Thursday, May 19, 2016

Tea Talk: an Interview with Brian Pfieffer of Design a Tea

A few years ago I was at an outdoor festival when I saw a couple manning a booth called Design a Tea. Imagine my delight when I saw that not only were they selling teas, but they were allowing you to create your own flavor combinations! I was hooked and have enjoyed their teas ever since. I'm delighted to welcome Brian Pfieffer, owner of this local (to me) company to the blog today.

Kathy: What led you to the world of tea? Have you always been a tea drinker?

BP: It was a crazy dream about 9 years ago that pointed me in the tea world direction and adventure. Instead of taking up tons of your time here- we actually made it a "Topic" in the About Us Tab on our website

Always been a tea drinker?  That's is a question that people look at me in dismay when I answer. Not at all; well maybe when under the weather growing up. I wasn't even a steadfast coffee drinker. But I will say I've tasted so much tea early on in the R&D phase of Design a Tea... I have no doubt I've made up for it!

Kathy: What gave you the idea to give customers the ability to create their own teas?

BP: It was the quest to figure out that dream that made the realization super clear... at least regarding tea. Choice! We all love the ability to make decisions and having choices to do so is what it's all about. Why let a focus group decide what tea you'll like or not like or for how long to offer it at the stores. 

I did about a year or so of research on the concept and learning about tea... will never learn enough. There were and are companies out there that offered the ability to design tea blends- but it still didn't (to me) seem there were enough "choices" they were offering. Some would only let you mix and match their blends. What fun is that?

Another major component of the mission was we had to be an e-commerce company. Only seemed to make sense to offer this to as many people around the world that might want choice with custom tea designing. Even today we don't have a brick and mortar place open to the public. Which for me is a negative at times, I love people and love goofing around with them. So the good thing about our present operation is I actually get work done. 

Kathy: How did your business start? 

BP: After the concept was figured out and the vision started to become clearer, it started in a spare room in the basement. We are and will remain by choice, a small artisan tea company- we small batch blend to order. We work with other small companies with their signature blends and our wholesale has grown in leaps and bounds. We partner with all sorts of people on the wholesale side from authors to small private label tea shops, even a company in the Caribbean.  With growth we've obviously had to upgrade from that humble basement "pad". By definition, we are still home-based, we had to build another "pad" on the property to accommodate stock and production area and make room for a couple of people... they take up so much room!

There was another aspect of starting our tea business. We found that the world of tea could be very intimidating and even snobby (no offense meant at all to the high-noon tea lovers out there) to the lay person. Like going to a wine tasting with a sommelier. We wanted to break out of that perception. That's in part I think why we started offering the ability to create from such a wide base of flavorings and not focus on the higher end base teas. I guess in a nutshell we are not purists. It's not that we don't want people to enjoy a simple (or complex) cup of high quality Darjeeling or note the subtle differences between green teas and the regions they came from. We want people to have fun with tea, throw the perception of complexity aside and design a crazy mango almond coconut blend- chill it and drink it at the beach. We had a customer a few years back say we are like the Ben and Jerry of tea companies. I wouldn't say that exactly (I don't know Ben and Jerry other than they make great crazy designed ice cream), but it is sort of cute and we do have a good time. 

Kathy: Have you ever looked at someone's mixes and wondered what on earth they were thinking?  

BP: HA, I used to early on. But now, I love it when people think out of the box. That's what it's all about. When people order, say a green tea with honey lemon... I roll my eyes and think, "Come on! You can get that anywhere. Yes, ours will be the best honey/lemon green tea you have ever had (well, I hope), but really, why not honey spice green tea!"

I'm sure many combos don't work. As you all know- tea is like wine- what is one persons elixir of the gods is another persons "find me a plant where I can dump this stuff..." experience! On the up side of customer's concoctions, we have been inspired by a few blends over the years that actually became signature blends for us. Our Backwoods Blend ("Man Tea") is a cranberry/juniper berry black tea. We called it "Man Tea"... because we felt we needed something more manly named than a Ms. Earl Grey or Butterfly blend.

Kathy: Do you have any tips on creating blends?  

BP: Have fun with it. We do have a sample program for the folks that just aren't sure on their crazy combo. We like when people think out of the box and design a blend that they know they can't find in a store or tea shop. We do like to stress though- if you are Libra or an indecisive person... Design a Tea is NOT the place for you to be.

I do have another tip. When it comes to adding herbs to your custom blend. Keep in mind "most" root based herbs can be bitter or stinky (yes I used the word stinky). So keep that in mind when adding them and that certain herbs can mess with certain medications. We never offer any advice or suggest medicinal benefits of teas and/or herbs. We expect folks will do their own research on them before peppering them in. We ALWAYS know when some article or Dr. Oz style show has talked about this herb or that herb... because we get a spike in requests.

A quick example story. This customer orders 3 large canisters of loose white tea with Valerian (no flavors). For those folks that aren't familiar with Valerian; it's used in most of the "sleep aid" blends, it's supposed to be a pretty potent sleep aid. The downside to Valerian is it is one of the most smelly herb I've ever smelled. Reminds me of an elephant house... 2 hours after feeding. So I email her just to make sure she was indeed looking for a post feeding elephant smelling tea. She replies back saying she saw something about it on television and she has had a difficult time sleeping, etc. And she added that with all the health benefits of white tea... what the heck, lets give it a try. It all made sense I couldn't argue the logic. I asked her if she had ever tasted or smelled Valerian? She obviously said no. It ended up she received a tropical themed passion fruit/pineapple flavored rooibos with Valerian ~ so she could think of that warm deserted island in her dreams. Besides on a selfish note- I would have done anything not to have had to blend 3 canisters up with no flavors and that forsaken herb.   

Kathy: How do you decide what flavors to offer?  

BP: Some of the flavors we carry are along the thought avenue of craziness. Rum flavoring or chocolate- for some that would be a nose snubbing almost sacrilegious thing to do to tea. In some circles I would agree. But this is Design a Tea where the concept is choice. So along with the unique rum chocolates we do have many of the standard base flavors like Almond/Pear/Lemon/Honey...With all the flavors we offer currently AND the herbs, there are literally tens of thousands of combinations as it is. Every time we add another flavor or herb- that number goes up. If we start getting requests for a flavor, we'll try and create that profile. We don't just add flavoring, we use various components to get that profile or enhance a base flavor.

Kathy: Do you have a personal favorite blend?

BP: It really all depends on the mood. I tend to hang around the nuttier flavor profiles. No jokes please.

Kathy: What's your favorite tea accessory?

BP: I have this "Tea Nest" that sits on top of my mug where I toss in my loose leaves. They are beautifully designed and made of cherry wood from Pennsylvania (that sounded like an HSN pitch). As you know there is nothing like loose leaf tea.

Kathy: What does tea mean to you?  

BP: Wow, that's a deep question! So I'm going to make it a simply complex answer... Tea is an experience. The process of making a simple cup of tea isn't simple. You don't just press a button or turn a cap- it's a process. So one has to want it to go through that process. So maybe it's the most "desired" beverage in the world. Get it (desired - want)?

I encourage you to check out the Design a Tea website and try out your own flavor combinations! One of my favorite combinations is chestnut caramel black tea! I've also enjoyed a passion fruit pineapple green tea. I've created several concoctions and plan on creating many more. I may try an apricot ginger oolong next! I look forward to hearing what you make!


  1. Brian designed me a wonderful tea to promote my novel Death of an English Muffin! He also makes the coolest labeling for teabags. I'll be ordering more!

    1. How wonderful! I didn't know you knew him!