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Essay

The Fandom Tea Party: The Day the Long Arm of Pop-Culture Touched the West’s Classiest Beverage


Over the past few months, a situation has developed. I have become completely engulfed in my love of tea. Tea has become the bowtie to my Eleventh Doctor, the Dumbledore to my Harry, the flowing raven hair to my Jon Snow. One might call it an offset of Anglophilia, an active side-effect of watching one too many shows that air on BBC, but I have accepted my fate.

Luckily for me, we live in a magical age where getting overly emotional about things like fictional characters and hot beverages can by some crazy random happenstance mesh, to be accepted by some group of lovable weirdos on the Internet, and I happened to stumble into what I will refer to as the “tea fandom” at the perfect time. One mythical night, not too long ago, I was introduced to my new favorite trend in warmed-up flavored water: fandom teas.

If there is one thing I’ve learned since that faithful day in fourth grade when I first picked up Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and took my first steps into the world of geekery, it is that when it comes to fans there are very few things in this world that have not been in some way mixed together with the beloved characters and stories we connect with. I drink from a Troy and Abed in the Morning mug every day, and I can’t listen to “Woke Up New” by The Weepies without thinking of Sherlock. There’s merchandizing for pretty much everything, from messenger bags, to jewelry, to life-sized replicas (sadly not bigger on the inside) of the TARDIS. It makes sense, then, that some geeky soul would combine one thing they love (custom tea blends) with another (fandom).

A few of these souls took up residence with Adagio Teas, which has an entire section of their website devoted to “fandom blends,” inspired by, you guessed it, fan cult favorites and the characters that reside with them. A company specializing in custom-blended tea, their website allows anyone to go on their website and mix their own recipe. Through the descriptions and fanart that have cropped up on the site because of this option, the company’s become the breeding ground for some sort of weird tea wonderland of a lot of today’s most popular cult fandoms.

For the record: No, no one from Adagio Teas is paying us. They just happen to be catering to a demographic that happens to sit very close to our hearts.

When I brought up the company’s “fandom blends” section to a relatively un-fannish friend, he remarked that the whole thing to him reeked of an effort to exploit the devotion many fanpeople have to the stories that touched them. And you have to admit, it’s a good business strategy: Combine emotional attachment with tasty liquid treats and make it all relatively cheap, and you’ve got yourself a keyed-in customer base. This friend made an intriguing case, but there are some fundamental ways in which I think there’s been a point that’s been missed.

This whole thing reminds me marginally of the cultural phenomenon that is fanfiction. As I once read Les Grossman say in an article for TIME:

Fan fiction is what literature might look like if it were reinvented from scratch after a nuclear apocalypse by a band of brilliant pop-culture junkies trapped in a sealed bunker. They don’t do it for money. That’s not what it’s about. The writers write it and put it up online just for the satisfaction. They’re fans, but they’re not silent, couchbound consumers of media. The culture talks to them, and they talk back to the culture in its own language.

There is, of course, a crucial difference between the culture of fan fiction and that of small businesses like Adagio aiming to sell their products to niche markets: There’s money involved. With the notable exception of the E. L. James’s of the world, virtually nobody makes money off of fan fiction. Fanfic authors often write because they love the characters or worlds in which their stories take places; they don’t want the experience to end once they close the book or pop out the DVD. They want more.

There’s something about fandom that has the power to draw you in and pull you along for the ride, infiltrating your very skin. You look down in class and you’re doodling TARDISes (TARDI?) next to your notes about 18th Century agricultural practices; you perk up on public transportation when you hear J.K. Rowling’s name in a whispered conversation you didn’t even realize you were listening to; you mix a few flavors of tea together and name them after a character who stuck in your brain.

The artists and craftmakers on Etsy may make a profit off their goods, but the fact that the inspiration to knit a doll in the likeness of Rupert Giles struck these people in the first place says all I really need to know: They love something that I also happen to love, and they like to show it.

