In the hierarchy of tea businesses, monthly tea subscription services are like man-buns.
Unless you have a really good reason for starting one—or your name is Toshiro Mifune—it is usually best not to. Since 2014, there has been a veritable surge of tea start-ups, and the route they’ve all chosen? You guessed it, the monthly subscription model. When I attended World Tea Expo that year, every new vendor present was either (a) trying to start one, or (b) “thinking” of starting one. And from a business perspective, it makes sense.
All a potential “monthly” vendor had to do was acquire enough wholesale product at cost in order to meet the demand of their current subscriber base. They could easily keep a tally of how much to purchase and when—i.e. once a month. This strategy kept costs low and overhead even. No gambling.
With a glut of so many subscription services out there, and a dearth of people interested in tea, it’s hard to stand-out. A vendor would need to have a very unique angle to the strategy in order to stick out in the rough. And, no, custom blending doesn’t count. At least, not anymore.
So, when I was approached by Tea Runners in June of this year, one can understand why I went into the conversation skeptical. I was approached by Charlie Ritchie, and—just from the initial email—I already liked the guy. His tone was conversational, jovial, and it didn’t come across as a normal cut-‘n-paste e-mail job. Even it if was, I couldn’t tell, so . . . go him! That and his replies to my queries were prompt and polite.
Tea Vendor Etiquette Level: Wizard.
After the initial message, I did a little research. I, at least, wanted to give this li’l start-up the benefit of the doubt before I turned my nose up. I went to their bio and saw . . .
Wait a minute . . .
Was that . . . ?
KAYLEE FROM FIREFLY?!?!?!
Charlie Ritchie . . . was married to . . . Kaylee from Firefl— . . . I mean, Jewel Staite. An actress who played one of my favorite characters, from one of my favorite TV shows of all time. Holy eff-bomb! That changed everything. Rarely has my tea geek life and my . . . actual geek life intersected, but here I was.
Not only that.
They were at this year’s World Tea Expo. The one year I skipped World Tea Expo, and it was the ONE YEAR Kayle—. . . I mean, Jewel Staite and her husband were wandering the trade show. Although, from what I gather, she and Charlie were pretty ninja about the whole thing. They kept a low profile. I think that may have been due to a Magic: The Gathering convention happening next door.
I know it was a dumb reason, but just for that fact alone, I accepted the subscription box. I half-promised that I would try to keep my fanboyisms contained. (But only half.)
The subscription box arrived the week after, and I really dug their packaging.
It fit their whole world-exploratory motif. Plus, their emphasis on featuring award-winning teas was another potential draw. As to what that entailed, I have no idea. However, I wouldn’t find out . . . until five months later. Why?
Well, remember when I said my summer was bit . . .
Yeah, something like that.
Anyway, because of some health issues and other crap, I couldn’t get to it until November. And on a particularly uneventful day off, I finally did.
I opened the box and was greeted by four 1-ounce sample bags. Two of the teas were single origin offerings, and the other two were blends. I especially gave major props for them listing where the blends were sourced from.
One came from Rishi Tea; the other hailed from American Tea Room—two outfits I respected. While they didn’t list the sourcing info for the single origin stuff, I didn’t care. I already knew where one of them—their “oolong”—hailed from . . . but I’ll get to that later.
Here we go, and I’ll try and stay focused. Minimal fanboying.
Aaaaah, Golden Bi Luo . . . it’s been a long time.
While several years had passed since I last had a Yunnan-grown black Bi Luo Chun-style Dian Hong, I still remembered the flavor profile quite well. It was equal parts honey and malt. And that showed through in the scent of these conically rolled tea leaves before me. They were gold, brown . . . and golden brown and wafted the Yunnan terroir of desert and jungle in a sultry fragrance. A grand find.
The liquor brewed to a dark, but soft, honey amber. The steam scent evoked feelings of campfire, toasty soup, and . . . wood? Yes, wood. A fairly common Yunnan Dian Hong note. I was rather surprised that malt was missing, though. It did show up on taste, however.
On first sip, there was a slight tannic pinch at the intro, but that smoothed out to a woody, sweet, and slightly malty middle. That trifecta transitioned to a subtle note of honey and hints of tobacco. A toasted oats sensation lingered on the tongue far after the gulp.
This was my kind of black tea. It was like that scene in the episode “Out of Gas” when Mal looked upon the Serenity for the first time ever.
He just knew that was the ship he was meant to buy, and—. . . Crap, I’m doing it, aren’t I?
Stay focused, Geoff.
As mentioned above, Tea Runners didn’t list where they sourced this Nepalese “oolong” from. However, I did know. It was hard to forget a name like “Dragon Claw”; I remember making a big deal about it several years ago. For the sake of proprietorship, I’ll keep my knowledge close to the hip. I will say, it was quite special—even if it didn’t adhere to the strict Chinese/Taiwanese definition of “oolong”.
