Tea formulation is where the artistry of herbalism merges with some of the more technical details about plant chemistries. Some herbal teas I make are designed solely for pleasure, as a flavorful celebration of a season or a moment in time, while other teas are designed as a remedy or to support the body’s natural resistance to stress and disease. If you take time to discover tea as a joyous expression of nature and learn a little about the chemistry that defines those flavors, the teas you make for yourself will be so much more meaningful.
Most people begin making teas with herbs that have touched them in some way. Garden roses and mints are inspiring herbs that many people feel a strong affinity toward. I have a deep love for lemongrass and shiso from years of growing them in my gardens when I lived in Hawaii. When I make tea with these herbs I get to let years of joyful memories wash over me. It is totally possible to fall in love with almost every new herb you discover. My favorite herb is the one I feel most connected to at any given moment. Herbalists are promiscuous when it comes to plants; it is my goal to always open my heart and mind when choosing which herbs to use.
Combining herbs can be unpredictable, but you get better the more you practice. When I first started making teas, one out of every ten teas I made was really good on the first try. I often had to tinker with the blend quite a bit until I arrived at the right balance of medicine and flavor. Fortunately, almost all of the herbs I work with are safe. The worst thing that happens when I am formulating new teas or working with new herbs is that I underestimate the intensity of a particular herb and create a tea that tastes truly wretched. It takes a lot of practice to make delicious teas with herbs that have an unusual or powerful taste. Over the years I have learned to appreciate herbs with more intense flavors and enjoy the challenge of shaping a delightful tea that incorporates powerful herbs with intense flavors. Working with bitters is a good example.
This chapter will introduce you to the importance of knowing the individual plants you use for medicine and flavor. Tasting each herb you use is incredibly important to the craft of herbal tea making, more so than with other forms of herbal medicine, because flavor is a big part of why people drink teas. Few people in the Western world will consistently drink a tea that does not taste good. Also, herbs can be categorized into specific tastes that are connected to specific plant physiologies and herbal actions. This simple yet remarkably reliable system has been used in natural medicine for thousands of years. The second half of the chapter is dedicated to methods of formulating teas and little tricks I rely on to create teas that are both potent and delicious.
Learning from Nature
Some of my first teas were simple blends made from abundant wild plants I came across when spending time enjoying the ecology of the Pacific Northwest. In the spring I would combine fresh nettles, raspberry leaf, and maple flowers into a fun, light-hearted infusion. In the summer I loved improvised blends made from wild and cultivated fruits, herbs, and spices in a moment of whimsical inspiration. I make teas because I have a fondness for plants, and teas are a way to celebrate and appreciate the beauty and flavors of nature. The edible plants that I learned about while observing nature helped me better understand the ecological niches and functions plants have in their natural ecosystems, which shaped the way I think about plant chemistry. Watching and then subsequently tasting nature are what allowed me to develop awareness about plant chemistries and how they influence the other organisms they come into contact with.
Training Your Taste Buds
Part of the reason we love tea so much is because we get to experience the taste and aroma of herbs — it feels less like medicine and more like a daily rejuvenating ritual. However, most of us were raised on a mild diet and without any understanding of how different taste sensations influence our bodies. Processed foods are rarely medicinal and lack strong, penetrating flavors derived from real herbs and spices. As a culture, we tend to prioritize sweet, salty, and artificially flavored food because they are so familiar to us, and we remain relatively unfamiliar with most of the flavors of the natural world. So when it comes to becoming more attuned to the flavors and properties of herbs, it takes some practice and attention.
The first step to understanding taste and flavor is to simply pay close attention to the sensations you experience when tasting individual herbs. Take a piece of fresh or dried mint, for example, and focus your attention on the sensations in your mouth and nose:
· Does it taste sweet, salty, sour, bitter, or spicy? Most herbs have a spectrum of tastes, one being more dominant than the others.
· Is there a tactile nature to what you are tasting, such as texture, astringency (a dry feeling), or numbing?
· How does the herb make you feel? What does the taste remind you of?
Asking — and answering — these questions helps you build a strong conscious memory of the herb. But it also helps you start to recognize taste patterns that reflect herbal actions.
Fresh herbs are going to taste different from their dried form. A fresh herb is typically between 75 and 90 percent water, so when you take a nibble from a properly dried herb, some aspects of the herb are going to taste more concentrated. When you taste a fresh herb, sugars, bitter compounds, and other elements, such as highly volatile essential oils, are going to be less intense. A dried herb will more fully express the dominant taste sensations that you will experience in your tea.
