Meet Craft Tea Guy Michael O'Brien: Philly's mad scientist of infusion - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart

I’m holding a cylinder tin of loose-leaf tea, admiring the can’s vibrant artwork and pondering the unexpected ingredient list: lemongrass, butterfly pea flowers, catnip leaf.

Wait a minute…catnip?

Michael O’Brien laughs, and takes a moment to explain. “Catnip is great for digestion, and sleep,” he says, adding that the can I was holding – an herbal blend called Psycho Kitty – was the second tea he made featuring the magical plant that drives our feline friends up the wall. He first experimented with catnip in a mellow winter flavor called John’s Yawn Jawn, then developed it more when he got an offer from South Philadelphia’s Kawaii Kitty Café to carry his tea a couple years back. “You gotta have catnip, if you’re in a cat café.”

Part refined connoisseur, part mad scientist, Mt. Airy’s O’Brien makes teas like no other. If you’re familiar with the concept of craft beer – the try-everything-once approach to brewing that offsets traditional ales and lagers with unexpected flavor accents like blueberry, coffee, peanut butter, and pumpkin – than his handle will make complete sense to you. O’Brien is the Craft Tea Guy by trade, and he’s gearing up into another cold weather season with a warm offering of handmade tea varieties.

A stash of Craft Tea Guy’s ingredients | photo by John Vettese

We’re hanging out after hours at Malelani Café in Mt. Airy, going through his stock of canned teas and the ingredients that make them. Many of his blends have specific local tie-ins, and all of them come with suggested vinyl pairings from a person who is as passionate about music as he is about infusions.

Take the Wissahickon Walker, a husky autumnal tea that O’Brien suggests you sip while dropping the needle on Kurt Vile’s Wakin’ on a Pretty Daze; the cover illustration by Brad Maule features a Vile-esque character strolling among fallen leaves on Forbidden Drive, approaching the Thomas Mill Road Covered Bridge. For the aforementioned Psycho Kitty, O’Brien suggests an evening with Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense. And the for the kaleidoscopic Graffi-Tea — which he’s hand-mixing a batch of now, multi-hued dried ingredients dancing like fireworks as he tosses them around a stainless steel bowl — O’Brien recommends the swanky lounge funk of Mulatu Astatke’s 1972 album Mulatu of Ethiopia.

Craft Tea Guy | photo by John Vettese

At the same time as records are a companion to his tea – and the record suggestions are part of the appeal that has places like Fishtown record-and-beverage retailer Milkcrate Café and Point Breeze punk coffeehouse The Pharmacy carrying his blends — O’Brien is quick to look beyond the music for a moment to focus instead on the flavors. “I don’t want to come off as some hipster, like ‘oh, you have to listen to vinyl while you’re drinking your tea,’” he laughs. “But I think [the pairing] accurately describes the tea, if you know that band. If you know Willie Nelson, you should know what to expect with that tea.”

As O’Brien describes, the music pairing came almost as an afterthought, a by-product of the way his would show off his wacky tea ideas in social settings.

An interest in herbs led to an obsession with herb teas. When O’Brien graduated from the University of Maryland, he quickly landed a corporate gig, and began seeking out natural highs, alternative ways to have fun that wouldn’t get him in trouble at the 9-to-5 or wreck him physically. The folks at College Park’s Smile Herb Shop turned him on to the wonders of the relaxing Polynesian root kava kava, and as he began to travel the world for this job, he saw how places like China, India, and Morocco incorporated similar herbs into tea in a way that highlighted their physical effects (and, unlike kava kava, actually tasted good). He began to collect teas he’d find abroad, bring them back home, and have friends over for tea sampling, while records spun in the background. Invariably, he’d field two questions the next day: what were we drinking again? And what were we listening to?

When health issues in his late 20s had him temporarily homebound, he went down a rabbit hole collecting a series of dense reference books for researching herbs and tea, effects and properties, compiling all his findings into a meticulous spreadsheet. Then, after bulk ordering herbs to get him started, he set out to blending.

“Craft beer was on the rise at the time,” O’Brien recalls. “I loved the packaging of craft beer, I loved the taste. But I was so unhealthy at the time, I was just like ‘beer? I’ll pass on that.’ But I still wanted to do something with that originality and passion.”

In the first year, he made a whopping 50 different varieties of tea. “I made a bunch of Frankensteins,” he laughs, recalling friends and family he’d get to test out his earliest concoctions. The trial-and-error experimental phase calmed down in 2016, when he slashed his catalog from 50 to 12, and then built back up; today, there are 26 teas on offer in the Craft Tea Guy online store. “I tried to make it concise,” he says. “I just tried to make the business smarter.”

Though he says he gets a modest amount of sales from the online store, he does the best business at events – tea festivals, natural health fairs, and the like. This month, he will be selling his teas at the West Craft Fest on Sunday, December 8th; the Coffee and Tea Festival in Valley Forge on Saturday, December 14th and Sunday, December 15th; and the Philadelphia Punk Rock Flea Market on Sunday, December 22nd.

Craft Tea Guy | photo by John Vettese

O’Brien doesn’t imagine a Craft Tea Guy brick and mortar, at least not in his immediate future – tea shops alone don’t make money like coffee shops do — nor does he imagine taking the ReAnimator / La Colombe step of wholesaling to specialty retailers like Whole Foods. He’d have to be more than a one-person operation to keep up with that level of demand, he says. “I’ve always been a turtle about it,” he says. “I’ve slowly progressed, tested the waters. Five years ago when I first started and had all those different teas, I wasted a lot of money because I bought all this stuff and it went to waste. At that point, I was like I need to be smart about this, because I don’t want that happening again.”

And keeping the scope modest allows him to explore unusual, creative approaches to tea – not to mention unusual ingredients like marshmallow root, skullcap, holy basil leaf, gotu kola – without being overly constrained by the brutal forces of supply and demand. He sees it at tea shows: many consumers love the artwork on his tea cans, but would prefer something more traditional like a nice chamomile or an earl grey. “Once I said catnip, she walked away,” O’Brien recalls of one recent customer.

But that’s not the wave he’s on. He wants to make custom teas for unique happenings – like Cosmic Trip, designed for Steve Gunn’s 2018 concert at the Chestnut Hill meditation spot Skyspace, and paired with Gunn and Mike Gangloff’s 2013 record Melodies for a Savage Fix. He wants to make teas that are stocked in the green rooms of his favorite music venues, like Union Transfer, Ardmore Music Hall, Underground Arts, and World Café Live.  

“It was made for musicians in the beginning,” O’Brien says. “Funky teas are my specialty.”

Michael O’Brien will sell Craft Tea Guy blends at West Craft Fest on Sunday, December 8th; Coffee and Tea Festival in Valley Forge on Saturday, December 14th and Sunday, December 15th; and the Philadelphia Punk Rock Flea Market on Sunday, December 22nd. His teas are also available at V Marks The Shop in Newbold, The Frosted Fox in Mt. Airy, Germantown Espresso Bar, and The Tea Store in Montclair, NJ, or online. Additionally, Craft Tea Guy is served at Fishtown’s Milkcrate Cafe, Society Hill’s Queen & Rook Cafe, East Falls’ Trolley Car Cafe, Point Breeze’s The Pharmacy, and Mt. Airy’s Malelani Cafe.

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