Tina Hueg has always loved tea, but it wasn’t always in the cards that she’d make her own brand. But her love for the original tea plant Camellia Sinensis eventually got her on the path to found Cocoon Tea Artisans – a tea brand that has taken the world by storm with its quality ingredients and beautiful design. So much so that their green tea’s won a prize in Japan – the land of green tea. Her passion for tea is evident and her approach to ingredients uncompromising.
Caroline Berner Kühl: First of all, why tea?
Tina Hueg: I’ve been interested in tea and the tea plant my entire life. It started with the social aspect of gathering around a pot of tea, and then it became about taste. It was a tradition in my family to gather around the table for a pot of tea after school. Not because my family were big tea drinkers, it was more about being together. When more variants became available in Denmark, I started looking into the tea plant more and more. I started traveling a lot, and I would always seek out tea. The more I cared about the taste, the more I could tell what effect it had on my body, depending on what I drank and when. My mother is a nurse and she’s always been interested in the body, reading about the body at home, mostly in terms of health and health care. But I think it is why it came natural to me to study the tea plant. Back then I had no idea that the tea plant is one plant that you make every sort of tea from. The fact that you could arrive at so many different types of taste with one plant intrigued me. How soil, shade, sun, harvesting, and what you take from the plant are all factors that determine how it tastes, and what health effects it has. And then I couldn’t stop studying it, and I’ve been doing so since I was a teenager.
C: And launching your own company?
T: I worked in the media industry for many years, and I loved it. And then I was the CEO for Karmameju, the skincare brand, which is also about natural ingredients. It was very much in line with my interest for natural ingredients. And my overall idea of taking better ingredients but less of them. So essentially it was a continuation of a journey I was already on. And I just really wanted to work with tea. And then I did. I had never imagined that I would start my own company, but it’s the best decision I’ve made in my career. It’s become a life dream. And it takes me around the world, meeting so many incredible people on my way.
C: And your passion becoming your work?
T: It’s incredible. I had no idea what it would bring. And the people I would meet. Both in terms of where I get the tea from, but also where it’s sold, where you can drink it, what hotels and restaurants I want to work with, and in what locations I would like to be presented. It is primarily big cities around the world, because more people in these places prioritize paying more for better ingredients; for whole natural ingredients.
C: I am very interested in how you find your tea? Looking at it from the outside, it seems like a daunting industry to go into?
T: It is a giant puzzle. For me it started with taste. Tasting different teas and finding the ones I liked. Asking questions like, why do I like this? Where can I get it? When nobody had the answer, asking, then who can? Where do I find it? Never giving up. Diving headfirst into it is where the passion and quest for knowledge comes in. It is a bit nerdy but for me it’s been about finding who’s the best in the world to make this specific one. There’s so much marketing in who’s the best, so you will have to find a way to go around that. Really going into details, and seeking out ingredients, finding the families who have always done it a certain way. That’s how I started, by tasting a lot of different teas from around the world. Building relations. It's very much about relations. And then it’s very much about my taste. It’s about what ingredients I like, and whether they do something good for the body. And every one of them have different properties. Tea is about a feeling and it’s about memories. Many of us have memories with people when it comes to drinking tea.
C: And what is it about the can?
T: For me personally, tea starts with where I source it, but for everyone else, it starts with the can. It had to appeal to people. It was important for me that it is easy to open, making it inviting to open and to smell. Just by smelling it, it affects your nervous system. That’s what the tea plant does. It continues to fascinate me, how it stimulates the brain and the body. I’ve created a product that hopefully appeals to people, it’s pretty, it’s not too loud, it fits in everywhere. To me, tea is also about aesthetics, about calmness, so it’s designed in a calm colour, which is almost a non-colour.
C: It is very aesthetic. It also speaks to your idea of fusing something traditional with something very modern. Interestingly, it’s both at the same time.
T: Which is very important to me, and incredibly hard to do.
C: I was about to say that it seems like an almost impossible task. But it looks exactly like something that you would find in my kitchen, but also in my grandmother’s.
T: And it fits in to more industrial spots too – it’s poured in some shops in Brooklyn in New York where it’s primarily men who serve coffee and make bicycle repairs. I’ve made it so that it’s easy to grab and hold regardless of your hand size. And it’s stackable. Not only because it’s more practical, but it looks great too, with a tower of tea cans. Which brings us back to the aesthetics. I’m from Copenhagen, and I’ve lived here most of my life, and we are great at making simple designs. One thing that I’d like people to notice is that we’ve put an illustration of a thermometer on the can to show the right temperature for your tea. It depends on the type of tea; whether white, black or oolong. Not many people know or care, but it makes your tea better. There’s more information on the back and even more online. But most important, you can just open it and smell it to decide if it’s for you. My long-term goal is to make everyone, children and adults, drink at least one cup of organic tea a day.
C: We don’t have the biggest tea culture in Denmark, but I am thinking about Danish design and how the tea experience in other cultures like in Japan is quite aesthetic. So, when I look at your product now, there’s that connection between this type of design and quality tea that I haven’t seen before. A new aesthetic.
T: I would never have made my own tea company if there was anything similar out there. But I couldn’t find what I was looking for, not even when traveling. Often if the design was great, the tea was not. I couldn’t find that balanced harmony. But it was important to me to never compromise on ingredients.
C: I guess it’s a general tendency to go back to respecting the ingredients?
