I’m the sort of guy that would happily pay double for something if you slapped the right fandom on it. My social media profile picture for the past few years? A photo of me in one of the overpriced Star Wars restaurants at Disney World, happily sipping away at a $20 cup of “Blue Milk” that probably had all of 50 cents worth of ingredients in it.
While this habit has, too often, resulted in me wasting money on novelties, it has also led me to some gems from time to time. Case in point? Black Lotus Tea Co.!
About a year ago, I was shopping for tea online and decided to Google “nerdy teas.” Black Lotus Tea Co. was one of the first results. Recognizing the reference, I hopped onto the company’s website and was overjoyed to discover a whole array of different teas based on Dungeons & Dragons, role-playing games, and a bunch of connected properties.
And the best part? The teas were really good! I was hooked and I’ve spent months sampling different flavors; marveling all along at how unique many of them are.
I recently reached out to the Black Lotus Tea Co. recently to see if they could fill me on the work that goes into their catalog. The company’s founder, Liz, wrote back with some interesting details about the origins of her business and the art of making creative teas.
Stew Shearer: The reason your tea has become a favorite of mine is how effective you are at translating a character/fantasy concept into a flavor. What’s your process for looking at an idea like “Expeditious Retreat” and turning it into a brew-able tea?
Liz: It depends on the brew, but sometimes I have ideas on what flavors I’m looking for to represent something. Most of the Critical Role teas were developed like that.
Sometimes I look at other traditional tea blends and remake them with my own twist. Yasha’s tea is like this with lavender and chamomile being a common herbal tea. I took that and added an oolong as a base to it and added a few other flowers. Vistani Vardos is like a fruity Russian Caravan blend.
But a lot of times I like to think about what flavors or tea types might go together well and just do lots of tests. If I make one I really like, I’ll make sure to mark it for use later. The spell tea collection has been mostly developed like that. I browse the spell lists in the [Dungeons & Dragons] Player's Handbook while sipping and pick out names I think are good, then I’ll ask friends and family their opinions.
SS: Have you had any flavor ideas that didn’t pan out? Would you be willing to share some examples?
L: That’s a fairly common thing. Sometimes I have ideas that sound really good on paper, but then when it comes to actually brewing it, they just don’t meld with the taste of the tea.
I don’t like to completely cover the flavor of the tea leaves, so I tend to keep additional flavors lighter and if they don’t harmonize, I’ll cross it out. Most of the time if it doesn’t work, the tea might not necessarily taste horrible, but the cup just ends up tasting a little muddy, with no distinct flavors coming through.
Blends using lapsang souchong, which is a smoke-dried tea, can be difficult to balance since lapsang tends to overpower everything, so early tries of Snicke-Tea Snooks tasted less like s'mores, where it ended up, and more like campfire ashes.
SS: You’ve been in business for several years now. What has your growth been like?
L: It’s been interesting. The first year was very slow, which I expected for just starting out and operating on a very small advertising budget.
Early into the second year though, I think someone posted a video on TikTok of the color changing action of Long May He Reign and things just exploded. I wasn’t prepared at all and at the time, I only had the one laser cutter to make the deluxe boxes with, which was what just about everyone was ordering. My family really came to the rescue and became my volunteer employees.
Through the rest of the year, just by word of mouth from people, there were a couple other really busy periods, especially around Christmas time. That is by far our busiest time.
I had started looking at larger spaces and possibly hiring one or two people to help, but because of the pandemic things ended up slowing down a lot this last year. So the business remains just me and my family. My parents enjoy being like employees since they both retired last year and this helps keep them busy.
SS: You’ve based a number of your tea flavors on specific live play programs like Critical Role. Is that something you had to approach them about?
L: I started blending based on the live play programs I enjoyed watching - the first being Dice, Camera, Action!
I view my blends as a type of fanart, so I’ve never thought of them as representing the podcasts officially. The blends are just inspired by them.
I know that legally, selling fan made products exist in a bit of a grey area, so I’m pretty careful to not use anything from the various companies, especially Critical Role, that are trademarked or copyrighted. I did reach out to an artist and Critical Role once to see if I could use parts of a fan art that they ended up using on one of their official posters for an event as art on my deluxe boxes, but never got a response back.
SS: What is your personal favorite tea flavor that you’ve come up with? Which ones would you recommend to people looking for an introduction to your catalog?
L: I think my absolute favorite is Graveyard Tea. I probably drink that one more than the others, though Snicke-tea Snooks or Nott the Brave are close to being second.
As for what to recommend, it really depends on what kinds of flavors the person likes. The most popular ones on the site are Dirty Wizard and Long May He Reign, which I think are both excellent ones to start with. Dirty Wizard being more in the spicy cinnamon zone and Long May He Reign being more for fans of fruity flavors.
As for collections as a whole, I think Dice, Camera, Action! is my favorite recommendation for those new to tea as it has a good range of different tea types and flavors.
SS: In the “About Us” information on your website, you mention that it took some practice and learning to “brew tea correctly.” What does that mean exactly?
L: Growing up I had only ever tried fast food iced tea, which always just tasted like weird water - the brew was usually pretty weak or extremely bitter and astringent. I thought that hot tea was supposed to be bitter like coffee.
But then I just sort of decided in my late 20s that, since I didn’t like coffee, I still wanted a warm drink in the mornings and that there had to be probably SOME kind of tea out there I would like.
So I went online to look for teas that weren’t super bitter, I found the r/tea subreddit and discovered how vast the world of tea was and what each one was supposed to be like. The black tea that I thought I didn’t like, it turned out I was just brewing it too long. Trying again and brewing it the right amount of time, I found it was actually really tasty, and things just sort of took off from there.
SS: Are there any resources you would point people to if they were interested in learning to make their own teas?
L: If someone really wants to and has the money to spare, there’s actually a World Tea Academy, run by the World Tea Expo, that offers master blending classes. I’ve never taken them myself but I’ve looked at them and maybe someday I will.
Just attending a World Tea Expo and some of the classes they have, if they’re looking to start a business, can be a huge resource and it’s how I’ve found a couple of my suppliers. Making blends for fun though can start by just trying out different combinations of teas they have at home. A lot of my blends started from mixing different teas I have.
Adagio Teas, the online tea store, has a fandom blend section, and that’s where I made and first posted my Dice, Camera, Action! blends. It was when I started wanting more options for tea bases and flavors that I started blending at home. I think one of the most important things is knowing what each tea by itself tastes like, so just drink lots and lots of different teas.