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The Logic of Tea Bar Redesign


Tea bar redesign header

It all started simply enough.

Doug looked at the jars of tea behind the bar one day and said, “This cubbyhole-based system is too constricting. We have space for nine oolongs. If we want to add a new one, we have to drop one of the existing ones. What if we went to a more open system?”

Logical enough. If they are arranged in a linear system, we can drop a white tea and add a black one, and everything fits fine. But that led us to a much deeper discussion. Do our groupings make sense?

The old back bar had teas arranged by style. All of the green teas were together, including the dragonwell, sencha, raspberry hibiscus green, Moroccan mint, and jasmine green. But that’s not how people select a tea. That’s not how we select a tea. When a customer comes in that doesn’t know what he wants, we go through a decision tree.

We start with, “do you prefer straight tea, or something flavored?” If they choose straight tea, we ask if they like white, yellow, green, oolong, black, or pu-erh. If they choose flavored, we ask if they want something fruity, flowery, spicy, creamy, or minty.

So why not set up the shelves that way? Very few of the people asking for a berry tea care whether the base tea is green, black, or oolong. They just want a berry flavor. It makes more sense to put all of our huckleberry teas together instead of having one with the black teas, one with the rooibos, and one with the yerba maté.

Back bar

The new structure puts all of the straight tea and herbs on the right, and all of the flavored blends on the left. Posing in the front is our tea plant, Tea H. White.

We went through our stock and found that if we grouped the herbs and tisanes (e.g., rooibos, yerba maté, guayusa…) with the straight tea, very close to half of our blends were flavored. So we arranged everything so that if someone says they’re looking for straight tea we take them to one side of the bar, and if they’re looking for something flavored, we go to the other.

Having an organization that customers can follow makes it less intimidating for people new to the tea world.

The straight teas are organized first by style, in order of oxidation (white, green, yellow, oolong, black, pu-erh). They are followed by the caffeinated herbs (maté, guayusa, yaupon) and then the caffeine-free herbs (rooibos, honeybush…). It’s nice to be able to point at the shelves and say, “everything from here up has caffeine, and from here down doesn’t.”

Straight teaWithin each style, the tea is arranged by origin, with blends coming first. In the picture above, you can see the black breakfast blends, and jars of black tea from China, Sri Lanka, Kenya, Rwanda, and Malawi. Most of our customers aren’t used to thinking about tea origins, and they’re intrigued by the diversity of sources.

“Where do you get your tea?” is one of the most common questions we get. It’s kind of difficult to answer. We deal with quite a few importers and distributors, but we also like to buy direct from estates and farms when we can; it helps us to be sure of what we’re getting. To answer the question, we included estate names on the labels where we can, and made a map to put between the two blocks of tea shelves.

Tea mapWe’ve had very positive reactions to the map. People say, “I’ve never had a tea from Vietnam. I want to try that one!” Sales of some of more obscure tea are increasing, and people seem to be enjoying comparing tea from different parts of the world. It’s a great way to learn about terroir and regional differences in processing techniques.

When we move over to the flavored side, priorities are different. Few people care about the origins, and virtually all of them are blended from geographically-diverse ingredients. We couldn’t organize those by origin if we wanted to.

flavored teaOn that side, we start with fruity teas at the top, grouping all of the berry together, the citrus together, and so forth. We then proceed down through the spicy teas (with masala chai getting its own section), flowery teas, Earl Greys, mint teas, and on through the flavor profiles. Since caffeine isn’t taken into consideration in the sorting of the flavored teas, we put codes on the labels to help people find what they want: a green O for organic, blue F for fair trade, red C for caffeine-free, brown M for “made in Montana” (mostly our house blends), and purple E for Ethical Tea Partnership.

Is this the perfect organization for every tea shop? Of course not. An herbalist might want to group the teas and herbs by reputed health effects, or by Linnaean classification of the plants. A tea house focused on food might group them by the foods they pair well with. A café focused on tea by the cup rather than bulk sales might group their tea based on what’s best hot, what’s best iced, what works well in a latte, and so forth.

All indications at the moment, though, are that this is going to work well for us. I shall, of course, report back when we know more…


While writing this blog post, I was drinking Lamdong Hoodoo, a Vietnamese black tea. Since I don’t take milk or sugar in my tea, I prefer black teas with low astringency, but I still like plenty of flavor. This one definitely fits the bill. A nice spicy flavor and aroma, but no bitterness. I steep it for 2:30.

