"Oh....that's, umm, cute. And probably awful. But good luck"
The representative from a now-prominent eastern PA brewery was equal parts cocky and patronizing as he laid bare his feelings, somewhat shouting over the hip hop blaring from a bluetooth speaker on his table. The year was 2015, and the location was one of the many late spring beer festivals that we participated in when we first opened. You'd think that I might be a little miffed with a comment like that, especially when the beer was not even tapped yet, but this was not my first rodeo with the beer, or the reaction. I knew the beer, the background, and I certainly knew the lines at our table that he would stare at for the next several hours. This was just one of many pieces to the weird puzzle that was Bubba's Tea Bag.
Yes - let's get it out of the way - the official original name for the beer was Bubba's Tea Bag. It was sophomoric, and totally crude, and totally NOT invented by us. No, the actual original name was Tea Bag Pilsner, and I have the receipts to prove it, and it quickly got a new name from the public, however, I will get to that in bit. First, we need to set the stage for the beer and the business as a whole.
By now, many know the original story of "Broken Goblet", the legal battle with another brewery over "Brewtal" and all of that. But, actually, you have to go backwards several years to the conception phase. Back to the OG Brewtal Beer Club, the Big Bang of Beer in our universe. For, it was at these meetings that Bubba informed us that he "had an idea over breakfast". "Umm, ok?" And the idea was this - Bubba was speaking with his wife about this whole concept of opening a brewery, and as the story goes:
His wife said "Andrew (Yes, that is his name)... I don't even LIKE beer."
to which Bub responds "Well, maybe I can make a beer you would like?"
"I doubt it, I don't like the taste of beer"
"Maybe I make a beer that tastes less like beer"
"Is that even a thing?"
"Well..." - pushing a mug of hot Teavana Superfruit Unity Tea toward him - "make it taste like this and maybe I will drink it"
"Ok, challenge accepted"
And, with that, Bub headed to the nearest Teavana to purchase some of said tea. And, HOLY SHIT, was that tea expensive. At this point, Jay and I know nothing of this plan, just Bitter Joe and Bubba. They set about working up a homebrew recipe and, cutting to the chase and a few test batches later, Tea Bag Pilsner was born and ready to be tested. Tested where? The Brewtal Beer Club gatherings.
Brewtal Beer Club was our testing ground to determine whether A) we could actually pull this business off, B) get friends and their friends engaged, C) try to find some other dumb people to be a part of the ownership group (Sorry Bub and Joe), and D) secretly focus group the beers. We grew from 10 to 100 people at each meeting, and we would not only have a bottle share, but we would do blind beer tastings with ratings. Anything and everything would be in the blind tasting - High Life, Sam Adams, Cigar City, Olde English... anything. It was here that Tea Bag Pilsner made it's secret debut, and because no one knew what it was, or where it came from, the reviews were 100% honest. And they were GOOD. Like, WTF Good. Short of maybe Magic Hat #9, or putting an orange in your Blue Moon, or maybe some Pumpkin Beer offerings, this was a flavor trip that most were not used to. We knew we were on to something, but there were hurdles.
For one - the expense. The tea was exorbitantly expensive. This was Teavana, later Starbucks-owned. This was not pop-pop's Earl Grey at the AC-A-ME. This was walk in the store, pretty person comes walking toward you with a tin and a fluter-flutter-flutter lid, blowing the smell at you... wondering if you are getting a 90 minute hot stone massage or just buying some fucking tea expensive. Secondly, this was TEA. In a Beer. The track record for this was small in precedent, and awful across the board. Any beer that had the audacity to be made with tea tasted like the inside and outside of a sweaty garden boot. Finally, there was the optics - Beer in the early part of the decade was pretty standard, and the advent of throwing everything in a beer had not erupted yet. People still liked really, really bitter beer. People didn't realize the Blue Moon was owned by Coors and Goose Island was still independent. Wild times.
However, we could not get past how this tasted- it was somehow still "beer". But it wasn't. It was super fruity, mildly astringent, earthy, and very, VERY non-artificial. It was not like anything we had ever tasted, and much of that was because Bub and Joe came up with a method that was unlike anyone else had used with the tea itself. I will not go into that, and you can roll your eyes all you want - feel free to taste currently available tea beers from other breweries and you can come back to me and apologize. I'll allow it. So, with that in our minds, we set out to give it the true, public tests.
"Are they yelling what I THINK they are yelling?"
