Tea, with an Ecological Approach


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?


Natural Alternatives to Decaf Black Tea: Herbs Tasting Like Black Tea

For a preview, this post will be featuring rooibos, red raspberry leaf, and New Jersey tea.

There is a significant demand for decaffeinated tea.  RateTea currently lists 231 decaf teas, around 3.5% of the 6600+ teas in the database.  (This figure only includes true teas that have been decaffeinated–not herbal teas that are naturally caffeine free.)  And Google Trends shows that the search interest in decaf tea is on the rise, with a spike that coincides with the interest in green tea, which I wrote about on SpontaneiTea recently.

Decaffeinated flavored or spiced teas, like this "chai spice tea" sold by Stash, often come out better than pure decaf teas, because the additional flavorings can be added after the decaffeination process removes much of the flavor from the tea.  Photo by JHoltzman, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Decaffeinated flavored or spiced teas, like this “chai spice tea” sold by Stash, often taste better than pure decaf teas, because the additional flavorings can be added after the decaffeination process removes much of the flavor from the tea. Photo by JHoltzman, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

On a personal level, I understand and relate to the desire for drinking decaf, at least in the abstract.  I love tea, and I frequently drink enough of it that I don’t want any more, not because I tire of the taste or experience of drinking it, but rather, because I can only handle so much caffeine.  Different people have different sensitivities to caffeine, and I find that I tend to be pretty sensitive to it.  Tea festivals and trade shows like World Tea East or the Philadelphia Coffee and Tea Festival often put me in a bind–I want to keep sampling teas, but because I get so caffeinated, I turn down all but those I feel pretty sure I’ll like, and I’ve learned to pace myself with respect to the caffeine.  So I understand how someone could want to drink tea without caffeine.

But decaf tea never satisfies me.  In fact, more often than not, I think it tastes quite terrible, and I’d rather drink nothing or water than drink it.  I’ve poured out many a decaf tea, brewing it only to find that it doesn’t even taste drinkable to me.  Even the best decaf teas, to me, are ones that I dislike less rather than ones I truly love.  Yet there is no shortage of naturally caffeine-free herbal teas that I enjoy.

There are also other reasons to avoid drinking decaf tea.  One is health, and another is resource usage, which is related to sustainability.  In this post, I will explore some of the reasons to drink naturally caffeine-free herbs rather than decaf tea, and I will give examples of the herbs that I think make the best tea substitutes.

Why Avoid Decaffeinated Tea? Health and Sustainability

Health and Safety Issues: Toxicity and Carcinogenicity

Decaffeination processes for coffee and tea have come a long way in terms of health and safety.  Can you believe that benzene used to be used in decaffeination (for coffee, not tea)?  Benzene is a major carcinogen and one of the most dangerous chemicals out there, in large part because it is both highly volatile and odorless.  One of my relatives, a non-smoker, was an artist and used benzene as a paint thinner, and died of lung cancer.  Thankfully, our society woke up to the dangers of this chemical long ago, and it has not been in use in decaffeination for years.

If you want to learn more in-depth about the decaffeination processes, both current and historic, used to remove the caffeine from tea, I recommend reading RateTea’s article on decaffeinated tea.  Although there are a few esoteric processes, most tea nowadays is decaffeinated by one of three processes: CO2 (Carbon Dioxide), ethyl acetate, and methylene chloride.  I seriously doubt that decaf tea is going to kill or seriously harm anyone, but there have been some health and safety concerns associated with methylene chloride.  The other two processes, from my research, are totally safe.  Ethyl acetate sounds like a synthetic chemical, but it is a naturally occurring chemical, one that even occurs in tea leaf itself and may be an important (and pleasant) component of the fruity aroma of both tea and wine.

Methylene chloride or dichloromethane, a probable carcinogen and known liver toxin, is used in some decaffeination processes.

Methylene chloride or dichloromethane, a probable carcinogen and known liver toxin, is used in some decaffeination processes.

Methylene chloride, synonym dichloromethane, on the other hand, is a toxic chemical that shows some evidence of carcinogenicity.  The use of this chemical is still legal in the United States.  The EPA’s fact sheet on the chemical claims that the chemical does not harm the Ozone layer (unlike the fluorocarbons), but it can cause serious health problems, even at concentrations as low as 100 parts-per-million.  Ingesting the chemical in a high enough dosage can cause liver problems, and the compound is classified as a probable carcinogen in humans, on the basis of it being a known carcinogen in animals.

