Teacology

Tea, with an Ecological Approach


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Diversity of Mints And Lack of Diversity In Commercially-Available Mint Tea

Mint has been on my mind lately.  I recently broke out RateTea’s main category of mint tea into separate categories; the main page is still used for blends, but there are now dedicated categories for spearmint and peppermint.  This post is about other types of mints that as of yet, don’t have dedicated pages on the site.

A mint plant in bloom

Mentha arvensis.  Photo by Ivar Leidus, Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

The Diversity of Mints

I grew up growing and brewing up many varieties of mint, so many that I don’t think I could exactly count the number of mints I’ve grown in my garden and brewed up as herbal tea.  We would also often blend these mints, usually with each other, and sometimes with black tea.  The most common mints we used in herbal tea were spearmint (Mentha spicata) and apple mint or wooly mint (Mentha suaveolens).

Less frequently, we would use horse mint (Mentha longifolia), peppermint (Menta x piperita), orange mint (a peppermint cultivar), pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium), and Corsican ground mint (Mentha requienii).  We’d also blend these plants with other mint family herbs that have less overtly minty aromas, like the Monarda species (Bee balm, wild bergamot, etc.), lemon balm, or pineapple sage.

Horsemint, with fuzzy, lance-shaped leaves

Horsemint, Mentha longifolia. This mint is a little like spearmint but more bitter in flavor and earthy in aroma; I find it pleasant for a change of pace.  Photo by Franz Xaver, Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

As I got older, I found even more varieties of mint both for sale, and growing in people’s gardens.  One of the best places to buy fresh herbs that I’ve ever found anywhere in the world is Wing Phat Plaza on Washington Ave. in South Philadelphia.  This is a massive Vietnamese/Chinese supermarket, and it has a whole half aisle dedicated to fresh herbs, with many types of mint that I had never seen or smelled before encountering them in this store.

Even limiting yourself to the true mints, species of the Mentha genus, there are around 20 species.  But the hybrids of these species are very important, and can have unique aromas, distinct from any of the naturally-occurring species; peppermint is the best known, but there are at least 10 hybrids I found documented.  And for each species or hybrid, there are numerous cultivars, and the cultivars can also differ radically in their aromas, even within the same species or hybrid.  For example, one peppermint cultivar that I grew in my garden in Delaware didn’t smell minty at all, and I used it frequently in cooking as a basil substitute.

Mountain mint, with whitish flower-like bracts surrounding minute flowers

Mountain mints (Pycnanthemum sp.) are not true mints, but the aroma of many species, like Pycnanthemum muticum shown here, is is decisively minty. This plant is also striking in landscaping, with its pale bracts which persist far longer than any flowers.  Photo by SB_Johnny, Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

If you want to include other mint-family plants with a minty aroma in genera other than Mentha, there is even more diversity.  Pennyroyals, with strong minty aromas, include plants of the Hedeoma and Monardella genera, and many of the mountain mints, Pycnanthemum, also smell minty.  I recently started growing Pycnanthemum muticum, and I love it; besides the wonderful aroma, it is a very beautiful plant, with unique pale flower bracts that add a nice visual flair to the garden from the time they bloom mid-summer to when the plant dies down in late fall (my plant still looks quite pretty mid-November).

The Lack of Diversity of Commercially Available Dried Mints on the Market

I find it odd how, in spite of the incredible diversity of mints out there, nearly all mint commercially available in dried form is either spearmint or peppermint, and usually, one of the “typical” cultivars (I’ve never seen dried orange mint or chocolate mint for sale, in spite of these flavors being popular, and these cultivars being widely available, relatively easy to grow, and preserving their flavor well upon drying).  Even Mountain Rose Herbs and Frontier Co-op, two of my favorite herb companies, both of which carry a stunning variety of herbs for sale, some esoteric, only sell peppermint and spearmint.

This lack of diversity, however, is not so odd when you consider that it follows a trend that exists in virtually all types of produce.  For example, of the thousands of varieties of potato, there are only a handful available in typical stores.  According to the International Potato Center, there are over 4000 varieties of potato native to Peru, but if you go to a typical supermarket, you’ll be lucky to find a dozen different varieties of potato, and often stores only have a few.  The same pattern plays out with fruits, vegetables, and countless other agricultural products.

Why so little diversity?

The answer probably lies more on the supply end than the demand end, in the structure of big agribusiness.  The business structure and the farming methods may both contribute.  The way a lot of modern agriculture is practiced involves vast monocultures of a single crop, usually a single cultivar or cloned variety of a crop.  This setup is far from the natural environment most plants evolved to grow in, and many plants don’t fare well in this sort of growing environment.  Although not the case for mint (a relatively pest-free plant even in commercial cultivation), some plants that are relatively pest- and disease-free on a small scale, can succumb readily to pests and disease when it’s grown in a big monoculture.  Even when the plant grows well, the qualities that make a plant desirable to grow on a small scale may not lend themselves to commercial harvest.

