By Lori Fredrich Senior Writer & Dining Editor Published Mar 20, 2013 at 9:09 AM

Despite its bright red box, Letterbox tea has enjoyed a relatively low-key profile since it was launched by Alterra Coffee in July 2012. Savvy shoppers may have spotted sitting on the shelves at Glorioso’s or Balistreri’s Sendik’s stores.  And tea lovers may have enjoyed one of 10 flavors at any one of Alterra’s cafes.

But, despite a relatively quiet local roll-out, the tea is about to make a big splash on the national market.  According to Scott Schwebel, director of marketing at Alterra, Letterbox is available for purchase online at Sur La Table. In addition, it will soon be on Sur La Table shelves at over 100 locations across the county.

The Letterbox line includes 10 core teas, available year round, as well as two rotating options meant to showcase rare varietals or special blends created to complement the change in seasons. Sur La Table will carry four of the core offerings, including Anthology (blended black tea), Revv (organic citrus ginger), Mystic (organic green) and Ritual (black chai).

"We wanted to build a tea brand that had its own personality, separate from the coffee brand," Schwebel says of Letterbox. "We began beefing up our knowledge about tea and doing product research. Internally, we got the tea bug and the guys started researching importers and different types of tea. And, in the end, we gave birth to Letterbox."

Letterbox features high quality tea, expertly harvested and blended to Alterra’s specifications by tea importers including Rishi Tea in Milwaukee and Steven Smith Teamaker in Portland, Ore., and packaged into its signature red boxes in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood.

"Our coffee brand is kind of funky and fun. And we had a lot of fun creating Letterbox and building up our tea chops," Schwebel says.

Since the tea category is loaded with countless traditional options, Schwebel says they opted to try something different.  After months of research and education, including training with Steven Smith, Alterra got to work on developing the "personality" for their tea line. One of their main goals with was to create a product that was extremely high end, but still accessible.

"When you walk down the aisle of a place that carries really great teas, it can be intimidating. Lots of names you can’t pronounce," he explains. "We wanted to demystify that without sacrificing quality. Letterbox is really some of the highest end product you can get, but it’s accessible, fun, approachable."

Not surprisingly, the tea line was developed with a great deal of care and attention to detail, from the ingredients in the product to the design of the packaging.

"If you walk down an aisle, the bright red tea tins stand out, and that’s by design," Schwebel says. "The names and illustrations are designed to grab you and be engaging. We went after the two distinct moments for tea – the moment on the shelf and the moment when you get home and try it."

Letterbox is meant to appeal to hard-core tea enthusiasts, but the hope is that it will also appeal to more curious curators – people interested in buying products that enhance their lives. And thanks to the new agreement with Sur La Table, the product will also be available to tea lovers across the nation.

"We are really excited to offer Letterbox at Sur La Table," Schwebel adds. "They are a great retailer. Their mix of outstanding global brands and high-quality products lends a nice nod of credibility to our boutique collection of teas."

In addition to the natural excitement surrounding the launch of a new product, Schwebel says that Alterra is also excited about the opportunity this affords the city of Milwaukee.

"I love the fact that the city is really coming of age," he says. "There are all of these wonderful, boutique high quality products.  And everything we were made fun of for so long – the cheese, the agriculture – they’re no longer the butt of the joke, but really part of the conversation."

Letterbox tea will be available in Sur La Table stores across the country, as well as online, beginning in mid-April or early May. 

Lori Fredrich Senior Writer & Dining Editor

Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club. 

When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.