San Francisco, California
Ready-to-drink milk tea
While 2020 is likely to go down in history as one of the modern world's most difficult years, the lockdowns and social distancing mandates weren't all bad for Ang. In fact, they came at the perfect time to help her realize a near lifelong dream: launching her own better-for-you beverage brand.
After working for design agencies for 15 years on big brands including Budweiser, Pepsi, and Starbucks, Ang determined in early 2020 that the time had come to give creating a beverage she'd actually want to drink a shot. A fan of milk tea, bubble tea, and boba since high school, she decided to buy a few ingredients and test out healthier recipe options in her home kitchen to see if she could formulate one with lower sugar and fewer carbs that would still taste delicious.
"It was quite a long process," Ang recalls. "I purchased lots of tea and found over 20 different kinds of plant-based milk. I was quickly overwhelming our kitchen with all of my tests and samples, so I went to Best Buy and bought a second fridge. Then, literally the next day, they announced the shelter in place."
Once Ang had settled on pea milk as the best plant-based option for her purposes, she had to find a copacker to manufacture her product. Her options were few thanks to high minimum order quantities and the specific manufacturing technology needed to produce self-stable nitro-infused milk tea. She finally located one in the Midwest and placed an initial order. However, when the factory samples were delivered over the summer, her dream was crushed.
"I thought I could get any organic black tea wholesale and use that," Ang explains. "But when I got my samples, they just tasted like milk. I didn't realize that making a product shelf stable requires a process called retort. That process literally cooks out the flavor. If you use a low-quality ingredient, you have to add flavoring back in. I was really adamant about not using any flavoring. I was recommended some, and told it was totally standard in the food industry, but it just didn't taste like real tea."
Ang went back to her kitchen to research other tea options. She ended up finding a small, multi-generational family farm in China that grows premium organic tea. "They do everything in season in a biodiverse environment," she adds. "They don't use pesticides. This all makes the tea stronger because it has to protect itself from the natural elements. And because of that, it actually makes the tea more flavorful and higher in antioxidants."
Ang's copacker ran the new formulation through the manufacturing process and "it made a world of difference," she says. "I didn't need to add flavoring because the flavor was still there because the tea quality was so much better."
Twrl Milk Tea's first full production run was about three and a half pallets of each of the company's three SKUs: Original Black, Supreme Jasmine, and Hojicha Roasted Green. Ang says she's currently producing about five pallets per SKU per quarter.
"We really hope to ramp up that production," she continues. "Our ultimate goal is to be nationwide, and we really want to be in Costco. I think Costco will only allow themselves to be 20 percent of the business, and they buy by the truckload. That's one of our goals for next year."
At present, milk tea fans can order Twrl's ready-to-drink beverages online with shipping nationwide and to Canada. Ang's products are also available in about 30 retailers around the Bay Area. "We hope to double that by the end of the year and hopefully grow three to four times more next year," she says. The company has been focusing on pop up partnerships -- with local retailers including West Elm and Anthropologie -- to increase brand awareness.
Ang says the market response to Twrl Milk Tea has been very positive. Compared to milk tea, bubble tea, or boba purchased at a café, Twrl has much less sugar (a mere 7 grams and 50 calories or less). Each can has half the caffeine of a cup of coffee and is loaded with natural antioxidants. Nitro infused, it has a foam-like texture and smooth mouthfeel. "We're also completely allergen free, gluten free, low carb, and non-GMO," she notes. "We try to check all of the boxes."
Challenges: "We need to hire more people," Ang says. "Pretty much up until now, I've been doing everything from the design to the operation to the sales." She recently brought on a co-founder to help carry the load, found an intern, and hired an independent graphic designer. "But we really need a fulltime sales staff and operational person," she adds.
Opportunities: Ang's excited about a partnership with 10 female artists for a postcard collaboration they've titled Twrl Me Up. "Each artist will have a positive affirmation on their postcard, and we're going to gift these when someone orders our sampler packs," she says. "We have some influencers lined up and some other partnerships as well."
Twrl Milk Tea will also be launching a fourth flavor in the coming months. "I don't want to give it away, but I think it's going to drive a lot of people who are hesitant to try Twrl because it's just really hot right now," Ang adds.
Needs: "More staff," Ang says. "Finding the right funding partners. And getting more distribution. We're working on that."