Rooibee Red Tea
Louisville-made beverage builds fans for South African red bush tea
Louisvillian Emily Gayhart is an accomplished gourmet cook, bread maker and master gardener. When she is ready for a cool refreshment, she brews Earl Grey tea and pours it over ice.
Gayhart usually avoids bottled teas, which she finds heavy and overly sweet. But recently, she sampled a Louisville-made bottled tea called Rooibee Watermelon Mint that surprised her with its crisp, clean flavor. “I really liked it. It was light, not syrupy—really refreshing.”
She liked the drink so much, she recommended the brand to a friend, Carol Powell, whose typical beverage of choice is peach-flavored iced tea. Powell tried the Rooibee Peach and the Rooibee Cranberry Pomegranate , which she described as “delicious.” They “tasted real, more authentic and natural” than other bottled teas, she said.
It’s not just Louisvillians who are discovering Rooibee Red Tea, an organic, naturally sweet and caffeine-free tea developed by Jeff Stum of Louisville. Consumers in at least 20 states are tasting the product and wanting more. In a multibilliondollar industry dominated by Snapple, Arizona Tea and Lipton, this unique Louisville bottled tea is finding a niche.
Creating a drink was a natural progression for Stum, who as a teenager in Madisonville, Kentucky, worked at a Dr. Pepper bottling plant. That experience was followed by a job with a liquor distributor during and after his college years at Western Kentucky University and then more than a decade in marketing and other roles with Brown- Forman Corp.
Now, married and the father of two young sons, Stum is the owner of his own bottledbeverage business.
With help from his wife, Leslie, Stum launched Rooibee Red Tea in early 2009 with an initial investment of about $150,000. He’s the driving force, serving as product developer, sales manager, marketing chief and distributor with help from a retired friend who makes deliveries. His wife assists with administrative duties and his sons help out with tea tastings at area farmers’ markets.
In a short time, he has placed his Rooibee Tea in dozens of stores in Kentucky, including Whole Foods, and in surrounding states as far south as Florida and as far west as Texas. Now, he’s preparing to take his business to another level. He recently hired Heather Howell, a former Humana executive, to run the administrative side of his business so he can concentrate on the marketing segment.
“I’m going from selling out of the back of my truck to something more formal,” he said. The friendly, optimistic and hard-working Stum is evangelistic about his product, which is sold in clear, long-necked bottles at a price comparable to other bottled teas, such as Honest Tea. The price ranges from about $1.30 to $1.70, depending on the retailer.
“I want to be recognized as the organic tea of choice,” he said, noting that the beverage is not just for adults. It’s a child-friendly beverage with vitamin C and no preservatives, he said. “It’s a great treat for kids’ birthday parties.”
In 2009, Stum sold 5,000 cases of Rooibee Tea, compared to competitors like Snapple and Honest Tea, each of which sells in the millions every year. His goal is to make the brand a bottled tea leader in Louisville and in other cities.
The tea, which he pronounces “ruby,” is a certified organic product bottled in Louisville. It is available in seven flavors: unsweetened, sweet, lemon honey, peach, cranberry pomegranate, vanilla chai and watermelon mint. The sweet versions have about 80 calories per 12-ounce bottle (Mountain Dew has 170) and are sweetened with organic cane sugar.
Those who follow the sleuthing adventures of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in Alexander McCall Smith’s novels set in Botswana already know the soothing attributes of African bush tea. But for most Americans, the red bush of South Africa called rooibos (and pronounced roy-bee) is a newcomer on the beverage scene. The plant, which is higher in antioxidants than green tea, is the key ingredient in Stum’s line of teas. It has little tannin bite because the bush is not actually a tea plant. After the plant is harvested, it is fermented and made into a flavor concentrate that Stum uses in the flavoring and bottling process.
The Rooibee flavor gives a richness to the tea that is different from other bottled teas, said Valu Market manager John Bizzell, who has been selling the tea at the Mid City Mall store for more than year. It is the second most popular bottled tea behind Gold Peak, a Coca-Cola product, he said.
Once customers try it, they tend to come back for it, partly because they want to support a locally made product, Bizzell said. While it is hard for Stum to compete against the large brands such as Gold Peak, Bizzell said his efforts are translating into sales gains.
Summer Auerbach at Rainbow Blossom agrees. So far this year, Rooibee Tea has outsold Honest Tea and its sales continue to grow, said Auerbach, chief operating officer of the business that owns five Rainbow Blossom stores in the metro area.
Rooibee is “holding its own against larger, more established bottled tea labels,” she said. “A major thing working in its favor is that it is a naturally decaffeinated tea and it has many flavors .... They have a pretty good niche because they are caffeine -ree, and sweetened with sugar instead of corn syrup but still have the functionality of ice tea and are high in antioxidants.”
Now that she’s discovered Rooibee Tea, Carol Powell said she’ll buy it again. Not only does she like the way it tastes, Powell said it’s important to her to buy locally made and Kentucky-produced products.
Up close: Jeff Stum
Hometown: Madisonville, Ky.
Education: Communications degree, Western Kentucky University.
Neighborhood: St. Matthews, Ky.
Family: Wife Leslie and sons, Zane and Wyatt.
Favorite drink: Unsweetened Rooibee Tea.
Notable quote: “Right now I have an iconic image, a really good tasting product and loyal customers. I’m at a stage for growth.”