Q&A: Craft Tea’s Michael O’Brien Pairs Tea with Vinyl and Personality in Philly

Michael O'Brien, owner of Craft Tea in Philadelphia. Photo: Courtesy of Craft Tea.

Owner Michael O’Brien’s Craft Tea brand out of Philadelphia is all about character and personality, as it uses creative artwork for its products and suggests vinyl records to pair with its teas. The company specializes in unique and relaxing herbal blends, as well as "Farm to Kettle" teas, which feature leaves from independent tea farmers around the world.

In addition to being an online business, O’Brien regularly travels to events around the United States to promote and sell his teas – from funk concerts and indie rock festivals to art events and goth cemetery shows. He also supplies tea to local Philly cafés and partners with music venues to provide tea for musicians. However, with COVID-19, O’Brien’s strong in-person presence diminished, so he turned to delivering teas to local customers, personally.

Michael O'Brien, owner of Craft Tea in Philadelphia. Photo: Courtesy of Craft Tea.

In this colorful Q&A, we chat with O’Brien to get to know his business and how it began. We discuss how he’s facing the challenges of the pandemic, and we discover the many ways he’s used creativity to successfully build his business over the years.

Question: Hi, Mike. Thanks for your time! First off, can you tell us a little about how you got interested in tea? What inspired you to launch the business?

Answer: My pleasure, Aaron! My interest in tea is a story of music, travel and friends. Interestingly enough, I actually got into tea through kava kava, a muscle relaxing root from Polynesia. I used to collect musical instruments and one day while jamming with friends, I experimented with kava and was blown away by the mellow effects. That sparked my interest in herbs, so I began collecting “feel good” herbs like passionflower and skullcap. At the time, I had a dream job travelling the world, which landed me in places that took tea seriously, like China, India and Turkey. These teas tasted a lot better than the feel-good herbs, so I started collecting them as well. Soon, I hosted tea parties to try all the unique flavors. The stranger, the better. The parties were lively and full of good vibes, despite the absence of alcohol.

I worked that job for four years, which is plenty of time to see the world. A little too much, in fact, as I developed a blood clot from years of long flights and a nasty fall in the Philippines. I couldn’t continue travelling, and the health scare played a critical role in how I viewed life and how I wanted to spend my time. I was so charged up from everything I’d seen and done; I wanted to channel that energy into something new where I was the boss. Tea seemed like the perfect avenue to explore because of its worldly, healthy attributes. Besides, the tea parties and jam sessions proved just how fun tea could be.

Some of Craft Tea's "Farm to Kettle" teas. Photo: Courtesy of Craft Tea.

Question: Tell us about your Craft Tea business. What was your original vision, and do you feel like you’ve succeeded?

Answer: I originally envisioned a tea house called The Tea Party in Washington, D.C. – I grew up in the D.C. area. The concept being a tea house that operated as a bar alternative. Around this time, the craft beer movement was making big waves, and while I dug the illustrations and creativity, I didn’t need the extra carbs in my diet. I wanted a place where friends could have a memorable hangout, without the beer belly. I pictured teas on tap and a decadent sound system playing music in high fidelity.

My former boss recommended I work at a tearoom before opening one and it was some of the best advice I’ve taken in life. Within 30 minutes of my first shift at the now defunct House of Steep, I already knew I wasn’t built for operating a café or tearoom. Fortunately, the timing worked out by coincidence that I was able to easily pivot my thoughts. After so many tea and vinyl hangouts, I eventually had a friend ask if he could buy some tea. This whole time I was focused on building a tea house with no intention of creating a tea product, but it seemed doable. So I drafted up a catalog for him and before he even placed an order, I had another friend saying, “Hey, I heard you’re selling tea…”

So, when viewing it narrowly, I think it’s clear I didn’t succeed in my original vision, but on a broad scale, I feel accomplished in providing friends with a healthy, fun way to relax and socialize. I may not have done exactly what I set out to do, but the amazing things I’ve experienced through tea fill me with an irreplaceable satisfaction that would be hard to achieve elsewhere. That being said, I’m not done – I still have a lot of work to do!

