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Steep, scoop, savor: Award-winning Bridgeport-based ice cream maker turns to tea for flavor

July 16, 2016

After an hour of talking about his award-winning ice cream, Mario Leite makes a run to his walk-in freezer at the Bridgeport Trade and Technology Center, emerging with seven pints in his arms. The best way to explain his product is to taste it, he says.“There is a bit of an order to the tasting,” he explains while opening a pint of London Mist, the flavor that launched Tea-riffic, a food company that teams the fresh-brewed taste of tea with super-premium ice cream.As one might proffer an opinion on a glass of beer or wine, Leite talks about the malty and citrusy notes of the Earl Grey tea that is at its base, the flavors of which come from Assam black tea and bergamot oil, topped off with Madagascar vanilla.“All the teas have their own characteristic … which gives a different flavor profile and translates really nicely into a sweet cream base,” Leite says. “But it is challenging — the flavor is nuanced. You have to work with teas in a certain way to get those different flavor notes into an ice cream base.”By fresh brewing close to the time of production, there is no astringency, just clean and refreshing finishes, and a lingering taste of tea. “As you eat the ice cream, the flavor kind of evolves. I think that is what most people want when they are having a great dining experience, these different flavor notes.”It has been about four years since Leite and his wife, Souvannee, launched Tea-riffic from their Norwalk home. In that time, the product, which includes seven flavors and a couple of limited runs (Jasmine Peach and Brown Butter Sticky Toffee made with smoky Lapsang Souchong), has gone from chilling on the shelves of some 20 stores, to distribution throughout the Northeast, mid-Atlantic and into the Midwest in around 400 stores, including such big chains as Whole Foods, Stop & Shop and ShopRite. During its busy season, 25,000 to 30,000 pints of ice cream are produced a month at Buck’s Ice Cream plant in Milford. The growth has given Leite, who previously was a molecular biologist and investment banker, a sense that he is helping to expand the palate of the American consumer.“When you look at products introduced to market, very few have true innovations in flavor,” he says, opening a pint of chamomile, which has natural hints of apple and honey from steeping Egyptian chamomile flowers. The company uses no artificial flavors. “It’s usually the same familiar flavors, but in different inclusions. There are very few unique ice cream flavors that are new, and that’s what we are doing. That excites us and helps us … but it is also a challenge to get people to take a leap of faith and try our ice cream.”Leite, who now lives in Shelton with his wife, is a self-described “ice cream fanatic and tea lover.” It’s the kind of infatuation that engendered co-workers to buy an ice cream maker for his birthday. Years later, his wife bought him another, which the couple used to make Tea-riffic.On this morning, the large vats in which gallons of tea are brewed are quiet. Spices line the shelves of baker’s racks, waiting for another test flavor session and, in fact, Leite is working on a new one based on buckwheat tea. A press is not in service, but at some point will crush fresh ginger for one of the line’s popular flavors, Ginger Matcha. “To be honest, we don’t like to show how we brew the tea. It’s our secret sauce, I guess,” he says, laughing. “It’s all about how to get a tea flavor for ice cream that works in ice cream.”In the front of the kitchen, there is a wall of food awards crowned by a burnished silver chef statue that signifies a pinnacle in the line’s history. The chamomile was named a finalist in the sofi Awards last year, the highest honor given by the Specialty Food Association. “Being a finalist is like being nominated for an Oscar,” Leite says. That’s professional validation, but then there is the personal pleasure of getting someone to try something different.“It’s fun to pioneer new flavors in a static category,” he says. “Frozen food managers will say we don’t need 10 different vanilla ice creams. It’s not been easy and it’s got its challenges, but we are working to get the public to embrace us. It’s not flying off the shelves just yet, but we are doing well.”chennessy@hearstmedia.com; Twitter: @xtinahennessy