A Natural Partnership
By SARAH THEODORE
Honest Tea bottler specializes in organic and
When Honest Tea sold its first cases of product to
natural foods retailer Fresh Fields in 1998, the tea was made in President
Seth Goldman’s kitchen. That location clearly wasn’t going to
cut it for Fresh Fields’ premier order of 15,000 bottles, and the
company was off in search of a production facility.
Honest Tea purchased a one-third stake in a bottling
plant in New Kensington, Pa., north of Pittsburgh, and operated the plant
for several years. But eventually the company decided it preferred the
product development business to plant operations and sold the plant to
Castle Co-Packers. Today, Honest Tea products are produced by Castle
Co-Packers, and by a co-packer on the West Coast, as well.
“We’re making better product now ... And
we have a better relationship with the plant, even than we had when we were
owners,” Goldman says, explaining that the pressures regarding
production are different these days since relinquishing the need for
operations expertise to Castle.
The Castle Co-Packers plant is certified for
production of organic beverages, and produces both organic and conventional
non-carbonated products. Approximately half of the products bottled at the
plant are organic, according to President Brian Dworkin. Maintaining
certification requires a significant amount of paperwork, as well as
stringent warehousing standards — all organic ingredients enter the
plant with certification documents, and are stored separately from
conventionally produced ingredients.
The additional effort has resulted in rapid growth for
the plant. The facility houses four bottling lines — three of which
were added during the past year to meet its new demand. The facility
currently produces product for 79 customers and bottles several hundred
When Honest Tea began
brewing at the plant, it shipped in spring water to be used in its
products. Today, the plant treats all of the water it uses instead. Water
first passes through a carbon tower and then a UV light system, which
ensures any potential bacteria are killed. It then passes through a
membrane filter and a reverse-osmosis system. From the reverse-osmosis
system the water is pumped to one of two 30,000-gallon holding tanks.
The purification process ensures that the water used
at the plant meets the same standards as most bottled water on the market.
In general, the facility keeps between 40,000 and 60,000 gallons of water
on hand to guarantee it is able to continue production, even during times
when maintenance is necessary.
Beverage Industry visited
the New Kensington plant on a day it was producing Honest Tea Heavenly
Honey Green Tea, one of Honest Tea’s best-selling varieties. The
brewing process begins with organically certified full-leaf tea — in
the case of Heavenly Honey Green Tea, a blend of organic Green Chunmee and
“This is a very high
grade of tea,” Goldman says, scooping tea from the bag to show the
leaves. “This is a full-leaf tea. It’s called Gunpowder because
these small leaves really explode into much larger leaves [when they are
According to Goldman, product development occurs at the company’s Bethesda, Md., offices. The group develops
potential products in a small galley kitchen, then shares the samples with
its distributor and retail customers for feedback. “It’s
probably less scientific than a lot of our competitors,” he says.
“I guarantee you it’s less expensive.”
Goldman and the product development team are on-hand
whenever the first batch of a product is brewed and bottled at one of its
production facilities. “Making it a gallon at a time is quite
different than when you make 3,000 or 5,000 gallons at a time,” he
The brewing process looks familiar to anyone who has
brewed tea at home, but on a much larger scale. Water is heated in a brew
tank to the appropriate temperature — to the boiling point for black
teas, and just under that, or about 180 degrees, for green tea. The tea is
added to the hot water, and the mixture is slowly stirred or agitated to
allow the leaves to fully unfurl so the full flavor of the tea can emerge.
The tea brews for four to five minutes, depending on
the tea variety. The mixture is poured through a filter to separate the
spent tea leaves from the newly brewed tea. Finding the ideal filtration
system has been one of the ongoing challenges since Honest Tea began
brewing at the plant. It went though several previous systems before
implementing the process it has today.
After brewing, the tea is pumped to a batching tank.