The Taste of Herbs
As you become better acquainted with individual fresh and dried herbs, start also giving greater attention to how they taste as tea. The whole tea rises to a different level when a tea maker achieves really good balance through herb choices. Each time you drink a tea, spend a few minutes focusing on the smell, taste, and “mouthfeel,” which together make up the flavor. Soon you will form a strong memory for that particular tea and start to recognize the different flavors that specific herbs impart into the tea blend.
The more herbal teas you try to recall, the more associative and connected your mind will become when you taste herbs. When I try a new tea, I let it wash over my palate without thinking, just appreciating its particular flavor for a moment or two. This is an exciting and curious moment. It feels a lot like my memories of being a child, wonder and surprise leading into a deep sense of joy. Once I have taken a couple sips, I start to associate the taste with particular herbs, memories, and changes in my body. I learn to appreciate the tea on many different levels when I mindfully enjoy my tea. Sometimes I get all giddy when I drink a tea that instantly makes me feel like I have connected or “arrived.” Some herbs are like old friends: you cannot help but stop what you are doing to converse with them. A really charming cup of tea can ground me perfectly in the moment.
The more familiar you are with the taste of an herb in all its forms, the more intuitive and practical you will become in regard to how you can and should use it. For example, there is an abundance of a wonderfully fragrant wild rose (Rosa rugosa ) where I live, but although the dried petals look beautiful in a tea and provide other medicinal properties, most of the essential oils responsible for the aromatic scent tend to evaporate during the drying process. Because I am familiar with the fresh and dried form of this rose, I know that I should only use it in my teas when it is fresh. So, instead of spending the time to harvest and dry the flowers for my dried teas, I add the fresh rose petals to whatever tea I might be drinking when the rosebushes are in bloom. The more you work with the particular herbs that are locally abundant, the more you will learn to honor the plants in specific ways. In the case of wild rose, I can only share it with my immediate community as a fresh flower infusion. This same species produces big rose hips that I collect and dry in the fall for my dried tea blends.
You will also develop a really good sense about the quality of the herbs you use. I can instantly tell whether or not a batch of tulsi (holy basil) is high quality just by smelling and tasting it. And I have gone through many sources for lemongrass in the past five years due to extreme fluctuations in quality. Lower-quality herbs are immediately noticeable to your body once you build awareness about how an herb should taste.
As you dive into the wonderful world of herbal teas, I encourage you to try as many herbs as possible to get an idea of how each individual herb tastes and makes you feel. Pay attention to the subtleties you experience. Over time this awareness about how each herb tastes will not only enable you to make excellent teas for yourself, but it will also benefit your cooking and general food choices. As you become adept at recognizing and appreciating flavor, your world will be so full with possibilities that every meal will be a celebration of nature.
Tea as Food
I am a tinkering kind of person, and I learn a lot from doing things and experimenting. I spent five years in my mid-twenties working as a cook. When I had a moment to spare in the kitchen, I would make teas using fresh and dried culinary spices, nuts, and fruits that we had on hand. In the winter I would make tea blends to steep in homemade broth — it just felt natural, refreshing, and delicious. To this day, during the fall and winter I make a whole variety of teas that get steeped into nourishing bone broth.
Not having teachers or guides at the beginning of my herbal journey expanded the way I think about taste, flavor, and herbal remedies: I just enjoyed experimenting with flavor and getting to know plants. I wasn’t particularly aware of the “medicinal” aspects of herbs until much later. My teas are enjoyable and help the body manage the various kinds of stress we encounter in our daily lives. They are indeed medicinal, but to me they feel like an extension of food. After all, when we eat rich curries or spiced stews we are basically eating meat and vegetables in a salty herbal tea.
It turns out that the aromatic herbs and spices used in cooking are not just for flavor. Rather, they help the body digest fats and proteins efficiently, relieve gas, and protect us from food-borne pathogens. The difference is that the concentration of the herb is usually higher in tea, which strengthens its therapeutic effects. Also, while the flavor balance in food is derived from complementing herbs with the dominant starch, protein, or fat, with teas you have to balance the sweet, pungent, bitter, sour, and salty aspects of herbs with other herbs.
Spending years slowly learning about herbalism through food and a love of nature defines the kinds of herbal remedies I now make. So many of my teas are inspired by the idea that honoring fresh foods and local herbs is what truly sustains my mind, body, and spirit. Food and tea create the little pleasures in life that build hope, appreciation, and holistic wellness in our bodies and our communities. Nothing brings me more joy than sharing food and tea with my family and friends.
The Five Tastes and What They Mean
Herbs can be categorized based on their general tastes. Exploring taste is a great way to begin to understand herbal actions and get in touch with the medicine of your place. As you become more familiar with how taste reflects the chemistry of plants, you’ll gain a greater depth of knowledge for precisely how to use them.