Although the use of methylene chloride in decaffeination is regulated, I’m not convinced that it is always used within safe limits.  I located one study which measured 15.9 parts-per-million of this chemical in a sample of commercially available decaffeinated tea.  This is far higher than the allowable limit, and an amount that is enough to raise concerns about chronic/subchronic toxicity of the liver and possible carcinogenicity, especially in people who drink decaf tea regularly and in volume.

For this reason, I recommend for tea drinkers to avoid decaf tea where the decaffeination process is not identified as CO2, ethyl acetate, or another safe process.  I also recommend for tea companies to phase out using methylene chloride, and for companies using safer processes to clearly identify which decaffeination process they do use, so that tea drinkers don’t overzealously avoid their products thinking they may be using the old methylene chloride process.  As an example, Upton Tea Imports sells both CO2 and ethyl acetate decaf teas, and clearly identifies the process used on each tea.

Sustainability: Decaffeination is an Inefficient Production Process

From a resource usage standpoint, decaffeinated tea is extremely inefficient.  Tea has been cultivated in large part because of its caffeine content, and many cultivars have been selected, in addition to their flavor, for their moderate-to-high caffeine content.

A lot of effort goes into tea production; decaffeination effectively throws out a large portion of that effort.  Photo by Martin Benjamin, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

A lot of effort goes into tea production; decaffeination effectively throws out a large portion of that effort. Photo by Martin Benjamin, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

When tea is decaffeinated, regardless of which process is used, both flavor and caffeine are extracted, not to mention the polyphenols that function as the antioxidants in tea and are responsible for some of tea’s health benefits.

Although some processes are more selective than others (in terms of extracting more caffeine relative to flavor), all processes remove significant amounts of flavor.  What this means is that in order to produce a flavorful cup of decaffeinated tea, the initial tea leaf needs to be that much more flavorful.  The efficiency of this production process is poor: decaf tea essentially involves putting energy and resources into producing a product, most of which is thrown out before consumption.  (An exception to this, salvaging some of what is removed, is when the extracted caffeine is purified and sold to the pharmaceutical industry or beverage manufacturers; I don’t know if this is currently done with tea, although I’ve read of this being done for coffee.)

Furthermore, the decaffeination process is itself costly and energy-intensive.  The CO2 process, generally considered the most desirable of the three processes mentioned above in terms of both safety and preservation of flavor, is particularly costly as it involves the use of supercritical carbon dioxide (i.e. compressed under great pressure).  This is because, at regular atmospheric pressure, carbon dioxide transitions directly from a solid (dry ice) to a gas, without going through a liquid phase.

Natural Alternatives: Caffeine-Free Herbal Teas Which Resemble Black Tea in Flavor and Aroma

Rooibos: South African “Red Tea”

Rooibos is the herb that I see most frequently presented as being “tea-like”.  It certainly is nowhere near as diverse as black tea, but it does share some characteristics, both of production and flavor and overall character, with black tea.  Rooibos is one of the few herbal teas that is naturally oxidized, in a process analogous to how black tea is oxidized during production.

Rooibos, or South African "Red Tea", is one of the herbal teas said to more closely emulate black tea.

Rooibos, or South African “Red Tea”, is one of the herbal teas said to more closely emulate black tea.

I find that rooibos replicates the body, mouthfeel, and overall sensations on the palate of black tea more so than it emulates tea in aroma.  There are certain earthy characteristics of aroma that rooibos shares in common with some black teas, but overall I find its aroma to be distinct.  I find its aroma sometimes suggests vanilla, and while it has a fruitiness to it, the fruitiness seems more to suggest strawberry, in contrast to the grape, raisin, or stone fruit aromas suggested by some black teas.  Perhaps more importantly to me, rooibos completely lacks the malty and floral tones that I like in a lot of black teas, and I find that its flavor profile tends to be muted–making it similar to some of the more muted black teas, but never like a strong Irish Breakfast or Assam, or even a sharper Darjeeling.

Red Raspberry Leaf

Red raspberry leaf is best-known as a women’s health product.  Yogi Tea sells tea bags of this herb with the caption “Supports the female system“, a blurb I find amusing as I like to drink it as a beverage, and I certainly enjoy a strong female support system in my life.  Medicinally, red raspberry leaf is typically consumed most during pregnancy, on the grounds that it supposedly strengthens or tones the uterus.  However, several of my friends also swear by its effectiveness for PMS and menstrual cramps.  As this is one area where I have no personal experience, and I was unable to find any studies backing up this use, the best I can give you is anecdotal evidence.

Leaves of the red raspberry plant, Rubus idaeus, can be used to make a caffeine-free herbal tea which in some respects resembles black tea.  Public domain photo by Matti Virtala.