The first true public outing was the Yardley Beer Fest. I cannot recall exactly which year, but I do recall our location in the homebrew corner, and I better recall experiencing exactly what word of mouth could do at a beer fest in the early 2010s. Within 30 minutes, word had spread about this "Tea Bag" beer, and the line began to stretch completely accross the tent. And from this line, it began. Not from us, but from random people. "Hey, I am getting Tea Bagged!" "Tea Bag Me, Please!" I remember walking the line with a pitcher, to help get it down a bit, and a group of older ladies asking me to tea bag them, and I stopped and said "you do know what that means, what you are saying, right?" and they emphatically answered "yes" and were howling laughing. Joe says "Are they yelling what I think they are yelling?" and all I could do was laugh. The beer kicked in about an hour or so, and at the conclusion of the event, I remember sitting with Bub and Joe and saying "I think we have something special here", and later the next week actually sitting down to discuss this beer. At some point, it was discussed that we technically are not lagering this beer, so was calling it a pilsner correct? So, we set about for a new name, and because EVERYONE associated with us, friends and family and Brewtal Club Members would call this "Bubba's Tea Bag beer", we settled on Bubba's Tea Bag. We did NOT come up with some sexualized branding, we simply put bub's face on the label, and that was that. But, holy moly, did the public latch on to the "Tea Bag me" line, and we just rolled with it. Beer fest after beer fest this happened, and we knew that this was to be one of our flagship offerings that we would showcase everywhere once we opened. And, because we were so successful with the tea-ing process, we elected to create several other recipes that included Teavana tea. A winter holiday brew with spiced apple cider tea from Teavana. A west coast IPA with Samurai Chai Tea from Teavana. And on, and on. There was just one little problem that we didn't see coming (or were too dumb to realize)....
We had hitched our wagon to a tea that we just assumed was a permanent fixture at a very popular and successful retail store. Problem was.... Teavana discontinued teas all the time. We just never paid attention. So, imagine our panic when Bubba headed to his home store to speak with the district manager who would order the tea for us, and she informed him that it was done, and this was the last of it. Panic is not even the correct word. We spent the next week triangulating every ounce of these teas from every store in the tristate, and I think we spent about $5000 on tea in one week, buying the last precious chunks of this colorful, flavorful tea. We literally bought ourselves a little time, but we had to scramble and decide how we could possibly pivot. And in this pivot, one of the most crucial ingredients of the BGob secret sauce emerged - we took a really, really bad situation and turned it into something engaging, fun, and dare I say, democratic - TEAcision was born.
Remember, we are only 9 months into our existence, and already had a major problem - we could not get the tea for our flagship beer. We knew, at this point, that we could never again hitch the wagon to a single tea, so why not have a fun voting process and let the public decide the flavor each year? It began as a simple "choose your favorite from these three" and later evolved to include our Irregular Members narrowing it down from 6 to 3 before the public vote. TEAcision has become a fan favorite annual series of events, and although the tea companies have continued to change, the process has never changed. Currently, we working with an old friend from the music industry who changed paths to open a boutique tea shop called BrutaliTeas (https://www.brutaliteas.com/) and we have been ecstatic with the collaboration. The only problem has been volume, with them having to source and then create our blends at a scale that most are not used to. It is not lost on us that, after all the global searching, and I mean GLOBAL, we arrive back with a small shop and an old friend. After years of enduring the name, and the imagery, and with some introspection and discussion with staff, we changed the name to Bubba's Tea. If listening to our staff and being less highschool hallway makes us "woke" as one reviewer called us after the change, well then we are proudly woke.