Michael O'Brien makes a personal delivery to one of his customers in Philadelphia. Photo: Courtesy of Craft Tea.

Question: What is your brand all about, and why did you decide to pair tea with vinyl?

Answer: I’d say Craft Tea is all about character and personality. An old soul who is young at heart. Whether it’s the illustrations, the names or the actual blends themselves, there’s a wide range of characters weaving in and out of Craft Tea. Over the course of the years, I’ve gained an eclectic mix of friends from working at movie theaters, record stores and concert venues. Craft Tea is an accumulation of my life experiences, and I wanted to make sure everyone’s spirit and personality was represented. I try to make sure there’s a tea for everyone.

In regard to why I pair tea with vinyl… One downside of the travel gig was not being able to see friends all the time. When I was back in town, I’d want to catch up, but that usually meant going to a bar, which I found noisy and a drain on the wallet. So, I began inviting friends over for an alternative hang out involving tea and vinyl. The combination creates a warm and enriching bond, which can feel quite therapeutic. In order to optimize benefits, I use loose leaf tea and lossless audio, similar concepts in that they don’t compromise integrity. I like to compare CTC bagged tea to an MP3. You can tell what song is playing with an mp3, but if you really want to feel it, an analog source – like a record – is recommended.

I put the vinyl pairing on the label to remind my friend what album we were listening to when drinking the tea. This idea kind of took off because it became an easy way for customers to pick out the right tea. There’s a lot of info to take in and I am not expecting everyone to know what gotu kola or holy basil are, but they should get a good sense of how the Willie Nelson tea is going to make them feel.

Craft Tea's "Dirty Dozen." Photo: Courtesy of Craft Tea.

Question: Let’s talk about your products. What kind of teas and herbals teas do you offer?

Answer: I specialize in unique and relaxing herbal blends, which tend to fall into two categories: friendly and funky. When I initially made teas with a business in mind, they were very much health focused since I was recovering from a blood clot at the time. Many of these blends originated from inviting a friend over, asking what ailed them, and trying to make something based on their response. I call these friendly blends, but the industry typically calls them functional. Whatever you want to call them, they’re definitely my most popular because their balance of flavor and effects appeals to a wide range of folks, regardless of their interest in the health benefits.

Then there are funky blends. My first public appearances as a tea business were at funk concerts and art galleries. I created custom teas for those events, which meant a lot of themed teas. For instance, the “Remember the ’90s?” art show resulted in blends based on Pulp Fiction, Seinfeld and the Wu-Tang Clan. I tend to like these more, because the subject’s personality translates to subtle, unique nuances that give the cup a lot of character.

I also have a line called Farm to Kettle, which features delicious tea leaves from independent tea farmers around the world. Tea festivals taught me there’s a certain demographic of tea drinkers that won’t touch anything that’s not camellia sinensis. Thus, I launched a line of blends that focus on the tea leaf. It’s tougher to get creative with these ones, but you can definitely delight those who demand deliciousness.

Photo: Courtesy of Craft Tea

Question: Have you had any formal tea training? How did you learn about tea and tea blending?

Answer: I learned through an excess of trial and error. I was self-taught in the beginning and used the mad scientist method for jam sessions, which pretty much consisted of me seeing how many nerve tonics I could throw into a pot. I’m not sure if it’s sad or funny, but one of my first thoughts after leaving my corporate job to start a tea business was, “Hm… I really don’t know how to make tea. Am I really expecting the general public to enjoy the same drink my bandmate was pouring half a bottle of honey into?”

So I began extensive research, reading books on herbs and teas, how to brew them properly, and what blends well together. I built an in-depth spreadsheet that cross-referenced everything I learned, then I created a separate spreadsheet journaling every blend I made for a year. There were three colors I used: green was market ready, yellow showed promise, and red meant some element needed to be avoided at all costs. As the year went by, there was more green and less red. Eventually, it got to the point where I could look at my herb cabinet with a concept in mind and certain ingredients would jump out.

I learned a great deal through extensive research and failures. Years later, I decided to take a formal tea training course to fine tune my skills. The class gave me confidence and improved the consistency of my blends.

