What started as an art project in 2012 has evolved into St. Louis’ hottest tea business. I sat down with Big Heart Tea Co.’s (formerly Retrailer Tea) founder, Lisa Govro to talk all things tea.
Tell me how you got started in the tea biz.
I moved to St. Louis in 2012 and started the company almost immediately. I wasn’t planning on staying in St. Louis—I was going to build my trailer and establish my business model, then travel around a bit. It was a 1969 Wigwam Camper. Kitchen Kulture owns it now, actually! So it’s staying in the St. Louis food community.
My best friend lived in New Orleans at the time, so the idea was that I would just travel up and down the Mississippi. Very romantic.
Like a fur trader in the 1800s.
Yeah, but with turmeric tea.
Before I moved to St. Louis, I left Seattle and moved to Sedona, Arizona, and lived on an ashram there. I studied yoga and ayurveda, and that’s where I learned about herbs. Between there and St. Louis, I did a 10 day vipassana sit. It’s a silent meditation. You can’t talk, you can’t make eye contact. No non-verbal communication, either. On the last day, they open it up where you can speak to people and assimilate back into reality, and it turned out I had been sitting next to a turmeric farmer the whole time. She has a turmeric farm in Hana, Hawaii.
I had just fallen in love with turmeric when I was on the ashram in Sedona—it was so serendipitous to be sitting next to a turmeric farmer this whole time I was meditating. She sent me my first package of fresh turmeric, and I started experimenting with it in my sister’s kitchen.
And that’s where the Cup of Sunshine was born?
Yeah. It’s changed a lot. We had some pretty gnarly experiments in those days. But it’s always been turmeric and ginger. We didn’t even sell the blend the first year—you could only get it when we were at the market, because we were using fresh, raw turmeric and ginger. Then I finally came up with a blend I was happy with using the dried ginger and turmeric. It was really hard for me to find a whole dried rhizome of turmeric, while you can find powdered turmeric everywhere.
Now turmeric is so popular that my importer is always selling out of it! Lately there has been some supply chain issues we never had to deal with before. It’s a good thing and a bad thing, but I’m really happy it’s become so popular.
So you had your turmeric tea and a retrofitted camper.
We used to take it to the Tower Grove market every weekend those first two years. We’d have lines coming out of trailer. It was amazing! But people never really got the concept—it was supposed to be a mobile tea parlor. We had fitted it with seating, a serving area. I’d pour you tea, then talk at you for as long as you’d listen to me! People interacted with it more like a food truck, instead of shopping for bags of tea.
It was a great way to test the concept and get our name out there, but we actually did a lot better with a tent than we ever did with the trailer.
Where does your turmeric come from?
It’s organic turmeric from India. Our importer is great; they check on the agricultural practices, the labor practices, and it’s all processed from fresh in Eugene, Oregon.
Last year we tried processing our own tulsi, which is the main ingredient in a lot of our tea blends. And it grows amazingly in Missouri. A local farmer grew it and harvested it for us, so I spent two days, around the clock, cutting and processing 200 pounds of this tulsi. I hung it for drying, separated the buds out for special teas. I thought it was all dry and packaged it to store, and two days later they were molding. It wasn’t all the way dry.
How long was it before you ended up in restaurants?
We launched in July and by December we had our first wholesale account. We’d been approached before that, but we weren’t thinking about ourselves like a business. It wasn’t our intention for Retrailer to be a job. It was more of an art project.
How many teas were you selling at the time?
Our original line was about 6 teas, and we just launched Big Heart Tea Co. with 7 teas. More than half are from that original line up. Cup of Sunshine, Cup of Love, and Calm Your Tummy were 3 of my very first tea dreams.
We have over 20 proprietary blends. Our Edith Gray is an Earl Grey blend. It’s been upgraded to a single-origin Malawi. We’re also doing a single-origin iced tea now, available at The Mud House, Vicia and Sardella. A single-origin iced tea is pretty much unheard of, mostly because of cost and people not respecting iced tea the way they respect hot tea.
In my opinion, the U.S. doesn’t give a lot of respect to tea, iced or hot. People don’t think about how much to use, what temp the water should be at, why prices vary, etc. People are happy to buy the cheapest tea on the shelves. It’s like everyone is into Folgers coffee, and you’re arriving on the scene with Sump quality coffee. I think you’re at the forefront of changing tea’s perception here.
We’ll go and do a training and bring our kettle that shows temperatures. Restaurants temps are almost always wrong. And if the temp is too low, you’re going to get really weak tea. We’ve been working really hard to teach about temping, timing, and measuring our tea.
It’s just immersing tea in water. It’s very simple. But the details matter.
The tea world is so vast and intricate. You have to respect tea culture and learn about it properly. It took me years to gain the confidence to talk about tea.
Tea is so time sensitive. Oolong, for example, has to be picked and processed within 36 hours. So there’s no way there can be an artisan tea company in the US doing that.
You have to be in the region—we buy from very small family farms, people that have been producing tea for themselves and their villages for decades and decades. It’s another thing that makes tea so interesting: it’s not just a roaster, it’s the family who grew the tea, they’re the ones processing all by hand. It’s generation after generation of families producing one variety of tea. There’s so much history in it.
I’ve read articles discussing how tea is going to be the drink of today’s youth instead of coffee. Do you see evidence of that?
I notice that we serve a lot of younger people. Like high school and middle aged students, people in their early 20s. People who want to interact with a craft beverage but don’t like strong flavors you find in beer or wine—or they’re not old enough—and coffee is too intense of a flavor for them. Taste trends for younger people are going away from sweetness, too. When I first started, I thought no one else would even like turmeric tea.