Making sweet tea on demand


Iced tea

Lemon optional

If my tea bar was in Georgia, sweet tea wouldn’t be a problem for me. I would always have a pitcher or two sitting in the fridge. But here in Montana, the demand for sweet tea is pretty low. If I serve three or four glasses of sweet tea in a week, that’s a lot. Why is that a problem? Because properly-prepared sweet tea is made in advance. Ideally, it should sit overnight, but a few hours is probably okay. It will keep for a little while, but not indefinitely. If I make it by the pitcher, I’m going to end up throwing away most of it.

My goals are simple: I want it to taste like sweet tea (in the opinion of my Southern friends), and I have to be able to prepare it from scratch in about five minutes.

I’ve been fiddling with solutions to the problem, and I think I’ve come up with an acceptable solution. My method is based on my 20-ounce iced tea glasses, my ice machine (which makes very small cubes), and various other things specific to Red Lodge Books & Tea. Obviously, you’ll need to tweak it a bit for your own use.

For sweetening iced teas (especially boba tea), I keep simple syrup on hand all of the time. We make it using equal quantities of boiling water and plain sugar, and then cool it down to room temperature. It’s much easier than trying to mix granulated sugar into cold tea.

First, I add a tablespoon of strong black tea to the infuser — I use our Irish Breakfast Tea, which is a blend of Assam and Tanzanian tea. The leaves are finely broken, which maximizes the surface area for steeping.

To the leaves, I add four tablespoons of simple syrup and about 10oz of boiling water. I suppose I could use some alternate method for sweetening the tea, but I have never heard a request for diet sweet tea. If it’s not real sweet tea with sugar, it’s just sweetened tea, I suppose.

While it is steeping, I fill the glass all the way to the brim with ice.

I steep the tea for five minutes. I would never steep a cup of Irish breakfast tea that long for myself — especially with that much leaf — because I’m a bit of a purist and I don’t add milk or sugar. Steeping that long makes plain tea very bitter. Using this much sugar, however, offsets that bitterness, and adding it to during the steep makes the tea taste different than if it’s added after the fact.

When the tea is poured over the ice, most of the ice will melt. Add a straw and you’re good to go.

The World Tea Tasting Tour at Red Lodge Books & Tea


Over the next couple of months, Red Lodge Books & Tea will be taking you on a world tour of tea with a series of tastings and classes focused on teas from all around the world. The events will be at our tea bar on Fridays from 5:00 to 6:30. At each session, we’ll taste five to seven teas from a different country as we explore a bit of the country’s geography and tea culture. I will put a quick summary of each stop on the tour up here on the blog for those who can’t attend or who don’t remember which teas we covered.

The full tour consists of:

Friday, Feb 15All the Tea in China
Friday, Mar 1Tea. Earl Grey. Hot. (England)
Friday, Mar 8It’s Always Tea Time in India
Friday, Mar 15 — Japan: Bancha to Matcha (notes Part 1 and Part 2)
Friday, Mar 22Deepest Africa: The Tea of Kenya
Friday, Mar 29The Oolongs of Taiwan
Friday, Apr 5Rooibos from South Africa
Friday, Apr 12Yerba Maté from Argentina
Friday, Apr 26 — China part II: Pu-Erh
Friday, May 3 — India part II: Masala Chai

Each class will cost $5.00, which includes the tea tasting itself and a $5.00 off coupon that can be used that night for any tea, teaware, or tea-related books that we sell.

There will be more information posted on the tea bar’s Facebook page before each event, including a list of the teas that we will taste in each event.


UPDATE MARCH 9: As I blog about each of these experiences, I’m going to create a link from this post to the post containing the outline and tasting notes. I’ve linked the first two.


UPDATE MARCH 23: I changed the dates of the last two events. There will not be a tasting on April 19.

Most popular teas of 2012


As I did a year ago, I’ve gone through the year’s numbers from our tea bar to see what have been our most popular teas. A few have stayed consistent, but there have been a lot of changes, too. These sales only reflect bulk loose-leaf tea sales, as we don’t track the cup sales the same way.

Tea Bar 2012

Our top three sellers are all black teas — the same three as last year, although in a different order — which doesn’t surprise me. They are, however, the only black teas on the list, which does surprise me. There is only one green tea, one pu-erh, and one pu-erh/yerba maté blend. Everything else is yerba maté, rooibos, honeybush, and chamomile. That really surprises me.