Let’s take a moment to look at some of the more popular blends Adagio offers:

  • Reichenbach Recovery: “Only time will heal your broken heart. Maybe this tea will at least bring a little comfort until Sherlock reappears.” Features Earl Grey Bravo, Hazelnut, Caramel.
  • Farewell Ponds: “Bittersweet, old fashioned without being able to help it, and just a touch of the TARDIS still lingering.” Features Irish Breakfast, Earl Grey Green, Blueberry.
  • Moriartea: “Spicy Chai backed by more ginger. Guaranteed to burn the heart out of you. Because that’s what people BREW.” Features Ginger, Masala Chai.
  • Tea(se): “A tea for Derek & Stiles. It’s a light earthy and grassy base with a spicy (and slightly smokey) follow up. Delicious! Try adding some honey to bring some sweetness to your slightly spicy tea-ship!” Features Spiced Green, Ginger, Currant.
  • TARDIS: “Tastes bigger inside the cup.” Features “Ethereal earl grey and enchanting black berry with notes of vanilla.”

In addition to individual mixes, blends can be ‘shipped together. Yes, that kind of “’shipped,” to go along with the physical kind involving snail-mail and packing peanuts. “Reichenbach Recovery” (or, as I like to call it, Reichentea) could be shipped for 20% off with “Farewell Ponds,” which both makes me want to jump off the nearest tall surface in an emotional whirlwind and bless the fandom gods. Similarly, when you look through the Avatar: The Last Airbender section of teas, Aang’s blend can be shipped with Katara’s. The same can be said of the Sherlock Holmes and John Watson blends.

Fandom revolves around active, interested audiences; far from being about who is making what money, a seemingly silly thing like mixing different flavors of plants together and using the concoction as a means of personifying fictional characters and pairings we like? To those outside of fan communities I can see how it would seem distinctly odd. To me, it’s just another way that we bring the media we consume into our daily lives.

Yes, I’m a few dollars poorer after ordering my own pouch of “Reichenbach Recovery,” but I’m sure I would have found a Buffy the Vampire Slayer poster or a lifesize cutout of Danaerys Targaeryen to spend those few dollars on. This isn’t some shady CEO sitting in a dark empty boardroom trying to pin down which blends will best trap the fanfolk; like fan fiction, they’re fans just like us, letting themselves become in some small way a part of something really cultural, weird, and distinctly enjoyable. As Grossman wrote, “The culture talks to them, and they talk back to the culture in its own language.”

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  • http://twitter.com/CoriSeaSinger Corinne Dickerson

    The Watson and Moriarty blends are AWESOME! The Sherlock tea is an acquired taste.

  • Anonymous

    It’s Lev Grossman.

  • http://www.youruinedmychildhood.com crosberg

    Not to be a complete asshat, but why aren’t you linking to the creator’s blogs? Cara made four of the five that you listed, and is friends with Daunt who made the other. Not only have the two of them really gotten an entire population excited about their fandoms in a completely new and different way, but they’ve gotten Adagio to join Tumblr and have worked with them for a ton of new features and contests. Adagio even did some really insanely cool Easter eggs for the Sherlock fans a few times that was astonishing (and I refuse to spoil it for people). There’s so much more to this story than is portrayed here, and Adagio’s the only one getting credit…and not even as much as they deserve!

  • http://twitter.com/TechnoMistress Lisa Liscoumb

    Just like Sherlock himself, perhaps? :)

  • Christina

    As a long time tea lover, anglophile, geek. This just might be my holy grail

  • http://twitter.com/ohcararara Cara McGee

    haha, don’t sweat it crosberg, our blogs aren’t really explicitly linked to our Adagio creations, but thanks for having my back! <3

  • http://twitter.com/ohcararara Cara McGee

    Thanks for the write up! To be clear, Adagio didn’t really have any part in planning the sudden explosion of fandom creations, so they’re not really exploiting anything, I don’t think. It was a simple matter of me making a few Sherlock teas, then making more… then Adagio realized how much people liked them and how popular they were getting, and started to cater to their new shoppers, very smartly. And then more people started to realize that they could make tea blends for whatever fandoms THEY wanted (because at one point I was getting dozens of requests each day for different teas and fandoms people wanted me to make and at one point I had to go “I can’t possibly do all of these!”)

