Science meets soul: Black Leaf Tea's founder uses flavor to bridge gap in wellness

Inspired by her love of tea and a desire to build community, Amber Jackson uses her food science background to develop a tea brand that offers unconventional and delicious blends.

Audarshia Townsend, Content Director, Food & Beverage Insider

June 17, 2024

10 Min Read
Black Leaf Tea

At a Glance

  • Black Leaf Tea promotes self-care through functional ingredients and community through shared tea experiences.
  • The founder believes tea can be a form of "radical resistance" for the Black community.
  • Tea is also emerging as a sophisticated alternative to alcoholic beverages.

I’m a big fan of the James Beard Foundation — the culinary-focused organization prominent for its annual chef, restaurant and media awards. It’s constantly redefining what excellence in the food and beverage ecosystem should look like. I love that new take, which is why I’ve been a judge for the James Beard Awards the last two years in a row. It’s also now a welcoming space for those who don’t necessarily fit into the traditional restaurant or chef categories, yet what they bring to the table is beneficial for the industry.  

One such culinarian is Amber Jackson, who I met at a Beard event and chatted about Black Leaf Tea & Culture Shop, which she opened in Rhode Island in 2019. As a food scientist and flavorist, Jackson’s approach to tea culture is unconventional as she develops unique blends that are also functional and health-focused in scope. This is her way of encouraging more Black consumers to drink tea.  

Here’s our recent conversation, where we discussed all things tea, including how she plans to evolve her beverage line with ready-to-drink (RTD) options, as well as her thoughts on flavor trends and tea’s image in underserved communities. 

Audarshia Townsend: Why did you decide to become a food scientist? 

Amber Jackson: Since I was a kid, I always loved cooking. I was raised by all women, and as the only girl in my family they made sure that I could cook. The kitchen was a space I genuinely enjoyed. I wanted to be a chef, but I would always hear how competitive the culinary space was. Even at 12 years old, my first thought was "I need a job," so that doesn't work for me. I used to love watching Alton Brown’s “Good Eats” series on Food Network. This was my first exposure to food science, and it piqued my interest beyond cooking. I chose to major in food science in college and concentrate in product development because it allowed me the space to express myself creatively through flavor and explore all my curiosities of the food space.  

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Townsend: What was the inspiration behind the Black Leaf Tea concept? 

Jackson: I moved to Rhode Island for my job at Brown University in 2017. Of all of the places that I have lived, I've never had to work so hard to find a community of young Black professionals like me. Tea was something that has always brought me comfort; I grew up drinking it with my family year-round. I decided to use my love for flavor and community to create a product that centers wellness and community. It has been such a fulfilling experience to create space for not only myself, but many other Black people in the area, most of who are also transplants.  

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Townsend: How did you come up with these flavor profiles and how did you use your background as a flavorist to determine them? 

Jackson: I start with the concept of a flavor or feel I want to accomplish. Second to that is design, layering of flavors, and functionality, and this is where my background in food science comes in handy. I ask myself, “What are the dominant flavors?” and “What are the accent flavors?” Some ingredients have great benefits individually but may be toxic together. Other ingredients have to be added to another to increase the bioactivity of the other. Once I have the concept down, it's a series of trial and error and taste testing. I typically use friends who are in the food and beverage industry to conduct taste testing because they know how to provide flavor notes and not simply "This tastes good." Having studied food science in school, I was equipped with the knowledge of how to execute the R&D process, from research to experimentation to field surveying to finalizing the product. I've only gotten one blend perfect the very first time making it, and it was my very first tea blend, "Sunday Morning:" chamomile, orange peel, lemongrass and spearmint. 

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Townsend: How did you source these flavors for the teas? 

Jackson: As a business, cost matters, but I'm not willing to sacrifice quality. Thankfully there are a handful of organic wholesalers who have great pricing and quality. During the pandemic, it became a struggle to restock ingredients. Orders that used to take a week to arrive, now took almost a month. So, that helped me to explore other options. All the vendors I use have great transparency, so I know exactly where they are coming from. The single- origin tea leaves I buy from my mentor, who is the owner of Harney & Son's tea. Unfortunately, I can't afford to hop on a plane and source ingredients directly. I have great trust in the vendors I choose to use.  

Townsend: What about the sustainability story behind your teas?  

Jackson: I chose to operate as a loose-leaf tea company because it is better for the environment and our bodies. Many studies have shown that traditional tea bags can steep microplastics into the tea that we consume. There have been many changes to tea bags since. Some bags are chemical free, biodegradable and even silk. I still prefer loose leaf, even though it's not the most convenient. Customers can see exactly what is going on in their cups, and once the tea and herbs have been steeped, it can be composted. Some even add it to their soil in gardening and planting. Tea is incredibly versatile and can be used beyond a cup.  

Townsend: How do you select the flavors for your teas? 

Jackson: Black Leaf produces a wide range of flavors. There's fruity, floral, smoky, spicy, chocolatey ... a wide range. It was really important to me to create blends using ingredients and flavors familiar to the average person. Tea, especially loose tea, has a fairly pretentious image to it. I wanted to address the gatekeeping around the wellness space, because wellness and well-being should not be a luxury. Most people don't know what keemun snail black tea is or the difference between the many different types of green tea, but they do know chamomile, hibiscus, cinnamon and orange peel. Making my brand feel accessible and familiar through the flavor options is really important to me. Even the names of the blends being Home, Chai-Town, CoCo Bae and Sunday Morning contributes to the accessibility and friendliness of the brand.  

