A Lifetime of Tea
Apollo Beach – Shawn Geitner grew up in the south drinking tea. “My mother really couldn’t handle coffee. It upset her stomach, so we drank tea.”
The experience stuck with Shawn and she became a lifelong tea lover and learner and eventually founded her Beleave Teas online business.
Tea and Wine Are A Lot Alike
Just like wine, tea’s flavor is a combination of many things and, interestingly, the vocabulary we use to describe wine works for tea as well – tannins, fruit undertones and finish. Tea aficionados will also discuss climate, soil and exposure, just like the wine lovers do.
And, like wine, there are those who like wine, those who love wine, and those who adore wine and go as far as making it a career, some become sommeliers. The same is true for tea and Apollo Beach resident Shawn Geitner not only loves tea, but she’s studied it for years, became an internationally certified tea sommelier and devoted her online Beleave Teas business.
A Nudge Leads to A Jump Leads to A Slight Delay
For much of her career Shawn was a school teacher, having taught in public schools and to children with special needs. It was a role she loved, but it was difficult, too. Along the way an idea to create her own business starting growing, but she wasn’t sure what it would be.
Shawn had always loved Tea Rooms, but she knew running a tea room would be similar to running a restaurant and she didn’t want the long hours. She and her husband were trying to have children so she knew it would not be a good fit. She began to think about an online business that would give her flexibility.
Her husband continued to nudge her to open her own business. “He kept telling me the skills I had as a teacher lent themselves well to business. He kept steering and encouraging me,” Shawn says.
Then it all happened. In 2007 Shawn left her teaching job, ready to strike out on her own and start something new. Although she was disappointed that she’d not yet had a child, starting something new became her focus and she launched her online tea business. Then, 6 months, later she became pregnant with her daughter, Remi.
Going All In
So, Shawn launched in 2007, but it wasn’t until 2013 that she was able to go all in with Beleave Teas.
“I really wanted a break,” Shawn says, “to spend time with Remi.” Then, once Remi started school in 2013 Shawn got revved up again in her business.
She immediately joined the South Shore Chamber of Commerce to establish a local presence and she began networking and learning about running online businesses in earnest.
Shawn and Beleave Teas became a fixture at local events such as the Manatee Arts Festival and the Ruskin Seafood Festival. She also began doing presentations at local libraries and women’s clubs. “It really helped to get my name out there,” Shawn says. “As a teacher it was fun to get out there and teach people about something I really love.”
Today, Shawn sells 50 varieties of loose leaf teas and herbals as well as tea accessories across the U.S. from her online store. If you visit the Beleave Teas site you’ll see she sells tea by variety (black, green, Oolong, etc.) and by various categories such as ‘iced teas’, ‘seasonal teas’, and ‘organic teas’ to name a few. She also sells tea kits and offers tea clubs.
Accessories include an automatic tea brewer, a flash-chilled iced tea maker, infusers, mugs and more.
Most of the products she carries come from people Shawn knows, so she feels confident in what she’s offering people. She’s met many producers at the World Tea Expo, which she’s attended twice in Las Vegas.
“One of my wholesalers lived in St. Pete, but now in British Colombia,” Shawn says. “He’s from India and I’ve learned a lot from him. He has wonderful blends. His family in India even had a family elephant that traveled through the fields to help them.
Keeping Up with Technology
Beleave Teas has always been an online-only business. In the beginning, Shawn had lots of help from her husband, an attorney. “Chuck helped me with the business side of things,” Shawn says. “He helped me with the logo, too. He’s had lots of input along the way.”
Shawn also got help with the technical aspects of running an online commerce business. A long-time friend helped her with web development. Over the past few years, however, Shawn has become more comfortable working on the backend of her website.
Currently, Shawn’s updating her Beleave Teas website. “Websites are so different today than even just a couple of years ago,” Shawn explains. “Most people now access Beleave Teas from their phone, so everything has to work on a phone and on a computer,” she says.