Any gardener in a temperate climate who has grown mint will testify to its aggressiveness and ability to completely take over a garden with little encouragement, but this is usually because it is not being aggressively harvested.  Mint’s leaves are nutrient rich, and the plant has high nutrient needs, making it deplete the soil quickly if harvested commercially.  It is also shallow-rooted, making it poor for holding soil on a large-scale.  Mint: The Genus Mentha, a book describing commercial mint production, describes how mint has high nitrogen needs, and also requires supplemental Potassium, Phosphorus, and Sulfur when grown in plantations.

Mint growing in a vast monoculture, being irrigated in the distance.

A commercial mint field in Imbler, Oregon; people think of the Pacific Northwest as wet, but much of the mint is grown inland: this region uses irrigation as it is too arid to grow mint with rainfall alone. Photo by Gary Halvorson, Oregon State Archives.

Of all the peppermint cultivars in existence, only a few are grown commercially, and there is a big difference in yield between the different cultivars.  It could be that there simply aren’t cultivars of the other mints that are commercially viable for large-scale production.

But I don’t think the ecological constraints of commercial farming explains everything.  Mint is incredibly easy to grow on a small scale, and in order to explain why nothing other than peppermint and spearmint are available, you need to look at the business structures as well, in particular, the big corporations that control production, marketing, and various steps in the supply chain.

If you’re selling a product, it can be a lot of work to break into the market when dealing with big box stores and chain retailers.  I’ve spoken with people in small and medium-sized businesses about these challenges, not just in the food industry, but when dealing with any sort of large retailer.  A rather high level of production with a consistent supply is mandatory, and a high level of consistency is also often demanded, and the consistency can be more important than the average quality.  Furthermore, for new products, there needs to be demand for a product, which usually means that the product needs to be so self-explanatory or familiar that it fits into existing demand.

For something like a new variety of mint or a new variety of produce, in most cases, the initial demand will be too low to break into the big markets of supermarkets and retail stores.  This is particularly true for new and unfamiliar aromas, as people take time to develop a taste for something that smells unfamiliar.  This whole model of food distribution doesn’t lend itself to variety.

When I shop at small farmer’s markets, I often see a lot more variety.  I see vegetables and herbs that I’ve never heard of before, and they often sell well.  People buy them out of curiosity.  This sort of business structure enables people to explore, discover, and become fond of (and even loyal to) new or unfamiliar varieties of produce.

Untapped Opportunity

Above I explained the challenges I see for people marketing varieties of mint other than peppermint and spearmint.  But I think that the tea industry, including herbal teas, is unique.  Over the past few years I’ve attended trade shows like World Tea East and the Philadelphia Coffee & Tea Festival, and at these shows as well as through my other work on RateTea, I’ve seen a steady stream of new companies starting up (hundreds of new companies), and I’ve also seen existing companies, both large and small, exploring and marketing new products.

A counter with tea samples set out in dishes

The tea industry is already a place where companies successfully market new products with unfamiliar or novel aromas on a regular basis. The novelty or added nuance of a new variety is often a key asset!

Furthermore, in the world of tea, plenty of companies are marketing unfamiliar products successfully, sometimes even building their whole business around them.  Even in the relatively conventional realm of black teas, like the counter pictured above, the novelty of a new product, a tea with an interesting aromatic note or some unfamiliar flavor twist, is a major asset.  With large selections, the cost or risk of experimenting with a new offering is relatively low.

But companies are doing far weirder, riskier things than just adding a subtly-different item to their catalogue.  The company Runa is now selling Guayusa, and there are even a few companies selling Yaupon, a caffeinated plant native to North America.  Just this weekend I found a company selling Mamaki, an herb native to Hawaii, and the company expressed that the product is relatively popular and is selling well.

