Piper & Leaf Tea Co., Huntsville
The Makers: Connor Knapp, MaryClaire Knapp, Caleb Christopher and Brigette Christopher
Piper & Leaf tea is better than dirt.
That might not seem like a bold statement, but that realization gave birth to the specialty tea company.
Connor Knapp and his sisters MaryClaire Knapp and Brigette Christopher along with brother-in-law Caleb Christopher started selling compost at farmers markets four years ago.
That compost included the tea leaves, fruits and herbs they used to make different blends of teas – many of which they would serve at their compost stand.
“After not selling much compost and running out of tea a few times, we decided to leave the dirt at home,” Connor Knapp said.
Even so, Knapp said they were not sure they had the makings of a business with their blended teas.
They would show up at the farmers market with what they thought was plenty of tea. They would watch as long lines formed and people would strike up conversations in line. Then, as they would run out of tea and run to brew more, those waiting in line would help haul and set up the tea so the Piper & Leaf crew could resume selling.
“That’s when we knew we had what could be a real business,” Knapp said. “When we saw that community could form around it, we knew.”
Part of the reason Knapp and company took some convincing was because blended teas were common within the family. The Knapps and Christophers were well-traveled and were always trying new flavors of foods, drinks and teas.
The foodies would invent their own blends at home just like they would create recipes with food.
The company went through a couple of names before settling on Piper & Leaf. Piper comes from the old English name for a tea kettle and leaf is for the tea leaves.
The tea leaves come from China and are blended with locally sourced fruits and herbs. Early on, many blends were sourced directly from the Knapps’ and Christophers’ own gardens. As they’ve added new flavors and have grown, they now get fruits and herbs from other local farmers.
Seasonal flavors like Pumpkin Moonshine and Caramel Apple Pie for the fall taste like pumpkin pie and apple pie, respectively.
“People challenge us all of the time,” Knapp said. “Someone the other day bet we couldn’t create one that tastes like banana split.”
The blends range from creating original flavors to matching familiar tastes.
Even with all the special blends, Knapp said they couldn’t escape one recurring question when selling at farmers markets.
“People kept asking us if we didn’t have ‘plain old Southern tea,’” Knapp said.
It became a common enough question that Knapp said they had to address it.
The result was Front Porch Special, a blend of jasmine, spearmint, cornflower and bergamot with two types of black tea. Not exactly a “plain old Southern tea,” but familiar enough to satisfy customers. Front Porch Special is now Piper & Leaf’s biggest seller and earned the company a Southern Living Food Award in 2015.
Knapp said the focus these days is growing at a sustainable rate, with the desire to remain a family-run specialty company. The plan is to continue producing teas, which are sold through Piper & Leaf’s website, at farmers markets and at Piper & Leaf shops in Lowe Mill ARTS & Entertainment center in Huntsville, at Strong Station in Madison and in Birmingham’s Woodlawn neighborhood at 5363 First Avenue North.
The Product: Specialty blends of teas purchased already brewed or to be brewed at home.
Take Home: Pumpkin Moonshine ($9.99 for a bag; $19.99 for a jar).
Piper & Leaf Tea Co.