Oh, and that prominent eastern PA brewery from above? They are into their second year of a fruit tea-based beer release. Here are a few more of the many stories from the life and times of the greatest tea beer in the world -
The AC Beer Fest Incident
AC Beerfest is an absolute shitshow, in the best possible way - seriously, we love this fest and we do it every year. In 2017, a now-out of business eastern PA brewery had recieved some press after gaining some accolades from our national Brewers Association in what most called "a dubious manner". Regardless, they got the press, and they became what I would call grossly pretentious. Now, we are located mere minutes from New Jersey via three bridges. We can throw a frisbee from our front lot and, with good wind and a strong arm, might hit Delanco, NJ. I live in New Jersey. I tell you all this because it makes sense for us to be at a NJ beerfest. For the other brewery in this story, the 7bbl brewery that was at least 1.5 hours from smelling the border of NJ, it did not. And yet, in 2018, there they were on the list. So, it's mid-session 2, there are 15000 people in the convention center floor, and we have a nice line going because Bubba's Tea is on tap, with lots of friends and industry folks all hanging out, because that is what ACBF really is about, and I am approached by someone who asks if I am an owner. We have a line as mentioned, and there are a good 25 people right at the mouth of our booth, so this guy had to sorta push his way through to me. So, when he asks if I am an owner, I thought he was with the festival and something was wrong. I quickly answered yes, and what can I do to help? He says, and I am dead serious, "someone would like to speak with you - " and he backs away and motions to someone behind him. As this happens,. I quickly ask Kate "do we know this guy?" and she says no, but that he had been over earlier to pointedly try Bubba's Tea. And at this moment, a middle aged man in a trench coat appears. A trench coat. We are all staring, but there is commotion, so no one else really notices, and with the costumes at ACBF, this was not out of the ordinary. I stick my hand out and say "Hi, I'm Mike" and he introduces himself as "XXXX, the owner, of ZZZZ brewery.... you have probably heard of us" and I threw up in my mouth a little at the whole presentation and intro. So I say "yup" and what do you need to speak to me about. He proceeds to tell me that he "has heard about this Tea thing we are doing", and "they have been working on a Tea Beer themselves" that they have on tap at their booth, but that he simply had to come taste this beer himself after his messenger had apparently tried it (several times) and then reported back. So, of course, I grab a fresh cup from our stash and pour him a nice full cup and hand it to him. He grabs it, then whips his trench coat back a bit (again, I am being serious) and does the whole "cup the rim and smell" bit and then takes a sip, clapping his lips a few times. Then another sip. Then he looks at me, and turns around, and walks away. No comment, no nothing. Just leaves. I am equal parts stunned and amused at the whole thing. His messenger guy then says "sorry, he's dramatic. Can I get a full cup please?". Kate and I later went to their booth to try their tea beer. He wasn't there, and we quickly realized why he might have been upset.
The Teavana Connection
File this under wild coincidence - I purchased my current home privately from a family in NJ, with no realtors. So, the whole process was more personal and I ended up getting to know the guy selling the house pretty well. On closing day, he said to come over and we'd have some drinks and go over what he would be leaving at the house and what he was taking. He knew I owned a brewery and suggested I bring over some of our beers. So, a few crowlers filled and I was on my way. The first one we crack open is, as you may have guessed, Bubba's Tea. He is blown away, and we start talking about the ingredients. Come to find out, this guy is the owner of the US-based company that BUILDS all of Starbucks manufacturing plants, all the robotic equipment and machinery that does everything from glue the coffee bags to etch the mugs. Listening to him was like a "How's It Made" episode in real-life, and he revealed all the crazy stuff Teavana did to their tea - like spraying it with edible colors to make it look better in the tins and in pictures, and dusting it with flavor and aromatics so that the presentation in the store was perfect, and even the aromas they would pipe through the stores. He also later connected me with a UK-based tea company that we worked with for a bit.
WMGK Beer Fest Fan Club
WMGK hosted a beer fest for a few years, and right before COVID hit, we attended and brought Bubba's Tea. Little did we realize that you had to submit a "core beer" and a "specialty beer" to be voted on by the 500 or so attendees. We are not really ones to particpate in the "who won a beer fest" game, so myself and Bobby Chacko (of Samsaric Beer, who was assiting me pour) just haphazardly selected Bubba's Tea as the core beer, and I cannot even recall what else we were pouring. Now, understand that while we don't take this seriously, many, many of the other 60 or so breweries DID in fact take this seriously. So, when you went to another table, the pourers would go out of their way to push their beer as the one you should vote for. About half way through the event, a group of 4 ladies that I had never met nor seen in my life approached the table to try this Tea Beer they had heard about - again, word of mouth at a beer fest is wild - and they each got a pour, and that was it. They were 100% sold. But, beyond the obvious joy that I got from them enjoying the beer, they were HELL BENT that this beer was going to win this competition. They proceeded to, for the next THREE HOURS, work the crowd. I swear they brought 300 of the 500 there to our table, basically arm in arm escorted, and made them drink Bubba's Tea. At this point, they knew the fruits in the tea, they knew the story of the brewery and the name, they knew the story of the beer, it was amazing. People thought they worked for us. In the end, it was a landslide victory, and, somewhere on the interwebs, you can watch me awkwardly getting interviewed by Andre Gardner in real time, not awkward because of him, but awkward because the breweries across the room from us were pissed to say the least and were glaring at me.