On the way, it passes through a second filter that removes any leaves that
might remain from the first filtration. The plant uses two 3,000-gallon
batching tanks for the brewing process. There, the tea is blended with any
additional ingredients such as organic sugar, honey or fruit juices that
are used for flavoring. Each tank holds about three batches of tea, or
about 1,700 cases of product. The plant brews 14 to 16 batches of tea per
From the batching tanks, the tea is pumped to holding
tanks that feed the filler. Before the product is pumped to the filler, it
is filtered once again to ensure there are no fine tea particles that could
eventually settle to the bottom of the bottle on the shelf.
All bottled up
While Honest Tea started in glass, its products are
nearly equally divided today between glass and PET.
“Our glass product, as wonderful as it does in
the natural foods channel, was running into some barriers when we tried to
bring it beyond natural foods,” Goldman says. “The PET bottle
opened up whole new doors — of stores, of distributor warehouses
— and provided us that access to a lot more mainstream
Goldman says the search for a PET bottle included
finding one that was phthalate-free and 100 percent recyclable. “That
was a big concern because there are some plastic bottles out there that
don’t meet those criteria,” he says. “We really worked
hard to get the right PET bottle.”
The company chose a panel-less hot-fill PET-1 package,
and began rolling out the bottles in 2004.
Castle Co-Packers is able to work with both the glass
and PET packages. It features three hot-fill lines, and one line for
cold-fill products. Each of the four filling lines at the plant is
self-contained, with its own filler, labeler and packaging equipment.
“Every one of our lines is totally
independent,” Dworkin says, pointing out that the arrangement allows
the plant to better schedule its 79 customers.
In addition, all of the lines run in a straight row,
which is essential to accommodate growth in the business. “It’s
easy for maintenance and it’s organized,” Dworkin says.
The facility has one line dedicated to 8-ounce
“kid-sized” packages. Another line can run any package size
from 15.2 ounces to 32 ounces. The company is considering adding 64-ounce
capability to that line as well.
A third line is able to bottle both glass and PET, and
fills any size from 8 ounces to 32 ounces. The facility’s cold-fill
line bottles non-carbonated product in sizes from 8 ounces to 1.5 liters.
Honest Tea’s products are filled on the
glass/PET combination line. Empty bottles are depalletized as they enter
the plant. They are rinsed before entering the filling line and are filled
at a rate of about 400 bottles per minute.
One of several quality checks is performed immediately
after the filling station. A bottle is removed
from the line to make certain the temperature of the product is between 183
and 185 degrees.
“We’ve put in a lot of safety
measures,” Dworkin says. “Testing stations on the line,
detection equipment, fill height … you name it, we’ve got
The bottles are then capped at one of two capping
stations. One station serves glass bottles and the other caps PET. In both
cases, caps are blown through a vacuum tube from the hopper to the capper.
After the bottles are capped, they are conveyed
through a cooling tunnel that brings the temperature of the product down to
between 80 and 105 degrees. Cooling the bottles before labeling helps the
adhesive on the labels remain tacky to allow the labels adhere better.
Following the speed of the filler, the labeler also runs at about 400
bottles per minute.
Product is packed in cases of 12 bottles. In addition
to single-serve retail, some of the products are packed in special variety
pack cases for club store accounts. Products are then palletized and stored
in the warehouse. Castle’s warehouse holds several million cases of
inventory, Dworkin says.
In addition to the New Kensington warehouse, Honest
Tea products are stored at its West Coast facility and at a separate
distribution center to help it keep up with demand.
Meeting demand is something both Honest Tea and Castle
Co-Packers are happy to accommodate. The market for organic and alternative
products continues to grow, and Castle recently moved to a 24-hours-a day,
seven-days-a-week production schedule to keep up with its customers. While
the company has the capacity to meet its current customers’ needs,
Dworkin says it is always considering new equipment, and possibly even an
additional production line in the future.
“We try to make sure
we’re always one step ahead,” he says.