  • http://www.youruinedmychildhood.com crosberg

    I was all wound up in a work!rage that I think may have turned into nerd!rage, unfortunately. That, and I display your tea for the artwork, so I always want to give you credit. ;)

  • Anonymous

    My local chapter of Browncoats also sell SereniTeas — a different flavor for each of our beloved crew.

  • http://twitter.com/AdagioTeas AdagioTeas

    Thank you for the nice article. We are happy to hear that you liked the signature blend concept. What were your thoughts on the tea itself?

  • Dee Shimare

    “Woke Up New” is by The Mountain Goats. :)

  • Janefan

    You know about Steepster http://steepster.com right???? It’s a social network for tea drinkers where people can catalog what’s in their tea “cupboard,” write reviews (“tasting notes”) on any tea, create wish lists, talk on discussion boards about all things tea, etc…

  • Janefan

    oh, and Thinkgeek also partnered with Adagio a while ago to make a Star Trek blend (“Tea.Earl Grey. Hot.), which they still offer, as well as some other blends that may appeal to their demographic (more skewed toward male geek/gamers, I think) http://www.thinkgeek.com/brain/whereisit.cgi?t=tea&x=0&y=0

  • http://twitter.com/#!/alannabennett AlannaBennett

    Yeah, that’s what I thought! To be clear, I very much do not agree with the friend I mentioned in the article.

  • http://twitter.com/#!/alannabennett AlannaBennett

    Sorry about that! I didn’t even know about her blog until reading this comment.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ToAllThaDreamers Meredith Hershey

    There is Derek and Stiles tea? That probably tastes awesome. I sense a boatload of tea in my future.

  • Anonymous

    Adagio makes great teas. The best part is that you can create your own blends, which is what these particular blends are- created by a fan of Sherlock Holmes who decided to make tea blends based off the chars.
    I’ve made my own blend for my husband (Mint Monkey because he loves mint teas) and love the Blue Irishman blend someone else created.
    It’s a great way to personalize a tea to your tastes and then be able to share it with the world.

  • Anonymous

    /(tea) the West’s Classiest Beverage/

    You might want to fix your wording fail.
    Greetings, Asia

  • http://twitter.com/#!/alannabennett AlannaBennett

    Very, very good point.

  • http://twitter.com/#!/alannabennett AlannaBennett

    Ooooh I like the sound of this.

  • http://twitter.com/#!/alannabennett AlannaBennett

    Aaah, fail on my part. I love both very much.

  • Anonymous
  • R.O.U.S.

    Thumbs up, Adagio for being all over sites like this and Tumblr. It makes this fangirl/marketing manager smile!

  • R.O.U.S.

    I love being able to try new teas by following my fangirl heart. Adagio is fab, Cara’s teas are brilliant, and the whole thing is just one fuzzy, warm, tea-scented cuddle.

  • Carmen Sandiego

    Making a profile now.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=513877109 Samantha Wilson

    The only thing I hate is people saying that they love these teas because they are Anglophiles. No. Whilst we drink a lot of tea in the UK for most English/British/UK citizens the idea of fandom related tea would be weird for two reasons: why is the tea second to the characters and why are people talking so much about it? Just make a brew and be done with it.

    Other than that it seems a cute idea – it’s just when people associate this with being Anglophile. It’s nothing to do with that!

  • http://www.youruinedmychildhood.com crosberg

    Sorry for translating a bit of a work!rage into online rage. :( I just know it would be super easy to search Cara’s name and find her blog, and even if you don’t allow yourself the hours-long rabbit hole you could take into her Tumblr you’d quickly get a good idea of what’s going on, particularly since she’s got a link to an explanation of her tea and her relationship to Adagio right there. I love the articles on the Mary Sue and you guys have raised the bar so high for yourselves that even the smallest miss ends up catching my attention in a way that I would ignore on any other blog. TL;DR version: you’re too awesome for your own good.

  • http://www.facebook.com/arekay.rk Kelly Arekay Yeo

    :D Yay for teas! Minor correction – Woke Up New is by the Mountain Goats, not the Weepies. I too associate it very strongly with Sherlock. ;_;