You can’t have adventure without tea.
That’s true, actually. Without tea, you’d just have “dvenur,” and who wants that? But if you’re the globetrotting adventure sort, the other half of this truth is that tea is the story of world culture.
“Every culture has a relationship with tea,” said Rebecca Sgouros, legit globetrotting adventurer, archaeologist, and devoted tea connoisseur. She also is a budding tea baroness of sorts. The High School South grad (Class of 2007) is the founder of Tea Hive, a subscription tea service based around the principle that if you say you don’t like tea, “you haven’t tried the good stuff.”
“Tea connoisseur” might not be a strong enough term for describing Sgouros. Her knowledge of world teas, whether from a traditional tea plant or a plant like yaupon that’s brewed and steeped like tea, is just this side of encyclopedic. Yaupon rhymes with coupon and it’s the only plant native to North America that contains caffeine. It grows well in the southwest and in Texas. Sgouros is a big fan, and the recommendation to try it came out effortlessly following the question, “What tea would you recommend to someone living in Texas?” (Where, incidentally, they take their tea seriously and most still have not heard of yaupon.)
In the interest of disclosure, Cat Spring Yaupon in Texas is one of the partner companies Tea Hive works with. There are about a dozen others, all smaller growers whose missions revolve around good earth stewardship, a healthy environment, and social responsibility. But drawing on a partner name doesn’t diminish Sgouros’ knowledge of world teas and how they fit into the cultures of where they’re grown.
Then again, her day job is to know how food and diet, including tea consumption, fit into cultures around the world. Sgouros really is an archaeologist, living half the year in Boston with her husband, Matt Stirn, who is also an archaeologist, and half the year in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where he’s from and where the couple work at various sites in the mountains during the summers.
Her concentration is food and diet, often sifting through dig sites to study charred animal bones or seed remnants to learn how long-gone peoples interacted with their food sources. That goes for traded goods as well as local plants and animals.
“If you have this plant growing in your area for a thousand years, you’re probably going to have tried to pick it and eat it,” she said. And in that observation lies the strength of tea as both cultural commonality and object of wide trade.
People everywhere and throughout history, it seems, have found uses for local plants, and one of the most regular uses is to make a hot-brewed beverage out of them. Coffee is one such plant. Tea, of course, is another. And at some point, when people started trading with others, coffees and teas became major commodities.
Debate if you like whether coffee is better than tea or vice versa, one inarguable fact, Sgouros said, is that tea is genetically more diverse and easier to grow in more of the world. Coffee plants need specific tropical zone conditions to thrive and coffee brews rely heavily on roasting, but tea? Tea in some form or another grows pretty much everywhere. If not an actual tea tree plant, then as some form of plant that gives leaves worthy of steeping and straining in hot water.
The ubiquity of teas and their importance in cultures around the world, fittingly, fused well with Sgouros’ longstanding taste for brew when she started seeing far-off shores. In her travels around the world, sometimes on her on dime for her own pleasure and sometimes as part of an archaeological project, she started to collect teas. She now has “this monster database” of teas from everywhere, built through her own exposure to different teas and from friends who’ve introduced her to new finds.
This is why Tea Hive is not a grower, but more of a “tea of the month club,” Sgouros said. “There’s already so much tea out there, I didn’t need to reinvent the wheel.”
Sgouros’ urge is to expose the world to the flavors of the world. For $35.90 a month, subscribers get “three exquisite teas,” about 30 cups worth of hand-selected (she actually tends to use the word “curated” when talking about this side of it), themed flavors that come with a story and an accessory or two. You might get a piece of chocolate, maybe a strainer, maybe a teabag rest. The stories might be about the local area or some history or some piece of culture. Part of the joy is not knowing exactly what will come in the mail.
But you’ll definitely get something Sgouros has tried. She has tasted every tea she sends out, and yes, she knows the chemistry of how to brew different teas properly. Turns out there’s a lot more to it than throwing a bag of dry leaves in hot water.
