Teas help bring out the best in people. Making your own teas is a fun way to invigorate your senses and deepen your familiarity with healing plants. You get to work directly with your hands to create something that specifically suits your needs and desires, thus becoming an active participant in the process of maintaining your health. (It feels really good when you make your first wellness tea that keeps you and your family healthy during the cold and flu season.)
At a basic level, a well-crafted tea is a community of herbs synergizing to achieve a desired outcome. Whether you need adrenal support, help sleeping, or simply an uplifting experience, making your own teas allows you the freedom and flexibility to nurture your body in specific ways. By learning some basics and exploring the recipes in this book, you will be able to formulate delicious teas that lead your body toward the health outcomes you desire.
Every herb has a beautifully unique flavor, energy, and purpose embedded within it. Making an herbal tea is a process of delicately weaving the energy and character of each herb into a tenacious basket strong enough to lift the weight of life from within our bodies. In drinking your daily tea, the biochemistry of the tea becomes part of you. This transformation is guided by thoughtful listening and learning to trust botanicals to nourish and help protect the body from stress and disease.
When you can, it is always best to get your herbs locally. Terroir is a term used in the wine industry that describes the nuances that the growing conditions of a vineyard impart to the grapes and the finished wine. Herbs are no different. Rosemary grown in your backyard is going to have a slightly different color, flavor, and potency than rosemary grown elsewhere. For some herbs the variation is quite small, but for others the difference is substantial. This is what makes herbs grown in your specific bioregion so special — they are specially conditioned to local weather and seasonal patterns and deal with the same stressors and climate fluctuations that you do. When I am making teas, I much prefer and trust the unique biochemistry of plants well adapted to my region: a healthy, well-tended herb grown close to where I live is always going to be better for me than an herb grown somewhere else.
Also, supporting local, small-scale, organic herb production will encourage a promising future for organic agricultural networks where you live. Incredible shifts are happening in domestic and international agriculture right now, and sourcing your herbs is a direct and simple way to channel your resources in solidarity with the agricultural practices that create the sustainable future you want to be a part of. For decades, small- and medium-scale organic herb producers have been forced out of the domestic herb market because they cannot compete with cheap herbs imported from overseas. By buying local, you will be supporting regional biodiversity and creating opportunities for farmers to reenter the herb market.
Herbalism is all about being part of a healthy and holistic community of healers, medicine makers, farmers, family members, and nature lovers. Plus, local sourcing usually means better-quality herbal products with a reduced carbon footprint. You will definitely have to pay a little extra for higher-quality organic herbs sourced close to home. But you will also be able to use less to achieve a desired herbal action, as locally sourced herbs are fresher and retain better potency than herbs that have been sitting in shipping containers for months before arriving at a distributor.
Balance comes from paying attention to how you feel and learning to use herbs purposefully and responsibly to shape the conversation between you and your tea. For example, I am prone to overstimulation and often find myself overwhelmed and stressed out by social situations that might seem relaxing to other people. My genetics and culture, along with life experiences, have shaped how I relate and cope in our culture and our technologically connected modern world.
It is my responsibility to listen to, contemplate, and appreciate my tendencies, but also to live intentionally and shape patterns in my life that promote safety, health, and balance. Because I know my tendencies, I am able to guide myself toward nourishing activities and herbs that feed rather than bankrupt my nervous system. I also use herbs to give me hope and determination by surrounding myself with messages, memories, and stories of the adaptive resilience of plants. Through my exploration of herbal tea making, I am learning to live with greater compassion and purpose and fostering healthy relationships.
Sourcing from Overseas
I try to avoid relying on internationally sourced herbs as much as possible, but the truth is I cannot grow or even regionally source the quantity or diversity of herbs I need for my company’s teas. I use quite a few spices that only grow in tropical and subtropical regions, so I approach and navigate the wholesale herb market with a discerning eye.
Unfortunately, the commercial herb market is rife with inconsistencies, poor land-management practices, exploitation, and greed. Typically, the dried organic herbs that you or I can source through herb shops, wholesale distributors, or online retailers come from very large production farms in developing countries. A few large-production herb farms operating in the United States and many in western Europe supply organic herbs domestically, but by and large, herb buyers typically partner with farmers in the world’s poorest countries where labor and agricultural costs are much lower than in developed nations. It is difficult to gain access to specific information about the individual farmers that distributors and wholesalers source from, which is a pretty big red flag for me. Usually, the most information I can get out of my distributors is the herb’s country of origin and harvest month.