T: It’s either or. Some go even more commercial using more and more food additives, and others go in the opposite direction. I think it’s a bit like wine. Where it’s not necessarily certified organic, but made using traditional methods, because of a strong belief in cultivating the soil in a way that we’ve always done – with respect for earth. I trust people who produce that way, because I can taste and feel the difference. It’s the same with my tea. I did not invent this way, it’s simply the traditional way. And then I bring it into a modern context. I’ve created a bright expression, because almost everyone who works with tea choose the dark way. Which to me makes sense when it’s coffee, because it's darker, whereas tea is a mentally light journey. And there’s something in the fact that it’s one plant that makes all teas.
C: I did not know this before reading up on Cocoon.
T: Few people do. But it’s what’s continued to fascinate me throughout the years. I am completely captivated by this plant and what it can bring to you. And where it’s taken me, working with so many amazing people. Tea is about the right dose; it’s about how you serve it. A great tea tastes good every time. We can pour and taste these teas now, and we can do it again in half an hour, and they still taste great. You can cold brew or hot brew them. The ingredients are of such high quality that you don’t have to add sugar or milk. Adding milk changes its effects on the body and it becomes one taste instead of having many tasting notes when served as it is. An Englishman will always add milk at some point in the process, but I try to make them taste it pure first. Whereas in Japan, it is always served pure. And speaking about Japan, I have to mention our green tea, which won a prize in Japan all on its own.
C: I did want to ask you about that. It’s truly impressive.
T: I still don’t believe it. I am very grateful. I wasn’t even in the Japanese market when it won. Someone had found it in New York, and brought it back to Japan. And it went through many tastings, blind tastings, and then it won a prize. Which is crazy because Japan is the land of green tea. I’m very grateful to this green tea and what it brings us on our journey.
C: It means you’re onto something.
T: Which is amazing because what I do is essentially just to feel and taste what I like. And I love to follow people’s journeys into tea. They might start with the white one, move on to the green; two types of tea that are quite simple and easy-to-drink. Especially when people are not used to drinking tea. When they’ve found one that they like, they might be more prone to tasting some of the others. And the oolong is probably the last one they’ll try. Our two oolongs are a very specific way to treat tea leaves, it’s technically very complicated, but it’s what makes the tea stimulating to the stomach. Many people with stomach and intestinal problems drink oolong. I am not saying that I can cure anyone, but it’s worth trying it. You can also eat the leaves, which is how tea was first used; eating the leaves for medicinal purposes. I want to go back to that, which is a bit of a lounger journey. People here are not really open to it. But there’s so many vitamins, minerals and antioxidants in tea leaves, which is absorbed directly when ingesting the leaves. I’m looking forward to going into the Korean and Japanese markets, which both have great tea cultures, and where it’s not at all weird to eat the leaves.
C: Talking about tea traditions in Japan…
T: It’s so much about sitting together, in a calm setting. Their tea ceremonies are of course about tea, but mostly about being together and how we are together.
C: And the ritual in itself?
T: Exactly, and how it’s served. It’s very specific. Personally, I am a bit more relaxed. I want tea to be part of everyone’s daily life, so it cannot be too rigid. It must fit in whether we are busy or have time to sit down and immerse ourselves in the experience.
C: I am not so keen on using this concept as a reference, but the Danish hygge does come with some rather beautiful elements.
T: Indeed. We can also make the connection to afternoon tea in England, where tea is something that you do every day. It’s a ritual, but not so much so that it cannot change depending on the day. If we adapt it to the time we are in now, and how we live today, we can take some of the elements. It should never become complicated. We all want to do yoga 17 hours a week, but it’s not sustainable with everything else that is going on.
C: But I do like the connection between tea and tranquility. Even if it’s just for 10 minutes.
T: It can even be in the office. And it’s great for concentration. Monks have always used tea and especially oolong tea to concentrate on long studies. There’s naturally caffeine in the tea plant, but how much depends on where and how it’s grown, and how it’s harvested. The process has a lot to say when it comes to the amount of caffeine. My white and green teas have very little caffeine, whereas the oolong has quite a lot. But it doesn’t affect the body in the same way as coffee, it’s extended over time and means you can keep concentration for longer periods. And then it calms the nervous system too.
C: I wasn’t aware of how different teas could work on your body.
T: It also depends on the quality of the tea. For Cocoon, I only use organic tea leaves, which is by default more expensive. The process takes more time, when you want to protect the soil. But it also has so many more nutrients. You have to aware of where you buy your tea. Is it even from the tea plant? In Europe, we call everything tea, when it’s not even from the tea plant. In the rest of the world, they call it infusions. I have one infusion in my assortment, which is the Herbal Blend. I’ve made it for people who want to drink something at night that doesn’t have caffeine.
C: Makes sense. Because Herbal Blends are just herbs, I assume?
T: And herbs are amazing, but they are something else. It tastes great, but it’s something that most people can in fact easily make themselves. You can grow herbs in your garden or on your balcony, and then make it in your kitchen. You cannot do that with tea. It’s a much bigger and more difficult process. I would not be able to make an oolong even if I spent years working with it. Often, the skills are passed through generations. Which is one of the reasons why I don’t get all my teas from one place, which is what most companies do. I am not against it, but I taste every ingredient, and my mixtures are my own recipes. And some places are specialized in one ingredient, and not in others. Or a certain way of making a tea. Take my jasmine tea; we do not add jasmine flowers, to the tea directly. They are added in the process but then removed before the final tea is ready. It gives it a more balanced taste. If you leave the jasmine flowers in the tea, it gives it a too fragrant taste. That’s my opinion. But in many countries, like Italy, they want it to be very fragrant. That’s not me. I want to go back to focusing on the taste of tea itself. The original tealeaf.