  1. Premium Masala Chai (#3 last year)
    Organic & Fair Trade
    I suppose this one shouldn’t have surprised me. There are a lot of masala chai fans out there, and the coffee shops tend to make their masala chai from concentrates instead of brewing it up fresh like we do. I typically make this with milk and locally-produced honey.
  2. Gary’s Kilty Pleasure (formerly known as “Gary’s Scottish Breakfast” — #2 last year)
    This is a nice, strong, kick-in-the-pants first cup of the morning. It’s a blend of Kenya and Assam black tea. Traditionalists would steep it a long time and drink it with milk. I tend to prefer a fairly short steep (2-3 minutes), and I drink it black. This is the tea I used in the Hipster Hummus recipe for our Chamber of Commerce mixer in February.
  3. Ancient-Tree Earl Grey (#1 last year)
    Organic & Fair Trade
    This organic Earl Grey is made from 100-year-old tea trees and blended with pure bergamot oil. We carry nine different Earl Grey teas, and this one is consistently at the top of the sales list, although in the last few months Lady Greystoke has been coming on strong. It only missed the top 10 by one position this year, and I expect to see it on this list in 2013.
  4. Moroccan Mint (#4 last year)
    Organic & Fair Trade
    The popularity of this tea crosses seasons, as we sell just as much of it iced in the summer as we do hot in the winter. It’s a Chinese green tea with jasmine blossoms and peppermint leaves. I’m doing some experiments now as to the best way to aerate it when we serve it, which is typically accomplished by pouring it into the cup while holding the pot high in the air.
  5. Evening in Missoula
    This one wasn’t even on the list last year, and it’s the only chamomile blend ever to make our top ten list. It’s a blend from the Montana Tea & Spice Company, and it has completely blown away all of our other herbals in sales.
  6. Chocolate Maté Chai (#8 last year)
    Organic & Fair Trade
    Dessert in a mug! This velvety masala chai is made with yerba maté and pu-erh instead of black tea, and the standard masala chai spices are enhanced with cacao nibs & husks, vanilla, coconut, and long pepper. We usually prepare it with vanilla soy milk and local honey. It was also very popular during the summer as a base for boba tea.
  7. BlueBeary Relaxation
    Organic & Fair Trade
    Another debut on the list. Yes, that name is spelled correctly. It’s a red rooibos blend named for one of the bears at the Yellowstone Wildlife Sanctuary. We send a donation to the sanctuary for every ounce of this blend that we sell.
  8. Carnival Maté (#9 last year)
    This is not your basic yerba maté. This yummy south-Argentina style beverage uses roasted maté with caramel bits, marigold, and Spanish safflower petals. I’ve converted a lot of coffee drinkers using this one!
  9. Hammer & Cremesickle Red
    This is a fun rooibos/honeybush blend with orange and vanilla (among other things). I’ve blogged about the name and logo and about cooking with Hammer & Cremesickle Red.
  10. Blood Orange Pu-Erh
    Organic & Fair Trade
    This pu-erh blend uses intense orange to balance the strength and depth of the base tea.

Six out of our top ten are organic (up from five last year), and all six of those are fair trade as well. I expect that trend to continue — especially since we’re replacing many of our non-organic blends with organics — and to see at least one ETP (Ethical Tea Partnership) blend in next year’s top ten.

There is only one unflavored tea on this year’s list, and it is a house blend (Gary’s Kilty Pleasure). More of our customers are growing to appreciate the straight teas, though, and I’m hoping to see more of them next year.

We’ve been doing a lot more house blends in the last few months, and we are slowly replacing many of the blends that we buy premade with our own house blends. I’m expecting this list to be at least half house blends for 2013.

Most popular teas of 2011


As 2011 draws to a close, I am looking over the numbers from our tea bar to see what have been our most popular and least popular blends. When we opened the tea bar I expected our biggest sellers to be what people are most used to, like English Breakfast and Earl Grey, and that’s essentially what the top two slots were. Beyond that, however, I got some surprises…

Red Lodge Books & Tea Bar#1: Ancient-Tree Earl Grey

This organic Earl Grey is made from 100-year-old tea trees and blended with pure bergamot oil. I’ve tried a lot of Earl Grey tea in my time, and this is probably my favorite, although recently I’ve been drinking more of our new house blend: Mr. Excellent’s Post-Apocalyptic Earl Grey.

#2: Gary’s Scottish Breakfast

This is a nice, strong, kick-in-the-pants first cup of the morning. It’s a blend of Kenya and Assam black tea. Traditionalists would steep it a long time and drink it with milk. I tend to prefer a fairly short steep (around 3 minutes), and I drink it black.

[Update: This is the tea I used in the Hipster Hummus recipe for our Chamber of Commerce mixer in February 2012]

#3: Organic Premium Masala Chai

I suppose this one shouldn’t have surprised me. There are a lot of chai fans out there, and the coffee shops tend to make their chai from mixes instead of brewing it up fresh like we do. I typically make this with milk and locally-produced honey.