We are able to recognize five tastes: sour, salty, bitter, sweet, and umami. These tastes are recognized through our taste buds. Spicy, another category of flavor, is sensed through different kinds of receptor cells in the mouth. I’ll also discuss astringency, which is a tactile sensation rather than a taste. Nature creates thousands of different flavors associated with a particular taste — the pungency of a pepper is strikingly different from the pungency of angelica root or thyme. Chefs are the first to admit that balancing all these different tastes and sensations creates the best meals.
The five tastes are our guide to understanding several basic herbal actions and how they work.
Sour is one of the least scientifically understood tastes. The chemical mechanisms by which we sense sour are, apparently, rather elusive. But as most of us know from experience, sour foods and herbs play a powerful role in how strongly we perceive other flavors when we eat or drink. Imagine a salad dressing without vinegar or lemon juice: taking the sour component out of the salad dressing leaves you with a rather dull taste experience and an oily residue on the tissues inside your mouth.
Sour substances are commonly used to brighten flavor. Strong sour substances like lemon juice and vinegar cause the slightly thrilling tactile sensation that makes your mouth pucker, often leaving you with a minor burning sensation in the back of your throat. Some sour substances are astringent and cause a drying sensation on the tissues in the mouth and throat. The sharp bright taste, along with the tactile sensation when eating something sour, is primarily derived from organic acids. The most commonly found organic acids in fruits and herbs are citric acid, ascorbic acid (vitamin C), malic acid, and oxalic acid. Fruits and herbs use these naturally occurring acids to inhibit the growth of certain types of bacteria that can damage or kill a plant before the fruits and seeds of the plant are mature.
Most of the sour flavors in the plant kingdom are in the fruit that surrounds the seeds of a plant. The mechanisms by which a plant’s seeds are dispersed may determine the sourness of a mature fruit. For example, blackberries are very tart and sour when the seeds and fruit are premature. But the moment the seeds are mature, the berries sweeten and maintain just a slight tartness, making them highly appealing to animals that the blackberry plant depends on to eat and distribute seeds. By producing strong sour chemicals while the fruits are maturing, a plant wards off animals from eating the fruit prematurely and prevents microbial breakdown. The mild acidity that the mature berry retains actually encourages digestion in the animals that eat it. Several hours after a bear or bird has eaten the berry, the animal excretes the seeds in a new location along with a pile of compost that has the potential to start a new patch of blackberries.
So on the one hand, sour fruits and herbs with strong concentrations of acids can burn tissues and kill certain types of microorganisms, and on the other hand, when mildly concentrated, the same acids encourage digestion. We have an innate response to grimace when our mouths come in contact with acids in high concentrations. Our ability to recognize the intensity of sour is essential in order to avoid strong acids and the potential harm they can cause. In therapeutic doses, sour foods and herbs support digestion, strengthen tissues, promote healthy intestinal flora (especially from fermented foods), and quench thirst. Some acids also help our bodies absorb nutrients and minerals more efficiently. Overuse of sour foods and herbs can deteriorate tissues and exacerbate issues related to tooth and gum decay.
Many sour herbs are fruits and berries also rich in beneficial enzymes and an array of antioxidant properties. It is a pretty safe bet that some of the benefits of sour foods and herbs come from the synergy of their organic acids, antioxidants, and enzymes together on digestion. One of the greatest things about herbs is that they are composed of thousands of different compounds that create their unique flavor. In the case of the sour taste, the relative concentrations of organic acids to other sweet, spicy, salty, or bitter compounds account for the strength of the sour taste.
It’s fun to experiment with sour herbs because most often they feel bright and cooling on the palate and enhance the uplifting energy of floral and spicy flavors. My body responds and notices sour compounds almost immediately; then the sensations of other flavors become apparent. Lemons, schisandra, cranberry, linden, peach leaf, fir tips, and alma are all fruits used in herbal teas that have a strong sour taste. Berries, raspberry leaf, hibiscus, hawthorn, and rose have a mild sour taste.
The Chemistry of Taste
Taste buds are actually bunches of cells called chemoreceptors that are specialized to sense and analyze the chemistry of everything we put in our mouths. Our sense of taste serves two major functions. First, it allows us to evaluate the toxicity and nutrient density of foods, thus helping us decide what to ingest. Taste also stimulates digestive function to prepare the body to metabolize foods and drinks once they have been ingested. Humans have really good recall of just about every taste we have experienced since childhood, which is part of why taste can evoke such strong emotions and memories. Even if blindfolded, the moment I taste a blood orange, rose water, tarragon, or yarrow, I know exactly what it is.