Leaves of the red raspberry plant, Rubus idaeus, can be used to make a caffeine-free herbal tea which in some respects resembles black tea. Public domain photo by Matti Virtala.

Unlike some women’s health teas (like lavender or honeybush), red raspberry leaf does not seem to alter hormone levels, and it is thus safe for both men and women to drink as a beverage.  And drinking it as a beverage is something I not only do, but recommend, especially for people who want something that tastes like black tea–as I find this herb tastes a lot like black tea.

For starters, the color of the brewed cup is much more like a typical black tea, a rich brown color, than rooibos.  Where the similarity really shows up, however, is in the aroma.  It certainly doesn’t smell exactly like black tea, but I find that red raspberry leaf tea has an aroma that captures some of the floral tones in high-grade black teas.  The tannins also seem to resemble black tea more than rooibos does.  I would say raspberry leaf is probably most similar to a Ceylon, and possibly even some Darjeeling teas.  The sensation on the palate, and mouthfeel though of this tea, is very different, I would say much less tea-like than rooibos.  I find that it has a thinner body with a clearer feeling…and while there is an astringency that slightly resembles some of the more tannic teas, the astringency hits in a different way, I find coming more in the aftertaste and being a little less up-front than, say, in a strong breakfast tea or Assam.

New Jersey Tea: A Caffeine-Free Tea Substitute Native to Eastern North America

One herb that I’ve read about extensively, and have been itching to try, but have yet to actually get my hands on, is New Jersey Tea.  New Jersey Tea, or Ceanothus americanus, is a plant in the buckthorn (Rhamnaceae) family.  This plant family is distantly related to the rose family, and besides the namesake Buckthorns (small trees and shrubs), contains very few plants familiar to most residents of North America or Western Europe, although residents of the Western U.S. may be familiar with the snowbrush ceanothus, Ceanothus velutinus.  Both the snowbrush ceanothus and New Jersey Tea were used by native Americans in herbal infusions to treat upper respiratory infections like the common cold and influenza.

New Jersey Tea, Ceanothus americanus, in bloom.

New Jersey Tea, Ceanothus americanus, in bloom.  Public domain photo courtesy of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge.

I’ve also read that New Jersey Tea plant shares some aromatic components with wintergreen oil, and wintergreen tones are one of my favorite aromatic characteristics of high-quality black tea–and a quality that is captured in neither rooibos nor raspberry leaf.  I have a feeling that I may really like this one when I finally try it.

And Now For Something Completely Different

Often, when I drink herbal tea, I don’t insist that my beverage resembles tea at all.  Most of my favorite herbal teas taste nothing like black tea or any pure tea for that matter.  Some of my favorite herbs to brew herbal teas with include spearmint, orange mint, tulsi, lemon balm, pineapple sage, and lemon verbena, to name a few.  I also love the Monarda species, some of which resemble the bergamot flavoring in Earl Grey (without resembling the base black tea as much).

I’d take any of these herb teas over a decaf black tea any day.  Sometimes I find that enjoying herbal teas on their own is more satisfying than trying to seek out ones that taste like black tea: although it’s possible to get close, it’ll never be possible to get an exact match, and I feel like herbal teas are easy to enjoy as a phenomenon in their own right.

What do you think?

  • Do you ever feel the desire or need to avoid or limit your use of caffeine?  Does the idea of a decaffeinated or caffeine-free tea-like beverage appeal to you?
  • Have you ever found a decaffeinated pure tea that you really loved?  I’m not talking flavored teas like Earl Grey, as the flavors can be added in after the decaffeination is carried out; I mean a straight tea like pure black tea.
  • Are you concerned about the potential health issues surrounding the use of methylene chloride?  Were you aware that this chemical is still in use in decaffeination processes?
  • Have you tried any of the three examples I gave of naturally caffeine-free beverages that resemble black tea?
  • Can you think of any herbal teas that I’ve missed, that you think would make a good addition to this list?
  • When drinking herbal tea, do you seek out something tea-like, or are you more likely to go for something completely different?


Oxidizing Herbs Like Black Tea or Oolong Tea

This is inspired by my original posts Oxidizing Herbs like Black or Oolong Tea and Sage Tea made like Black Tea.

Oxidation is one of the key aspects of tea production.  Usually, oxidation is presented as being the main characteristic that distinguishes black teas (which are oxidized) from green teas (which are unoxidized).  Since writing my original post, I have learned a lot more about tea production, and I have researched and compiled a page on the oxidation of tea on RateTea.  This page goes into more depth, explaining how a lot of the ways in which the topic of oxidation is presented are oversimplifications.  If you want to learn more about this process, I recommend visiting that page.