#4: Organic Moroccan Mint

The popularity of this tea crosses seasons, as we sell just as much of it iced in the summer as we do hot in the winter. It’s a Chinese green tea with jasmine blossoms and peppermint leaves. I’m doing some experiments now as to the best way to aerate it when we serve it, which is typically accomplished by pouring it into the cup while holding the pot high in the air.

#5: Apricot Honeybush

This one took me by surprise. We have a lot of different rooibos and honeybush blends in the tea bar, and I added this one initially just as something fun and different. Who knew it would end up as our most popular caffeine-free drink?

#6: Peach White

This Chinese Pai Mu Tan white tea with delicate peach flavoring is the most popular iced tea in the tea bar, but it’s also wonderful hot.

#7: Montana Gold

This is a rooibos blend from our friends up at Montana Tea & Spice company in Missoula. They add cinnamon, orange peel,  cloves, and other goodies to produce a spicy caffeine-free concoction that definitely plays in Red Lodge.

#8: Chocolate Maté Chai

Dessert in a mug! This velvety chai is made with yerba maté and pu-erh instead of black tea, and the standard masala chai spices are enhanced with cacao nibs & husks, vanilla, coconut, and long pepper. We usually prepare it with vanilla soy milk and local honey. It was also very popular during the summer as a base for boba tea.

#9: Carnival Maté

This is not your basic yerba maté. This yummy south-Argentina style beverage uses roasted maté with caramel bits, marigold, and Spanish safflower petals. I’ve converted a lot of coffee drinkers using this one!

#10: Jamaica Red Rooibos

This one sounded a little strange to me, but I brought it in to the tea bar on a whim. It’s another organic fair-trade blend. The Jamaica flower (Hibiscus Sabdariffa) is blended with organic red rooibos, along with lemongrass, schizandra berries, rosehips, licorice root, orange peel, natural passion fruit flavor, natural essential oils of orange and tangerine, natural mango flavor and natural essential clove oil. It’s awesome. I don’t just drink it, I cook with it, too.

What will be the big sellers in 2012? I think many of these will stay on the list, but we have some new blends that are selling strong right now (like our Hammer and Cremesickle Red and the aforementioned Mr. Excellent’s Post-Apocalyptic Earl Grey), and a lot more planned for the coming months. Half of the top ten for 2011 are organic, and I’m curious whether that trend will continue. Even though the organic teas tend to cost a bit more, people are willing to pay the difference.

The absolute best tea shop ever


Tea Room OpenI just finished reading a fascinating Harvard Business Review blog post entitled “Stop Competing to Be the Best.” Whether your business is computers, airport terminals, or tea shops, Joan Magretta has a pertinent message for you: being “the best” is a bad thing.

I remember when I bought my iPad, and I listened to people telling me why I had made a horrible mistake. “It doesn’t show Flash websites.” I don’t use any Flash-based websites. “It doesn’t have a real word processor.” I don’t use it for word processing. “It has no camera.” I use my phone as a camera. “It doesn’t run Windows.” Well, thank God for that! The point is that everyone uses their tablets differently. While the iPad is perfect for me, it may be a horrible choice for you.

The same is true of tea shops.

When we opened our tea bar, we asked ourselves a lot of hard questions. One of them was what to call the business. The term “tea room” conjures up images of fine china, Earl Grey tea, crumpets with clotted cream, and lace doilies. Definitely not our market. A “tea shop” is frequently either focused on Chinese or Japanese tea, with beautiful oriental teacups and a great selection of green and white teas. The nearest tea house to us is run by an herbalist, who has a deep selection of herbs; she must have 200 drinks that don’t contain Camellia sinensis (the tea plant) at all.

Do we want to compete with them to be the best tea shoppe/tea bar/tea room in the area? Not at all.

Success in the tea business, like success in any other business, depends upon defining the word “best” so that it applies to you. We serve our tea in glass mugs so you can see the tea. If you want a “to go” cup, we use compostable cups for both hot and iced tea. No fine china. No fancy teapots. We don’t consider Earl Grey to be any better or any worse than lapsang souchong (or Earl Grey lapsang souchong for that matter), white tea, green rooibos, or purple tea. They’re just different. We’re not tea Nazis.

We’re also not herbalists. I don’t select our teas based on whether they’re supposedly good for menstrual cramps or helping you go to sleep — most of that is pseudoscience and marketing hype anyway. I choose them based on how they taste. People don’t walk into our tea bar looking for a couple ounces of something to help with their digestion; they walk in looking for a tasty genmaicha or pu-erh. That, we can help with.