Question: Each of your teas are packaged with creative, colorful artwork. Can you tell us about that?

Answer: I get by with a little help from my friends. In particular, two friends were critical in my early days: Billi French and Mike O’Brien. Back in my tea party phase, Billi designed collectible baseball cards for each tea, but that was when the product was still just a concept. When I unexpectedly got my first order for this product that didn’t exist, I used her baseball card images for the tea label, which set the design for years to come.

Furthermore, Billi took the labels I shoddily made in Word and transformed them into a shelf-ready product that caught customers’ eyes. A few years later, “The Other” Mike O’Brien added his distinct style to the labels, including a set of logos, handwritten tea titles, and a comic-book like texture to the background.

More recently, the teas have featured artists I’ve met at events, like Philly legend, Paul Carpenter. You meet such a diverse crowd of talented people at these events, it’s easy to accumulate a rolodex of local artists. Those relationships are symbiotic, but without the help of Billi and O’Brien starting out, it would’ve been tough to reach that level of collaboration with other artists.

Question: You source tea leaves from independent tea farmers. How do you select the tea estates that you work with?

Answer: Most of the tea I source for the Farm to Kettle line is through Tealet. They do an exceptional job providing delicious tea from indie tea farmers around the world and sampling their catalog is always a treat. In the end, I’m seeking out vibes to see what fits. Some of the fancier teas are borderline religious experiences, but best left alone. I typically seek out quality tea that plays well with others.

I also source a couple of teas from Nepal Tea, which is run out of New York by Nishchal Banskota, a fellow member of the Mid-Atlantic Tea Business Association. His father built a tea farm in Eastern Nepal after visiting Darjeeling in the 70’s and his story is pretty neat. More importantly, their tea is phenomenal. The taste is complex, courtesy of the Himalaya terrain, and the tea is super fresh because of their emphasis on a small supply chain.

Some infusions by Craft Tea. Photo: Courtesy of Craft Tea.

Question: What kind of interest have you seen in your teas during the pandemic? What have online sales been like?

Answer: I’ve been pretty fortunate during the pandemic, all things considered. Online sales are significantly higher, however overall sales are down due to the lack of events.

One interesting thing I’ve noticed is the shift in demand for certain kinds of teas. People are buying more of the funky blends, like Cosmic Trip and Friend of the Devil – the two teas I consider “weird and intense” and geared more for effects. When the pandemic hit, I expected an increased interest in my immunity blend, Sauna Iguana. Instead, people were choosing Deep Sleep 9 and Mellow My Mind.

One thing I’ve done to boost online sales is offer free delivery in Philly. With everyone working at home, it’s nice dropping off the tea in person, which customers tend to appreciate.

Question: In addition to selling teas online, part of your business has been travelling to festivals and events – pre-COVID – and selling your tea products. Has that gone well? Has it been a successful way to supplement your online sales?

Answer: I love working events. I can sell more in one day than an entire month’s worth of online sales. Philly has a lot of really cool arts and craft shows, like the Punk Rock Flea Market and Funky Brunch. For what it’s worth, I do particularly well at goth cemetery shows. Those events are really good for me because I’m usually the only tea vendor, so there’s a certain intrigue to my table. Then there is the Pennsylvania Tea Fest – and other tea festivals – where everyone is there to drink and buy tea, so you go through so much more product than a typical day.

My product is super visual; seeing all 30 teas lined up really pops. The variety can be daunting, but I can quickly narrow down selections with just a tiny bit of information from the customer. Chances are, if you visit the table, you leave with a tea – often two at a time because of special event deals.

Sales aside, the true treasure of live events is the networking, both with customers and artists. There’s a major disconnect when everything goes virtual and it becomes harder to establish trust with someone who has never heard of you. Who wants to buy tea from a stranger on the Internet?

Question: In addition to not being able to travel to events during the COVID-19 pandemic, has your business faced any other challenges?