It is amazing and lucky that we have such acute awareness through our sense of taste. Our ability to categorize and predict results based on taste has kept our species thriving for a long time. We can use the powerful combination of taste and smell to remember patterns associated with flavors that influence our health. Medicinal plants often have more complex and intense flavors than most other foods we eat. However, most people in developed nations have forgotten how to use their sense of taste to decipher the nutrient content of foods and drinks. As an herbal tea enthusiast, you are in a great position to learn this lost craft, which will also improve the quality and flavor of all the foods and beverages you prepare.
Salt is extremely accessible. Very few people in developed nations experience salt scarcity. Distinctly salty-tasting herbs are incredibly rare. I have never had a tea that is powerfully salty (though sometimes I add a tiny pinch of salt to my tea to bring out the sweet and spicy flavors of the herbs). Some herbs, however, provide subtle salty character. Seaweeds and mineral-rich herbs, such as cleavers, oat straw, and horsetail, are plant-based sources of essential minerals, including sodium, which our bodies need for basic cellular function.
Sodium ions create a sharp, metallic taste in the mouth. When salt is added to sweet or spicy foods, it miraculously seems to intensify the flavor. We perceive foods as being enhanced when we add salt. But if you add salt to a sour or bitter food, you will notice those flavors get suppressed. A growing body of evidence suggests that salt does not actually enhance flavor but just mutes bitter and sour tastes, which gives the impression of enhancing sweet and spicy. I often wonder if salt helps us perceive sugars more strongly in order to encourage us to eat fruits and vegetables rich in magnesium, sodium, and potassium, which might otherwise taste too bitter or sour.
The taste of salt itself increases appetite and promotes digestion. Because salt absorbs water (making us feel thirsty), most herbal traditions think of salty substances as wet and heavy. Salt increases blood volume and moistens tissues, and too much salt can cause water retention and increase blood pressure.
Although their salty flavor is subtle compared to table salt, certain herbs have an abundance of sodium and potassium. These include peppermint, parsley, kelp, blessed thistle herb, burdock root, celery seed, chamomile, chickweed, dandelion root, gotu kola, horsetail, licorice root, oat grass, rose hips, sage, thyme, and turmeric.
That drying sensation you feel when you have cranberries or hibiscus is known as astringency. Astringency is not a taste but rather a tactile sensation derived from either organic acids from sour foods or polyphenols usually found in bitter foods. These chemicals make you feel as if all the mucus in your mouth has suddenly disappeared. This is because astringent agents cause tissues to constrict and tighten. The tightening temporarily reduces the output from mucous membranes, giving you that dry-mouth feeling. Not all astringent herbs are sour but many sour herbs have varying intensities of astringency. Herbs with distinct astringency include raspberry leaf, blackberry leaf, and green tea.
Internally, astringent herbs tone some of the body’s tissues. Astringent herbs are commonly used to reduce tissue secretions, stop excessive diarrhea, tone tissues that are lax, and reduce internal or external bleeding. They often contain antiseptic properties and are used to treat urinary tract, mouth, and throat infections. Energetically, astringent herbs are often cool and overall moistening.
Astringent herbs are really important and impart a unique sensation to teas. It is worth learning to appreciate the way astringency affects tissues in the mouth. Tannins, another class of astringent chemicals, give body and depth to the flavor of teas, and I love them in low concentrations. Tea blends that have stronger concentrations of herbs with tannins are often blended with sweet and aromatic herbs to reduce the intensity of astringency on the palate.
We are probably all familiar with the unpleasant experience of eating a plant that is uncomfortably or surprisingly bitter. Plants often produce bitter compounds in response to stress and to avoid predation. Oils, tannins, alkaloids, phenols, and flavonoids are just a few of the large groups of chemicals that can produce bitter compounds. We have an innate reflex to simply reject strong bitter flavors, especially when they surprise us, because they often signal toxicity, but a little bit of bitterness from the right sources can be enormously beneficial.
Our bodies are significantly more sensitive to the taste of bitter than sweet, sour, and salty. When the tongue detects bitterness, it instantly causes a reaction in the digestive system: salivary secretions increase, jump-starting digestive processes. (Note that you have to actually taste the bitter herbs in order for them to be effective in digestion!) Because it takes significant energy to break down bitter compounds, a bitter taste stimulates the pancreas and liver, which strengthens the body’s ability to metabolize substances and detoxify itself. In an era of intense stress and fast foods, our bodies need bitterness.
Bitter herbs often aid the body’s natural defense system as well. Many of our folk remedy “blood purifiers” are bitter; we also call these herbs alteratives . Alteratives help promote healthy catabolic and metabolic processes by supporting the organs of elimination (skin, liver, kidneys) and the lymphatic system. They strengthen the reconstruction of new tissues, enhance absorption and assimilation of nutrients, and help the body defend itself in the presence of illness. Echinacea, red root, Oregon grape, turmeric, yellow dock, and dandelion are common alteratives.
