Oakland's Hella Tea honors hip-hop culture while selling comfort in a cup

Owner of Oakland's Hella Tea, Chantrelle Edwards.

Think of your favorite hot beverage. Could anything be more comforting? That's part of the concept behind Hella Tea, an Oakland-based online store that started in 2017. The other part that has grabbed many people's attention is how this loose-leaf tea company is paying homage to Bay Area hip-hop culture

Founded by Oakland native Chantrelle Edwards with only $100 in her bank account, she tells a story of the trials and tribulations that got her to where she is today, as a successful Black, female entrepreneur. 

"My brother introduced me to hip hop," Edwards said in an interview over the phone. "I love hip hop. That’s what I grew up on."

And so we get artisanal tea blends with names like; Tea Short, boasting an aromatic blend of strawberry, hibiscus, and rosehip to honor Too Short; NipsTEA Hussle, a wellness blend named for the late Nipsey Hussle; banana-nut-flavored HumpTEA Hump, for Digital Underground’s Shock G, who recently passed, and that's just naming a few of her puns. 

Assorted tea blends from Oakland's Hella Tea.

"Most of the rappers the teas are named after are aware, and they like it. E-40 has a couple of bags," Edwards said. She said she saw the Bay Area rapper at a tea expo at a nightclub where he was promoting his beverages. "He encouraged me. Other businesses would introduce themselves to him and he'd tell them, 'You're not Hella Tea though.'"

Edwards was recently featured by Bay Area News Group. She told the story of how tea has been a source of comfort to her. It's helped her cope with excessive gun violence in Oakland and rampant homelessness; two issues that have affected her personally. 

She lost her 17-year-old brother to gun violence. He was killed at an Oakland house party. Edwards was 13 at the time. "I saw what my mom was going through. She lost her only son. I just remember drinking tea with my mom. It brought a sense of joy and peace. It grounds you." 

Back then it was a simple cup of Lipton tea that would do the trick. 

Edwards is now a mother of three herself. Her eldest is 28. "I don’t like him going to house parties. It triggers that memory." She referred to the phone call her mom got when her brother was killed. "I can remember my mom screaming at 3 a.m." 

Chantrelle Edwards holding a selection of her custom tea blends from her online store, Hella Tea.

There was never an arrest in that case. And only through word of mouth on the streets did they hear about who was responsible. That person died two years after it happened. "When my mom found out it was too late." 

Oakland's issues with gun violence persist. The alarmingly-high homicide rate was a constant fixture in the local news cycle towards the end of 2021.  

For Edwards, tea still provides an escape. "Drinking tea helps me with anxiety and all the madness going on. It calms me down." While her palate has become more sophisticated, it is still very much rooted in Oakland.   

"In the morning I have to have Earl Grey with creamer and honey. Throughout the day I do herbal, green tea or peppermint in the evening." She said it helps her digest. 

Part of her past struggles have included housing instability, she explained. "When I see the homeless I know what that’s like. I wasn’t on the street, but we weren’t stable."  

Her family moved to Texas in 2006, so her husband could go to college. When they returned, they couldn't find stable housing and ended up sleeping on the floors of friends. "It changed my whole perspective on life. I know what it's like to be on the bottom and on top."  

When she's not drinking tea or hanging out with family, she said she and her husband, Rev. Demetrius Edwards, give back to the community through their church. He's the pastor at Twenty-Third Avenue Church of God – a house of worship steeped in Oakland history in its own right. 

"We feed the homeless. They do Thanksgiving dinners at the church. They give gifts at holidays. Yesterday my husband and a colleague gave out sandwiches," said Edwards. "They used to do a ‘Hydrate at the Lake’ near Lake Merritt. We would give out free water to runners. We feed people throughout the year. Give coats, blankets, socks, underwear, toothbrushes." 

The church has some notable ties to fame. Edwards said the father of native Oakland R&B group, the Pointer Sisters, was one of the church's first pastors. The brother of Olympian Tommie Smith, who famously raised his fist in protest at the 1968 Olympics in solidarity with the civil rights movement, is a trustee. 

And Vice President Kamala Harris once sang in the church's choir. Some of her family still attends, Edwards said. She has a chamomile blend named after her. It's called Chamo-LA Harris

Chantrelle Edwards scoops tea into one of her custom-designed tea blends for her online store, Hella Oakland. 

The novel-tea, if you will, of her brand and those strong Oakland ties have translated to marketing success. There's a sense of pride for Oakland. When she tells people where she's from while traveling, they reply, "You're from Oak-Town?"

The name Hella Tea itself is quintessentially Oakland. It was born out of discouragement from her previous business started in 2007, Raised Pinky Tea. It didn't do so well. She catered to little kids' tea parties and women's groups. 

One day her husband's friend said, "No one is going to drink that ‘bougie’ tea."

"I was so discouraged because I had worked so hard." But when she and her husband were talking, she had the thought, "Everybody loves claiming they’re from Oakland. What about Hella Tea? People are always saying ‘hella’ in Oakland. We started laughing. I had to write it down."  

Edwards said she always wanted her own tea business. She dropped out of Laney College in the '90s to give birth to her son, but in 2020 she graduated from Mills College with a degree in sociology. 

Along the way she's worked for Intel, Clorox and spent 25 years in health-care management, but eventually, she'd take the plunge. "I stepped on all faith and did it."

Her research into tea, its health benefits and how to make it accessible to an underserved population is paying off. She's enticing major companies and is starting to hear from Pixar, Disney, ABC News, Salesforce, Airbnb, Genentech, and Universal Pictures.

"I never thought in a million years that all these companies would wanna work and collaborate with me. It’s just amazing." I don’t really market a lot. People reach out." 

While many have struggled to adapt to make ends meet during the pandemic, Edwards' entrepreneurial spirit and tenacity have adjusted just fine. COVID times have been good for business. 

"The pandemic helped me because I’m an online retailer. After George Floyd passed away, that’s where it really started to grow." She earned a record amount for one month during this time period by selling her tea blends online. 

As for the future, she envisions a Hella Tea café where people can chill, hang out, listen to music, and maybe even have a live DJ on certain nights. Perhaps you'll be sitting in the window, watching Oakland go by as you sip the blend, ‘I Got Chai On It.’