The new Beleave Teas website, in the works, will have an updated look, but will also help Shawn streamline many of the backend administrative tasks. It’s a win-win, although creating a new website and moving everything over is no simple task.
Expanding the Business
In the future, Shawn is considering adding online tea classes to her business. She already has several tutorials, Teatorials, on the website on everything from Brewing Loose Leaf Teas to Making the Best Iced Tea.
Teaching’s in her bones and adding online tea classes will enable her to expand on topics and reach an audience that’s interested in both learning about teas and drinking them. It was online classes that helped her gain much of her Tea Sommelier Certification, so she’s familiar and comfortable with the medium.
She’s also considering writing a book about teas.
The Tea World
According to Shawn, there are major international tea conferences she’s attended, such as World Tea Expo, and bigwig experts in the tea world. She’s taken courses from a few of them, including Jane Pettigrew and Victoria Bisogno, world renowned tea experts, who run the El Club de Te website, which includes courses.
“There are many online tea courses out there,” Shawn explains, “and, they’re a lot like live classes.” For many of Shawn’s online classes she would organize her teas next to her at her computer where she would then interact with other online participants and they learned about tea virtually, but together.
Tea Is Incredibly Complex
Shawn is learning all of the time. She admits she was glad that she had a great foundation in tea before she began her Tea Sommelier course. “Had I not known as much about tea as I had it would have been difficult, but I learned a lot.”
The complexity comes from the numerous types of tea and multitude of conditions that go into great tea, just like wine.
Shawn was kind enough to give me a mini-lesson in tea.
A Mini Lesson in Tea
Grocery store tea:
Great teas come from whole leaf tea. The closer you get to whole leaf tea, the better. Grocery store teas lack much of the flavor of whole-leaf teas because of modern production.
Thanks to Sir Walter Lipton machine pickers and machine cutters are the norm. The machine cut leaves are chopped and put into tea bag by machinery (often adding machine lubricant to the mix), with only a tiny cellophane layer to protect them. Then you add in transportation and logistics and, by the time it’s on the grocery store shelf, the botanical flavor’s all gone.
Where does great tea come from?
Fine quality, full-leaf teas come from all over the world. Asia and South America are big producers, but you’ll find tea grown all over the world, including Hawaii, where they have white teas grown in volcanic soil. South Carolina boasts one of the only tea plantations in the US, the Charleston Tea Plantation. You can tour and see the production process.
What about the tea plant?
All teas come from the same plant. (Wow – that one blew me away.) The difference occurs in which process is applied to the tea leaf. For example, black teas are oxidized. Oolongs are semi-oxidized and green teas are not oxidized at all.
If a ‘tea’ is not from the tea plant, it’s an herbal. For example, Rooibos is an herbal, not tea, although many call it tea.
Also, in most cases, you’re not drinking a pure tea, but a blend, which is an art unto itself. Shawn does not yet do her own tea blending, but she might experiment with it one day. “People don’t realize how much goes into this. It’s real artistry,” Shawn says.
There are also ‘aged (dark) teas’. Shawn’s been studying them. Aged teas are special because they go through a fermentation process and gain probiotic qualities in the process. They improve with age while most teas degrade over time. Like aged wine, aged teas can be expensive. “Many of the aged tea leaves are compressed into a disk,” Shawn says, “and sit there for 50 years.”
Full-leaf or tea bag. Which is best?
Full leaf teas have the most health benefits, many offering benefits such as increased metabolism, stress relief, and boosted immune system to name just a few.
And, once you taste full-leaf tea you’re hooked. “It’s so much better,” Shawn says.
While tea bags, of grocery story notoriety, may not have the flavors of full-leaf teas tea sachets are a different story. Shawn’s been researching them.
“Typically they’re pyramid shaped. You get ease of full leaf, but convenience of the sachet,” Shawn explains.
Shawn is clearly passionate about tea. She lights up when she’s talking about it. And, anyone whose passion drives them to launch a business means business.
Check it out for yourselves: Beleave Teas