American InfusionA look at the herbal elements you can source domestically
By Dan Leif
“Blend Local,” an article in our February issue, highlights some farmers who are growing Camellia sinensis and mint in the United States and, in the process, helping to connect our cups to our country. However, if tea packers themselves want to push the Buy Local notion, what are practical ways to do so? To get some answers, Fresh Cup talked to Shawn Donnille, co-owner and vice president of Mountain Rose Herbs, an Oregon-based bulk supplier of tea leaves and herbal ingredients. Mountain Rose contracts with independent farms to stock 400 blend-ready products, roughly 30 of which are grown in U.S. soil.
Q: In specialty tea, mint seems to be the most prevalent American-grown product. What should tea companies keep in mind when sourcing it?
A: There are two ways to dry mint. One is artificial dehydration, which basically uses huge ovens. Then there’s outdoors, ambient sun-dried. There are pros and cons to both. If you heat-dry it, drying as quick as possible, you preserve the volatile oils. This makes it more colorful but slightly less flavorful. If you sun-dry it, the volatile oils don’t vaporize as quickly. Usually it produces a more flavorful [herbal]. But it’s lackluster in color. If you want vibrant, bright-looking tea that has a good taste, you’re going to want the artificially dehydrated material. If you want a drink that is pure punch in flavor but you don’t care about color, then sun dried or outdoor dried is just fine. The other thing to know is that processing needs to happen at the farms themselves. It has to happen within hours—if you don’t do that, it’ll go moldy.
Q: What other American-grown herbs are available in large supplies to the tea world?
A: Echinacea is a big one. Like mint, it does well in the Northwest. Both the roots and the aerial parts of the plants can be used in infusions. The aerial parts are not quite as medicinal as the roots, but a lot of people don’t want that really strong medicinal taste. The Echinacea root has almost a tingling sensation to the tongue—it’s that medicinal. So people that want to mellow out those aspects will use aerial parts and not the roots.
Q: Any other major domestic herbs?
A: Hops and lemon balm are also both big ones we sell to tea companies. Organic hops is all of a sudden a big business. A few years ago there were virtually no organic hop farms in the U.S., simply because there didn’t need to be any. The national organic program said if you want to make an organic product and it has hops in it, the hops don’t have to be from an organic farm. It was crooked as hell. But the rules have changed now. If you make organic tea or beer and you want it to be certified organic, the hops must be certified organic too. For the last four years we’ve been working with three particular farms here in Oregon to develop acreage for certified organic hops. Now we have about 40 combined acres entering into production.
Q: And there’s demand for hops from tea companies?
A: Absolutely. They are primarily used as sedative, so usually you see them in nighttime teas. But they also taste pretty good as an infusion.
Q: Where do you grow most of your lemon balm?
A: Lemon balm loves Oregon and Washington, and we grow it in both states right now. It’s becoming a major [herbal] ingredient—right up there with mint. It’s typically a sedative as well and is in a lot of evening blends. It has a really nice smooth lemon fragrance and lemon taste.
Q: What about lavender? There are many lavender farms in the Northwest, but most tea companies seem to import it from foreign spots.
A: It grows well here, but it’s a pain to harvest. It comes down to labor. I don’t know any organic producers that are producing tonnage quantities. Mostly I see lavender wreaths, lavender bows and other kinds of small-scale lavender production. Lavender is such a heavy ingredient that buyers need suppliers that deal in tonnage, and the only producers doing that are in Eastern Europe and France. They’ve got the technique down; they’ve been harvesting lavender for thousands of years. It also has to be hand harvested, and with American labor prices, it’s too cost prohibitive.
Q: Are you seeing more of a push in the specialty tea industry for domestically produced herbs?
A: It’s mixed. Granted, we all want to buy domestically, but there’s something alluring about the stuff from overseas; we’re intoxicated by the idea of an exotic ingredient. Half of our [herbal] consumers are devout domestic buyers—they want a domestic-produced herbal tea. But the other half wants that exotic, alluring taste of overseas.