A Natural Partnership
By SARAH THEODORE
Honest Tea bottler specializes in organic and alternative beverages
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 SKUs.
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 Gunpowder teas.
“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 brewed].”
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 says.
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 day.
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 channels.”
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 it.”
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.