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?