We have learned through centuries of cohabitation with plants which bitters are good for us and which ones should be avoided. Let your palate and experience guide you when exploring the diverse collection of well-documented bitter herbs and foods that are safe for consumption. Humans have been selecting specific bitter plants for thousands of years for food and medicine. Some of our most cherished and powerful medicines come from plants with distinct bitter tastes: angelica, turmeric, osha, elecampane, dandelion, yarrow, elderflower, cacao, tea, and coffee, to name a few.
The intensity of bitterness that we will tolerate is often related to the other constituents in the herb or in a recipe. Our palate will accept far greater amounts of bitter taste when sugars or salts are present in the herb or blend. You can do an experiment with a dandelion leaf from your yard: Take a bite of leaf alone, and then take another bite with a pinch of salt. The second bite should taste significantly less bitter. Really good chefs and tea makers are either consciously or intuitively aware of the relationships between each taste and how to bring out, tone down, and balance flavors in just this way.
When creating a specific medicinal blend with bitter herbs, adding fruits, licorice root, or a spoonful of honey to your tea helps you tolerate a greater intensity of bitterness. Obviously if your instinct is to spit it out, then it is too strong. Bitter can also be a deep base flavor that provides a really good accent to sweet or moderately sour herbs. I often combine chamomile and hibiscus as a base for summer iced teas because the slight bitterness in chamomile seems to moderate the intensity of the hibiscus. I also enjoy slightly bitter drinks after a meal because the bitterness helps curb my craving for sugar.
Experimenting with the mildly bitter herbs that are aligned with the herbal action you are seeking is a great way to start to understand how to integrate bitter into a well-balanced tea. Because bitter-tasting herbs often have a mildly cooling effect on the body, a person who constantly feels chilly should use warming bitters, such as elecampane, turmeric, angelica, and orange peel, or create teas that balance the cooling nature of bitters with aromatic warming herbs. As you become more familiar with the nuances of bitter and the intensity of each herb’s taste, it will become easier to work with more intense bitter herbs, such as hops, dandelion leaf, and Oregon grape root.
What Is Salt? And Why Can’t We Live without It?
A salt is any compound defined by the ionic bond between an acid and a base. Sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and iron are all bases, which carry a positive charge. To neutralize and stabilize their positive charge, they bond to specific acids, which have a negative charge, creating a salt. Sodium chloride (NaCl), for example, is sea salt/table salt. When we talk generally about salt, we are mostly talking about sodium chloride.
Salt is essential to the human body. Several hundred million years ago, all animal life on earth lived in the salt-rich ocean. Land animals evolved from sea animals and continue to rely on salt for much of their biological processes. Because we rely on salt, we developed taste buds that find it delicious.
Salt plays an important role in all cellular function. Sodium and potassium are responsible for the electrical gradient needed for muscle contraction, nerve communication, and fluid regulation in all the cells of our bodies. We get most of our sodium from sea salt or table salt in the form of sodium chloride, but we need other minerals such as potassium, magnesium, and calcium salts from foods and herbs to maintain the appropriate balance of salts in the body. Our bodies benefit from at least a 3 to 1 ratio of potassium to sodium salts in our daily nutritional intake.
To our bodies, sweet-tasting foods indicate energy!
Oh, and vitamins and antioxidants, too. Many adaptogenic herbs — herbs that support the central nervous system and help our bodies resist the damaging effects of stress — also taste sweet. Licorice root, codonopsis, and astragalus are perfect examples of sweet adaptogenic herbs. Our brains and muscles need sugar, especially when we are active, which is why sugar tastes so insanely good. Sweetness also plays an important role in our excitement for and appreciation of food. Emotionally we rely on sugar to boost energy and give us a moment of total bliss. Unprocessed naturally sweet foods are truly wonderful gifts from nature.
When blended into tea, raw, dried fruits as well as sweet herbs are a rich source of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that help restore our cells each day. Primarily using unprocessed, unconcentrated fruit-based sugars is a magnificent way to experience the full expression and complexity of sweetness that nature has to offer without eating excessively high concentrations of sugar. In herbal tea making, I use dried berries and fruits to add sweetness and fruity flavor to many blends. If I am trying to mellow a bitter or sour aspect of a tea, I often add licorice root, anise hyssop, or stevia — my go-to herbs for sweetness.
Short chains of saccharides (sugar molecules) are found in ripe fruits. Glucose and fructose are two of the most important simple sugars we consume. They immediately taste sweet on the palate. Polysaccharides are complex chains of sugars that have a starchier texture and taste. They often taste less sweet in their raw form and tend to be found as stored energy in the roots, bulbs, and tubers of plants. The extraction method for sugars depends on the type of sugar present in an herb. Simple sugars found in fruits are often drawn out by infusion, while more complex sugars in roots, tubers, and mushrooms are starchy and extract better when decocted.