This page is about something different: using an oxidation process similar to that used to produce black teas to process the leaves of other plants.

Herbal Teas Are Generally Not Deliberately Oxidized: A Few Exceptions

In many respects, herbal teas are often considered analogous to true teas from the Camellia sinensis plant.  Yet there is one key difference: the herbs used to produce most herbal teas are rarely oxidized.  Instead, most herbs are usually just collected and dried.  This process makes them most similar to white teas, which are the least processed of teas on the market.  The modest amount of oxidation that happens to these herbs is an unintended consequence of the drying process, not an intentional and essential part of processing.

Loose chamomile flowers in a spoon

Chamomile, like many herbs used in herbal tea, is gathered and dried without any additional processing to induce oxidation.

There are several notable exceptions to this trend.  Rooibos and honeybush, both referred to as South African red tea, are both produced through a process that involves oxidation, which can be interpreted as making them somewhat distant cousins of black tea.  Incidentally, rooibos is often discussed as being among the most “tea-like” of herbal teas, and this similarity in production may explain why.  The process used to oxidize rooibos and honeybush, however, is quite simple, involving collecting the leaf and letting it sit in heaps outdoors–less of a controlled process than tea goes through, but achieving similar results.

The following image is licensed under the Free Art License, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons:

Red rooibos leaf on a white background

Rooibos is traditionally oxidized during its production, turning it red, much like how black tea turns a dark color.

Yerba mate and Guayusa, the caffeinated herbal teas produced from species of holly plant native to South America, also are processed in a bit of a more involved way, although not necessarily one involving oxidation.  Often, the leaves are dried and aged, and then roasted, however, there are also un-aged and un-roasted versions on the market.  There is, however, a case of people processing Yerba mate more like tea, the Premium Yerba Mate Buds sold by Upton Tea.  But this sort of endeavour is very rare.

Being curious, however, I repeatedly asked myself the question: why don’t more people try to process herbs like black tea?  It may be difficult to get good results from such a project (I wasn’t a huge fan of the Yerba mate buds described above) but I at least wanted to try.

My Experiment: Oxidizing Common Sage, Lemon Balm, and Other Herbs

Some time ago, in the fall of 2009, shortly after launching RateTea, I became fascinated by the idea of applying a similar production process to herbs, to the one usually used to make black tea.  I tried this out on a few herbs, including common sage, Monarda sp. (Bee Balm, Wild Bergamot, Oswego tea), lemon balm, and various mints.

I experimented with a number of different attempts on the different herbs, but they all involved picking the leaf and bruising it shortly after harvest (before it dried out), and then allowing it to sit in a damp area until the leaf turned completely dark (this took a matter of hours).  To do this, I placed the leaves on a plate with a damp cloth over them, and stored them in a cool, dark area.  After the leaf was fully oxidized, I then heated the leaf very slightly using a toaster oven.

Trial and error taught me that, with tougher leaves like sage, extensive bruising is needed to ensure full oxidation.  The first few batches I attempted came out with splotchy oxidation.  With the tougher herbs, like common sage, I ended up using a rolling pin on a hard surface to crush the leaves.

Here is a photo from one batch of common sage, Salvia officinalis, where I had tightly twisted and rolled the leaf:

A teacup with dry rolled up leaves in it

Leaves of common sage (Salvia officinalis) which have been bruised and allowed to oxidize similarly to black tea.

It was fun to see how the leaf can be formed into different shapes.  These leaves looked similar to a Ceylon Oolong tea, unfortunately discontinued, Shanti Tea’s Thousand Arrows.

The result of this process, flavor-wise, was also promising.  The oxidation seemed to improve the flavor and aroma of the sage, for drinking, as sage can be a bit dominating and harsh.  The other herbs also worked well, although some were better than others.  The best result in terms of flavor was lemon balm.  As I noted in my original post, lemon balm yielded the batch that came out most like black tea, and it had some floral tones that are absent in the straight dried herb, and was also more vegetal, but was less lemony.  Apple mint and the Monarda also yielded good results.

What do you think?

I would love to try this again some time soon.  I am still curious to know if anyone else has ever tried this sort of project.  I did not get any comments on my original post, as it was from before I had developed much of a following for my blog.  I would be especially interested to learn of attempts by people who have had some experience in or first-hand exposure to tea production.

Some questions for you:

  • Do you find this idea as intriguing as I do?
  • Have you ever tried processing any herbs in this manner, so as to encourage oxidation, or do you know anyone who has?
  • Whether or not you have ever tried this, do you have any advice or suggestions about processing, perhaps from knowing a bit more about tea production than I do?
  • Do you have any suggestions of herbs to try?