Some distributors are amazing and trustworthy, but it requires careful research to find the ones that can balance quality, purity, and ethical sourcing with affordability. When I am getting ready to place an herb order with a distributor, I try to call ahead and ask for information, such as the harvest date and how the herb has been stored since harvest. I am often really surprised that companies sell batches of herbs that are sometimes over two years old. I will not buy an herb if it is older than the most recent harvest season, even if the distributor tells me the herbs are still testing in their lab at high potency levels.
Ensuring the herbs that get blended into your teas are fresh and potent sometimes takes a lot of legwork, but it’s worth it. Ask for information and use your senses to test each batch of herb you receive. Does the herb look, smell, and taste fresh and vibrant? If not, send it back.
How you choose to source herbs has powerful ecological impacts. Some herbs travel halfway across the globe before they arrive at an herb shop or distributor. It is likely that you could easily grow or responsibly forage some of the same exact species of herbs. Before you automatically decide to get your herbs through a distributor for its convenience, take a look around and see what is available from a wildcrafter or an organic farm in your region.
Fair Trade and Direct Trade
Large organic herb distributors have employees that spend much of their year traveling and working with large-scale rural farmers in poor countries to improve their systems. Some buyers perform random inspections on contracted farms to ensure that they are producing herbs in accordance with global organic standards and the standards of customers. Though these farms still retain the drawbacks of large-scale agriculture and monoculture, they show a positive shift in the relationships between poor rural producers and international buyers. Another part of that shift has been the rise of fair-trade and direct-trade policies. Ideally, fair-trade and direct-trade agreements are less manipulative and less exploitative than the free-trade agreements created at the intergovernmental scale that dominate much of the corporate global agricultural industry today.
Fair-trade certifications are designed to empower farmers to get a fair price for their harvests. Fair-trade agreements are usually created with family or co-op farmers in rural developing nations to redirect more of the benefits of globalization into the hands of the underprivileged farming communities.
Direct trade is not a certification but simply a movement by ethically minded buyers that was created in the last decade in the coffee industry. Though the term was coined only recently, it has been a relatively common practice in the herb industry for many years. Direct trade goes a step further than fair trade by creating greater incentives to farm specific plants in accordance with natural ecosystem patterns, such as cacao in the tropics or nettles in temperate climates. Higher prices are paid for better overall land management, which also increases the quality of the crops produced and ideally improves resilience of the farmland as well. In the end, the cost to the consumer is much higher, but it reflects the actual cost of a long-term sustainable agricultural system.
Making small batches of tea at home does not require any special equipment except a digital scale. You can use mixing bowls (one large, one small) and a wooden or stainless steel spoon that you already own. Keep a notebook on hand, especially if you are experimenting and want to keep track of what you do. Finally, you’ll need airtight containers or opaque bags for keeping your tea fresh.
Creating a Good Workspace
The best workspace is a clean table or counter. If your space is free of clutter, the herb particles and dust created during blending will be easier to clean up. A kitchen table will work great, but in the warmer months I prefer to set up a folding table outside for the best ventilation. Working outside also feels natural and makes cleanup easy, although if the weather is damp or windy it will cause some obvious and hilarious problems. Your precious herbs either get soft and saturated
or will soar along the wind and get dropped back into the soil from which they came. So use your best judgment when deciding whether to work outside.
I am definitely not characterized as excessively neat, but it makes tea blending and packaging a whole lot easier if I try to keep my workspace tidy, both for my own peace of mind and to avoid cross-contamination of herbs. I usually try to work in a space that is a little bigger than I actually need, which makes me feel more relaxed and organized.
Once you have a clean, cleared workspace, gather all your materials for tea blending so they are handy when you need them.
How to Work with a Recipe Written in Parts
Most of the recipes in this book are written in parts so that you can easily adapt them to your needs. Before you start, you will need to decide how much tea you want to make.
Let’s say you want to make 1 pound (16 ounces) of Strength tea. The recipe calls for:
· 1.5 parts peppermint
· 1 part nettle leaf
· 1 part raspberry leaf
· 0.5 part fennel
· 0.5 part rose petals
First you need to find out how many ounces are in a part. Start by adding up the total number of parts in the recipe. For Strength, the total is 4.5 parts. Since we are trying to make 16 ounces of tea, we need to divide 16 by 4.5. So, now we know that each part is 3.55 ounces. At this point, I usually round up or down to make measuring a little easier. In this case, I will probably round down to 3.5 ounces per part. Finally, you multiply each part by 3.5.