In herbal medicine, mucopolysaccharides are an important group of moderately sweet sugars found in herbs. Mucopolysaccharides cool and soothe inflamed or dry tissues. Our body naturally produces mucus, which is a mucopolysaccharide substance, to lubricate and soothe tissues, but sometimes we need extra support. Mucopolysaccharide-rich herbs include mallows, licorice root, aloe vera, and slippery elm; they produce a substance similar to our own mucus. Unsurprisingly, they have a slimy texture, which coats tissues and helps reduce inflammation. In teas they treat dry, inflamed tissues in the mouth, throat, and digestive system.
Many nutritive teas have a light, sweet component to their overall flavor. When I am formulating a tea that has deep “medicinal” flavor, I sometimes add nutritive herbs with a sweet taste to balance it and increase tolerance for bitter or strong overpowering tastes of other herbs. Learning about different sweet herbs and fruits and using the appropriate ones to support the dominant action of a strong-tasting tea can really help your medicine be a delightful experience instead of an unpleasant one.
Tastes and aromas happen for a reason and are specialized to the plant from which they derive. The diversity and range of flavors in the world are constantly evolving and reflect the chemicals that have evolved to provide plants specific advantages in their ecosystems. Herb farmers often intentionally give their plants a little bit of stress to elicit greater production of secondary metabolites, the chemical compounds primarily responsible for the medicinal properties of plants. Plants cannot get up and walk away when stress comes along, so they produce these chemicals to protect themselves from predation, oxidation, drought, and pathogens.
However, humans have also learned to breed bitter constituents out of a lot of our commercial food plants, and with them many secondary metabolites. For example, common lettuce varieties were bred from more bitter wild lettuces, such as Lactuca serriola . Instead of selecting foods for both their balanced nutrient content and the plant’s innate ability to thrive on its own, our culture has been selecting plants with subdued flavor and higher sugar or starch content. This process of breeding out bitterness reduces the adaptability of the plant and sets up a dangerous situation wherein higher concentrations of pesticides are required to protect the plant in a farm setting, dramatically throwing off the balance of our food system.
We need to rethink the breeding of food plants and retrain our palates so that we can support food systems made up of plants closer to their wild ancestors that are able to thrive without intense chemical interventions by humans. In turn, when you learn to use and appreciate wild foods and herbs on a regular basis, you will become naturally less reliant on strong medicines because you are giving yourself daily doses of naturally occurring antioxidants, vitamins, anti-inflammatory compounds, antimicrobial oils, and more.
Umami is an important aspect of flavor in food and drinks that is just starting to get the credit it deserves in Western cultures. Umami is characterized as a savory, appetizing flavor associated with proteins. Seaweed, nettles, nuts, medicinal mushrooms, and protein-rich grassy herbs, such as alfalfa, fit into umami flavor profiles. Fish sauce and rich bone broths have strong umami flavor, too.
Umami taste receptors stimulate salivation and positive associations with glutamate, a common amino acid (a protein) in the plant and animal kingdoms. The higher the glutamate concentration in a food, the more savory and meaty it tastes. (MSG is a synthetic glutamate substance.)
While umami plays an important role in how appealing certain types of foods are, there is almost no evidence-based research into the medicinal aspects of umami. But we do know that the human body — skin, bone, muscle, hair, enzymes — is made primarily of protein. Proteins also play important roles in healthy cellular metabolism. Unlike carbohydrates and fats, our bodies do not generally store proteins, so to maintain healthy tissues we must eat protein frequently.
Several of the teas included in this book have reishi, chaga, nuts, or nettles as a primary component of the blend. When I make a strong decoction of reishi and chaga mushrooms, I am always surprised by how appealing the tea is to me. The flavor itself is not particularly dynamic or amazing, but I feel a deep desire for and satisfaction from the tea. Working with medicinal mushrooms and roots, such as burdock, can be a little tricky, but they have important qualities that leaves and flowers cannot provide. Luckily, mushrooms and many roots have umami aspects to them that draw you back to them again and again.
Pungent and Spicy
The spicy taste is not associated with taste buds but is rather a sensation of heat. Pungent herbs and chilies bind to thermoreceptors in our mouths, which are primarily responsible for letting us know when something is hot. When stimulated, they cause a sensation of heat and (sometimes) pain.
Pungent and spicy herbs are important medicines. So many of the aromatic leaves and roots we encounter get their scent and invigorating flavor from volatile essential oils that are often pungent. A plant produces pungent essential oils in part to protect itself from pathogens and insects. Because these oils are antimicrobial, they protect plant tissues from fungal and bacterial diseases. Ginger, cinnamon, pepper, mint, basil, and thyme are great examples of herbs with spicy pungency thanks to their essential-oil content.