Having now tried Guayusa, Yaupon, Mamaki, and many other unfamiliar herbs over the past few years, I think that a lot of the mint varieties that are not on the market have much more familiar aromas and flavor profiles, and would probably be much more accessible or popular to a general audience.  Relative to any of the more esoteric herbs (which are still selling and supporting commercial operations), I think the mints would be an easy sell.  Some ideas I have for varieties that would be easy to make successful, especially for small tea companies that work directly with herb producers, include:

  • Apple mint or wooly mint – This mint is very similar to spearmint in aroma; it’s exceptionally easy to grow and I could imagine it might even have a higher yield than spearmint, as it grows taller and has larger leaves.  There is also the fascinating variety of this species, pineapple mint, which really does resemble pineapple in aroma, although it is trickier to grow.
  • Peppermint cultivars, particularly orange mint (which has a very complex aroma, which I’ve found to be pleasing to connoisseurs of pure black teas) and chocolate mint (which has a more subtle mintiness and really does suggest chocolate in aroma).  These cultivars are also less vigorous than the standard varieties of peppermint, but the payoff might be higher as their aromas are both complex and pleasing to many people.
  • Other mints, like the mountain mints, or the two native American mint species, or the various mints popular in Vietnam and other Asian countries.  Native American mint species, grown in the U.S., would have the added benefits of being well-adapted to the climate here, as well as appealing to people committed to sustainability by favoring a native species.
  • Blends of different mint species, either on their own, or blended with other herbs.
Pineapple mint, with roounded leaves with white variegated borders

Pineapple mint, a cultivar of apple mint or wooly mint (Mentha suaveolens). Photo by Johann D. Kuntz, Licensed under CC BY 3.0.

What Do You Think?

  • Do you use mints, either as culinary herbs, or in herbal teas or blends?
  • Have you tried any mint varieties other than peppermint or spearmint?  What are your favorites?
  • Do you agree that the mint varieties other than peppermint or spearmint represent an untapped business opportunity?


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Locally Grown Tea and Herbal Tea – Sustainability, Ecology, Economics

This is an update and rewrite of an original article, Locally Grown Tea, which was published Nov. 23, 2009, on my tea blog.

There are a wide variety of issues relating the topic of sustainability and tea.  RateTea’s page on sustainability and tea summarizes most of these issues. Topics like fair trade, organic certification, and composting are ones that most people in the tea world are familiar with, and that a fair amount has already been written about. This post is about a different issue, one that people in Western countries don’t think about much, which is the topic of locally grown tea.

People don’t talk much about locally grown tea in the U.S. and Western Europe. It’s generally assumed that tea grows in warm, tropical climates and needs to be imported in these countries. But this is not strictly true; as I will show below, the reasons tea is imported are a complex combination of economic, historical, and ecological factors. The tea plant, Camellia sinensis, is a relatively hardy plant, and while it generally likes a humid subtropical climate and can also be grown in humid tropical regions, it can be grown farther north than many people realize.  Many of the famous tea-growing regions, such as the Darjeeling district of India, or nearby Nepal, are located at a high altitude where the temperature can actually get fairly cold and sometimes drop below freezing in the winter.

The zones where tea cultivation is commercial feasible are also restricted by the humidity and rainfall; tea likes a wet climate, especially during the growing season.  Most of the regions important in tea production have a strongly seasonal rainfall pattern, such as the Asian monsoon in India and China, and the bimodal seasonal rainfall pattern characteristic of Kenya.

The following map shows the world’s humid subtropical zones, where most of the historical tea-growing regions are located.  Tea can also be grown in a few other climate zones too, including humid tropical climates, tropical wet-dry areas, and moderate maritime climates:

A map of the world's humid subtropical regions

A map of the world’s humid subtropical climate zones.

This map is taken from Wikimedia Commons; the original was by Peel, M. C., Finlayson, B. L., and McMahon, T. A. (University of Melbourne).  The map is Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

The continental U.S. and western Europe have a number of areas suitable for growing tea.  In the U.S., there are two commercial tea plantations whose tea can be easily purchased:

In addition to these two tea gardens, I have also heard of a small commercial tea operation in Alabama, although I haven’t been able to find its tea for sale anywhere and I do not know if it is still in operation.

Individual gardeners and Botanic gardens have cultivated specimens of the tea plant in much colder regions, on the east coast north to Delaware and perhaps even farther north, and in slightly drier regions as well, like wetter parts of California.  These regions are not necessarily suitable for commercial tea production, however.  The Southeastern U.S. and the Gulf Coast, together with a small moderate region of the Pacific Northwest are probably the only regions in the continental U.S. whose climate would work well for tea cultivation.

Why Locally Grown Tea (or Locally Produced Anything) is Beneficial

Locally grown produce, and locally produced goods,, including tea, promotes sustainability in a number of ways.

