base.
Their biggest challenge is educating people because you can’t explain the tastes and smells and textures of teas in a catalog or social post or blog, no matter how hard you try. It’s just something you have to experience. So the trick is to hook people in, which they do with their photography and delicious-sounding recipes, so people will be eager to try the product and go on to become evangelists.
The real trick, Mike says, is not a trick at all but the most important fundamental of good marketing and that’s to be good people. Marketing starts from within the company, not from a blog post or a Facebook photo. You need a strong business with good people and a great story – and Simpson & Vail has both.
The Proof Is In The Cupcake
Sometimes in the world of online marketing we can lose sight of one of the most basic things of all, and that’s to have a great product that your customers love. No “unique selling proposition” or “social marketing strategy” in the world can compensate for a poor product.
For Simpson & Vail quality – and their customers – come first.
So much so that they hand craft every tea. And they create flavors that people love. Their dessert line was born out of their customers’ desire to treat themselves without all the calories and sugar of dessert. From Red Velvet Cupcake to Strawberry Cupcake and more, healthy eating (and drinking) was one trend they jumped on.
But they take it one step further, too, by hand crafting teas one customer at a time. You can call Cyndi and tell her your favorite flavors and she’ll have her master tea chefs make up a blend just for you. And if you like it, it will go into their catalog so you can order it any time you want.
Cyndi update! Technically these custom teas don’t go into the catalog. They go into the “Special Blend Recipe Book.” But you can still call to order any time you want.
For a minute we lose all sense as we imagine the Web.Search.Social blend and the Ralph & Carol Lynn blend and our 20th Anniversary blend… yes, you get to name the flavor, too!
If you take nothing else away from this podcast and these notes, I want you to remember the care and dedication this company puts into their products. And the next time you visit a website that says something like, “We provide the best customer service…” or “Our products are the highest quality…” I want you to scoff and remember that it’s not what you say or how many words you use to say it. The proof is in the cupcake.
Links & Resources
- Visit Simpson & Vail online and choose some teas that sound delicious to you. Want our faves?
- English Toffee (Candy in a cup! Just add a touch of honey.)
- Charles Dickens (A tad fruity, a tad sweet, hard to describe without trying it.)
- Bronte Sisters (Like the Dickens, perhaps a tad more fruity and sweet but still pretty hard to describe!)
- Assam Harmutty Estate (Rich, malty and dark.)
- Sugar Plum Fairy (Lightly, naturally sweet with a hint of plum)
- Earl Grey Extra (A classic favorite!)
- Get recipes and more tea goodness on the Loose Tea Blog
- Email Cyndi and ask her about creating a special tea for you, a gift, your wedding, birthday and more!
- Check out the Culinary Tea Cookbook (one of Jim’s recommendations and a book that chefs purchase from them)
- Read The Story of Tea: A Cultural History and Drinking Guide if you’re a history buff (according to Jim Sr., the tea bible.)
Where To Listen
Subscribe below to be notified whenever we publish new content and to stay in the loop on some new podcasts and other fun stuff that’s coming up.