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.”