Townsend: This is a very competitive category; how do you set your tea brand apart from others?  

Jackson: Black Leaf provides not just uniquely creative tea blends, but an experience. Along with the tea blends, there is a curated tea party playlist, accessories and tea cocktail/mocktail recipes to help customers integrate my product into their everyday lives in a fun way. I encourage my customers and followers to think outside the box when it comes to using the teas. Some of them show off how they've used it in their own cocktails, ice creams, syrups and pastries. I love to see it.  

Townsend: What are some of the biggest trends in tea innovation?  

Jackson: Mocktails and RTD options are big business! Alcohol-free beverages are big right now and continuing to grow. CBD and THC tea blends are growing. Adaptogenic tea blends that use herbs and some mushrooms, to contribute to reducing stress in the body, are also popular. As for Black Leaf, I'd love to add canned RTD products to the line. 

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Townsend: What flavors are trending for teas — and beverages in general? 

Jackson: Fruity and floral flavors are really popular right now. Jasmine, rose, lavender, mango, peach and blueberry are flavors being used a lot now. You've also got spicy variations of all these flavors as well, which I love as they add more complexity to the flavor and palate. 

Townsend: Expand upon promoting tea as an alternative to alcoholic beverages? 

Jackson: Nonalcoholic adult beverages, craft beer and spirits are popping up everywhere, and I don't believe they're going anywhere any time soon. Consumers have shown a willingness to try something new in this space, and changes have been made over the last few years to improve the quality of these products as well. When many people think of tea, they think of a hot beverage served on a gloomy fall or cold winter day, something they only drink when they're sick, or an iced black sweet tea in the summer. I like to push the boundaries of the traditional image of tea. Tea mocktails can be used to elevate an experience much like alcoholic beverages. Some teas can even provide a similar taste. I have a blend called Tennessee Whiskey that actually tastes like whiskey. It's a smoked black tea with apricot and vanilla. For some tea mocktails, I make juniper berry syrup, which works great to produce a similar flavor to gin. 

Townsend:  What are some considerations for tapping into the natural functional properties of teas, and are there application possibilities to branch into other food and beverage products? 

Jackson: There are many benefits to tea and herbs. Some of them need the assistance of other ingredients to increase functionality. For example, my blend Glow is made of turmeric, ginger, lemon peel and black pepper. The curcumin in turmeric is great for reducing inflammation; however, it is not readily absorbed by the body. Adding fat or black pepper to turmeric helps to increase the absorption. The piperine in black pepper increases the absorption of the curcumin in turmeric by 2,000%. I also love to promote tea lattes because some tea blends contain vitamins and minerals that are absorbed better with the presence of fat. Using milk, dairy or nondairy products can help increase the functionality of your tea. 

Townsend: How does your tea line tie in with the Black community? 

Jackson: The Black community has always used food and drinks as communal focal points. I believe us as a community slowing down and taking time to enjoy a pot of tea or a meal together is not just a form of joy, but radical resistance. It's that togetherness, and the conversations during those times that create memories that aid preserving our culture. I take great pride in creating a product that can evoke memories and emotions, through a smell and sip. Also using my physical space to amplify Black beings and voices, while also promoting health and wellness in the Black community. 

About the Author(s)

Audarshia Townsend

Content Director, Food & Beverage Insider, Informa Markets

A lifelong Chicagoan, Audarshia Townsend is an award-winning, veteran food and beverage journalist who serves as the content director for the Food & Beverage Insider brand. She is Informa Markets' 2024 "Star Storyteller" winner. Her experience as a visionary editor and writer spans 30 years, with an emphasis in print and digital magazines. Audarshia's professional passion is to champion and amplify underserved business communities. Some of her most recent content includes her review of 2023's F&B trends, the future of food science careers, an interview with culinary star Padma Lakshmi, and Pescavore's sustainable ahi tuna jerky strips. She also appears regularly on local and national media outlets to discuss food and beverage trends, most notably FOX-32 Chicago, WGN-TV, WXRT-FM, NPR-Chicago and the Travel Channel. She is often called on to serve as a judge for prestigious food, beverage and restaurant awards, including the James Beard Foundation, NEXTY Awards and Black Women in Food. She continues to write for Chicago magazine, and previously she has written for the likes of the Chicago Tribune, Eater Chicago, Esquire, Essence, Los Angeles Times, Playboy, Time Out Global and World’s Best Bars. With food and beverage being her longtime, chosen beat in media, she has created content for a number of prestigious brands such as AOL, Google, Lawry’s Seasoned Salt, Lexus, MasterCard, Markon Cooperative Inc., Miller Brewing Co., Resy and Simplot Foods.

To date, Audarshia has guest lectured at the following higher-education institutions: Columbia College Chicago and Loyola University Chicago for undergraduate journalism students; Northwestern University for graduate journalism students; and Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) for undergraduate, graduate and PhD food science students. She also mentors aspiring young writers and journalists whenever she can. Email her at [email protected] and also connect with her on LinkedIn.

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