The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

R.I.P., Honest Tea: Beloved brew is soon to be discontinued

Illustration by Madison Ketcham/for The Washington Post (Madison Ketcham/For The Washington Post)
6 min

I’ve never been more devoted to a drink than I am to Honest Tea. I’ve been drinking the “just a tad sweet” organic bottled tea, made with fair-trade ingredients, since I moved to Washington 15 years ago — initially Peach White, which was tragically discontinued, and later other peach flavors.

By the end of the year, all flavors will be gone — and D.C. will be losing a homegrown, beloved product. Honest Tea was started in Bethesda in 1998, founded by socially conscious entrepreneur Seth Goldman and his former business professor Barry Nalebuff. “We’ve always been disproportionately committed to building our brand here,” Goldman says of the D.C. region.

Coca-Cola, which purchased Honest Tea in 2011, says its decision to end the product was a matter of profits. I was devastated, as was Goldman, who described the decision to me as a “gut punch.” Coke said in a statement that it was focusing on its Gold Peak and Peace Tea products — part of a wider effort to prioritize “fewer, bigger brands with the greatest potential for scale and profitable growth.” (It said the “quickly growing” Honest Kids juices will remain on sale.) The company added that Honest Tea had “been negatively impacted by a drop in immediate consumption sales and limited glass supplies.”

Goldman, who remained “TeaEO” of Honest Tea until 2015 and then an involved “TeaEO emeritus” until 2019, is wasting no time looking back. When I spoke to him last month, he was already at work on a new brand of organic, fair-trade tea he’s putting onto shelves this fall: Just Ice Tea, produced by his business Eat the Change. (As “Honest Tea” sounded like “honesty,” “Just Ice” is meant to look like “justice.”) Many of the same people who were behind Honest Tea are now behind this new brand.

“As soon as we said we were doing this, literally every part of the supply chain stepped up,” Goldman told me. “Retailers said they wanted it. Distributors said they wanted it. Bottling plants and glass suppliers said they wanted to be part of it.” Those kinds of commitments are a testament to Honest Tea’s decades of innovation — during which the brand carved out a distinct commercial niche and became a notable part of the cultural zeitgeist of the Obama era, with a fervent fan base that included the president of the United States.

As Obama was running for the White House in 2008, the New York Times reported that his body man kept a supply of Honest Tea’s Black Forest Berry variety, which the paper called “a hard-to-find organic brew.” (The only thing Goldman didn’t like about the Times coverage was the phrase “hard-to-find.”) Obama has since talked publicly about how the tea is critical to his writing process: “Just like I write on a yellow legal pad with a particular uni-ball fine-point pen, I also need Honest Teas, which give me a little bit of a buzz but don’t get me too amped up. Green Dragon Tea is probably my preferred flavor.”

For a brief moment, Obama’s Honest Tea consumption became political fodder for his opponents — part of a conservative tradition of denigrating so-called elite liberals for their habits and preferences, what the linguist Geoff Nunberg once jokingly referred to as “seditious taste in cheese and beverages.” “​​Only celebrities like Barack Obama go to the gym three times a day, demand ‘MET-RX chocolate roasted-peanut protein bars and bottles of a hard-to-find organic brew — Black Forest Berry Honest Tea’ and worry about the price of arugula,” McCain campaign manager Rick Davis wrote in a memo sent to reporters.

The catalyst for Honest Tea came in 1997, when Goldman — then working for Bethesda’s Calvert Investments but looking to do something more entrepreneurial — went for a run in New York City during a business trip. “I was thirsty,” he explained to me, “so I went to a beverage cooler at a bodega and was struck that all the drinks there had different names and different packaging but were almost all the same in terms of their sweetness.”

That experience prompted him to reach out to Nalebuff, with whom he’d previously shared an enthusiasm for the idea of selling a beverage that wasn’t water but was less sweet than sodas. Nalebuff, who had just been in India studying the tea industry, came up with the name “Honest Tea,” and the pair launched the company the following year.

Goldman and Nalebuff were right about the market opportunity they sensed. “This was the era of Snapple and Arizona teas,” says Duane Stanford, the editor and publisher of the Beverage Digest newsletter. “Honest Tea saw a segment of consumers who wanted less sugar in their diets and were looking for beverages to accommodate that. … It was one of the early brands that ushered in what has been more than 20 years of growth in health-and-wellness-focused beverages.”

Stores like Whole Foods (which is now owned by Amazon, whose founder, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post) and Mom’s Organic Market provided critical early exposure. After Coke bought the company, Goldman says, “we went from being in about 15,000 stores to over 150,000 stores. We got our product launched at all these places we’d dreamed about — McDonald’s, Subway, Wendy’s and Chick-fil-A.” Even knowing how things ended, he doesn’t regret selling to Coke in an effort to “democratize” organic drinks.

Goldman — who studied government at Harvard, met his wife working on Michael Dukakis’s presidential campaign, and subsequently served as a deputy press secretary for Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-Tex.) — notes that the tea is nonpolitical. In fact, he says, many prominent Republicans drink Honest Tea. He’s also quick to emphasize that while he cares about advancing his values in the business world — addressing climate change and promoting equal access to economic opportunity — he does not think about them as partisan commitments. “I have deliberately not politicized the business,” he told me.

Ultimately, Coke’s choice reflects the fact that companies, not just consumers, decide what lives and dies in the marketplace. Goldman — and observers like Stanford — see an obvious opportunity for Just Ice Tea to enter the market Coke is vacating. “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes, and Just Ice Tea will rhyme with Honest Tea,” Goldman told me. “We’re not using the phrase ‘Just a Tad Sweet,’ which is trademarked, but we’re using the phrase ‘Just Sweet Enough.’ ” As long as they always have a good peach flavor, count me in.

Graham Vyse is an associate editor at the Signal.