Answer: COVID has definitely built a world of challenges. The main challenge I face is a drop in exposure. Working events and serving the tea in cafés around the city helped get my name out, but the shift to take-out significantly affects my presence, which can be a real bummer since I worked so hard to build those relationships. A lot of the cafés I work with are experience-based – i.e. cat café, record café, board game café – so they haven’t been able to operate as usual. It takes an emotional toll to see the struggle of these places that I love, who’ve been such wonderful partners. Same goes for the musicians I’ve collaborated with that can’t tour at the moment.

Before the shutdowns, one of my greatest achievements was partnering with music venues to provide tea in their green rooms. This was excellent exposure because of the social media clout of all those touring musicians, but in the grand scheme of things, losing eyes on Instagram is nothing when you consider the real ravages of the pandemic.

Question: Let’s go back to when you first launched your online tea business. What lessons did you learn that you can share with those who are just starting an online tea business?

Answer: Don’t quit your day job! It is tough to make a living off tea, so it may be wise to support your tea business with a job that pays the bills and, ideally, doesn’t take up too much of your mental space. This can be a tricky balancing act: You need freedom of mind to really concentrate on the tea business, but you need a supplementary income until the tea business starts booming. If you’re able to take a sabbatical from your current job to at least to jumpstart your thoughts, that may be best. Beware too much free time, as it can send you into existential dread.

Question: How have you promoted your business and built your customer base? What creative things have you done?

Answer: I’ve built my base by partnering with those who share the mission of helping people via entertainment and healthy living. Some of these partnerships start small, but they can snowball into other ones and lead to big exposure. I recently made a custom tea for Sad13’s 2020 album, Haunted Painting. That put me on a whole other level of exposure because she’s a bonafide celebrity in the indie rock world. She discovered my teas at Milkcrate, the record café in Philly, and our collaboration led to a Craft Tea mention in The New York Times.

Sad13 is not the first musician I’ve teamed up with. I originally made musician John Andrews a custom tea to sell at his merch table. He returned the favor by creating an animated commercial for Craft Tea using 400 hand-painted frames that perfectly captured the warm feeling of tea and vinyl.

Every other video at Craft Tea is made with my sweetheart, Alyssa Shea. We’re goofy film nerds, and our videos are usually well-received. One fan favorite is “Misery is Bagged Tea,” a spoof of Stephen King’s Misery which emulates the feeling of being bagged tea. People seem to connect to that one, as well as the superbly cute video we made with my grandma. These commercials convey that Craft Tea is just the little guy trying to make you smile.

Last year, I had to pivot one of my video concepts since the pandemic made filming indoors with friends difficult. The video was a spoof on Reefer Madness. Entitled Refill Madness, it was a promotion of my refill program at Craft Tea. Since I couldn’t meet with the friends I wanted to cast, I hired “The Other” Mike O’Brien to turn my storyboards into a comic strip for Instagram.

Craft Tea comic, which was made as a marketing and social campaign to promote the company's "Refill Madness" program, in which customers can keep their tins and order sealed refill bags at a discounted price. Illustrations by: "The Other" Mike O'Brien.

Question: Thanks for your time! Last Question: What advice do you have for other tea entrepreneurs who want to build a successful online business?

Answer: Go slow… don’t rush. I operate at a tortoise pace and I can’t say I’ve personally missed out on too much. I prefer to go with the flow and adjust the speed to move with traffic.

My first order shipped Nov. 11, 2014. Before I had fulfilled the first order, I already had demand for more. I took a photo of those two orders and posted it on Facebook and it started a snowball of interest that I could barely keep up with. I was so overwhelmed with everything that I falsely assumed this would be the demand all the time. After that holiday rush, I bought herbs in bulk… a lot. Then spent the next few months wondering when all the orders were going to come in. I wasted a lot of money and ingredients, but at least learned a valuable lesson to not get too ahead of myself. I’ve taken things in stride ever since.

In my experience, it takes years to fully understand exactly what you’re working with. Sometimes it’s advantageous to just get in the game and start playing around to figure out where you belong. Sit in where you fit in. I was on the friends and family route for a couple of years and worked out the kinks before making bigger moves. You’ve got to stretch before you do some heavy lifting!

To learn more about Craft Tea, based in Philadelphia, visit CraftTeaGuy.com.