The Tea Is Lit: Arbor Teas Summer Reading Series


Arbor Teas Summer Reading Series logo

The first book about pouring hot water over cured leaves, The Classic of Tea, was written in 780 A.D. by Lu Yu. While it's ostensibly a how-to guide for cultivating and brewing the best teas, Yu couldn't resist waxing poetic over his shrubby beverage:

Tea can look like a mushroom in whirling flight just as clouds floating from behind a mountain peak. Its leaves can swell and leap as if they were lighting tossed on wind-disturbed water. Still others twist and turn like rivulets carved out be a violent rain in newly tilled fields.

Many writers have feted tea since then, from Lu Tung and Marcel Proust to Henrik Ibsen and Alexander McCall Smith, so Arbor Teas dipping its leaves into literature with its Summer Reading Series feels like a natural fit.

Since 2016, Arbor Teas has serialized fiction on its website each summer, beginning with Lauren Doyle Owens' lighthearted marriage drama The Wintree Waltz, continuing with David Erik Nelson's "till death do we part" sci-fi story Expiration Date, and this summer's historical novella An Exchange of Two Flowers by Sarah Zettel, who reads from her work on Monday, June 25 from 7-8:30 pm at AADL's downtown branch.

To find out how a family-owned organic tea company decided to start publishing fiction, I emailed with Arbor Teas' Lea Abbott.

Q: What was the inspiration behind the series and how did you find your first author?
A: It may seem odd that a tea company would publish fiction, but the creation of the Arbor Teas Summer Reading Series felt really natural. One of our core beliefs and priorities at Arbor Teas is to sustain the planet and our existence on it. But why bother preserving humanity and the planet it exists on, if not to celebrate the things that make life worth living -- and the arts and literature are part of that! So, as we've grown over the years (as a company and as individuals) there’s been this convergence in our personal interests in the arts and our convictions about the planet.

In 2015, we were really excited about serials in general, and the return of the serial format in radio and print. During a conversation at our communal lunch table we had the spontaneous idea that it would be fun to publish a serialized story on our website. At the time, we had the great fortune to be working with a talented marketing associate who also happened to be an author of fiction. We asked her if she would write a story for us: a story that did not necessarily have anything to do with tea, but would be a summertime diversion for our customers and non-customers alike. She loved the idea, proposed a story, and the Arbor Teas Summer Reading Series was born!

Q: You've featured local authors so far. Are you interested in hearing from authors outside the county/region/state or are you trying to keep it local?
A: Our first author, Lauren Doyle Owens, actually lives in Florida but located her 2016 story in Ann Arbor. She did her own research, interviewed us, and came for a visit to get the feel of our city for her story. It has been really special working with local authors David Erik Nelson and Sarah Zettel for the 2017 and 2018 serials, and we absolutely love supporting home-based talent! However, we are definitely open to working with authors from across the country (or even internationally) and welcome outside submissions.

Q: Do you commission the works, or do you search for finished manuscripts? If the latter, have the submissions for the series increased each year, or are you mostly reaching out to authors you know? 
A: The first three stories are commissioned work, but they were also all original ideas presented to us by the authors. Every story was crafted to fit a serial release, with each chapter leaving the reader intrigued as to what will happen in the following installment. Thus far, we have been fortunate to find our writers through personal networks. We are certainly open to using completed manuscripts, provided they are suitable for a serial format and have not been published elsewhere.

Q: Is it difficult to find the "right" stories to share -- not too controversial but still compelling, etc.? Do you suggest ideas for the stories or suggest edits?
A: It is a challenge to find the "right" stories to share. Our aim is to offer pieces that are entertaining and/or thought-provoking, without being overly controversial, while giving each author a chance to express his/her own artistic vision. The 2016 story was a light-hearted marriage plot, in 2017 we released a slightly edgy science fiction story, and our current serial is historical fiction that takes place in a turbulent period in 1839 China. We are interested in all genres; for instance, it would be fun to have a mystery, and if we can find the right author/illustrator, we would love to publish a graphic novella. Ideas are submitted to us by the authors, and then we work with them as needed for story edits.

Q: Are you getting any feedback/notice from the greater literary world about the project, or is it still mostly a DIY project that's mostly stayed local / with fans of your tea?
A: Only in its third year, the Arbor Teas Summer Reading Series is still relatively new, and the greater literary world has not exactly come knocking on our website yet. However, we have received positive feedback from our customers/readers, and hope to see the series continue to grow and reach new audiences in the years to come.

Q: Any plans to collect the stories into a printed anthology?
A: After each story runs its course over the summer (usually 8-10 chapters), we publish the full book as a PDF on our website and make it available for download at At this point, we are not so interested in offering a printed anthology, but in a few years when we have more stories, we may revisit the idea.

Q: What are your (or your coworkers') favorite stories/novels that feature tea?
A: Several of us have read and enjoyed The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See, which offers lots of interesting information on pu’er tea. I was also charmed by the #1 Ladies Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall Smith, in which the main character, Mma Precious Ramotswe, has a fine appreciation of traditional African bush tea (or as we at Arbor Teas call it, rooibos). And The Tea Dragon Society by Katie O'Neill, the recipient of the Dwayne McDuffie Award for Kids’ Comics at the 2018 Ann Arbor Comic Arts Festival!

Q: Suggest a book or two that would help readers understand the history of tea and/or the nuances of the different strains, etc.
A: There are many wonderful non-fiction books about tea.  A few of our favorites are (in no specific order):

For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World's Favorite Drink and Changed History by Sarah Rose
A History of the World in 6 Glasses by Tom Standage
The New Tea Lover’s Treasury by James Norwood Pratt (if there is a “celebrity” of the tea world, James Norwood Pratt is the star!)
Tea: History, Terroirs, Varieties by Kevin Gascoyne, Francoise Marchand, Jasmin Desharnais, and Hugo Americi

Christopher Porter is a library technician and the editor of Pulp.

Sarah Zettel reads from "An Exchange of Two Flowers" at AADL's downtown branch on Monday, June 25 from 7-8:30 pm to celebrate the Arbor Teas Summer Reading Series. All three works can be read or downloaded from