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Old familiar blends vs. creative house blends


It’s a dilemma for anyone who owns or manages a tearoom: how many different teas shall I carry and how many of them should be funky house blends? Looking at sales for 2011, our top four sellers were very traditional teas: an earl grey, a breakfast blend, a masala chai, and a Moroccan mint (note that only one of those is unflavored). The next six were all creative flavored teas.

UPDATE March 2013: Results for 2012 weren’t much different from the 2011 results cited above.

Reading that may make you think that the classics aren’t important for the tea bar, but let’s look behind those numbers:

First of all, those only reflect our bulk tea sales, not sales by the cup. I don’t have a good system in place for tracking sales by the cup — especially since we make some special by the cup blends for our regulars — but I’d guess that a lot more of our cup sales are straight traditional tea than the bulk numbers indicate. When I’m behind the bar, I sell a lot of Darjeeling, assam, sencha, silver needle, dragonwell, Scottish breakfast, jasmine green, taiguanyin, and shu pu-erh by the cup.

Second, those numbers include web sales. On the web, there are many many sources for sencha or Darjeeling, and we compete against the huge Internet retailers who can undercut our prices. On the other hand, there is only one source for our house blends like Mr. Excellent’s Post-Apocalyptic Earl Grey or Coyotes of the Purple Sage. We sell very little dragonwell on the web site compared to our house blends.

When deciding what tea to carry in your shop, the first thing to ask yourself is, who is your target audience? If you want to capture the Celestial Seasonings fan, you want to have a lot of flavored blends with colorful logos and clever names. If you want to capture the serious tea fan, you’d better have a good selection of unflavored tea of various styles and origins.

Of the styles, a casual shop would be expected to have black and green at the very least, with at least one white and one oolong. A more serious shop should expand the oolong selection significantly and add a couple more white teas and at least one or two pu-erhs. The sign of a teahouse that really caters to the connoisseur would be an extensive collection of ripe (shu) and raw (sheng) pu-erh in both loose and cake form, and a yellow tea or two.

When it comes to origins, a shop can go two different ways: specialized or generalized. It’s easy to put together a tea selection covering every style where all of the tea comes from China. It’s possible to cover the four basic styles from countries like India and Kenya, although the selection of oolongs and whites will be pretty sketchy. In my opinion, a generalized shop should have tea from, at the very least, China, Japan, Taiwan, India, Kenya, and Sri Lanka.

If you are going to offer house blends, I’ve found that they do best with unique names, preferably tied to your theme or location. Your customers can find English Breakfast and Moroccan Mint anywhere, and many would argue that you should use exactly those names so that your customers can find something familiar. On the other hand, hearty adventurers who find a tea shop in New York offering Buffalo Breakfast and Manhattan Mint are likely to come back for more if they like it instead of just grabbing generic English Breakfast and Moroccan mint at the next store they see.

You’ll want to offer some caffeine-free alternatives as well. It’s a philosophical decision whether you want to offer decaffeinated tea, naturally caffeine-free alternatives (e.g., rooibos), or both. Lately, we have a lot more customers specifically looking for rooibos. Most of them want flavored blends, but there’s enough demand to keep plain organic red and green rooibos available as well.

The bottom line is that your tea shop should reflect your personality. If people want a drab corporate-looking shop, they’ll go to Teavana. An independent tearoom should be unique, and the tea selection is even more important than the decor in conveying that uniqueness.

The Lady Greystoke logo


Does it seem like I’ve got a theme going on this blog lately? I’ve had quite a few posts about the fun we’ve been having with logos for our house blend teas. Some great artist friends have done logos for us, including Al Jones (Hammer & Cremesickle Red Tea and Robson’s Honey Mint), Brandon Pope (Mr. Excellent’s Post-Apocalyptic Earl Grey), and Suzanna Bailey (MaterniTEA). Now, I’d like to introduce the latest in the series: Doug Bailey (Suzanna’s husband) made us a logo for our Lady Greystoke tea (the story behind the blend is here).

Lady Greystoke logo by Doug Bailey

Lady Greystoke logo by Doug Bailey

As with the other artists, I didn’t give Doug any direction at all beyond explaining the origin of the name and the ingredients in the blend. He picked up on the “wild yet civilized” aspect of Jane Greystoke, and being Doug (his nickname is “the Beerbarian”), he added a saber-toothed tiger. I don’t remember any saber-toothed tigers in the Tarzan books, but that’s probably just because Edgar Rice Burroughs didn’t think of it.

Doug is a pencil kind of guy, so he gave me the logo as a pencil sketch and I colorized it. I’ve always done my colorizing by scanning the image, loading it into Photoshop, making the background transparent, and then painting behind the image. This has the disadvantage of taking out light shading and fine detail from the original sketch, and Doug did a lot of shading in this one.

This time around, I added the color by creating new layers for each element (16 layers in this case) and setting the layer to a linear burn. That way, I don’t have to modify the original layer at all, and any shading — no matter how subtle — shows through the color.

As an aside, I’ve always preferred to drink my Earl Grey teas hot. I got to thinking about iced Earl Grey today when a customer ordered an iced Lady Greystoke at the Tea Bar, so I had to give it a try. The addition of the lavender, rooibos, and vanilla really seems to make this a smooth iced tea. I may be drinking more of it iced.

It’s logomania! A MaterniTEA logo by Suzanna Bailey


MaterniTEA logoNew tea logos are coming fast and furious as our artist friends send us their guest drawings. Our latest is by the lovely and talented Suzanna Bailey. Let me tell you a little bit about this tea before I talk about the logo, though.