Spicy herbs are often warming: you can feel the heat move through your blood when you drink a spicy tea or eat a meal with spicy aromatic herbs. I usually feel a little flushed. In therapeutic doses, spicy herbs cause you to sweat, which can help break a fever and also cool the body down during summer heat. Warming herbs that can cause sweating are referred to as diaphoretics .
In the winter, warming aromatic herbs reduce stagnation. Drinking spicy teas causes sweating and increases the elimination of metabolic waste through the skin. Pungent herbs also play an important role in supporting immunity. Some increase circulation and body temperature enough to kill pathogens. Others have volatile essential oils that are able to kill pathogens due to their antimicrobial properties. Many of our beloved digestive herbs, such as ginger, tulsi, basil, and thyme, positively interact with digestive enzymes and stimulate digestive processes. I drink spicy teas in the morning when I feel tired and sluggish; they help invigorate my body and motivate me to get moving.
Formulating herbal blends is how amateur and professional herbalists fit the right remedy to a particular person or imbalance. Sometimes a single herb is all you need to get the result you are seeking. In my experience, however, an individual’s complex, particular imbalances respond well to a blend of several different herbs. Plus, people really appreciate the balanced flavor that a blend can offer.
Few articles or discussions about formulation are available to budding herbal tea makers, and most herbal books provide only the formulas themselves. However, I think it is important for tea enthusiasts to also become skilled at the art of formulation so that you can make teas specific to your tastes and needs.
When you begin to step over the boundary between teas for flavor and medicinal teas, you may feel doubtful that you know enough about herbs. I still go through this regularly. But you will be motivated to learn what you need to learn as you explore the world of herbalism. And the more you learn about herbs through tea making, the more precise you will become when using them medicinally. Most of the herbs you will work with are safe. I pretty much use the same herbs for my medicinal teas as any other teas I make. The difference lies in the strength of the most active ingredients in the blend.
For a beginner, it is always a good idea to start with teas that are safe, gentle remedies. As your experience grows so does your ability to understand more complex physiological imbalances and the subtleties of the herbs we use to treat them. Being able to grow within your craft is one of the great joys of life.
The Formulation Pyramid
Individual herbs typically have a dominant action or flavor and a whole host of subtleties, so whether you are trying to make a tea medicinal or not, having a reliable system for coming up with new blends is handy. Eventually, and with practice, formulation will become a creative and intuitive process, but in the beginning most people just do not know where to start. The herbal tea formulation pyramid is a basic diagram that provides a structure that you can follow as strictly or loosely as you desire.
The idea behind the pyramid is that it gets you thinking about the mechanisms of different herbs and gives you a simple method for figuring out proportions. It will also help you better understand the functions of the different herbs you see in other people’s tea blends. You can approach this method for tea formulation two main ways: start with an herbal action in mind — for example, you might choose to make a digestive tea or a tea that helps soothe a sore throat — or start with an herb you really like (such as rose, ginger, or lemongrass) and build a blend around the flavor of that particular herb.
The pyramid has three levels. The base is the “active” herb in the blend — the one with the most pronounced flavor and potency. For example, if you are making a tea to strengthen digestion, you will probably use a slightly bitter liver-supporting herb like dandelion root as your active constituent. The second tier of the pyramid consists of the “supporting” herbs, which give soothing support to the organ system affected. Supporting herbs for a digestive tea might be fennel, mint, or marshmallow root. The third tier “catalyst” herb is added as a flavor accent or to improve the function of the active herb. Ginger is a great example of a catalyst herb in a digestive tea. The heat in the ginger wakes up the digestive system, increasing your digestive fire.
You can think about the pyramid method a little differently if you decide to make a tea around a specific herb you really like. I love tulsi, so let’s use it as the main or active constituent. The first thing you want to do when working with tulsi is to taste it. Steep tulsi in hot water and remind yourself of its complex flavor. Make a list of all the things that tulsi tastes like. Then you can start to imagine herbs that would accentuate specific aspects of tulsi. If I add mint, it will enhance its basil-like characteristics. If I add rose, it will draw out some sweet floral aspects of tulsi. Adding something bright and citrusy will bring out the bright top notes of the flavor. Also remember that when you accentuate one aspect of an herb, other aspects get muted. For example, if you add licorice or stevia to tulsi, its spicy peppery bite will be muted. If you add ginger, the subtle sweetness will fade. It takes practice to predict what will happen when you combine herbs. But you’ll find it helpful to start by noticing the flavor spectrum in a specific herb, then deciding which medicinal and flavor aspects you want to enhance or mute. This is what will define your blend and make it completely unique.