So here is our calculated recipe for making just a hair under 16 ounces of Strength tea:
· 5.25 ounces peppermint
· 3.5 ounces nettle
· 3.5 ounces raspberry leaf
· 1.75 ounces fennel
· 1.75 ounces rose petals
Write It All Down
If you are thinking of experimenting with your own blends, you’ll find it incredibly helpful to have a reliable record of your successful formulations along with those that don’t make the cut. I often try many different combinations of herbs before I arrive at what feels like the right blend. To keep it all straight, I have a recipe notebook that I use every time I make teas.
No matter how simple a recipe is or how confident I am that I will remember it, I always force myself to write it down. Throughout the year, I keep one notebook that is like an ongoing journal of tea recipes and ideas. The teas that I end up using for my business I transfer to an online spreadsheet, just in case I lose my notebook.
I find it important to keep track of ideas that dead-end, too. They help me track my thought processes and intentions. And occasionally I go back and rework blends or ideas that didn’t seem to taste right or make sense the first time around, especially when I am in the midst of a creative dry spell. Sometimes I get a nagging feeling that I need to rework an existing tea, and it is fun to go back and look at all the iterations of a blend from when I was first formulating it. Other times I go fishing for ideas in my recipe notebook, looking for a starting place for a new concept. In any case, having records helps me build on and improve blends over time. Plus, we are always gaining new insights about herbs and our health, so blends often get updated and improved.
Now that you have your recipe calculated, you are ready to start putting it all together.
1. 1. Before you begin blending, always make sure your hands and all your equipment are clean and dry. Even a small amount of moisture inside a bowl or pot can cause herbs to spoil.
2. 2. Weigh out each herb one at a time into a small mixing bowl, and then pour it into the large bowl. If your largest mixing bowl is too small for the size of the batch of tea you are making, use a large stainless steel cooking pot instead. When I hand-blend teas for Harbor Herbalist and Bird’s Eye Tea, I use a 5- or 8-gallon stainless steel pot as my blending vessel.
3. 3. Once all your herbs are in one vessel, you can blend them with your clean hands or with a large wooden or stainless steel spoon. Mix the herbs slowly using a circular wavelike motion to help blend them evenly. If you rush, you will find yourself in a small cloud of herb dust, especially if you are blending cut and sifted roots. Depending on how you look at it, being immersed in a cloud of the aromas and textures of tiny herb particles can be a good thing or an annoyance. I admit I love big messes, so I really enjoy being covered with herb particles when I mix teas. If you prefer to keep your workspace spick and span, mix your teas gently and lightly. You will hardly notice the particles if you stick to small batches. When I am making several large batches of tea in a single day, I often wear a respirator to keep all the dust particles out of my lungs. I notice my chest gets congested when I breathe in too much dust from tea blending.
Storing Teas and Herbs
Keeping your teas in a handy spot near the stove or sink is convenient, but remember that the herbs are completely raw and without preservatives. The best way to truly honor the time, energy, and work that goes into growing and processing them is to create a space to store them properly.
To protect the integrity of your bulk herbs and finished tea blends, you need to keep them away from light, moisture, and heat, which cause oxidation. Otherwise, stored improperly, those rich, aromatic, potent herbs quickly become pale, flavorless, and void of medicinal potency. Try to store your teas (and culinary herbs and spices as well) in a cabinet or pantry that has a relatively stable temperature all year round. You would easily notice a difference in a week or two between teas that are stored in a cool, dark pantry versus teas stored on the kitchen counter or a cabinet above the stove.
Because I keep my herbs and teas in a cool, dark storage room, I don’t worry too much about the containers I store them in. A lot of people buy special tea tins or opaque ceramic jars, which look and work great, but clean mason jars or quart-sized yogurt containers work fine, too. If you do decide to store your teas in a visible spot in your kitchen, it’s definitely better to blend small batches of tea at a time and store them in opaque containers instead of clear glass jars.
The teas in this book are primarily designed for health and healing, so the integrity of the herbs makes a huge difference in their flavor and medicinal effectiveness. Also, being responsible and diligent about sourcing and taking really good care of your herbal teas honors nature by reducing the amount of herbs needed to achieve desired therapeutic effects, which reduces costs and eases the financial burden on your herb farmers, wildcrafters, distributors, and home gardeners. Basically, the quality-over-quantity argument works here.
When you are blending, make sure to observe your tea. If you notice any impurities or foreign material mixed into the herbs, pick it out or start over with a batch that is pure. I usually inspect herbs as I am weighing them out, and if I find lots of “junk” in a batch I bought through wholesalers, I let them know about it. Then, if I receive another batch of bulk herb that isn’t totally clean, I just find another source for that particular herb. Lately I have been impressed by how infrequently I find stray plant material or little fragments of harvesting sacks in the herbs I buy directly from organic farmers or distributors.