I am a tea lover, not an herbalist. Let me repeat that for emphasis: I am not an herbalist. I am not trained in the healing powers of herbs (and I believe that most of the claims about most of the herbs are horse-hockey, but that’s another story), but I know what people ask for at the tea bar. We seem to have a lot of pregnant women in town these days, and most of them come in requesting either ginger or mint for their morning sickness.

I did some reading, and found that most of the published studies agree that those are two herbs that settle the stomach well. I know ginger works for me. Doing a straight ginger-mint blend, however, tasted pretty wretched. I started monkeying around with combinations — carefully avoiding caffeine — and came up with MaterniTEA. It uses green rooibos, Egyptian chamomile, and honeybush as its base, along with the aforementioned organic peppermint and ginger. A touch of orange extract for flavor, and we have something that tastes good as well as helping with the nausea that triggered this whole thing.

In keeping with the philosophy I described in the last tea label post, I didn’t give Suzanna any specific instructions. I just described the tea and threw out a few adjectives like “soothing” and “relaxing,” and got out of her way. She came back with several pages of ideas and sketches, and one of them really caught my eye. My wife, Kathy, and I absolutely loved the look of the steam rising from a teacup in the shape of a pregnant woman.

Suzanna has an amazing eye for color, so she did all of the drawing and the coloring for this one — she just asked if I could fill in the lettering. Once again I am thrilled with the results and we’re having posters made of all of our custom tea logos.

Thank you, Suzanna!

Yet another new logo: Mr. Excellent’s Post-Apocalyptic Earl Grey


Mr. Excellent's Post-Apocalyptic Earl Grey Logo -- FinalSuch a delay! It was about eight months ago that I came up with the Mr. Excellent’s Post-Apocalyptic Earl Grey Tea blend (see my blog post about it here), and we finally have a logo for it! This one was drawn by my son’s friend from college, Brandon Pope.

I’ve found that logo art comes out better if I don’t tell the artist what I want, so I gave Brandon little more information than the name of the tea and what it is (an Earl Grey lapsang souchong). If I could draw, I probably would have done something with a dude sitting in the middle of a burned-out town, his shotgun at his side, drinking a cup of tea as the zombies eye him from a distance. In other words, something way to complex to use as a logo.

Brandon came up with the skull and gas mask, with one of the air filters replaced by a teacup. Very simple, yet immediately recognizable. His original was a hand-lettered pencil sketch (see below), which I needed to colorize. Brandon’s shading was great, especially where the texture of the paper showed, so I just added solid blocks of color behind the skull, mask, and teacup.

I really, really wanted to put this one on a black background, and I just couldn’t seem to make that work using his text. I re-did the text using a fun font called “Disgusting Behavior,” stretched vertically to achieve the look and aspect ratio that I was after. A blood-red color for the text with a subtle glow and an emboss effect finished it off perfectly.

For comparison, here is Brandon’s original pencil sketch (below) and the final logo (above). You can click on the final logo for a larger image.

Mr. Excellent's Post-Apocalyptic Earl Grey original logo sketch

This whole program of guest artists for tea logos (kicked off by Al Jones and his Hammer & Cremesickle logo) has been a blast. Thank you very much to Brandon for the artwork, and watch this space for guest logos by husband and wife team Doug and Suzanna Bailey, coming up soon.

Hammer & Cremesickle Red


Hammer & Cremesickle RedIsn’t it fun how names develop for tea blends? The naming process is almost as much fun as the blending process itself.

For weeks, I had been trying to come up with a tea that invoked the taste of the creamsicles I used to enjoy so much as a kid (Who am I kidding? I still enjoy them!). Frozen orange over a vanilla bar. Yum! My initial attempts were based on black teas, and the flavor of the tea kept overwhelming the flavor of the orange and vanilla.

Finally, I hit on something that seemed to work. A blend of rooibos and honeybush as a base, which adds a rich, creamy texture. Orange and natural vanilla for the cremesicle flavor, and just a touch of carob to round everything out. I tried it both hot and iced and decided I liked it.

Some friends, Al and Ranetta, popped by the tea bar, and I asked if they’d like to sample my newest concoction. Being willing guinea pigs, they acquiesced. They tasted, we talked, and they liked it. Ranetta asked if she could buy a few ounces. As I started to write out the label, my hand stopped, poised to write, as I realized I hadn’t named the new blend yet.

I decided to write “orange creamsicle,” but Al was talking and distracting me (It’s all Al’s fault. Really it is). I misspelled the word. Unbelievable, isn’t it? But I threw an extra K in there. I noticed the error and commented on it.

“How did you spell it?” Al asked.

“Sickle with a K,” I replied. “As in ‘hammer and sickle’.”

It struck us both at about the same time that this is a red tea (the rooibos plant is also called the African redbush), so that could end up as a very fitting name. Al asked for a sheet of paper and set to work sketching a logo. I scanned, tweaked, and colorized his masterpiece (sorry, Al) and included it at the top of this blog post.

(Please imagine, in the following paragraph, that I’m speaking with the same accent as Mickey Rourke used when playing Whiplash in the second Iron Man movie. If you can’t do that, I’ll settle for Boris Badenov from the Rocky & Bullwinkle show.)

You must buy Hammer & Creamsickle Red now, comrade. Will take you back to childhood summers at family dacha on Volga river. Decadent treat from American capitalists. We have our own capitalism now; our own pravda. We have no money, but tea is cheap. Try now.

[UPDATE Feb 2012: We used this tea in the frosting for our Orange Spice Carrot Cake Muffins. It worked beautifully!]

[UPDATE Apr 2012: Al has drawn us another logo, this time for Robson’s Honey Mint Tea. He does great work.]

[UPDATE May 2012: Hammer & Cremesickle Red Tea is now available on our new Tea Bar website. I’ve updated the links in this article accordingly.]

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