The best part of formulating based on the pyramidal method is its simplicity. You are able to make really beautiful blends based around the medicine and flavor of a single highlighted herb. The supporting and catalyst herbs provide balance and direction to the main constituent.
The Advantages of Blending Herbs
When herbs are combined we are able to do several things:
1. 1. Enhance the main driving action of the blend.
2. 2. Create multipurpose tonic blends.
3. 3. Target more than one aspect of an imbalance.
4. 4. Create teas with better flavor balance.
My technique for formulating tea has become more personalized as I’ve learned to use my experience and intuition to create precise blends. This experience comes from years of witnessing how the herbs in my teas affect members of my community. The great thing about selling herbal products at farmers’ markets is that you get to listen to feedback from your customers — and all that feedback gets incorporated into new teas.
The teas that do best for Harbor Herbalist are those that straddle the line between medicine and excellent flavor. Every tea maker should strive for this sweet spot: if your teas can achieve great flavor without diminishing the therapeutic qualities and without adding natural flavorings, you will have no trouble making sure your customers, clients, or friends drink your teas. For a medicine maker and herbalist, the hardest aspect of working with herbs and clients is patient compliance. If clients don’t enjoy or like the medicine, they might not have the discipline to stick with an herbal regimen.
My knowledge of tea formulation when I first started blending teas for Harbor Herbalist was basic, so I used the pyramid. My goal was to come up with simple remedial or tonic teas that I thought my community would benefit from and appreciate. I started with a basic set of teas that supported various body systems. These teas were based on my location, preferences, and education.
As I became more confident in my craft, my teas slowly diverged from the pyramid. On one hand, I became interested in making seasonal blends from herbs and spices I grew or wildcrafted, which changed how I viewed formulation. On the other hand, I have deepened my familiarity with the tastes and actions of the herbs I use. I have learned to notice their subtleties, which enables me to better predict their influences on the body and better combine them with other herbs for a truly synergistic effect. I notice more minute details about the herbs I work with now that I have been using them consistently for a long time.
It is a bit challenging to explain my current methods for blending, because I do not follow a specific formula anymore. Most medicinal herbal tea blends that I make take into account the season, taste, and availability of the herb, as well as the whole person and what they are going through (not just a specific imbalance). When blending medicinal teas, I try to consider not just the immediate symptoms but also the root of the imbalance as well as secondary imbalances that arise, such as the psychological implications of suffering from an injury. Working on this level of complexity often requires me to diverge from the pyramid and add a few more herbs to create a holistic blend.
For seasonal teas, I usually start with a handful of herbs that are either in season or are effective balancing herbs within a season and begin brainstorming tea ideas. I often let my mind wander and map out associations among herbs, the weather, how I am feeling emotionally, and how other people are responding to the season and each other. I try to watch for shifts in the plant communities around me as well as the shifting energy of humans. Basically, I try to sense the natural world as much as I can and create teas that enhance a sense of balance in myself and other people.
I typically make new teas during their appropriate seasons. I rarely formulate a new immune tea during summer or an allergy tea in the fall. I wait until the moment is right so I can be observant and make the right tea at the right time for a particular type of stress. Being as observant as possible to slight fluctuations in my community and bioregion is what defines the herbal action of the teas I create. I also let myself be totally taken over by a passion for the herbs growing around me. During the spring and summer I am obsessed with flowers and make a ton of improvised floral teas. I never get bored of flowers when they are in bloom. In the winter I use flowers in teas as accents only, as an uplifting memory marker, to remind us what is on the other side of the seasonal calendar.
It has taken me more years than I like to admit to become a keen sensual observer. My natural tendency is to rush and forget to see and listen to nature. Tea making has changed me. I pay far closer attention to what is around me than I did before I began making teas as my profession. Because I have changed, my formulation methods have changed. I loved having the tea formulation pyramid when I started, and I think it serves a great purpose for beginners. Over time you will develop your own style based on your own proclivities. This is in part why there are so many different teas on the market: we each see the world in our own unique way, so the way we work with herbs will also be different. As long as you remain focused and prioritize the herbal action you are trying to achieve, there are innumerable herb choices and combinations that can get you where you want to go.
The Gift of Tea
The possibilities of collaboration are pretty endless in herbalism. As we get older we encounter unforeseen health issues, such as high blood pressure or arthritis. Making personalized teas for loved ones that experience a chronic health issue is a great way to connect with the person and provide delicious herbal support. I receive a lot of gratitude from loved ones when I make them teas designed to fit their current circumstances and take into account their preferences. It shows that you have been listening and are mindful. Sometimes this simple act of mindfulness can be part of the community support a person needs. I would never force my teas onto people in my life; I usually create custom teas only for people who are already into what I do and wouldn’t find a custom medicinal tea patronizing.