Santa Barbara, California
Olive leaf tea
After Branum and her husband, who were living in Seattle, purchased 15 acres of land in Santa Barbara in 2010 --practically "sight unseen," she says -- they made a surprising discovery. "I think we bought an orchard," Branum's husband told her after surveying the land. In fact, they had. There were stands of olive trees on the steep hills of their property. "I don't even like olives!" Branum recalls replying.
That was then, and this is now. Branum pruned the trees in order to bring them back to health. Her husband learned how to press olive oil at UC Davis, which is noted for its agricultural school. And the couple now sells products derived from the orchard they've resurrected and named Bel Lavoro (which translates as "beautiful work"). The latest product is their Cut 1886 Californian Extra Virgin Olive Oil. But the first to arrive in terms of development was Steep Echo, Branum's line of teas made from the olive trees' leaves in addition to other botanicals.
After Branum learned about the health properties of olive leaves, she began using them to brew tea. She may not have liked the flavor of olives, but she exclaims, "I love olive leaf tea!" On their own, Branum says olive leaves have a "crisp" flavor akin to green tea but without the caffeine. What olive leaves do possess, though, are plentiful antioxidants. And there's even more of the beneficial chemical oleuropein concentrated in leaves of the tree than there is in its fruit -- the olives, themselves.
All of Steep Echo's tea blends "have a specific health benefit," says Branum. For instance, she calls the Repose blend --which contains organic olive leaves, chamomile, linden flower, passionflower, natural rose flavor, and rose petal -- her own "sleepy time tea." The blend Hush incorporates "calming ginger," as well as peppermint, papaya leaf, lemon myrtle, and natural maple flavor. But Branum's top-seller is Bloom, which packs the most "immune boosting properties" of all her teas and is "great for traveling." That one joins together olive leaves with peppermint, echinacea root, licorice root, thyme, rosemary, and natural cranberry flavor.
Branum's background is in legal affairs and organizational leadership, not tea blending. Before retiring in 2020, she was the CEO of Puget Sound Energy, a company with over a million customers across Washington state. So when it came time to develop professional blends, she sought the help of the late Brian Keating, described in his obituary in Tea Biz as the "visionary" who was, among his other accomplishments, the "first tea buyer and blend-master at Whole Foods Market." Branum says of Keating, "I was incredibly fortunate to learn from him."
Before they're blended with other ingredients, the olive leaves are first hand-cut from the trees. Next, they're taken to an on-site processing center, where the leaves are washed and then slowly dried in a warming oven so that they don't curl. Then, the olive leaves are milled -- most recently at a facility near Berkeley. Steep Echo mixes the olive leaves together with the other sourced ingredients (for instance, vanilla bean originating in Madagascar) and ships those blends off to its co-packer Motovotano in Anacortes, Washington. There, Motovotano puts the tea blends into sachets shaped like inverted pyramids. Each run is approximately 1,000 boxes and 60,000 packets.
Steep Echo teas can be purchased online through the company's website. "Once I gain a customer, I don't lose that customer," says Branum. "I have customers in New York City that I don't know how they found us," as well as others in Connecticut and Oklahoma. The teas can also be purchased in about a dozen or so different shops in the Santa Barbara area. Furthermore, Branum says, "We're focused in on increasing hospitality -- you know, spas and hotels and so forth, because we can do individual packets at this point."
In terms of who's buying the tea, 80 percent of her customers are women. Branum calls them "a higher-end customer" who's mindful about health and willing to pay $15 for a box. Furthermore, they appreciate the aesthetics of the product's packaging and how the tea sachets themselves visibly hold the ingredients. "Our packaging is amazing," says Branum. And then there's the ritual itself of preparing the tea and "taking a pause in their day." Branum observes how Steep Echo is the only olive leaf tea producer in the country "with this type of branding and this type of blending and sophistication," while adding how, "My main competitor comes out of Australia."
Branum says about the world of tea and Steep Echo's newfound place within it, "It is an incredible industry. It is growing. And we have an amazing product."
Challenges: Educating consumers about the benefits of olive leaves as well as their flavor. (They don't taste like olives!) "It's challenging being, really, the only olive leaf tea producer in the country," says Branum.
Opportunities: "The growth of the tea industry is tremendous," says Branum, "and I want to be a part of that growth opportunity."
Needs: Steep Echo needs to find a new miller to grind the tea leaves to the specifications its co-packer has requested. And they could always use more vendors. But Branum says "the need really is the marketing and the awareness" of olive leaf tea and its health benefits.