To its credit, it—at least—smelled like an oolong, not once betraying its Himalayan origins in its presentation. The leaf rolling technique was similar to the black Bi Luo, but the leaves were far darker. This conveyed their 70%-ish oxidation level. Pretty ideal percentage for a Himilayan semi-oxidized tea.
The liquor brewed up . . . about the same as the Black Gold Bi Luo.
Same soft copper liquor and a similar scent of toasted wood. However, there were definitely more layers I detected as I sniffed. (I’m an expert sniffer.) After the first taste, those layers made themselves known like an overly-flirty Tinder swiper. A roasted aspect showed up at first, followed by a requisite Himalayan high altitude muscatel profile, and then it tossed all of that aside to end on an actual, honest-to-Buddha oolong note.
It was like tasting . . . well . . . Buddhism. Not actual, austere Buddhism, but a more sultry Buddhism. Like Inara Sara’s quarters, covered in silks, smelling of incense, and . . .
Oh right, sorry, I got distracted again.
The Organic Bliss blend smelled like candy. Let’s get that outta the way. The blend hailed from The American Tea Room, and that didn’t surprise me one bit. A lot of blends from that Beverly Hills-based outfit erred on the French perfumy side of flavoring. Subtlety wasn’t their strong suit; not to say their stuff wasn’t good, though.
This was a blend of green and white tea paired with chunks of dragonfruit, raspberry, and kiwi pieces (fruit not bird). Rounding it out was good ol’ lemongrass and . . . *sigh* . . . natural flavoring and sugar. That was where the loud candy scent came from. Dang it.
After opening the bag, my basement “apartment” smelled like a French patisserie. A stark improvement, honestly. One can only smell manchild, shoe, and bad life choices for so long. Anything was a step up.
When I took a sip I . . .
Okay, look, this type of tea was not really my . . . well . . . cuppa tea. It smelled like candy, it tasted like candy, and it left a syrupy coat on my tongue. Like candy. This is for the different kind of tea drinker, one that hasn’t developed a palate for the flavor of just tea. While I try not to begrudge flavored blends for existing—they do serve a purpose—they’re not what I gravitate to. I won’t say I’ve surpassed such blends, I haven’t, but the flavoring on this was waaaay too heavy-handed for my particular (read: peculiar) palate.
I really wanted to like this tea; really, honestly, truly. And I feel like quite the tea snob just admitting it wasn’t my cuppa. Admitting that reminds me those snooty noblewomen in “Shindig” that turned up their nose at Kaylee’s pink, ruffle-y dress.
I mean, c’mon, it was a nice dress, and . . .
I did it again, didn’t I?
This mint-heavy blend hailed from Rishi Tea—an outfit I was quite familiar with from my early tea reviewing days.
Full disclosure, before I opened this bag, I was fighting with my sinuses pretty hard. Not sure if it was the crisp autumn air or what. Opening this was like a peppermint spray to the nostrils. Peppermint and licorice showed their presence front and center on aromatics. Cardamom, basil, and clove . . . were there? I guess? But not overly apparent on first impression. It was hard to make anything out—visually or sensually—through all that peppermint.
This blend was more my speed in every single way. I never thought cardamom and peppermint could complement each other, but they do. Oooooh man, they do! I think the secret is licorice root. Between the cool mint and the spicy elements, licorice acts like the Oreo-like center that keeps the whole experience sandwiched perfectly. Mint took point on the flavor, the top note was spicy, and the end was a combination of both. And all the while, just under the radar, licorice root sweetness kept it all afloat.
On top of all that, it was a very soothing and warming cup. It traveled down my body in a very massage-y sorta way. To the point where it reached ‘twixt my nethers, and . . .
DUDE! No . . . that’s a bad Literatus!
In summation, I think there’s room in the overcrowded tea subscription landscape for something like Tea Runners. It seems their mission is to provide a well-rounded sipping experience for all palates. Over half of the offerings included in their July box met with palatial approval. Only one blend didn’t sate me, and them’s good odds.
If I had one minor nitpick, it’s that I think they should capitalize a little more on their potential sci-fi street cred. Perhaps, in future monthly boxes, they could partner up with some blender outfits and—say—include custom blends designed after characters Jewel Staite has played in the past. I can think of several blenders off the top of my head that’d jump at the chance. Some of whom have already created Firefly themed blends. I don’t see any Stargate: Atlantis ones out there, and I think Wonderfalls needs one.
Okay, maybe not Wondefalls.
But it seems like they’re doing just fine without needing to pander. And perhaps I’ve let my not-so-inner Browncoat run a little too amok in this long-winded write-up. Then again . . . ?
Ah, screw it.
I’m a tea leaf on the wind, watch how I steep.
To join Tea Runners, go HERE.
To purchase their past teas (including some of the ones mentioned above), go HERE.