Adding Citric Acid to Teas or Herbal Blends

This post is inspired by an old post adding citric acid to teas, but it is much more than a rewrite of that post.

Most of us are familiar with the practice of adding lemon or lemon juice to tea.  The effect of adding lemon juice is most evident in black tea, producing an immediate chemical change in the tea, usually resulting in a noticeably lighter color, and a cup that is somewhat less bitter and astringent, but more sour.  A practice that is less familiar is one that some mainstream tea manufacturers do, particularly those dealing in herbal blends, which is adding citric acid to teas.

The following photo is by André Karwath and is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5.

A whole lemon and a sliced lemon, white background

Citric acid is responsible for the characteristic sour flavor of lemons and lemon juice.

I was genuinely surprised when I first saw citric acid on the ingredient list of a packaged box of herbal teas.  This would not so much surprise me for a bottled or “ready-to-drink” tea, but for a tea bag, it was quite unexpected.  I think of herbal teas as being something that is made strictly from dried plant ingredients, so I do not expect to find an added pure chemical ingredient.  Some of the mainstream teas that include added citric acid are Celestial Seasonings’ Country Peach Passion and Lemon Zinger, and Tazo’s Passion and Calm.

On Citric Acid – The Chemical and its Production

Citric acid is a common organic acid that is named (and best-known) for being the main acid that imparts the characteristic sour flavor to citrus fruits like lemon and lime.  It is a common and safe food additive, used to impart a sour flavor to food and drink.  It can be isolated from citrus fruits, but is also commercially produced on a larger scale by using mold, such as Asperillus niger, to ferment sugar.

Citric acid is a pretty basic chemical in biochemistry.  It plays an essential role in all aerobic (oxygen-respiring) organisms through the citric acid cycle, also known as the Krebs cycle.  Here is a molecular diagram, for the chemistry-minded among us:

Graphical representation of the citric acid molecule

A graphical representation of the citric acid molecule

As someone who is highly skeptical of highly refined food additives, especially ones that consist of a single chemical, a natural question for me is: is added citric acid safe?

There’s not much to worry about with respect to citric acid, beyond its sourness.  Everything I’ve ever learned about it has taught me that it’s safe as a food additive.  However, the acidity itself though can sometimes be a concern.  For example, acidic drinks can soften tooth enamel, so it’s not a great idea to brush your teeth directly after drinking a cup of sour-tasting herbal tea.  Acidic drinks can also sting or irritate the mouth, especially if there is already a sensitive area like a burn.

Added Citric Acid is Not Necessary to Make Herbal Blends Sour

When I first discovered that some herbal teas contained added citric acid, I was curious to see which blends contained it and which did not.  One thing that surprised me was that the blends that were most sour did not necessarily correspond to the ones with added citric acid.

As examples, Celestial Seasonings Country Peach Passion and Tazo Calm are not among the most sour of herbal teas out there, but the famously sour Red Zinger does not (although some of the Zinger series blends do).  This is because Red Zinger uses Hibiscus as the main ingredient.  Hibiscus on its own, when brewed as an herbal tea, is intensely sour.

This photo was contributed by Popperipopp and is licensed under CC BY 3.0.

Dried hibiscus sepals, pink and dark purple in color

Sepals of the Hibiscus sabdariffa plant are a whole ingredient that can be added to tea or herbal blends to impart a sour flavor.

Why do tea companies not always use hibiscus?  It may be due to its color, and its peculiar flavor and aroma.  Even small amounts of hibiscus impart an intense purple-red color that may not be desirable in all blends.  But hibiscus also has a characteristic aroma, which I describe as being somewhat like berries but also a lot like cooked fruit or jam.  I sometimes find this aroma a bit overpowering, so it makes sense that companies would want to look for other ways to make their blends sour.

What do you think?  How do you feel about added citric acid in tea or herbal blends?

Here are some questions that you can answer in the comments, or in a follow-up blog post of your own.

  • Did you know that some tea companies add citric acid to their herbal blends, or is this a new realization for you?
  • Are you bothered by the practice of adding citric acid rather than relying on whole ingredients like herbs or spices, or is it fine with you?
  • How do you feel about sour-tasting blends in general?  Do you tend to like or dislike them?  How sour is too sour to you?
  • Do you ever add lemon to your tea?

My personal opinion?  I don’t have a big problem with added citric acid, but I think I would prefer blends made from whole ingredients.  Either way, I don’t like sour tastes much in my tea or herb tea.  I avoid both added citric acid, and blends that have too much hibiscus or other naturally-sour whole ingredients.


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.