CINCINNATI -- Tea aficionados and rock stars might seem unrelated, but Wendigo Tea Co. founder and CEO Sky White embodies both.
The pianist for the currently-on-hiatus band Foxy Shazam, one of Cincinnati's latest rock exports to top the national charts, was bitten by the tea bug while touring around the world, playing 200-300 shows a year.
"After sound check, I'd have eight or 12 hours until I had to play, (and) I'd just go out and find the greatest cup of tea this city I was in had to offer," said White. "That was just kind of my thing -- like, OK, I may be living in my clothes right now, but I'm drinking a world-class cup of tea, so I feel like a normal human being."
White said that feeling followed him across states and countries, and eventually, he began bringing samples of his expanding tea supply with him. The creature comfort of tea eased the burden and stress of relentless touring.
"I'd be traveling on airplanes with metal containers full of (what looked like) herbs, and getting randomly selected all the time," he said, laughing.
When Foxy Shazam decided to stop touring and go on hiatus, White, who had built up his tea knowledge in the years of touring, decided to distill his passion into a business. He dubbed his company Wendigo Tea Co., pouring his savings into purchasing more tea, building a website and plowing through the unfamiliar territory of launching a business.
The next big beverage
White found a direct correlation between his world as a touring musician and the uncharted territory of a small business endeavor: work ethic.
"Hard work is always going to do it. By working harder, you create luck control," White said. "It's the same as the Foxy stuff. You can try gaining investors and pay a whole lot for advertising and try just going for a huge account here or there. Or you can just take your time and get your product perfect and just put yourself out there and just do the work."
He observed the craft coffee industry taking off, followed closely by the craft beer industry and craft cocktail renaissance, and saw an opportunity for craft tea to be the next big beverage coup.
"Quality made that happen," said White. "That small amount of palate refinement on a mass scale made it (tea) the obvious adjacent 'thing.'"
Landlocked Social House owner Anne Decker agrees. With seven years of retail coffee experience, she is attuned to consumers' desires. Though the craft beer and coffee shop she and her husband own in Walnut Hills hasn't opened yet, Decker plans on stocking Wendigo Tea for the quality it offers.
"People are starting to care about the quality of their drinks," she said. "If you care about the beer you're drinking, you're going to also care about the coffee you're drinking and where it's coming from, and if you care about the coffee, you're going to care about your tea."
Decker also cited the appeal of Wendigo Tea's "heavy metal" packaging, created by Wendigo artist Matthew Franklin. Most of Wendigo's teas are characterized as otherworldly or mythical creatures, including Bigfoot (the company's best-selling black tea), FireBird (chai), Yeti (white tea) and Siren (throat health herbal tea), among others. (Wendigo itself is a reference to an evil spirit myth of Algonquian folkloric origin.)
The graphic design was intentional, White said, meant to evoke a visual representation of the kind of experience Wendigo Tea offers.
"Traditionally, tea is boring, literally the most boring-branded possible thing. When you think of tea you think of old people, you think of bags of Lipton -- literally the least cool stuff," he said. "Not only am I having to create my brand, I have to create a brand that's so strong, it pulls (the consumer) away from tea in general and makes them think, 'Hey, I'm drinking Wendigo,' not, 'I'm drinking tea.'"
Tea as stress reliever
White has logged thousands of hours tasting teas and has gathered the best for his current eight-offering lineup. Local outlets carrying Wendigo, either brewed or retail, include Urbana Cafe in Pendleton, Pho Lang Thang and Quan Hapa (the first restaurants to carry Wendigo), Skeleton Root Winery, Flipdaddy's in Newport and Mason, and Collective Espresso in Northside.
Wendigo's fans also continue to grow, such as local musician Dylan Oseas. Oseas was introduced to White and Wendigo through music, while serving as the bassist of local rock band Automagik.
"We get Indian food every couple months and talk about band stuff, though lately we talk about tea stuff," said Oseas.
When Oseas heard about White's new endeavor, he tried Wendigo to support his friend, coinciding with a self-motivated health-conscious push, and ended up hooked. He starts every morning with a cup of Wendigo green tea, citing the antioxidant properties and calming effect as his favorite attributes.
"I've pretty much drank his tea every day for the last two years," said Oseas.
Oseas, who also suffers from cluster headaches, said he started drinking Wendigo green tea more frequently after his last batch a couple of years ago.
"It definitely helps my nerves, helps the stress. I wouldn't say it's a tried-and-true preventative for the specific types of headaches I get, but it definitely doesn't hurt," said Oseas, adding that he has tried other teas, but Wendigo wins out in quality and quantity.
As White expands Wendigo throughout Cincinnati and talks with several larger outfits, he said, he is letting the tea take the lead.
"I'm kind of an island in that I don't know why tea spoke to me so much. It just kept doing it, so I listened," said White. "I don't have an end game for it -- just do what seems to make the most sense."