  • Reducing transportation costs –  In the case of tea, which is lightweight relative to its price, these costs are not huge, but anyone who has bought tea online and paid the shipping costs knows that they are not negligible.
  • Promoting self-sufficiency – Local production helps make each region less dependent on the outside world.  While complete self-sufficiency is not a goal that everyone wants, some degree of self-sufficiency can be important for stabilizing the world’s economy, by protecting each region from economic fluctuations in other regions.
  • Diversity – Diversity is especially noticeable in tea production, as with any type of food product based on freshly harvested plants.  Because the conditions in which tea (or any plant) is grown, impact its flavor, and because the climate and soil conditions vary from one region to the next, each area will produce tea (and other types of produce or food products) with its own unique characteristics of flavor and aroma.
  • Education and awareness – There is something illuminating and highly educational about being able to physically visit the place where an agricultural product is produced, and see how the plants are grown.  When food plants are grown locally, people can visit the farms and gardens where the plants are grown, and see them for themselves, getting a sort of awareness and knowledge that cannot be obtained from books or the internet alone.

Locally grown tea is not widely available in the U.S. and western Europe, so these benefits are typically not available with respect to tea drinking and purchasing.

Why So Few Locally Grown Teas in Western Countries?

Above I demonstrated that climate alone cannot fully explain why only a negligible amount of tea is grown in the United States.

One tempting answer to this question is in the economics of labor costs, and differences in wealth between different countries.  Most tea is picked by hand, which creates prohibitive labor costs in countries with high wages.  The United States and the countries in Western Europe are very wealthy.  To give you an idea of how wealthy, you can check out the PPP (Purchasing Power Parity) per capita, a measure of the average spending power per person, for various countries.  According to the World Bank’s figures, the United States is about $48K (measured in international dollars), the UK about $35K, and Germany about $39K.  The major tea-growing regions, on the other hand, are much poorer.  India’s PPP is about $3.6K, China’s about $8.5K, and Kenya only $1.7K.

Chart of Purchasing Power Parity

PPP (Purchasing Power Parity) is a relatively good coarse indicator of wealth.

Japan, however, proves that economics cannot explain everything.  Japan’s PPP is on par with most of the countries in Western Europe, yet it is a major tea producer.

I suspect that the other main explanation is historical.  Once an industry gets established in a country and becomes culturally important, the country will find ways to keep that industry thriving  Japan is known for high-quality teas which often fetch a higher price on the market than the bulk black tea that constitutes most of the output of many of the major tea-producing countries.

Locally Grown Herbal Teas – A Closely Related Subject

For some reason, there is often a disconnect, or at least a weaker connection than I would expect, between connoisseurs of true tea, and enthusiasts of herbal teas (or, more technically, herbal infusions or tisanes, a word I don’t use much).  But I am interested in both, and in fact I became interested in tea primarily through herbal teas brewed from plants that I would grow myself in my parent’s garden while I was growing up.  Here is a picture of two of my favorite plants, Apple mint (or Wooly mint, the plant with fuzzy, rounded leaves), and peppermint, the plant with darker, narrower leaves.

Apple mint and peppermint against a wooden fence

Apple mint (Mentha suaveolens) and Peppermint (Mentha × piperita) in the garden at my parents’ house

Herbal teas, encompassing virtually any plant used in tea other than the tea plant, grow virtually everywhere that plants grow, from the tropics to the arctic. Different arrays of plants can be grown in different regions. North America and Western Europe, in particular, are the origins of a countless variety of delicious herbal teas which are familiar in Western traditions, and which are ingredients in the mainstream brands of herbal teas found in a typical supermarket.

Many of these can be easily grown in your own garden or backyard. Many plants used for tea, such as mint, are aggressive in certain climate zones, and can be grown in massive quantities with minimal effort. In addition to growing tea yourself, many herb teas are available locally–not just through small retailers but also from friends and neighbors who might have more gardening space (or expertise) than you do.  And for caffeine lovers, there is even a caffeinated plant, Yaupon, a close relative of the plants used to make Yerba mate and Guayusa, which is native to the Southeastern U.S. and is a good bit more cold-hardy than the tea plant.

If you are a tea enthusiast, but want to support the idea of locally-produced teas for reasons of sustainability, economics, or becoming more connected to and aware of what you are drinking, you would do well to explore the world of herbal infusions.

What do you think?  Please share your feedback with me!

Here are some questions for you; please answer either here, or on a follow-up blog post of your own:

  • For tea drinkers in Western countries: do you ever think about locally-grown tea?  Have you ever tried one of the few teas grown in your own country, or in a Western country?
  • For gardeners: have you ever tried, or would you ever try to grow the tea plant?
  • For tea drinkers: are you also interested in herbal teas?  Would the promise of promoting sustainability and becoming more connected to what you are drinking make you more interested in or more likely to buy, grow, or drink herbal teas?
  • For gardeners: do you grow any herbs that you use to make herbal teas?  What are your favorites?
  • And for anyone: have you ever tried the caffeinated drink made from Yaupon?  I’ve tried Yerba Mate and Guayusa, but not yet Yaupon.