Herb and tea (Camellia sinensis, Theaceae) industry veteran Brian Keating died unexpectedly on September 2, 2018, of a heart attack. Keating founded Sage Group, a Seattle, Washington-based natural products consulting group, to assist clients with creative, strategic, and technical support. Businesses, brands, and events, such as Whole Foods Market, Tazo Tea Company, World Tea Expo, and many more, have all benefitted from Keating’s knowledge of the tea market in the United States and passion for high-quality, artisanal tea products.
Keating was born in Denver, Colorado, on May 25, 1956. Though he never finished high school, he enjoyed reading and learning in his own way. He entered the world of natural products as an herb and spice buyer for a natural foods store in Denver, and he further dabbled in the culinary world by becoming a chef and spice buyer at a Moroccan restaurant.
In the mid-1970s, the tea market in the United States was small. However, Keating had a passion for tea and believed that the US market had untapped potential. He formulated his first product, a tea-based energy drink called SPORTea, in 1982 through his company Ultimate Performance Products, Inc. In 1996, Keating assumed ownership of a Seattle specialty tea shop called The TeaCup, where he sold a large selection of bulk teas, tea products, and drinks he formulated himself.
As general knowledge and availability of fine teas grew, Keating saw an opportunity for further expansion and founded Sage Group to aid the fledgling market. Sage Group’s clients have included companies such as Valensa, Nutraceutix, New Chapter, Amway, Starbucks, and many others in the United States and internationally. Keating expanded the scope of his consultancy to include other herbs, spices, nutrients, and flavorings, but tea remained his passion and focus, and he believed that tea could grow to rival coffee (Coffea arabica, Rubiaceae) in popularity in the United States.
Aromatherapist Mindy Green, RH (AHG), recalled that it was Keating’s nature to explore every avenue and try different things. “Brian was the quintessential Gemini, flashing between a wide variety of social circles and diverse business clients,” she wrote (email to M. Blumenthal, January 2, 2019). “He was a superior networker, wicked smart, uniquely quick witted, funny as hell, creative and talented, as well as being genuine, warm, empathetic, honest, and kind…. As my business partner, mentor, and coach, Brian is irreplaceable. As my friend, he will be sadly missed every day.”
In 1993, Sage Group published its first “US Tea is ‘Hot’ Report” that offered trend analyses, market insights, and other resources for those in the tea business. The report was well-received by the industry, and it was then that Keating closed his tea shop in order to expand the offerings of Sage Group. The group would publish seven editions of the report and added a kombucha market report in 2008 and a matcha report in 2013. Keating also co-authored the American Botanical Council’s first tea market report for HerbalGram issue 105.1
Keating recognized a unique opportunity in 2003: the first World Tea Expo. He was the lead speaker for the inaugural event, a role he reprised nearly every year after that. His networking skills helped attract the participation of large conglomerates such as Nestle, Unilever, and Pepsi, and other consumer product manufacturers. The World Tea Expo, which is now run by Informa, is held annually in June in Las Vegas, Nevada. The event currently features an exhibit hall with hundreds of exhibitors, a new products showcase, tasting events, educational sessions, an awards ceremony that recognizes lifetime achievements in the tea business, and expert speakers from around the world.
Keating further guided the expansion of the US tea market through his work with Whole Foods Market in 2006, when he became the company’s first tea buyer and blendmaster for its subsidiary Allegro Coffee Company. In this position, he helped establish Whole Foods’ in-house line of tea beverages and developed 40 new products for that line.
Rob McCaleb, president of the Herb Research Foundation and former research director for Celestial Seasonings, worked with Keating and Sage Group during his tenure at Celestial Seasonings, and their professional relationship grew into a personal friendship. McCaleb fondly remembered Keating’s dynamic personality, love of music, and caring nature. “For many years, he [was] such a close friend to me, and to so many others,” McCaleb wrote (email to M. Blumenthal, January 5, 2019). “He was simply a giant in the tea world. I don’t know of anyone who had Brian’s depth of knowledge about tea, about the business of tea, the growing and production of tea, the science of tea, the WORLD of tea.”
Brian Keating is survived by his sister, Pam Herbst, and niece, Lindsay Herbst. Remembrances of his life were held in Seattle and Boulder, Colorado, in September and October 2018, respectively.
— Hannah Bauman
- Keating B, Lindstrom A, Lynch ME, Blumenthal M. Sales of tea & herbal tea increase 3.6% in the United States in 2014. HerbalGram. 2015;105:59-67. Available at: http://herbalgram.org/resources/herbalgram/issues/105/table-of-contents/hg105-teamktrpt/. Accessed January 16, 2019.