When I grow and harvest my own herbs, I hand harvest everything I use for teas so I can be totally sure that no weeds are getting mixed into the herbs (plus, I don’t think I would like farming much if I didn’t get to physically harvest my own herbs). Hand harvesting on a small scale makes sense, but on a large, commercial scale, machinery does most of the planting and harvesting, so it is more common to find stray plant material, bugs, and fibers or plastic in commercially sourced herbs.
A Note on Natural Flavors
I have noticed a significant increase in the use of “natural flavoring” as an ingredient in medicinal and nonmedicinal teas from big commercial tea companies in the last five years. This trend is disturbing. One of the reasons many of the commercial teas on the market have natural and/or artificial flavors (engineered in industrial chemical factories) is to mask the poor quality of the herbs and spices used in the tea. Adding natural flavors also increases the shelf life of the tea because 80 to 90 percent of the volume of a natural flavoring is a preservative that stabilizes the flavoring. So even though the medicinal quality of the herbs typically degrades within a year, chemically enhanced natural flavors add a few more years to the shelf life of a tea by offering consumers the impression of freshness. Natural flavorings mimic the tastes and aromas of real ingredients. This tricks our minds into thinking we are getting the benefits of fruits, spices, and herbs in the tea, which we are not.
Making a Cup of Tea
I like to drink several cups of tea each day in the fall and winter, and often drop down to just one cup a day as the weather warms up. During periods of increased stress, I have a successful protocol in which I drink a robust tea in the morning and restorative teas in the afternoon and evening. I try to be flexible, letting my body tell me what it needs and choosing teas based on how I feel. There are times when I consistently feel run down and crave a mushroom and root tonic every day for months. At some point I start to notice that I really need to take a break, and I switch to more simple blends.
I believe that seasonal teas are the way to go for long-term vitality, so at least once a day I try to drink the same teas I make for Bird’s Eye Tea, my monthly tea subscription service. These teas are designed to highlight seasonal ingredients and mediate seasonal stress.
If you are not experiencing a specific imbalance, let your body guide you toward the right teas for you, or choose teas that support your seasonal needs, health, stress levels, and energy. If you want to get the most out of a specific medicinal tea, drink one cup, two or three times daily. This is considered an effective dose for chronic or acute conditions. Drinking two or three cups throughout your day allows your body to slowly absorb the active constituents over a long period of time. In the case of acute infection, prepare and consume a strong tea as often as you can drink it.
Teas are made by infusion or decoction, depending on what plant parts you are using and what constituents you wish to extract from them. The recipes in this book include specific steeping instructions, but the following information will help you understand why and how different methods are used.
The term infusion comes from the Latin word infundere meaning “to pour in.” Technically, an infusion is a method of maceration (the preparation of an extract by solvent extraction that uses water as the menstruum/solvent) in which water is poured over herbs to extract the active constituents. The ratio most often used in this book is 1 to 2 tablespoons of herb to 1.5 cups of water, though this will naturally depend on how strong you prefer your tea.
Infusions are usually made with aerial plant parts such as leaves, flowers, and soft berries, which require relatively little time in hot water to extract the desired constituents. If you do boil the delicate leaves and flowers, you risk losing some of their potency to excessive heat and evaporation. Barks and stems are oddballs and can be used either in infusions or in decoctions.
To prepare an infusion, you can use a vessel such as a teapot, French press, mason jar, or teacup with a lid. It is super important that your vessel has a lid to limit the amount of volatile essential oils that evaporate with the water. Infusions can be prepared hot or cold and can be stored for up to 24 hours after preparation.
Preparing a Hot Infusion
Pour 1.5 cups hot water over 1 to 2 tablespoons tea. Cover the vessel and allow to steep.
For most herbal teas, allow 15 to 20 minutes to steep. That probably seems like a long time, but it really does take that long to get a full extraction. Try to be patient. You can also just steep for 5 to 10 minutes and re-steep your tea a little later. For blends with black or green tea in them, steep for only 5 minutes if you want to avoid the bitter tannins. You can re-steep black and green teas multiple times.
Preparing a Cold Infusion
Combine about 1 tablespoon tea per cup of cold water in a lidded jar. Shake the jar for a few seconds, then place it in a cool space for at least 2 hours. I usually just stick the jar in the fridge for a few hours.
