Boulder, Colorado

Founded: 2017

Employees: 2

Industry: Food & Beverage

Products: Powdered teas

Founder and CEO Jim Lamancusa’s premium instant teas are winning awards, and winning over backpackers and supermarket shoppers.

Founder Jim Lamancusa had his “aha!” moment during a hike in Colorado’s Eagles Nest Wilderness, as he watched friends prepare their instant coffee. Lamancusa recalls thinking, “I want that! I want instant tea that actually tastes good on the trail.”

But the subtle flavors within tea leaves are destroyed by high-heat dehydration, a process which works just fine for coffee beans. So Lamancusa reworked existing technology in order to see his dream become a reality, developing 21 patents on the process. First, the tea leaves are cold-brewed under high pressure for eight hours. Then, a vacuum dehydrator removes the liquid, leaving a crystallized powder. Lamancusa compares what he’s doing to the botanical extraction of flowers and herbs.

“When the consumer then opens the tea stick and pours it in the water, it just instantly rehydrates,” says Lamancusa. “And it tastes exactly like a freshly brewed cup of tea, because we haven’t done any high heat or extreme-cold dehydration to it.” Pouring warm water over Cusa’s powdery crystals results in a cup of tea within three seconds. It works quickly within cold water, too.

Lamancusa calls his products “premium instant tea.” Cusa’s teas utilize all-natural ingredients, including real lemon peel in one variation on its English Breakfast Tea and real dried mango within a flavored Green Tea. There’s no sugar, artificial flavor or artificial color added.

Cusa Teas aren’t just handy, they’re award-winning. At the 2018 Global Tea Championship, the brand took home silver medals for its Organic English Breakfast and Mango Green Tea in the “Instant” category. But since all the teas at the competition are given a graded score, Lamancusa says, “I’m beating out loose-leaf and bag teas in terms of flavor and profile — which is shocking to me.”

(Cusa Tea was also a finalist within the “Outstanding Small Food Brand” category at the 2018 Colorado Manufacturing Awards, an event produced by CompanyWeek.)

For a company that launched in May 2017, Boulder’s Cusa Tea has undergone rapid expansion. The tea varieties (which include Green Tea, English Breakfast, Chai, and Oolong) can be presently found in 750 locations, including King Soopers. “By the middle of summer we should be in about a 1,000 retail locations,” says Lamancusa.

Not only is the tea sold throughout the U.S. at REI stores, Cusa’s teas are penetrating markets abroad: they’re sold via Amazon’s UK site; Canada’s comparable version of REI, called Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC), will begin distributing them in June; and a distributor in Japan, a nation with a large backpacking and camping population, just placed its first order, as well.

The USDA-certified organic teas are grown, processed, and packaged in Southeast China. “It’s been helpful to be next to the tea farm, because we can constantly do R&D work over there,” says Lamancusa. As an example of that R&D work, Cusa is introducing a new chai flavor, with seven ingredients, that required repeated attempts to get just right. Lamancusa says, “I did 53 different production runs until I found the flavor profile that I like, and [which] seems to be testing well with all the buyers and consumers.”

The top comment Lamancusa receives from retailers and consumers about his instant teas is, “Why has no one done this before?” Lamancusa says about his promotional sojourns out to stores on weekends, “When I demo, 70 to 80 percent of the people that try it will pick up a box and buy it. That’s a huge conversion.”

And those new customers at his demos also get to personally meet Jim “Cusa” Lamancusa. Lamancusa says, “Justin [Gold] from Justin’s nut butter is a friend of mine. Consumers like to know who they’re buying from. They want to have a face with a product.”

Soon people in Atlanta will have a chance to put Cusa’s face together with his name. Lamancusa says he’s been invited by Coca-Cola to participate at a meeting in July, which will bring together “innovative companies in the food and beverage space.”

Consider this, says Lamancusa: dehydrated products are relatively inexpensive to ship, compared with full cans or bottles. “I piqued [Coca-Cola’s] attention,” he says. “It’s nice to be noticed and to be, I guess, acknowledged that we’re doing something real interesting.”

Lamancusa, who’s worked at startups within the natural foods and outdoors industries throughout his career, observing their strengths and weaknesses, says, “If you don’t have a real innovative idea — and if you just make a me-too product — you’re probably not going to make it.”

Challenges: “The largest [challenge] right now is keeping up with demand,” says Lamancusa. “I wasn’t expecting to be in a thousand retail locations in a year.”

Opportunities: Additional distribution. “Continuing to expand the brand,” says Lamancusa. “The second [opportunity] is e-commerce.” Cusa just hired its second employee: a full-time marketing manager who has experience in the e-commerce field.

Needs: Financing in order to ensure continued success, says Lamancusa. “Cash. Investment. Trying to keep up with inventory costs.”