I remember taking a marketing class that used Sun Tzu’s Art of War as its text. It’s amazing how much an ancient Chinese treatise on war applies to modern-day marketing and business strategy. One of the clear lessons is that you should never meet the enemy on its own turf unless you have an overwhelming advantage. If you wish to succeed in the tea business, then create your own business model. Don’t pick someone else’s and try to beat them at it. If you define the word “best” so that it applies to you, then you win the game from the day you open your doors. I don’t know if Joan Magretta studied Sun Tzu, but they’re preaching the same message. Learn from it.

Purple tea update


In August, I wrote about the new purple tea from Kenya, and opined that it would probably be a while before I got hold of some. Luckily for me, my blog post caught the eyes of the right people, and there’s a kilo of purple tea on its way to me as we speak. As of next week, Red Lodge Books will be the first tea bar in the U.S. offering purple tea. At $16.00/ounce, it certainly isn’t cheap, but it will be the cornerstone of our new super-premium tea line.

Once it arrives and I have a chance to taste it, I’ll post more information and put up links for purchasing purple tea.

[UPDATE Nov 2011: We have received the Royal Purple Tea and I’ve added a blog post describing it.]

[UPDATE May 2012: Our new tea bar website is up and running, and Royal Purple Tea is available for purchase now.]

Why a tea bar?


From the day we bought our bookstore ten years ago, customers started asking if we planned to put in a coffee shop. At the time, the store was only 475 square feet, which would have made it impossible even if we had wanted to. When we moved to a bigger location the following year, requests stepped up. Since I don’t like coffee, and there’s a great coffee shop a block away, I continued to say “no” to the idea.

So how did we end up with a tea bar in our store?

I have long been a tea aficionado, and the store has been carrying loose tea in tins for over a year. After regular requests from customers to try the teas, my wife Kathy and I started looking at possibilities. Having just moved to a larger building yet again (the store is now about 2,000 square feet), we determined that a serving counter would, indeed, work.

After securing all of the required permits, and spending several months researching bulk teas, we put together a menu of about 80 different teas and pulled together all of the infrastructure. Since an 8-page tea menu can be overwhelming, we put up a “Staff Favorites” board with eight teas that the employees like. The back wall of the store is lined with shelves displaying jars of tea, and a large world map shows where many of the teas come from.

Red Lodge Books has always had a heavily local feel, and we wanted to carry that over to the tea bar. Since you can’t grow tea plants in Montana, we decided to bring the local flavor in through the accessories. We sell alfalfa/clover honey from a nearby ranch, and handmade pottery teaware from a local artisan, and we are carrying Montana-grown sage and apple mint teas from On Thyme Gourmet in Bridger.

Everything in the tea bar is designed around making the tea look good for bulk buyers. We serve our hot tea in clear glass mugs and iced tea in clear “to go” cups to show its color and clarity. Displaying the bulk tea properly raised some questions. Tea leaves should be stored away from sunlight, yet they sell much better when customers can see the product. To solve this, I bought smaller jars that show the tea well, but we store the majority of the backstock in airtight, opaque bags in the storage room. The back wall never gets direct sun, and the inventory turns fast enough to prevent the tea from getting stale in the jars. Allowing customers to see the tea definitely helps with sales.

Since many customers are unfamiliar with the different types of tea, we chose to prepare the teas ourselves rather than just tossing a bag in a cup and handing it to the customer. We use tea timers (or tea timer apps in our phones – yes, there’s an app for that), and adjust the quantity of leaves and steeping time based on what kind of tea the customer orders. That way, each customer gets a cup of tea that’s prepared just right, which makes them more likely to want bulk tea to take home for later.

In building the menu, I brought in some lesser-known varieties simply because they were personal favorites. If they didn’t sell, I figured he could always drink them myself. Much to my surprise, I found quite a few like-minded tea aficionados in town that were very excited to discover a local source for obscure teas. Although most of the best-sellers are predictable favorites like Earl Grey and Moroccan mint, drinks like lapsang souchong, aged pu-erh, and roasted maté are selling very well also.

To keep the tea theme going, we brought in a large collection of related items as well. Kathy tracked down several suppliers of shortbread, which goes better with tea than the biscotti served at coffee shops. Several of the shortbreads have tea baked right into them. We also carry tea filters, glass pots, flowering teas, handmade maté gourds, and (of course) a selection of books about tea.

We are also working to maintain a “green” tea bar. We save and compost all of our tea leaves, and the go cups (including the clear ones) are all compostable.

Once again, we’ve found a way to turn one of my personal passions into a part of the business. And the best part is that – as best I can tell after only a month in operation – it seems to be working!

[UPDATE May 2012: You can visit our tea bar online now!]

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