Cold infusions are important if you are trying to extract delicate vitamins, flavonoids, mucilaginous carbohydrates, and enzymes from herbs. Slippery elm, fruits, raspberry leaf, and marshmallow root are just a few examples of herbs that do well in cold extractions.
Decoction is from the Latin word decoquere , meaning “to boil down or away.” A decoction is a method in which rough plant parts, such as roots, bark, stems, and seeds, are placed in a pot with cold water, covered, and slowly brought to a boil. Placing the plants in cold water is essential because tougher plant parts are high in albumin, a protein, which needs to be extracted out of the cells slowly as the water temperature increases. If you put these plants in hot water, the albuminous matter in the plant cells coagulate and can prevent other constituents from leaving the plant cells, potentially limiting the extract.
Preparing a Decoction
Combine a tablespoon of tea per cup of cold water in a lidded saucepan. You can let the herbs macerate for a few hours in the cool water to loosen up the dry plant material if you have time. Bring the herbs to a boil and reduce the heat. Let the herbs simmer for 20 to 45 minutes. Remove from the heat and strain the herbs.
Using Fresh Herbs
Most of the teas in this book are designed for dry herbs (unless otherwise stated). If you have a garden or like to forage, however, you can make tea with fresh herbs as well as dry. I was once told that extraction is more efficient with dried herbs because their cell structures have been made brittle through the drying process. But honestly, fresh herbs are ideal for making delicately flavored teas because they tend to be improvised and ephemeral. All the excitement and affection you feel as you go out and harvest herbs for a fresh tea gets incorporated into the infusion. I find that fresh teas taste quite different from the same blend made with dried herbs: fresh tea just tastes alive.
When harvesting plants, I tend to think about where the strongest energy is in a plant. In the spring the plant is spending a massive amount of energy on leaf growth, so that is when I harvest the leaves (long before the plant has even flowered). Harvest flowers when they are in bud or just before their peak. Choose mature fruits. Gather seeds when they are just about to fall off the plant. Harvest roots in the fall, when the energy of the plant has retreated there, or in the early spring after winter dormancy. This rule of thumb will get you far, but there are plenty of exceptions. For example, there are many annual plants for which I might harvest the whole plant at once. Regardless, it is important to know what part of the plant has the nutrition or medicine you are seeking.
Preparing a Fresh-Herb Hot Infusion
When you work with dried herbs, they are often cut and sifted for you. With fresh herbs, you need to gently tear the herbs or finely chop them with a knife. Because fresh herbs have a high water content, you will need to fully pack the jar (or other vessel) with fresh herbs if you desire a strong tea.
Pour hot water over the herbs, cover with a lid, and allow the herbs to steep until the tea is cool enough to drink.
Preparing a Fresh-Herb Cold Infusion
Fill the vessel with cold water and herbs. Make sure the herbs are fully submerged. Cover and shake the vessel for several seconds and then place it in a cool spot. Let the tea steep for several hours or overnight. For centuries, fresh herbs have been added to cold drinking water to kill pathogens and add refreshing flavor, vitamins, and minerals.
Preparing Sun Tea
Fill a jar with herbs and spices and cold water. Put the lid on and shake for several seconds. Make sure the herbs are fully submerged, and place the jar in a sunny windowsill or in a sunny spot in your yard for a few hours. Sun teas feel fresh and alive, really lending themselves to the wildness of homegrown herbs. I drink a lot of water when I am farming or wildcrafting, so I always have a jug of sun tea ready to replenish my body in the afternoon.
Blending Tea as a Prescription for Life
A great gift we can each give ourselves is in simply slowing down enough to listen to our bodies and using herbs to support our health on a daily basis. The more I participate in my own well-being, the more I feel empowered and enabled to give greater healing support to my community.
Each herb has its own story. I am deeply familiar with a lot of different herbs at this point, and the action and flavor of each one makes it feel as if the herb is embedded in the cells of my body. One of the really cool aspects of getting to know herbs is that you will begin to notice that the right herbs will reveal themselves by popping to mind precisely when you need them.
When herbs speak to me, I usually listen. I might be at the farmers’ market or running errands when I feel my heart, way in the background, shuffling through memories of herbs and letting me know which would benefit me in that precise moment. It feels like my body is not only processing how I feel in a situation but also advising me about where to look to complement my situation. Depending on the circumstance, I might reroute myself toward a familiar place where a supportive herb is growing, head home to make some tea, or momentarily adjust my focus toward the memory of the herb so I can find peace and acceptance of my situation. You get to decide how to respond to the messages your body sends you.