There’s also an artisinal marketplace on the Tea Hive website, where handmade tea products like a hand-crafted Morroccan tea pot are for sale.
Teas make the cut by being “fresh and tasty,” Sgouros said. They need to offer something flavorful and special. She doesn’t have to like a tea herself to recognize that others will like it, based on the feedback she gets from friends and customers.
‘If you’re part of Tea Hive, you’re drinking local.’
Stirn is her main co-sampler, she said. He helps her with the kinds of teas she’s less into. She tends to like flowery teas, he tends to like them a little more smoky flavored. So even if she’s not into a bacon-infused tea (that’s a real thing), but he is, she knows it’s probably going to be a hit with a large number of people.
“I don’t have to love it,” she said. “But it has to offer something.”
And in case you’re wondering, no, Sgouros couldn’t possibly pick a favorite tea. But she’s never met a rose-infused tea she didn’t like.
The business went from pipe dream to reality over the course of last year. Last spring, Sgouros started putting together the website and contacting growers whose teas she’d enjoyed. She started shipping her first boxes in November, spreading the word through friends and through social networks, which she says will likely be the future of her business.
She expects her following will be a loyal one, if not an enormous one. Tea buffs are a loyal lot, she said, and they’re always looking for something new. She also expects to most be a hit with Millennials, who seem to have found a taste for teas and tea culture.
But Sgouros isn’t just doing this for “tea snobs,” she wants to introduce the casual tea drinker to new flavors as well. She doesn’t expect to convert people who hate tea and isn’t on some kind of evangelizing mission, but she does want to expose the world to new flavors, one cup at a time.
The business has been her “winter project” from Boston, she said. It will, of course, still be in business over the summer while she and her husband are in the mountains in Wyoming. The couple work for the Jackson Hole History Museum as co-directors of the Jackson Hole Archaeology Initiative when the mountains are not caked in snow.
Sgouros met her husband on a site in Greece while she was an undergraduate at Boston University. She spent about a year traveling to do archaeological work, getting a master’s in cultural archaeology through the British School at Athens. She’s visited Greece several times for work and to see her family.
After working in Greece, the couple moved to Wyoming, but decided Boston, being “young and hip,” was a good place to be in the archaeological off-season. While she’s busy delving into tea over the winter months, Stirn works his second vocation as a photographer.
“Tea Hive allows me to do other things with my life,” she says. Part of that, no surprise, involves traveling. Sgouros refers to herself as “an equal-opportunity traveler” and a general wanderer. She’ll go wherever. There’s just a good bet tea will be involved at some point during her trip. And if it’s really good, there’s a chance her customers will get some of it in the mail.
Being an entrepreneur is a new thing in Sgouros’ immediate family. Her mother is a doctor working in the pharmaceutical industry and her father an engineer at AT&T. Both, she said, are “CEO types,” very business-driven, but neither ever had the entrepreneurial urge.
Apart from giving her the chance to do other things, Sgouros said Tea Hive is a good low-stress business. There’s not a lot of overhead and she doesn’t need to rely on it for a living. The parallels between a relaxing cup of sipping tea and the easy-does-it nature of the business are not lost on her.
And while Tea Hive’s teas are from everywhere, found by going everywhere and knowing people everywhere, Sgouros said she puts a lot of attention on the small growers, the families who’ve been harvesting teas for possibly centuries. Tea Hive is, in fact, the lone U.S. distributor for some of her partner growers.
Wherever the teas come from, though, they are from smaller growers who take a particular effort to be mindful of their environment and cultures. The growers tend toward the organic and sustainable. One in India allows elephants onto its land; most growers have some kind of charity-based mission, like a women’s co-op or education, she said. In short, it’s as global an operation as you’re going to get, but nothing is meant to be out of reach.
“If you’re part of Tea Hive,” Sgouros said, “you’re drinking local.”